This Live Journal entry (via Unusual Music over at Alas, A Blog) is a must-read on the different tropes that Hollywood has developed to deal with racial composition in movies and how white and non-white characters are distributed and combined in the narratives and cast. The entry is chock full of popular culture references that most of you will recognize.
This is a great illustration of structural racism: how an entire industry perpetuates racial stereotypes and generate white supremacist narratives even if individual producers and shakers and movers are not themselves individually racist. It also reveals how “white male” this industry still is and how it impacts the narratives that ultimately get produced.
This is a good illustration also of the way culture and popular cultural products produce, and reproduce, the “natural” sense of white people as superior to people of color so that these narratives are easily accepted by the majority white audience for whom these movies are produced. The default moviegoer is assumed to be a white man, less so but still as well, sometimes, a white woman.
Go read the whole thing and come back for a perfect example below the quote.
How many of you have seen Baz Luhrmann’s Australia? Here is the trailer:
So, look at the cast: aristocratic British white woman (Nicole Kidman’s character), ruggedly individualist white man (Hugh Jackman) who “married” an aboriginal woman (big trope) so that he is slightly more sensitive to the Aboriginal culture (she died, conveniently, so he can fall in love with the white aristocratic women, after some mild class clash). A few nasty white men (especially David Wenham) depicted negatively (this is the 21st century after all and we are all enlightened people, we know racism is bad). You also have a few aboriginal characters, principally, the mixed race child (BIG trope) who has a hard time finding his place as he belong nowhere: not in the white society, not in the “black” society (big time cliche if there ever was one). We also have his mother (who conveniently dies as well so that the boy can be “adopted” by Nicole Kidman and so that the three of them, with Hugh Jackman, can make up a “normal” family). And then, again because this is the enlightened 21st century and new age nonsense is omnipresent, we have King George, the “true” Aboriginal grandfather of the boy, who has almost mystical powers (because we’re not supposed to diss indigenous culture anymore, that’s too colonial).
And yet, at the end of the movie, the social arrangements have not changed. The heroism of the white characters has not changed the fact of Aboriginal oppression and the exploitative nature of colonialism. What we have is an aristocratic white women on a journey of self-discovery (love and motherhood) and a white man recovering from loss thanks to their adventures defending colonial interests (Kidman’s cattle business) while saving poor little Aboriginal children (never mind that they also do not change the system that socially and institutionally mistreated “half-caste” children… Kidman’s outburst at the oh-so distinguished charity ball has no long term consequences). As the movie aptly tells us before the credits roll out, that system persisted until the 1970s. But hey, the Kidman character has it both ways: first, she saves a little Aboriginal boy and adopts him, and THEN, sacrifices her motherly love to send him back to his grandfather for his “walkabout” rite of passage into his own culture.
As always in US-produced movie, lower-class white people can only be of two kinds: those who accept their station in life and do not challenge the class status quo. In this case, it is the Jackman character. He even states that he stays out of the way of the aristocrats and they do the same (of course, out of love, he will violate that rule). He lives most of his life with Aboriginals, but they work for him and they call him “boss”, even his ex “brother-in-law”.
The other kind of lower-class white people is represented by the Fletcher character (played by David Wenham). This type of lower-class character wants to move up the social ladder but does so dishonestly or even by committing murder. In many movies and books and TV series I have watched, the only way for lower-class people to move up is to submit to upper-class people, accept their dominance, work their you-know-what up for them and be individually rewarded for it by social promotion. But you always have these damn ambitious characters who can’t do it the right way (submission and acceptance of exploitation). These bad lower-class characters, of course, get their comeuppance at the end, as Fletcher does. They are also shown to be rotten through and through: Fletcher is racist and a rapist, he is the biological white father of the mixed race boy that Kidman adopts as he repeteadly rapes the boy’s Aboriginal mother.
This pattern of lower-class distinction characters, incidentally, is something I noticed for the first time when a friend of mine gave me a series of mysteries by Mary Higgins Clark. Once you notice that pattern, you will notice it everywhere in popular entertainment.
All this can only work if audiences are not socialized into identifying structural and systemic aspects of films and books and TV programs, such as class and race. At the same time, these cultural products work to reproduce such systemic blindness and focus everyone’s attention on individual drama which then functions as ideological cover.