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Cultural Appreciation

I get really leery really fast when people try to talk to me about how beautiful mixed race people are. And that New York Times article made me all kinds of leery.

The Beautiful Stereotypes study seems to validate the notion that mixed race people are seen as more attractive than other people. Considering previous psychological research that has shown that ‘average’ faces tend to be rated more attractive than others, I can see some truth in that. The biological basis of attractiveness seems to be rooted in markers of favorable genetics – an average looking face being one of these markers. However, the author notes in their discussion section that there is a possibility of the mere identification of oneself as mixed race may have lead the interviewers to think these people were more attractive. They note that the identification may have been seen as ‘exotic’ and therefore more interesting and more desirable.

And a fascination with the exotic is not something that is unheard of in our culture. If we consider the popularity of ‘Navajo’ accessories, ‘Asian inspired’ evening wear, ‘urban’ street wear in the fashion industry alone, it becomes pretty clear that exoticism is a commodity. The New York Times claims that the race play that various celebrities are seen performing is indicative of a greater interest in other cultures and a shift toward more inclusive beauty ideals. I’m a little more cynical.

For one thing, cultural appropriation is definitely not a positive thing. It decontextualizes and devalues powerful cultural and religious symbols into costumes that white people can ‘play native’ in. For another, I don’t believe that the beauty industry’s fascination with mixed race models is all about equal representation. I believe that capitalism thrives on a sense of novelty and luxury, and white people have a long and storied history of appropriating aspects of an oppressed group to satisfy that need for novelty (Victorian Orientalism? Ghetto Fabulous? Trashy Chic?). And I am NOT a novelty. Which is why I’m not buying what the NYT is trying to sell.

(Also, can I talk about how much I hate being called a ‘racial hybrid?’ WTFISTHAT? It sounds so awful and inhuman, like a breed of hydrangea. Just stop, NYT. Stop.)

 
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Posted by on June 19, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

Barbie and FRIENDS

Reading about the importance of Barbies reminded me of something the creative team at LEGO said after they released their line of toys made specifically for girls, LEGO Friends. I would have to look up the statement, and then try and see if the study they’re basing it on is available, but I’ll see about that later. They stated that they had done extensive research about what young girls want in a toy, and one of the claims they made was that girls want toys that they can use as an avatar in their play scenarios. The avatar would take the place of the girl in her imagination, and do all the things that she would do.

This leads me to a few questions. First, if girls see their toys as avatars acting out their fantasies, why do all the fantasies that LEGO Friends provides involve adventures in domesticity? I find it hard to believe that every little girl’s fantasy is to get her hair done at the salon, then frolic through her pastel home. Second, if girls see their toys as avatars, what happens when her avatar is uniformly white, blonde, and thin? I’m reminded of Latoya Peterson’s comment, and how her cousin grew up feeling her black woman’s body was deficient. Is it because she spent so much of her play time pretending to be a white Barbie? Does the lack of representation in toys, in avatars, contribute to a sense of dissatisfaction around bodies of color?

I had little interest in Barbies when I was growing up. Whenever I did play with them, they were only as props in a game of ‘save-the-damsel,’ and my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had to save her from Taz the Tasmanian Devil, the perennial villain. Which also makes me wonder – if girls see their toys as avatars of themselves, what does that say about my identification with Leonardo the Ninja Turtle?

 
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Posted by on June 19, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

Pieces of Home

I’m not sure why, but fragments and pieces in imagery is really compelling to me. My username is partially inspired by my love of the image. Pieces of glass, fragments of cloth, they all speak to some greater whole informed by a multitude of broken parts. In particular, I love the association of fragments and pieces with identity. All the tiny pieces that make up YOU, held together by lived experience.

So when the “The Aguero Sisters” interpreted my favorite metaphor into a literal plot point, I was super excited.

The imagery of two sisters being literally reshaped by their family past was incredibly powerful for me. For Constancia, her face becomes that of her mothers. No one seems to recognize her anymore, her children are grown and gone, and her husband has left her to play at being a soldier. Her identity, as defined by her relationships with her family, has literally consumed her. Her face, the most important marker of who we are, is lost. For Reina, she loses her job, her source of pride, after a lightning strike. The lightning strike also forces her to accept skin grafts from her loved ones. When she leaves Cuba for Florida, she literally takes pieces of her family with her.

The plot focuses on the slow revelation of their family past. Who their ancestors were, who their parents were, and why their mother was murdered. The coming together of Constancia and Reina, who were close to one parent or the other, and know one half of the story, is a merging of the two pieces. Their coming together is a reformation of the narrative, with Reina bringing pieces of Cuba and Constancia bringing the memory of their mother.

 
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Posted by on June 18, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

Don’t Google Girlfight, it’s a Trap

Have you ever had a stress dream? I have a lot of stress dreams. They take many different forms, some of which include: being unable to find something, being unable to finish something, being unable to run away from something. But I think the stress dream that I have the most frequently, and the one that always upsets me most, is the one where I’m fighting someone and hitting them with all my strength, but all they do is laugh at me.

If I were ever able to sock that stress dream combatant in the face, that would be my analogy for the plot of Girlfight.

Diana is trapped in a situation that devalues everything about her. She’s not white, she’s not wealthy, and she’s not feminine. Everything around her tries to disempower her, and she rails against it. It’s when she decides to take control of her body, shape it into a powerful tool, that she discovers some small amount of happiness.

But, like punching the stress dream combatant in the face, hers isn’t the perfect answer. She lashes out against everyone who has wronged her, and with incredible force. She beats her father in a fury, and rages against the feminine and ‘slutty’ Veronica. She doesn’t do everything right, and that’s the point. She shouldn’t have fought her father. She shouldn’t have beat up and talked trash about Veronica. But when everything around you is so hurtful, it’s easy to want to hurt everything back. The film asks questions, but doesn’t give us answers. Instead, we’re left with the frustration and anger of the disempowered, and the righteous satisfaction of seeing the people who’ve wronged us hurt.

 
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Posted by on June 18, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

Jennifer’s Butt. And Beyonce’s Butt. And Nickis’ Butt, and Kim’s Butt, and Eva’s Butt…

The media’s captivation with Jennifer Lopez’s butt seems pretty standard for women of color in the media. And it isn’t something that ended in 1998, either. The relentless commentary and ogling that follows women of color in the mainstream media goes on today. Even if we just limit ourselves to the media’s obsession with the butts of women of color, the list continues on (Jennifer Lopez, Alicia Keys, Beyonce, Nicki Minaj, Kim Kardashian, Shakira…). The posterior in particular is an object of fascination. And, in fact, there’s a strong historical basis for that in Sarah Bartmann, the Venus Hottentot. Images of women of color with their rear to the camera are evocative of what scientific illustrations made of Bartmann make explicit: she is exhibiting lordosis behavior and ‘presenting herself’ to the male.

This dehumanizing portrayals of women of color, dressed up in photoshoots on glossy magazine covers, is rooted in a historical tradition of white fascination with the bodies of people of color. Susan Bordo wrote about the Western body/mind dichotomy and how the body is portrayed as the slow, stupid, shuffling animal that the mind controls. The body is a savage to be tamed. With this framework in mind, it’s not terribly surprising that people of color (particularly women of color) are so closely associated with the body. It is also unsurprising that an emphasis is placed on the ‘otherness’ of the body of a person of color – it’s framed as uncontrolled, uncouth, obscene. 

 
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Posted by on June 18, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

Close Enough

I was being introduced to someone once, several years ago, when the person introducing me made an offhand comment along the lines of, “Oh! And she’s Chinese!” (‘isn’t that COOL?!?’). Which is fine, I guess, except that I’m not Chinese.

When I pointed out that I was actually Japanese, they replied with (and this is the part that I remember very clearly), “Same thing.”

Even all those years ago, as a kid, I was livid. It made no sense to me why someone would think that Japanese people and Chinese people were ‘the same.’’ Making the mistake itself wasn’t completely unreasonable, but thinking it wasn’t a mistake at all? And the way they responded, as if I were being unnecessarily nitpicky… it all made me furious.

A user-generated meme about interracial confusion. Not Sure If satirical or genuine.

But when a word like ‘Asian-American’ describes 17.3 million people, should I really be surprised when people think we’re ‘the same thing?’[1] And when so many of us face similar racial stereotypes and prejudices (thinking all Asians are good at math, believing that we’re all obedient and demure, inappropriate comments about our anatomy…) does it really matter all that much?

Frances Negrón-Mutaner wrote that monolithic labels like ‘Latina’ or ‘Asian’ can, in a way, increase the agency of individual communities.[2] But monolithic labels force us to balance on one hand the diversity of all the communities involved and on the other the shared needs and experiences of the whole. It minimizes the complexities that connect and separate them, while expanding the visibility of all. Negrón-Mutaner uses the casting of the Puerto Rican Jennifer Lopez as the famous Chicana singer Selena and the ensuing controversy in the Latina community as a case study to explore this tension.

A comparison of Selena (left) and Jennifer Lopez (right). Even their shared make-up artist was struck by their similarity.

The case study was particularly interesting to me because something similar happened within the Asian community very recently. In the original 1967 “Star Trek” series, Hikaru Sulu was originally played by George Takei, a Japanese-American. In J.J. Abrams’ 2009 “Star Trek” reboot, John Cho, a Korean-American, was cast in the role.

In interviews, Takei shared that Abrams had been looking for a Japanese-American actor, and asked him what he thought about casting Cho. Takei answered, “To me, so long as the character remains Asian-American, that would be all that matters.”[3] Which is very similar to something Lopez said about her own casting as Selena: “Selena and I are both Latinas and both had the common experience of growing up Latina in this country. This was good enough.”[4]

George Takei (left) and John Cho (right) as Hikaru Sulu. Gene Rodenberry envisioned Sulu as a representative of all of Asia, hence his nondescript surname.

And that common experience that Lopez talks about? The agency found in monolithic labels that Negrón-Mutaner writes about? I don’t think either of those things has anything to do with how all Latina cultures are ‘the same.’ I think the power of monolithic labels like ‘Asian’ or ‘Latina’ isn’t derived from similarities between cultures, but from similarities in the way we’re treated. Our common experience isn’t some universal constant of ‘Asian-ness’ or ‘Latina-ness,’ but a common experience of racial oppression. When people see your eyes or skin or butt, they judge you ‘ASIAN’ or ‘LATINA,’ and treat you accordingly. I can argue about how different my experience growing up as a Japanese-American is from someone else growing up as a Chinese-American, but when you’re starting from stereotypes and prejudices about Asian people as a whole it’s hard  just to get there.

And ironically enough, these monolithic labels, when applied to positive portrayals of people of color in the media, can get us there. Hikaru Sulu was envisioned as a representative of all of Asia – a direct result of the monolithic label ‘Asian.’[5] Yet from that we were given a talented, brave, humorous, and compelling character that could stand as an equal with the rest of the bridge crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise. Cho, who would later reprise Takei’s iconic role as the Enterprise’s helmsman said, “When I was a kid… I didn’t see any Asians on television. And you turn on Star Trek and there’s this Asian guy, not chopping anybody up. He’s honorable, a helmsman of a space ship, and it was a big, big deal for me to see that and have a role model.”[6]

(And of course all this made me wonder why they would work so hard to cast a Japanese-American actor as Sulu but didn’t think it was important to keep Khan Noonien Singh a man of color??? But that’s a rant for another day.)

A gif summarizing my feelings about Benedict Cumberbatch’s casting as Khan.

[1] United States Census Bureau ,  Facts for Features: Asian/Pacific American Heritage Monthhttps://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/facts_for_features_special_editions/cb11-ff06.html (April 29, 2011)

[2]  Frances Negrón-Mutaner, “Jennifer’s Butt,” Aztlán 22:2 (1997): 180.

[3] Heather Tan, “George Takei on ‘Star Trek’ Star John Cho: He’s the ‘Ideal Choice’ to Play Sulu,” The Huffington Post, May 24, 2013, accessed June 10, 2013,  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/24/george-takei-star-trek-john-cho_n_3331009.html

[4] Negrón-Mutaner, “Jennifer’s Butt,” 183.

[5] Matthew Rothschild, “George Takei, Mr. Sulu of Star Trek, Comes out and Speaks Out,” May 28, 2008, http://www.progressive.org/mag_wx0508b06

[6] The Lady Brain Show, “Star Trek Into Darkness: John Cho and Simon Pegg,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ndLLqJc-NM4&feature=youtu.be&t=2m21s.

 
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Posted by on June 17, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

A detour from beauty into cookies…and urban legends

Ask, and you shall receive: recipe!

Image

Before baking: from http://dearlaurenlovemom.blogspot.com/2012/06/neiman-marcus-cookies.html)

I came across this recipe (or a variation thereof — notes on that below) when I was in graduate school and email was not yet html-enabled. It all arrived in one font, looking somewhat like the screens in WarGames. As you can imagine, this made all content seem very reliable and trust-worthy, even chain e-mails like the one that delivered this recipe to me.

The story went something like this (deep liberties taken with style, please note):

Please distribute this story and recipe as far and wide as you can, to get back at the Man. I went to Neiman Marcus and ate a delicious, scrumptious cookie. When I asked whether I could buy the recipe, they replied, “sure, for two-fifty.” I thought that sounded like a great price and I asked them to put it on my Neiman Marcus account. But when I got my bill, I saw that they had charged me $250, not $2.50! Well, the nerve! I told them they could have their recipe back, but please refund me my money, and they refused. In retaliation, I am letting everyone I know have this recipe.

Best urban legend ever, right? Sweet cookies with a side of finger-licking revenge.

Here’s what I find fascinating: the urban legend seems to be a fairly stable artifact (the details don’t change that much) but the cookie recipe does have some SIGNIFICANT variations. (Um, well, I think they’re significant.) Most notably, in the top link above you’ll notice that it’s all about the chips. But in the recipe as I grew to love it in grad school, it was important to get that 8 oz Hershey chocolate bar and grate it. Super important, even. Grating the chocolate makes the dough so chocolatey, but without adding the dryness (and having to adjust for that) of cocoa powder.

Also, I generally don’t add nuts. Because that would be nuts when you have a good chocolate-centered recipe like this one.

 
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Posted by on June 10, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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