Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Maid In Hollywood

On Sunday, the American Academy Awards metaphorically patted themselves on the back for what were considered a progressive Oscars. A French film, of all things, won best picture. Shock horror. Meryl Street won best Actress for her sympathetic depiction of, ahem, Margaret Thatcher. And Octavia Spencer won best supporting actress for her role as a maid in the 'segregation film' The Help.

Lest anyone be in any doubt, as a black woman and general lover of films, I am both happy about and proud of Spencer's achievement. Hollywood's, ahem, 'colour blindness' is, after all, controversial, if not legendary. Yet, I can't help but feel a niggling anger and disappointment about both the film itself and the nature of this winner's role. As black feminists Chitra Nagarajan and Anouchka have noted in the year that a 1920s esque silent movie receives major plaudits, we see that we haven’t moved that far in terms of roles that black women are recognised for. In 1940, Hattie McDaniel was the first black person to win an Academy award for her role as Mammy to Vivienne Leigh’s spoilt Scarlet O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. 72 years later we have a 4th Oscar won by a black woman in this category going to Spencer for her role as a long suffering maid to an emotionally abusive and selfish white woman. Is the spectrum of our experiences really THAT limited?

Worse still is the fact that Kathryn Stockett’s questionable book is made downright offensive on the silver screen. So the clich├ęd and ‘uplifting’ narrative of a white woman coming to the aid of oppressed black women who, until her intervention, didn’t really know that they had a viable voice, becomes something which essentially removes the little agency afforded them in the novel.

(Get ready for some serious spoilers!)

The film first omits the narrative detail that the initial idea of describing the struggles of black people in racist southern America comes from black people themselves. The book within the book is, in fact, the concept of Minny Jackson’s son who dies as a result of racism. In the film audiences are led to believe it is a Eureka moment from Miss Skeeter. Added to this, in the book, Aibileen Clark, played by Viola Davis, is described as a gifted writer who, since her childhood, had honed her talent for storytelling. When Skeeter leaves racist Jackson Mississippi for her glamorous life in New York, she compels the editor of the local paper she has been writing housekeeping advice columns for to give the job to Abileen as the maid ‘practically wrote them anyway’. This is not included in the film. We are given no sense that writing had been a long held, thwarted ambition that Abileen quietly nurtured despite a racist system telling her she would only amount to being a maid.

To add insult to injury, the film makers then decide to place in a scene in which Minny’s employer, the ostracized and kind, if trashy, Celia Foote cooks a feast of all the recipes the maid has unsuccessful tried to teach her inept mistress. This does not happen in the book. Clearly, the film makers needed to underscore the message that white saviours during the days of segregation in America (although it still of course exists), were dotted all over the place. Obviously, too, it did not make economic sense that largely white audiences would leave cinemas feeling crap about themselves and their position within this awful history.

To be angry about the omissions/inclusions in the film version may seem petty to some, however they are not. These decisions carry a weight behind them that speaks volumes of what it is Hollywood considers marketable representations of black women. We are forever down trodden, uneducated, sassy, if not, we are invariably all of the above and hyper sexualised. These are tired and tiring models that Hollywood periodically regurgitates. Spencer’s win, though deserved, is nevertheless a gleaming example of how the powers that be within tinsel town are deeply reactionary, regressive and limited when it comes to black women. But then they would be wouldn’t they? A diverse bunch they are not. I just ask that they are not so self-congratulatory about their misconceived notions of moving ‘us’ forward.

By Lola Okolosie

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

And the winner is...

Before I start, full disclosure: I have neither read The Help, nor watched its film adaptation. I'm not interested in a made up story presenting a whitewashed version of American racial politics, nope.

So, I had mixed feelings when Octavia Spencer won an Academy Award for her role in the film this past weekend. She played Minny Jackson, a maid frequently described as "feisty" "sassy" "outspoken"...YAWN...I think you can guess where this is going.

Spencer won best supporting actress. If we look at previous Black winners in this category there is:

Mo'Nique for Precious

J-Hud for Dreamgirls

Whoopi for Ghost

Rita Moreno for West Side Story

Hattie McDaniel for Gone with the Wind.

All good (well mainly) performances. All either portraying someone whose profession is to entertain, or someone poor and disenfranchised. Halle Berry is famously the only Black woman to win Best Actress and a quick scan of Wikipedia doesn't show any women of Asian descent as recipients or nominees in either category...although I'm hoping I've got that wrong. But, hey! We shouldn't be so negative, after all, it was a Black woman getting an Oscar. That's something to be celebrated, right? RIGHT?

Monday, 20 February 2012

Ryanair: The banned Ad

There has been lots of talk last week about the banned Ryan Air advert and whether it was appropriately banned, though while the general consensus seems to be in agreement for banning the advert, alarmingly it would seem much of the British public doesn't see the offensive nature of the ad.

LBC radio held a debate on the advert, going as far as comparing the legitimacy of the Ryan Air advert with that of a Marks & Spencer's underwear advert! How they the could honestly pin these two company adverts against each other is besides me, though more concerning is what is says about our tolerance to female nudity.

Rightfully so the Ryan Air advert should have been banned since it doesn't actually advertise a service Ryan Air is in the business of, the advert offers a deal of £9.99 one way (which we assume is for a flight) but to which destination is unknown.
The sole nature of this advert is selling sex and vamping up the Ryan Air image consider the wording "Red hot fares & crew" which implies that their female cabin crew have been employed on their looks offering their male customers some eye candy on their flight, this can't be far off the mark since the female model in the advert actually is a Ryan Air cabin crew employee. The picture was taken from the companies charity calender which show include 12 female ONLY cabin crew in their underwear and in sexually suggestively poses on of which would look out of place in a lads magazine (see photo).

Its terrible that Ryan Air are able to exploit their female staff in such a way, in any of their past and current current calendars the company have yet to included any of their 'red hot' male cabin crew members, or at least offer a separate male calender to even out the exploitation of their staff!

By Donalea

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Thanks to our sisters over at Make Everyone Woman Count, we republish this excellent interview with Miriam, a woman living with Female Genital Mutilation.


Thank you

Mariam (not her real name) is from West Africa, she is among the million of women who have undergo FGM/C in Africa. In this International Day against Female Genitale Mutilation, Mariam has decided to share her story with us in the hope that it will stop people from perfroming this horrible practice on young African women. The 6th Feb. has been designated by the United Nations to raise awareness amongst the general public about this traditional practice which severely violates the human rights of women and girls.

In the 28 countries in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East where female genital mutilation/cutting is performed, some 130 million women and girls have been affected. In addition to causing severe pain, FGM can result in prolonged bleeding, infection, infertility and death. The practice is still widespread in spite of a global commitment following the 2002 UN Special Session on Children to end FGM by 2010.

How old where you when you were cut?
I was just 5 years-old when I went through FGM/C. The all thing happened when I was on holiday with my sisters to visit my uncle in the capital.

How and where did it happen?
I was so excited when my mum told that I was going on holiday with my sisters to visit my uncle in the capital but I had to get a great mark at school in order for me to go. It was my first time that I was allowed to go in the capital on holiday and I guess you could imagine my excitement.

On the day of the trip in the summer holiday my sisters and I were all packed and ready to go. Until then, I would go days without sleeping just thinking about my summer holiday in the capital.

I didn't know that my first summer holiday will be the worst holiday ever. One week after our arrival, my uncle’s driver was meant to take us to the playground with my cousins and my aunt. On our way to the playground, the driver stopped in a health centre. I said to my aunt ‘this doesn't look like the playground’ and I asked why we are stopping at a health centre. My aunt told me that we were going to visit a sick relative and that it won't take too much time.

We stopped in front of an office and a lady wearing a white blouse came out to greet us and asked my aunt to come in. After 10 minutes, my aunt came out and asked me to come with her first before the other girls, which I found later was because I was the youngest one and it always starts with the youngest girl first. When I walked in, I saw my two aunts standing there, and I was thinking why are these two here and why do they look so sad. I was asked by the nurse to come on the table and that she is going to just touch me down there and to see if everything is OK and that it would not hurt at all. I looked at my aunts and they told me to do what the nurse said. I jumped on the table and the next thing I knew was that my aunt had her arms around my eyes and my mouth to stop me from seeing anything and screaming.

I could feel a pain like someone was cutting a part of my body and it hurt so much. In my screams, I was asking the nurse why she is doing this to me; I have been a good girl so why are you cutting me? I told her that I wanted to see my mum and my dad and that if my mum was here she wouldn't have let her hurt me so badly. While listening to what I was saying, all my aunts had tears in their eyes and they were all trying to hide their faces but it was too obvious. As I was getting down of the table screaming and crying, my aunt told me that she is very sorry but all girls have to go through it at some point in their lives. I looked at her and said right to her face that I wished she could have waited the next time I came to see her because this was my first holiday and I wanted to enjoy myself without spending my holiday in pain.

Back home, my uncle was very upset at my aunts and asked them why they did it. He then had to call my mum to tell her the news. Days before my mum arrived, I wouldn't eat or play with anyone; I spent my time crying.

I never went back to visit my uncle again and I don't think I will ever forget my aunt for what she did to me.

What is your message to parents who are planning to cut their daughters?

FGM is a bigger issue than what people think. I always read reports and news that tell of some villages where women said that they have stopped cutting their daughters. The truth is they haven’t stopped. They say it to please the international community or the UN,... but FGM is so much a part of our culture in Africa that I don't see any end to it. One of the ways of ending it, it think, would be perhaps to show the consequences on the victim’s life. Perhaps after that, our mothers, aunts, grandmother would understand how much pain they are causing us.

What does your life look like 23 years later?

23 years later, the cutting still has a disastrous effect on my life. I got married 2 years ago and I always have to fight with myself when it comes to sex with my husband. Since that day, I never let anyone touched me down there and that was one of the reasons that I was still virgin when I got married at 26 years old. I am a good looking woman but my whole life I just pushed back all the guys that wanted to go out with me.

I always try to find excuses for not having sex with my husband because of the pain I still have since the cutting. I don't know how long my marriage is going to last if I keep on avoiding my husband. The question is: although I love my husband more than anything else, should I keep on suffering while having sex or shall I just avoid him? I don't know the answer to this question but there is one thing that I am sure about, my life will never be the same again. They destroyed my life without asking and without knowing the consequences of their acts. I may end up without husband and without children because of what they did to me.

"Will I have a normal life again, the answer is NO. By cutting that part of me, they remove something that I will never be able to get back again"

Still a game of two halves

Anouchka Burton

When I was about 8 years old, a classmate, from Tottenham but of Indian origin, falsely accused me of calling her paki. As the child of lefty north London types, I'd been brought up with a no tolerance approach to prejudice. Imagine my horror. Outrage, confusion, worry and distress followed (said classmate eventually admitted that she had lied. I think she works in law now, go figure). I was concerned that no-one would believe my side of the story, my family would be accused of racism, and that I'd be unable to shake the stigma for the rest of my academic life. It was horrible.

I remember this story every time someone in the public eye is accused of racism. I think about how it feels and wonder how they will defend themselves. Recently, I've remembered this story more frequently. From Jade Goody on Big Brother to Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear, racially charged language seems like it is slipping back onto our television screens.

No more so has this been evident – or so it seems - than on Premier League match days. John Terry's recent outburst has been well documented and is still subject to a police investigation, so we'll say no more about it here. The other high profile incident took place at the end of 2011 between Liverpool's Luis Suarez and Manchester United's Patrice Evra.

For those of you that don't follow football, a quick recap: during a match in October, the players were involved in an altercation where Suarez (originally from Uruguay), repeatedly called Evra (French, of Senegalese descent) Black/Blackie/Negro/Nigger depending on the translation you prefer. What isn't in dispute is that he said he “doesn't speak to Blacks”. The incident eventually resulted in an eight match ban and £40,000 fine for Suarez. So far, so by the book.

What's disturbing and depressing is what happened next. Liverpool football club rejected the findings of the enquiry and mounted a robust defence of Suarez. Statements were issued in “total support” of the footballer, and Liverpool football team publicly declared their allegiance on t-shirts.

Closer to home, some of my friends started saying some strange things. “Oh, well, who knows what Evra said first”, I heard from one, “Black isn't offensive, he's just describing him”, I heard from several. And the inevitable, “people always play the race card in arguments” (where do you get this mythical race card? I must have missed it waiting for my NUS one.)

How to respond to this. Certainly, yes, I am Black. I would describe myself as a Black woman. If someone calls me a bitch, I find it offensive. If someone calls me a Black bitch, it is even worse. Why? Because the person who has added “Black” does so for the sole purpose of insult to injury. Intention here is key: Suarez and Evra were having an argument. Suarez used the fact of Evra's race to insult him, knowing that this would cause deep offence. He wasn't describing what he looked like, he was being derogatory. This sort of abuse isn't allowed on the football pitch any more than it is allowed in the workplace. That's a good thing.

“But where will it end? Anyone can be offended by anything.” I heard. People suddenly seemed worried that they wouldn't be allowed to call people, “fat” or “ginger” because of the PC police. Perhaps I can make a suggestion: this could be progress. Really. Because until we live in a society where all people are treated equally, I say its perfectly reasonable to sanction against prejudice, be it racial, gender-based, sexual and so on.

When Barack Obama won the American Presidential race, I remember announcing to my pub mates that I hoped he would be allowed to be as mediocre as a White President. What I meant, which few understood, was that true racial equality would mean that he'd be judged to the same standards as all who came before him, criticised and celebrated according to the same rules. He isn't, of course. For me, a similar principle applies here – until Black people get to be judged and criticised and celebrated according to the same rules as White people, we get to be offended by racial epithets, and White people don't get to say them.