At The Movies: Carol (2015)

Some spoilers.

What does falling in love look like? As Todd Haynes’ film Carol reminds us, it often looks quite boring, looking from the outside in. Lives are brought together and broken apart in the most ordinary of settings—a rather depressing department store, a diner where the porcelain is thick and ungainly, a motel with ugly bedding. People with beautiful cheekbones and deep, startling gazes must still remember to pay their coffee bill and deal with traffic.

carolmovie 2
Image via Twitter @carolmovie

In some ways, not much happens in the movie. Two women meet in 1950s New York, exchanging glances and a joke or two over a toy counter. They fall in love, suddenly and without warning. One of them is Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), the kind of woman who matches her coral lipstick to her nails perfectly, the better to veil her repression. The other is Therese Belivet, an aspiring photographer who shies away from others (Rooney Mara). What ensues? A couple of visits, a road-trip to flee Carol’s estranged and pushy husband Harges (Kyle Chandler), sex, and finally, a confrontation that sends them spinning away from each other and then back again.

Image via Twitter @carolmovie

In other ways, the stakes of the film are much higher. Vibrating underneath these events is a tension more meaningful than a shared cup of coffee or kisses exchanged on a motel pillow. In an era that could not brook the love between two women, or even call it by its name, Carol’s struggle to fit both her family expectations and her personal needs into a single life is a bitter one. She and Therese strive to fully realize their desires and selves. From the 1950s until now, that struggle for the right to occupy mundane space, even peacefully and beautifully, without intrusion and judgment, can ring true and familiar.

Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt, the source material for the film, was long considered a literary footnote—after a surge in popularity at the time of its publishing, it fell to the wayside. It was, in fact, daring and important in many ways. Not only did it take lesbian love as its central theme, it broke the convention of “lesbian pulp fiction” to give its lovers a happy ending and a modicum of hope. The Price of Salt also precluded that other famous love story of the 1950s, Lolita, in its use of transgressive sex and the open road to explore the morality of American sentiment and loneliness. Both versions of the story celebrate the seemingly small but in fact monumental choice of self-satisfaction in the face of censure. In Carol, the driving force of a beautiful love story unfurls, whisper-soft but sweet.


On Weight and the Pathologization of the Black Feminine

As time went on, I began sitting in front of the television less because I no longer saw people on the screen that looked like me. In their attempt to offset backlash, some networks hired one or two token non-white cast members. Seeing them became an occasion for me to think about how harmful inclusive exclusion is. It was never enough.

After walking home from the bus stop, I threw my backpack on the kitchen floor, reached towards whatever was left in the pantry, and sat, for hours, in front of a large television screen as I did every day. Prioritizing Sister Sister and That’s So Raven re-runs over homework was obviously the responsible thing to do.

What I didn’t realize in elementary school was that each marathon I was invited to sit through threatened to color my world with a white-dominated standard of beauty and value.. Each episode of Lizzie McGuire, Even Stevens, and The Suite Life reinforced the notion that eurocentrism was ultimately the standard by which beauty needed to measured and upheld. As time went on, I began sitting in front of the television less because I no longer saw people on the screen that looked like me. In their attempt to offset backlash, some networks hired one or two token non-white cast members. Seeing them became an occasion for me to think about how harmful inclusive exclusion is. It was never enough.

As I got older, I no longer searched for remotes with the same urgency and interest as I used to. When Precious was released in 2009, it became clearer to me that my disinterest in pop culture was, in fact, a disinterest in the anti-Blackness that undergirded every facet of mainstream media. But Precious was presumably supposed to provide nuance in an industry and world that was built on the subjugation and attempted erasure of Black women.

“My name is Claireece Precious Jones. I want to be on the cover of a magazine.”

Gabourey Sidibe as Precious (2009)
Gabourey Sidibe as Precious (2009)

The school bell sounded as the trailer began for the film. As Claireece walked out of stairwell she was stared at and pushed by other students. Not unlike the majority-white audience who purchased tickets to see the film, the students in the backdrop of the opening scene of the trailer had a desire to see and lay claim to a Black body that did not belong to them. The space that Claireece occupies is one that is imbued with violence and in the opening scene of the trailer Claireece makes it clear to the audience that the violence that the Black Feminine experiences does not render the Black Feminine nameless, silent, or invisible.

Claireece creates an alternative mode of life and sociality for herself by imagining herself on the cover of magazines. In the opening scene of the trailer, Claireece insistently acknowledges her own humanity while others fail to. She imagines a world in which she has full control over when and how she is seen. After several outfit changes, Claireece returns to a world that not only pathologizes her Blackness but also problematizes her weight. And after purchasing movie tickets to see the film, I realized that my presumption about the film was the furthest thing from true. I had anticipated seeing a move that sufficiently represented the nuances of Black sociality but instead, the movie seemed to trouble the binary of spectator and performance.

Every seat in the movie theatre was occupied. I sat behind rows of blonde and brunette white people who seemed all too eager to see Precious and my initial confusion turned into discomfort because I no longer felt safe. Although I was too young to articulate the convoluted feeling I had about sitting next to, behind, and in front of white people to see this film, I was certain that something was not right.

Precious was a box office success grossing over $63 million, receiving six nominations at the 82nd Academy Awards, and overwhelmingly good reviews from critics. The problem is that movies that cast non-white or, more specifically, Black actresses gross $63 million and receive numerous nominations at the Academy Awards insofar as they dehumanize Black women. Black women are consistently nominated for playing nannies, slaves, the sexually exploited…the critical acclaim of their movies is definitely tied to the excess of their on-screen suffering. That is to say that the hyper-investment and interest of Precious is a means by which the general public can continue to work in service of white standards of beauty and human value by reifying the notion that Black women are subjects that the world can dehumanize, commodify, and lay claim to as it wills.

Black women are told that we do not belong on the cover of magazines, let alone the concluding pages that are marked by advertisements. We are told that we taint spaces that are reserved for white women and when self-aggrandizing liberals decide to cast Black women in their films they tell us that we will be cast insofar as we assent to the violence that the role is imbued with. In this case in particular, Gabourey Sidibe is navigating an inclusive exclusion that welcomes her into a labor market that needs her and yet disavows her humanity because she is a plus size Black woman.

This type of inclusive exclusion is a guise that coerces people into believing that fat people and Black people are no longer being dehumanized by mainstream media. Yet their presence depends on their acquiescence to dictated, controlled space. Most of these women in popular culture are being told how and where to exist. When someone is both fat and Black, this becomes even more convoluted because every facet of their identity is denigrated according to white mainstream standards. . Nearly every film, advertisement, sitcom, magazine spread and commercial tells fat Black women that they are subhuman because they do not evoke the right kind of desire, and that they only deserve to occupy cultural space when they suffer.

The oppression of fat Black women through certain types of representation is something that deserves greater attention than it receives. What is often forgotten is the fact that there is nothing pathological about fat Black women. What is often forgotten is the fact that fat Black women exist. And this is the problem. Fat Black women not only exist, but do in revolutionary ways, and deserve to be the arbiters of their own lives, their own performances, and their own representation. That means that we do not have a right to determine for ourselves when it is and is not convenient for us to see and subjectivize fat Black women. In other words, the fat Black woman (the doubly pathologized body) should not just be valorized when an Oscar is on the line.

Gabourey Sidibe for French Elle
Gabourey Sidibe for French Elle

After purchasing movie tickets to see Precious I situated myself in a sea of white people and I felt suffocated by their desire to cathartically look at suffering Black bodies. Theorizing the relation between performer and spectator becomes even more crucial in these circumstances. The violence that was coupled with the collective gaze of the audience hinges on the type of violence Black women experienced in the 19th century when they were forced to be subjects of medical experimentation, sideshows, and museum exhibitions because the white onlookers in the movie theatre viewed Black bodies as propertied subjects to be possessed.

I was reminded of this when a few weeks ago, I attended The Vagina Monologues and witnessed a performer disavow the gaze of an audience that was eager to see and contain her. The performer, a plus size Black woman, was the arbiter of a story that fell on and through ears unwilling to listen to what her performance was imbued with—resistance .  The audience was made profoundly uncomfortable by the fact that the performer demanded to be humanized, but they were even more uncomfortable by the fact that the performer humanized herself and reconfigured what is thought to be a binary opposition between performer and spectator. Before one of the students in the audience began to capture the performance, the Black woman—in anticipation of this violence—unapologetically  embraced the space she occupied as well as her Blackness by centering herself on the stage and shouting.

Despite our intentions, we often find ourselves working in service of white supremacy when we assume the powerful position of the onlooker or arbiter of a performance. When plus size Black women move in violent spaces such as the one the performer moved through, they can choose to negate the ways in which people attempt to see them. So an attempt to capture plus size Black women without their knowledge or consent is an attempt to disregard the work that they do to create alternative modes of existing.

There is also a disjuncture between when, where, and how plus size white women and Black women are seen and “accepted”. While celebrities such as Adele, Rebel Wilson, Jennifer Coolidge, and Melissa McCarthy are subject to denigration and ridicule because of their size, Black women like Amber Riley, Monique, Jill Scott, and Rachel Jeantel have to resist a world that not only fails to see them but condemns their existence when it does. For instance, when Rachel Jeantel, 19-year old prosecution witness, recounted her final phone call with Trayvon Martin before George Zimmerman murdered him, the general public was eager to compare her to an animal because of her skin color, weight and speech. Because Rachel did not articulate herself the way everyone wanted her to, the general public delegitimized her testimony and dehumanized her by gleefully shaming her.

MZ 007
MZ 007

Women like Rachel Jeantel, Gabourey Sidibe, Amber Riley, Monique, Jill Scott and Mz 007 give us an occasion to deconstruct normative modes of existing and thinking about subjectivity. Despite the fact that mainstream media tries to control and regulate Black women whose bodies are “unconventional”, these women are among many who remind us what it is to live in, through, and beyond a world that tells us at every waking moment that plus size Black women do not deserve to exist.

Why Oscar Snubs Matter

“…in general the Academy and the industry it mirrors manage diversity the same way that corporate America does, by ticking off boxes.”

On February 23, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences doled out its coveted statuettes to filmmakers in celebration of their achievements in the cinematic arts. But this year, the Oscars’ golden glow was tarnished by what many internet commentators have labeled a racist snub: the exclusion of Selma’s director Ava DuVernay and leading actor David Oyelowo from this year’s Academy Award ballot. Racism is a weighty accusation that is perhaps not entirely deserved. However, the fact that of no person of color was nominated in any of the acting categories this year does give one pause. A look at Academy history furthers suspicion: only about 4% of the acting awards have gone to people of color, according to an LA Times study in 2012.

Photo courtesy Time Magazine / Paramount Pictures
Photo courtesy Time Magazine / Paramount Pictures

Both the New York Times’ David Carr and Academy Award-winning director Barry Levinson do not believe that Selma’s exclusion was fueled by overt racism. Writing for Variety, Mr. Levinson argues that though America is still a “racist country,” as a whole, things are getting better and that the controversy surrounding Ms. DuVernay and Mr. Oyelowo has been blown out of proportion. In his article, he offers three reasons why the Selma snub was likely not due to racial bias: 1. The academy does not have a track record of picking the best nominees, 2. White people get overlooked for Oscars too (example: Clint Eastwood didn’t get nominated for American Sniper) and 3. Since 12 Years a Slave won so many accolades last year, the academy cannot be racist this year.

Mr. Levinson concludes by arguing that “Race issues in America are significant and need to be addressed. The lack of diversity in Hollywood is valid, but change begins with education, not the Oscar ballots…Without that support, too many lost voices can’t join tomorrow’s screenwriters, or directors, or actors, or production designers, or cinematographers, or editors.” Though I appreciate Mr. Levinson’s call for social change, ending on this note subtly excuses the academy from having any responsibility in developing new artistic voices (or recognizing the diversity of existing ones). He essentially claims that if other societal systems were better combating racism, then there would be greater diversity in the industry (and the unstated implication: more black people may be more able to win Oscars). This argument feels like a cop-out, because it pushes responsibility onto other societal institutions, even though the academy purports to represent an industry that is hugely influential in shaping the cultural landscape.

The New York Times’ David Carr also believes that the Selma snub was not an “overt racist conspiracy,” but his assessment of the situation strikes me as much more nuanced than Mr. Levinson’s. Mr. Carr argues that

“…in general the Academy and the industry it mirrors manage diversity the same way that corporate America does, by ticking off boxes. That means that after Kathryn Bigelow won as best director in 2010 for ‘The Hurt Locker’—the only female director to have won in the award’s 87 years—there was no reason to even nominate her again from the extraordinary ‘Zero Dark Thirty.’ The ‘woman thing’ had been checked off already. And it also means that though ’12 Years a Slave’ won best picture, its director, Steve McQueen, did not receive similar acclaim because that win took care of ‘the black thing.'”

Oscar observer Sasha Stone (quoted in Mr. Carr’s article) reports that “The Academy’s vote for ‘12 Years a Slave’ was like pulling teeth…To this day, I don’t think many members even saw it and now that it won, the academy has snapped back, like a rubber band, to what they know, to films that are made in their own image.’ If this is true, then we should not be surprised to see a lack of diversity in the Oscar nominees this year: the Academy is about 93% white, 76% male and an average of 63 years old.

One complicating factor seems to be that the Academy’s membership is also the reflection of the demographic breakdown of the film industry; therefore Oscar snubs may be related to the complex relationship between institutional politics, economics and racial/gender bias. An undercover report by the L.A Times in 2012 revealed that

Independent studies of some film crafts show that the academy’s demographics mirror the industry’s. Women make up 19% of the academy’s screenwriting branch, and a 2011 analysis by the Writers Guild of America, West found that women accounted for 17% of film writers employment. The academy’s producers branch is about 18% female, and the directors branch is 9% female, figures comparable to those in a study by San Diego State University’s Martha Lauzen. She examined the 250 top-grossing movies of 2011 and found that women accounted for 25% of all of the films’ producers, and 5% of all their directors.

Of course there are notable exceptions to these statistics. The current academy president, Cheryl Boothe Isaacs, is a black woman. When she was serving on the academy’s board of governors in 2012, she was one of 6 women and the only person of color.

Some argue that the Academy Awards are not obligated to reflect cultural diversity and they are not intended to make a political statement. Carr states that the awards “convey recognition at the highest level of a craft”, and are meant to recognize extraordinary careers in the motion picture industry.

In the L.A. Times report, Frank Pierson, former director of the academy and Oscar winner, is quoted as saying “I don’t see any reason why the academy should represent the entire American population. That’s what the People’s Choice Awards are for…We represent the professional filmmakers, and if that doesn’t reflect the general population, so be it.”

Though I understand Mr. Pierson and others’ desires to judge works of art for their aesthetic qualities and craftsmanship without considering politics or demographics, I am not convinced that the academy engages in that kind of objective judgment. Much of the commentary and journalism on the Academy Awards confirms that Oscar decisions have a political component.  Although I agree with Mr. Levinson that institutional racism and sexism undoubtedly affect who has access to the resources to make a movie “worthy” of Oscar status, I see the academy—which has been “limiting membership growth for the last decade” according to the L.A. Times—as one of the institutions contributing to these inequities.

Because the Academy Awards are such a highly public spectacle, the Oscars make a political statement by choosing a “canon” of sanctioned artists. My concern is that at the core of these Oscar nomination controversies is the academy’s resistance towards developing a film canon that includes narratives that do not center on the white, middle-class, middle-aged male experience.

Photo from ABC
Photo from ABC

I can’t remember when I personally stopped trusting the academy to award Oscars to the most deserving films or artists each year.  It was sometime between my birth and the moment that I realized the academy was not going to award The Lord of the Rings trilogy much of anything until the final installment came out…and then it gave The Return of the King basically every award a self-respecting fantasy movie could hope to receive from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This struck me as false and political.

But despite my mistrust, I (like many skeptic film buffs) watch the awards every year and behave like a devoted sports fan, constantly yelling at the TV when the refs make a bad call as winners are announced. I feel vindicated when the academy and I agree on who should win Best Director and then immediately feel betrayed when it gives the award to someone I deemed undeserving, or it fails to nominate a film or artist I believe should be recognized—this betrayal happens almost every year, in one category or another. For me, it’s the nomination that matters—not the eventual winner. The exclusion of deserving candidates from the final voting ballots (see N.B.) does, in part, diminish the prestige of the Academy Awards. The high status that accompanies the taking home a golden statuette depends almost entirely on people believing that an Oscar actually represents the highest level of craftsmanship and artistry in film.

Even if an Academy Award is a false signifier, the heavy media coverage, star-studded red carpet specials, and historical prestige make the Academy Awards relevant because they have the power to compel people to watch certain movies, to engage with certain narratives. And nominations—and exclusions—make political statements about the voices that are valued in this community of filmmakers. And, in the words of Uncle Ben/Voltaire: with great power comes great responsibility.

Yes, the Oscars are over for this year and the time to speculate on who should have won is certainly up. However, it is never too late to insist that our cultural institutions recognize artists who create films that document experiences divergent from those of the academy’s largest demographic

N.B. on academy voting: According to the academy’s website, films are nominated by “the members of the corresponding branch—actors nominate actors, film editors nominate film editors, etc.” After films are nominated, the respective divisions vote on the nominees to determine the final ballot (which is the ballot that is presented as a given year’s class of nominees). All academy members—regardless of their division—are allowed to vote on the final ballot and the winners are revealed on live TV. This suggests to me that individual divisions—and individual members—have a lot of agency when selecting both nominees, and award recipients.

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