SCREEN-L Archives

September 1996, Week 3


Options: Use Monospaced Font
Show Text Part by Default
Show All Mail Headers

Message: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]
Topic: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]
Author: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]

Print Reply
"Edward R. O'Neill" <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Thu, 19 Sep 1996 21:14:21 -0700
text/plain (63 lines)
        Something which might clarify the recent discussions of racism and
film on this list would be a definition (dare I say it) of what would count
as racism.  Several postings on this thread work in this direction, but no
one has yet said what they mean by racism.  It may seem silly to define
something so central, but the centrality or importance of a concept does not
make it any clearer--oftentimes quite the opposite is the case, and the more
central a concept, the more freight it has to carry and the less precise it
        My own work concerns questions of sexuality more than race, but I
think there are certain parallels.  Namely, we often use a kind of shorthand
to say that *films* are homophobic, but this seems to be based on an analogy
(1) with *people* who may be homophobic in their actions and/or
attitudes/beliefs or (2) with *verbal expressions* of such homophobic
attitudes and beliefs or such verbal expressions which constitute *actions*.
A film probably cannot be homophobic in sense (1), except insofar as we find
a film as a system to embody or imply certain beliefs or assumptions--which
pushes it towards sense (2).  Representing *characters* who hold these
attitudes is not enough to count under sense (1):  there are films which
seem to underwrite the views of homophobic characters, while others make it
clear that these characters are beyond the pale.
        Sense (2) seems closer to what's being discussed on this list,
although it seems that people generally agree that *The Lion King*, for
instance, doesn't simply come out and *state* and racist sentiments.  What
seems to be at stake in these intuitions about racism is rather a systematic
connection between the key term--race, gender, sexuality--and specific
values implied in the various codes.  In the case of racism, what seems to
be the implied object of criticism is a systematic devaluation of any race
other than "white."  Here racism is closer to a system of beliefs than a
conscious attitude or even verbal expression or action.
        This schism between a system of beliefs and anything consciously
expressed or acted upon is legible whenever people comment that *The Lion
King*, for instance, isn't racist because viewers don't notice that it is.
Here I think some people are thinking of racism as a statement, rather than
in terms of the system of values embodied in those statements.  But
certainly we can understand that someone can be racist (in the sense of
adhering to a specific set of beliefs) without ever expressing racist views
or making any discriminatory actions.
        The question is then whether or not the inculcation of a system of
values by means of implication, by the systematic linking of various codes
(of coloration, of casting, of character traits and actions) constitutes an
*action* in the same way that, for example, a verbal racial slur which
directly states racist views is itself not merely a *statement* but rather
an *act.*  Here various writers on this list seem to differ in the case of
*The Lion King* not only as to whether or not the connections in the film
are really systematic enough to be significant and as to whether some of the
codes (such as "buffoonery") have specifically racial connotations, but,
even more significantly, as to whether even the systematic adoption of
certain codes would constitute an action which would have an effect upon the
film's audience.
        I provide this comment in the way of food for thought--in case it
helps someone say "this is what I meant, not that, and thus this is why we
        I must say, I have been impressed with a consistently thoughtful
level of the comments on this thread, and, given the sensitive nature of the
topic, I am happy to see a discussion which is heated without being hostile.
Edward R. O'Neill
To signoff SCREEN-L, e-mail [log in to unmask] and put SIGNOFF SCREEN-L
in the message.  Problems?  Contact [log in to unmask]