This is from a book entitled The Story of Eve which I finished in 1997 and never published. Much of the research is, I admit, dated; but I’m astounded at how much of it still applies to how we view and ingest media. I’ll be posting my favorite excerpts from it. Comments and critiques are welcomed:)
The Prepackaged Opinion
“Male dominated institutions, especially corporate interests, see the dangers posed to them by love’s escape. Women who love themselves are threatening. But men who love real women, are even more of a threat.” Naomi Wolf The Beauty Myth.
Mainstream media has been described as one of the most widespread tools of social control. Through films,TV, music and videos we learn what to eat and what to hope for; where to live, what to desire and what to dream. Mainstream media impacts these values in such subtle ways that it’s downright scary. From day to day, hour to hour we are ingesting them — values racism, sexism, classism and we’re not even aware of it.
As Meehan, author of Ladies of the Evening found that some of the roles models we see on TV we ignore. Not many of us, for example, want to learn how to be a prostitute. But many other fantasy characters we see are parents, neighbors and lovers and these we do pay attention too.
People learn how to behave from television and film roles models just as they emulate real ones. Research has even shown that we can take on the attitudes, ideas etc from popular culture’s portrayal of our group (e.g. Black women) then go on to make assumptions about how we think other groups might behave (e.g. Black men)! Many are afraid to disagree with these stereotypes because they’re afraid of being laughed at or called an outsider — so they spread in what has been called a spiral of silence (Price, 1989).
If all of this sounds like science fiction consider the OJ Simpson trial: the defendant in question a Black male celebrity and former pro football star accused of murdering his white wife, Nicole Brown Simpson and her male friend, Ron Goldman. Psychologists Friedland and Potash commented that we, as a culture, looked upon OJ as fallen hero and that we were both betrayed and stunned.
And the media’s gory coverage of Simpson trial, including the manipulation of Blacks and Whites into opposing boxing corners, makes one wonder just who and what was being tried? Simpson’s guilt or innocence or a man’s right to own and abuse his property — his property in this case being Nicole, especially since he was paying the bills? (As a case in point I talked several white men who swore that he was innocent!) Or perhaps the millions of Black folk who’ve been screwed by the judicial system were on trial and Nicole and Ron were sacrificed to their collective rage?
Hallis has described TV News as an ideological medium: providing not just information and entertainment but pockets of consciousness — clues for reacting to social and political reality. (From Bell Hooks Yearning. ). I couldn’t agree more.
The Early Years
Between the mid-1890s and 1915 movies became America’s most popular form of entertainment as film mythology gradually took shape. Black characters in this early motif were portrayed in Black face. Mammy made her debut around 1914. And American theaters introduced the tragic mulatto to the pantheon of Black mythology. She would become the darling of the dreamweavers: my word for filmmakers. After all what do movie makers do but sell dreams?
The stage mulatto served to reinforce popular notions about white superiority. The merest drop of Negro blood was a taint from which there was no redemption:
…[Yet] a character’s white blood was [also] responsible for any positive features he or she might have. A mulatto in these mixed blood plays avoided a tragic end only if, just before the curtain rang down, it became clear that he or she was really all white.
Daniel Leab. From Sambo to Superspade,pp.10-11.
In these early films the mulatto was likable — because of her White blood. Thus audiences were sympathetic to the poor creatures plight — she would have been happy but her cursed Negro blood!
Of course the symbolism of the tragic mulatto myth is paper thin. She (most tragic mulatto were women) is a mythic being fight a battle between good and evil with herself. Her “good” side is obviously her White side: the side with Caucasian blood. But look closer: her white persona is also her goddess or virgin persona. In contrast, her Black persona is her “evil” (whore) side. And tragic mulatto were often depicted as promiscuous, cold-hearted creatures.
Thus, Black women when not portrayed as Mammies became Jezebels on screen: just as they had been portrayed by the slave master; and just as filmmakers continued to portray them well after slavery’s demise.
Valjeanne Jeffers-Thompson Copyright 1997, 2009 all rights reserved.
Portions of The Story of Eve have been published in PurpleMag