ABW’s Guest Blogger Nora here, with a brief rant.
Belated happy Independence Day to my fellow Americans (and more belated Canada Day to our northerly neighbors). I don’t tend to do much for the 4th of July; I just kind of feel ambivalent about celebrating an “independence” that didn’t really apply to my ancestors for another hundred years. Still, I’m not above using a holiday for all it’s worth when one comes along, and I figured it was a good idea to view explosions of some kind on the Fourth, so I went to see “Transformers.”
I’ll preface this rant by saying that I went into the film expecting little in the way of logical plot or well-rounded characterization. As one of my viewing companions reminded me, it’s a Michael Bay film, after all. I went expecting to see giant robots blowing stuff up, and mostly that’s what I got. I was even pleasantly surprised by the first half of the film, which was an intriguing and heartwarming “boy and his car” tale. It brought back fond memories of my own first car, which I affectionately named “the Heap”, and which also seemed to have a mind of its own about certain things. (Not about getting me laid, though. Must be a guy-car thing.) I enjoyed the nods to the old 80s TV series, though clearly I wasn’t nearly as much of an old-series fan as most of the audience, who roared every time they caught some bit of fanservice that I missed. That was OK. It was all good, silly, lighthearted fun.
But. (You knew this was coming.)
As the 2.5-hour movie wore on, I found myself smiling less and less. That’s because as the special effects grew more extravagant and the action became more spectacular, I kept noticing something that left a bitter taste in my mouth, and eventually ruined my enjoyment of the film entirely. Namely, stereotypes.
There were basically four black characters in the film who had speaking roles. Bernie Mac played a shady used car salesman who sells the main character a car that turns out to be an Autobot. Tyrese Gibson plays one of the soldiers who first encounters the Decepticons. Anthony Anderson was supposedly a l33t signal analysis/tech expert. And I’ll include one “coded black” character — Jazz, one of the Autobots.
Mac’s character was the first to annoy me. Not because he was smarmy — he was a used-car salesman — but because of the way he made fun of other characters of color nearby. Bad enough that he called his Hispanic assistant “Ricky Ricardo”; on top of that he called the character who was supposed to be his mother “Mammy”. Which is about as blatant an invocation of a stereotype as you can get, despite the fact that it was played for laughs in this case. Maybe this was meant to soften the fact that Mac also calls her a bitch shortly afterward? Maybe the filmmakers figured it would be harder for the audience to take issue with the misogynist slur if they’ve already laughed at the racial one.
This didn’t bother me so much, I have to admit, because insulting mothers is a classic staple of comedy. Nor was I particularly bothered by Tyrese Gibson’s character, who — although prominently featured in the commercials — never got to grow beyond the role of ubermacho soldier, grunting out a handful of lines like, “Bring the (targeted missile) rain!” and “Come on!” I get really tired of seeing black men depicted as violent thugs, but at least this one got to be an intelligent, disciplined, moderately effective violent thug. And I’ll be honest; I’m willing to forgive Tyrese for a lot of sins. Eye candy has that effect sometimes. ::pauses to fan self briefly::
What bothered me far more was Anthony Anderson’s character. OK, I’m also tired of seeing fat black people played for laughs, but at least I know that fat white people get similar treatment in our fat-phobic society. Fat is the great equalizer. However, geeky fat white people get to be competent, even clever. Geeky fat black people, apparently, are idiots. Anderson’s character lives with his overbearing, overweight mother (another “mammy”), and apparently does nothing with his time beyond playing videogames and talking modern-day jive. Although another character refers to him mysteriously as “The only man smart enough to hack this (alien robot computer) signal,” Anderson never gets to display this intelligence or any sort of agency at all, instead spending the entire film blubbering in terror or eating himself sick. The scene in which the feds descend upon his house to bust him and his companions is, I think, deliberately reminiscent of COPS. So Anderson gets to play two! two! two! stereotypes in one — the cowardly ineffectual sidekick, and the criminal.
But the stereotypes that bothered me most of all were inflicted on a character who wasn’t even human.
Even back in the 80s, Jazz was “the black Transformer”. He was voiced by Scatman Crothers, which gave him an unmistakably African-American inflection and dialect; he loved to breakdance; his most humanoid parts (face, arms) were even painted black just to drive the allusion home. The current film version displays similar cultural referents: his transformation sequence resembles a breakdancing move; he’s also voiced by a noticeably black actor; and this time he tosses out modern urban slang like, “Whassup, bitches?” Because, y’know, if you’re only going to give a character two lines and you want people to think he’s black, you’re naturally going to make him talk like
a suburban white male teenager a rapper.
And I was even OK with that. Another 80s homage, right? We had a stereotypically black Transformer then, and we get another now. I hear they tried to bring back “the chick Transformer” Arcee too, but apparently the early focus groups hated her. (I don’t know if that means the audience is less tolerant of white female stereotypes than it is of black male stereotypes, or if the character was just bad.) So it could’ve been worse; he could’ve been a Decepticon. Or we could have had an entire race of alien robots who for some strange reason all chose to sound like white men. At least the 4/5ths of this planet that are people of color got some vocal/dialect representation. (See ABW’s post on Wiscon’s Why is the Universe So Damn White? panel.)
Anyway, in the climactic final battle scene, only one of the good-guy Autobots dies. Guess which one. C’mon, guess. Oh, you’re not even trying.
And he dies like a punk, too.
So the nostalgia in this version of Transformers seems to have also resurrected some old-school not-so-hidden messages: black women are nagging mammies who deserve the label bitch; black men are thugs, rappers, cowards, or crooks, and are stupid even when they’re supposed to be smart; Latino men are effete idiots; and even alien robots aren’t safe from token black guy syndrome. Oh, and I almost forgot the moronic Indian customer support guy who symbolizes the real dangers of outsourcing — it’s not only bad for our economy, it’s bad for our troops in wartime — and the Arab villagers whose sole purpose in the film is to be rescued by the tough-talking American soldiers. (Also see discussion on the Wiscon panel “What These People Need is a Honky”.)
Lately I’ve begun to wonder whether Hollywood has declared war on people of color. Things are getting worse, not better. I mean, cheesy as he was, back in the day Jazz was played with relative dignity and allowed to display actual intelligence. These days the attacks — because that’s what these ugly depictions feel like, attacks — are just so damned blatant. It feels as though American society is trying its damnedest to turn back the clock on diversity these days, and Hollywood is leading the charge with a multimedia assault on the senses. I don’t envision a cabal of white filmmakers sitting around and cackling as they purposefully turn all their CoCs into caricatures; instead I envision them simply deciding that they don’t care. It doesn’t matter. They’re not going to be “sensitive”; they’re tired of that PC crap; they’re just going to make the kind of film they really want to make, and damn the “special interests”. Or maybe it is deliberate; maybe they’ve decided that playing with racial stereotyping is “edgy” or “hip”. It brings the box office dollars, doesn’t it? It makes Middle America and the 18-35 year-old white male demographic happy. So who cares if a black female in the audience is shaking her head in disgust by the end of the film? We’re too sensitive, and we don’t matter anyway. Besides, everyone knows racism is only when you use the n-word and treat people differently based on their color.
So alas, poor Jazz — whose treatment, more than anything else, codes him as “the black Transformer”. Because unfortunately, there’s more to racism than meets the eye.
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