Diversity is a hot topic in all arenas, and that includes the world of forensic anthropology. This week, we’ve had two big revelations hit the anthropological news cycle, and while one finding cements what I’ve thought of as a truth long deferred, the other is a head-scratch.
1. Cheddar Man is revealed to be dark-skinned
In what can only be described as a shock to many who assumed England’s ancient peoples were fair-skinned and engaged in racial politics, the oldest complete skeleton in British history, Cheddar Man (named as such because of it being found in Cheddar Gorge), is actually a dark-skinned man with curly dark hair and blue eyes.
This is what scientists originally thought Cheddar Man looked like:
And this is what he actually looked like:
According to The Guardian, advanced DNA analysis has revealed that Cheddar Man and his ilk weren’t the light-skinned people science believed them to be. Instead, their skin was “dark to black,” which lends even more weight to the scientific fact that all people originated from Africa; Cheddar Man lived in England shortly after humans migrated to Britain from continental Europe at the end of the last ice age, and white Britons today are the ancestors of this group of migrants.
Cheddar Man’s skin color reveals that the genes for lighter skin “became widespread at a much in European populations far later than originally thought – and that skin colour was not always a proxy for geographic origin in the way it is often seen to be today,” wrote The Guardian’s Hannah Devlin.
According to scientists, this is what Britons looked like 10,000 years ago: pic.twitter.com/Em7T09ITbZ
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) February 8, 2018
I find this fascinating, not just because of the whole “everyone comes from Africa” thing, but because of how this discovery should change the way we view race and skin color. What should happen is that everyone–especially those with racially prejudicial ideas–take a good look at themselves and realize how meaningless skin color actually is. If tons of white Britons are descendants of this black man, how does this put anyone on a different pedestal from anyone else?
Cheddar Man’s skin revelations should also change the way we see history. Sites like Medieval POC exist to close the gaps in the West’s thought process about how race was conceptualized in the 15, 16, 17, 18, and 19th centuries. But, because of today’s current dialogue about race in history–a dialogue that is laced with stereotypes, racism, and traces of the same pseudo-science that made the Atlantic Slave Trade possible–it can seem hard to open people’s minds up to the fact that darker-skinned people not only lived in what are now white European spaces, but they thrived and, in many cases, accepted by the masses. Race as a construct did enter European society at some point, but our modern thoughts about race are relatively new in relation to the evolution of human society–and they’re erroneous.
As reported in The Guardian:
Tom Booth, an archaeologist at the Natural History Museum who worked on the project, said: “It really shows up that these imaginary racial categories that we have are really very modern constructions, or very recent constructions, that really are not applicable to the past at all.”
Yoan Diekmann, a computational biologist at University College London and another member of the project’s team, agreed, saying the connection often drawn between Britishness and whiteness was “not an immutable truth. It has always changed and will change.”
What would be cool is if Cheddar Man changes how modern media depicts ancient Europeans and ancient people in general; will this allow for more diverse casting and more in depth storylines, or will Hollywood and British cinema ignore these findings? I hope they don’t, because how cool would it be to see Idris Elba as an ancient European in a period film?
2. Is this Nefertiti the actual Nefertiti?
Another reconstruction making waves is Nefertiti. The Nefertiti we know is the famous bust discovered in 1912, sculpted by the official royal sculptor Thutmose, whose style was decided naturalistic despite him being a part of the highly stylistic and androgynous Amarna Period of Egyptian art. As you can see in the photo below, Nefertiti’s look is defined by a graceful long neck, full lips, a straight, thin nose, and deep tan skin.
This isn’t the only Nefertiti sculpture Thutmose created; a granite statue of Nefertiti showcases the same facial features as the more popular bust.
So, when this new bust was revealed on Today, people naturally scratched their heads in disbelief. This new bust, which was created after scientists compared historical images of Nefertiti with the facial characteristics of the mummy rumored to be Nefertiti nicknamed “The Younger Lady.” But as you can see below, this bust looks nothing like what Thutmose sculpted eons ago.
Not every expert is on board with declaring the Younger Lady is actually Nefertiti. Raymond Johnson, director of the Epigraphic Survey project and Research Associate and Associate Professor at the University of Chicago in the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Department, told WGN9 he disbelieves the claim and went into detail as to why the Younger Lady doesn’t line up with what Egyptologists know about Nefertiti’s life. He states a lot in his interview, which I suggest your read in full, but here are the main points.
• The Younger Lady, who was buried alongside other familial mummies in Amenhotep’s royal tomb, is actually the daughter of Amenhotep and Queen Tiye, and is also the mother of Tutankhamun. This connection was revealed through leading Egyptologist Zahi Hawass’ DNA testing of the mummies found in the tomb, including the Younger Lady. According to Johnson, there is “no text” where Nefertiti was identified as a royal daughter. “If she had been a daughter of Amenhotep III and Tiye, it would have been clearly stated in her inscriptions, and there are hundreds of text that survive mentioning Nefertiti with no mention of her parents.”
• All of the sculptures of Nefertiti from the Amarna Period show the same facial characteristics–“a straight nose, heavy-lidded eyes, long graceful neck, and a strong square jaw.” As Johnson states, “The forensically reconstructed face with its narrow skull, deep-set eyes, and triangular jaw is beautiful but in no way resembles the portraits that survive of Nefertiti. That said, they could be relatives.” Johnson believes they could be cousins instead.
• As “the gateway out of the African continent,” Egypt has always had a racially diverse citizenry, and Amenhotep III had many wives who were both Egyptian and foreign, including Caucasian women. But, said Johnson, Nefertiti’s skintone would still be darker than how it’s presented in the recreation. “A brown skin color would have probably been more true to the individual represented, and to her times.”
So with all of this said, what do I think about this bust? I think that, while being expertly rendered, it doesn’t match up to what Thutmose sculpted, and he was actually there during her life. If anyone should know what she looked like, it should be him. Granted, there could be some artistic liberties; some of the characteristics of the Amarna Period include highly feminine features and royalty were usually depicted as youthful, regardless of their age. But Thutmose is notable in that he sculpted the middle aged and elderly as well as the young. He even sculpted an older Nefertiti, depicting the changes her body underwent from birthing children. To be fair, this could have been stylistic as well, to showcase fertility, but if that’s the case, why create the other sculptures, which look true to life?
Another caveat is that perhaps for royalty, Thutmose combined both reality and fantasy. Despite the realism present, there are still stylistic elements that can be found in the Nefertiti bust. The symmetry of the face, for one, could be read as a calculated artistic choice. The huge eyebrows, which might have been painted on the real Nefertiti (since ancient Eygptians filled in and exaggerated their real eyebrows with makeup) add to the symmetry and perfection of the sculpture. It could be that the bust we know and love is just an old-school version of FaceTune. That’s a theory that could be truer than we think, since sarcophogi, such as the sarcophagus of King Tutankhamun is also artistically stylized and doesn’t reflect all of what’s shown in the reconstructions of Tutankhamun, as pictured below.
I personally don’t want to believe everything from Thutmose’s workshop was a lie, though. Nefertiti’s beauty was heralded in her time as much as it is now, which leads me to believe there’s more truth to the iconic bust than fakery. If Thutmose captured beauty, then I’m sure she was actually beautiful in real life. The Younger Lady doesn’t look bad, though. I will say from looking at one of the reconstructions of King Tut that the Younger Lady is most definitely his mother. They have the same overbite, jaw structure, and eye socket structure.
To address the skin color issue: Ancient Egyptians’ skintones were clearly documented by artists contemporary to the times. Artists of the Coptic Period engaged in realism when painting subjects such as the subjects depicted in the Fayum mummy portraits, which showcased men and women with dark hair and tan skin.
There are also other reconstructions of ancient Egyptians. Here’s another reconstruction of Tutankhamun published in National Geographic in 2005–this one is a little more favorable to him in the looks department and more closely matches some of the sculptures made of him during his life. In this reconstruction, his skin tone is definitely a dark tan.
Here’s another reconstruction, this time of a woman nicknamed “Meritamun.” The reconstruction includes information gathered from modern day Egyptians, which you can assume includes skintone.
Based on the other reconstructions and mummy portraits, as well as a Google search of images of modern-day Egyptians, it seems like what’s throwing people off is the undertone used for the Younger Lady’s skintone reconstruction. Yes, there were olive-toned Egyptians; with a port empire like Egypt, leading to a cross-cultural mix, there had to have been a myriad of skintones among Egyptians. But the Younger Lady’s undertone is probably a smidge too pink, which lends the eye to read it as “European” or, like how some called it online, “white.” Meanwhile, the other reconstructions, statues, and paintings from ancient Egypt show people with yellow and neutral undertones. While the Younger Lady does have a touch of yellow in her undertone, the pink is affecting how the yellow would affect the overall skintone.
But I actually hesitate to call this reconstruction of the Younger Lady “white.” Again, there were a myriad of skintones in ancient Egypt, and while I have some issues with how much pink there is in the Younger Lady’s undertone, it’s still worth understanding that a woman this color wouldn’t necessarily be out of place in ancient Egypt. She might look “white,” but it doesn’t mean she’d be out of place. If it turns out her skintone was actually this color, undertones and all, her skin also wouldn’t make her any less African.
What do you think about these reconstructions? Give your opinions in the comments section below!
A significant portion of the NFL’s fan base has reacted negatively to the national anthem protests of the past year. The responses tend to follow a pattern:
The stadium is no place for political protest. The game is a color-blind meritocracy. To protest football is to protest America.
But according to a study we published last year, white football fans and black football fans hold very different views about the relationship between football and national pride. And it might explain why there have been such divergent, emotional responses to the protests.
Black Americans love football, but…
Social scientists who study sports have long argued that sports are a powerful political stage. Popular wisdom, on the other hand, tends to maintain that sports are inherently apolitical, and should remain that way.
It’s true that until recently, visible black protests in American sports were rare. Yes, Muhammad Ali was outspoken about politics and became a symbol of black protest in the 1960s. And there’s the famous instance of Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists in the 1968 Olympic Games. But generally, athletes have not waded into politics, no doubt in part because of the influence of corporate interests and sponsors. (Michael Jordan, when asked why he wouldn’t endorse a black Democratic candidate for Senate in 1990, famously said, “Republicans buy shoes too.”)
So for many white fans, the racial issues addressed by the protests upend what they see as the innocent, colorless patriotism of football.
But for black fans, feelings of alienation toward the imposed patriotism in NFL games have been stewing for a while. And it may be that black athletes finally decided to respond to the attitudes of their black fans.
In our study, we aggregated 75 opinion polls between 1981 and 2014, and compared the relationship between national pride and football fandom among white and black Americans.
We found that since the early 1980s, national pride has been in decline among American men and women of all races. But among black men, this decline has been especially sharp. At the same time, it’s also been accompanied by a marked increase in their interest in the NFL.
We suspect that this inverse relationship isn’t coincidental.
Which Americans do patriotic displays speak to?
For decades, the league and broadcasting networks have conflated football with patriotism. Massive American flags get spread across the field before the game, celebrities sing highly produced renditions of the national anthem, military jets streak across the skies and teams routinely honor veterans and active service members.
Networks air segments about the players’ lives and team histories that emphasize racial integration and national unity. They also promote the narrative that hard work and following the rules lead to success on the field – the crux of the American Dream.
Indeed, our study did show that enthusiasm for football and national pride are interrelated.
But the nature of this relationship depends on your race.
Only among white Americans did we find a positive association between football fandom and national pride: Football fans were much more likely to express high levels of national pride than white Americans who weren’t football fans. Among African-Americans, on the other hand, there was a negative association. This suggests that when black fans watch their favorite team play, it’s a very different type of experience.
And this was happening long before Colin Kaepernick decided to take a knee.
Black identity and American identity
W.E.B Du Bois once observed that for black Americans, a fundamental tension exists between their American identities and their black identities. We now know from other studies that African-Americans tend to see themselves as less “typically American” than other races. Meanwhile, among white Americans there’s a common tendency to link American national identity with whiteness.
It could be that the symbols of American national pride – so visible during football games – give white fans the chance to unite their national pride with their fandom. To them, the fact that African-Americans make up between 65 and 69 percent of all NFL players is simply part of the country’s ethos of “inclusion.”
But for black fans, the overrepresentation of African-American athletes might mean something else. Football broadcasts can create highly visible opportunities to express black prowess, pride and resistance. At the same time, watching wildly successful black players on the football field might sharpen the contrast of racial injustice off the field.
Meanwhile, studies have shown that the more black Americans emphasize their blackness, the less likely they are to have patriotic feelings.
Together, this could create a situation where black fans are prone to reject the popular national narrative that links football to a wider, ethnically blind meritocratic order. To many of them, football isn’t connected to any sort of national identity in a positive way, so it’s easier for black fans to press successful black athletes to protest the status quo and use their platforms to address issues of discrimination and inequality.
In other words, even before black athletes started taking an explicit stand, their presence and success on the field created the conditions to question the dominant ideology of a meritocratic, colorblind society. National debates about inequality, police brutality and incarceration clearly resonate with many players, and they’ve been pushed to respond.
Looking at it this way, these protests were only a matter a time.
The indie film industry seems to be where it’s at when it comes to creating highly-inclusive stories, and Gerry Maravilla’s short film Cross is no exception.
The film, which was released last week, features a young man, Cross (Jason Sistona), who is lured into the San Fernando Valley’s world of backyard boxing in order to get enough money to save his mom’s life. It’s a 9-minute tale that quickly draws us into our protagonist’s life, which pits the urge to do whatever it takes to get his mom the life-saving medicine she needs against his reticence to become part of an underground boxing ring. At least he has someone looking out for him–Salvador (Daniel Edward Mora), his co-worker and friend.
One of the big draws to the film is Maravilla’s insistence that the film reflect his experiences growing up in the Valley.
“Growing up Mexican-American in the San Fernando Valley, I never really saw myself or my friends represented in the movies. I attended a high school that was predominantly Latino and Filipino,” said Maravilla in a statement. “Every other Tuesday we’d get out two hours earlier than normal. Kids would get together at a friend’s house to box without getting into trouble with deans, teachers or parents. While photographing my two closest friends sparring in the backyard, I snapped an image that grew into a larger story about trying to find your way into a profession that you have no connections to, while also balancing responsibilities to your family and culture. When it came to write the screenplay based on the image, it felt dishonest and unnecessary to change the races of the characters.”
“I had a unique opportunity to craft a compelling narrative that looked at traditional ideas of masculinity found in both Filipino and Mexican culture,” he continued. “With the help of a talented cast and crew from all different backgrounds, we strived to honestly reflect the people who live in the Valley, people whom have never really been portrayed in film. There are more stories than the ones mainstream Hollywood chooses to focus on. By honing in on cultural specifics and exploring the social and family structures that affect these characters, universal themes and emotions emerge that will connect with audiences of all backgrounds.”
Maravilla said the film was shot as a cross between a noir and a western, but with the suburbs as the backdrop. Indeed, the decision to make this short film in a non-traditional setting and with inclusive characters makes Cross a fun film to lose yourself in. For a short while, you feel like you’ve entered a lived-in world. Since it is based on Maravilla’s childhood, it very much is a lived-in world, one we don’t see enough of on the big screen. It’s clear to see how Cross has touched a positive chord with viewers and film critics; it’s already acquired a slew of accolades.
“My team and I had an extraordinary opportunity to bring a story and characters to the screen that audiences have never seen before,” said Maravilla. “This story has the ability to expands viewer’s frame of reference for two unique cultures and humanize individuals that have seldom had a voice in independent film.”
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is coming out this month, and upon seeing Rihanna as the alluring dancer Bubble in the various trailers, I knew there was something to discuss, particularly how Bubble relates to another black character in a Luc Besson sci-fi film, Chris Tucker’s Ruby Rhod.
How so? You might be saying. Well, from where I’m sitting, having two characters who are at a crossroads between Afrofuturistic empowerment and reductive racial stereotypes begs to be written about. Clearly, these two characters are talking to each other, and deciphering their conversation is one that involves parsing through how blackness, black queerness, and black sexuality are constantly put at war against each other in Western society. These two characters embody that tug of war between ownership and exploitation.
With that said, let’s get into it.
Ruby as a statement—and condemnation—on black queerness
As a character, Ruby Rhod is an absolute conundrum. To put it bluntly, he’s the most singular character in The Fifth Element and certainly one of the most singular in sci-fi films as a whole. As Drew Mackie from UnicornBooty wrote, Ruby Rhod is “a queer-coded character the likes of whom audiences likely hadn’t seen before in a mainstream ‘popcorn’ movie—and by and large haven’t seen since.”
Ben Child for the Guardian breaks Ruby’s character down into even more detail:
“Decked out in extravagant Jean-Paul Gaultier outfits, and spending most of the movie either squealing in high-camp horror at the sight of aliens taking over a luxury intergalactic cruise ship or luring fluttery-eyed space vixens into virtual orgasms merely by his presence, Rhod is a character whose rejection of gender norms is so elevated that they seem to have arrived through a wormhole from the year 3000, never mind 2263 (The Fifth Element’s ostensible time frame). At one point Tucker chooses to be called ‘Miss’ Ruby, and yet there is a definite hint of phallicism in that rock star surname. Moreover, Rhod appears to be the very definition of red-blooded masculinity. Is it any wonder that Prince was the model for the role, with Tucker only recruited once it became clear the purple one was not going to sign on the dotted line?”
Ruby is a fascinating character to dissect because, whether Besson or Tucker realized it, Ruby’s at the center of the intersections of black queerness, black masculinity, and the influence of black American culture on mainstream pop culture.
The thing that’s the most apparent about Ruby, aside from being black, is that he’s most definitely a representation of queerness. I’m specifically using that term because as a character, Ruby doesn’t seem to define himself as straight or gay. While he overtly makes references to heterosexual sex, what with his seduction of the spaceship’s stewardesses, his spectacular rose-lined outfit, eye makeup, and tinted lip gloss suggests he’s subtly giving his time at the opera with Bruce Willis’ Korben Dallas date-like undertones instead of merely a PR opportunity with a contest winner.
Speaking of his clothes, Ruby’s costumes directly reflect his gender-bending and sexually fluid sensibilities. Ruby doesn’t wear mere garments. He wears statements. His leopard print unitard exaggerate the feminine collars of the 1950s while also defining his very masculine bulge. His aforementioned opera outfit veers even more into feminine territory.
Ruby is at once a shining moment of Hollywood’s progressiveness and Hollywood’s tight grip on queer stereotypes.
Saeed Jones wrote for Lambda Literary about the push-and-pull effect he gets from Ruby, one of his favorite characters from the film.
“When I was a teenager obsessed with The Fifth Element, I was devoted to the idea that Ruby Rhod was a gay character who gets to take part in saving the universe. Except Ruby isn’t gay. I didn’t know about the phrase ‘gender bending’ at the time and had no schema for an effeminate male character who has sex with more women in the film than the macho protagonist. Ruby was a kind of man I thought would only be possible light years into the future: funny, black, attractive, fierce, and—most importantly—alive by the end of the movie.”
Yet, Ruby falls into many tropes that intersect with both the obsession of showing “black buffoonery” and “girly” gay men. Ruby’s blend of machismo and femininity is what gives the character power in the scenes where he’s in control. But it’s when the action starts that Ruby’s power dissolves into frantic screams worthy of a fainting couch. He becomes the worst type of damsel-in-distress—one who cowers behind the man, lacking the fortitude to use calm or logic in tense situations.
In one way, it’s daring that The Fifth Element even dared to show a black man—usually thought of as a lumbering, menacing powerhouse—as a lithe, vulnerable character taking on a traditionally femme role. However, that point could have been made more solidly if Ruby didn’t segue into eye-bulges and wacked-out facial expressions that are only reserved for the most buffoonish of black buffoons in media.
As much as Ruby uplifts the narrative of black queerness in the media, he also does just as much to cement a view of gay culture that has been traditionally held by a lot of people in the black community—that being gay or in any way an non-traditional male is the mark of a defective man. A lot of that view is based in a very limited view of Christianity, but the real root seems to be from the black man’s struggle to reclaim and express his masculinity in the first place.
David A. Love wrote in a 2012 opinion piece for The Grio that the traditional black aversion to homosexuality stems from slavery.
“Voices in the black community, particularly black gay men, point to black male insecurity as a root cause of black homophobia. And that insecurity comes directly from slavery. Since then, black men have struggled to get beyond this emasculation and redefine their image. It is for that reason that machismo traditionally has been highly valued among black people, and homosexuality viewed as a threat to black masculinity.”
Ruby plays into that perception of viewing black queerness as a threat—by acting in a cartoonish, stereotypical and racially-charged fashion, Ruby acts as an avatar for the very fears insecure black men have about black male homosexuality. Those fears aren’t crystalized more than when Ruby literally hides in fear behind Korben, the white male secure in his sexuality enough to take charge and lead the scared Ruby to safety.
To go back to Jones’ Lambda Literary article:
“Ruby Rhod troubles me. He explodes into the narrative, black, loud, and out of nowhere. Like the standard Magical Negro, he is functional in service of the film’s white heroes but has little to know story of his own. We know nothing about him except that he’s hilarious, really loud, and sexually promiscuous. When you set aside his costume choices, he’s really not that different from most black comic characters. In fact, he’s almost offensive…I’d rather not think about it.”
Even with that said, Tucker’s performance is one that makes Ruby one of the standouts from The Fifth Element. He’s vivacious, fun, and electric. Tucker takes Ruby seriously as an actor and channels Prince and Michael Jackson into the role, showing that Tucker gets what Ruby’s about. Speaking of Prince, Prince himself was supposed to play Ruby, but couldn’t do to prior tour commitments. If we look at how Prince played The Kid in Purple Rain and Christopher Tracy in Under the Cherry Moon, you have to wonder how Ruby’s gender and sexual explorations would have been played. Would Prince have challenged Besson about Ruby’s reactions to the first sight of danger or would he have gone along with Besson’s vision? I’m not a psychic or a mind reader, but I feel like Prince would have taken it upon himself to Jedi Mind Trick Besson into letting him rewrite the character into someone much more aware and much more willing to punch a bad guy in the face.
How Ruby Rhod gives possible clues to Bubble’s characterization
As of writing this post, we haven’t seen Valerian, so we don’t know much about Bubble. It also seems like she’s not in the original 1960s French comic books, so we don’t even have canon to draw from. But there are some things we can glean from the trailer from how Ruby Rhod was characterized in The Fifth Element.
Firstly, we see that there’s still the theme of blackness relating to entertainment in some way. Ruby’s claim to fame was being the universe’s most popular radio show host. Bubble’s claim to fame is being what outlets such as Billboard described as an “alien stripper,” but what other outlets have described as an “entertainer.” The idea seems to be that in Besson’s future, blackness is frequently tethered to—or defined by—the objectification and maybe even exploitation that comes with celebrity.
Both Ruby and Bubble are definitely cornerstones in their own universe’s cultures, and for that they are both exalted and exploited for things folks always expect black people to be good at—making music, dancing, and being sexual. They’re both enigmatic people and cariactures of our society’s incessant obsession with the black body, black sexuality, and black talent.
To further illustrate what I’m trying to say, I’ll use one of France’s most famous entertainers, Josephine Baker, as an example. She comes to mind for me because of the fact that eroticism featured heavily in her dance performances. Racial commentary also featured heavily—she often had a push-and-pull between exploiting racial stereotypes and subverting them in her acts. Her most famous act, in which she’s nude except for some sandals, necklaces, and her banana skirt, portrays knowledge of the hyper-sexual black “native” woman stereotype. She uses this stereotype to her advantage, but still, it showcases the Western obsession with the black body. In her acts, Baker becomes less of a dancer and more of an object, funneling all of Western society’s sexual fantasies about blackness into her performances.
Just from the trailers, Bubble seems to be a character at that same intersection. The only caveat is that it’s unclear just how much power she has over her own sexuality. In that respect, Ruby is more like Baker than Bubble is; we do see Ruby use his sexual prowess to his advantage (and, strangely enough, Ruby’s leopard suit brings up an animalism that is also apparent in Baker’s costumes).
How much can we expect to learn about Bubble in Valerian if we still don’t know a lot about Ruby 20 years after The Fifth Element’s release? I would say we should expect to learn nothing except that she’ll more than likely be defined by her singing and dancing talent, her sexuality—not only as an exotic dancer, but as a black woman, a race of women who have always been objectified and defined solely by sexual stereotypes. In fact, to use Jones’ words, having Bubble as a black woman whose main purpose for the film is to be used for her body is “almost offensive.” If Ruby was defined by stereotypes and not by motivations, it makes sense to expect that Bubble will also be a poorly-defined character.
However, I could be wrong. Like I wrote above, we haven’t seen the film yet. But if you’re going to see Valerian, take special care of how you view Bubble. At the very least, make sure to take care of her in your mind the same way many take care of Ruby Rhod.
When I watched Netflix’s latest success, GLOW, what I expected was to see a faithful-to-the-ugly-’80s dramedy about the makings of real-life ’80s wrestling show GLOW: Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. I expected a focus on strong women, which there was. But what I didn’t expect was a sneak attack of much-needed racial commentary.
One of the show’s overarching themes is how much racial stereotyping and trope plays into the world of entertainment wrestling. Racial and ethnic stereotypes have been an often-overlooked, but integral part of entertainment wrestling’s success, such as The Iron Sheik, Samoa Joe, Sheamus, Latin Lover, Sabu, Mexican America, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and G-Rilla, the original gangsta character George Murdoch (aka WWE’s Brodus Clay and Impact Wrestling’s Tyrus) adopted to start his career. Stereotypes of all forms play a part in wresting’s personas, from the hillbilly character of Bubba Ray Dudley and the gimmicky play on Hornswoggle‘s height as a little person to the cartoonish, flamboyant “macho man” brashness of Hulk Hogan, Bret Hart, and Randy Savage and spoiled brattiness of “The Miracle” Mike Bennett and his wife, “The First Lady of Wrestling” Maria Kanellis Bennett, to the self-explanatory nature of The Honky Tonk Man.
The show explores exactly why stereotypes are seen as means to an end in the world of wrestling–it’s easy to create a character. Unlike how director Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron) was trying to create an indie subversive treatise on the patriarchy with characters who needed a lot of backstory, there is no need for characters with layers in professional wrestling. The ease of stereotypes, especially the racial ones, allow for the audience to quickly understand who a character is and what their motivations are in one sentence (or in some cases, no sentences at all). Carmen Wade (Britney Young) is part Cherokee, but instead, her character is the Incan gentle giant Machu Picchu, with simultaneously plays on Carmen’s lovable demeanor and the stereotype of the wise, ancient, “medicine woman” type. Reggie Walsh (Marianna Palka) plays on a mish-mash of Viking and Nordic stereotypes as Vicky the Viking, who pillages towns.
Beirut (Sunita Mani) is, in wrestling terms, a “heel” by playing on the “brown-as-terrorist” stereotype that was reinforced within the season thanks to a newscast of Lebanese terrorists who held a U.S. plane hostage. It doesn’t matter that the character behind Beruit, Arthie Premkumar, isn’t actually Lebanese. Welfare Queen (Kia Stevens) spoke to the image white America had (or still has) of the poor black woman–that she’s actually a lazy slob living in wealth thanks to taking advantage of the government. It doesn’t matter that the character’s real persona, Tammé Dawson, actually worried about if her son, who is getting an Ivy League education, might be made fun of or, worse, that her son could actually come to resent her playing on all the stereotypes they’ve worked to disavow. Fortune Cookie aka Jenny Chey (Ellen Wong) is actually Cambodian, but what’s important is that she wrap up all of America’s dis-ease with the Vietnam War and its growing tension with communist China in one small bamboo hat-wearing package.
The ultimate heel of the show, Zoya the Destroyer aka Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie) plays heavily on America’s fear of Soviet Russia. Does it matter that “Zoya” isn’t actually Russian? Nope. All that matters is that she portrays every Russian stereotype to the nth degree. The same goes for Liberty Belle aka Debbie Eagan (Betty Gilpin), who has to play up every nasty stereotype about “The Good U.S. of A.,” which includes believing White Jesus is an American citizen, that apple pie reflects patriotism (even though it’s actually Dutch in origin), and that blonde and white equals pure and “All-American.”
However, stereotyping is quickly shown to be a double-edged sword; while it might be easy to get your characters out, it also opens the fans, particularly those who don’t realize the gag, to use the stereotypes as an excuse to showcase their racism. The best example of this is in the final episode, when Arthie gets spit on and heckled with racial epithets. The fact that she’s playing up the terrorist stereotype could be, if we’re using Sam and producer Bash’s (Chris Lowell) lenses, subverting the stereotype itself and taking the power away from that image by mocking the absurdity of the stereotype. But the audience for wrestling isn’t thinking about writing a thesis on stereotype subversion. What ends up happening is that there are some fans who believe whatever is put in front of them, and if they see a stereotype of a terrorist, they feel justified in hurling racial slurs. What happens to Arthie is exactly what Tammé and Junk Chain aka Cherry Bang (Sydelle Noel) discuss one-on-one; how will they know if the audience is in on the joke and laughing with them instead of laughing at them?
The first season of GLOW sets up for a second season that seems ripe to dig deeper into the emotional fallout the wrestlers will go through when it comes to playing up stereotypes. We were left with a question mark on whether Cherry would continue with the group, seeing how she aced an audition for a lead part on a TV procedural. The procedural itself seems to still be in line with Cherry’s blaxploitation past, but still, it’s miles better for her than the work she’s putting out as Junk Chain. For her, she’d finally be seen as a legitimate actress, not a B-movie star. Arthie might have a love for TV wrestling, but that love might pale in comparison to the amount of inner turmoil she’s already facing after her first TV match. Ruth is naively oblivious to the fact that she’s not portraying Russians as actual Russians, something made clear when she went with the hotel owner to his family’s gathering. But she’s primed and ready for a huge inner dilemma next season. Tammé hasn’t had to face her son yet, but with GLOW’s growing popularity, she’ll certainly have to.
As The Atlantic‘s Dion Beary wrote in the 2014 article, Pro Wrestling is Fake, but Its Race Problem Isn’t, it’s the behind-the-scenes dilemmas that are the real draw for wrestling fans, since what happens in real life is often woven into the on-screen conflicts. And, just like how racial stereotyping and racism itself is a part of GLOW, The WWE was also facing its own issues with racial bias.
Beary detailed how the WWE’s black wrestlers were constantly getting beaten in the ring, from “jobbers”–wrestlers whose main job is to be beaten–and veteran wrestlers alike, like Big E and “The World’s Strongest Man” Mark Henry. All of this highlights the fact that in its then-62 years, the federation had yet to crown a black wrestler the winner of the WWE Championship, the highest honor in the federation.
The article focuses on a 2003 WWE match to make its point. WWE’s RAW World Champion was Triple H, and the underdog looking to take him on was Booker T, a black wrestler.
“‘Somebody like you doesn’t get to be a world champion,’ Triple H told Booker T during a promo, a segment meant to build excitement for a match. Triple H made mention of Booker’s ‘Nappy hair,’ and claimed Booker was in the WWE to make people laugh, to be an entertainer rather than a competitor, to ‘do a little dance’ for him.
The crowd ate it up, and loud ‘ASSHOLE’ chants rained down on Triple H. The next week, Booker T gave an impassioned talk about his past, about how he’s overcome every obstacle that has been put in his way in life, and how he was going to beat the odds again at Wrestlemania 19 to become the world champion. It was, in one sense, brilliant storytelling. Hollywood is chock-full of plots that involve scrappy minorities overcoming racism to accomplish their dreams. With Triple H as the franchise, and the franchise’s job being to eventually lose to the underdog, fans were thoroughly in the corner of Booker T. The storybook ending just made so much sense.
And then Triple H won. 1-2-3. There was no cheating, no controversial finish, non ambiguity about it.
There’s real-life drama and then there’s fictional drama. WWE’s response to allegations of racism, misogyny, homophobia ad ableism have always been the same: It’s fictional. But that excuse wears thin when the fictional racism lines up perfectly with the real-life racism.”
According to Wikipedia, there still hasn’t been a black wrestler crowned as the ultimate champion. However, wrestlers of other minority backgrounds have been crowned throughout the championship’s run in the late ’90s and ’00s, including The Rock, Eddie Guerrero, Yokozuna, Alberto Del Rio, Rey Mysterio, and Batista. Still, the fact remains that in matches such as the one between Triple H and Booker T, racially-laced storylines play a huge part in professional wrestling, much to its detriment.
What’s happening in GLOW not only shines a light on the issues plaguing professional wrestling, but also the acting industry as a whole. The same problem affecting Ruth and the other GLOW women are the same ones affecting actors today–all of the great, meaty roles are given to white men, while everyone else has to make lemonade out of lemon roles, with your success hinging on how much (or how willingly) you lean into your assigned stereotype. But as GLOW shows, even if you happily go into creating the best stereotypical character ever, your reward might be in the form of diminishing returns.
The success of GLOW’s second season will hang on just how much time is devoted to delving into the problems caused by the cast opening up Pandora’s Box of stereotyping. With so much material to mine, from the world of professional wrestling to the real life actresses’ own stories of offensive casting and other Hollywood horrors, it’d be to GLOW‘s detriment if it doesn’t hold Hollywood down in a headlock in Season 2.
Another day, another whitewashing controversy. This one has been brewing for some days now, and it involves a historical film called Ni’ihau.
The film is based on a true story of a Japanese WWII pilot crash landing on Hawaii, where he was taken in by local leader Ben Kanahele. Here’s the full scoop from Deadline:
…Shigenori Nishikaichi, an Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service pilott, crash-landed his Zero on the eponymous Hawaiian island after participating in the attack on Pearl Harbor. [Zach] McGowan will play Ben Kanahele, an island leader who saves Nishikaichi before learning his part in the attack. When the circumstances became apparent, Nishikaichi was apprehended but received assistance from locals, taking hostages and attempting to overcome his captors. Kanahele ultimately killed Nishikaichi and was decorated for his part in stopping the takeover.
The Ni’ihau Incident led to President Franklin D. Roosevelt issuing Executive Order 9066, which led directly to the mass internment of 119,803 Japanese-American men, women and children until the end of the war.
27 Ten Productions’ Ken Petrie said that with this film being a true story, “there is a weight to be shouldered, and the material requires the utmost care and authenticity.” But apparently, we’re expected to accept Black Sails‘ Zach McGowan as Ben Kanahele. Hasn’t anyone learned anything from the outrage seen around the whitewashing in Ghost in the Shell, The Great Wall, Doctor Strange, Aloha, and plenty of other films?
Also, it looks like the film is shaping up to be told in a classic “John Wayne film” way. With McGowan playing the heroic leader (similar to how Wayne played POC historical heroes), it seems like the casting will go towards having a Japanese actor to play Nishikaichi, the villain. That way, they can have the white hero killing the Asian antagonist, saving the day and the native Hawaiian population (who will, of course, be played by actual native Hawaiians).
Do I need to talk at length about what’s wrong? It should be clear by now, especially if you read the articles linked above. This kind of ish has got to stop because now it’s getting ridiculous.
I’ll let Twitter speak for me because I’m tired.
This is whitewashing, plain and simple. AND IT IS COMPLETE BULLSHIT. https://t.co/KbFFMSlrTl
— Angry Asian Man (@angryasianman) May 10, 2017
But wait, you say. Movies need marketable stars. That's why Zach McGowan is playing a Native Hawaiian. BUT WHO THE FUCK IS ZACH MCGOWAN.
— Angry Asian Man (@angryasianman) May 10, 2017
— Laura (@lsirikul) May 9, 2017
Zach McGowan is gonna play Hawaii native Ben Kanahele in the film Ni’ihau… Getting a light tan makes you able to play PoC in Hollywood… pic.twitter.com/irmuKRgVJR
— nerdy (@nerdyasians) May 10, 2017
— The Nerds of Color (@TheNerdsofColor) May 15, 2017
— Mike Cherry (@MikeCherry808) May 10, 2017