Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Akira, Shakespeare, Whitewashing, and Racebending

The triannual threat from Hollywood to make a live-action Akira movie has once again reared its ugly head. In years past, it's always been made very clear that they intend to make an "American" version with an entirely white cast. This is, of course, horrible. Akira is a deeply Japanese manga. The culture described is based very firmly in Japanese youth culture of the era in which it was written. The plot is a reflection of cultural memory of the atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Translating it into American culture is deeply problematic and difficult, and that's even assuming anyone involved gives even the slightest shit about doing any more than saying "It's set in Manhattan now, and everyone's white." Which is what's going to happen if this abomination ever gets made (it won't.)

But one of the arguments I see people make in favor of that treatment (and, horrifically, they exist) is that cultures all over the world get to do their own version of Shakespeare! That's something that's ours, as white people, dammit, why do they get to do it?

Oh my goodness, what an argument. Let's put aside the issue of cultural appropriation and its intrinsic ties to power differentials and colonialism- that colonialism impresses its own culture on other people's by choice and then steals from them by force and hegemonic pressure. I mean, that's a really big elephant to put aside, but I'm not the best at discussing that and it's not a topic people who would be making the Shakespeare argument would even believe in anyway.

I am, however, pretty good at discussing history, and motherfucker you just put Shakespeare and race in the same discussion so yes, let's discuss that.

There's two Shakespearean plays where a person of color is a prominent, even titular, protagonist: Antony and Cleopatra, and Othello. Of the two, Othello is the more interesting and is widely celebrated as one of his best tragedies. The 1965 film version is the single most critically rewarded film adaptation of a Shakespearean play. It's survived largely unchanged for over 400 years.

In it, Othello is a Moorish captain in Venice, in love with an Italian woman, while forces conspire to keep them apart, succeeding in tragic fashion (spoiler alert). Themes of racial and cultural divides are central to the story. Othello's actual racial identity is much debated, as the Moors were a very cosmopolitan people in Elizabethean times. Some contend he was of Arabic descent, others say he was of sub-Saharan descent- in any case he was certainly a person of color.

It probably goes without saying that Shakespeare did not actually cast a Moor as Othello. His players were 100% white English dudes, including the women (basically, they were Monty Python.) There's some debate as to whether Shakespeare had ever even met a Moor. So, naturally it was played in blackface. In fact, an actor of color did not play Othello until 1826- 261 years after it was written. Richard Burbage took the stage to play the Moor in London and his presence was about as well received as you can imagine:
Unsurprisingly given the times, there was considerable resistance to the presence of the world's first black Othello. Eighteenth century London was the epicentre of Britain's pro-slavery lobby, and the press conducted a campaign of blatant racism against him. In one of his two Othello performances at the Covent Garden theatre in 1833, The Atheneum objected to actress Ellen Tree as Desdemona, being "pawed about on the stage by a black man." The Times newspaper had been just as scathing eight years prior, when it commented that, "Owing to the shape of his lips it is utterly impossible for him to pronounce English."
Of course, this was England, where racial issues were certainly present, but not quite a fraught as in America.  In fact, in America, a racially correct Othello wasn't seen until 100 years later in 1943, when Paul Robeson played the character.

And then, we come to Hollywood. You'd think, okay, the first black film actor to play Othello couldn't have come too long after the first American stage actor. Oh, gosh, you would think huh?

1995. Laurence Fishburne. That wildly celebrated 1965 version I mentioned earlier? Sir Lawrence Olivier in blackface. In Nineteen. Sixty. Goddamn. Five. That's only 50 years ago and he was nominated for an Oscar for his blackface.

So yeah. Let's goddamn bring Shakespeare into the race conversation, because it's not really helping the "WOO WHITE PEOPLE" side over here.

In more positive news, Neil Gaiman's American Gods is being adapted for TV by Bryan Fuller (creator of Dead Like Me, Pushing Daisies, and Hannibal). Production is starting as soon as they cast the protagonist- Shadow.

Like Othello, Shadow is described as having dark skin- certainly a person of color. He is however, left very racially ambiguous. Many people assume he's black, other people picture a more Hispanic character- I feel like he probably looks racially ambiguous, owing to the themes of America's role in taking the cultures and gods of immigrants and stripping them away into nothingness, forcing them to leave behind their identity.

At any rate, Fuller had this to say about casting him:
I think if we cast a white man to play Shadow we would be the biggest assholes on television...
One of the things I’m most excited about for American Gods is the diversity in the cast because there’s such a wide range of ethnic Gods in the world. Right now, we’re imagining two white roles and everybody else is non-white, so my goal, Michael’s goal, certainly Neil’s goal has been to have a very ethnically diverse cast. That’s important to all of us.
Right. On.

Monday, June 15, 2015

On Blogging with Privilege

I spend a lot of time thinking about why the hell I blog (for the three weeks out of the year that I do). I don't consider myself or my opinions particularly important. But I still (occasionally) write things. Part of it is feeling like I should be writing more. Just the act of writing encourages better writing and even if it's terrible, sucking at something is the first step to being kinda good at something.

But then there's the issue of what I tend to write about. It's no secret that I'm a cis white dude. But a lot of what I write are opinions and analysis of feminisms and racisms and other social justice-y things. Why the hell does another white dude's opinion on any of this matter, even if it's from the perspective of an ally?

Puppy unrelated.

It's totally a question I find myself wondering anytime I write anything related. Am I adding anything meaningful to the conversation? Is it even possible for me to add anything meaningful?

I feel like one way I can answer that is: I'm not necessarily part of the larger conversation. Yes, this blog is public, but I don't want to inject it into a conversation where my presence has not been requested. It's a place where I can converse with myself. Where I have a record of thoughts and can look back and decide whether or not I agree with myself still. Really, I have to lack any anticipation of anyone caring (not hard!)

In that sense, it's easier to blog. I'm just talking to myself publicly. But why do I need to do it publicly?

Maybe it's because it'll be easier to link my thoughts? Maybe it's easier to be called out when I'm wrong. I like that second one. Because I'm totally and easily capable of being wrong and if someone comes across me being wrong and tells me I'm wrong, that means I could be more right later on. Which is good. So maybe that's the value? I have a corner of the internet where I talk to myself about things I find important. If someone listens in, they can point out flaws in my logic. If no one listens in, that's okay too.

I don't know why it took me that long to figure that out.

Friday, June 12, 2015

On "Transvestite"

I recently came across someone mentioning online that the word 'transvestite' has fallen out of favor. At first, I was a little confused. I can understand it being largely inappropriate- after all, it can be easily incorrectly used to identify a transgender person, implying they are merely dressing as the opposite gender but aren't truly that gender. But it seemed to me it still had value as a word- after all, Eddie Izzard. A man, firmly identifying as a man, wearing women's clothes and makeup.

Kitty image irrelevant to post.
But it occurs to me that if Eddie is a man, wearing his own clothes, aren't they men's clothes? They belong to a man. They're not worn by anyone other than a man. How are they possibly women's clothes? And if they're not women's clothes, he's just a man with a particular style, like pretty much every other man.

Of course, I'm not actually saying Eddie isn't allowed to have his own identification as an executive transvestite. It's just not something I'd ever really sat down and thought too much about before. It just became bizarre to me that things can belong to a gender. If you don't sew up the middle of those lower body garments, that's a woman's skirt. What if a man owns it and wears it? Nope, it still belongs to some mysterious theoretical woman who might come claim it someday. You've been warned, damn you! So maybe there's no real value to the word 'transvestite' after all- it describes a person who, ideally, doesn't need to be described at all.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

On MMOs, And Why I Play Them Then Forget Them

I've never been good at sticking with playing MMORPGs. I've tried tons. WoW, LoTRO, Rift, WildStar, The Old Republic, Star Trek Online...but I never stick with them, no matter how much I keep trying. And, yet, I keep trying. Something keeps compelling me.

When I was 6 or 7 I found Gemstone 3 on Prodigy. Gemstone 3 was a MUD, the text-based precursor to MMOs. I was enthralled. I was always a nerdy kid, I loved the Chronicles of Prydain and The Hobbit, and I took to the opportunity to explore a fantasy world with other people like a fish to water. Simutronics, the creator of the game, at one point was creating a game called Archmage, which was supposed to be a graphical version of their MUDs. The idea was mindboggling, that you could have that many people playing the same game and actually see the world instead of reading it. It never came to fruition, though, and my video game interests turned console-ward with Final Fantasy 3 and Earthbound spurring the charge, though I always maintained a love of MUDs.

Fast forward a decade and a half and I'm on WoW. Initially, I get the same thrill as those old days. So many people to talk to. So many places to explore.

Unfortunately, something began to creep around the corners of my mind. I wasn't competing with the other players directly, like PvP so often does even (especially?) in MUDs. I was competing to beat the game first. Suddenly it just snapped from exploring to a rich world full of interesting people to "I'm playing a video game that I have to deal with other people in." People who troll and harass you. People who you have to rely on to complete tasks but we're merely playing a game together.

It killed the magic. It was just a game. A game with a win condition. Sure, the win condition was updated every so often, but then I thought back to the MUDs I loved. There was never a win condition. There was no such thing as "endgame". You made what you wanted out of the game. You decided what your character's journey was, the life you wanted to live, and you strove for it. In that sense, you were always exploring new territory. You were always reading new stories and you weren't playing a game with people, you were genuine collaborators, doing something new and special every time.

From beginning to end, every character has pretty much the same story in any MMO. Best case scenario, you're devoting huge amounts of time in your life to be one of the first ones to finish the story. There's no magic there, there's just achievement chasing.

But I keep chasing that thrill of exploring a new world. And I keep running into the same game. The same goals. The same disappointment.