Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Lady Instructor Suffers for YOU

I finally did something that I've been avoiding - I watched Precious. And it was just as depressing and infuriating as I expected it to be, but I made myself watch it with the intent that I could write a blog entry about it, in the hopes that spewing my opinions into space would somehow provide catharsis.

Yes, I know, I'm such a poor little white person who is whining about just watching something that is some people's lives.

Anyway, for the three people who weren't paying attention (unlikely that those three will intersect with the three who read this blog, but oh well), Precious, based on the book Push by Sapphire, is about a black, obese 16 year old who is pregnant for the second time (a product of her father raping her), reading at a 2nd grade level, and physically abused daily by her mother. Oh, and she's living on welfare in the ghetto. Oh, and she's HIV positive.

This is the type of story where just as you're thinking "THIS CANNOT GET ANY WORSE", things get worse. Did I mention the HIV? Oh, and her oldest daughter is named Mongoloid and has Down's Syndrome.

This movie is like the physical representation of intersectionality (called "Double Jeopardy") in the textbook I use for my class, which is a dumb term because it implies that no one belongs to more than one minority group, but I digress). Intersectionality occurs when an individual is disadvantaged by belonging to more than one minority group - in Precious' case, she is black, poor, a woman, and fat. Each is a strike against her, and if three strikes are out, imagine what four is like.

I wondered as I went into the movie if my viewing of it would be biased by the utterly fantastic Gabourey Sidibe (playing Precious), who was not an actress before auditioning for this movie and who has released a series of interviews in which she is fabulous, funny, and utterly unapologetic about her weight despite the best attempts of all to suggest that she should be. In short, I have kind of a girl crush on her. I also very much enjoy Mo'Nique (playing Precious' mother Mary), particularly after she did not shave her legs before attending the Golden Globes in a floaty knee length dress. However, both women handle these parts fantastically, particularly Mo'Nique who almost makes you feel sorry for a woman who has allowed her boyfriend to abuse his daughter for 13 years and who beats and sexually abuses Precious on a daily basis.

This movie also features Mariah Carey with no makeup on! In frumpy clothes! Playing an overworked and ineffective social worker. In one hilarious exchange, Precious asks Mariah's character what race she is. Mariah coyly responds, "what race do you think I am?" Precious refuses to answer. A perfect summation of our fascination with and embarrassment about classifying everyone in our culture.

As I watched Precious as she is admitted to an alternative school and begins to change her life circumstances for the better, I wondered how my students would respond to this movie. I thought immediately of two negative reactions that I can imagine some having:

1) Perfect example of how black people harm themselves through their lifestyle. Mary is abusing welfare by claiming both Precious and Mongoloid as dependents, even though "Mongo" lives with her great-grandmother and Mary certainly is providing a dangerous home life for Precious and not bothering to better herself or look for a job. Without a historical understanding of how black people have become an urban underclass, or the belief that there is such a thing as institutional racism, Mary's predicament becomes entirely her own fault.

2) This is so over the top that it can't actually be real. Or, alternatively, this is a typical black experience. Precious has been criticized for presenting such a bleak view of life in the ghetto, with the perspective that no, this is not a typical or even a common life for black people in America, even those who live in the ghetto. And that criticism is accurate. However, I think that the movie itself addresses those concerns. Precious' terrible circumstances are shocking to everyone - the social worker, the tireless teacher at the alternative school who becomes Precious' hero - people who see the worst the ghetto has to offer. They are not presented as common or everyday.

Authors of stories about minorities are often accused of not representing an accurate experience of that group in whatever society they are writing about. This isn't fair - we don't ask that stories about white people represent every white person's experience. Sapphire chose to tell a story about one individual trapped in a horrific situation and we shouldn't demand of her that she tell the story of all black people everywhere. The reactions of outsiders (who are either black or ambiguous, like Mariah, but who are not white) give us all the clues we should need that Precious does not represent the experience of all ghetto inhabitants.

But she does represent the experience of some, or combines the experience of many. Poverty, poor schooling, sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, rape, teenage motherhood, bullying - perhaps few young black women experience all of these, but many experience some of these. And we can examine Precious' story to see how intersectionality contributed to her situation.

Let's say, for example, that Precious wasn't poor, wasn't black, wasn't fat, wasn't a woman. How would those modifications have altered her story? Could this story happen to a middle class white man? Well, sure. Barring the pregnancy part. Would it be as likely to happen to a middle class white man? Arguably, no, it wouldn't. Middle class white children are more likely to be protected by the system instead of oppressed by the system.

So here I am walking a tightrope. I argue that Precious represents an exception, but then argue that she also represents a system of oppression shared by a much larger group of people than if we examine the experience of middle-class white men. So which is it? Precious represents the worst excesses of a system that systematically oppresses poor black women. She is the poster child for the way our society fails these groups, and in Precious' case she has been failed almost completely (at least until the point the movie begins). She is the exception and the norm, representing neither, underscoring both.

And she is strong. "Yesterday I cried." She says. "But fuck that day. That's why God or whoever makes new days."


  1. I cried the first time I watched "Coach." I don't think I need to actually see this one, but thank you for the synopsis. You raise a lot of interesting questions to think about.