Tuesday, July 27, 2010

It's Not Interesting Unless It Happens to White People

My archaeological expedition is almost finished for the summer (yay, no more 60 hour work weeks!), and soon I will be back home and teaching again. I suspect that my class load this upcoming semester may be light (sigh), which is good for you, because it means I will be able to post more often.

In this edition: Things That Happen To White People Are Alarming! And Scary! (but not so much when the same things happen to POC, particularly if they are poor and especially if they live outside the western world.)

There is something of a theory in Hollywood that if you want to appeal to a universal audience, you must use a white male. The theory goes that men won't identify with a female character, and whites won't identify with a non-white character, and so if you want your movie to do well ($), stick a white guy in there. This is particularly noticeable and annoying when the subject of the movie is, supposedly, POC.

The script is tired and repetitive. Because white and male stands for "neutral" in our culture, it is assumed that no one will care about a movie - even one with really awesome special effects and like shit blowing up and stuff - unless the main character is white and male. You know, someone that everyone can imagine themselves being.

Cough cough.

Let's look at the dying-native-culture genre as a repeat offender. This is the type of movie that shows a noble culture struggling against (usually white) oppressive outside forces. From first glance, still slightly problematic but not too bad, right? But the main character, the one who fights to preserve the dignity and culture of the oppressed peoples, can't actually be a member of the culture. That would be silly.

The white male usually becomes a part of the non-white culture, develops a crushing case of white guilt, and ends up championing the POC group as they (often, sadly, unsuccessfully) combat the white forces which oppose them. AND THEN WE FEEL SAD ABOUT HISTORY. THANKS FOR MAKING US UNDERSTAND POC THROUGH WHITE PEOPLE, HOLLYWOOD.

Examples? The classic of course is Dances With Wolves. I sobbed during this movie, by the way. Culture being overrun? The Sioux. Main character and redemptive hero? Kevin Costner. (Also, by the way, features Mary McDonnell as a Sioux woman. I may be wrong about this, but I don't think she's a Native American. But that's another post.) [ETA: I was indeed wrong. Mary McDonnell's character is a white woman taken hostage by the Native Americans as a child who now lives with the tribe. Thanks, Anonymous, for the correction! On another note, anyone know how to do strike-throughs? Oh, and my husband, who read this post before I published it, was like "yeah, you didn't know that?" Clearly his reading comprehension was compromised by his simultaneous viewing of Wipeout.]

How about The Last Samurai? Hint: the last samurai is... Tom Cruise? The awesome Ken Watanabe may get first billing on imdb, but Cruise was definitely the main character and the box office draw.

Movies which use thinly-disguised "others" (aliens) as analogs for POC also fall into this pit. Avatar, where the main character is a white guy who is, I guess, sort of wearing one of the aliens like a suit (I still haven't seen it, ok), and District 9, where the white guy literally turns into a disgusting black pers - I mean alien, oh the horror.

These movies include POC as major and powerful characters, which are often used to jolt the white people out of their previously blissful and unaware lives, but they are not the main characters. These aren't bad movies, but they are not movies that promote the abilities of POC to provide their own heroics in defense of their people without the assistance of some white guy.

There are certainly counterexamples: Rabbit Proof Fence, Whale Rider, and Amistad are the first that spring to mind, but ask yourself - which movies have the big budgets? Which get the major actors? Which have the biggest box office numbers? Which have you seen or have you heard of? (If you haven't seen Rabbit-Proof Fence, by the way, it is great and it will rip your heart right out.)

The reason that Hollywood has this theory is because it often proves itself correct. We are essentially selfish people, and we've been fed this constant idea that POC are foreign, weird, and exotic. We want to know how issues relate to us, not to some people who live in different neighborhoods, wear different clothes, and buy their food in the "ethnic" aisle of the grocery store. POC are, naturally, fed this same garbage even about their own cultures.

Which brings us, circuitously, to the rest of the post about the Animal Planet show Monsters Inside Me. This show is in its first season, and it profiles Americans who have been the hosts of various nasty parasites. I have to confess that I think parasites are cool (I'm that kind of dork), and so I was excited to watch the show when it came out. But as I watched episode after episode about little uninvited guests invading the bodies of innocent people, a pattern emerged.

Usually, the victims were white. Uniformly, they were middle class. And generally, the parasite they encountered is a common scourge in countries full of brown people.

Episode 1: Elephantiasis, found in the tropics (highest incidence is Ethiopia, where up to 6% are infected).

Episode 2: Cryptospiridium, responsible for 8-19% of diarrheal diseases in developing countries and affecting mainly children under 9.

Episode 3: Botfly, a horrifyingly disgusting maggot that lives under your skin, found in warm and damp places all over the world but certainly more common in places where people walk around without shoes on in the soil where the incipient parasite lives.

Episode 4: Threadworm, almost never found in countries with effective waste and sewage management (transmission is through contact with infected feces).

I didn't really catch on to what was going on, however, until episode 5: malaria. A very nice white computer programmer's wife looks right into the camera (actually, the camera kind of looks right up her nose; it's that kind of show), and reports her shocked response to the news that her husband had malaria.

"I mean, who gets malaria?" She sniffed.

At that moment I snapped upright from my customary TV-watching stupor. "Who gets MALARIA?" I yelled. "MILLIONS OF BROWN PEOPLE."

There are somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 million cases of malaria every year. 1-3 million of these people die from the parasite, many of them children. Most of these people live in the areas where malaria is common: the tropics, particularly sub-Saharan Africa where 90% of these deaths occur. Malaria is a mosquito-borne parasite that used to enjoy a much wider distribution (malaria was once endemic across North America and Europe, in fact, King Henry VIII of England was a famous sufferer), but which has been beaten into submission by a combination of the eradication of swampy areas (where mosquitoes breed) and liberal use of pesticides like DDT.

Malaria has been with us since the dawn of agriculture about 10,000 BC, when farmers settled in permanent villages and cleared forests to produce the open, wet areas that mosquitoes love. It has been such a scourge throughout our evolutionary history that we have evolved numerous genetic defenses against the parasite, most notably sickle cell anemia. (a carrier of the disease has fewer intact red blood cells, which ferry the parasite around the body; see here for a good explanation of how malaria works and here for more information on how sickle cell and other genetic adaptations battle malaria.)

Who gets malaria? Thousands of your direct ancestors, lady.

There are hundreds of parasites which attack humans, and these are ubiquitous and devastating in non-western countries. I recall an Anthropology professor telling us about an African group that she had studied and lived among who had the conception of a male form of menstruation - around puberty, blood would come from these men's penises with regularity. The people were afflicted with a parasite (which one, I can't remember), which caused blood in the urine. By the time they reached adulthood, all members had the parasite. The condition of having blood in the urine was so universal among this group that they considered it a mark of adulthood, not a symptom of disease.

In "developed" countries* parasites are rare for a number of reasons. Not only do we spray heavily with pesticides, many people aren't exposed to the prime vectors for contagion: wild animals and water and soil contaminated with fecal material. We have efficient, effective plumbing systems that whisk this material away to be treated and cleaned. We don't have to dump our shit in the open sewer running in front of our home, or walk barefoot into the privy used by the rest of the village. We get to drink inspected water from the tap and eat inspected meat from the grocery store. When westerners do get parasites, it's usually due to a breakdown in these systems, pets are another common vector.

So when a nice, middle-class, white guy gets malaria, we ask "who gets malaria?"

There are shows about parasites in non-western countries, but not an entire series. A parasite in Africa is Not News, a parasite in Mrs. Smith up the street is ENTERTAINMENT. We're invited to cringe and empathize right along with these people because for us, parasites are a bizarre anomaly instead of a universal, albeit disgusting, way of life. It's not supposed to happen to us.

And at the end of the show, when we get our last (often optimistic or entirely cured) update on the sufferer, no voice-over reminds us that thousands of people in the rest of the world are unlucky enough to live in a place where health care is too expensive or absent, where parasitic infections are common enough that they are just lived with.

Just like in the movies, we are not invited to identify with the nameless, featureless hordes of non-westerners who suffer from parasites. Who cares about them?

*I don't like this term, although I prefer it to first world / third world. I usually use western / non-western. Anyone else have good terms to suggest that aren't too value laden?


  1. The parasitic voyeur in you may enjoy the Parasite of the Day blog:

    Parasites don't need no whitening-up, or even humaning-up, to be drop-dead awesome (in the literal sense of the word).

  2. Just as an FYI, Mary McDonnell's character was not supposed to be really Sioux. She was a white girl, taken in by the Sioux and raised with them.

  3. Terms: I hear the term Global South a lot. It refers to, you know, everyone else. The folks who make up the majority of the world's population, come uder the most oppression from the Western world's crappy imperialism, and so on.

    Global South is a cool term. And I belive self-generated by the folks it applies to.

  4. Very good post (blog). Exactly the topics making me angry since decades. good to know there are more and more people aware of the approach to reinforce claims of white supremacy by manipulating the minds of people.