Django doesn’t make light of slavery (and random other thoughts)

I've been reading a lot of news stories (and, unfortunately, comments as well) about Tarantino's newest film, Django, and here are some of my random thoughts.


First of all, I'm a big admirer of Spike Lee, but he admittedly has not seen (and refuses to see) Django, so his opinion on the film shouldn't be a huge news story. There are also seem to be a number of news outlets misreporting Lee as mainly objecting to the use of a certain six-letter racial slur in the movie instead of objecting to the movie being a spaghetti Western, and thus disrespectful to his ancestors. In the past, Lee has objected to Tarantino's overuse/misuse of that racial slur, but the tweet in question refers mainly to Django possibly making light of slavery.

Unlike Spike Lee, I have seen the movie, and I can assure you that it takes slavery very seriously. There exist funny moments in the movie, but no one in the theater laughed at slaves being whipped, branded, or torn apart by dogs. No one laughed at Django and Broomhilda being auctioned off separately. Those moments were sobering and deadly silent ones among the audience members I watched the film with (racially mixed and predominantly white).

Are there silly moments in the film? Sure. But it isn't a silly movie. The movie is a weird hodgepodge (as most Tarantino films are) of intense drama, light comedy, silly action, and graphic violence. Does Reservoir Dogs make light of ear dismemberment because there's also a funny moment when Mr. Pink explains why he doesn't tip at restaurants? No.

What I would contend is that this film is probably one of the least racist films I've ever seen a white man direct (The Negotiator is also not that racist, but a black man directed it). How many films have you seen from Hollywood in which the black guy is the main character, the white guy the sacrificial sidekick, and most of the other white people in the film villains? Where are all the people complaining about Amistad or The Blind Side? How many movies have we seen get virtually no press for being racist that are actually racist? If you see another movie in which the black actor's sole purpose in the film is to help the white protagonist find himself or win the battle, are you also going to say it's racist and disrespectful? I hope so. If you see another movie that's supposedly about black people but is really about how some nice white person lifted the black person up from poverty and ignorance, are you also going to say it's racist and disrespectful? I hope so. Who, apart from the Asian American community, spoke up about the yellowface in Cloud Atlas? How many times have we been told "it's just a movie" or "it's just entertainment" when Hollywood movies depict non-whites negatively?

I'm actually quite proud of Tarantino. I remember watching Inglorious Basterds and thinking to myself "Yeah, people seem cool with Jews killing Hitler, but when will there be a movie about black slaves killing white slave owners?" Little did I know that was Tarantino's next project.


There's been a lot of focus in the mainstream press about race in the movie, and very little about gender. The movie barely passes the Bechdel Test (I think Miss Candie asks Broomhilda to speak German). Regardless, the women in the movie are basically useless props. Broomhilda is a totally helpless maiden, as badly fleshed out a character as any Disney 1950s princess (Mulan and Belle have more depth). Miss Candie and her female slaves all have very little to no personality or depth. I understand in the deep South of the mid-19th century women didn't have a lot of power. That's fine. Does that mean they also have to be totally devoid of personality or feelings?


The other thing I thought about while watching the film was the whole gun control debate. There was a lot of shooting in the movie, lots of bloodshed. What's more interesting, though, are all the times the camera does a close-up on Django reaching for his gun when he gets upset, and then deciding not to use it. The gun, as the movie portrays it, is an easy way to kill lots of people without thinking about it. Without spoiling the movie with exact details, there's another character who compulsively shoots someone else, and it wasn't necessarily a good idea. At another point in the movie, a character rigs a building to blow up. The rigging took a lot of time and setup. It was deliberate and planned. A lot of the shooting comes from impulse.

This reminds me of a normally politically conservative former co-worker of mine, who surprised me by telling me he didn't think people should have guns. He used to own guns. But he said one time he got really angry at someone he was driving behind (ye olde road rage), and he was very glad to not have his gun with him, because he said he probably would have taken it out and shot the other driver. That compulsion frightened him.

I think that component of "the gun" is often missing from all the gun control debates. Yes, you can blow people up with fertilizer or crash a plan into a building using a box cutter. Those methods of destruction require a lot of planning and forethought. If you happen to be angry and have a gun nearby, you can go on a rampage without thinking the whole thing through.

I remember the debates a couple of years ago in San Francisco about the Golden Gate Bridge nets. Many people thought it was stupid to have nets. The logic went "If these people want to kill themselves, they'll kill themselves. If it's not jumping off a bridge, it'll be something else." I get that logic. In fact, that's what I thought, too, until I kept reading more letters to The San Francisco Chronicle and also watched the documentary The Bridge. Yes, someone who's completely determined to kill herself or himself will find a way to do so. But many people who jump off the Golden Gate Bridge (or any bridge) just have a suicidal compulsion at that moment (they may be depressed in general but not determinedly suicidal). The bridge being closed or a net being in place may stop those people from making a stupid mistake.

Just some random thoughts I had that I didn't see in a lot of the mainstream media or even the blogosphere.

Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Is there a new word to add the sociological dictionary?

Discussions of racism and sexism (or any *ism, really) in mixed company can easily become heated, especially if some people in the discussion try to combat the notion that we are “all in the same boat.” I don’t think the emotional charge of the discussion comes so much from what is being described as how it’s being described.

Usually, people trying to combat the notion of us “all being in the same boat” will use one or more of the following words: power, privilege, oppression. The “all in the same boat” or “reverse *ism” people will usually counter by using words such as victim mentality or whining.

Gender and race relations aren’t that difficult to understand. I think most people understand sociological phenomenon quite well, as examples are usually not argued with—it usually the meaning made of the examples that is cause for debate, offense, and possibly denial.

The problem, as I see it, is the lack of a proper word to describe a sociological problem that can’t be accurately described with the phrases “It goes both ways” or “We’re all in the same boat.” The word power isn’t exactly accurate to describe race or gender relations, nor is privilege. To say “you have power” with the implication “I don’t have power” makes the sociological problem too simplistic. To counter this claim, all the person who “has power” has to do is give an example of how the “powerless” has some kind of beneft the “powerful” doesn’t. The same limitation of the word privilege applies as well. The word oppression also makes it sound as if the “oppressor” is doing something deliberately malicious and invites the “oppressor” to accuse the “oppressed” of having a victim mentality.

I don’t know what this new word is, but I’ll try to explain why I think we need one, lest the status quo remain, wherein many Whites and males in America (the same may apply to other countries as well, but I can speak only for the US) feel hedged in by “political correctness” and accusations of “power,” “privilege,” and “oppression”; while many non-Whites and females in America (same disclaimer) feel frustrated by what they perceive as apathy, denial, and ignorance. Clearly, there are problems (again, at least in America) with regard to gender and race. Almost everyone knows there are problems. But we need a vocabulary to talk about these problems without making it personal.

I will say, as someone who has seen both sides of this debate (as a male “oppressor” and as a non-White “oppressed person”), that no one should take anything personally in these discussions. When feminists talk about the patriarchy, they are talking about a culture that both men and women perpetuate that is more than a collection of sexist actions by individuals. Likewise, when antiracists talk about systematic racism, they are talking about a culture that both Whites and non-Whites perpetuate that is more than a collection of racist actions by individuals.

Let’s take a break from race and sex for a moment, though. I can already anticipate the blood boiling of some of my readers. I know Hari is dying to talk about dowry harassment again.

I’ve always worked in schools. I’ve worked in many schools, and I know that not everyone in a school is equal. There are students. There are younger students and older students. There are students making good grades. There are students about to fail out. There are faculty members. Some faculty have been teaching for years. Others are new. Some faculty are prized by the community. Others are on the brink of being fired. There are staff members. Some staff have a higher position than other staff. Some staff get paid more than other staff, even though they work the same hours. There’s a principal or head of school. And there may be a board of trustees or some kind of school board. Maybe a superintendent.

In a school, I wouldn’t exactly say that the teachers are more privileged than the students. Yes, the teachers can come and go without getting a hall pass. They don’t have to have “senior privileges” to go off-campus. They get paid to be in school, whereas the students have to pay (through taxes, tuition, or both) to go to school. Nevertheless, you could argue, I guess, that faculty don’t have the same privileges students have. If a faculty member’s performance is poor, she may get a warning and a little support, but basically she’ll end up fired if it continues. It’s not difficult to be fired if you’re a teacher, even if you’re trying your best.

It is, however, quite difficult to fail out as a student if you’re putting in any kind of effort. When you’re a student, everything revolves around you. You do what interests you. If you aren’t doing all your work well, you are the only one who suffers. If you’re a teacher and aren’t doing all your work well, all your students suffer.

Do teachers have more power than students? Ostensibly so. If a teacher tells an administrator or another teacher “Jenny was cheating on her final exam,” most likely the administrator or other teacher will believe that Jenny has cheated. Teachers can make arbitrary rules students have to follow. Teachers decide how much work students have to do. On the other hand, if a student tells an administrator, “Mr. Neruda touched me inappropriately and tried to have sex with me,” that student has pretty much ruined Mr. Neruda’s teaching career, whether the charges are true or not. A student can fail out of school or get kicked out of school and still get an education at another school. Once a teacher has been accused of sexual misconduct with a student, that teacher is very likely not to get a job teaching again… anywhere.

Are students oppressed? Not really. They can’t make the rules. They’re often considered less credible than the teachers. But the school is really all about them. If the students’ needs aren’t getting met, the staff and faculty are expendible and can be replaced.

Of course, there are limitations to this analogy as it applies to race and gender relations. After all, one could easily sum up what the teachers have that the students don’t have with the word authority. You can argue with power and privilege, but ultimately teachers have authority, and students don’t. Even when a student accuses a teacher of sexual misconduct, the student has to be believed by other adults, not by peers alone. You can’t say White people have authority and non-Whites don’t. Nor can you say men have authority and women don’t. Or if you do, that would be only one small part of the problem.

I don’t know what the solution is. All I know is that we aren’t all in the same boat, and I don’t really know how to convey that without people accusing me of having a victim mentality or of misusing the words power and privilege. I do know that it’s important to realize that we are all dependent on each other and that sociological phenomena is not a zero-sum game. White people were not better or happier people in 1850 in America than they are in 2008 in America. Men were not better or happier people in 1900 in America than they are in 2008 in America. But you would think they would have been if the words power and privilege applied. After all, if you consider me to have power and want me to give up that power, then I have less power. If you consider me to have privilege and want me to give up that privilege, I have less privilege.

All I know is that with all the fighting, backlash, more fighting, concessions, denial, arguments, and semantics debates, sociological problems are staying just the way they are. I don’t want America to be a place where politicians and celebrities make racist and sexist remarks or “jokes,” get protested by various activist groups, and then give a token apology or retraction.

Music I Like Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Gender in bands

It doesn’t really surprise me when I see this in Christian churches, but the phenomenon also spills out into secular society as well, and that does surprise me. I’ve seen a lot of bands with a woman lead singer who sings and plays no instrument (except maybe a tamborine) supported by men playing bass, guitar, and drums. This gender dynamic is odd.

Of course, there’s nothing terrible about being the lead singer. I don’t want to make it sound as if that’s an example of gender oppression, to be in the spotlight, but why aren’t there more women guitarists, bassists, and drummers? I know they exist. I’ve seen them before—just not in great numbers.

When my wife and I saw Sara Bareilles in concert, the opening act was a band called Raining Jane. They weren’t bad. They weren’t amazing. But she and I both agreed that it was pretty cool to see an all-female band—vocals, sitar, guitars, drums, bass. I also saw only once an all-female worship team at a church in Cambridge, Massachusetts (don’t know if they’re still there). Doubt I’ll ever see that again.

I wonder what the sociological factors are that go into band gender dynamics. If women do play instruments, they’re far more likely, it seems, to play piano and rhythm guitar than solo guitar, bass, or drums. Is there something deemed by the women themselves (or by society discouraging women) supposedly unfeminine about these instruments?

A while ago, I went with two women to see the documentary Girls Rock, about a one-week rock camp for girls. The girls didn’t have to have any previous musical experience, but within the course of one week, they all formed bands, wrote songs, practiced, learned instruments, and gave final performances. Even though there is some musicianship involved in the camp, a one-week camp can’t really train you that much on playing instruments well. A lot of the camp has to do with self-confidence and self-expression. Both women I saw it with loved the film and found it empowering. Neither particularly wanted to follow up by forming a band or learning guitar (or bass or drums) themselves, though.

I’m curious as to what other people’s experiences have been around bands and gender. If you’re a man, do you feel any particular affinity toward guitars, drums, or basses? If you’re a woman, do you feel any particular affinity toward singing, piano, and guitar? What messages of encouragement or discouragement in the realm of instrument-learning and musicality have you experienced?