Sunday, November 15, 2009

On the "Problem" of Reflective Rasism in Transformers 2

I finally saw Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and yes, I feel that drinking a weekend-long gap in my memory would have been less damaging to my brain. It was... painful. But I'm not really interested in wasting another moment of my life to bother actually attempting to review why it was terrible. I share my pain only because I went into it with some vague understanding that there was controversy over the film being racist, and I for one whole heartedly agree. At the same time, I do not fail to recognize an apparent contradiction in my hold such a position.

While it was really just one of the first things that came up when I googled for it, I think this article from washingtonexaminer.com showcases the problem pretty directly.

LOS ANGELES – Harmless comic characters or racist robots? The buzz over the summer blockbuster "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" only grew Wednesday as some said two jive-talking Chevy characters were racial caricatures. Skids and Mudflap, twin robots disguised as compact hatchbacks, constantly brawl and bicker in rap-inspired street slang. They're forced to acknowledge that they can't read. One has a gold tooth.

As good guys, they fight alongside the Autobots and are intended to provide comic relief. But their traits raise the specter of stereotypes most notably seen when Jar Jar Binks, the clumsy, broken-English speaking alien from "Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace," was criticized as a caricature.

As some may recall from my recent piece on Marge Simpson and sexual objectification that I used an argument posed by Slavoj Zizek that illustrated the problem with calling The Phantom Menace racist. Since it was a small part of a fairly large entry, I will repeat section here:
In Slavoj Zizek's The Fragile Absolute, he analysis the criticisms of the first of the Star Wars Prequel as an example of a third kind of racism, neither direct or reverse, but reflective.
The usual leftist critical point that the multitude of exotic alien (extra-human) species in Star Wars represent, in code, inter-human ethnic differences, reducing them to the level of common racist stereotypes (the evil merchants of the greedy Trade Federation are a clear caricature of the ant-like Chinese merchants), somehow misses the point: these references to ethnic clichés are not a cipher to be penetrated through an arduous theoretical analysis; they are directly alluded to, their identification is, as it were, part of the game. […] What is crucial here is that [the aliens] are not played by real actors, but are pure digital creations – as such, they do not merely refer to the clichés; rather, they are directly presented, staged as nothing but animated clichés. For that reason they are, in some way, ‘flat’, lacking the ‘depth’ of a true personality: the grimaces of their almost infinitely plastic faces give immediate and direct expression to their innermost attitudes and feelings (anger, fear, lust, pride), making them totally transparent (Zizek, pages 4-5 in my copy, page 7 in the linked version).
Humoring the idea that all stereotypes emerge from a kernel of truth, that the actions or characteristics of one or a group of people are then attributed to the whole of their race, the mistake such critics make of Star Wars is in thinking that it is like the minstrel show, where black performers or white performs in blackface act out racist archetypes of black people, directly attributing stereotype to race. Star Wars is not such a minstrel. The staggering irony here is that in these embodiments of racist stereotypes, these pure living manifestations of stereotypes disconnected from human beings, "staged as nothing but animated clichés" become racist only through their re-attribution with human races. Like the famous lewd joke Jack Nicholson tells in Chinatown, it is the politically correct critic of the Star Wars aliens who, like the presumably innocent (of infidelity but also racism) wife of the racist man, ends up shouting, "You're skrewin' just like a Chinaman!" (emphasis mine).
Thus we see the conundrum: are not Mudflap and Skidz, like the Star Wars aliens, merely "staged as nothing but animated clichés" which "become racist only through their re-attribution with human races?"

I believe there error here lies in the misinterpreting of Zizek's point as one which says that animated character, through its very artificiality, is incapable of being a racist depiction. That is not his point nor mine in the article where I used it at all (in mine recall that I focused on the significance of Marge's physique being identified as a cartoon's as opposed to a woman's). It is that the Star Wars aliens, on every level, are not human, they are unhuman in every sense and are thus independent with no reference, no link to humans beyond their mutual technological sophistication and capacity to speak the same language. The robots of Transformers are aliens as well, and as such are separate from humans, yet within the universe of the franchise they are inescapably linked with humans through a discourse of imitation. Unlike the aliens of Star Wars, the aliens of Transformers try to imitate humans in speech, and in one case literal form (the female transformer with the lethal tongue), thus their behavior is a direct reference to humans.

This discourse of imitation in itself does not make the film racist. The film Tropic Thunder has a great example of this in Robert Downy Jr. playing an actor who has his skin darkened to play a black man. Like the Autobots, he imitates a race, using only pop-cultural knowledge of how he thinks black people act, only to be contrasted by (ironically) a mainstream rapper turned actor (played by Brandon T. Jackson) who really is black and constantly collides with him over how inaccurate his depiction of black people is. The depiction is acceptable because unlike in Transformers the imitations isn't validated by a direct human/racial reference.

In Star Wars we see humans of numerous races, yet virtually identical in their speech, intelligence and overall demeanor. Like American news anchors, the racially diverse humans of Star Wars (particularly in the prequels) all perform in a universally flat manner with very little distinction between them. They are nothing like the aliens and to compare them is ludicrous. With perhaps the exception of Mace Windu and Samuel L. Jackson's 'pimp-saber' there is never a sense that a character must 'act black' or 'act Asian' or any other race based upon the actor playing them.

In Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, however, we can see much more racially distinct characters. While predominantly white characters push the film forward and save the day, I really only recall two black characters with lines. The most prominent is Tyrese Gibson's character Epps, which appears only in periphery, offering no drive to the story but to punctuate scenes with lines that would embarrass a schlocky Will Smith impersonator. He dosen't really speak so much as say, "Aw hell no!" a lot, and after a while feels like the 'token black character'. Near the end of the film, he does directly cause one thing to happen, he fails to properly throw a smoke flair for the F-16s to target causing the planes to open fire on friendlies. That's right, a decorated solider can't throw a flair. Nice job! As for the only other black character that I recall, it is the infamous "bucktoothed black guy" that the article above mentions, who happens to be working in a greasy spoon, and is told by his white boss to keep at it or else he'll never get his teeth fixed. robots. His teeth are cartoonishly fake providing a direct visual link between race and characterization. The bucktooth big-eared face of the robot twins finds a direct reference to a black man, and only a black man. Mudflap and Skidz's appearance, their manner of speech, and their incompetence are all validated by black characters within the film.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is the stuff of a contemporary minstrel, with characterizations direct stereotypes black people and cannot be excused because of those characters artificiality anymore than blackface can be excused for its obvious exaggeration; the film would be racist without the illiterate robots, but with them it is horrendous.

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