Saturday, December 10, 2011

Xmas: Ditto

Klingons, Muppets, and Race

Okay, this is all going to be heavily theoretical, possibly annoying, and maybe even misguided, but I've been thinking about this a lot and I need to try and verbalize this. And just to get the trigger out of the way, this is going to be some thoughts about racism, intentional and unintentional, in pop culture.

This started the other day with this guy. Some of you might recognize Roosevelt Franklin from the earlier days of Sesame Street. Apparently, he was once considered one of the main characters on the show, but that's before my time. I was born in 1976, and by then he'd been dropped from the main cast. I honestly can't remember consciously when I first started watching the show; my first word was "Ernie," so it was pretty damn early, but still too late to be acquainted with Roosevelt.

I've been downloading old Muppet and Sesame Street records, and the other day I was listening to The Year of Roosevelt Franklin, and was utterly charmed by it. I decided I had to do some research to find out why this joyous, vibrant character had been dropped from the show.

Roosevelt Franklin was created and performed by Matt Robinson, who played Gordon for the show's first three seasons (1969-1972). According to Muppet Wiki: "The precocious Roosevelt Franklin attended Roosevelt Franklin Elementary School, where he taught the class as often as not. He taught concepts like family, pride, respect, geography and not drinking poison. Roosevelt was a cool kid who loved to scat, rhyme and sing the blues. His mother was proud of him. In addition to his elementary school, he had his own stadium, Roosevelt Franklin Stadium, where he coached Headball. Roosevelt has a younger sister, who wishes that she could go to school like he does."

Sounds like a neat, positive character to me. He certainly is on the record, The Year of Roosevelt Franklin, which easily ranks as one of my favorite Sesame Street albums.

Robinson, by the way, wasn't hired as an actor for the show. Originally a playwright, he was producing black-oriented public affairs segments for a local station in Philadelphia when he was hired to supervise filmed segments on Sesame Street showing the lives of children in other countries. He took the role as Gordon because the Children's Television Workshop was having a hard time casting the role of a strong African-American father figure. Robinson said later: "Somewhere around four or five, a black kid is going to learn he’s black. He’s going to learn that’s positive or negative. What I want to project is a positive image."

What turned out to be an issue between Robinson and others was language. Specifically Robinson's use of "black" English in some scenes. Robinson felt this was an important way for kids who lived in the inner cities to relate to the character. But, he elaborated: "On Sesame Street I'm in a lot of trouble because I try to retain as much of the vernacular as possible. When kids are comfortable, they speak whatever way is natural, and I respond on that level. For instance I think that grammar's often a big hangup. I majored in English (at Penn State), so I respect the language, but I don't think I'd correct a child on the air, or anywhere else. If you say, 'Your grammar is incorrect,' what you are saying is that his parents, his environment, all the people he associates with, are wrong. That can cause all kinds of psychological problems. What you can tell a child is, 'There's a different way to say that.' What concerns me is making value judgements... The safe but dull norm isn't natural. A standard is imposed, a definite kind of propaganda for certain values. 'Black English' involves all sorts of things. Tone, inflection, pacing. I think we should communicate with children in whatever way they understand."

[Quotes from Muppet Wiki, but emphasis mine.]

I have to say, I think he's absolutely right. I've had talks about this both as a teacher and as a student. When I was in Grammar 101 at NIU, I got into an enormous debate with another student on the idea of "creative spelling" at schools in Naperville. She was offended by the idea that anyone would let a child spell something wrong, creating a "false world." My counter-argument was Santa Claus; where fantasies like Santa Claus are used as a buffer to real world pain until the child is more experienced and better equipped to handle the demands of the world, so "creative spelling" can be used as a buffer into correct or standard or whatever-you-want-to-call-it grammar. My main point was that sometimes children who aren't grokking the world around them need to find a way to relate to it on their own before being told that everything they're doing is wrong. That created an amazing argument in class that day.

I've encountered this as a substitute teacher, as well. I had a first grade student who was obviously going to be behind one day; the kid who couldn't follow directions and who just wanted to goof off and mess around and who had major spelling and math problems (he even wrote some numbers backward). The key with this kid wasn't to tell him that he was wrong and to be a disciplinarian about it, but do try and guide him while being encouraging about it. To say things like "You could also write the number 7 this way, and then everyone else can read it." It worked for him.

But apparently it didn't work for Roosevelt Franklin, and despite his album carrying endorsements on the sleeve from Mayor John Lindsay, Barbara Walters, Ed Sullivan, BB King and others, Roosevelt was the subject of a lot of criticism for being "too black" or "not black enough." A major criticism was that the black dialect used on the show was tokenism and not legitimized. Another was that the rowdy students at Roosevelt Franklin Elementary School set a poor example for African-American students. In 1975, the character was dropped, and though Matt Robinson had already stopped playing Gordon, the loss of Roosevelt was his final break with Sesame Street.

Now, I understand the issues here. And I have to preface this by saying that, again, as a white guy, I don't have much experience being discriminated against on the basis of my race. So I'm trying not to make sweeping generalizations in my opinion on this. But I think the loss of Roosevelt Franklin is disappointing. On one level, it's because I just loved the character on the album; Roosevelt is fun. He's a neat character. And, also, I think a black voice is something missing from Sesame Street. I'm not going to accuse Sesame Street of being racist, because that would be ridiculous. But even though the show's biggest Muppet star, Elmo, is portrayed by Kevin Clash, a black man, Elmo's not really a black character. Roosevelt Franklin certainly was, and that's the character that gets shown the door.

But here's one of the parts that sounds slightly racist, and I don't mean it to... But in 1975, another great record was released: Merry Christmas from Sesame Street. It's a wonderful record, and though Roosevelt Franklin doesn't appear on it, two of his classmates--Smart Tina and Hardhead Harry--pop up in "The Twelve Days of Christmas." On the album, Luis and Maria get to sing two songs in Spanish; "Arrurru," a Spanish lullaby, and "Saludo," a traditional Puerto Rican holiday song. So my question is this, and yeah, it's going to sound nasty: Why is it important and sensitive to include and celebrate Latin cultures on Sesame Street, but wrong for black people to not talk like white people?

I'm just asking here... why does Roosevelt Franklin have to disappear for not speaking "proper" English, but Elmo's third-person speak is somehow adorable? It's a triumph now to have a Hispanic Muppet, Rosita, but a black Muppet was somehow inappropriate, no matter how many kids could identify with or delight in the character. I don't understand where the line is, honestly.

But I see it in pop culture a lot; the idea that celebrating one's heritage is important, and then portraying it as somehow negative when black people don't act like white people.

This brings me to Star Trek, and particularly to the problems I had with the Deep Space Nine episode "Sons of Mogh."

It's obvious to anyone watching that the major Trek villains are analogues of Earth politics. As I've maintained, the Borg represent fears of the major aspects of modern Japanese culture and technology (as I've joked, they even fly through space in a giant computer chip). The Cardassian-Bajoran conflict is Israel and Palestine. The Romulans seem to represent modern Germany in a lot of ways, especially as peace seemed to become possible towards the end of DS9's run.

What do the Klingons represent? Obviously, on the original series, they stood in for the Soviet Union. But that changed in the series that took place 80 years in the future, when Communism had fallen (or nearly fallen). What were the Klingons meant to represent when a member of Starfleet's greatest enemy was now standing on the bridge of the Enterprise?

I've seen it suggested in a number of places that the Klingons on Next Generation and beyond represented the black experience in America, specifically a post-slavery integration. I think that has moments where it jibes; certainly Worf's major character conflict, being caught between the worlds of Starfleet and the Klingon Empire, is reflective of that. Worf is essentially derided as a token, almost a pet, by other Klingons. I want to say that Worf's deep spirituality and strong sense of family and tradition plays in, but I'm not sure if that's a stereotype or not.

So, let's get to where this troubles me: specifically, "Sons of Mogh."

As you may or may not remember, this was an episode of Deep Space Nine that I found deeply offensive. The plot revolved around Worf's brother, Kurn, and how he was unable to deal with life after losing his place on the Klingon High Council and having his house disgraced after Worf refused to back Gowron's invasion of Cardassia.

Kurn, unable to live with the stigma, decides the only way to reclaim his honor is to have Worf kill him in a Klingon ritualistic death. Worf is stopped by Jadzia Dax, and afterwards Captain Sisko becomes angry and says, in words I can't believe they put in his mouth, that he's had all he can take from Klingons in the way of cultural diversity. So right there, Sisko (and the show itself) make the conscious decision that there's something "wrong" with the Klingon culture. What we see there is, I think, the same mentality that goes into criticizing Roosevelt Franklin's way of speaking. Essentially, it's saying that it's somehow wrong for black people to not be more like white people.

I see this a lot in the attitude towards Klingons on Star Trek. Taking Deep Space Nine as an example, look at how well the series handled the Cardassians. They weren't just evil; there was a concerted effort made to show them through a prism of cultural objectivity. Though they committed atrocities, the producers and writers made an effort to show that these actions were carried out by a government--not a race--that equated peace with order and order with a rigid racial hierarchy. The series ends on a note of hope for relations between the Cardassian people and the Federation. We also see on the series how Bajoran culture is respected, even to the detriment of their relationship with the Federation. We see how sensitively the Founders can be approached through understanding, even when Section 31 decides genocide is the answer. Constantly we see on Deep Space Nine how other races and cultures can be bridged through simply reaching out and trying to be understanding and sensitive and simply open to not judging other cultures. Hell, the show managed to redeem the Ferengi, taking them from simply failed villains and lame comic relief, and turning them into a rich culture.

But with the Klingons, too often the Federation (and by extension, the series) approaches them with fear and caution. There was this sense that the Klingons weren't good enough; that their culture was too rooted in violence and ritual to really be at peace with the Federation. And I think there are a lot of episodes of Next Generation and Deep Space Nine that approach the Klingons as if they were children, or a useful ally that was condescended to. I think a lot of that changed on DS9 when the show started focusing more on General Martok, an unapologetic but tolerant Klingon who gave the culture an approachable personality. He wasn't warm and cuddly and Federation (read: "white"), but he was fully-realized. He was representative of the Klingon culture and way of thinking without being someone that we had to see looked down on.

But "Sons of Mogh" still steps out for me as a moment of science fiction racism. And worse yet, this moment of supreme racism is presented positively.

After Kurn's attempt at ritual suicide is stopped, Worf attempts to get Kurn a job at the station. Kurn, feeling more useless and disgraced than ever, tries once again to kill himself, this time without the ritual, but rather attempting to get killed in a fight, so he'll at least die in battle. Kurn really wants to die; for him, it's the only way to regain the honor that he's been robbed of. He would rather die with honor than live without it.

So the great offense to me is that Worf makes the decision for Kurn to essentially have him lobotomized. To remove Kurn's personality, his memories, his identity, and to tell him he's an amnesia victim and create a new identity for him. This turn of events is reprehensible. Kurn's agency is removed, and he's reduced to a shell and forced to accept that he's someone else simply to cleanse Worf's conscience. Where is the honor in this decision? It's a cowardly move; it's like if McMurphy's lobotomy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was played as a happy ending on its own.

And to me, it smacks of racism. It's a show celebrating the identity of fictional cultures, but when it comes to one specific fictional culture, they are simply condescended to for not being more like "us." Would Sisko and Worf and Bashir have considered a similar course of action for a member of any other race? Would a troublemaking Bajoran or an inconvenient Ferengi been dealt such a fate? Like the Klingons, those races aren't members of the Federation, but unlike the Klingons, those races are allowed their free agency. When it comes to Kurn, he's not allowed to die in his own way, a way ritualized by his own cultural traditions. Instead, the decision of his life's direction is simply taken out of his hands. He's viewed as unable to reasonably make his own choices, and I have to believe it's simply because we view suicide as something icky. This flies in the face of everything the Federation, and Star Trek, is supposed to stand for. Here we are seeing someone forced to change simply because his way isn't our way.

I call bullshit on that, and I see in Kurn's lobotomy the same casual condescension that I see in removing Roosevelt Franklin from Sesame Street. It's the weird way pop culture will celebrate other cultures, except for African-Americans. So it's okay for Gordon and Susan and David to live on Sesame Street, but we didn't much see them speaking in an inner city dialect (despite the fact that the show took place in the inner city), because that's "incorrect." And we can't have a Klingon suicide ritual on Star Trek because a culture that is comfortable with--and even celebrates and ritualizes the aspects of life we're most terrified by (violence, blood, etc.)--is also "incorrect." Because "we" don't want our children to speak "wrong" English, and because "we" don't want to send the message that there's honor in death, people are punished for not being, you know, white.

I don't know, am I wrong? Am I overreacting? It would be politically incorrect, not to mention ignorant, to suggest that Luis and Maria speak only English and forget their Hispanic heritage in order to be more "normal" or whatever racist word you want to throw in there. So why is it politically correct to decide that black kids need to learn to speak "correct" (read: "white") English? It's especially galling today, in light of the distinctive way Elmo speaks, and in an age when I see educated adults using text-speak. Everyday online I see the constant battle fought by people who rigidly ignore that the history of the English language is a very fluid, ever-changing one, and insist that there is one proper way to speak.

I just don't see how a smart, curious, confident, school-loving, hard-working character could be a bad role model just because he spells his name with "a L."


Click on the picture, it's enormous. So much Kat definition...

Friday, December 09, 2011

Xmas: Commercial Classics

I know I've had these up in previous years, but since this is my first Christmas countdown, here are my three favorite Christmas commercials.

Jennifer Aniston Is Not the Hottest Woman of All Time

Men's Health readers may think so, but to me it's an utterly insane thing to say that middling actress and professional victim Jennifer Aniston is the "Hottest Woman of All Time." Really, people? Jennifer Aniston is hotter than Marilyn Monroe? Hotter than Raquel Welch? No. Jennifer Aniston doesn't even come close to any of the great sex symbols. Jennifer Aniston isn't even the hottest woman in Hollywood working today. Hell, she wasn't even the hottest chick on Friends.

Polls like these are ridiculous. I mean, I realize they're subjective, I just didn't know so many people had such a terrible opinion of what sexy is.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Xmas: Comic Book Covers, Part II

Movies from Outer Space


Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Xmas: Little Saint Nick

SamuraiFrog's Essential Christmas Songs #3. I don't know a lot of people who value this Beach Boys classic, but for me there's no Christmas without it. The Beach Boys were one of my earliest musical loves; I still remember when my sister and I would wake up and play my Dad's Beach Boys 8-track while he made us pancakes. I associate this with my Grandma Davis, too. Just a great, fun Christmas song.

Harry Morgan 1915-2011

That's sad to hear; I think I just kind of assumed he was going to live forever. I've always had a love for Harry Morgan because some of my earliest memories--from 1979, when my Dad was still in the Army--are of watching M*A*S*H. As a three year-old, I had this weird, naive idea that when we lived at Fort Hood, what my Dad was doing all day was basically the same thing they were doing at the 4077th: that is, goofing around. And Radar was from Iowa, like me and my Dad, so it was a whole thing... anyway, I loved Colonel Potter, and I always loved seeing Harry Morgan pop up anywhere else. Sorry to hear he died.

80s Revisited: Scrooged

Scrooged (1988)

Directed by Richard Donner; produced by Richard Donner & Art Linson; screenplay by Mitch Glazer & Michael O'Donoghue

The way I generally remembered this movie was as a high concept, high profile late 80s failure. I remember a big marketing push being involved with this movie, but I remember it being referred to as a flop and ending up playing on cable, seemingly on repeat, for a couple of years. It must have made some cash, though; I see it was number one the weekend it opened and went out to make $64 million, which doesn't seem too terrible for 1988. All I know for sure is that my Dad and I went to see Ernest Saves Christmas instead, and that was around the same time we went to see Oliver & Company, The Land Before Time, and The Naked Gun. I also know, actually, that my Dad LOVED this movie when it was first on cable, and watched it a number of times. I even remember seeing parts of it with him, but never really being able to dig on it the way he did.

Maybe you need to be older. Maybe you need to be more versed in A Christmas Carol, which has become my favorite Christmas story over the last 15 years, one that I've read a number of times and continue to delight in. I never had a high opinion of this flick or a need to sit and watch it again, but Becca and I ended up sitting down and watching it the other night, and we both loved it.

It helps, of course, that I like Richard Donner movies and Bill Murray is a genius. He's the right person to play a modern, cynical version of Scrooge, because Murray's stock in trade is how sincerely insincere he is. He doesn't need to sell his comedic persona, he just comes out, does it, and sometimes it's only on repeat viewings that you realize just what his magic is. It's not that he acts like he doesn't care, it's that he does it so completely that it doesn't seem like an act. That's a big part of what makes classic comedies like Ghostbusters and Stripes so classic, and gems like Where the Buffalo Roam so underrated, and What About Bob? so weirdly, endlessly re-watchable.

And, honestly, there are points where Scrooged comes across a little too obvious, a little too on the nose to really be a successful parody of the TV business. I think some of the critical reactions to Scrooged that I've read were hard on it for not being satirical enough (especially with Mr. Mike as one of the writers), and instead just being a sincere, modern, occasionally breezy take on a Christmas classic. Also, I think in the end Bill Murray's not entirely believable as the reformed Frank Cross; oh, he's good, and he sells it, but cynical Frank Cross takes less effort to believe. He seems to be more comfortable in that persona, perhaps because it's more inherently comic and probably more fun to play. Still, I believe anyone would be willing to change just to let Karen Allen into their lives. Every time that genuine smile of hers lights up the screen... Please, Karen, come back to us full time.

All in all, though, I dug it. It's highly enjoyable, the ghosts are funny (I can't even remember a time when I didn't love Carol Kane), John Glover is always awesome, and Bill Murray is excellent. You could do a lot worse at Christmastime.

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this past week.

Sergei Eisenstein's final films, telling the story (or two-thirds of it, as a trilogy was planned but never completed) of Ivan IV, the first tsar of a unified Russia. The first film was released when it was finished, but the second, which was considered by Soviet censors to be ambivalent towards state terrorism, wasn't released until after both Eisenstein and Stalin (who loved the first film) were dead. They're odd films; big and melodramatic, overacted and lingering in the style of silent films. They're so arch, so broad, but oddly compelling; you know, like Star Wars. The Pantomime of Ivan the Terrible. The costumes and the sets are beautiful; the cinematography has such a depth of field and shadow. They're terrifically made, but they're definitely relics of a bygone era of filmmaking. I sound totally condescending, but I really enjoyed these oddities. ***1/2 stars each.

Shorter Scarlett Johansson

"There was nothing wrong with those pictures. There's nothing wrong with anyone who wants to take pictures of themselves or star in a porno or something, even though I would never do anything so degrading that I have absolutely no problem with. So even though I called the FBI on the guy who I claimed stole the naked pictures because the sanctity of an actress' cell phone is a national security issue, there's nothing wrong with those pictures. I just want you to know I'm classy and don't give it away for free, not that there's anything wrong with that, either. Now why don't you pay me to pose topless-but-not-really to show you what a serious actress I am?"

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Xmas: Bunny!

My bunny is even grumpier than this. He'd never sit still for it.

TV Report

:: Okay, Castle, dial it back a little. Last night's episode was so unabashedly and ham-handedly trolling the audience--or at least the StaNathan shippers--that it distracted from the (thin) plot of the episode and made the flashback-heavy opening rather silly. You're not going to be able to come up with excuses to keep these two from getting together for much longer.

:: Speaking of plotlines I can do without: I'm very happy that the "Max falls in love with a hipster" story is behind us on 2 Broke Girls. If that stays behind us, that would be even better. Last night's episode made me cry, which was unexpected. It was Max saying goodbye to the horse; for some reason, it triggered memories about my cat, Sam, and how my mother dumped him at an animal shelter when I was at my dad's for the weekend. Nope, still not over it.

:: I started watching Homeland yesterday; I'm four episodes in now, and it is incredibly compelling. Claire Danes is excellent as an unstable CIA agent attempting to investigate a recovered POW she believes may have been turned by al-Qaeda. Watching this show peel back its layers is amazing. Danes's agent has a thoroughly damaged reputation with her office after screwing up an operation in Baghdad, and is secretly taking an anti-psychotic medication. She's obsessed with proving that the POW, Damian Lewis, is now an al-Qaeda agent, and one gets the sense it isn't about defending her country, but a desperate desire to be right about something. Meanwhile, Lewis' wife (the amazingly sexy Morena Baccarin, finally appearing in something that compels me to watch it) has been cheating on him with his best friend while her husband was missing and presumed dead in Iraq. These are some complex personal problems between the characters, and on top of that is the national security issue. It's riveting stuff, and easily the best of the new shows that came on this season.

Things Said

ME: So what's for breakfast?

BECCA: Self-reliance.

ME: If I wanted that, I wouldn't have gotten married.


CASHIER: Would you like your candy kept out of the bag?

ME: And ruin my breakfast of donuts?


ME: [reading junk mail] Oh, I'm pre-qualified for a loan. [rips it up, throws it onto floor]

BECCA: You're pre-qualified to pick that shit up off the floor right now.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Xmas: Puff Chart

Kristen Bell Mondays

3 weeks.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Song of the Week: "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)"

SamuraiFrog's Essential Christmas Songs #2: "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" by Darlene Love from the magnificent A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector album. I probably first heard this song in Gremlins when I was 8... that's the first time I consciously remember hearing it, anyway, although my Dad loves this song, too... Either way, my Christmas playlist is never complete without this. Back in the days of cassettes I used to open Side B with this one.

Xmas: Peanuts, 1954