Category Archives: art

Female Gaze=Depth in Sia’s “Elastic Heart”

sia_video

Much speculation has been made since the video for Sia’s “Elastic Heart” was released last week about what goes down in the video using terms like half naked, violent, cage match and pedophilia. I’ve seen little expressed about the interpretation of this video as two warring internal forces as depicted by two incredibly well matched performers through the art of movement and drama.

I was elated to discover  when I came home the day I watched the video for the first and second time that my husband was just as compelled and captivated by the visceral and interpretive nature of the video, not to say the least of the sheer physical achievements of both Maddie and Shia.

We watched the video again several times and then had a long discussion over what we saw as a myriad of possibly intended meanings but what we ultimately understood to be a deliberate lack of easy answers particularly if looked at only as a literal translation of two people fighting in a cage.

My husband made me think about things I would never have thought to examine while watching the video, mainly because I looked at it from a very stereotypical female perspective ie, the female perspective by way of a patriarchal framework . I could only see a study of opposition which placed Maddie in a position of being trapped and wanting to escape. But I was very aware that Shia’s performance was one of deep, raw, fear, panic, loss, vulnerability and victimization as well, emotions that are traditionally relegated to a female performance because they are seen as weak. The choice to cast him was nothing if not deliberate and thoughtful. My husband made me understand that Shia’s character was just as abused, as scared and as lost than Maddie’s character could be conceived to be if not more.

The idea that this video has anything to do with pedophilia simply because it pits a twelve year old girl physically against an adult man was shed for me within minutes of what I comprehended as two beings equally matched in physical power who were battling against larger, more symbolic forces of pain, addiction, abuse, fear and liberation from imposed victimhood. This is far beyond the pornographic images cranked out by the White male gaze we are so accustomed to viewing the world through.  When White men speak power, a woman or person of color is always in chains of some shape or form. The cage is never interrogated, studied or interpreted. It simply functions to keep pacification, marginalization, perversion and self-hate cultivated and prosperous. And that is not this video does.

But I can understand how we as a society, which is not accustomed to seeing life through a female gaze might find itself despondent and shocked when being confronted with one in much the same way that a nation can be despondent and shocked at seeing a Black man elected to Presidential Office.

What did James Baldwin say in “The Fire Next Time” about what happens when dominant oppressive culture reacts to those who have been enslaved and subverted for decades, breaking free from their chains? He said that to those who benefited from the placing and maintenance of those chains it would appear  upon waking in the morning that the night stars were shining in the blue sky.

Or as Leonard Cohen in “The Future” Things are gonna slide, slide in all directions, won’t be nothing, nothing you can measure anymore…”

When women speak power, it is a very different thing than that which we are daily fed by a dominant patriarchal system. Out power is not in dominance but in vulnerability and allowing access. “Elastic Heart” takes to task ideas which speak to what happens when one part of the self tries to liberate itself from another and how much of that self identifies with something which no longer serves it although it experiences the heartbreaking pain of loss when it attempts to separate.

Patriarchy could give a fuck about these ideas.

The use of dance as a form with which to represent these two embattled parts of Sia and humanity as a whole to be honest, are both personal and universally human at the same time. We sometimes have the tendency to want certain artistic expressions to be very literal, to reveal themselves and their purpose or narrative based on reflections of our own inner projections and collections of specific past experiences.  And while I am certain that there are specific experiences in Sia’s life that this song and video are inspired by, I don’t believe that she is depicting any one particular experience. I think it is vague because she seeks connect with a broad meaning of the struggle she attempts to depict and not just her own.

For me, the cage is an obvious metaphor but in addition to that, there is much that occurs in the relationship between these two performers that can be interpreted narratively in many ways. But the assumption that this is just about a small girl being overpowered by an adult man is just a way to provoke and challenge viewers to go deeper.

With regard to the metaphor of bird cages, particularly around the construct of what it means to be undervalued, abused and marginalized in a world dominated by fear, I was moved to revisit the poem “Caged Bird” by Maya Angelou. For me, Shia’s behavior best illustrates the caged bird syndrome, someone who wants to get out, but who is also become a victim of a comfort dangerously associated with reward based on pacification and subservience. And Maddie is the part of the bird that wants to fly free and leave the cage. When she leaves, Shia dies and she attempts to do what cannot be done, which is to drag him out into a perceived freedom beyond the bars.  But freedom from any cage cannot bring along any elements of the caged mindset. By law, the two simple cannot co-exist, because one of them is not real. Or rather neither of them is any longer real to the other once they separate.

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Belafonte: Film History 101

Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences' 2014 Governors Awards - Show

Last night I was watching the acceptance speech Harry Belafonte gave after receiving the Humanitarian Award from The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He is someone I have admired greatly for years, more for his activism and work with youth, than his acting. I prefer his musical performances to his dramatic ones. But having worked in film at a time before racial integration, the projects he chose to work in were deliberate in their revolutionary positions on race, social justice and class structure. Even he has said that he never wanted to be an actor for any other reason than to have a platform from which to positively affect social change.

My favorite part of his acceptance speech is when he began to reverently and expertly break down the fundamental ways in which films like “Birth of A Nation” and “Tarzan,” while admittedly innovative for the time, helped to invent and stereotype popular ideas about who Black Americans and Black Africans were, to in effect plant the seed of hatred in the minds of Whites and Blacks alike. Even Belafonte was impressed as a young person, watching “Tarzan” for the first time. But he was clear that for people of color, awe and amazement were quickly stamped out by images of themselves that evoked and reflected the base fears of a dominant white culture that were bent on maintaining power over this medium by keeping aesthetic ideals of intelligence, beauty and heroism as white as could be.

That hasn’t changed by the way.

As an avid film lover with a degree in Media and Social Issues and as a woman of color I make it a point not only to study film but to try my best to understand what I am consuming when I watch films. Since the dawn of filmmaking there has only been one story to tell albeit in many different ways. The story is of humanity. We cannot tell any other story but this. Even in nature documentaries about animals, ecosystems, planets, everything that is being studied, or explored, or interpreted is being done through the human mind. We like mirrors. We hate mirrors. But if we do not look, we can never know we exist, how and for what reasons.

The medium of film has been co-opted by the dominate culture for decades but the stories of humanity within them that have been allowed into the mainstream have been broad, compelling, heartbreaking, transcendent, universal and beautiful nonetheless. Like any form of art, you can find the voices you’re looking for even if they are not released by the big studios. But you have to look. And if you can’t find the voice you’re looking for, try using your own or supporting and encouraging those around you which hold promise.

I know without looking at my film collection that it is primarily made up of white casts, and white directors. I can also guess that the majority of these directors are male. This is the world I live in. I can see myself in a story that does not include characters that look like me because as humans, we all share the human experience. But humane portrayal in film is not always shared equally across race and gender. Types stick. Genres and formulas generate buzz and bring in millions. And the deep psychological effects of racism and sexism play out on the big screen and the small in ways we are often depended upon to overlook as consumers.  Being educated about the history of any medium of expression is to understand more about its present day incarnations and the ways in which the actual evolution or change in its depictions are usually more or less the same as they ever were for better or worse.

With regard to film and the role it plays in enlightenment, exploration and inciting movement, it’s not always change that’s necessary, but a realization about why we tell stories the way we do in the first place. Our  voices, stories, faces, our diversity is there.  It has been from the beginning in directors like Oscar Micheaux and performers like Paul Robeson, in films like “Black Orpheus” and “Sugar Cane Alley” The problem is in the monopolization of the dominate eye behind the camera. And you can always tell whose eye it is because the same trail of evidence is left behind in each frame.

Where the Black People Are

Is that a Black person following me on Flickr? No? Oh. Okay. Hey is that a Black woman in a feature on a Mind Body Green article? Oh. no. Hey, is that a Black person following me on IG? Oh cool! I look them up, check out their profile, look at their images, etc.

When I got married in June of this year, a trusted adviser (A woman of color if you haven’t gotten the gist) recommended the magazine New York Weddings to me. When I finally found a copy at Barnes & Noble  I noticed that, like New York Weddings, every single wedding magazine had a white woman on the cover. Flipping through one or two of these magazines didn’t reveal much diversity in ads or feature articles. Wedding dresses are white enough! I needed to see some color and variety in shapes in these dresses. I never bought one single wedding magazine during the months of planning leading up to my wedding.  I just couldn’t. This was too important. And with things that are this important in my life, marriage, art, health and more, I get excited when I see Black and Brown faces representing. And as a Black woman I am always aware of the fact that I have to go looking.

We have to go looking.

With dolls, we have to looking, with hair products we have to go looking, with children’s books we have to go looking, with photography we have to go looking. Quick! Name a famous living Black Photographer! No, not Gordon Parks! I said living. I said famous. Not too easy is it? Is it because they don’t exist?

Carrie Mae Weems exists. I don’t mean to be condescending. I know you all knew that.

Right?

Getting back to my point. When I was getting married I found a site and Web Magazine called Munaluchi Bridal Magazine, the only one I’ve found so far which featured Brides of color in all phases of nuptial and post nuptial planning from engagement photos to wedding ceremonies to mommy to be images. And that was one of my most primary references for ideas about my own wedding. I was so happy too see Brides of color in my IG feed every week and not just the standard stick thin models but actual real women of color with real bodies getting married all over the country and sometimes the world! There is where I stayed.

About  a year ago, Life as I Know It told me about a nail shop in my neighborhood in Harlem called Bed of Nails. B.O.N. is owned and run by a young Black woman who hires Black nail technicians. I had my own reservations about going there for the first time, the kind anyone would have about a brand new place of business. Would they know what they were doing? What would the ambiance be like? Would they be nice? I made my appointment, showed up one afternoon and the minute I walked in I was greeted by a sister who took my coat and offered me a choice of tea or a mimosa.

HUH? YES PLEASE!

Exposed Brick on one side and a wall of designer nail polish from Christian Louboutin to Deborah Lippmann on the other. Six velvety Black high back chairs set up in the back for pedicures have a very inviting and royal  to them. A large purple sofa in the waiting area with natural light streaming in from the window behind you. It’s a very warm atmosphere, not just because of the layout and design of the place but the treatment, professionalism and yet laid back casualness of it all. No one is rushing you in and out. They want to be there and they want you to be there as well. Plus they play the best mix of hip-hop/R&B up at the front desk while you’re getting your nails or feet done. It’s so relaxing. And there I stay. I never go anywhere else to get my nails done. This is the experience I want. If there was a Black owned, Black run Bed of Nails chain in Midtown Manhattan I would go there.

The reason I bring this whole subject up is that there are certain white people who like to pull the Racist card whenever Black people manage to organize or build anything of their own or patronize Black owned businesses exclusively that cater to the people in their community. Listen. If I didn’t have to go looking so hard for representation of Blacks in the areas of life that are most important for me in the first place, this wouldn’t even be an issue. It’s not my fault that dominant culture has tipped the scales in it’s favor for so long that any logical attempt towards filling the needs which are not met by this culture will be interpreted as “Reverse Racism,” a term whose definition I will not even dignify with a discussion because it is a fiction.

The idea that you get to fuck with descendants of African people for this long, tell them to get over it so that you can absorb them in a culture that is defined and built on a foundation of theft, genocide, appropriation, assimilation, and gentrification of native and indigenous spaces is what’s really sick and racist.

If I decide I want to go away to an island where only Black and Brown people exist (and sometimes I really do), I damn well have every right to. After all, White people do this all the time.

It’s called a vacation.