Pick Your Pop Culture

So, I've like written about music for 25 years, and like I've got a lot to say and not enough people to pay me for it, and like I like to write about TV, and books, and movies, and stuff like that.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Race and Gender and You and Me

We are all the other. A simple idea, I suppose, but one that’s very, very hard to forget.

My life is different from yours. We may have some similarities, of course. Maybe we have the same hair color, or the same religious opinions, or a common ability to be turned on by the same famous actor or actress. But, no matter how many things I’ve found to mark us as similar, there are many, many more things to show us to be different.

That’s because what I know of me that makes me unique is much more than what anybody else knows of me. My wife knows a heck of a lot about my individuality, and I know a lot about hers, after more than ten years of being with each other every day. But, even here, we have much more to discover about each other than we can ever know. We are bound to be surprised by something no matter how much we’ve invested in the experience of each other.

So, if even two people as intimately connected as me and Cat can’t possibly know everything about each other’s essential state, why is it so easy for most people to assume we know something essential about other people based on a very small sample size of data? That person is black, this one kissed somebody of the same gender, that one is well-to-do, this one is a transsexual. Each of these phrases puts us in mind of a clichéd response or two, doesn’t it? And each of those clichés is more likely to be wrong when applied to an individual than it is to be right.

I’ve just finished reading “S/He,” a book by Minnie Bruce Pratt, and I just saw the movie “Crash,” written and directed by Paul Haggis. This is one of those happy bits of synchronicity, because the book and the movie complement each other. They’ve both got me thinking about the ways we think we know people, and the ways individual humans continue to surprise us. They’ve also got me thinking about the ways stereotypes and bigotry instill fear in people on both sides of the issue at hand, and the ways that fear affects individuals.

“S/He” is a series of vignettes by Pratt, normally a poet but whose skills translatebeautifully to prose. Pratt is a femme lesbian with a female transsexual partner who is not undergoing surgery. In other words, Pratt’s partner, the “s/he” of the title, is someone for whom we haven’t built up many stereotypes. Or worse, it’s someone who becomes the victim of multiple stereotypes, from male heterosexual to female homosexual to butch homosexual to transsexual of any type. Pratt tells of fears waiting for her partner to return from a simple visit to a public restroom, where any number of possible reactions to hir presence could occur.

There is an abundance of love on display in “S/He,” a full plate of erotic moments and mundane delights. Pratt’s descriptions of events in her life with her partner, and her life before it, constantly make great leaps into insights unknown. I am incapable of living as Pratt does – I suppose the equivalent would have to be me becoming considerably more jockish and then falling in love with a male to female transsexual who has no intention of being surgically transformed. But, I feel connected to her experiences now. Pratt delivers the essential feelings of falling in love, the moments which take your breath away no matter what gender or sex you may be. And, she delivers the feelings of being different, of being hated for who you are, or who people think you are, and of being proud that you aren’t afraid to be who you are.

Sexuality is a lot more complicated than most people want to assume. Most discussions of it tend to place it in binary categories. You’re either straight or gay, male or female, moral or immoral. Yet, people themselves tend to fall all over the continuum between these points. And, depending on one’s individual experiences, and one’s opinion of one’s experiences, judgements about the acceptance of other possibilities tend to get hardened. (By that I mean, people who have encountered multiple sex and gender possibilities are more likely to accept them, unless, of course, these encounters included sexual delights which strongly contradicted one’s own moral code; thus you get supposed heterosexuals railing against homosexuality as much as anything because they fear it in themselves.)

So is race. Growing up in the Midwest in the 1960s, I pretty much understood two races. There were whites, and there were blacks. Oh, I’d heard something about Asians (we knew them as Orientals then), but I don’t think I would have understood Hispanics as another race, or Africans, or Arabs. I would have seen them as grouped in one or the other of the three divisions I knew.

Of course, it’s a lot more complicated than that. Like sex and gender, race is an arbitrary construct, a naming of something based on surface elements. Skin color, primarily, but cultural background is important, as well. Genetically, there are no important differences between Caucasians, Africans, and Asians. What we see as differences are trivial in the grand scheme of things.

“Crash” hits hard at the way we see these differences, which is decidedly not trivial. By taking people from wildly different backgrounds – African-Americans both lower class and upper middle class, upper middle class whites, lower class Hispanics, and lower middle class Iranians – and watching what happens as their lives intersect, we see stereotypes revealed to be both true and false. That’s what makes things more complicated. Two lower class African-Americans walking in a ritzy white neighborhood are possibly there to pull a carjacking. Pampered middle aged white wives of district attorneys could turn out to be incapable of connecting to other people.

Haggis doesn’t do a perfect job with the script. He tends to have characters tell us who they are and why they think the way they do, which saves time, but doesn’t make things quite as believable. But, once we’ve established the basics, he does make sure to keep us surprised. Almost all of the many characters in this film are revealed to have completely unexpected, yet very reasonable, facets. They learn from their experiences, yet they don’t become perfect human beings.

Oh, yeah, there is some incredible acting in this flick. Don Cheadle is magnificent in a difficult role as a police investigator who is trying to find a way to do the right things in life, and not sure how to relate to the people he loves. Matt Dillon’s role as a largely despicable yet still heroic cop will make your skin crawl at times. Sandra Bullock handles the bitchy DA wife part nicely, and is smooth when it’s time to become dependent on others. Still, the roles played by Ludacris and Larenz Tate, two car thieves who set the plot in motion, are my favorites. Yeah, it’s obvious Haggis is stealing from Quentin Tarantino in “Pulp Fiction” when he has them talking so much philosophy about their criminal actions, but they display very human reactions to the events around them.

Race, sexuality, whatever! There is something about each of us that scares the living daylights out of other people somewhere. Keeping that in mind would seem to be a first step in making things better. Read “S/He” or watch “Crash” or do both. The world is full of differences dancing around similarities.


Blogger the nut said...

Sexism was in there, not blatantly except for Matt Dillon's hideous character, but it was there. How women are treated bc of their race/sexuality in society is equally important to remember and be aware of.

(Found you from your response on Alternet.org's article.)

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