Book of Mormon and Other Bullshit We Excuse Using the Heading “Funny.”

Last night I sphoto(1)aw Book of Mormon at the Broward County Preforming Arts Center. We bought the tickets months ago and I was really looking forward to it because I’ve heard only good things, which is surprising because I don’t have a whole lot of good things to say. What I do have to say is this: Book of Mormon is painfully racist and not really all that funny.

If you haven’t seen it, let me summarize: Two 19-year-old Mormon missionaries go to Uganda, Africa on a mission to recruit and baptize new Mormons. There is lunacy that ensues, which is the basic plot of the play but who could even focus on that when the “African” reality represented is so stereotypical, derogatory and embarrassingly prejudicial. In the context of this play there are two versions of Africa – the “lion king” version, which harkens to ideas of the noble savage, glorious nature, dancing, singing and marching around with spears and the “AIDS, MURDER and FEMALE CIRCUMCISION ” version, which is presented as the ‘legitimate’ spoof of Africa’s reality. In other words, the “lion king” version is what the missionaries think Africa will be like, and the “AIDS, MURDER and FEMALE CIRCUMCISION ” version is what Africa is “really” like when they arrive.

I am not going to deny the fact that Africa – a continent three times the size of the United States – has its share of problems and that included in those problems are war, female genital mutilation (FGM), AIDS, rape and other complicated and destructive forces. And it’s true that these are the aspects of Africa that the news likes to focus on. Arguably, because maintaining a racist understanding of Africa makes it that much easier for Western cultures to pillage the continent for natural resources like titanium and diamonds without a whole lot of outcry.  Despite all this, in reality Africa is a spectacular place of innovation and culture, which has given us amazing men and women, including the likes of Chinua Achebe, Leymah Gbowee, Wangari Maathai  and  Nelson Mandela – who died today.  Here’s a youtube video that looks at these stereotypes:

Book of Mormon took the stereotypical understanding of Africa as an untamable, contaminated place – an understanding that is linked to a history of racism but usually based on ignorance and quickly alleviated/dispelled with even a smidge of exposure – to an extreme, which showed no consideration or respect for African people and affirmed a colonialist history of racism.

For example, in the Ugandan town that the Mormon Missionaries were sent to many of the people have AIDS – not HIV, AIDS. One of the African men believes that if he has sex with a virgin he will cure his AIDS. None of the adult women in the town are virgins – because clearly Africans are promiscuous (sarcasm) – so this man attempts to rape a baby. This attempted rape is repeatedly noted as a punch line in the song lyrics and scenes. This scenario is racist on so many levels – the assumed promiscuity of the African people, the horrifying ignorance of a man who would believe that raping a baby could cure disease, the prevalence of AIDS etc. There are other instances that are equally absurd as well as little prickles like the two African men who steal the missionaries’ bags as soon as they arrive, and local woman who warns the missionaries to shut their windows at night to keep out the murderers. It’s appalling.

photoIt’s worth noting that the play also clearly critiques Mormonism by highlighting the need for good Mormons to “just believe” the dubious roots of the Mormon religion and strangely the entire playbill was filled with ads for learning more about the Mormon faith. This is painfully ironic considering this is a play that actively attempts to render the Mormon faith inane and ludicrous.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that lately, it’s not just Book of Mormon that has offended me. Go ahead call me a party pooper or a grouchy bitch, I’m okay with that because these ideas, images, representation lack a basic sense of respect for the people they are portraying. It’s not funny when people make jokes about rape, bodies, races, nationalities, genders, etc. These kinds of jokes are lazy. They rely of human cruelty and hate. And to be honest, I’m not sure why we think they’re funny. How does it even make sense that we find ways to laugh at rape? What is up with that?

So…I’m diggin’ ABC Family’s The Fosters.

75c9550295c737231f2eac88f962d023As most of you know my Ph. D. research revolves around teen media, which gives me a hearty excuse to stay current with all that ABC Family produces, and I am impressed enough by their new show The Fosters that I feel the need to note it.  Produced by none other than Jennifer Lopez , The Fosters revolves around a bi-racial 40-something lesbian couple, Stef Foster and Lena Adams, who have five children: Stef’s biological son (Brandon), an adopted set of twins (Jesus and Mariana) and two foster children (Callie and Jude). While I am not willing to make the claim that the show is an ideological paradise because Lena and Stef’s relationship continues to reinforce many patriarchal and heteronormative structures, the show does offer viewers a complex examination of issues like cultural diversity, adoption, the foster system, family, homosexuality etc.

For example, in the recent episode “Quinceañera” questions were raised about the nature of racism and the importance of honoring one’s ethnic background. The episode brought forth thoughts about ethnicity and race through a multifaceted plot line. Even though they are not of Latin decent, Stef and Lena throw Mariana a Quinceañera because they feel it is important to introduce  and incorporate the culture of Mariana’s heritage into her life. This cherish-your ethnicity-perspective explicitly comes to light , during a conversation between Lena and Lena’s mother, who is in town for the  Quinceañera. It is made clear that Lena’s relationship with her mother has always been strained because Lena, as the daughter of a white man and a black woman,  is a lighter skinned than her mother so her mother believes that because of Lena’s fairer complexion Lena doesn’t fully understand the “black” experience. Lena rejects her mother’s perspective and points out that oppression is not a game of comparison. Both the discussion of Mariana’s need for a Quinceañera and Lena’s navigating thorough the world as a fair-skinned black woman are nuanced and they forward really interesting and engaged ideas about social justice and the complex nature of living in a diverse world.

In just a few episodes, The Fosters has taken reproductive justice (including, the use of the morning after pill, sex ed, and issues of parental consent), the foster system (flaws, reports that stigmatize foster children, abuse, sexual assault), Sexual education (both how it works and how it fails), Immigration and undocumented individuals, and finally the definition of family.  If nothing else – I have a new respect for J. Lo.

Besides me and a whole lot of 13 year-olds, has anyone seen this show?

Assumptions

So I work at a for-profit university, and today we are celebrating opening week by using a movie theme. There was a raffel where students could win free movie tickets, a red carpet – you get the idea.

Today’s activity was focused around the film Grease. The played the musicas our students arrived and people dressed the part – mostly professors. At this point I need to mention that the students where I teach are of all races, but it is fair to say that white students are in the minority. With the Grease theme I couldn’t help myself from thinking about a disscusion I was having in a feminist theory class the other night – a discussion about intertextuality, social context, social construct, and essentialism.

What I keep wondering is can we really expect mixed race students to have the same affinity for and excitement about a film that speaks very little to their experiance? What does Grease mean to them? And also does a celebration of this film perpetuate the social construction of white sterotypes as dominant? It feels that way to me. I feel like my students are being asked to feel celebratory about everything that oppresses and marginalized them.