The phrase “Magical Negro” refers to the phenomenon in which a white character in a tv show or movie finds enlightenment through the wisdom of a Black character. It is widely considered an offensive trope in which Black people — imbued with special spiritual, religious, or primitive powers of insight, often ostensibly due to some disadvantage like poverty — serve only to support a white person’s transformation. The white person, and their ultimate redemption, remains the central story.
I couldn’t help but think of this when I watched the trailer for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, sent in by Katrin. In this trailer, the Magical Negro isn’t a Black person; it’s not even a person. It’s the entire country of India.
We’ve posted before about the use of non-White bodies, or non-Western cultures, as props in fashion photo shoots. These shoots generally show a White model in Westernized clothing juxtaposed with animals, landscapes, architecture, and undifferentiated groups of non-White residents, all of which mark the White model as modern and the locale as exotic and primitive. The residents of the nations where these shoots occur, then, are presented as one more tourist attraction, a backdrop for the White star of the fashion display.
Sonita M. sent in another example of this common fashion trope, posted at Oh No They Didn’t! A recent issue of Vogue Australia, themed “Fashion gone wild,” includes a feature on Isabel Lucas in “Africa,” though it appears the photographs were specifically taken in Botswana. A few images:
Similarly, Pearl S.D. and Liana R. pointed out that the November 2011 Anthropologie catalog uses Peru as a backdrop, with local residents and the landscape serving as background:
In this image, the Peruvians are literally marginalized, partially cut out of the photo of the two models they frame, one of whom holds a Cuzco Clutch, which sells for a mere $228:
Dolores R. sent us a link to a video posted at Racialicious about stereotypes of Native Americans in video games. Beth Aileen Lameman, the director and narrator, discusses a number of frequent tropes used when depicting Native Americans in games, such as the half-breed hero, the wise old Indian sage, and, of course, the hottie Indian princess, as well as the tendency to conflate many different tribes and cultures. It’s a great summary of common representations of Native Americans in pop culture more broadly:
Sadie M. sent in an example of the reproduction of the idea that “Africa” is an arid, desolate place where nature still dominates civilization. The snapshot Sadie sent in was of Nairobi. Nairobi is the 12th largest city on the continent of Africa with a population of over 3 million in the city and its surrounding suburbs. It is the capital of Kenya and an economic, political, and financial hub in the region.
Nairobi is also not a desert plain. The name, in Maasai, translates into ”the place of cool waters” and it is popularly known as “Green City in the Sun” (wikipedia).
Despite all of this, Sadie’s snapshot shows that an in flight magazine depicted Nairobi as a savanna full of elephants and bereft of people. The other two destinations featured – New York and Sydney — are pictured as they are.
So there we have it: Another piece of advertising erasing the bustling, successful economies of Africa, and instead reproducing the idea that the entire continent is an uncivilized desert full of exotic animals.
UPDATE: Reader NS points out that it is important to recognize that the clothing shown here wasn’t made up by the photographers or stylists, but is a realistic representation of items worn by Danza Azteca participants. You can see images of dancers here and here.
Last week we featured a guest post by Stephen Bridenstine about the invisibility of Native American reservations on Google Maps, and how this affects our awareness of geographic and social realities. The flip side of ignoring some information about our country is what we do choose to draw attention to. Over a year ago, Charlotte C. sent in a photo of a sign she noticed in downtown Fall City, Washington, about 25 miles east of Seattle. The sign includes several milestones for the area. The first significant event worthy of note is the first time a White person laid eyes on nearby Snoqualmie Falls:
This reminded me of a photo I took of a monument near the Black Hills in South Dakota. The monument is for Anna (or Annie) Tallent, a woman who was a teacher and superintendent of schools for Pennington County. While the monument mentions she was a “teacher and author,” her major claim to fame appears to be that she was the “first White woman to enter the Black Hills”:
In Memory of Anna Donna Tallent
Teacher and Author
Born in New York State, April 12, 1827. Died in Sturgis, S. Dakota, February 13, 1901.
The first White woman to enter the Black Hills, arriving in Custer City in December 1874.
This monument is erected by the Society of Black Hills Pioneers and many admirers.
“The world is better because she lived and served in it.”
The monument to her achievements fails to note that in 1874, when she entered the Black Hills, the region was part of the Great Sioux Reservation and were not legally available to Whites for settlement. The U.S. Cavalry removed her entire party for setting up an illegal gold mining encampment on land that was clearly owned by the Sioux, according to an 1868 treaty with the U.S. government…a treaty the government quit honoring soon after Whites found out there was gold in the Black Hills, which the the federal government confiscated in 1877. Tallent discussed the illegal land invasions (including her expedition’s efforts to avoid detection by government officials) in her 1899 book The Black Hills, Or, The Last Hunting Ground of the Dakotahs, in which she laments the “mournful” state of the Sioux nation but rhetorically asks whether it’s appropriate to honor treaties that “arrest the advance of civilization” (p. 3) and, generally, presents a racist, condescending depiction of Native Americans as pathetic, sad “savages” whose displacement in the name of progress and civilization was inevitable.
So what story about our nation do these two monuments tell? The only information contained on the two-sided Fall City monument refers to the activities of Whites; the Native residents were important only when they lost land. For all intents and purposes, the history of the area started only once a White man had set eyes on it. Similarly, Tallent’s arrival in the Black Hills is memorable largely because she was a White woman, whose presence is by definition worthy of note and celebration — imagine, a vulnerable White woman braving the wildness of the Dakota territory! The fact that she was an illegal prospector camping on land she didn’t own while in the pursuit of quick wealth is neither worth mentioning nor a cause to question whether she’s a laudable figure deserving of a monument. Thus, the effect of both of these monuments is to normalize colonization and illegal settlement, and present the arrival of Whites as the beginning of meaningful history.
In a new book called “The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia became a Black Disease,” psychiatrist and cultural critic Jonathan Metzl draws on a variety of sources — patient records, psychiatric studies, racialized drug advertisements, and popular metaphors for madness — to contend that schizophrenia transformed from being a mostly white, middle-class affliction in the 1950s, to one that identified with blackness, volatility, and civil strife at the height of the Civil Rights movement.
The racialized resonance between emerging definitions of schizophrenia and anxieties about black protest seem clear in pharmaceutical advertisements and essays appearing in leading American psychiatric journals during the 1960s and 70s. For instance, the advertisement for the major tranquilizer Haldol that ran in the Archives of General Psychiatry shows an angry, hostile African American man with a clenched, inverted, Black Power fist.
The deranged black figure literally shakes his fist at the assumed physician viewer, while in the background a burning, urban landscape appears to directly reference the type of civil strive that alarmed many in the “establishment” at that time. The ad compels psychiatrists to conflate black anger as a form of threatening psychosis and mental illness. Indeed the ad seems to play off presumed fears of assaultive and belligerent black men.
As the urban background suggests, this fear extended beyond individual safety to social unrest. In a 1969 essay titled “The Protest Psychosis,” after which Metzl’s book is named, psychiatrists postulated that the growing racial disharmony in the US at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, reflected a new manifestation of psychotic behaviors and delusions afflicting America’s black lower class. Accordingly, “paranoid delusions that one is being constantly victimized” drew some men to fixate on misguided ventures to overthrow the establishment. Luckily, pharmaceutical companies proposed that chemical interventions could directly pacify the masculinzed, black threat depicted in advertisements like the above. “Assaultive and belligerent?” it asks. “Cooperation often begins with Haldol.”
Moreover, ads for Thorazine and Stelazine during this period often conjured up images of the “unruly” and “primitive” precisely at a time when the demographic composition of this diagnosis was dramatically shifting from a mostly white clientele, to a group of predominately black, confined, mental patients. It is telling that within this context, the makers of Thorazine would choose to portray the drug’s supposed specificity to schizophrenia in their advertisements by displaying a variety of war staffs, walking sticks, and other phallic artifacts from African descent.
The below ad for Thorazine, for example, exclaims western medicine’s superiority in treating mental illness with modern pharmaceuticals, by contrasting the primitive tools used by less enlightened cultures.
Notably, these claims of superiority and medical efficacy drew from a particular set of pejorative ideas of the “primitive” that were already well established within some sectors of psychiatry that equated mental illness with primitive, animalistic and regressive impulses. As Metzl contends in his book:
…pharmaceutical advertisements shamelessly called on these long-held racist tropes to promote the message that social “problems” raised by angry black men could be treated at the clinical level, with antipsychotic medications.
These adds are in sharp contrast to previous marketing campaigns that framed schizophrenia in the 1950s as a mental condition affecting mostly middle class patients, and especially women. Also shown below, ideas of schizophrenia were at that time an amorphous collection of psychotic and neurotic symptoms that were thought to afflict many women who struggled to accept the routines of domesticity.
While schizophrenia is certainly a real, frightening, debilitating disease, Metzl reminds us that cultural assumptions of the “other” shape how psychiatry understands and treats the condition.
The translation of the text is “Oppressed women are easily overlooked. Please support us in the fight for their rights.”
As Dusenbery writes,
It seems the folks who created this ad not only have a hard time seeing agency but actually went out of their way to erase it as thoroughly as possible and then stomp on it some more. And then equated women who wear the burqa with bags of trash. Literally.
I completely agree, and would like to add some broader context. This is not at all surprising, given the recent of attempts in the West to obscure the agency of Muslim women in juxtaposition to their white, Western saviors. One of the more blatant examples of this was the discourse of the United States government that it was going to war in Afghanistan in part to save Afghan women from the Taliban. Laura Shepherd argued in an excellent 2006 article in The International Feminist Journal of Politics (which I’vecitedbefore) that the US discursively constructed Afghan women as the “Helpless Victim” that was submissive and lacking agency, under the oppressive control of the “Irrational Barbarian.” This discourse, was used, of course, to posit the United States (specifically, its military) as the saviors who could rectify the situation for these women. Much as the agency of the women in the German PSA was erased, this narrative denied the agency of Afghan women, who, as Shepherd writes, are afforded “only pity and a certain voyeuristic attraction” (p. 20).
Of course, this specific discourse hasn’t ended. As this TIME Magazine cover from last year shows, it continues to serve as a means of justifying the US occupation of Afghanistan.
(Cover to the August 9, 2010 edition of TIME)
This discourse assumes, obviously, that the US presence in Afghanistan is a clear benefit for women in the country, a position at least some women’sorganizations in Afghanistan contest. Samhita Mukhopadhyay at Feministing had an excellent post on this issue last summer.
I should also mention France’s recently-instituted ban on the full-faced veil, which Dusenbery argues – citing Jos Truitt – is a similar erasure of agency. I agree with her, and again would add that this fits in with this general (Orientalist) discourse about Muslim women, their uncivilized oppressors, and their White saviors.
John McMahon is a Ph.D. student in Political Science at the City University of New York Graduate Center, where he also participates in the Women’s Studies Certificate Program. He is interested in post-structuralism, issues relating to men and feminism, gendered practices in international relations, gender and political theory, and questions of American state identity. John blogs at Facile Gestures, where this post originally appeared.