The horrors of domesticity

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In Monday’s sections, we had a lovely discussion of some lighthearted approaches to challenging gender roles and ideals of domesticity, specifically through sitcoms. Personally, I’m not a sitcom gal. I’m all about the horror flick. What many who are dismissive of horror as a genre don’t realize is that a good chunk of these films are not simply “torture porn” meant to titillate through nudity, sadism, and extreme violence. Horror often sets out to tell us something about what society fears, and not just in the sense of being eviscerated by a man with knives for fingers while we sleep. On a deeper level, they speak to fears about immigration, climate change, teenage immorality, the uncertainty of the afterlife, economic recession, technology, and whatever else is making us nervous.

Below are a few horror movies that deal with domesticity and motherhood, and I encourage you to check them out and watch for those themes, rather than simply watching to see whether they scare you. Think about what ideologies these films are either challenging or reinforcing. Specifically, what do they have to say about motherhood or the nuclear family? The clues aren’t just in the plots, but in the visual imagery, the dialogue, the silences, the music, and so on. And hey, maybe you’ll find a new appreciation for horror films looking at them through a different lens. Or not. We’ll see.😉

The Babadook [2014] | Amazon (rental)

We Are What We Are [2013] | Netflix

Annabelle [2014] | Amazon (purchase)

You’re Next [2013] | Netflix

Triangle [2009] | Amazon (rental)

*note: Triangle is only 99 cents to rent and is one of my favorite movies, so I look forward to discussing it with anyone willing to shell out a few pennies to watch…. of course, I know you digital natives have other ways of procuring films for, shall we say, a significant discount.

Media Literacy Links: You are stubborn and biased

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This quarter I have the good fortune to be TAing a media criticism course with an emphasis on media literacy. This is, as most anyone who has made my acquaintance can tell you, one of my passions in life. There are few things I enjoy more than fostering critical thinking, particularly as it pertains to our engagement with various forms of media. Thus, I’d like to use this forgotten space as a supplemental resource for students in my sections who want to engage further with the subject. So, welcome, students. Glad to have you.

Of course, before even beginning to approach the topic, I must begin with this dismal fact: We can’t trust our own brains because we’re stubborn and biased and largely unwilling to accept information that conflicts with our strongly held beliefs.

Buzzzzkill.

I know. But the first step to fixing that problem is recognizing that it IS a problem. Today’s links are meant to  force us to question our certainty about, well, everything. They’re meant to force us to interrogate our ideologies, and to accept that maybe we are less knowledgeable, less reasonable, and less willing to be swayed by facts than we think we are.

Imagining MiRa: The Internet Mixed Race Database

Let's play a game: Who's mixed race in the 2013 UCSB film studies cohort?
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Now that I’ve grappled on a very surface level with the complicated relationship between race and the digital humanities, naturally I’m thinking about applying DH to the even more complicated area of mixed race studies. Were I to call myself a digital humanist, what would be my contribution? Or what would be helpful to me in the things that I study? What kind of digital humanities project could meaningfully address or make more feasible research in this area.

Now, we all understand that the concept of “mixed race” is a tricky one. Race is a social construct, not a biological fact; it’s not a salient means of categorizing people, should categorization even be a thing we strive to attain; plus, it’s an ever-shifting scale with constantly changing terms and criteria (and that’s without even touching on transnational differences). Add to the controversial concept of race the ambiguity of the “mixed race” individual. There is no way of knowing at a glance whether someone is for sure of mixed racial background [look at the photo above of my PhD cohort and try to identify who’s mixed]. There’s the argument that we’re pretty much all mixed. There’s hypodescent, and then there’s passing. There are awkward census categories. There’s self-identification vs. perception by others, and there’s race vs. culture vs. ethnicity. There’s the tendency of non-mixed people to demand that mixed people identify their heritage, and the understandable reluctance or refusal of mixed people to do so as a result. And of course, there’s the looming question of why it even matters. Does even acknowledging the idea of mixedness only perpetuate the myth of race? The list of complications goes on and on.

Still, there are scholars out there, myself included, who seek to make some sense of mixedness and the mixed experience. We are concerned with identity politics, representations, tropes and stereotypes, terminology and shifting categories. We’re told time and time again that mixed race people say something about America. Even as I type this post, WordPress recommends to me several articles to which I could link, including one entitled, “What Can Mixed-Race People Teach Us About Love?” Sometimes we represent the great melting pot, and sometimes the salad bowl. Sometimes we’re evidence that whiteness is losing power — which, depending on who you are, could be a hopeful idea or a terrifying one. We’re symbols of globalization and we’re evidence of a post-racial society. In simply existing, we mean.

Every mixed race scholar has their thing. Mine happens to be looking at how mixed race audiences respond to mixed race representations on television and in film. The project began in South Africa, as I talked with coloured people in their twenties about portrayals of coloured people in South African media. “Coloured” is not considered a catch-all for mixedness in South Africa, but instead constitutes a race all its own. Being coloured implies a certain ancestral history, whether or not that connotation is entirely accurate. As a half black/half white girl from America, South Africans were hard pressed to tell the difference between me and the average coloured person; ironically, this inaccurate interpretation saved me the trouble of having to explain myself for once in my life. They perceived that they had a word for me, and that was enough.

In returning to the U.S., where we have nothing so simple [or simplistic, rather] as the coloured category, finding instances of interracial relationships, mixed race characters, or mixed race actors in TV and film was a frustrating task, relying mostly on what essentially amounted to word of mouth: “Hey, anyone know any films with mixed race characters?” I would ask. The stock replies would come back. Imitation of Life, anything with Vin Diesel, Halle Berry, or Shemar Moore, maybe Spice World. It was frustrating. For one thing, mixedness tended to come down to people who were a combination of black and white. It seemed to me that audiences did not generally recognize, say, Keanu Reeves, Cameron Diaz, or Dean Cain as mixed race. Second, people seemed to have a hard time calling to mind anything that dealt with mixedness onscreen, or even just included a mixed character. I often reference Vin Diesel’s short film Multi-Facial as a brilliant look at why it’s hard for us to pin down mixed race representations. Often the ambiguity of a mixed race body results in the mixed actor becoming a stand-in for any and all minorities. We all look alike anyway, right?

There is also a noticeable dearth of scholarship on mixed race representations in media, which is not to say that scholars doing work in that area do not exist or are not prolific. Lisa Nakamura, Mary Beltrán, and Camilla Fojas are amongst the figures working to remedy this lack. Fojas and Beltrán’s Mixed Race Hollywood is considered to be a foundational text for the study of multiracial representation in film. Steven F. Riley’s MixedRaceStudies.org provides an incredibly useful archive of articles on the subject that not only includes scholarly works, but also pieces from magazines, newspapers, and so forth. The sociology department here at UCSB is even in the midst of putting out the first issue of the Journal of Critical Mixed Race Studies, which is certain to contain valuable insights into mixed race representations in media. Still, these sources are a drop in the bucket compared to the vast possibilities for the subject. What I’m suggesting is that mixed race scholarship might be more easily undertaken if a body of work from which to pull examples were already assembled.

So is it possible to create a digital database for the study of mixedness in the media? Is it desirable? And if so, what would it look like?

MiRaLogoI attempted to imagine such a database as part of an assignment for Alan Liu’s digital humanities graduate course. I called that database “MiRa,” for fairly obvious reasons. In my mind, such an undertaking involved crowdsourcing and tagging à la Your Paintings. It involved acquiring movie scripts, as well as transcribing the films without readily available screenplays. The purpose of script acquisition would be to analyze the ways in which mixed race individuals are discussed (or not discussed) and framed in films. It would make possible extracting the terms used for mixed race people as well as the terms used by mixed people. What types of roles are mixed race people given today, and what types of roles have they played historically?

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Let’s not pretend we didn’t notice Giancarlo Esposito’s turn as Pierce’s mixed race half brother bringing the tragic mulatto trope back to the small screen. [img: screencrush.com]

To me, the function of such a database would not be to provide an analysis of the data, so much as provide datasets that could be used by scholars for their own analysis. Further, it would simply provide a list from which mixed race scholars could begin to research mixedness in film and television.

Perhaps it would be something like a wiki. Perhaps it would be more like IMDb. Or maybe it would look like Australia’s HuNI, which I discussed and fawned over in my previous post. At this point, MiRa is my pie in the sky idea for making the study of mixed race representations more tenable for scholars. I have no concrete plan as to how to make something like this a reality, nor what would be its most useful form. I am, of course, open to ideas or thoughts on the feasibility of such a project.

What is very, very, extremely important to understand is that I am not advocating the categorization of human beings by the slippery construct of race. I am not insinuating that categorizing certain actors as mixed race is unproblematic. To create any such database walks a fine line in that regard. Self-identification by particular actors makes it easier, but I do think that perception of mixedness is relevant. Racial ambiguity is relevant. And perhaps the solution to that is to have a Snopes-like gradient: Green = verified mixed race; Yellow = undetermined; Red = not mixed. I’m being slightly facetious here, but then, how do we deal with that tension? In my mind, that kind of scale highlights the arbitrary nature of race, which is ultimately a positive thing.

I dunno. Is mixedness too fraught? Too contested? Or is there a way to create an archive of the ways in which mixedness has been represented in television and film without lending credibility to the idea that race is a thing that can be pinpointed in any meaningful way?

Understanding #DH: What’s Race Got to Do with It?

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My name is Corrigan and I’m a #DH n00b.

A student in Dr. Alan Liu’s digital humanities course at UCSB, I was tasked with trying to discern how DH relates to my particular area of academic interest. A thing I’m learning is that it’s super difficult to figure that out when even active participants in the DH “community” (a phrase I’m hesitant to use in light of the inimitable Ted Underwood’s questioning of “gemeinschaft and gesellschaft on the web.“) aren’t really sure. So please excuse me as I do my best to grapple with what’s going on in regards to race, gender, and marginalized communities in the digital humanities.

In one of its most recent posts, the Postcolonial Digital Humanities (DHPoco) blog focuses its attention on a PSA campaign gone viral, in which screenshots of Google autofill results are juxtaposed over photos of women with mouths taped shut. Unsurprisingly, the results that appear when one enters phrases like “women should” or “women cannot” are not particularly progressive, seemingly reflecting back upon society an unflattering image of our failing egalitarianism. But perhaps in this case, it’s Google we should be giving the side eye. The article argues that, while indeed someone (or, as the author asserts, most likely a coordinated group of men’s rights activists) made the offending queries, Google’s search algorithm is not arbitrary, objective, or untouched by ideology. Its programming is not neutral, nor out of their control. Google is responsible for a degree of “algorithmic accountability.”

Amongst its goals, DHPoco includes writing “alternative genealogies of the digital humanities,” an aim largely in line with postcolonial scholarship in general. Mathematics, science, programming, and the wide world of technology are often seen as without bias. Science is the opposite of those subjective arts and humanities. There are two or more sides to every story told by a human being, but the codes operating beneath the websites and devices we use have only one — or so we often assume. DHPoco and other scholarship on race in the digital humanities challenges the neutrality of the code and sheds light on the presence of systemic racism/sexism/colonialism within these supposedly un-ideological systems.

Scientific matters of mathematics and computation, objective and hard, do not seem to be subject to the concerns of gender, race, or sexuality. 2 + 2, so the reasoning goes, always equals 4, whether you are black, a woman, a queer, a straight, or whatever. HTML, SGML, XML—the codes that make words and images, texts, processable—and TEI conformancy are supposedly gender-, race-, class-neutral.The codes always work, and the principles always apply, whatever one’s personal identity or social group (or so many seemed to believe).
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In Wired magazine, Kali Tal writes, “I have long suspected that the vaunted ‘freedom’ to shed the markers of race and gender on the Internet is illusory, and that it masks a more disturbing phenomenon – the whitenizing of cyberspace.” Similarly, Anne Cong-Huyen noted,

One of the things #transformDH is careful to do, is  interrogate the assumptions that underlie scholarly practice in digital humanities, and the technologies that drive, motivate, and make this work possible. These digital and electronic technologies are of particular importance because they are often perceived as being neutral, without any intrinsic ethics of their own, when they are the result of material inequalities that play out along racial, gendered, national, and hemispheric lines. Not only are these technologies the result of such inequity, but they also reproduce and reinscribe that inequity through their very proliferation and use, which is dependent upon the perpetuation of global networks of economic and social disparity and exploitation.

The question of what role race plays in the digital humanities is fraught and oft debated. It is inevitably tied to, as Stephen Ramsay controversially put it, who’s in and who’s out. A complete newbie outsider to the whole discipline (or is it a discipline?) and discussion, I won’t pretend to possess the extensive DH knowledge to make a ruling on any of the questions raised by Ramsay in regards to the necessity of “making” or hacking vs. yacking, nor the questions raised in DHPoco, TransformDH, etc. on whether DH is a refuge from the concerns of race, gender, and so on. I will say, however, that digital humanities is in a unique position to challenge narratives and histories of race in an extremely visible way.

What makes these digital humanities projects significant, in my estimate, is the democratization potential. Take the Digital Archives & Pacific Cultures project out of University of Pittsburgh, for example: Not only does it uncover previously unknown or lost narratives of encounters with Polynesian cultures in the 18th century, but it does so in a way that makes this information immediately accessible to anyone with a passing interest. If we are interested in decolonizing history, providing access to alternate narratives of that history is crucial. Within the academy, the reality that the history written by the “winners” is not necessarily the most truthful or accurate history is largely understood and accepted. This is not necessarily the case outside of universities, particularly when textbooks in certain parts of the U.S. are being rewritten to more fully mythologize the past and give a nationalist perspective on the world. Thus accessibility becomes paramount. What good is it to keep this knowledge within university walls?

 

PARADISEC, part of the HuNI database, is another such archive, which exists as “a cross-institutional facility whose core mission is the preservation of audiovisual materials relating to cultures from the Asia Pacific region.”

Australia’s body of digital humanities work serving the purpose of cultural preservation is actually quite impressive, and HuNI is a remarkable way of creating and sharing datasets that ultimately make possible the wide dissemination of cultural research. On December 5th, the HuNI blog announced the addition of a feature to its website that allows anyone to search their virtual laboratory.

 

Given my obsession with the New Zealand All Blacks, the first search of HuNI I ran was for datasets about rugby. Despite my overwhelmingly Irish heritage, HuNI managed to bring up a particular sore spot for me.

The lab as it’s been released in alpha mode is not as full-featured as I’m sure it will be in the future. It also has a few kinks to work out of the system. After saving my records in my HuNI account, I went back to look at them and found nothing but the numbered list without the actual linked data. It’s a start.

That said, this is the kind of exciting work that can be accomplished when DH becomes linked with history, with cultural preservation, and with race/gender/sexuality and so on. My current DH course being one focused on literature, the vast majority of scholarship done by my peers and which I have encountered focuses more on using DH tools to investigate structures, language, geography, affect, etc. within literary works. These are often fascinating projects. I’m particularly riveted by timelines and geographic maps culled from various texts. That’s my penchant for history showing. All that to say, though, that the potential in DH that really excites me is for making available the datasets and tools through which non-academics can investigate dominant ideologies, histories, and narratives, and discover for themselves the layers of complexity that turn many of those prevailing notions on their heads.

Thus, it is not only incredibly important to make the digital humanities an inclusive area of study whose codes do not systemically — even if unintentionally — exclude a portion of its would-be participants, but it is also crucial to use the tools of DH to transform those systemic wrongs in society as a whole. As Moya Z. Bailey pointed out, for years scholars (of color) across many disciplines have been “doing intersectional digital humanities work in all but name,” and yet unacknowledged (or willfully ignored) marginalization of already marginalized voices is a seemingly pervasive problem within DH. Certainly, any female and/or POC gamer, programmer, redditor, or general user of the internet can tell you this is an unsurprising reality. But potentially unbound by institutional politics and unrestricted by the process of traditional publishing, DH has the capacity, in my opinion, to transform the white, male, able-bodied culture of the code into something more inclusive. DH has the ability make our understanding of race and history a little less Megyn Kelly and a lot more, well, historical. That is, if digital humanists can agree that they’ve been acting a liiiittle Megyn Kelly up to now.

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