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Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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59 Responses

  1. Avatar big jonny
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    says:

    A quick note (likely to soon be regretted): My wife & sister both had a lighter, blonder tone as young children which darkened throughout adulthood. My daughters both appear to be following this trend. Can it be that the film’s transformation of hair color really is little more than a symbol of a like transition?Report

  2. Avatar D. C. Sessions
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    says:

    A better complaint would be that Disney has never once presented a female protagonist who was not thin and beautiful.

    Lilo and Stitch?Report

    • Avatar E.D. Kain in reply to D. C. Sessions
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      says:

      I was thinking princess movies, but that’s a good point.Report

      • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to E.D. Kain
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        says:

        And the proportions of Jasmine’s face don’t really match the “Hollywood ideal”–that’s quite a schnozz she’s got.

        Indeed, I like how the whole discussion doesn’t mention Jasmine at all. Even though she was overtly nonwhite. Even though “Aladdin” was the second of the “golden era” movies.Report

        • Avatar silentbeep in reply to DensityDuck
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          says:

          Why not be happy with the two non-white princesses in the Disney era? I mean, Jazmine is enough right?Report

          • Avatar Jaybird in reply to silentbeep
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            says:

            And once again Pocahontas is ignored.

            This is the real reason that that Italian guy was crying.Report

            • Avatar silentbeep in reply to Jaybird
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              says:

              the historical inaccuracies and fallacies of disney’s pocahontas are laughable. it deserves to be ignored.Report

              • Avatar Scott in reply to silentbeep
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                says:

                silentbeep:

                Are you really expecting to go to a Disney movie and see history accurately and factually represented? Sorry, it sounds like you have a chip on your shoulder and are looking for something to complain about.Report

              • Avatar silentbeep in reply to Scott
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                says:

                I saw Pocahontas. That was my honest opinion and reaction at the time. Yes, Pocahontas is problematic, and to say so isn’t particularly radical. Pochontas was a real person, her culture, her people and family were all ultimately destroyed, she was not a fairy tale princess.

                I can tell you what I’m not surprised by: that me, the the female person of color accused of having a “chip of on my shoulder” is looking for “something to complain about.” It’s not good enough that you don’t agree with me, which is fine, but the invalidation is somehow necessary as well.

                And that invalidation? It’s typical.Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to silentbeep
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                says:

                I had no idea you were a female person of color. You objection to Pocahontas being unstated, I actually thought it was the common conservative one that, where she was presented in the film as a champion of Native American ways against European ones, in real life she converted to Christianity, married an Englishmen, and moved back to England with him.Report

            • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Jaybird
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              says:

              Don’t forget Mulan. And Esmerelda from “Hunchback of Notre Dame”.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to D. C. Sessions
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      says:

      Lilo’s sister, though. Wow.Report

  3. Avatar silentbeep
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    says:

    FWIW: the “blondes have more fun” thing is not about Disney. At all. It’s about cultural ideas of what is ideally beautiful in our culture. Disney could make all princess movies with brown hair and that would be nice, but that still wouldn’t change much at the cultural level.Report

  4. Avatar James Vonder Haar
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    says:

    “Making Mother Gothel ‘dark’ and Rapunzel ‘light’ is less about racial stereotypes (Gothel was also very pale) and more about classic good and evil symbolism. We shouldn’t expect kids’ movies to do away with too much convention.”

    I think the point is that “classic good and evil symbolism” is conditioned by racial stereotypes, having been conceived in a racist environment. I have little doubt that the creators of Tangled were not consciously inserting such symbolism in order to play on their racial connotations, but the intentionality is not the only salient point. I think this is one of the biggest roadblocks to constructive discussion of race in America- the presumption is that you’re either a conscious racist willing to turn the fire hoses and dogs loose on civil rights protesters, or you’re as pure as the driven snow (irony intended). Rarely is there room for the unintentional subconscious turn of phrase that reveals some latent racism. Unfortunately, reactions to pointing these out usually consist of defensiveness and handwaving- the defensiveness coming from the belief that the accusation is that you’re a conscious, malicious racist, which you’re not, and the handwaving coming from the belief that unless you are that caricature, you’re not racist.

    I think that it’s important that we point these sorts of things out, because the very fact that they are subconscious means that they affect the way we can treat less privileged members of our society without it being consciously and intentionally bigoted.Report

    • Avatar E.D. Kain in reply to James Vonder Haar
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      says:

      I don’t think that all dark vs light imagery is racially based at all. Black magic wasn’t a reference to magic performed by black people. The night itself used to be frightening enough for such imagery to take root.Report

      • Avatar silentbeep in reply to E.D. Kain
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        says:

        These films don’t get made in a cultural vacuum. And I think you missed the point of the above comment entirely: it’s not just about intentionality.

        “Rarely is there room for the unintentional subconscious turn of phrase that reveals some latent racism.”

        Sure, sometimes “black magic is just black magic” but depending on the film we are talking about, I think there is some room for cultural critique.Report

          • Avatar silentbeep in reply to Tony Comstock
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            says:

            because ella fitzgerald and santana are the be all end all, of cultural analysis. right.Report

            • Avatar Tony Comstock in reply to silentbeep
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              says:

              So first it’s “culture critique” and now it’s “cultural analysis”. I suppose next you’re going to say something like “cultural criticism”.

              How about you analize this:

              Set you Google search prefs to DO NOT FILTER MY RESULT

              Now do a Google image search for [africans]

              Next do a Google image search for [asians]

              Compare the results and tell me at it means.

              P.S. I suppose it all depends on your child-rearing philosophy, but it’s probably not a good idea to do an unfilter image search for [lilo’s sister nani] while flanked by your 6 year old and 11 year old daughters.Report

              • Avatar RTod in reply to Tony Comstock
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                says:

                Actually did it, and I’m guessing it means that Africans all live in tribes and are happier than I am and asians are hotter than and getting a lot more than I am?Report

              • Avatar RTod in reply to RTod
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                says:

                Also, by strange coincidence, it appears that the people Google identifies as typically Asian are the exact same Hot Sluts who send me emails saying the want to have sex with me. Even though we’ve never met!

                The world just keeps getting smaller and smaller…Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Tony Comstock
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                says:

                OK, that little experiment didn’t turn out at all how I predicted. I was expecting racist images of Africans and images of Asians in suits, ties, and nerd glasses. Fortunately my daughters weren’t looking over my shoulder when I googled Asian.Report

              • Avatar Tony Comstock in reply to James Hanley
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                says:

                I discovered this little Google-gem when I was trying to have a teachable moment with my 5 year old around the pinkish-tan crayon she refers to as “skin-colored”.Report

              • Avatar Tony Comstock in reply to RTod
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                says:

                So far as I can tell it didn’t leave a mark.

                In 2007 we released a film about two black women, and the process of marketing that film really drove home how coded and insidious our language is about race and sexuality. Of course Google sucks this all up and spits it back out, as in the search above.Report

              • Avatar RTod in reply to RTod
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                says:

                Oh, I’m a parent and I well know these things never scar kids, who just shrug them off. It’s we parents who get scarred.Report

              • Avatar Tony Comstock in reply to RTod
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                says:

                Scar may be too strong a word, but my personal and professional experiences with trauma have led me to some fairly conservative beliefs about strong images of violence and sexuality effect people — children included.Report

              • Avatar BSK in reply to RTod
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                says:

                The problem is your looking for major moments and scars. It doesn’t work that way.

                Kids don’t learn understandings of race or gender any different than they learn math. They don’t suddenly see the opening scene of “Good Will Hunting” and know all they need to know about algebra. They take it in, bit by bit, in drips and drabs. They don’t see “Tangled” and suddenly think, “So much for my self-worth as a black person.” It is ever present and slowly forms.Report

              • Avatar silentbeep in reply to Tony Comstock
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                says:

                It really doesn’t matter at this point. I don’t think you are interested in what I have to say, and apparently agree with E.D. as far as I can tell.Report

              • Avatar Tony Comstock in reply to silentbeep
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                says:

                Goddamnit no!

                1) Not agreeing is not the same thing as not being interested.

                2) Taking a dadaist approach to exploring the issue is not the same thing as not being interested in the issue.

                The fact is, I’ve got a pretty good petigree when it come to be *extremely* interested in issues of body image, sexuality and depiction in media; having more or less put my professional life and ablity to provide for my family on the line to forward my beliefs and raise the questions I think need raising.

                So far you’re dipping in with the easy hit. It’s light-weight and uncommitted. Yes, pretty, white able-bodied thin white girls. Got it. About a million times already.

                You’ve got more. I know you do. Bring it!Report

              • Avatar silentbeep in reply to Tony Comstock
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                says:

                “Yes, pretty, white able-bodied thin white girls. Got it. About a million times already.”

                Really? Congratulations.Report

              • Avatar Matty in reply to Tony Comstock
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                says:

                I did a similar thing for Europeans and it appears the continent is populated by a mix of historical sketches, athletes and flags.

                Interestingly if I filter for faces the first result is that noted European Barack Obama.

                Now what stereotypes am I meant to be noticing?Report

      • Avatar Heidegger in reply to E.D. Kain
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        says:

        Can’t forget, Black Sabbath, black ice, the Black Plague, Black Irish, black humor, black balled, Black Holes, Black Friday…no racial archetypes there.Report

    • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to James Vonder Haar
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      says:

      “I think this is one of the biggest roadblocks to constructive discussion of race in America…”

      The biggest roadblock is people who are so desperate to Fight Evil For A Just Cause that they’ll invent evil just so they can have some to fight.

      You’re right that most people don’t think about why they associate the color black with evil and fear. It doesn’t follow that they must be racist. If we associate the color yellow with warmth it doesn’t mean that we believe Asians have higher body temperature!Report

    • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to James Vonder Haar
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      says:

      “I think the point is that “classic good and evil symbolism” is conditioned by racial stereotypes, having been conceived in a racist environment.”

      Actually, I’ll go further than my earlier comment, and suggest that such a huge claim–that is, the entirety of European fictional archetypes are based on racist ideation–really ought to require some backup. Maybe even just a cite or two.Report

      • Avatar James Vonder Haar in reply to DensityDuck
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        says:

        This post only proves my point that that those on the other side of this debate tend to believe that their opponents are lobbing accusations much more serious than they are. To wit, I never once claimed that the entirety of European fictional archetypes were based on racist ideation, only that some archetypes were conditioned by racial beliefs that were the air one breathed in at the time they were being formed. I’m not convinced that the equation of blackness with danger was formed by racist associations (though it may have helped to buttress them later), but that the wicked mother in Tangled has non-Caucasian features is not an accident, and the reasons behind it are not wholesome, even if those reasons aren’t shared by the creators of Tangled.Report

        • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to James Vonder Haar
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          says:

          I’m not really sure how “you’re being UNCONSCIOUSLY RACIST” is supposed to be seen as non-accusatory.

          You seem to believe that the “unconscious” qualifier somehow mitigates the accusation. And I’m sure that you do honestly believe this; you believe that you’re being gently corrective rather than harshly accusative; you believe that you’re just “raising awareness” rather than just giving in to the pleasures of ideological zealotry.

          So, in a way, you’re being exactly as oblivious as the people you’re accusing of unconscious racism. You’re not just failing to take others’ perceptions into account; you’re saying that they are wrong for having had those perceptions at all.

          “…that the wicked mother in Tangled has non-Caucasian features is not an accident, and the reasons behind it are not wholesome, even if those reasons aren’t shared by the creators of Tangled.”

          At this point I’m not even sure what you’re arguing anymore. You sound like you’re trying to say that the characters in Tangled are racist even though nobody meant to make them that way. You’re trying to have your cake and eat it too–shine the blinding light of truth on the bugs of racism while not actually directly accusing anyone of doing anything wrong.Report

          • Avatar James Vonder Haar in reply to DensityDuck
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            says:

            “At this point I’m not even sure what you’re arguing anymore. You sound like you’re trying to say that the characters in Tangled are racist even though nobody meant to make them that way. You’re trying to have your cake and eat it too–shine the blinding light of truth on the bugs of racism while not actually directly accusing anyone of doing anything wrong.”

            Well, yes, that’s my point, and I’m not sure where your confusion comes from. Our lexicon of cultural imagery at least started back in an era of rampant racism, and many of those images were adopted for racist reasons. Well-meaning people have continued to use such imagery, mostly because, discrimination being outside their experience, most can’t see why they’re problematic, and because they serve convenient story telling purposes. Yet while the4y are not adopted or promulgated with racist intent, they may indirectly color the way we see people from the misrepresented group.

            If that’s having my cake and eating it too, so be it. The truth of the matter as far as I can see really is that character designs in popular culture are frequently artifacts of a racist era, and can continue to promulgate racist beliefs, without anyone involved in their creation being malicious or racist. That’s why it’s so important to raise awareness about such issues.

            “So, in a way, you’re being exactly as oblivious as the people you’re accusing of unconscious racism. You’re not just failing to take others’ perceptions into account; you’re saying that they are wrong for having had those perceptions at all.”

            Well, yes, they are wrong for having those perceptions. There are reasonable and unreasonable perceptions, and I will not apologize for calling out those interpretations of my words that were both unintended and could not be read into them barring an ideological commitment to reading them in that manner.

            As the song goes, everyone’s a little bit racist, but color me dissatisfied with Avenue Q’s solution of throwing our hands in the air and forgetting about the issue. Because of our inheritance of cultural images and themes it’s difficult if not impossible to escape subtly racist messages percolating through the culture, so not a one of us should be surprised when they end up influencing our actions. I certainly can’t claim that I’ve been perfect in this regard. The important thing is that we own up to our privileged position and attempt to do better- and to react appropriately when someone points out our failures to us.

            More to the point, if one truly believes that racism both permeates popular culture and that it is largely an unmaliciously and unconsciously propagated meme, I don’t think there’s a better way to gently point it out than the way myself and others on my side of the aisle have acted. If you’ve got a better way for me to get the message out without engaging the reflexive defensiveness that characterizes most people’s responses to this topic, I would, not meaning this sarcastically in the slightest, very much like to hear it.Report

            • Avatar BSK in reply to James Vonder Haar
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              says:

              JVH-

              Co-sign to both your message and response.

              This battle is inherently unfair. Often, we attempt the tact that you do here, pointing out what we see while deliberately avoiding tossing accusations. If we’re not more explicit, we’re dismissed. If we are, people get defensive and accuse us of playing the “race card”, among other nonsense responses.Report

            • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to James Vonder Haar
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              says:

              The problem with your “gently pointing out” approach is that racism–as defined by society at large–is a specific accusation. You can’t be “accidentally” or “unknowingly” racist.

              See, that’s what’s happening here. You’ve invented a new definition of racism, and you’re accusing people(*) of being racist by that definition. You think that you’re just saying “hey, think about the reasons you made these choices”; but they’re seeing you as suggesting that they’re two seconds away from putting on a white bedsheet and burning a cross on someone’s lawn.

              And that’s without getting into the way you point out what you don’t see. Who are you to tell me what my motives are? Would you be upset if someone started telling you that, e.g., the reason you like dogs is that you’ve got an unresolved bestiality fetish?

              You see yourself as “gently pointing out”, but what you are is a smug fuck who gets off by telling people that they’re racist and are too dumb to realize it.Report

              • Avatar James Vonder Haar in reply to DensityDuck
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                says:

                ” they’re seeing you as suggesting that they’re two seconds away from putting on a white bedsheet and burning a cross on someone’s lawn.”

                That would be why I addressed the false dichotomy between the police chief willing to sic dogs on protesters and the person completely untainted by racial stereotypes. I explicitly said that I was not accusing people of being this.

                “Who are you to tell me what my motives are?”

                This would be why my position has scrupulously avoided speculating on others’ motives where possible, and where it is impossible, to be as charitable as possible when doing so. I have stated that I believe that Tangled’s creators’ motives are pure, and I haven’t once speculated about your motivations.

                I understand well enough that the accusations of racism are apt to be read in a certain manner, and I’ve done my best to diffuse the standard reading of them so that I won’t be misunderstood. Articulating my position on the matter requires a rethinking of racism in general, and in particular that we acknowledge that racist sentiment can influence our thoughts and actions unintentionally.

                Or perhaps it doesn’t. Do you think I’d be more clear about my point if I avoided using the word “racism?” If I weren’t to use that word, how do you think I can articulate the belief that stereotypes can condition popular culture or thought or action without being conscious? If it’s impossible to be unconsciously racist, what should we call thought that is unmaliciously and unintentionally twinged by racial stereotypes? In short, how do you suggest I avoid misunderstandings like this in the future?Report

    • Avatar North in reply to James Vonder Haar
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      says:

      Sing it with Avenue Q! Everyone’s a little bit racist, everyone’s a little bit racist, everyone’s a little bit racist; even you!Report

  5. Avatar Tony Comstock
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    says:

    Do you remember the caboose on Lilo’s big sister? Bu’dunk-a-dunk!Report

  6. Avatar RTod
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    says:

    Regarding both your and my take on the Natalie Wilson bit: Sometime tonight I’ll comment about it to my wife, who will not agree with Ms. Wilson, but will both sympathize and empathize with her point of view. She will then comment (correctly) that since I don’t ever have to worry about how my professional and personal accomplishments are viewed primarily through the lens of my looks (by either men or women) I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about and it might be best if I just shut up.Report

  7. Avatar BSK
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    says:

    “And I hope we do not kill the fairy-tale or the romance of these films in order to scrub them clean of any and everything that could possibly be conceived as sexist or racially insensitive, any more than we should publish new additions of Mark Twain books for those reasons.”

    These are hardly the same things. Creating new stories that lack sexiest or racist elements would be more akin to creating new stories that lack characters named N-word Jim. No one is saying we go back and re-edit the films. But we should be critical of the media. And we should learn from that and make better media going forward.

    I teach young children and can tell you that mass media has a profound impact on their perceptions of race, gender, etc, etc, etc. Google the dolls study, both the one done back in the mid-20th century and the one touched upon more recently by a high school student. Some remarkable results that will bring tears to your eyes.

    The problem is, one movie with a black heroine does little when you are awash in a media (and social/cultural) storm that shows black folks and nothing but the villains and white folks as the heroes. It goes beyond Disney. And Disney does not bear sole responsibility or any more responsibility than anyone us. The fact is, the media reflects what we, as a whole, want. We prefer our heroes white and beautiful and our villains dark and accented and ugly. So that’s what we get. And that’s why children, white and black alike, always want the white doll.Report

    • Avatar BSK in reply to BSK
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      says:

      Too busy to give more (sorry!) but this is a step in the right direction of understanding how media (which includes the news and advertisements and such) impacts how children internalize these issues: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kenneth_and_Mamie_Clark#Doll_experiments

      And before we say, “Well, yea, those are KIDS… Adults don’t think that stuff”… ask yourself how these kids UNLEARN these things when the culture surrounding them often changes nary a bit?Report

    • Avatar Tony Comstock in reply to BSK
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      says:

      “The problem is, one movie with a black heroine does little when you are awash in a media (and social/cultural) storm that shows black folks and nothing but the villains and white folks as the heroes.”

      Did you read Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee, and if you did, do you recall the passage on facial characteristic similarity between mates, and his theory of race as a product of childhood imprinting and its subsequent effect on sexual preference?

      (As I write my 6 year-old is next to me watching The Backyardagains in rapt attention. Between it’s polycultural score and character design, who knows what sort of effect it will have on her!)Report

  8. Avatar Matty
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    says:

    How common is it in Hollywood films to have the villain darker than the hero?

    I ask because I do not know.Report

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