Dr. Jacqueline Bobo is a UCSB professor of Women’s Studies who previously taught film studies at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hills. Bobo’s emphasis is on black women as audience members, critics, and creators. Her published books include Black Women Film and Video Artists, Black Feminist Cultural Criticism, and Black Women as Cultural Readers, which studied audience responses. Judging by her interview, she would be a fun and interesting person with whom to watch media.
Which are more annoying: the gender roles out of Hollywood or the racial roles?
It’s not either/or. And Hollywood is not just a monolith. There are some good things that come out of Hollywood. Yeah I know, but it has always bothered me that the women in movies are valued for being must be young and pretty while the men can be handsome or ugly, young or old, thin or fat. They have all kinds of problems, which they have to try and solve; they are loaded with personality. Have you noticed that? That’s the mainsteam blockbuster film. We live in a world we can’t necessarily control, but resistances can come big and resistances can come small, and that’s why I do audience analysis. Hollywood films and TV programs are used in different ways by different populations.
I used to go sometimes to a theater in Los Angeles where the audience was mostly black. This was in the Crenshaw Mall, near Baldwin Hills, so there was a mix of economic classes. The audiences they commented out loud during the movie, something you just don’t hear from a white movie audience. Do you see that as a form of resistance?
Let’s say I have a program that I like, and I know its racist, sexist, homophobic, classist, and that all kinds of disparaging images are going to be presented. I can’t just go to Hollywood and say don’t do that again. I went to see Happy Feet, because I loved March of the Penguins, and I love Morgan Freeman. I’m watching the opening credits and I’m thinking This is kind of interesting and all of a sudden as I’m watching the film they have these Latino penguins. They were totally different from other penguins, and I found it to be very disturbing. But there were other things in the film you could get into. I liked the way they used young black dancer, Savion Glover, but the Latino penguins were unnecessary and fed into a lot of disparaging images that we’re seeing right now at this particular moment in history. My claim to fame was analyzing black women’s reaction to The Color Purple.
Did you like it?
Well, it’s not a matter of liking it. Black women engaged favorably with the film, it meant something to them. They went to see it over and over again, with groups, on dates, individually. For the most part, the film had disparaging images of black people in general. I’m not into beating up on Steven Spielberg—what was more interesting to me was that black women focused on the growth of the Whoopi Goldberg character through the support and sustenance of other black women. They reacted favorably to the idea that you can understand your own strengths and act on those strengths.
Do Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and other media reflect the culture or create it?
Both, but they do have a way of sustaining a system of imagery that comes to seem like the norm, and the Hollywood industial system doesn’t tend to be interested in other ways of looking. It doesn’t tend to be interested in letting other people in and funding them. It tends to fund Bruce Willis movies.
Why do people protect the status quo? Several reasons. But my emphasis is black women filmmakers, ways in which they can intervene in the production of oppressive images.
That’s what the whole idea of subversion is about—the way different images can be shot, different camera angles can be used, differing editing styles can speak to people differently. So having different people interact with even mainstream forms can make a difference.
But isn’t it dangerous to go into the belly of the beast? You see some really gifted and subversive artists go to Hollywood and get co-opted. Tamed.
Better to be in the belly of the beast than not.
Do you see opportunities for more female writers and directors now, and for other marginalized groups?
I don’t use marginalized. Different voices, different socio-economic locations. Yes, I see all kinds of cultural forms out there now, and all kinds of people writing about it and understanding it. People who are different will be co-opted—appropriated, commodified, and reproduced—by the status quo but there’s so much media out there, and there are so many different ways of accessing it.
You see hope in the proliferation of media?
Oh, yes. There was a wonderful documentary, called Juvies, produced by Mark Wahlberg. Young people who had made these dumb mistakes in their lives and had these long prison sentences, given small-scale production equipment and a Final Cut Pro editing system. They told their own stories within their own communities and then let people in other communities see it. It’s not Hollywood-type production but very effective media production, and that’s what’s on most people’s computers right now. Two of the classes I teach are “Representation and Activism,” and “Making Media.” In the process of making media, students begin to understand how culture is constructed. As students begin to tell their own stories, it is less likely that they will accept a system telling their stories. The equipment is there for them to tell their own stories. They don’t have to rely on the system, whatever that system may be.