F is for Feminism

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?

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.

Intervene?

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.

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