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Radical Teacher: Representing Race, Gender, and War at the Oscars

March 11, 2010

From Radical Teacher 


Representing Race, Gender, and War at the Oscars
March 8, 2010 by radicalteacherblogeditor

There’s a moment near the end of The Hurt Locker, last night’s winner for Oscar’s best picture, when Sergeant First Class William James stands in a grocery store under fluorescent lights, adult contemporary jazz playing over the loudspeaker, facing the urgent American consumer choice of picking from among row after row of the slightly different versions of the same boxes of food. It’s a moment of profound alienation, and the way director Kathryn Bigelow renders it on screen, under that stark light, James standing dead center in the aisle, stopped cold, after all we’ve seen him do, shocks the complacent viewer who likely made a dozen similar choices–from the kind of soap we used in the morning shower to the kind of chocolate candy we paired with the kind of soda–on the way to that movie seat. Is this what we’re fighting for? Are multiple toothpaste options the cause of so much horror, violence, and grief? Who are the actual monsters in a world of fifteen choices for your morning oatmeal?

So when Bigelow last night dedicated both of her Oscars (for best picture and best director) to the American troops that fight these wars, with nary a mention of the costs and consequences for them or the people and places where their damage is done, it was an odd instance of storytelling that didn’t quite match up. Which story does Bigelow actually want to tell? One that is willing confront the ambiguities and complexities of the contemporary battlefield, or one where “our troops” are naively and too simply embraced?

For students, this and other Oscar moments offer a chance to look at the ways different stories are told in different contexts using different methods to different effects. In other words, watching Bigelow renege on the promise of her film narrative produces a moment where we might discuss with our students the ways meanings are discursively produced even when we’re not at the movies. How is the story Bigelow told to last night’s mass audience different from the story she told on film, and why might this matter? How might the audience have subtly shifted what she even thought possible to say? And what other kinds of stories about American life were the Oscars trying to tell? What does Oprah want us to know when she casts Gabourey Sidibe as an American ‘Cinderella,’ whose wish came true when she skipped school to follow a dream? Or when the list of best directors was introduced as a woman and a black man along with three white men who were introduced by name? Does the camera’s incessant focus on women’s breasts tell us anything about what really matters, even on this night when another glass ceiling was broken? If we are looking for texts that can lay bare the narrative mythologies of gender, race, and class in the U.S. in 2010, we likely can’t do better than what was on TV last night.

By Emily Drabinski

Dateline: Brooklyn, NY

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