This essay began with a remark I found in an interview. The interviewee was talking about the dominance of whiteness in world culture and asserted that whiteness has produced a popular culture that is “boring as crap.” This remark really got to me; and this essay is an attempt to figure out why it got under my skin.
The exact phrase was “whiteness rules the world.” Is this true? Yes and no. Capitalism rules the planet, and capitalism, imperialism, and racism are joined at the hip, nightmare triplets. But I don’t think the rule is absolute, and I don’t think all culture is crap.
The line disappears the people all over the world who are doing good and interesting popular art. It reminds me of the narratives that say science fiction is entirely written by white males, thus disappearing writers who are women and/or people of color. I am one of the writers who has been vanished, and I am pissed about it.
There is no question that Western entertainment, especially American entertainment, floods the planet. (I read somewhere that the U.S.’s two main exports are weapons and entertainment, but I can’t track the quote down.) Is this entertainment entirely white? And does it overwhelm all the other cultures?
It’s generally agreed that Hollywood is white, and this a problem. What about the music that America exports? American popular music is largely based on African American music: jazz, blues, R&B, gospel, rock, rap. Yes, there is an admixture of European music, but the music comes out of the African American community. It is shaped by black traditions and black experience.
Does the Evil Triad (capitalism, imperialism, and racism) try to co-opt this music and turn it into a commodity? Yes. But they do not entirely succeed. When you say everything has been turned into commercial crap, you are ignoring a huge, powerful art of self-expression and resistance. Listen to Solomon Burke sing “If one of us is in chains, none of us are free” backed by the Blind Boys of Alabama. It’s available on YouTube and is very much worth listening to. Listen to Aretha Franklin sing “Respect.” Listen to anything by Nina Simone. (You can tell how old I am by the fact that I don’t include a rap example.)
There are all kinds of world music that draw on Western (often African-derived) music but add their own traditions. Indian subcontinent musicians combine jazz with traditional Indian music. I heard one group at a performance of a South Indian classical dance company based in Minneapolis. The music was good.
Black musicians trade influences back and forth between North America, the Caribbean, Latin America, and Africa.
I have a concert recording of three Algerian rai stars. Rai is a contemporary music that draws on Western and North African musical traditions. The concert in question was in France with a huge, enthusiastic crowd. You have not lived until you have heard Frank Sinatra’s hit “My Way” in a rai version sung in French. It’s far better than the Sinatra version, and it’s not “white,” at least as we count “white” in this strange world. It’s wrong to think that white culture overwhelms the rest of the world. Rather, the rest of the world takes Western culture and transforms it.
Now we move to movies. No question Hollywood is huge, but does it actually rule the world? I did some checking on Wikipedia. The largest markets for movies are the U.S., China, and Japan. The largest producers of cinema (measured by the number of movies produced) are India, Nigeria, and the U.S. I didn’t even know there was a Nigerian film industry, which shows how ignorant I am. So the U.S. is in the game, but it is not the entire game.
The only more or less Indian movie I have seen is Bride and Prejudice (2004), a Bollywood-style adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, directed by the Indian-British woman director Gurinder Chadha. I recommend it. The actors playing the Mrs. Bennet role and the Mr. Collins role are wonderful, and the Bollywood-style production numbers are neat.
I know more about Hong Kong martial arts movies, though I haven’t paid much attention to them in this century. They are dramatic, funny, and action-packed and have a purity of heart that reminds me of early Hollywood movies, before Hollywood became a hulking robotic machine like something out of Star Wars. I am especially fond of the actors Jackie Chan and Brigitte Lin. Chan is a master of comic action. Lin is indescribable and terrific both as a villain and as a heroine. I especially recommend Chan’s Police Story (1985) and Lin’s Peking Opera Blues (1986).
The Taiwanese director Ang Lee, who made the jump to Hollywood, did a wonderfully elegant version of a Hong Kong martial arts movie: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), which starred Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh, two superstars. (At one time Chow Yun Fat was the biggest movie star in the world, though he was barely known in the U.S. We are a terribly insular people.) The respected Mainland Chinese director Zhang Yimou has also tried his hand at martial arts movies with Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004). I liked these movies less than genuine Hong Kong movies because they had sad endings. I don’t like sad endings, especially in a martial arts movie.
The most recent Chinese movie I’ve seen is Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010), directed and produced by Tsui Hark, who produced the wonderful A Chinese Ghost Story (1987). Both Dee and Ghost are worth seeing.
As a rule, Chinese actors and directors have not made the jump to Hollywood. But the style of Hong Kong action flicks has influenced Western directors. The Wachowski sibling team hired Chinese director and action choreographer Yuen Woo-ping for The Matrix (1999). I can’t imagine the Marvel movie fight scenes without Hong Kong. American directors may be masters of large pieces of equipment crashing into each other. But the Chinese are masters of hand-to-hand fighting.
Are martial arts movies candy for the masses? Well, in the sense that they are hugely entertaining, yes. But the best of them deal with real issues—often the issue of being Chinese in the modern world. How does one integrate Western culture with the huge and splendid past of China? How does one balance ideas of justice—often rooted in Confucianism and Chinese folk tradition—with the reality of capitalism?
My love of Hong Kong movies has been largely replaced by a love of Japanese anime, especially the work of Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki, though I also very much like the work of Satoshi Kon. If you don’t know Miyazaki you have been living in a cave. Satoshi Kon died comparatively young, but not before directing some remarkable movies, such as Millennium Actress (2002) and Paprika (2006).
It took me years to catch on to anime. I often passed darkened rooms at science fiction conventions, looked in, and saw crowds of people staring intently at a screen. What was that about? I wondered. I finally found out. They were watching anime, and it is amazing.
Are these movies trivial, mere cartoons? Well, Miyazaki deals with environmental degradation and the evils of war. His heroes are often girls, and there are major characters who are old women. (Speaking as an old woman, I am all in favor of seeing old women on screen.) His movies always respect work and ordinary working people. In addition, the movies are gorgeous and brilliant. All of this is important.
The U.S., a majority white country at the moment, is the planet’s overwhelming military force, though its massive armed forces don’t seem able to win wars. However, they can destroy countries, which may be sufficient in this modern era. Capitalism, an economic and political system that originated in the West, is dominant through most of the world. Imperialism, the handmaid of capitalism, can still be seen in the working of the World Bank, the IMF, and the U.S. military. But, as I said before, we are talking about culture. I think it’s wrong to dismiss the popular art of the most of humanity.
Maybe the remark was made about science fiction, rather than culture in general. The SF I know is largely English language and white. But The Guardian’s Damien Walter recently wrote about an SF magazine in China that reaches one million people. That is one heck of an audience. I know nothing about Chinese SF, and most members of the American SF community seem to share my ignorance. Obviously, we need to learn.
Marx and Engels wrote in The German Ideology, “The ideas of the ruling class are, in any age, the ruling ideas.” The Marxist Antonio Gramsci wrote extensively about cultural hegemony: how the ruling class dominates culture and twists the world view of ordinary people.
I wonder, though, if it makes sense to use the idea of the dialectic for culture. There is both a thesis and an antithesis: a ruling-class culture and a culture of those who are ruled and often resisting. Many works are a combination of thesis and antithesis. For popular art forms to survive and make money, they have to speak to the mass of humanity. Sometimes what they say is dishonest and boring. But sometimes it’s true or at least partially true.
There is a constant process of genuinely popular art appearing in music and then being co-opted. But the music remains rooted in folk culture, popular culture, and the roots continually produce new shoots.
The situation in movies is more complex, because they cost so much to make. They have to balance the prejudices of the people funding the movies with the need to reach a huge audience. As a result, their messages are mixed. They can be critical of the status quo, but they are not at all likely to be revolutionary. Captain America: The Winter Soldier tells us we live in a state infiltrated by fascism. The CIA did recruit Nazis at the end of World War II, so the Nazi mad scientist in the main frame in The Winter Soldier is not far off from reality. Former president Jimmy Carter has said the U.S. is no longer a democracy. Here also reality agrees with The Winter Soldier. But the movie’s solution—Nick Fury going underground to fight Nazi-infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D.—is not likely to work as a real-world solution.
As the Sad Puppies discovered and complained about, the struggle in American life against the hegemony of straight white men has crept into science fiction. This is not new. As I have pointed out before, feminist SF goes back 45+ years. But now, increasingly, my community—American fandom—is reading SF by people of color and SF from outside the English-speaking world. This year’s Hugo for the novel went to a translation of a Chinese novel.
When we are told that whiteness rules the world and world popular culture, we miss how much culture is NOT American and white, even though it may be influenced by American culture. The influence of U.S. culture is great. But it’s not everything.
Even in the U.S. there is music and literature that does not serve the status quo. For me, SF is a way to critique society. It helps us imagine possible futures, either dark or shining. It is in direct opposition to Margaret Thatcher’s famous lie: There Is No Alternative to capitalism and the present society. Thatcher also famously said there is no such thing as society. So maybe TINA comes down to There Is No Alternative to capitalism. (I never believe anyone who says there is no alternative. Change is always possible. In fact, it is inevitable. Remember evolution and entropy and all of human history.)
That’s the great thing about world popular culture: more and more, it’s a splendid mixture. The struggle of ruling and ruled classes plays out in it, as in all aspects of society. The bosses may be the dominant voice, but they are not the only voice. Popular culture is not as boring as crap.
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