Politics of masculinity and violence in cinema

A lot of people can easily pick out the politics of films regarding things like rebellion, corrupt governments, power struggles, technological advances, racial or sexual commentary, and many others. There is another political message (that I actually just studied in one of my other classes) that is subtle and much harder to even detect because it is SO ingrained in so many cultures (although American culture really demonstrates this well). And that is the politics of masculinity and violence in cinema.

Essentially, there is an underlying political and social message in ALL sorts of media (not just film, although I’ll concentrate on that) that reinforces the idea that “real men” are violent and aggressive. Take an action film as a logical example, like Terminator. Schwarzenegger embodies the essence of manhood, stoic and strong, able to take pain without a wince (I mean yes, he’s a robot, but that’s not important in the message being sent), and shooting, killing, maiming without a second thought. Or what about a film like Braveheart? He  fights back with violence, enduring physical pain like a “real man.” Or Fight Club? Brad Pitt, the manly half of Edward Norton, is also the violent half. Real men participate in fight clubs, it’s masculine and strong. Or, think about all of the coming of age movies where young boys are told to “man up” or “be a man” when confronted with adversity, pain, or their manhood being challenged. This is true across many cultures. Think of the people being violent in Gangs of Wasseypur. Who are they? They’re men!

Men are portrayed as violent and aggressive if they are “real men,” and “sissy men” are the only ones who aren’t as violent or aggressive when they are portrayed in films. This, I believe, reflects STRONGLY on our culture (and other cultures, as I said), and could possibly be the bigger contributor to things like mass shootings, rather than guns or radical Islam. Think about it, how many mass shootings were committed by women? How many terrorist acts? How much gun violence? It’s not that I’m saying women are better, that’s not at all my point, but rather that men are on the receiving end of really, really high standards regarding what it means to “be a man,” and some men as a result nurture their aggressive and violent tendencies.

I got this idea from another class of mine, and we watched a video on it. It’s a full length documentary called Tough Guise 2, and it’s VERY interesting and lays out the points much better than I have here. If you have time, I highly suggest you watch it.

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MLK Jr. and Gandhi

For my open topic blog post, I thought I’d do something a bit more fun. I’m sure some of you have heard of Epic Rap Battles of History, but for those of you who haven’t, they are a collection of videos made by YouTube personalities NicePeter and EpicLloyd and they center around “rap battles” between historic (and sometimes fictional) figures. There are rap battles between everyone from Shakespeare and Dr. Seuss to Bob Ross and Pablo Picasso, and everyone in between. Luckily for us, they also made a rap battle between MLK Jr. and Gandhi! I figured that we could always use a laugh, so here is the video along with a breakdown of the rap battle lyrics (focusing more on Gandhi’s references rather than MLK Jr.’s).

Martin Luther King Jr. vs. Mahatma Gandhi

Gandhi:

You want to battle wits?

See who’s the better pacifist?

I fought the caste system

but you still cannot touch this!

Starting out, we can see an obvious reference to being a pacifist. We set the stage for a peaceful rap battle between two people who reject violence as a method of protest (whereas most of the other rap battles make violent references). Additionally, it is also mentioned that he “fought the caste system,” which is a clear, simplified reference to his political work. Lastly, “you still cannot touch this” is likely just an affirmation of dominance that is commonly used in rap battles (“you can’t touch me man!”). It is unlikely that it has anything to do with Dalits, or Untouchables – it is likely just a coincidence.

Slumdog Skillionaire,

First name Messiah,

Rap so hot,

I spit Yoga fire!

Here, we see a play on the words “Slumdog Millionaire” and “skills/skilled.” Slumdog Millionaire, of course, we all know is a popular mainstream movie about India (although our own analysis shows that it is not actually a Bollywood film). The skill/skilled reference is merely another dominance posturing technique used in rap battles. “First name Messiah” is in reference to the name Mahatma (as opposed to his given name Mohandas). Next, we see a reference to Yoga which is actually a great example of Orientalism, since this rap battle was written by Americans. They conflate Gandhi, an Indian, with the Eastern concept of Yoga, as if the very nature of being Indian means you do Yoga.

Everything you preach,

I said it first

You should jot down these words

plagiarize my whole verse!

This verse is more of a stab at MLK Jr. coming second in the pacifist chronological lineup.

Leave your thoughts on the door

Like the real Martin Luther

I’m not thinking you shall overcome this Junior!

Again, more MLK Jr. references that is not the focus of this analysis.

MLK Jr.:

I’m the king of civil rights

From the city to suburbia

No shoes, no shirt,

But I’m still gonna serve ya!

The first two lines are irrelevant, but “no shoes, no shirt” is in reference to a common sign that businesses use to encourage proper clothing wear in stores. Next, one can be “served” in a business aspect, relating to “no shoes no shirt,” but to be “served” also means to get your ass kicked in something like a rap battle.

Make you swallow your words,

So you can break the fast,

Then thank God Almighty,

You can eat at last!

These lines of course all reference Gandhi’s fasting, for which he is well known. They don’t necessarily reference any particular reason for his fasting, just that is perceived as a weakness purely in terms of rap battling.

I admire the way

You broke the British power

But I have a dream

That one day you’ll take a shower!

Here, MLK Jr. (as a fellow pacifist) is acknowledging Gandhi’s achievements, but then in the last line of the verse he takes a stab at the image of Gandhi dressed as poor Indians did at the time – and in terms of the insult “poor” implies “dirty.”

Like the “H” in your name

You ought to remain silent

Flatten your style like bread,

Naan violence!

In this, of course, we can see slight American ignorance at the “H” in Gandhi’s name. The “H” actually means that the “D” preceding it is aspirated, meaning there is a breath of air that comes out with it – something that English speakers do not differentiate in their consonants. Next, “flatten your style like bread” sets up for the next line, referencing naan bread, a staple of Indian diet (and really delicious!). It is also a play on the word “nonviolence,” a theme repeated throughout this battle of pacifists.

Gandhi:

You would know about bread

Dr. Birmingham sandwich,

Boycott those grits,

Sit in with some Spinach!

These are jabs directed at MLK Jr.

With protests and women,

The same advice goes.

Always stay away from the hoes!

The significance for our purposes here only matter that by staying away from hoes (the tools, even though there is a double entendre of women here), we can peacefully protest (without hoes or other tools).

MLK Jr.:

I’ve got so much street cred,

They write my name on the signs!

I’d ring you for tech support,

But I’ve got a Nobel prize!

The part that applies to Gandhi here is the “tech support,” referring to the common stereotype that Indians work call centers for tech support.

Nigga we got more beef

Than one of your sacred cows

But I’m about to forgive you

So hard right now!

This, of course, references the cow that is sacred to Hindus, and is just connected to the previous comment about “beef,” which has the connotation of argument or disagreement in a rap battle. MLK Jr. is also about to forgive Gandhi “so hard right now!” because, again, it is a battle of pacifism, unlike other rap battles.

Gandhi:

I am passively resisting,

The fact that you suck,

I am celibate because

I don’t give a fuck!

These last few burns of course reiterate that Gandhi is a pacifist and is peacefully resisting MLK Jr.’s propensity to “suck.” It also mentions his celibacy, a pretty well-known fact about Gandhi, and I have to say a pretty good burn.

I hope you all enjoyed this analysis of this Epic Rap Battle of History!

Transnational Identity

This was an excellent film to demonstrate what it would be like to experience multi-nationality and a “pulling” in different directions by very different cultures. Gogol is a great example of this, with so many reasons – mostly centered around his name, of course. He rejects his name, is constantly made fun of (“goggles” was one of my favorites) for it by his American peers with whom he identifies, and even goes so far as to change it back to his good name. This is among other things too, of course. Gogol’s very attitude is always very exasperated with anything overly Indian that his parents do, and he does things like listen to American rock music. He even dates a quintessentially American girl, Max. He kind of even briefly adopts Max’s parents as surrogates for the American experience. It is a rejection of his born culture in favor of the culture of his peers.

But really, what is incredibly sad and perhaps not discussed as much in the shadow of Gogol’s obvious experiences are the experiences of his parents. Being expats still greatly invested in their native culture, they don’t at all understand what Gogol is experiencing, and as a result he draws away from them. When Ashoke dies, Ashima is left all alone without her family, and though later in the movie Gogol grows more and more to accept Bengali culture, that moment when she set down the phone and the room was empty and cold and quiet in a foreign country with no husband and no children, she was so utterly alone. She lives among a small Indian community, of course, but the lack of their presence or her reaching out to them in that scene is likely symbolic of her loneliness, because they just aren’t good enough substitutes for her real family. The viewer was meant to feel alone with her, and feel her pain. Had there been a friend or a neighbor there, that scene would have become about the loss of Ashoke, and been much less heartwrenching (it was still sad though, of course).

Having a transnational identity clearly can both broaden horizons and present new opportunities, but it opens people up to a different kind of suffering that people like me, for example, may never have to experience nestled in the comfort of familiar surroundings and family.

Jai Ho and Bollywood

Most of the movies I have watched for this class so far have been by myself. However, I watched Slumdog Millionaire with my fiancee, who had expressed interest in seeing the film. The movie was amazing, of course, and we were both captivated throughout it all, but the reason I bring this up is because of her reaction to the end of the movie — where the credits roll to a choreographed song and dance. I didn’t really think anything of it, because all of the modern Bollywood movies we have watched had this element in them, but she thought it was absolutely bizarre that such a serious, gripping movie would end in a cheesy song and dance. Having never seen a Bollywood film before or taken a class like this one, she was surprised to say the least. It sparked an interesting discussion between us.

Of course, Slumdog Millionaire was directed by a British man, and people don’t consider it to be a Bollywood film, but having a dance number to Jai Ho is decidedly Bollywood, even if it is just an homage to real Bollywood films. When comparing Slumdog to something like Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, for example, the difference is a lot more clear. KKHH is a fictional story placed in the present where gender roles are not even a matter of discussion because they follow social norms so closely (Shah Rukh Khan being the leader of the household, for example). Films like this are meant to be watched by people who identify with this culture as “the norm.” This, among many other observations, is significant because a real Bollywood film like KKHH (or Lagaan, or other Bollywood films we have/will watch) can give insight into modern, globalized Indian culture, social norms, gender roles, and more. Slumdog, by contrast, is a mostly fictional story that is based on real events that happened in India’s past. It tells a serious story about how bad life was for poorer Indians. Most importantly, it is for an audience that does NOT identify with Jamal (at least immediately), because his dramatic past is sometimes meant to horrify or astound us (something that probably wouldn’t happen if every other day you saw a crime lord blinding children to make more money when they beg). Even in a movie like Lagaan, which is “historical,” the audience identifies with Bhuvan because it is a romanticized version of history. I think this is an important detail to note. It seems that this is a distinguishing feature between a (modern) Bollywood film and a film like Slumdog that is with Indians and about Indians, but yet is still a British film.

Globalized Slumdog

I can definitely see why this movie won awards– it was incredibly gripping. In fact so much so that it was difficult to pay attention to all of the details while being so invested in Jamal, Salim, and Latika. However, the biggest thing that jumped out at me was the urbanization and globalization that we see happen in the movie. The timeline lines up almost perfectly with the 1991-today globalization timeline that was given in class (based on what I would assume were Hindu-Muslim riots taking place in Mumbai), starting to follow Jamal and Salim at around 1992-1993.

In the beginning of the movie (chronologically, at least, as we jump back and forth between present and past) the two brothers are living in the slums in Mumbai. Clearly the poorest of the poor, after they lost their mother they were living on a literal pile of trash. Televisions or any other modern “convenience” were nowhere to be found that I could see during Jamal’s childhood. But as we follow Salim and Jamal into their teenage years (what I would assume to be the early 2000s) we see the influx of tourists, a marker of globalization. We can assume this is a new phenomenon as Jamal and Salim seem to come to the conclusion that they can scam tourists in a novel sort of way (although this could also be because they have never been to the Taj Mahal or any other tourist trap). Nevertheless, we can assume some form of globalization is taking place as tourists of the stupid, gullible variety that we see in the movie don’t frequent areas that are inconvenient. Finally, as we follow Jamal into his adulthood and during his time on the gameshow, clearly the world has changed. Television displays are now much more common, as we even see the poor working class cheering Jamal on while watching a television. Modern conveniences are more prevalent and the presence of game shows like Who Wants to be a Millionaire show just how much the culture of India (Mumbai) has been globalized. There is even a scene where Jamal and Salim are talking, looking out over the city and Salim comments on how they used to live there and how industrial it has become.

Basically, what I’m trying to say is this movie takes place during a period of rapid cultural change in not only Mumbai but all of India, and it is fascinating to see it portrayed on film in such a matter of fact way, simply as a part of Jamal’s life. It was very well done.

Feminism

I think that Bhumika succeeds at portraying its feminist message, especially considering it was produced in the 1970s. After all, the entire premise of the movie is Usha fighting against her role as a woman and trying to reconcile her feminism with both the public and private sectors of her life. As a little girl, she is essentially forced into becoming a performer, against her mother’s wishes (wishes that stem from her mother’s preconceived notion of what her daughter should become or how she should act [getting married, etc.] within her private home life). As a young adult, Keshav marries her but that marriage is not at all what she expected or wanted, and she struggles with control even though she is the one making money from her acting career. It doesn’t help that the guy who plays Keshav really nails the creepy, greasy vibe. As an older adult and towards the end of the film, Usha seems to come to terms with her lonliness, a fate that she likely could have avoided had she been able to make more of her own choices or exert more control over her life. And of course, circling back to feminism, she lacked these choices because she was a woman. The message in this film is very clear, and quite revolutionary for its time.

Mazumdar seems to believe that Bhumika reduces the struggle to the individual, rather than representing the gender struggle experienced by all members of a social group.While it is true that this is only the story of an individual, I disagree that it is important. Clearly, Usha represents the struggle of women as a whole, through the storytelling lens of an individual. Women’s struggle isn’t cheapened by forgoing their depiction as a huge social group. Rather, an individual’s struggle makes it more relatable to those who may be unfamiliar with it, and being relatable serves as a very effective way to introduce the idea of feminism (or any other idea, for that matter) to an audience that may be new to the idea (in the 70s).

Nationalism: Good or bad?

Nationalism these days seems to get a bad rep. A lot of discussions, both in class and out, seem to center around the harmful, exclusionary results that arise from misplaced nationalism (which creates an “us” versus “them” mentality). But is nationalism so bad?Keeping in mind, of course, that I don’t necessarily agree that nationalism is good (or bad), but rather I’m just bringing up that we should remember that nationalism is just a concept.

So, for example, a lot of people associate nationalism with things like “America is great” in a post-9/11 world. We band together and form a group (labeled “Americans”) that unite against the “others” (perceived terrorists). So is this good? Or is this bad?

On the one hand, this helps create a sense of unity with people that we may not have a personal relationship with. I have no idea what some person in San Francisco, California is like, but I know they are an American and I have something in common with them. This bond is not only social, but also economic and personal as well.

On the flip side, what do I know about random people on the other side of the country? I know that they were born in the political confines of my country, and I know that they probably have a similar skin color to me. After all, a country is just a large tribe, right? But really, I know almost nothing about people that are also within the confines of my rather large country. It seems to be a social and political construct that means almost nothing in reality. It seems almost like an excuse to alienate people who don’t look like me.

Again, I don’t wish to promote that nationalism is either good or bad, but rather bring up both sides so that we can all see that nationalism is just a concept and it only has as much meaning as we assign it.