Film & Media Studies Theory

Whitman College – FMS 387

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Maternal Blunt

When reading Williams’ essay, I was reminded of talking with my mom about the climax in Rian Johnson’s Looper. In the scene, Emily Blunt stands in front of Bruce Willis’ gun, sacrificing herself to save her fleeing, psycho-problem child(who is actually an über terrorist in the future, or something…). My mom hated that the screenwriting presented supposedly genuine female characters that gained strength and power solely through motherhood and self-sacrifice. Williams introduces; the concept of “maternal pathos” in relation to woman’s films, stating “a well-known classic is the long-suffering mother of the two early versions of Stella Dallas who sacrifices herself for her daughter’s upward mobility(607).[my italics]” The inclusion in Looper proclaims a perceived awareness that posits mother as hero, her sacrifice also her power. The film takes satisfaction in acknowledging the maternal form as “superior” to the vapid, beautiful, physical object form, but doesn’t inform of feminine strength derived from other sources. The film remains satisfied with this perceived “layered” portrayal of maternal femininity, discounting the presence of the trope as its “action” genre deters thorough viewer scrutiny that might be activated in the viewership of specifically “body genre” films, i.e. weepies.


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Table Dancing and Implication

            “Every week, these two Alabama porch monkeys are gonna make us laugh, they’re gonna make us cry, they’re gonna make us feel good to be Americans,”[1] Thomas Dunwitty says to Pierre Delacroix, creator of Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled. The statement is hyperbolically ignorant of contemporary American socio-racial stratification, the discussion and commentary of which are the most prominent aspect of Lee’s film. Dunwitty does not acknowledge the show’s prospective actors Womack and Manray any further than motioning his hand in their direction while saying “these two Alabama porch monkeys.” When he states “Alabama porch monkeys,” the audience understands his reference to the fictional protagonists of Mantan (as they are the subject of the conversation), but his dismissive mannerisms towards the men confuse who the phrase is directed towards. It’s the participation in the current American ideology that encourages the audience to believe his statement “must have been a slip-up,” unintentionally referring to the men themselves rather than Delacroix’s characters. Dunwitty’s infatuation with, and flamboyant pronouncement of participation in black culture persuades the audience to accept his motions as “inferential” rather than “overt”[2] racism.

            Stuart Hall defines inferential racism as, “apparently naturalized representations of events and situations …which have racist premises and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions…. enable[ing] racist statements to be formulated without…awareness [of] the racist predicates on which the statements are grounded.(Hall, 162)”  Dunwitty’s statement is ignorant to the “premises and propositions” that remain “inscribed” in the phrase “porch monkey,” enabling him to formulate racist statements “without…awareness” of his racism. Or so the viewer wants to assume. But soon after, he says to Manray, “Now lemme ask you a question Mantan, how do you feel about performing in just a little blackface?[my italics]” His statement of “Mantan” is understated by the rapidity that he speaks, and the following controversial suggestion to use blackface for effect, which becomes the main topic of conversation. The unawareness behind Dunwitty’s  “blackface” notion reinforces his ignorance of the “premises and propositions” of racial terminology and culture, but his misstatement of Manray’s name further confuses what his implications are, and what internal connections he’s made. Was it an accident?

            The confusion is only intensified when he addresses Womack without hesitation as “Sleep’n’Eat.” The name is intrinsically insulting as a manifestation of Jim Crow stereotypes, but is directly offensive towards Womack as it bears no phonetic resemblance to his real name, nearly nullifying the excuse of “accidental” misspeaking.[3] Though learning their names at the beginning of the meeting, Dunwitty does not refer to them as such for the remainder of their interaction, but stays unable to understand the insolence of his statements or even acknowledge when he’s misspoken. He’s internally connected Womack and Manray with their slave names. Does this imply a desire to own them? And if so, how does the contemporary desire compare with the slave-time desire? The scene ends with Dunwitty pushing everything off his desk and asking Manray to dance for him, pushing the question of “ contemporary slavery” to the forefront.

            The interaction shows a cycle that starts inferential and becomes overt racism, the two comingling towards the end as Dunwitty increasingly blurs the lines between which is being presented. While portrayed in a blunt fashion, Bamboozled raises the same inquiries as Hall, questioning at what point inferential becomes overt, and how the transition is mediated.


[1] I’m not going to address his statement “they’re gonna make us feel good to be Americans.” There is ample analyzation to be done which I cannot fit into this assignment.

[2] overt racism: when open …coverage is given to arguments, positions and spokespersons who are in the business of elaborating an openly racist argument. (Hall, 162)

[3] “nearly” used because all actions cannot be accounted for


This commercial glamorizes the lowest quality of alcohol through the use of Snoop Dogg’s popular face, encouraging the continued consumption of malt liquor, very similar to how The BOMB is advertised in Bamboozled. The advertising emphasizes nostalgia, family, friendship and the grandeur of life in general all being strengthened by malt liquor.

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Oh, Moms




The 2009 South Korean drama Mother[1] follows an unnamed, aging widow (“Mother”) determined to prove the innocence of her intellectually disabled, 20-something son, Do-joon, who is accused of murdering of a local girl. The corpse is found atop a roof widely visible for the entire town to see, it’s presence fostering disgust and fear throughout the community. Julia Kristeva describes the reaction to the abject, saying “The corpse, seen without God and outside of science, is the utmost of abjection. It is death infecting life(Kristeva, 4).”  The desire for the corpse/abject’s removal(physically from the roof, mentally from the citizens), and the need for justice (the want to “name” and “destroy” the monstrous)[2] polarizes the subsequent police investigation, the town demanding swift punishment(to resolve, then forget the problem). Do-joon is the ideal suspect to take the blame(disabled, inactive, nondescript ,unknown; i.e. forgettable), arrested on circumstantial and inconclusive evidence, which his assigned lawyer inadequately refutes. His disability is taken advantage of by the police, who trick him into signing a confession without the consultation of his lawyer. His mother becomes his only advocate, the only person who can “understand” Do-joon’s handicap from a first hand(and, in turn, pointed) maternal perspective.

“Mother” is portrayed as overly doting through her complete engagement with the mother-child dyad, existing more as the lynchpin to Do-joon’s life(and maturation, or lack-there-of) than as a separate, functioning individual. Her child’s disability compels her to live vicariously through him, devoted to rectifying his any wrong. As the vessel that birthed him “different,” his mistakes will always be her mistakes, as she carries the intrinsic guilt of producing an “inferior” progeny(for the mother, the womb, to create imperfection, imparts guilt inwardly). By correcting, or attempting to correct, his any fault, the film makes “Mother” the “monstrous-feminine.” As described by Barbara Creed, “By refusing to relinquish* her hold on her child, she prevents it from taking its proper place relation to the Symbolic. Partly consumed by the desire to remain locked in a fruitful* relationship with the mother and partly terrified of separation, the child makes it easy to succumb to the comforting pleasure of dyadic relationship(Creed, 254).” Disability impels heightened maternal presence, especially during childhood’s formative years, but the film presents Do-joon’s mid-20’s dependency as a product of undeterred motherly attention and child-centric absorption. Do-joon’s growth is marred by his mother’s constant presence, her infant-nurturing nature continued into adulthood harming the development of his personality, his independence, and his relationship to society(the “Symbolic”).

The film often suggests(through thematic situations and scene specific tonal choices) this continually strong mother-child dyad may also have incestuous underpinnings. Kristeva states “the rituals of defilement and their derivatives, which, based on the feeling of abjection and all converging on the maternal, attempt to symbolize the other threat to the subject: that of being swamped by the dual relationship, thereby risking the loss not of a part(castration) but of the totality of his living being(Creed, 254).” Do-joon attempts to release his sexual pangs(avoiding the “dual relationship”) and to subsequently break free of maternal control by approaching a local girl known for promiscuity, hoping to assuage temptation with ease and without his mother(not presented as an explicitly conscious or subconscious decision in film). But the girl is not his mother, does not know how to treat him like she does, and whether he killed the girl or not, the ensuing altercation was compelled by his inability to create normal, physical/sexual relationships.

“Mother’s” continual nurturing and intervention in her son’s life have not allowed for distance, or individuality, to be created between Do-joon’s pre-birth (in womb) state, and his disabled contemporary state. No maternal-separation has happened, making “Mother” an incessant presence of “death infecting” Do-joon’s life, an explanation why he cannot progress or mature.

[1] Directed by Bong Joon-ho

[2] Creed, 262

* Words cut off in scanned article copy


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OBEY’s Hegemonic Rise and Inclusion


OBEY. “Obey,” we’re told. I’m not being figurative. The Google hyperlink for the company Obey is titled “OBEY GIANT – WORLDWIDE PROPOGANDA DELIVERY.” Shepherd Fairey, the brand’s creator, has built an empire around the notion of “independently” distributed propaganda. Their messages volley from purposefully nonsensical to overtly generic to images blatantly juxtaposing warring ideals. And swaths of it(t-shirts, posters, accessories, etc.) come branded with the company stamp in bold, capital lettering as their centerpiece: OBEY.

It all beckons the question: “What is communicated?” Originating in the grunge and skate culture of the late-80’s and continuing through the 90’s, the counterculture’s creativity and apathy towards contemporary America garnered commercial success through mainstream popularity that continues into today. Street art flourished as one of the movement’s largest offshoots, graffiti and “vandalism art” becoming an accepted medium for self-expression. Skate counterculture’s origination within the underground, “low class” setting bolstered attraction through the indifference its artists showed to the mainstream, analogous to teenage angst and escapism. The art was created without concern for, and in response to, the “high-class” views and majority opinion that continually ignored and suppressed their voices. Through the “Andre the Giant Has a Posse” sticker campaign, Fairey elicited an unexpected response through his pseudo-propaganda, plastering the ambiguous image onto public property and facilities, addressing and involving the populace. The company website today states, “The sticker has no meaning but exists only to cause people to react, to contemplate and search for meaning in the sticker.” His creation was displayed, and in turn, seen as enigmatic without a meaning directly understandable by its audience. Presented as a hollow parallel, and commentary on government issued protocols and state-sponsored proliferation of American culture(i.e. capitalism, incessant advertising) the process instead encouraged governmental skepticism and imparted the essential need to “keep your eyes open, and keep your mind thinking.” The most important facet, though, was Fairey’s ability to distribute unmediated communication from one individual to his every peer in society, the “truth” or “validity” of the statement less important than its broad absorption by the people, and subsequently, by the culture.

But Obey was not an isolated success story. As previously stated, it rose to popularity amidst a wave of competing countercultural hobbies turned careers, accentuated by leaders(ex: Fairey, Banksy, Harmonie Korine, Stephen “ESPO” Powers) and imitated by the masses. Skate culture’s maturation and movement into modernity mimics the progression and evolution of the 60’s counterculture. As John Storey states, “like all popular cultural initiatives under capitalism, it[60’s counterculture] faced three possible futures: marginalization, disappearance, or incorporation into the system’s profit-making concerns(Storey, 89).” The diminution of a brand with ideals to a brand focused on monetization is more evident with Obey than other cases because the company has become what it was created to oppose, mindless consumption of product and opinion. Whether the title “OBEY” was chosen to be tongue-in-cheek or to provide commentary on the majority’s guised understanding of American societal structure no longer matters; its evolution (through mass adoption of subjective, liberal opinion and corporatization) reverts the initial “clever” and self-aware sentiment of “obey” to a literal understanding of the word, and company. Rather than continuing to ask its customers to be personally conscious of the society and world they exist in, Obey instead advertises these ideals as paramount, while concurrently rewarding its consumers for doing the opposite, adopting the company’s opinion rather than manifesting their own. Or, in true hegemonic fashion, adopting a style without thought of its implications. Another sheep in the herd, appropriately adorned with fitted caps emblazoning “OBEY” in a bold red-box across our foreheads; no subtlety in telling the world what we’re best at.




Whitening: Notifying and Imposing “Imperfections”


Thick and colorful hair, pronounced bone structure, athletic and toned build, bronzed skin … and pearly white teeth. The American conceptions of beauty, healthfulness, status and degree of power can exist without the former four qualities, but the lack of white teeth is rarely seen in popular culture. The caption on the advertisement of the veiled woman above states, “Besides your teeth, nothing would be white again.” The ad appears to focus on self-worth over materialism by accentuating light on her mouth, drawing attention away from the wedding garb and instead focusing on her “natural” features. The whiteness shines through the picture’s photograph style sepia, an implication its results last through time, and should always be remembered. It is her smile and luminous teeth, not the wedding dress, that appropriate the importance of her advertised moment, and in turn, advertised memory. But her beauty, her uniqueness and purity, at the above moment, are only resultant features of Crest usage. The company takes credit for the enhancement of her beauty, the purification of her image. At once, she is born again into the new life of marriage, with the same whiteness of her youth. No matter the good or bad to come, Crest tells us, she’ll always have that memory. “Will you?” they ask. And another customer is gained.

But what makes the consumer crave white teeth? Healthy teeth have a yellowish tint from the color of the tissue underlying the enamel, undermining the chance of a naturalistic bent. While toothpastes broadcast “whitening” alongside “cavity prevention” and “gingivitis protection,” its benefits are not clinically required or recommended in cases other than aesthetic/physical “improvement.” Furthermore, toothpaste tubes and containers[1] don’t even list the function of whitening under “Uses,” instead referring to it in the “Other Information” section, stating “stannous fluoride may produce surface staining of the teeth, adequate toothbrushing may prevent these stains which are not harmful or permanent.” “Whitening” then is unnatural, manufactured and recognized by production companies as a “not harmful or permanent” staining of teeth.


But the woman in the advertisement realized she needed Crest Whitening to look her best, being intrinsically inadequate without radiant teeth. Roland Barthes in his essay Myth Today states, “myth has…a double function: it points out and it notifies, it makes us understand something and it imposes it on us(265).”  The endorsement “notifies” us of the imperfection “yellow” connotes in modern culture, and “imposes” on us the need to change ourselves(luckily also introducing the product that will grant this change).  Barthes later states, “myth is experienced as innocent speech: not because its intentions are hidden – if they were they could not be efficacious – but because they are naturalized(Barthes, 268).” The signified “healthy teeth” has fostered the false signifier of “white teeth,” which is catalyzed and perpetuated by celebrity and common culture that champions notion of “white” as ideal. The normalization of this false signifier blankets dental advertising campaigns, strengthening its mythic function by affecting consumer self-perception. The myth’s signification compares the fabricated white to natural yellowness, which becomes vilified as unattractive and an indicator of subpar personal hygiene and lower status. The “yellow tooth condition”(broadcasted as an ailment with severity comparable to cavities and gingivitis) requires direct action to “resolve,” as it will persist even with the use of normal toothpaste, i.e. persist naturally. This creates reliance on consumerism to achieve the accepted “norm” for cleanly and appealing teeth.

Is the appeal of whiteness intrinsic, or does the appeal draw associations from divinity as white and deathly/devilish as tainted and black? Or maybe the appeal is an evolution of the antiquated practice of swallowing arsenic to foster pale skin, honing focus on the face in modernity, rather than the entire body, to more effectively broadcast “perfection” through a celebrity’s most recognizable and advertisable physical feature. This hypothesis would involve the discussion of dark, bronzed skin and its increase in appeal through the last century. It is evident that the myth creates insecurity in the consumer that was not preexisting to compel sales, but a full discussion of its origin and further cultural implications would require a more involved and researched paper.

[1] using the FDA statements on a Crest Clinical 3D Whitening Toothpaste tube, which seem vague enough to apply to any whitening toothpaste product; this  an assumption-I know, bad.

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The Cultural Calamity of Coffee Consumption & Critique

Coffee in modernity has gained a renown for its ample variation in complex flavor and nuanced notes that harken to other products of indulgence(through chocolate, fruit, herbal and/or floral intricacy dependent on where the beans were grown and how they’ve been roasted). But as esotericism and specific interest evolve and intensify with each generation, the global fanaticism around the bean continually escalates, molding the small group of dedicated zealots into bean connoisseurs always in pursuit of the perfect roast, trailblazing and Starbucking the majority as early entrepreneurs settled, and continued to populate the caffeine industry. But most industry claims are either lies or loosely based truths extrapolated away from the reality of the harvest, advertising romanticized tales of roaster-farmer connections to attract consumers by motivating questioning of personal moral standards, asking “Do you know where your coffee came from?” The question hosts myriad insinuations, first that the choice of brand might intertwine the moral calculus of both the consumer and the roasting corporation, and subsequently questioning the degree of coffee-ological intelligence the consumer holds, positing inferiority on those who do not understand the differentiation between Guatemalan, Kenyan and Argentinian farmed beans, etc. By highlighting and encouraging consumer reflection on the personal lack of technical coffee knowledge, which subsequently imbues a lack of global awareness, the industry bullies the buyer into purchasing high priced brands and specialty roasts in the hope that ingesting the beverage each morning, noon and night will transmit specialized knowledge of its origin and convoluted flavor.

The culture permeates daily life, making the citizen a consumer with a product to buy the moment he wakes each day, introducing a decadent flavor experience that can be consumed without calories(!!!) and throughout all waking hours. “Need a boost? Get a coffee.” Participation by the consumer stimulates self-satisfaction with the distinction of their choice and their brand, while the corporation regulates the transmission of this information, being careful to “enhance” knowledge while never inspiring hobbyism or independence, keeping the buyer buying. The advertised product and the accompanied context its makers broadcast ensures the consumer receives a peripheral understanding, an incomplete picture where the vague grasp of coffee practice and procedure enables the drinking of it to become a specific “interest” rather than passing action. This allows the judging of flavor, no matter the drinker’s true palette for coffee, as a right commonly exercised.  The consumer’s idiosyncrasy is bastardized for believing their understanding of the advertised coffee production procedure is involved and thorough, lowering the qualifications for subjects granted into our field of recreation and ultimately our personality. We are being dulled down, suckered into corners where “Caramel Mocha Frappaccinos” can exist as signifiers of nostalgia and strength in given friend- and relationships.

“Celebrity” acts to intensify this cultural diminution, where gossip and voyeuristic tabloids plaster their inner pages with photographs of famous names drinking specific drinks with each motion of their daily life, the reader either consciously or unconsciously absorbing the insignia his favorite personality flaunts. Trying to define our authenticity through single products and activities (along with direct, purposeful comparison to fame) enforces our own boundaries and achieves the opposite result: an increase in our banality and mediocrity. We are continually being programmed with the force of non-genuine interest by our interconnectivity, social media and popular culture always slackening our self-esteem and encouraging us to broadcast everything we know, allowing us to be in competition with every living creature.