Monday, March 27, 2006

L'Orientalisme du Monde

Technically, this post would be The Oscar Race, Part the Seventh, but I choose not to make it so because I am expanding further. Two Sundays ago Bri and I saw Tsotsi, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film this year. As Bri and I spent three months in South Africa while we were in college, the scenes and culture portrayed by the movie were somewhat familiar to us, and once we'd recovered from any novelty that might have been present, the film became simply trite. Violent criminal reformed by accidentally stealing baby, the end. We dismissed it, barely even spoke about it as we left the theater (this, as you can imagine, is extremely unusual for me). However, as I've let it digest and thought about it in conjunction with my book club's recent selection Assata, the autobiography of a former Black Panther currently living as a fugitive in Cuba, I've become more alarmed and insulted by the creepy orientalism present in Tsotsi's win.

Spoilers include the above, in addition to Octavia E. Butler's Wild Seed and a bit of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.

Tsotsi tells the story of a young street criminal, known only as Tsotsi (the term basically means "thug"), living in the townships outside Johannesburg and leading a small gang of other street criminals. One night, walking in a wealthy neighborhood, he spontaneously shoots and cripples a woman in order to steal her car, in the back of which car it turns out that her baby still sits. He takes the baby home, tries to diaper him with newspapers, tries to keep his friends from finding out about the baby's existence, and one night follows a beautiful young mother home, holds a gun to her head and forces her to breastfeed his baby, whom he carries in a shopping bag. All around her (exaggeratedly spacious, given the townships in South Africa) home are mobiles she has made--one out of rusted metal because "she was sad," another out of brightly colored glass because "she was happy." They develop some kind of tentative relationship, albeit not romantic yet, and she first encourages him to leave the baby with her, then, when she finds out the true story, encourages him to give the child back. In the end he returns the baby to his family; redemption and probable martyrdom ensue.

Let's all just pause to imagine the American reaction were this an American film. Certainly Hollywood's into reformed criminals; a good enough such movie with a black protagonist allows us to think we as a nation aren't racist. It is, after all, hard out here for a pimp. But I'd say the mainstream media's portrayal of the black female savior who rescues the black man and sacrifices at least aspects of her life for him is, if not beyond us, certainly subject to regular challenge. The sexism in the portrayal of the woman would be abundantly clear. However, because the character is an African woman, the Academy found that her portrayal as the origin of life--the goddess, a source of breast milk and aesthetic pleasure--entirely reasonable.

Perhaps I exaggerate. When I first saw Courbet's painting L'origine du monde, when I was seventeen, in Paris with my high school class and spending an evening at the Louvre (in the gift shop; the real painting's in the d'Orsay, where I didn't go), I was blown away by the very concept, that a man had painted a woman's vagina in such detail and called it the origin of the world. And somewhere there still exists an undeniable, primal truth to it. We, genetic females, give birth; no one else gets to do that. There's something astonishing about the very idea, and there exists a to-some-degree reasonable social fear of losing connection to that idea--it's a fear that Huxley, for example, exploits in Brave New World. But loving birth is not the same as limiting to it. (The invisibility of the clit in Coubert's painting, for example, from this perspective strikes me as conspicuous.) Through this worship of birth, we've become attached to the idea that it is for men to plant, for women to grow and nurture, and for men to cultivate.

Even our Ms. Butler, whom I adore, falls prey to this difficulty. That was ultimately my problem with her novel Wild Seed, that the conflict between its characters was ultimately between Anyanwu, a strong, nurturing female who could change her body intimately and therefore could not be killed (except by herself) but nor could she kill (except for herself) and Doro, a strong, cultivating male who could not die but was ruthless in his killing of others, until his love for her forced him to show tenderness. I'll go almost anywhere with Octavia Butler's prose, intellectual thoroughness and storytelling, but this seemed to me to fall victim to the same ridiculousness as Tsotsi did, down to the near-immortal Anyanwu's African origins. Certainly Anyanwu can fight, and does, but her fights are self-protective or protective of others, an extension of her nurturing instinct. Doro's an aggressor, as well as a social Darwinist and genetic engineer; he tends toward the stereotypically unnatural. One might also interpret the conflict as one between intelligence and hierarchy, a conflict Butler discusses more explicitly in the Xenogenesis serial, but it reads, inevitably, as a conflict between the primal male and the primal female. And given the frequent militance of Western feminism, its complete disregard for any notion of the primal, of l'origine du monde, portrayals of African women have gone to the opposite extreme, and because Western females of any race (to make a grotesque and sweeping generalization) can still regard African females with both orientalism and impunity. Because we need to keep l'origine du monde somewhere. I cannot say I'm a fan.

Assata Shakur, for all her focus within her autobiography on her African origins and her failure to make the distinction between different regions of Africa--I raised my eyebrows when she'd relentlessly and justifiably scorned white Americans but then went on to say that her identity was connected to "African rhythms"--does not subscribe to this orientalizing of her femininity. I could go into my difficulties with reading her, because I had plenty, but I want to emphasize her sophisticated storytelling, her strong prose and, centrally, her female strength. She orientalizes the birth of her child just a bit, but then in the narrative allows her child to become human, not the savior of the Black Liberation Movement or the Child Raised Thereby, but someone who longs for and does not get a mother, does not grow up as the center of any political activity. She strikes this delicate balance in her writing extremely well, while in Tsotsi a mother--a real, African woman, however young--is who can nurse and keep a child, while Tsotsi himself feels no option but to leave the baby with her, having only the skills to steal stuffed animals from the child's former home. Nor can he even return the child to its waiting father until the wheelchair-bound mother is present on the scene. And we accept that as Western audiences, because it's Africa, even industrialized Africa in a setting of Western-esque urban poverty.

I don't intend for this post to be dismissive of the contrast between African philosophy and lifestyle and Western philosophy and lifestyle, to the extent that either can be generalized. There's much to ubuntu that should make every Westerner stand up and pay attention. (Ubuntu is a tenet of the new sub-Saharan African humanism; the word is used to embody the Zulu phrase "umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu" and the Sotho phrase "motho ke motho ka batho babang," both of which mean "a person is a person because of other people.") But let's look at ubuntu for what it can do, instead of primitivizing it, and let's look at where and how it's a response to the negative effects of Western influence. Let's not just assume and honor the idea of the primal woman, who acts only on instinct rather than thought, and feels naught but simple emotions that she can create with her cunt and nurture with her hands.


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