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‘Barbie’’s Stereotypical Feminism

photograph of Barbie dolls in packaging on shelf

Warning: The following article contains spoilers for the Barbie movie.

Greta Gerwig’s Barbie movie is a campy adventure with beautiful and loving attention to detail and the franchise that inspired it. Its thematization of patriarchy, however, feels underdeveloped.

In some ways, the movie’s feminist message works. At its core, Barbie appears to be a critique of girlboss feminism, or the idea that women’s professional success = feminist success. Women are expected to assert themselves and achieve greatness within a capitalist, job-centered framework to advance gender equality. While this kind of representation can be excellent, it can also place undue pressure on women to meet a narrow conception of success.

In the Barbie world at the beginning of the film, women are presidents, Supreme Court justices, astronauts, physicians, Nobel peace laureates, and more. Women hold all the power in the idealized world of Barbieland. Our main character, Stereotypical Barbie (played by Margot Robbie), begins thinking about death, develops flat feet, and finds cellulite on her legs. Afraid of becoming like Weird Barbie (played by Kate McKinnon), Barbie goes to the real world to try to return to her pristine state, and Ken (played by Ryan Gosling) tags along.

Once she gets to the real world, Barbie realizes that the aspirational representation of all the Barbies hasn’t actually solved the problems of patriarchy, while Ken discovers the allure of patriarchy and power. As the movie continues and the Kens take over Barbieland to make it into Kendom, Barbie starts to feel inadequate — she’s not President Barbie who would know how to lead or Astronaut Barbie who has technical competence. She’s just Stereotypical Barbie, expected to be perfect and pretty and happy and never sad. Barbie only begins to find the courage to stand up and fight as she allows herself to become more and more human, finally choosing at the end of the movie to fully experience what it’s like to be a woman in the real world.

The movie’s basic critique of girlboss feminism works. It expects too much of individual women and values women based on their external achievements rather than their internal worth. As Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò argues in Elite Capture, tactics like girlboss feminism don’t necessarily shift and change underlying class power structures, and they can easily get co-opted in the service of capitalism.

However, beyond the critique of girlboss feminism, the rest of the Barbie movie has strikingly little to say about the modern feminist movement. Girlboss feminism has been firmly out of fashion for at least two years now, and concerns have shifted more firmly towards anti-racist and LGBTQ+ struggles.

The Barbie movie sidesteps intersectionality, which is one of the core underpinnings of contemporary feminism. Coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, intersectionality proposes that, for example, the oppression of Black women can’t be reduced to the oppression of Black men + the oppression of white women. Misogynoir looks different from transmisogyny, which looks different from misogyny against white women. Transmisogyny against rich, white trans women looks different than transmisogyny against poor, black trans women. This doesn’t mean that we can’t have a unified feminist movement, but it does mean that any successful feminist movement will need to engage in coalitional politics and recognize different experiences under patriarchy.

The Barbie world represents historically marginalized women – Black women, larger-bodied women, differently-abled women – as holding equal power within the Barbieland matriarchy, and patriarchy is the only axis of oppression and power that is explicitly considered. This somewhat simplifies the task of the film, but it obscures the way that patriarchy can’t easily be isolated from other systems of oppression. It’s nice to see all the different Barbies living their perfect dreams; as a statement on how to understand and fight patriarchy, however, it’s too simplistic and unidimensional.

The current feminist struggle is much more closely tied to LGBTQ+ struggles and anti-racist struggles. In large part this is because trans and gay rights directly challenge the patriarchy and because the patriarchy can’t be easily separated from histories of white supremacy. The feminist struggle against patriarchy, then, is explicitly an intersectional project that goes beyond feminism for white, cis women.

The movie also misses the mark when it comes to intergenerational feminism. At points the movie seems to misunderstand Gen Z activism. Early in the film, Sasha (played by Ariana Greenblatt) calls Barbie a “fascist” as a way to demoralize her. As far as I can tell, Gen Z activists use the word fascist more accurately and sparingly than the film suggests. When young activists called Tennessee legislators “fascists” because they would not allow select house representatives to speak, they were calling out behavior that served to uphold the rights of a limited part of the population under the guise of civility and tradition.

The film more strongly focuses on the feminism of Sasha’s mother, Gloria (played by America Ferrera), who calls out many of the double binds women experience in a patriarchal society to help the Barbies reclaim their power from the Kens. However, despite the film’s recognition of the kinds of emotional labor that women are expected to do, it still falls on Barbie to comfort Ken and help him make sense of his place in the world at the end of the film. Barbie even apologizes for neglecting Ken, though it’s unclear that she owed him more of her attention in the first place.

Finally, there is the supporting emotional labor provided by Weird Barbie (played by Kate McKinnon) and Allen (played by Michael Cera), both of whom are decidedly queer coded. Patriarchy and other systems of oppression tend to enact a division of labor between genders. Women are generally expected to do emotional labor for men, and lesbians and gay men are also expected to do emotional labor for heterosexual women. Both Weird Barbie and Allen engage in heroic actions to aid the Barbies even when they’ve been marginalized on the sides of Barbie society. If only the movie were more self-aware about the one-sidedness of this labor.

One of the things that the movie gets right is that the feminist struggle is more than just a fight between women and men. As Robin Dembroff argues, patriarchy values “real men,” who just happen to be the elites. In a beautiful dance sequence, Ken (played by Ryan Gosling) and Ken (played by Simu Liu) compete to see who is the more manly and deserving of power. Allen, Midge, Skipper, and other canceled Barbies also exist outside of the Barbie/Ken paradigm and yet are still shaped by its heterosexual norms.

We shouldn’t expect a toy movie to do everything, especially as Mattel would likely reject anything at all directly related to LGBTQ+ issues for its potential political backlash. But for a campy adventure that dives deep into the heteronormativity of children’s toys, it could have done a better job of questioning those gender assumptions in the first place.

I guess it’s time for me to rewatch But I’m a Cheerleader again.

​​You’re So Privileged, I Bet You Think This Article Is About You

photograph of high school students taking exam

Back in 2014, I remember coming across the Buzzfeed quiz “How Privileged are You?” and answering each question, line by line, to see what my privilege score would be. I remember feeling uncomfortable about the quiz then, but only now do I have the tools to articulate why.

It wasn’t that I was relatively privileged with a well-to-do upbringing and white skin. It wasn’t even necessarily the oppression Olympics, though I did at the time wonder how I compared to others.

The problem was that a numerical score that adds up different experiences doesn’t actually track how privilege and oppression work.

Unfortunately, these kinds of numerical privilege tests have stuck around and periodically re-circulate when conversations about privilege re-enter mainstream discussion. You may have also encountered or participated in a privilege walk, which asks participants to stand in a line and take a step forward or backward in response to each statement instead of tallying a numerical score – those who move to the back are less privileged; those who move forward are more privileged.

What kinds of statements are included on these tests?

  •     “I am white.”
  •     “A stranger has never asked to touch my hair, or asked if it is real.”
  •     “I never had to ‘come out.’”
  •     “I have never been denied an opportunity because of my gender.”
  •     “I don’t have any student loans.”
  •     “My parents are still married.”
  •     “I have never been shamed for my body type.”

There are a number of other statements that target different identities and experiences. Most fall into broad categories like white experiences, class-relative experiences, Black experiences, trans experiences, non-Christian experiences, etc. These are all good experiences to be aware of.

But privilege doesn’t function in this piecemeal, additive way. Kimberlé Crenshaw’s term intersectionality points out that, for example, Black women’s oppression isn’t the combination of the oppression of Black men and the oppression of white women. Black women are a distinct social class with distinct experiences.

The combination of different axes of oppression is not reducible to the sum of its parts.

Our social categories that shape how we view and treat ourselves and others tend to be more specific than we sometimes think. We respond very differently to an attractive white trans woman than to a fat brown Hispanic trans man. Both are trans; both have very different experiences.

A second issue is that some of the items on these tests seem to relate to how well your life has gone rather than how much your life has been impacted by structural inequalities. Take the statement “my parents are still married.” While divorce is more common in some social groups than others due to structural features, it is not uncommon for highly privileged people to have divorced parents.

If we want to preserve the political function of privilege, it needs to remain a concept that tracks experiences with various structural advantages or disadvantages. The immensely privileged can still have terrible lives through bad luck. Those who lack privilege can live quite good lives as well.

Structural inequalities and interpersonal bigotry can and do make life harder in specific ways for marginalized people, and privilege (or lack thereof) does influence how your life goes for you. But lacking privilege is not the same as having a life full of hardship.

A third issue is that it’s unclear what to do with your score. People often compare themselves with others along axes of privilege in ways that are unhelpful. Sometimes this is done in self-aggrandizing and misleading ways to gain clout on social media (though most often, privileged users will bandy about the one marginalized person that agrees with them just to win a debate). Perhaps more often, people who score as more privileged might feel as if their problems don’t matter or don’t matter as much as those who score as less privileged. Sometimes this is right – when the problems are relatively trivial – but other times this isn’t true.

While we will need to make triage decisions at the level of which political projects to take up and which features of structural oppression are most pressing, comparison at the level of individuals can cause a number of problems. Trauma is still valid even if someone else has it worse.

An aggregate number also does not provide any actionable political guidance.

Scoring individualizes privilege instead of looking at the underlying social structures.

It can promote a kind of navel-gazing about our own experiences instead of group conversations about the problems that specifically affect us and what we can do about them. The way out of oppressive structures is not by finding the most marginalized person and placing the burden of liberation on them; it’s by working together.

Fourth, when we have conversations about privilege, there are a number of reactions that the privileged have when their relative structural advantage is pointed out: “Why are you trying to make me feel guilty?” “My life hasn’t been easy.” “I’ve experienced [insert unrelated hardship], so I know what oppression is like.” “But we’ve overcome [insert kind of oppression].” “I’ve never heard of that, so it can’t be real.” “The real problem is [insert unrelated issue].” “Well, [other marginalized group] also oppresses [marginalized group under discussion], so any oppression I participate in shouldn’t be called out.”

These various kinds of denial, outrage, and misdirection are often used by the privileged to recenter themselves in conversations. That tendency will not be affected by the kind of icebreaker you use to talk about privilege, whether it be the Buzzfeed quiz or a privilege walk.

However, some of these responses are (willful or otherwise) misunderstandings of what privilege is. It’s not personal virtue. It’s not how your life has gone on the whole. It’s a particular set of experiences that arise when people in well-specified social groups interact with social and structural advantages or disadvantages.

Privilege tests can sometimes feed into these misconceptions about privilege by obscuring intersectionality, making it sound as if privilege = how well your life has gone, and encouraging unhelpful comparisons. For these and other reasons, some people have already moved away from the privilege quiz/privilege walk model.

I don’t think that getting rid of privilege tests will solve the problems we have in discussing oppression. But we don’t need to aggravate these problems with a teaching resource that could be easily replaced with better materials. Conversations about privilege will always be hard, because people who are privileged do not directly experience what it’s like to live under structural oppression, and people who are oppressed often internalize oppressive narratives.

I hope that we can all replace these petty blame games and denials of privilege with solidarity and community. The fight isn’t between the privileged and the marginalized; it’s between the people who support systems of oppression and the people who want to dismantle them.

If you’re privileged, use that privilege to help.

Intersectionality and the Problem of the MCU’s Ancient One

photograph of Doctor Strange comic book cover

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.

In 2016, Marvel Studios’ Doctor Strange introduced Benedict Cumberbatch’s eponymous hero to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The film sees Strange learn how to harness magical energy as a sorcerer after journeying to the mystical city of Kamar-Taj and meeting its leader, the Ancient One (played by Tilda Swinton). This casting was controversial: in the comic books on which the movie is based, the Ancient One is an Asian man; Swinton is neither.

Swinton’s Ancient One is an example of what is sometimes called the “whitewashing” problem in Hollywood (where white actors are cast in non-white roles). Although Swinton’s portrayal of the character does not attempt to appeal to stereotypes about Asian people (and is explicitly described in the film as being of Celtic ancestry) — thereby setting it apart from straightforwardly racist performances like Mickey Rooney’s Japanese character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s — it nevertheless rewrites the backstory of a character long-depicted as Asian to instead substitute a white actor in the role. Much like how “whitewashing” a building involves covering it with white paint, the MCU’s portrayal of the Ancient One covers the character’s non-European background by giving them a Scottish face.

Granted, Swinton is a talented actor, but there is certainly no shortage of talented people available to act in the MCU; as Rob Chan, president of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, pointed out, “Given the dearth of Asian roles, there was no reason a monk in Nepal could not be Asian.” (Notably, Doctor Strange is far from the only recent movie criticized for whitewashing: Wikipedia has a surprisingly long list of references available.) In May 2021, Marvel Studios President (and MCU mastermind) Kevin Feige officially acknowledged that casting Swinton as the Ancient One was a mistake.

(A quick note to anyone about to ask something like “Will Kevin Feige also apologize for Nick Fury, Heimdall, or Johnny Storm in the recent non-MCU adaptation of the Fantastic Four?” The answer is pretty clearly “No.” While it’s true that, like Swinton’s Ancient One, those are characters portrayed by actors (Samuel L. Jackson, Idris Elba, and Michael B. Jordan, respectively) of a different race than (at least some of) the source material, the problem of “whitewashing” is not simply a matter of casting a member of the “wrong” race to play a role. Instead, the issue is rooted in the lack of Hollywood roles — especially leading roles — for non-white actors in general. When a talented white actor is cast in a part that could easily (and historically has been) filled by a talented non-white actor, this only serves to further reduce the opportunities for non-white actors. (As Chan also pointed out, “Tilda Swinton can afford to turn down roles.”)

But perhaps the most unusual thing about Swinton’s casting was actually the attention that Doctor Strange director and co-writer Scott Derrickson thought he was paying in portraying the character as the film does; as he explained in a 2016 interview, “The first decision that I made was to make [the Ancient One] a woman, before we ever went to draft, before we ever had a script…There was a desire for diversity in making that decision.” After this choice, Derrickson was worried that casting an Asian woman in the role would actually end up perpetuating long-standing Asian stereotypes:

“I know the history of cinema and the portrayal of the Dragon Lady in Anna May Wong films, and the continued stereotype throughout film history and even more in television. I just didn’t feel like there was any way to get around that because the Dragon Lady, by definition, is a domineering, powerful, secretive, mysterious, Asian woman of age with duplicitous motives—and I just described [the MCU’s Ancient One]. I really felt like I was going to be contributing to a bad stereotype.”

Reflecting on this in 2021, Feige pointed out, “We thought we were being so smart, and so cutting-edge…But it was a wake-up call to say, ‘Well, wait a minute, is there any other way to figure it out? Is there any other way to both not fall into the cliché and cast an Asian actor?’ And the answer to that, of course, is yes.”

I think this is where a little philosophy can be helpful to understand what’s going on. In 1989, Kimberlé Crenshaw, a legal scholar at the UCLA School of Law, argued that discrimination against Black women in Western culture is a particularly complex kind of injustice. While it might be tempting to think about racism against Black men and racism against Black women as essentially similar, this kind of oversimplification ignores the sexism that Black women also encounter (making their experience different than that of their male counterparts). Instead of analyzing the treatment of Black women along the single axis of “race,” Crenshaw argued that an intersectional analysis (that pays special attention to the multidimensional nature of a Black woman’s social identity) is necessary to fully capture the experience of people suffering from multiple kinds of oppression. As Crenshaw explains in the opening pages of the article that coined the term intersectionality, “Because the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism, any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which Black women are subordinated.”

Since 1989, intersectional analyses have proliferated to explain many different kinds of overlapping social identities and the complex ways that people navigate the social world. Although the term (and Crenshaw’s name) has become strangely misrepresented as an ominous threat by some politically-(or financially)-minded agents, the basic idea of intersectionality is relatively uncontroversial: people are complicated and simply treating any one person as simply one kind of thing will inevitably cause you to misunderstand (and potentially mistreat) them.

So, by simply thinking about “diversity” as a matter of casting a woman in a role traditionally played by a man, the creative team behind Doctor Strange was oversimplifying the complex nature of the Ancient One’s (and, for that matter, Tilda Swinton’s) social identity. The idea of intersectionality (and critical theories in general) does not argue that race or sex or gender or anything else about a person is central or primary or more important than anything else about them; they instead try to call attention to the complicated ways that diverse people’s different backgrounds and histories can interact to create unique and complicated experiences. Recasting the Ancient One by focusing only on the character’s sex ignored plenty of other relevant facts about him/her.

One final note: this is not a call to harangue Scott Derrickson, pillory Kevin Feige, or “cancel” Tilda Swinton — this is an attempt to understand how the makers of Doctor Strange might have made the decision that they now have openly (and repeatedly) called a “mistake.” And it’s a mistake that Marvel might have actually learned something from: not only has the recently-completed Falcon and the Winter Soldier miniseries on Disney+ explored racial tensions long-bubbling in the world of the Avengers, but the upcoming Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, a feature film slated for release in September, will introduce the MCU’s first Asian superhero. And while this film is not without a casting controversy of its own, many are hoping that its Chinese-Canadian star, Simu Liu, and its all-Asian cast will help the Marvel Cinematic Universe to move forward.

Shockingly Funny: The Morality of Eric Andre’s Comedy

photograph of Eric Andre at an event

In a recent interview with The New York Times, comedian Eric Andre refers to himself as a “benevolent prankster.” Eric Andre is arguably the modern king of hidden camera pranks, which have racked up millions of views on YouTube. Andre got his start performing standup comedy and was scouted by Comedy Central where he debuted his interview-style prank show, “The Eric Andre Show,” in 2012. On June 23, his Netflix standup special “Legalize Everything” released, and it is anticipated that his hidden camera comedy “Bad Trip” will release sometime this year on Netflix.

Eric Andre admits that his career relies on “purposely trying to get a rise out of people.” While a large portion of modern standup incorporates elements of self-deprecation, Andre’s style of humor fundamentally depends on eliciting a reaction out of someone else – and the stronger the reaction, the more humorous the content. This style of comedy is called ‘shock humor’ and often plays on so-called “low culture” subjects such as toilet jokes, sexual themes, and dark humor. With Andre’s steady career in comedy on the rise, there has been little discussion over the morality of his, and other shock-humorists’, methods.

Is it okay to purposefully seek a strong reaction from unsuspecting others? Does the relationship between the shocker and the shock-ee matter? And do the ends of shock-humor’s comical absurdity justify the means?

Eric Andre is not oblivious to the questionable morality of his work. In his NYT interview he discloses that for the shock-humorist, “you end your day feeling like you did something wrong and it’s not until you see the footage edited together properly that you’re like, OK, I have a funny bit in here.” For Andre, it seems the end result of humorous content justifies the short-lived shock he elicits from others. But some might argue this method of achieving comedy is neither respectful toward the rights of others nor justified by the end product. By attempting to upset, disgust, or disturb others, Andre acknowledges he is using people as a means to an end. And though every person appearing in his hidden camera prank has signed a release form, how many other individuals, that Andre elicited a reaction from, have refused to be a part of his videos? This lack of information makes it hard to truly gauge how much emotional turmoil and trauma has resulted from Andre’s process in creating his comedy.

Another moral consideration when it comes to shock humor is the positionality of the person being shocked and the way in which their identity is used in the process. Some instances of Andre’s NYC hidden camera pranks could be interpreted to derive humor by playing on a subject’s identity. In one of his videos, he begins a conversation with a woman asking a lewd question. This instance is disturbing considering the frequency with which women experience sexual harassment in public spaces and could potentially be considered sexual harassment under the New York City Human Rights law. In another video, filmed outside of the Democratic Convention, he asks blatantly sexist questions about Hillary Clinton to a woman who agreed to an interview. In both of these instances, Andre plays on the gender/sex of his comedic subject to attempt to elicit a reaction at their expense.

Andre’s shock humor could also lead to especially harmful consequences if the subjects of his humor are already prone to public harassment or stress. In the official trailer for his upcoming comedy “Bad Trip” it appears that many of Andre’s prank victims are people of color. In fact, one of his more extreme pranks targeted a black barbershop and ended with a black man chasing him and his costar, Lil Rel Howery, with a knife. Even if Andre did not intentionally target communities of color, or play on race stereotypes while doing so, it is still important to consider whether or not it is especially immoral to visit shock and emotional distress upon individuals and communities who experience a higher rate for social and economic stress to begin with.

Despite the morally questionable aspects of Andre’s methods, some might argue that those who are featured in his pranks are, in a way, willing participants in the comedic exchange. While individuals cannot control Andre’s actions, they are arguably responsible for their own reactions to his attempts to shock them. Aside from during his subway hidden-camera pranks, Andre never targets individuals who are incapable of walking away from the situation, and he has stated that he carefully tries to operate within the bounds of the law. While the law is clearly not always a good guide for determining morality, Andre could certainly be considered better than those who shock in order to harass or assert their  power over others, such as in street harassment. Additionally, Andre often uses himself and his body as the “shock,” subjecting himself to public humiliation, judgment, and sometimes potential violence. It could be argued Andre is technically at greater risk for harm than any individual he shocks. This is especially true if one considers his identity as a Black man, in a culture and society where calling the police on Black people is normalized, and police brutality is a common phenomenon. When asked about his experience interrupting an Alex Jones rally outside the 2016 Republican National Convention, Andre admitted to Stephen Colbert thinking to himself, “Oh I’m gonna die…This is where my life ends.” To some, Andre’s willingness to put his life in danger makes the shock he causes others seem minuscule in comparison.

The case in favor of Andre’s comedy becomes stronger when one considers his attempts to question social norms through his comedy. Andre has been vocal about his identity as both a Jewish person and a Black man. One might also observe that unlike some forms of dark humor, Andre’s specific brand of facetiousness often raises further awareness about important issues. Both his standup comedy as well as his social media accounts are used to highlight issues concerning social justice and inequality. During “Legalize Everything” Andre shocks the audience by acting out an exaggeratedly violent imitation of police brutality while yelling, “This is a system invented by rich, white, Christian, heterosexual businessmen, and if you don’t match that description, then it is my job to subjugate and oppress you, motherfucker, for I am your judge, jury, and executioner!”

Andre has also intentionally used the shock aspect of his comedy to target and poke fun at bigoted people and their beliefs. The topics he chose to shock others with during his trip to the RNC such as transgender restrooms, cross-dressing, abortion, and Black Lives Matter were clearly meant to poke fun at the caricature of Republicans as being prejudiced and intolerant towards certain groups of people.

Shock-humor has the potential to call attention to harmful social norms and subjects considered too taboo for casual conversation. It can also, as Andre has shown, be used to force others to reexamine their own engagement with socially harmful institutions and ideologies. However, the morality of shock-humor on an individual level and the relationship between the shocker and the shock-ee are too important to ignore. As the popularity of shock-humor and comedians like Eric Andre continues to rise, it is time we asked ourselves whether the hilarity of absurdity justify the means of shock.

Race, Authorship, and ‘American Dirt’: Who Owns Migration Narratives?

photograph of border wall stretching into the distance

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.

Fiction allows both readers and writers to inhabit perspectives wildly different from their own, which is perhaps one of its greatest attractions. However, this sense of fluidity has limitations, which are constantly being redrawn and contested within the literary community. For example, it’s hotly debated whether it’s possible, or even valuable, for a white author to inhabit the perspective of a person of color, or for an American to authentically reproduce the perspective of a Mexican migrant. What agendas do such appropriated narratives serve, and what do they tell us about what it means to be an author?

These questions can be explored through Jeanine Cummins’s novel American Dirt, and more broadly, through the storm of controversy surrounding the novel. American Dirt, published in January 2020 by Flatiron Books, tells the story of Lydia, a middle-class bookseller who flees Mexico with her young son after being targeted by the drug cartel that murdered her husband. Jeanine Cummins, the half-Irish half-Puerto Rican author, researched the novel for seven years, taking frequent trips to Mexico and conducting interviews with undocumented migrants to give her story a veneer of authenticity.

Almost immediately after the book was released, it inspired outrage in both professional critics and general readers alike. The most galvanizing of these reactions was Myriam Gurba’s review of the novel, in which she accuses Cummins of

“1. Appropriating genius works by people of color

2. Slapping a coat of mayonesa on them to make palatable […] and

3. Repackaging them for mass racially ‘colorblind’ consumption.”

Like many critics, Gurba takes issue with American Dirt’s reliance on racist cliches, labeling it thinly-veiled trauma porn geared at middle-class white readers rather than an authentic depiction of displacement and oppression. Many also took issue with the claim on the jacket of the book that Cummins’s husband immigrated to America illegally, a vague statement that purposefully lends more authority to her writing. However, the jacket fails to mention that her husband is a white man who immigrated to the States from Ireland, not Mexico.

Outraged with the commercial success the novel, 124 writers signed a letter urging Oprah Winfrey to remove American Dirt from her book club list. In the letter, the writers explain that,

“Many of us are also fiction writers, and we believe in the right to write outside of our own experiences: writing fiction is essentially impossible to do without imagining people who are not ourselves. However, when writing about experiences that are not our own, especially when writing about the experiences of marginalized people, still more especially when these lived experiences are heavily politicized, oppressed, threatened, and disbelieved—when this is the case, the writer’s duty to imagine well, responsibly, and with complexity becomes even more critical.”

Cummins writes in the novel’s defensive afterword that “the conversation [surrounding immigration] always seemed to turn around policy issues, to the absolute exclusion of moral or humanitarian concerns,” and that she only “wished someone slightly browner than me would write it.” Her stated aim is to encourage readers to sympathize with migrants through Lydia, a character whose “respectable” middle-class values will remind them of their own. Some of the books defenders have cited that approach as a necessary evil. On an episode of NPR’s “Latino USA” podcast, Sandra Cisneros, one of the novel’s few vocal advocates, argued that American Dirt is

“going to be [for an audience] who maybe is undecided about issues at the border. It’s going to be [for] someone who wants to be entertained, and the story is going to enter like a Trojan horse and change minds. And it’s going to change the minds that, perhaps, I can’t change.”

In other words, Cisneros is arguing that white authors can reach audiences that non-white authors won’t have access to, and that it’s a worthwhile task to move these audiences emotionally, even if harmful tropes are employed to do so.

Bob Miller, the president of Flatiron Books, issued a statement to address the controversy surrounding Cummins’s novel. He claims that Flatiron

“made serious mistakes in the way we rolled out this book. We should never have claimed that it was a novel that defined the migrant experience; we should not have said that Jeanine’s husband was an undocumented immigrant while not specifying that he was from Ireland […] We can now see how insensitive those and other decisions were, and we regret them.”

Miller acknowledges the validity of Cummins’s critics and the myopia of the publishing industry, stating that,

“the fact that we were surprised [by the controversy] is indicative of a problem, which is that in positioning this novel, we failed to acknowledge our own limits. The discussion around this book has exposed deep inadequacies in how we at Flatiron Books address issues of representation, both in the books we publish and in the teams that work on them.”

At the same time, he laments that “a work of fiction that was well-intentioned has led to such vitriolic rancor. While there are valid criticisms around our promotion of this book that is no excuse for the fact that in some cases there have been threats of physical violence [against Cummins].” In lieu of the planned book tour, the author will attend a series of “townhall meetings, where [Cummins] will be joined by some of the groups who have raised objections to the book.” Miller claims that this alternative “provides an opportunity to come together and unearth difficult truths to help us move forward as a community.”

The controversy surrounding American Dirt ties into a perennial debate on the relationship between identity and writing. In an article on the ethics of authorship for The New Yorker, Louis Menand explores two competing models of how identity impacts authorship. In the late 20th-century, the “hybrid” author was championed by white literary theorists. In that model, the author is a nebulous being with no fixed racial or gender identity, as such things were considered extraneous to the meaning of the text. The author can and should inhabit any role, regardless of who they are. But because of our growing consciousness of racial and gender politics, according to Menand,

“hybridity is out; intersectionality is in. People are imagined as the sum of their race, gender, sexuality, ableness, and other identities. Individuals not only bear the entire history of these identities; they ‘own’ them. A person who is not defined by them cannot tell the world what it is like to be a person who is. If you were not born it, you should not perform it.”

Menand’s description of intersectional authorship (and “intersectional” may not be the most accurate word to describe this model) feels almost petulant. Those who criticize insensitive portrayals of race or gender are cast by Menand as greedy gatekeepers, and those who are forced to write in such a climate are fettered by their identity. In actuality, the hybrid model allows harmful stereotypes to be reproduced by even well-meaning authors under the guise of imaginative fluidity. Furthermore, the intersectional model does not exclude the hybrid one as completely as Menand assumes, as authors can both inhabit different perspectives and remain sensitive to issues of race.

This point is evident in the critical reaction to American Dirt. Parul Sehgal, reviewing American Dirt for the New York Times, writes,

“I’m of the persuasion that fiction necessarily, even rather beautifully, requires imagining an ‘other’ of some kind. As the novelist Hari Kunzru has argued, imagining ourselves into other lives and other subjectives is an act of ethical urgency. The caveat is to do this work of representation responsibly, and well. […] Cummins has put in the research, as she describes in her afterword […] Still, the book feels conspicuously like the work of an outsider.”

The issue that Sehgal, and many other critics, have with the novel is not that Cummins made an attempt at inhabiting another perspective, but that the attempt was made without sensitivity to the political implications of the act. The letter addressed to Oprah further speaks to this criticism; the coalition of writers explicitly acknowledge that fiction is a place to explore identity, but explain that Cummins’s novel fails to give her subject the weight it deserves as a political issue. As Sehgal says,

“[American Dirt] is determinedly apolitical. The deep roots of these forced migrations are never interrogated; the American reader can read without fear of uncomfortable self-reproach. It asks only for us to accept that ‘these people are people,’ while giving us the saintly to root for and the barbarous to deplore—and then congratulating us for caring.”

In other words, such subject matter will always be political, and it is Cummins’s inability to acknowledge that which ultimately dooms her novel.

The publishing industry’s whiteness, as Miller acknowledges, plays a large role in what kind of stories considered worth telling, and writers should be allowed to take on different perspectives to broaden the horizons of the literary world. Writers are even morally obligated to acknowledge issues like immigration, to foster the growth of sympathy and connection between disparate groups. As British literary critic Frank Kermode said, “fictions are for finding things out, and they change as the needs of sense-making change. Myths are agents of stability, fiction the agents of change.” But ultimately, we cannot pretend that an American author appropriating the experience of an undocumented migrant is somehow not fraught with political meaning, just because it’s happening in the pages of a book.

Using Religion to Sell Sex: A Navratri-Themed Condom Ad

A Navrati ceremony

In the Indian state of Gujarat, Navratri, or “Nine Nights,” is in full swing with festivals and celebrations to mark the nine sacred days of the year in the Hindu faith. One of Hinduism’s most auspicious holidays, Navratri is dedicated to Maa Durga, with nine days of activities to celebrate each of the goddess’s avatars. However, this Navratri has not been completely tranquil, with a billboard ad campaign causing waves of controversy.  The billboard featured Bollywood actress Sunny Leone smiling coyly, with the tagline “This Navratri, play, but with love.” The slogan is accompanied by a pair of dandiya sticks and the logo for the condom brand, Manforce.

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