MLA is Less Than a Week Away, What Are You Wearing?

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It’s that time of year, when scholars from around the world gather to share their work and test their intellectual mettle at the annual Modern Language Association conference, which will take place this year in Vancouver from January 8-11. Ideas will be exchanged; networking will take place; and a select few will interview for a handful of coveted tenure-track jobs.

But it will take more than simply encyclopedic knowledge of all of Shakespeare’s neologisms, Marxist ruminations about The Wire, or a good undergraduate syllabus to land a job. For candidates who have made the short list (in my experience 10-14 candidates out of 400 applicants), knowledge, intellectual originality, and, in all likelihood, academic pedigree, along with a few killer letters of recommendation, may not be enough to land an on-campus visit.

060412-celebs-the-wire-funny-pr-die-musicalSometimes it’s not about who or what you know or how well you can express it or even where you went to school. Sometimes it’s about what you wear. Disappointing, I know. We like to believe that as academics, none of that matters or should matter, but trust me. It does.

Previous articles about sartorial splendor prior to MLA have focused on job candidates showing up inappropriately outfitted in prom dresses, sequins, or spandex. Though most of the offenses appear to be related to women, men are not excluded from making poor wardrobe choices, albeit they are certainly given more latitude for doing so.

With everything there is to worry about and all of the unreasonable expenses related to traveling to one conference with so much riding on the outcome of 50 minutes in a hotel room, every second with the committee counts, and it starts with what you are wearing. This is not about how much money one spends. It’s about being professional and confident.

As Capital stylist Cinna tells Katniss Everdeen, my objective is “to help you make an impression.”

A suit is best. But a skirt and blouse, jacket and slacks, jeans, button down, and a sports coat, all are appropriate. No one expects a job candidate, especially one who is still a graduate student, to show up in a Hugo Boss suit or pair of Prada shoes, though I have seen both. Neither got the job. Taking a few minutes to iron a shirt or applying a layer of shoe polish is more important than any designer label.

Choice of clothing can also distinguish a candidate from his or her peers. After eight interviews back-to-back, the truth of the matter is that people and what they say start to blur and blend together. After fourteen interviews, everything gets jumbled, including distinctions among candidates. A short hand can develop for referencing job candidates, including alma mater, area of study, and, yes, even clothing. Rumpled is not how one wants to be remembered.

One year, when the MLA was held in DC, I remember riding the train in from Silver Springs. I was wearing jeans, a sweatshirt, an oversized green all-weather hooded coat, and hiking boots. My garment bag was thrown over my shoulder. I knew well enough that there were too many coffee, mud, schmutz variables between my departure and final arrival points to chance wearing my actual interview suit on the train.

The station was a ten-minute walk from the interview location, and I had plenty of time to change clothes, assess the elevator traffic, and stake out the floor and room situations before meeting what I hoped would be my future colleagues.

After confirming with the hotel bag check that I could leave my items with them, I made my way to the ladies restroom off the main lobby. As I entered, 25-30 clones in ostensibly identical fitted suits, sophisticated shells, edgy shoes, and leather satchels with a few Armani eyeglass frames sprinkled here and there greeted me with a piercing appraisal.

These clones would have been awesome.

These clones would have been awesome.

Undaunted, I excused and pardoned my way through the crowd into a stall, where I began my own transformation. After exchanging jeans and boots for a wool-silk blend suit and booties, both purchased at a thrift store, I exited the stall, setting off a chain reaction.

One by one, all heads turned to look at me in my lilac suit. The reactions varied from dismay to disdain, but even those who snickered at my apparel could not hide the unease caused by the realization that they were one multiplied ad infinitum in a hotel bathroom.

Polonius says, “apparel oft proclaims the man.” I agree; after all I got the job. Did I get it because of what I was wearing? I should hope not, but what I was wearing made me feel comfortable and confident. It helped put me at ease, allowing me to demonstrate my expertise and convey how I might be a good future colleague.

In such a competitive market, where article placement, conference presentations, and awards are deemed most important, attending to one’s appearance might seem inconsequential. It isn’t. Your professional future may depend on it.

I Know Why Retail Sales Were Down This Holiday Season, But Nobody Asked Me

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Any day now, market analysts will be releasing their reports about why retail sales underperformed this holiday season. I took TWO business courses as an undergraduate, one in advertising [my group won the account] and one in marketing [I never read the book and earned an A], before I realized that I couldn’t live my life trying to convince people to buy stuff they don’t need. I am no business professional, but my vast experience shopping and pinching pennies have afforded me the following insights, which I offer free of charge, though I wouldn’t object if you paid me:

1.) When my kid who loves Christmas says, “It’s too early to have out Christmas stuff the month before Halloween, you may have overstepped.” Christmas does not start in September. Every year you back it up a month. Next year, if you place Christmas stuff next to Fourth of July streamers, the only place to back up from there is Easter, and after that you might as well just leave the tree and tinsel out year round.

Solution: Hide your greed and launch the Christmas season in November.

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2.) Speaking of greed, you made people work on Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving. I don’t celebrate the colonial holiday, but even I think that’s wrong. Let people be with their families, and let people get up at 3 a.m. to be at your store when it opens at 5 a.m. and give the first 100 in line free plastic tchotchkes made in China that no one needs but that can be re-gifted forever. They make people happy.

Solution: Stay closed on Thanksgiving. Use molded plastic to incentivize consumers.

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3.) A coupon is not a coupon when you can’t really use it for anything. That woman screaming at your counter is my 75 year-old mother, and she is enraged. The fine print paragraph of exclusions (“everything that anyone might want except for this rack of crap right here”) is an insult to people who watch their wallets closely, namely seniors and everyone on fixed incomes. I understand the game is to get people into stores and then make them feel like they have no choice because they have spent the time, effort, and gas to drive to your store to buy something you either don’t have despite advertising, is not on sale, or eligible for coupon use because its SKU number ends in even numbers greater than 2. But they do have choices. I watched people leave armloads of merchandise at the counter because your coupon is only good after 11 a.m. and before noon every third Thursday of months that do not include “r” in the spelling.

Solution: Using an in-store coupon shouldn’t be like buying a home or car. On-line free shipping, deep discounts, and, yes, actual coupons you can use for real stuff are killing you. Build consumer trust and make a coupon a coupon.

Coupon copy4.) Your customer service stinks. Twice over the holidays, a sales rep at a different store was asked to locate an item at another location. Twice, we were told it was in stock. Twice, we were told it could not be located in the store. And twice, I went and found it in the store myself.

Solution: Pay your workers a competitive wage and give them the training to feel like they might have a future with your company. Who knows? If you care, they might care just a smidgen. It’s a win-win situation.

BuiltToLast copy5.) Planned obsolescence is the order of the day. You used to make products to last and to build brand loyalty. But there is not enough profit to be made in that practice, so now your point is to make products that break, which makes me hate your company and motivates me to never buy another one of your stupid products. How much profit is enough? Word is that corporation [read: people] profits are through the roof. And why shouldn’t they be? Inferior materials? Check. Exploited overseas labor? Absolutely. No environmental regulations, pesky unions, or safety standards? Absolutely. Consumers are frustrated. They are unemployed and trying to make ends meet. You’ve outsourced their labor and you want them to buy your products?

Solution: Corporations/people have dismantled middle-class factory jobs in the US and asking you to bring them back is futile. Decide that people are more important than profit. That it’s okay to make $250 million dollars instead of $275 million. That just because you can pay someone in another country $1.50 a day, it’s not okay to do so. Because you have been given personhood status, act like one and give a flip about something other than money. And because I know none of these are options, at least offer a coupon that’s worth something.

From Deep in the Weeds: Woodson, Children’s Lit, and a Series of Unfortunate Events

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Timing is everything. Most stories have a two-week expiration date, as I have learned, which means when you pitch a piece, the clock is ticking. The NYT says if you haven’t heard back from them in three days, it’s probably a ‘no.’ That’s fairly humane. Others can take much longer; and some don’t reply at all, which means by the time you don’t hear back, the window has closed. In many ways, the academy has prepared me for this uneven level of wide-scale rejection.

What happens to those rejected pieces that are au courant and cannot be refreshed with a new lede, headline, or timely news hook? That’s the question I asked myself when a recent piece I wrote about racism, children’s literature, and YA, involving Daniel Handler’s cruel remarks during the National Book Award ceremony, failed to find a home.

My trenchant critique of ongoing racism in children’s literature was deemed “too far in the weeds” by one major news outlet, which I initially thought meant too political or academic. Turns out, it meant something else entirely.

I also learned that once Jacqueline Woodson offered her response in the NYT, the story was over because she had the last word, and what a beautifully elegant and thoughtful word it was.

I was also told that Handler deserved no more news time for his casual racism issued through micro-aggressions. And I agree.

For all of these reasons I understand the story is dead. And yet . . . we cannot place boundaries around racism and its legacy because it’s no longer news worthy. As long as there is racism it should always be newsworthy until it is eradicated or becomes an outmoded idea that we are embarrassed to remember and committed to never repeating.

I have decided to publish the orphan piece here because I want my students to know that I was moved to participate in a conversation about a systemic problem, that I attempted to apply what we discussed in the classroom to the ‘real world,’ and that what we do and say can matter, even if no one wants to hear.

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Handler’s Remarks Reveal Larger Problems in YA

Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of Nancy Larrick’s now-famous piece ‘The All-White World of Children’s Books.’

In 1965, Larrick, a children’s education advocate and former President of the International Reading Association, reported that ‘Over a three-year period, only four-fifths of one percent of the children’s trade books from sixty-three publishers’ told contemporary stories about African Americans.

Larrick, who passed away in November 2004, argued that substantive representation of Blacks in children’s literature was important not simply for Black children, but for whites as well. ‘There seems little chance of developing the humility so urgently needed for world cooperation, instead of world conflict, as long as our children are brought up on gentle doses of racism through their books.’

Unfortunately, not much has changed in the past five decades. Given the racial politics of the publishing industry, where 93 percent of all youth books are about white children, and the scarcity of diverse voices in children’s literature, Jacqueline Woodson’s National Book Award is a monumental achievement.

JacquelineWoodsonHer poetry memoir brown girl dreaming, which won the 2014 Young People’s Literature Award, celebrates the endurance of the human spirit as it documents the adversity her family faced spanning from slavery to the Civil Rights Movement up to the 1970s.

Daniel Handler, best selling author of Lemony Snicket fame who has sold more than 60 million books worldwide, served as the host of the award ceremony. What should have been a celebration was overshadowed by Handler’s joke about the irony of Woodson’s watermelon allergy.

The use of an old racial trope was one of a series of comments targeting African Americans that Handler made throughout the evening. Others included a remark about ‘probable cause’ in regard to two African American nominees in the same category and Handler’s expressed desire to someday win a Coretta Scott King Book Award, a prize reserved for African American authors and illustrators of children and young adult books.

While Handler initially only admitted to ‘ill-conceived attempts at humor,’ he later conceded that his comments were racist and made the decision to donate money to #WeNeedDiverseBooks, a grassroots organization that seeks to ‘increase visibility for diverse books and authors.’ Supporting charities and encouraging others to do the same are worthwhile endeavors, but they do nothing to address Handler’s casual racism.

In her eloquent, wrenching, and informative response to the series of unfortunate events, Woodson states that she is motivated ‘to write stories that have been historically absent in this country’s body of literature, to create mirrors for the people who so rarely see themselves inside contemporary fiction, and windows for those who think we are no more than the stereotypes they’re so afraid of.’

Over the last three years, I have taught a university course called Young Adult: Fiction and Film. Although technically an author of young reader, rather than young adult, fiction, Handler and his work have been the subject of class discussions about topics ranging from the suffering of children as a consumable product to most recently the announcement that Netflix plans to produce an original series based on the famed Snicket books. The course encourages students to see favorite stories and authors from their childhood in a new light. Handler’s recent remarks have certainly given us an additional opportunity to do so. Students have discovered an incredibly homogenous world, where white children, like Handler’s Baudelaire orphans, are heroes and agents of change; whereas people of color either do not exist, are confined to the background, or their sole purpose for inclusion is to help the heroes and heroines achieve their goals.

One holiday season, as my young son and I discussed our gift lists, he offered to give me a hint about one of my presents. I was more curious about what kind of clue a preschooler would provide than about the gift, so I agreed.

After some thought, he offered, ‘It rhymes with Pemony Micket.’ This year when he asked if the 2014 Lemony Snicket book Shouldn’t You Be in School? would be on my Christmas list, I said ‘no’ and had to explain why.

While Handler’s racism in ‘gentle doses’ is inexcusable, it has cast a much-needed public light on the lack of diversity in the youth and young adult book market and publishing.

What was true almost 50 years ago is still true today. As Larrick asserted in her conclusion, ‘White supremacy in children’s literature will be abolished when authors, editors, publishers, and booksellers decide that they need not submit to bigots.’ Handler’s comments brought forth the specter of that legacy to demonstrate, unequivocally, that the industry is still submitting, willingly.

 

YA Recommended Reading List—Expanded Version

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I am so pleased to have “Characters in children’s books are almost always white, and it’s a big problem” appear today in The Washington Post.

A few people have remarked that they would have liked more detailed descriptions of the books. They were included in the original but were cut due to space limitations. So I have added them below:

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Little Brown, 2007) by Sherman Alexie—Issues of bullying, reservation life, poverty, alcohol consumption, and masturbation have landed this book on a number of banned book lists, which is unfortunate because the book that includes illustrations is also filled with great humor and honesty as Arnold Spirit, Jr. faces life in an all-white high school. Recommended ages 12 and up.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (Simon & Schuster, 2014) by Benjamin Alire Sáenz— Winner of numerous LGBT book awards, including the Lamba and Stonewall, this coming-of-age book about two Mexican-American teenagers who become friends and then romantically entwined is a powerfully-rendered story about identity and the power of human connection. Recommended ages 13 and up.

Does My Head Look Big In This? (Scholastic, 2005) by Randa Abdel-Fattah— Set in Melbourne, Australia, the book is told by Amal Mohamed Nasrullah Abdel-Hakim a 16-year old Muslim girl who decides to wear her hijab full-time. Amal learns that her decision to do so impacts her social life at school but also joins her to a larger community of Muslim women. Recommended ages 12 and up.

Esperanza Rising (Blue Sky, 2000) by Pam Munoz Ryan— Best-selling and oft-recommended, Esperanza Ortega’s tale is one of tragedy in post-Revolutionary Mexico brought about by war and the murder of her father. Her flight north to the US forces a change in circumstance and conditions she must learn to rise above. The book was recently adapted into a stage play and performed at the University of Texas at Austin. Recommended ages 12 and up.

Great Call of China (Speak, 2009) by Cynthea Liu— Adoption, romance, and the search for identity are a few of issues facing Chinese-born Cee, living in Texas. When the opportunity presents itself for her to return to her country of birth, she jumps at the chance to learn about her cultural roots but what she finds is not at all what she expected. Recommended ages 12 and up.

Home of the Brave (Square Fish, 2007) by Katherine Applegate— Written in the same lyrical style as Woodson’s memoir, this moving story about friendship, discovery, war, and hardship focuses on an African boy named Kek who survived the violence of his home country and waits to be reunited with his mother in the US. Recommended ages 12 and up.

Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass (Candlewick, 2014) by Meg Medina— This year’s winner of the Pura Belpré award follows Piddy Sanchez, who in addition to maintaining good grades, searching for her long-lost father, and not being Latina enough for her classmates, learns that Yaqui Delgado is out to get her. Recommended ages 14 and up.

 

Katniss Everdeen, America’s First Black YA Heroine

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Protestors facing off against the police in armored vehicles, fires burning amidst chaos, civil uprising. These scenes could be seen at theaters across the country in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 and on the streets of Ferguson, New York, Austin, Los Angeles.

Mockingjay is on its way to becoming the top-grossing film three weeks in row. The penultimate installment focuses on an impending revolution to overthrow an oppressive regime that sees a portion of its primarily poor population, many of whom are Black, as expendable and forces them to fight to the death in an annual public spectacle of obedience.

The parallels between the Ferguson protests and the film are notable, particularly when looking at the social uprisings of an oppressed and racialized underclass. Against a backdrop of largely class warfare, Katniss Everdeen, the series heroine, becomes the public face of a revolution. In doing so, she becomes America’s first Black YA heroine.

Toni Morrison once identified Bill Clinton as the first Black president, which is oft quoted and equally misapplied. Her intention was not to anoint him as an “honorary” African American; it was meant to explain how his criminality was presupposed, during the White Water investigations, and how he signified, through his personal life and upbringing, “every trope of blackness.”

Katniss’ profound poverty and vulnerability to the state is something she shares with other characters, Black and White, but are not enough to make her a Black heroine, nor are her relationships with pivotal revolutionary characters. It is the fact that primarily Black characters, namely Rue and Cinna but others as well, publicly defy the Panem Capitol and act as agents or catalysts for civil unrest. When Katniss begins to do the same, according the racial logic of the film, she becomes Black.

In the first film, after Rue is fatally injured, Katniss sings to her as she dies, arranges flowers around Rue’s body, and visibly mourns, signaling to the Capitol that Rue was a person and body that mattered. As the scene unfolds in Rue’s home district, the agricultural District 11, in which the members of the primarily Black population look like sharecroppers in the South, a Black man responds by charging a Peacekeeper, and other citizens quickly join in. The police use water hoses to quell the uprising, drawing distinct parallels between the scene in District 11 and civil rights activists in Birmingham, AL in the 1960s.

Rue-Amandla-Stenberg-The-Hunger-GamesCapitol stylist Cinna equips Katniss’ would-be white wedding dress, in the second film, with the ability to transform into a sleek black mockingjay costume complete with wings and feathers. As she performs for the Panem audience, she metamorphoses from a pawn of the White President Snow, who ordered her to wear the wedding dress, to a black figure of resistance. Cinna is later beaten and eventually killed for his role in literally outfitting Katniss for the coming revolution.

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In the most recent installment, Mockingjay, Katniss becomes synonymous with the effort to overthrow Panem. The rebels record Katniss candidly singing the folksong “The Hanging Tree,” which had been outlawed by the Capitol, for use in their propaganda films.

“Are you, are you
Coming to the tree
Wear a necklace of rope, side by side with me.
Strange things did happen here
No stranger would it be
If we met up at midnight in the hanging tree.”

Katniss’ voice is slowly joined and overpowered by the voices of the people rising up. The lyrics, written by Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins, call to mind the history of racial violence in the US. The racial politics of the film and Katniss’ open defiance of the state through her singing of “The Hanging Tree” directly align her with Blackness.

We need to see more than white actors taking up Black subject positions as heroes, revolutionaries, and cinematic saviors. We need actual Black, Latino, American Indian, and a host of others as diverse agents of change.

Given that Katniss, in the book, is described as “olive-skinned,” many of us had hoped that a Latina might be cast in the lead. But the odds were never in our favor, and Jennifer Lawrence in bronzer with her hair dyed dark was given the part.

The fan outrage about and blatant racism in response to African American actors being cast as Rue and Cinna suggest that regardless of how characters are written, white audiences read them as white. Some fans declared that they would not have cared as much about Rue or Cinna if they had known they were Black. While these sentiments are shocking, we are repeatedly shown how little Black lives matter, whether on the big screen or the streets of Ferguson.

How ironic that the number one movie in America mobilizes blackness to fuel a revolution given the current state of racial politics in the nation, particularly after Ferguson. How can we as a people consume revolution, while at the same time be completely oblivious to deeply entrenched race and class disparities? In our failure to recognize these injustices, we have become like citizens of the Capitol.

Elizabeth Peña, Dead at 55

Stunned and deeply saddened by the loss of Elizabeth Peña. So many great roles she inhabited, but I will forever remember her as Pilar in John Sayles’ Lone Star (1996).

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Peña died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles on Tuesday. A cause of death has not been given.

She is survived by her husband, two teenage children, as well as her mother and sister.

I leave you with Sam driving through the night to reach Pilar. Wherever she is, I’m sure the Alamo has been forgotten.

YA Hater, Struck Down by Vampire Werewoles and Morrissey Mix Tape

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Two years ago, I proposed a small seminar on Young Adult: Fiction and Film. My motivation for developing the course had to do with the fact that almost every adult I knew, at the time, was reading and passing around YA novels. It wasn’t long before I became curious about what YA was doing in the world. Or more specifically, what was its value to adults and how was it being put to use? About that seminar, turns out what was supposed to be 18 students ballooned into 100 students in a departmental effort to maximize the BIS (Butts In Seats or B+S=$) quotient. I wanted to be a good citizen and went with the flow, but the pilot class, where ideas are supposed be test driven, theoretical frameworks formulated, and assignments honed, became a large scale, all-or-nothing affair. In the true spirit of “go big or go home,” it was mostly improv and powering through the adjusted economy of scale.

This semester is my third go round with the topic, and over the summer, in preparation for my current class, I came across the following dialogue: old people whose age number doesn’t have a “teen” in it, should step away from Harry Perks, Twilight Hunger. For those of you unfamiliar with the kerfuffle involving biblioshaming, it goes a little something like this: in June 2014, Ruth Graham argued “Against YA,” specifically, that adults should be “ashamed” to read books written for children and teens and that we should make “better” reading choices. Good thing she didn’t condescend because I would have sent her an emoji filled tweet-rant (#getalife #imabeme #teamalexie). Similar to my response to an unexpectedly loud borborygmos in a lecture hall with great acoustics, I was flabbergasted to learn that I am supposed to be ashamed of reading YA. For the record, I’m not. The TwiMoms still embarrass me, the genre, not so much. [Check “disgruntled” in the green mini-dress giving the side eye to the 18-24s.]

????????Now, I recognize that this conversation is a thousand years old in Instagram years, and as the former elitistacademic, I complained about the near-immediate expiration date on popular culture, but three months isn’t terribly stale. It’s about the exact amount of time it takes for peanut butter to acquire a 3″ oily top layer. So grab your spoon, and let’s start stirring.

Of the many thoughtful retorts to “Ms. Let’s-Hate-On-Adult-YA-Readers,” my favorite, imagined as a conversation between the writer and Graham, was penned by young adult fiction author Kathleen Hale: “A Young Adult Author’s Fantastic Crusade to Defend Literature’s Most Maligned Genre.” Hale’s fully sharpened satirical wit combines facts with a good old fashion take down that is a nod to Marxism and relies on genre history and a feminist critique of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Most of the article deftly hits its mark: she’s spot on about the vampires, cancers, virginity, and the MO mix tape. She doesn’t, however, meaningfully engage with race or ethnicity because talking about white power and privilege isn’t enough.

Now, I am not going to use that to initiate a take down of my own because faulting someone for not writing about what you want them to write about is like getting a free meal and then complaining it’s not puttanesca made by a miserable orphan trio. Well not exactly, though it is a move that academics do with some frequency. (Thanks for your talk on X, you didn’t mention A-W or Z for that matter. Translation: I am totally judging you and find you lacking and badly dressed.) The problem of race in YA is longstanding. Jen Doll’s piece “The On-Going Problem of Race in YA” from 2012 succinctly lays out the issue, though primarily on a black/white axis. In July, Ashley Strickland asked, “Where’s the African American Harry Potter or Mexican Katniss?” To Ms. Strickland, I would say, the Mexican Katniss, with her “olive skin” and “straight black hair,” is in the novel. The dyed and bronzed-up blonde is in the movie.

drunkfacelawrenceWhy does race matter in the YA genre? For the same reason Nancy Larrick sites in her 1965 article “The All-White World of Children’s Books”: “But the impact of the all-white books upon 39,600,000 white children is probably even worse. Although his light skin makes him one of the world’s minorities, the white child learns from his books that he is the kingfish. There seems little chance of developing the humility so urgently needed for world cooperation, instead of world conflict, as long as our children are brought up on gentle doses of racism through their books” (63, Saturday Review).

Flash forward to the premiere of Maze Runner, an adaptation of the YA dystopian sci-fi novel about a group of boys who live in a glade outside of an inescapable unsolvable maze filled with killer slug-like machines (think blast-ended skrewts outfitted with buzzsaws and ginormous needles). The book is deeply depressing with no Scooby ending in sight. The world is bad; it’s confusing; it gets worse, and worse, and worse. And then it gets devastating. Some questionable omissions were made in the adaptation, but one thing the film did right was to diversify the cast. With few exceptions, the race of the “Gladers” is not made clear in the book, so the filmmakers took the opportunity to cast F-I-V-E Latinos–5.

“That’s huge!” one might say, but none survives and one looks vaguely East Asian or Middle Eastern, which is great in terms of diversity and terrible in so many other ways (all POC are interchangeable). Let’s add them to kill them off!! Their demise, and lack of specificity, suggests that Latinos are expendable, not worthy of saving even in an post-apocalyptic-diseased-Lord-of-the-Maze world. Almost 50 years later, with YA popularity at an all-time high, Larrick’s argument still holds true. People of color still linger in the background, and we have yet to truly imagine them as heroic. I’m not ashamed I know that, and you should know it, too.

“The Bridge” Troubles Waters, Future Uncertain

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NOTE: I don’t believe in spoiler alerts.

The limb chopping, eye gouging, wholesale slaughter of women, children, and corrupt cops in season 2 of FX’s border drama ‘The Bridge’ is not conducive to binge watching. As a latecomer to the show, I have managed to digest almost two seasons in less than 14 days. The experience has left me fatigued and mentally worn down. With the season finale only a week away, the series has unfortunately yet to be renewed. Despite its notable flaws, ‘Bridge’ emerges as one of the most important shows on television for both its timely content and depiction of Latinos.

Latinos comprise significant state population percentages in California (39%), Texas (38.2%), and Florida (23.2%), according to Pew Research, with an estimated buying power of more than $1.2 trillion. In light of their appetite for television, Latinos account for a mere 3.5% of regular characters on primetime television. The U.S.-Mexico border and the historic representation of Latinos on television are a toxic mixture that has wrought some truly offensive productions. The prospect of seeing another sexy señorita or homicidal drug lord in tacky couture (‘Kingpin’) has the appeal of a DIY root canal. I quickly discovered that ‘Bridge’ walks a fine line between familiar plots and socio-political commentary.

The ongoing, unsolved murders of women in Ciudad Juarez figure prominently in season one. A severed body strategically placed on the Bridge of the Americas between Mexico and the US intertwines characters in two countries. With the discovery that the corpse is actually two bodies pieced together, the top half belonging to a US Anglo judge, the bottom half to a Mexican factory worker, the case launches viewers into the racial geopolitics of the border and the kinds of bodies that matter there. Since 1998, more than 300 women, though some put the estimated number in the thousands, have been brutally murdered, in many cases tortured, or simply disappeared in Juarez. One episode shows pink crosses like the ones erected in the desert to memorialize the missing women of Juarez, bringing a layer of the truth to this fiction. The killer criticizes the police for prioritizing the murder of the Anglo judge over hundreds of missing Mexican women. El Paso Detective Sonya Cross (Diane Kruger) and Juarez Detective Marco Ruiz (Demián Bechir) join forces to catch a killer and solve a mystery that is as local as it is international.

The permeability of the border allows bodies, drugs, guns, and corruption to flow both ways. In season two, cartel violence and the theme of revenge dominate. While Marco warns Sonya that the drug war is coming to El Paso, it has always been there, forever threatening to surface. The collusion of the CIA and Mexican government to collectively ignore money laundering, drug smuggling, and extortion in favor of shared economic interests places both entities on par with the cartels. Racial and economic stratification complicate the Mexican class system, from ‘campesino’ cartel leader Fausto Galvan and middle class Captain Robles to the ‘gloved’ CEO Sebastian Cerisola and the unnamed Indigenous working poor. ‘Bridge’ has also featured prominently Emily Rios as Adriana Mendez, a lesbian reporter for the El Paso Times, and transsexual performers, further diversifying the cast of characters and the emotional reach of this very human drama.

Emily Rios as Adriana Mendez

Emily Rios as Adriana

The show is innovative on a number of fronts. In the opening credits, producers alternate top billing of Kruger and Bechir. ‘Bridge’ attempts to pay equal attention to the storylines and characters in each country. Significant portions of most episodes are in Spanish. Lawlessness is not confined to one nation or racial group. Women are subject to and agents of monumental violence. As a Latino lead, Marco has depth and a challenging moral complexity. His sexual indiscretions and dangerous refusal to be another crooked Mexican cop result in the loss of his son.

Bechir and Kruger as Detectives Marco Ruiz and Sonia Cross

Bechir and Kruger as Detectives Marco Ruiz and Sonya Cross

Less successful are the partnering or occupational pairings of Mexican and American characters, Adriana-Daniel, Hank-Robles, Eva-Linder, among others. The contrivance calls attention to Anglo power and privilege in these relationships. It also further entrenches white heroism even as it attempts to dispel it, namely through Sonya and her partnership with Marco.

Audiences are asked to empathize with a main character that cannot do the same. Det. Sonya Cross, whose name calls to mind salvation, burden, and transgression, has Asperger’s syndrome, though nowadays she would be diagnosed on the range of Autism Spectrum Disorder. The autism serves as a perfect character trait that allows her to be both innocent and fully sexual at the same time. Sonya may have to be reminded ‘to make eye contact’ with others in social situations but knows when its time to go to a bar to pick up a random stranger to satisfy her sexual needs. The murder of her sister, failure to navigate social situations (‘Would you like a glass of water?’), and inability to comprehend moral ambiguity represent a few of the many crosses she bears. For Sonya there is only right and wrong. In her absolutism, she is the ideal American citizen subject who sits in judgment of Mexicans and Americans alike. Her desire to work the Juarez murder cases directly connects her to the pink crosses in the desert, making her a potential heroic savior. Unfortunately, she is the least interesting character on the show.

‘Bridge’ writers unflinchingly plunge headlong into the border morass, while largely avoiding the lapse into romantic sentiment. With one episode left in the season, the fates of numerous characters, like the series itself, remain undetermined. Neilson ratings for the show averaged 1.2 million, down .3 from the season opener. The unrelenting ferocity of the show and the long stretches in Spanish may prove too much heavy lifting for audiences, even with its relatively short 13-episode season. Still, as an estimated 50,000 women and unaccompanied children, fleeing poverty and cartel violence, arrive at the border each year, watching ‘Bridge’ is a political and social necessity that lends greater understanding to the reality of this historical moment. Its cancellation will also result in the disappearance of a large diverse Latino cast of major recurring characters, one we are not likely to encounter again anytime soon. Let’s hope FX doesn’t burn this important ‘Bridge.”

“It’s ALIVE!!!”

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A funny thing happened one day on the way to my blog.

I was in class with my undergraduates, and it was the day before course evaluations, the bubble sheets that boil down a semester’s worth of work into six questions, which are then used to determine everything from promotion to teaching awards. My students and I had shared a hard-earned rapport in the last few weeks. All semester long, they had been shy, terrified of being wrong, and bien callado, not quite Easter Island statues but close. I had tried to get the class to gel earlier in the semester, yet these things cannot be forced. Well, actually they can and the results are usually disastrous.

Looking back, I cannot recall how we landed on the subject of social media and blogs. Maybe it was something about rhetorical devices, platforms for the dissemination of ideologies, or Kanye. What I do remember is that students began talking about their own blogs or ones they followed and why. Pedagogically, I had reached nirvana. The students were speaking from a place of authority; the conversation was flowing freely, and they were being thoughtfully analytical about online media and their relationship to the various forms, particularly as it related to the text under consideration. I remember feeling the buzz, a sensation I get when I am in the zone and everything is coming together perfectly in the classroom. It starts in my head with a tingling sensation and then travels down into my stomach, making me feel light. In many ways, it is akin to the physical sensation of body surfing, when the water pulls you to the top of the swell, the simultaneous feeling of being lifted up and propelled forward at the same time. The zone is better than surfing because its 100% exhilaration and 0% sand up my nose. As I stood watching and listening to them directing, redirecting, challenging, countering, someone turned and asked, “Do you have a blog?” I was being called in from the sidelines to participate in their conversation. Time to grab my helmet and trot onto the field.

“I do,” was my reply.

“What’s it called?” asked an unfamiliar voice from the back of the classroom.

“elitistacademic.” My response produced a flutter of laughter through the class, lifting me just a touch higher. “It’s meant to be ironic but I have learned that irony requires both intelligence and thought. Most people aren’t interested in either.” More laughter, one verbal affirmation, and I had reached maximum buoyancy.

I walked over to the media console and pulled out the keyboard from the sliding tray beneath the desktop. When in the zone, fine motor skills are often hampered somewhat by the huge amounts of blood being redirected to the brain and lungs, so I can keep thinking and breathing. Months had passed since I last checked in on the elitistacademic, though I wasn’t thinking about that. While typing carefully, I was pondering which post to show them to best illustrate “yes, your professor is down with the interwebs.” After I finished typing the address and hit the “return” button, I fully expected to see, if memory served me correctly, Chris Hemsworth on The Red Dawn movie poster. Instead, I saw the familiar and unknown all at once, the title “elitistacademic,” a naked heterosexual coupling in the header, a side menu of various body parts and proclivities, as well as individual entries for sexual positions and toys. What I remember most is the collective gasp from the students accompanied by the feeling of being dropped from a great height. In my free fall, I should have prepared for impact. Not me, I doubled down, convinced that I had typed the address incorrectly. With the adrenaline coursing through my body, I pecked out the address one more time in search of redemption. When the page reloaded, the bodies in the header appeared to be engaged in some naked gymnastic yoga that was even more naked and sexual than the previous image. The gasping in the classroom had turned to laughter. I muttered almost indistinguishably, “My website has been hijacked.” SPLAT. Wave over. Zone deleted. Mouthful of concrete. Don’t forget your #2 pencils for evaluations. Have a good day!

The pedagogical gods had mercy on me in my humiliation and the bell rang, signaling the end of class. (Yes, we have old school bells in some buildings on campus.) I stood transfixed, staring at the screen, thinking, “I’ve just logged on to a porn site that has an email address, Facebook, and Twitter account linked to me from a university computer in a classroom in front of 22 undergraduates the day before evaluations.”

Sit with that minute. I’ve sat with it for well over a year.

I was horrified, disheartened, humiliated, and scared. I thought: I could lose my job, be reprimanded by my chair, forever become the punchline of thousand different jokes, or face the University information technology team and relive the experience all over again. I still haven’t read the comments from last year’s class, though I confess to reading the scores, which were not some of my best.

From time to time, my handful of supportive friends/readers asked me about the blog. I finally posted a message about it on Facebook letting them know about the porn hijacking, at which point, I began the process of letting go, though I wish I could have done it with Elsa’s style.

A friend of mine, let’s call him SB, said to me one day, “Why don’t you start blogging again? We don’t know what to watch or what’s current. It’s all your fault. We depended on you and then nothing.” There was no malice in his comments; he was being both supportive and encouraging, and I was having none of it.

“Need I remind you I was hijacked. The elitistacademic is no more.” By my reaction, you would think I had 1 million followers and my site crashed regularly from all the traffic. The truth is not even close. Regardless, elitistacademic was my little corner of the virtual world, a haven to which I could escape that had been taken from me. “Besides,” I added in full self-deprecation mode, “hardly anyone read it and those who didn’t know me never got my sarcasm, which I suppose is not entirely their fault.”

“Sarcasm is hard for people in general, but that’s not the point. Maybe you need to start over. You were the elitistacademic and that’s done. So maybe now you need to be . . . I don’t know, something like the liberalacademic,” he offered thoughtfully.

“I’d rather have the porn site than the cliché.”

“Ouch, though fair enough, so what about . . . what about the populistacademic?”

“I’ll think about it.” So for eight months, I thought about it, not non-stop (because I am not a complete narcissist) but from time-to-time, especially when I wanted to weigh in on an issue or try out an idea. Finally, a few weeks ago, I logged onto to the old site to look at the archives. Reading back through the posts, I was surprised to discover that I was funny, quick-witted, and occasionally mean, though I always spoke my mind. I also learned that the porn hub, for that’s what my old address was in actuality, was no more. With a little more digging, I found out that in a few weeks, my old elitistacademic address would be available, and I could reclaim my space on web. Truth is, I didn’t want it back. The old site had been ruined and corrupted, not in the Puritanical sense because of the explicit content, but because my small little site was successful in some small way that warranted a hostile takeover and that sucked.

Never one to be permanently sidelined, in a terrible mixing of metaphors, I have decided to saddle the horse and climb back on. I am pleased to return as the populistacademic, offering full popular culture flavor without the ironic aftertaste. I hope you will join me.

 

#48 “Red Dawn”

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Have you missed me? If not, I’ve missed me. I am still on track with my film watching, and let me say, I have learned so much in the past 48 weeks. Films are an endless source of knowledge. For example, who knew Santa was Russian AND tatted? SA-weet (#47). Or that James Bond grew up in Hogwarts, and that M stood for Mommy issues (#46)? Make no mistake my friends, films teach, and the elitistacademic is a good student.

So here’s a rundown of what I learned from this week’s film, Red Dawn:

[It’s been awhile, but nothing has changed. Remember please, this is a no spoiler alert zone. Proceed at your own risk.]

1.) China, North Korea, and Russia are all interchangeable red threats, and we are no longer worried about Cuba. Whew!

2.) Chris Hemsworth, who has enormous arms and a fairly good American accent, needs to stay away from cabins in the woods because I kept thinking of him in The Cabin in the Woods. Also, he’s a good stand-in for Patrick Swayze (MHRIP), though I kept waiting for Hemsworth to bust out some Thor-like “Nays!” and “Nies!” Let’s compare the two:

3.) If you take a gun away from someone who almost shoots you in the head, he will steal your food and become a collaborator. It’s bound to happen. So shoot him while you can or at the very least flip him the bird before you blow him up.

4.) The brown guy dies first, then the black guy and the brown girl, then the black guy, though we don’t have to watch him die. [And ‘scuse me were Robert and Darryl a thang? If so, then I will have to revise this statement to factor in sexuality.] POC may not be outfitted in red jumpsuits or new deck crew members that beam down to hostile alien planets, but they are no less vulnerable.

5.) One white girl Decepticon is worth more than one brown guy and the loss of one white guy is equal to the deaths of five people of color. It’s simple math really. [Note: In a post-US collapse, invasion scenario, the last thing you want to be is a POC cause there’s a bull’s-eye on your back, but don’t worry about the revolutionary uprising: white folk got this.]

6.) Josh Hutcherson still can’t act but his follicles can hold almost any color.

7.) Connor Cruise proves that nepotism is alive and well in Hollywood. BTW he has no idea how to run with a gun, and it is clear he has never actually fired a gun, both of which really bugged me. It’s like pretending to drink coffee out of an empty cup. Liquid has weight! Guns have to be steadied!

8.) Teenagers are smarter than North Korean soldiers, who were just as dumb as Soviet soldiers in the original. WOLVERINES!

9.) It’s not racist to make all bad Asians interchangeable as long as you have one Asian good guy, which shows that they are not all the same. Duh. This is straight out of Yellow Peril For Dummies: Revised and Expanded Edition.

10.) The “d” is silent in Django.

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