Sun, Jul. 8th, 2007, 09:58 am
And all that Jazz.

 

The Transformers movie has been running around my head since I saw it, but, surprisingly, it's not the aforementioned creepy thing that stuck with me. It's the other creepy thing.

It's what they did with Jazz.

So, Jazz. He's the Autobot introduced to us as a parody of black culture as seen on MTV and... that's it. That's his characterization. It's so over the top and delivered with such a straight face that I was grimacing during the scene, rationalizing to myself that it had to have been some sort of homage to his initial '80s appearance. Because we're over the blaxploitation phase, right? Right?

And then, I think he gets one speaking line between the initial "yo yo my homies" and the final battle scene at the end. And then he gets ripped in half by the bad guys.

And this is how important his death is to whatever there is of plot: When a couple of the Autobots sadly relate the news of his fate, it took me a few seconds to remember that it had happened. About as long as it took the on screen characters to get over it, in fact, and launch into a monologue on the subject of how easy it is to replace him with their new found human friends.

Nice.

 

The question that's been been going around my head is this: If Jazz is The Black Autobot, does that mean that the rest of them are The Not Black Autobots? IE, are they coded as White?

I've settled on yes. Except for Jazz, the Autobots seem to exist in a sort of cultural void. They don't even act *alien*, really. They're just as one-dimensional as everyone else in the movie, but they're exaggerated along traits. ("I like to shoot things!" "I like to heal things!" "I like to give badly written soliloquies that don't end until long after the audience is embarrassed on my behalf!" "I like my human charges perhaps more than is appropriate for a PG13 rated film!" "...I'm 'Black'."")

It's easy to say race does not apply, then, but. But they've *applied* it. They've set aside Jazz as Other, so, Other than *what*? Other than the cultural default that the rest of the cgi robots belong to? Well, okay.

But.

Our "cultural default" is White. There is no Everyman of Colour in western media. Every time a movie chooses to have a character be not white, it is saying something about that character.

As it should, really, because we none of us exist in a societal vacuum, but it's too easy to use "black" or "asian" or whatever as shorthand *for* character. It's how we end up with stereotypes: he's Black, therefore he listens to rap music. Of course. And he has a rap sheet? Who's surprised. Barely even have to bother mentioning it.

(And it's too easy to forget that if a movie chooses to use a white character, it is saying something just as important.)

In the case of Jazz, this is turned around. Since we don't have any visual cues to go on, the stereotyping is used to code him as Black. It's kind of bizarre; though, since we're talking about giant alien robots without proper human facial features, I'm not sure how you *could* set them apart along (human) racial lines without resorting to blatant stereotypes. You could have them interested in different things; you could play with the accents and word choice; you could could draw names from different cultures (Srsly, though. "Jazz"?). But none of that's really the same thing.

It's too subtle, too thought out, too much like individual variation. It's not "Race" unless there's a visceral identification.

 

But the thing is, would they still be coded as White if Jazz *hadn't* been set apart as Other?

I... can't decide.

Even pretending they had not all been voiced by white guys, I have no idea. Even - especially - if it's never brought up as an issue, the writers are going to bring certain assumptions to the keyboard, aren't they? Even if ALL the nominally humanoid robots belong to that same cultural default....

It's still White.

And I'm white, and so many of the assumptions the writers make are probably going to be the same as my own. I'm not going to *see* it.

It's troubling me, because it's not like Transformers is the only show with non-humanoid characters who can't act too non-human because then how would the kids identify. Do those characters read as, you know, *people*, or do they they read as White?

And it's troubling me that - judging by how they treated Jazz, who *didn't* - maybe you don't get one without the other.

Or maybe you just don't get one with the Other.

 

Sun, Jul. 8th, 2007 05:43 pm (UTC)
brown_betty

This is thinky! I haven't seen the movie, but I've heard some criticisms of it. But I haven't heard anyone take your angle, yet.

Sun, Jul. 8th, 2007 05:47 pm (UTC)
odditycollector

I've been thinking about it a lot. Even giant alien robots* need their token member of diversity. What does that MEAN?

*The ones we're supposed to identify with, at least. The Decepticons mostly struck me as Other in their own right. (And what does THAT mean?)

Sun, Jul. 8th, 2007 06:07 pm (UTC)
brown_betty

Well, in a lot of ways a group defines themselves by who they exclude. So, partly Jazz being there makes the other 'bots "white." If he wasn't, they wouldn't be white in the same way, y'know?

Sun, Jul. 8th, 2007 07:23 pm (UTC)
odditycollector

*nods*

OTOH, Te has said below that even without Jazz, she'd probably still see them as coded as white.

I'm wondering if Jazz being excluded just makes US suddenly notice that they are.

Sun, Jul. 8th, 2007 07:24 pm (UTC)
brown_betty

:(

Sun, Jul. 8th, 2007 07:34 pm (UTC)
odditycollector

Pretty much where I am right now, yeah.

Sun, Jul. 8th, 2007 05:54 pm (UTC)
hannahrorlove

The coding thing about the Autobots that bugged me was having them with genders. A female Autobot got cut from the movie, which is understandable, though the fact that they gave them genders in the first place makes absolutely no sense.

Sun, Jul. 8th, 2007 05:57 pm (UTC)
odditycollector

Well, it's sort of related, isn't it? To c&p a bit that got left from the post as tangental:

(It's like, I really really doubt the alien robots have anything we'd consider requisite equipment, but they are so very gendered as male. Male pronouns, male actors, male *assumptions* when it came to the writing. Imagining a female voice coming out of those things would be... okay, It would be cool, but I think we'd all do a double take.

It's not that they do anything that would be *less* appropriate if a female did it. It's just that male is assumed as the default, and more to the point, WOULD be assumed as the default even if the autobots had insisted on using ungendered pronouns. The human characters refer to Bumblebee as a "he" before the other autobots back them up on that.)

Sun, Jul. 8th, 2007 06:08 pm (UTC)
hannahrorlove

The use of "he" is something of a default in the society that made this movie and its source material; it's probable that if they'd come from another culture that used a language with gender-neutral pronouns, this wouldn't have come up as an issue.

Possibly using less human and more robotic voices could have avoided this issue as well.

Sun, Jul. 8th, 2007 05:54 pm (UTC)
youraugustine

I was pondering something similar with a novel I just finished. *chinhand* In that I have a number of characters whom I know people are going to assume are caucasian. And aren't. One's going to come as a slight blink towards the end when her surname is finally used and very CLEARLY indicates that at least one parent is Chinese, but the rest are largely going to pass by, because nobody on-screen cares enough to note "oh, and by the way, she's East Indian/she's Inuit/he's Haida/she's black." Any more than anyone would note "he's Anglican" or "he's Presbyterian" or "he's Jewish." Within the context of the story, sexual orientation is going to get noted a lot more than visible "race" or religion, due to the fact that lovers and past relationships get mentioned and play into the story. Whereas the other two things . . . don't.

Which is interesting, because if it were a movie, these things would all be obvious. You'd be able to SEE that my protag has East Indian heritage, despite her name; that there are all of three "white" team members on one of the groupings, and even that classification gets problematic; and so on. Within the text, you can't, because the point of view character I use does not give a shit, and it would be completely out of character for her to do so.

(not to mention the difficulty I have with the non-humans of that series, and how BIZARRE and non-sensical they find our "race" categorisations at all.)

Sun, Jul. 8th, 2007 06:59 pm (UTC)
odditycollector

how BIZARRE and non-sensical they find our "race" categorisations at all.)
Well they ARE.

Within the context of the story, sexual orientation is going to get noted a lot more than visible "race" or religion, due to the fact that lovers and past relationships get mentioned and play into the story.
I wonder, have you read anything by Richard Morgan? He's got a sci-fi series where race... not isn't relevant, exactly, but doesn't matter very much. (It's a society where people can change bodies for a shot at immortality.) The character does notice race - he's not colourblind, after all - but it's pointed out in a way that makes it pretty clear there's not much weight to the observation.

(Or Morgan'll pull a trick where he won't give details (though more often gender than race) until he's already characterized minor players a little. It really pulls assumptions into focus.)

It gives a feel of a fairly equal society... but one that doesn't feel White.

I'm not sure that's what you're asking, exactly, but Morgan's one that always jumps to my mind as someone who does it Right.

Thu, Jul. 12th, 2007 10:52 am (UTC)
bellatrys: If you don't indicate it somehow, in your text,

how do you expect that anyone who reads it is going to know that you *intend* for some characters to be non-white, unless you tack an AN on? It's not like readers are psychic.

Given that a lot of readers didn't get that *all* the main characters in Anansi Boys were black, until it was specifically mentioned that So-and-So was *white* (tho' it was pretty damn obvious to me at least that Charlie's family and friends were black West Indian living in the US and UK, given all the cultural clues and tip-offs early on, e.g. young Charlie's dilemma at not being able to speak in stereotypically "black" (American) ways when rap and hip-hop became popular in Britain) you can *guarantee* that 1) white readers will assume that the characters are just like themselves, the way that Hollywood and mainstream fiction always presents main characters as Default White, and 2) readers of color will assume that they've been excluded again, since there's no evidence to the contrary.

Saying "my viewpoint character doesn't notice color" is a cop-out: is your viewpoint character in a coma? No? Then she will sort of kind of have to notice how *other* people in the world react to her color, won't she? And to other people's around her? Because not *everybody* is as happily non-biased as in an afterschool special, you know. "I couldn't help but notice how Sarah flinched when Pete jokingly asked Vince if he was a Jew after he picked up the dime from off the pavement," would be a plausible sort of "noticing" - and yes, that is based on something I really saw someone who thinks of themselves as non-racist, not an anti-Semite, nice middle American do, a few years ago.

Besides which, there are other ways of coding ethnic background than something as cringe-inducingly-blatant as "I looked into the mirror at my mahogany-hued countenance". Offhand references to the kinds of household names/colloquial expressions/injokes/pop music/other *differences* that make visiting an Asian friend's house even in Utter Suburbia a different experience from visiting a European-descended family. What snacks are on the table, frex.

"Hey, what is this stuff? This isn't Chex Mix! It's really good! Ow, it's HOT!" (Been there, done that, inhaled the dal...)

Thu, Jul. 12th, 2007 03:11 pm (UTC)
youraugustine: Re: If you don't indicate it somehow, in your text,

how do you expect that anyone who reads it is going to know that you *intend* for some characters to be non-white, unless you tack an AN on? It's not like readers are psychic.


Thank you for re-articulating my point for me. Because this is precisely the point, and the problem; despite the fact that there is actually every reason to assume (including off-hand remarks, if not focused ones) that the characters are in a multi-racial environment, without deliberately drawing pointed attention to it, the majority of people will assume everyone is white, and I am not in a position to draw more pointed attention to it without mangling my novel.

Within the plot and the set-up, along with the point of view premises of the novel, none of your suggestions are particularly viable/relevant, but thank you for your phrasing. I appreciate the implications of it. However, may I point out that your example of Anansi Boys demonstrates how clearly those more subtle forms of pointing it out can be missed? Likewise to yourself, I knew that the default race in the book had been switched, because I did pick up the coding involved (and was massively pleased with its subtlety). Very obviously, many people didn't. It is unfortunately not appropriate to my viewpoint character to be any more blatant than that in 90% of cases, and thus my "hmmmm" worry.

Sun, Jul. 8th, 2007 05:55 pm (UTC)
thete1

*Great* post. It's -- for me it's not even about who voices the characters. To me, it seems like everyone not coded of-color is coded White -- whether or not *any* given character is coded White. It's just what has been drummed into me. I'm *always* going to be the Other, so even if "I" am not there at all...

Anyway. Thank you!

Sun, Jul. 8th, 2007 06:27 pm (UTC)
odditycollector

To me, it seems like everyone not coded of-color is coded White -- whether or not *any* given character is coded White.

Thanks - Although that's the conclusion that I was really hoping I didn't have to draw. The blank character slate *isn't*.

*frowns*

It's just what has been drummed into me. I'm *always* going to be the Other, so even if "I" am not there at all...

It's hard for me to wrap my head around, because for me it *hasn't*. Even if I'm watching a show with no white people (RARE)... Even if I'm the only white person in the room (actually fairly common through my university career), I'm not going to feel like the Other unless something extraordinary happens to point that fact out.

Sun, Jul. 8th, 2007 05:58 pm (UTC)
liviapenn



Did you read Ragnell's recent post about Arcee, the female Transformer, and how they left her out? I think it applies COMPLETELY to what you're saying. The default is male; everything is male until specifically stated otherwise, and therefore, to have had a female Transformer would be WEIRD. Even though they're GIANT ROBOTS and so it's *just as weird* for them to be male. I mean, why should they have a gender at all? But no one would ask that question of all male robots, because being male is "normal." Apparently it's when a female Transformer appears-- that's when people would suddenly notice, "hey, that robot has a gender!" Same with race, I suppose. Maybe there are black, Asian, Hispanic kids who look at the Transformers and see *someone like me*, but a lot of them have probably internalized somewhat the rule that white is the default and anything else is a huge exception and must be Marked Clearly As Other.

Sun, Jul. 8th, 2007 06:40 pm (UTC)
odditycollector

I haven't, although a line of thought did occur to me.

Maybe there are black, Asian, Hispanic kids who look at the Transformers and see *someone like me*, but a lot of them have probably internalized somewhat the rule that white is the default and anything else is a huge exception and must be Marked Clearly As Other.
Which makes me want to kick things.

There's got to be something that isn't "You can play but none of them are yours really" or "LOOK here is a robot of your very own so you don't need to use ours anymore." There does.

Sun, Jul. 8th, 2007 07:03 pm (UTC)
vagabondsal

It should come as no surprise that I agree with this completely.

One thing possibly worth considering along your thoughts: Is there a contrast between the Autobots' heavy-handed stereotyping and the Army squad's...well, still heavy-handed stereotyping?

Sun, Jul. 8th, 2007 08:41 pm (UTC)
odditycollector

I think there is, because our primary clue for them is visual (Well, though I'm pretty bad at picking up on "Hispanic," given a picture and even a name to go with). We know what stereotypes they're probably going to fall into because we know what race they are, rather than the other way around.

That said, everyone in this movie gets one character "trait". And the Army guys are
Hispanic Soldier Guy : *is Hispanic*
Black Soldier Guy : *is tough* (Is his portrayal stereotypically Black in some way? If so, I did not see it.)
White Soldier Guy : *has a family* (And is the one the audience is set up to identify with.)

And... yeah.

So it's not like the human part of the equation is not problematic, but... it's easier to think about?

I know that some people had problems with ALL the black characters being *racial* caricatures in the movie, but I didn't pick up on that. They just seemed to get a one line character description each. (OTOH, I'm not sure my assumptions about racial stereotypes are *exactly* the same as an American's, for all I'm sure they're pretty close. Alt., just because *I*m not seeing them, doesn't mean they're not there.)

Other than Generic Hispanic Guy, the one human race-related thing I actually noticed during the movie was that there's one Asian guy with a speaking part in the computer room, and the camera does its damndest not to focus on him, and his speaking part is "Maybe it's the Chinese?" (Because I usually notice that, because an all white computer team looks weird to me.)

Sun, Jul. 8th, 2007 09:05 pm (UTC)
jarodrussell

Was Anthonyn Anderson's character a racial charicature?

Sun, Jul. 8th, 2007 09:16 pm (UTC)
odditycollector

I didn't think so, but I know there are others who disagree. I found him a caricature, full stop. (And even then, he got to be "smart" and "nervous". That is 100% more character traits than most of the cast.)

Sun, Jul. 8th, 2007 09:12 pm (UTC)
jarodrussell

I'm not sure what your history with Transformers is, so if I'm being redundant, I apologize... That said, Jazz has always been "black" since his first days on the cartoon when he was voiced by Sherman "Scatman" Crothers.

Mon, Jul. 9th, 2007 01:28 am (UTC)
odditycollector

I've seen the Beast Wars versions off and on back when they were on, so I didn't know him going in. (I've been around enough to see blatant fanservice when I see it, though, and figure out a little of what was going on.) I did do a bit of research after the movie, though, to make sure I guessed right.

I don't think it really makes a difference, except that it took an 80s style blaxploitation character in their midst for me to make the connection.

Mon, Jul. 9th, 2007 12:14 am (UTC)
vito_excalibur

Very interesting. Not convincing me to see the movie. :(

Mon, Jul. 9th, 2007 01:10 am (UTC)
odditycollector

I enjoyed the movie? It is crap as a movie, but it makes up for that by being about giant robots and explosions, which are awesome. But I think there is no denying it had serious problems with race, and that should totally inform your choice.

Mon, Jul. 9th, 2007 01:35 am (UTC)
nostariel

Now I'm so glad I didn't go see this movie. I really don't want my sweet childhood memories of stealing my friend Josh's Tranformers toys to be sullied with the big honking racism and sexism, you know? I'm also glad I was more interested in the toy robots than I was in watching the show when I was a kid, cos no child needs Jazz in their brain. Good God.

*points to icon*

I believe the pirates are officially giving this one a thumbs down. :(

Thu, Jul. 12th, 2007 12:25 am (UTC)
(Anonymous): Get a grip

It's explained why Jazz speaks the way he does. All the Autobots monitored Earth's frequencies and the Internet. It seems Jazz just latched onto a particular dialect he liked, and don't even pretend that Ebonics type talk isn't ALL OVER the place. Bumblebee clearly took a liking to hip-hop tunes. Each Autobot has their own personality. That doesn't make Jazz "black!" He's a robot!

Why don't you get offended by something that's actually important, like Darfur or the Oil-- I mean Iraq War?

Thu, Jul. 12th, 2007 05:27 pm (UTC)
odditycollector: Re: Get a grip

Well, I'm offended that you don't see discussion of racism as something that's "actually important," does that count?

Thu, Jul. 12th, 2007 09:26 pm (UTC)
brown_betty: Re: Get a grip

Why don't you recycle? Do you hate the Earth? Earth hater!

Sorry Karen, I linked to you in the gwog blog.

Thu, Jul. 12th, 2007 10:56 pm (UTC)
odditycollector: Re: Get a grip

NP, it is not your fault there is free-range dumb on the internet! Though I think the jar theory still stands strong.

(And anyway, I was linked from Newsarama as well, so if I was going to bet....)

Thu, Jul. 12th, 2007 10:58 pm (UTC)
brown_betty: Re: Get a grip

Aahaaa POSSIBLY. *reboots her enormous ego*

Thu, Jul. 12th, 2007 11:12 pm (UTC)
odditycollector: Re: Get a grip

*snickers at you* *points to the subject header*

Although maybe I oughtn't talk, because *which* one of us introduced herself to a comics writer while pretending that her blog post affected editorial decisions...

Thu, Jul. 12th, 2007 11:20 pm (UTC)
brown_betty

*fangirls you*

Link me to the Newsarama link? I'm sort of interested in coverage of this thing.

Fri, Jul. 13th, 2007 02:24 am (UTC)
odditycollector

It's here: http://blog.newsarama.com/2007/07/08/transformers-bank-1525-million-in-first-week/

I'm actually surprised I haven't seen more dialogue about it. I mean, not links to my post in particular (which I'd argue isn't really ABOUT the Transformers movie, except that it made me go "oh"), but discussion in general, between all the posts of "yay robots go smash!" It was really quite obvious.

I mean, if *I* noticed it...

Thu, Jul. 12th, 2007 10:56 am (UTC)
bellatrys: Even the first AICN reviewer was floored by the racism

and stereotypes in Transformers, and that site is not exactly a haven of social awareness!

Thu, Jul. 12th, 2007 10:59 pm (UTC)
odditycollector: Re: Even the first AICN reviewer was floored by the racism

Huh! I haven't really surfed around, but now I'm curious, thanks.

Tue, Jul. 17th, 2007 05:38 pm (UTC)
(Anonymous): autobot Jazz in racial culture

Jazz, originally voiced by Scatman Crothers in the US release on the more than meets the eye cartoon is an AUTOBOT. A cybertronian native. Jazz is (as per his many bio's from the last 20 years) is a huge fan of popular human culture. His original voice actor (in the US) was that of a black man. More than meet the eye portrayed him as hip, and current with the energies of the youth of the era. If I were an alien, marooned on a distant planet, trying to blend in to a new society, I would get VERY familiar with the next generation of leaders of that world. Jazz, Bumblebee and Prime did just that. (who can forget the episode were Prime was playing basket ball! Was it Blue Streak that incinerated the ball to "block" the shot?) Many episodes showed the Autobots assimulating human (US)culture. Sure, Jazz loved break dancing and did 2 or 3 backspins during the original series run in the 80's, but so did alot of (real) people in the 80's, white included. Let us not forget that is take more than speech patterns to be "black". I am a 30 year old black man,...way past the yo, yo, yo BS,...yet I am (and ALWAYS) will be black. Hip hop culture (slang speech, clothing styles, modern dance) is universal. The Beastie Boys, Everlast, Vanalla Ice, Eminem, Paul Wall are examples of how trendy culture is adopted by all. These artists were (or still are) in tune with pop culture; like Jazz, yet they aren't black. Meister, as Jazz is named in the japanese transformers 80's cartoon was depicted as more of a "cool, fashionable, japanese club kid", very far from black. Guys, remember that the cartoons of the80's were released mostly as 26 min long commercials. Kids are more likely to want a certain character because they identify with it on some level. I identified with Starscream because of his rebellious nature, something that I, even as a child, knew that I had as well. I never though of the Transformers as anything else but "Cybertronians"; with two races; Autobots and Decepticons; many sub groups (constucticons, protectobots etc) fighting for a cause that neither side will truly win. In that regard they are most like humans, but I honestly think thats where the common ground ends. You wanna talk about negative stereotypes, look at the character "Roadblock" of GI joe. I swear he rhymes all the damn time. :)

Fri, Aug. 3rd, 2007 09:24 pm (UTC)
(Anonymous): all that jazz

Get a Grip.
Its a film.
Its make beleave.

Transformers is amazing. Great toy line from 80s when i fell in love with it, great charectors : robots with personalities and feelings. Jazz is one of the greatest autobots ever. Its a alien race. Nothing to do with black or white.

He will return.

Sat, Aug. 18th, 2007 11:11 pm (UTC)
(Anonymous): Re: all that jazz

I just love the posters that tell people to get a grip, essentially saying our suspicions are just in our mind and our curiosities and discussions are pointless because its "just a movie", blah, blah, blah. What are we? Sheep? Are we supposed to believe that people greenlighting films, writing films and making films are free of all racial baggage? To think so would be absurd.