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orbe_hopson_looking_at_the_front_door - “fl 2 Seiter...

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Unformatted text preview: “fl 2. Seiter argues that Whiteness is invisible. In what ways is it invisible? 3. How does understanding the representations of Whiteness help us understand the representa- tions of other ethnic groups? 4. Seiter argues that different characteristics are attributed in advertising to Whites and non-Whites. What are these different characteristics, and what ORBE and HOPSON - Looking at the Front Door 2 19 are some possible implications of this differentiation for intercultural communication? 5. In what ways does advertising help us negoti— ate social meanings of race and ethnicity? MARK P. ORBE and MARK C. HOPSON In early 1992, the Viewing public was introduced to MTV’s newest form of innovative television pro— gramming—a series that promised to bring the real— life experiences of a diverse group of young people (18—25 years old) into the homes of millions. The Real World is described by the creator/producer as a show about “real people, undirected, sharing their lives” (Huriash, 1996, p. C25). The premise of the show is simple: MTV chooses seven individuals, representing diverse backgrounds, to reside rent- free in a house for 3 months while every aspect of their lives is taped by a multitude of cameras. The result is a Generation X fishbowl of sorts, a repre— sentation of American culture viewed by 60 million people in 52 countries every week, and a cult hit for MTV (Sakurari, 1996). Other popular “docudra— mas”—such as Road Rules, Survivor, Making The Band, and Big Brother— soon followed and continue to attract record-breaking numbers of Viewers. For many viewers (and scholars), one of the most intriguing aspects of these shows is the cultural di— versity of each cast. In this regard, MTV’s The Real W/brld provides a glimpse into the social relations based on race /ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, and religion. As each season approaches, the anticipa- firm nhnnf nam- mnmkoun nu”: L A“, r 1 to the point where the focus of the initial episode is the front door of the house. Who will be in the house this year? How will this selectively diverse group of young people get along? Who will play what role? What drama(s) will define this season? Each season begins as seven new cast members en- ter through the door of their new house, and conse— quently ends when each exits through the same av— enue. The focus of our essay is what occurs between these two points,- specifically, we are interested in exploring how African American men who enter the “Real erd” are portrayed on the show. How are their “characters” developed through the editing process—one that selectively narrows 3—5 months of video footage into approximately 11 hours of “reality”? Earlier research (Orbe, 1998) analyzed the early portrayals of African American men on the first six seasons of The Real LVorld. This analysis critiqued images of (1) Kevin, a 25—year—old writer/part—time teacher from Jersey City, New Jersey, who appeared on the first season in New York City, (2) David, a stand—up comic from Washington, D.C., who was part of the second season filmed in Los An- geles, (3) Mohammed, a cast member from the 220 PART SIX - Popular Culture and Intercultural Communication musician /singer, and (4) Syrus, a 25—year-old self— defined “playa” from Sacramento who appeared on the sixth season located in Boston. In this essay we reexamine the previous critique of images presented for three additional African American male cast members who appeared in the seventh, eighth, and ninth seasons of The Real World. In short, we analyze media depictions of (1) Stephen, a student from U.C. Berkeley who was raised as a Black Muslim but converted to Judaism, from the Seattle cast, (2) Teck, a 22-year—old PK (preacher’s kid) from Peoria, Illinois, who attended a HBCU (historically Black college university) be- fore joining the Hawaii cast; and (3) David, from the New Orleans cast, who is a 4.0 student from the South Side of Chicago. (In order to difierentiate “Davids,” we use David [LA] and David [NO].) We analyze the images associated with these Afri— can American men in order to see if earlier stereo— types for Black men on the show were perpetuated, challenged, or altered. In short, then, this essay in- cludes the most recent depictions of African Amer- ican men and the ways they have appeared on The Real “70er Using Semiotics to Understand the Signifying Process Semiotics is a methodological tool that can be used to study popular culture images. Semiotic analyses, like the one by Orbe and Strother (1996), can help us understand how hegemonic meaning is created for images of people of color in the mass media. According to Eco (I976), meaning is created and maintained when a signifier (or set of signifiers) is (are) closely associated with a particular concept, idea, or identity. For instance, in the United States, the Nike (Swoosh) symbol has no inherent mean— ing. However, over time—and through much media exposure—we have come to associate this symbol with certain signifiers (sports, athleticism, excel- lence, quality, etc.). The process of association is so powerful that some advertisements currently don’t even show any references to athletics, they simply flash the logo, knowing that the audience will make the connection. In our analysis, we use semiotics to try to under— stand how Black men on MTV’s The Real World were associated with certain behaviors in ways that made it seem like these things were natural for all African American men. Our next sections spell out our interpretation of Black male signifiers on the show and explain how these impact the larger soci— etal stereotypes that exist. At this point, it is impor- tant to understand that the insights contained in this essay summarize, as well as extend, earlier research that critiqued representations of black masculinity on The Real {World (Orbe, 1998; Orbe, Warren, & Cornwell, 2001). While difierent interpretations are possible, we argue that the signifiers associated with Black men on the show reflect general stereotypes found in all aspects of US. popular culture. Black Male Signifiers on The Real World Given the seven African American male cast mem— bers across nine seasons of The Real World, many opportunities existed to display the great diversity of Black men in the United States. However, our analysis reveals the presentation of several signifiers that legitimized a general social fear of Black men. We illustrate how these African American male cast members have been represented as inherently an— gry, emotionally unstable or unpredictable or both, a violent threat, and sexually aggressive. THE BLACK MALE AS INHERENTLY ANGRY Throughout the course of each Real Wbrld sea— son, viewers are provided with a brief window into the worlds of each cast member. Several common themes emerge when investigating the lived experi- ences of Black male cast members. We learn that most have come through a tough inner-city life and survived several hardships (i.e., being raised on welfare, not having a relationship with one’s father, avoiding gangs, or other urban-related problems). In this context, the African American male is situ- ated as well versed in the harsh realities of life les— sons generally, and of a racist society specifically. Gradually, viewers are prompted to generalize that these sets of experiences help fuel an inherent anger in these men. Through limited exposure to the African Amer— ican men on The Real W/orld, viewers are given some insight into the source that fuels Black male anger. This image is constructed through “diagnosis” by non—African American cast members, and most of— ten comes from instances when the African Ameri— can male cast members strive to educate the oth— ers on “what it’s like to be a Black man in America.” In each season, we see the familiar attempts of the lone Black man in the house to enlighten his room— mates (and subsequently the television viewers) as to the various problems that Black men face on a daily basis. In this regard, other members of the house learn—some, for the first time—the impact that societal stereotypes have on African American men (e.g., being harassed by police in areas where they do not “belong”). Some cast members down— play the expression of African American men, cit— ing similar struggles and hardships in their own lives (Dace, I 994). In different instances, we see these at— tempts to educate take a variety of forms. Kevin uses his poetry, confrontation of others, and less volatile means such as posting provocative thoughts on a bulletin board. David (LA) uses rap lyrics and his comedic talents to drive home some issues. Syrus uses metaphors during “teachable moments” to en- lighten his housemates (e.g., discussing the negative connotations of the color Black using a casual pool game). In one way or another, all of the Black men on The Real Wbrld share varying yet similar sides and shades of themselves with others. While these interactions served as a means to educate non—African Americans about the expe— riences of African American men living in an in- herently racist country, they also seem to contribute to the credibility of the angry Black male stereo— type. The attempts to enlighten others seemed to be taken by the other cast members as additional evi- dence for existing stereotypical images of African American men. From a critical viewer/researcher’s perspective, this appeared especially true with non— African Americans as seen in their interactions with their Black male housemates. For instance, in one particularly intense conflict involving Kevin and ORBE and HOPSON 0 Looking at the Front Door 22 1 Julie (a European American woman), she accuses him of “having a lot of misdirected anger.” In an- other interaction, a male housemate attests that “all he knows of Kevin is a pattern of aggressive be- havior.” David (LA) experiences similar responses from the Los Angeles cast. Irene, a Los Angeles deputy sheriff, articulates her fear of David (LA): “He has something up inside of him that’s building and building and building.” The “something,” it is inferred, that Irene and others sense is the Black man’s raging reaction to a history of oppression in the United States. In the eyes of other cast mem- bers, the presence of this inherent anger is so prob— lematic that several openly discuss the feasibility of removing some of the Black men (most notably Kevin, Syrus, and David [NO] from the show. In one season, David (LA) is forced to leave the house midseason. In another, Stephen is diagnosed by other cast members and required to undergo anger management counseling in order to remain in the house. THE BLACK MALE AS EMOTIONALLY UNPREDICTABLE OR UNSTABLE In each season, a few positive examples of how Af— rican American men are adapting to the tensions of living in a racist society are provided, these in- clude Kevin’s poetry and radical politics, David’s (LA) comedy, and the musical outlets used by both Mohammed and David (NO). However, what is foregrounded for the viewers are the unpredictable ways that Black men deal with their internal feelings. Some seem to shut themselves down and isolate themselves from others in the house. While all of the African American male cast members exhibited this strategy, it seemed especially true for Kevin, Mo— hammed, and David (NO). Others, however, were seen exhibiting a wide range of behaviors that ap- peared to have no rhyme or reason. In certain in— stances, they were open and honest with their feel- ings, in others, they were shown “losing it” or “blowing up” with little warning. Across many of the seasons, cast members expressed a genuine fear that the anger of Black men would be “misdirected” at “innocent” bystanders. This was even articulated 222 PART SIX - Popular Culture and Intercultural Communication for Mohammed—whose demeanor was a picture- perfect model of serenity, control, and nonvio- lence—when a fellow cast member called him a “bitch.” The point is that the signier of being emo— tionally unpredictable was associated with all Af— rican American male cast members regardless of other personal characteristics or past behaviors. Without question, this was most apparent in an analysis of Stephen’s behavior during an episode when one of his female housemates (Irene) was leaving the Seattle show for medical reasons. Given that he was represented as caring and sensitive (albeit somewhat emotionally unstable) through earlier episodes, no one would have predicted his actions when Irene insinuated that he was homo- sexual. His first reaction was to call her a bitch and simulate a masturbating motion. Then he retrieved a stuffed animal that he had stolen from her and threw it in the ocean as she watched. As Irene tried to leave, Stephen chased down the car that she was in, opened the door, and, to the dismay of everyone around them, smacked her in the face. The lesson is undeniable: No matter how sensitive and caring African American men may appear, it is impos— sible to predict how they might behave in any given situation. The signifier that African American men are emotionally unpredictable or unstable or both is not limited to the ways in which they deal with an inherent anger. As illustrated with the example of Stephen, it is also associated with the next signifier: the Black male as Violent threat. The same could be said for the final theme: the Black male as sexually aggressive. In other words, the ways that African American male cast members express their sexual— ity is divergent and unsystematic. For instance, sex- ual desire may be exhibited through spontaneous displays of nudity, as evidenced by David’s (LA) urge to pull his pants down in front of others, T eck’s streaking in different contexts, or David’s (NO) desire to strip for his female housemates. It is also seen in the ways that African American men fulfill their sexual needs (e.g., Syrus’s multiple partners, David’s [LA] fascination with masturbation, or David’s [NO] preoccupation with bringing strip- pers to the house). Black male sexuality is also dis- played in more aggressive ways—most notably in the context of rape in the LA and Boston seasons (discussed in great detail in the section on page 224). Most relevant to-the point here, however, is that Af— rican American men are signified as emotionally unpredictable in terms of how they express them- selves. Given the other signifiers revealed in this es- say, this element is increasingly problematic. THE BLACK MALE AS A VIOLENT THREAT ' As shown thus far, images showing reason for a jus- tified societal fear of Black men are clearly main— tained across The Real Wbrld seasons. Consequently, we hear cast members revealing their fear of po- tential violence of Black men with so much internal rage. In fact, several non—African American cast members confidentially (to one another or within the context of the “confessional room”) explain their discomfort around Black men who, they be— lieve, clearly have great potential for Violence. Inter— estingly, comments taken from different seasons ap- pear hauntingly consistent in the ways that this fear is expressed. For instance, Julie, a European Amer— ican woman in New York stated I really like Kevin . . . and could never deny that. I respect him a lot, and I think that he is really intelligent and has a lot of important things to say. . . . That doesn’t mean that I ever want to be alone with Kevin again . . . in my life. I will never be comfortable, and don’t really understand how I can expected to be. Others, most often European American women, talked about their feelings of being “unsafe” and “uncomfortable” as long as the African American men were present. Sometimes it was the physical persona (David’s [NO] muscular physique or Sy— rus’s athletic build) that appeared to fuel a sense of discomfort. Other times, it was the possibility—de— spite how remote—that a violent outburst might oc- cur. It is difficult to understand these perceptions of African American men given that other cast mem— bers were clearly more physically violent in their behaviors. Their actions are obviously interpreted as situational and not indicative of a larger pattern. However, African American male behaviors are not perceived in the same way as their non—Black counterparts—even in the absence of any violent tendencies. Take, for example, an interaction between Sy— rus and his Boston housemate, Montana. Through— out the show, the pair had numerous disagreements about dilferent issues, but none contained any threats of Violence. Interestingly, however, in the confessional room Montana shared her fear of vio— lence when discussing a disagreement about a late—l night phone call. I thought that [Syrus] came across a little strong last night . . . I got the idea that [he] was about to hit me . . . He can apologize until the cows come home, and I can say, “fine, I accept your apology,” . . . but I’m not going to forget what happened. In the back of my mind, that will always be there. Montana’s fear of Syrus becoming physically vio— lent is especially telling given that he is extremely easy-going, nonconfrontational, and nonviolent throughout the show. What appears to be happen- ing, at least as we see it, is that specific cast mem- bers unconsciously tap into long—established stereo— types in framing their current perceptions of Kevin, David (LA), Mohammed, Syrus, Stephen, Teck, and David (NO). Then, based on these underly— ing stereotypes, cast members—most often Euro- pean American women—work to persuade others to adopt their interpretation of certain behaviors en— acted by African American men. Regardless of the different personal characteristics, a similar sign is invoked: Black men represent a violent threat. Even when the possibility for violence is slim— and relatively less than for any other person—cast members perceive a potential for violence as central in their interactions with Black men. For example, in two different instances, Julie and Kevin (NYC cast) are involved in a conflict in which she makes her fear of him apparent by asking him if he is go- ing to physically harm her. In one scene, Julie asks Kevin, “Why are you getting so close? Why are you getting so emotional? What are you going to do, hit me?” Kevin attempts to explain how proximity and emotional expressiveness are culture specific; Julie’s rnnflnv‘nn .A L- A. A ORBE and HOPSON ' Looking at the Front Door 223 White thing!” Kevin then gives consciousness to the larger question in the minds of those who recognize the subtle influence that stereotypes have in this in— teraction when he confronts her perception by ask- ing, “Do you assume that because I’m a Black man that I’m going to hit you?” THE BLACK MALE AS SEXUALLY AGGRESSIVE The final signifier/stereotype involves the sexual ag- gression associated with Black men. This is made a subtle trait with several of the African American male cast members (i.e., Kevin’s disclosures about his sexual fantasies in response to a lighthearted discussion on issues prompted by a “book of ques- tions”), but it is highlighted for others. For instance, at least four of the Black men on The Real world were represented as having enormous sexual ap- petites. Such is certainly the case with Teck, who is presented as having several one-night stands, in— cluding one with a stripper. Similarly, David (NO) speaks openly about his sexual desires, spends a sig— nificant amount of time entertaining strippers, and overtly “hooks up” with several women while in New Orleans. The most memorable of these rela- tions occurs when he has intercourse with a woman while his (Virgin) roommate lies awake in the ad- jacent bed. David (NO) later states that he does not know the woman’s name, and that there is no “shame in his game.” David’s (NO) philosophy is similar to Syrus’s perspective of women (“Women are like potato chips . . . you can’t have just one”). Furthermore, concerns regarding Syrus’s sexual freedom to pursue ...
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