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Race and Face: Of Deception and Repetition

Contemporary examples of cultural exclusion represent larger patterns that reinforce racism.

(Image: Face covered via Shutterstock)

The Los Angeles Times recently published a review of the new television series, “Deception,” a detective drama which features Meagan Good in the lead role. The author of the review, the Times’ television critic, Robert Lloyd, points out that this series is like another series, “Scandal,” in that both have an African-American woman in the lead (Kerry Washington is the lead in “Scandal”). “Still rare on network TV,” he adds. Two photos accompany this review in the newspaper, one an insert within the review, the other, larger, above the headline. Good is absent from both. Tate Donovan, one of the principals in the show, is shown in the photo – no one else. In the insert, we see a woman striding forward. The caption reads: “Bree Williamson plays Vivian in this series where secrets begin spilling almost immediately.” Lloyd is certainly correct in noting that it is rare for an African-American woman to play the lead in a television series. He should have added that it is also rare for women (and men) of other non-white ethnicities. But isn’t it also rare to see a review of a television series, or of a film or a play, where the lead is absent from accompanying photos? Actually, it is rare to see two photos accompany a television series review. This makes Good’s absence all the more noteworthy – and illegitimate. But why the absence? Accident? Inadvertence? Choice?

Twice a year, The New York Times in its Sunday paper includes a thick magazine devoted to fashion, one issue is devoted to women, the other to men. In The New York Times Style Magazine: Fall Fashion 2012 (August 19, 2012), including the cover of Emma Stone, if one looks at every personage in either an ad (most of the pages are fashion advertisements) or a feature, every face is white until page 48 (with the exception on page 30 of the very light-skinned Nicole Richie) when a Brunello Cucinelli ad with five models includes one black male model, although with a light-brown scenic background, this model – of light-caramel complexion and in brown clothes – blends in to such a degree with the tableau that he isn’t altogether visible in terms of his role here as the first black model to appear in the pages of the issue. Not only that, but in the choreography of the staging, he is looking down so that he is the only model whose eyes the viewer cannot see. And then one must turn 19 more pages of white models before another black model appears in an ad by Tommy Hilfiger, where one finds one Asian female model and one black male model (of light skin) and of the ten models in the photo, the black model is the only one not looking directly forward toward the camera. And so it goes throughout the issue, where images of African, Asian, Native American, or Latino/Latina personages together appear, by the author’s count, on less than 15 percent of the pages (and much less often as actual advertisement models, as opposed to incidental appearances in small insert feature pictures, so that in terms of the prominent advertising copy, the percentage is much less – and the total would be still less again were it not for the fact that Lisa Kebede is featured in a photo shoot in the latter part of the issue. And in The New York Times Syle Magazine: Women’s Fashion (February 17, 2013), by the author’s count, black advertisement models appear on but three pages of the entire issue, Asian models on but four pages, and with the exception of the actor Edgar Ramirez, Latinos/as – and Native Americans – on none at all. And when starting from the front of the issue, one must turn page after page of white-only pages until one arrives on page 20, at a Louis Vuitton ad featuring paired Asian, black and white models in literal, mannequin-like poses and appearance, but the black models (dark-skinned here, breaking the prevailing norm whereby, in the case of those of African ancestry, it is light-skinned models who appear in these pages) and the Asian models are in full profile, the black models in the rear of the ad page, whereas the white models are in the foreground and are in partial profile so that their faces are the only ones seen in full. Of course, this paucity of faces and models of people of color has been the standard practice in these fashion issues and continues to be, as it is in fashion magazines in general. But if defective cars can be recalled, then such magazines, clearly defective, should also be recalled.

These are neither new facts, nor new complaints, nor new criticisms, but nonetheless, I think it is essential and necessary to continue to examine and try to unveil, and certainly, denounce, the mechanisms which lead to such habitual occurrences. A decade ago, a film, After the Sunset, knew two different advertisement posters in its publicity campaign. The first advertisement featured the five principle actors – Don Cheadle, Pierce Brosnan, Naomie Harris, Selma Hayek and Woody Harrelson – in a circular arrangement. This advertisement poster was replaced with a new arrangement when the film was released. In this second poster, each of the actors was pictured in box frames horizontally across the top of the poster. However, in each of these two advertisement posters, something was missing. There were five actors, five faces, but only four names. Whose name was missing? Doubtless, Naomie Harris was the least known of the five principal actors. She was also a black woman. An accidental omission on the part of the production company? But accidents don’t happen in the construction of publicity posters. Time, effort, research and the like go into this construction. It is an exceedingly purposeful enterprise. A choice, then? Undoubtedly.

One can imagine the producers of the film saying things like, “Naomie Harris is a newcomer and cannot open a film by herself or even in collaboration with other actors. The other principal actors are all well known and three of them, Brosnan, Hayek and Harrelson, have already opened films. Harris has taken a first step in having her picture above the credits. When she is better known, she’ll have her name above the credits too.” It is a reasonably imagined statement which lacks all reason … and for one very simple reason: what would have been lost, what would have been damaged, what difference would it have made if her name had been included beneath her picture? Nothing would have been lost or damaged. But something would have changed. Harris would not have been the object of an indignity and of a theft, the theft of her name and of her professional standing.

Much effort goes into deciding what kind of advertisement should be used for a film. Different arrangements, different layouts are suggested. Doubtless, focus groups may be used to see which arrangement elicits the most positive response, etcetera. But no extra effort would have been required to add Harris’ name to the poster. There was room enough on each of the two posters to add her name without altering the tableau or its appeal. Did few people notice the absence of her name? But no one would have objected if her name were added. But what we do know is that a black woman was left nameless. And for nothing – because adding her name would have taken no more than the movement of fingers across a keyboard. Something substantial was stolen from Harris. And in this way, something was stolen from everyone who viewed that poster. The face’s name. Is it an accident that a black woman was the object of this theft? Accidents do happen. But when there is a pattern of continual “accidents,” then one must conclude that it is the pattern – and in this sense, a purpose (“on purpose”) – and not the accident, the aleatory, which should be singled out for focus and analysis and condemnation – and there must be a vehement insistence that it cease.

More: the producers of After the Sunset could very well have left Naomie Harris’ picture off of the publicity poster (“She is not well known yet, etcetera”). In this way, there would have been no accident and, therefore, no pattern seemingly and practically sustained. But: they did choose to put her picture above the credits with the other actors. And with this addition, they incurred professionally and ethically – by any even minimum standard of equity and respect – the requirement and the necessity to include her name along with her picture. Because otherwise, they simply enact the display of a face and a body. They use a face and a body. And there is a name for such “use,” a name even worse than the exploitation this use represents. Some may object: “That was a decade ago, long ago.” Yes, but precisely because of that, Meagan Good, today, cannot be characterized as a “newcomer” whose time for appearing in photos of her own show can be reasonably delayed to a “future time.” Yet, one more prolepsis is necessary so as to make sure every possible claim that the absence of Good’s photo was “only an accident” has been addressed. In the smaller photo inserted in the review of “Deception,” the caption speaks of Bree Williamson (“who plays Vivian in the series”). But neither Williamson nor Vivian are mentioned in the review – which does mention all of the ostensible principals of the cast with a quick description of the characters they portray and the relation of the characters one to the other. The thought did run through my mind that Good’s photo was not excluded by virtue of purpose, but indeed by unassailable accident. Since neither Williamson nor her character are mentioned in the review, and since the caption only speaks of “the series” but doesn’t mention the title, perhaps this was a photo meant for another series. No. The caption says precisely what the review says: “secrets begin spilling almost immediately.” The review’s narrative content and one of its accompanying photos might not be perfectly aligned, and this “misalignment” might be an accident of inadvertence, but Good’s photographic absence is precisely present within a pattern whose secret was spilled long ago and which must cease immediately.

Pattern. Some more glaring than others … A Los Angeles Times article during the same period as the appearance of After the Sunset reviewed the shows during fashion week. Two models, one black, one white, neither with international or national prominence, were pictured in two different photos, one photo larger then the other. The white model was in the smaller, less prominent photo. One model was named, the other was not. Was the missing name the model in the smaller, less prominent photo? No. The missing name was of the black model. Accident? Or the trace of a line of demarcation? But tracing the actual motive and determining whether or not it is determined by a distinction of color is not always easy to do. Every individual instance can in fact be the outcome of a “genuine accident” or some other idiosyncratic circumstance or happenstance: “Naomie Harris just happened to be the least well known.” But so long as accidents fit into the pattern, the pattern is something that illegitimately remains in existence – and therefore every accident cannot ever claim to being an accident.

And so we arrive at something even more fundamental in relation to these absences. In the case of The Los Angeles Times and Meagan Good’s absence in photo accompaniments, and in the case of the film After the Sunset (and in all such other cases past, present, and future, alas) wasn’t there someone among all the editors and writers in the one case, or among all those at both the production company and the advertisement team, who could have noticed the absences? Didn’t someone notice? Perhaps someone did. But whatever notice might or might not have taken place, it was not enough to rectify the problem. But if no one noticed, then we have unveiled one of the mechanisms involved in the continuation of a historical and still present system of exclusion, if even by continual accidents which are not accidents at all. But if someone did notice, then we have also unveiled a key mechanism, because in this latter instance the notice would not have functioned with any effect at all, would not have functioned normatively for the person or persons who did notice. Their notice would not have included the only thought that necessarily must follow, namely that the indignity of the absence, the theft of the absence must be immediately annulled, must not be meted out, and even more that in this instance, a pattern, which is to say, a pernicious mechanism, a pernicious structure of harmful exclusion however small or “inconsequential” it may seem, must not and never again be reinforced. But if these latter thoughts did run through someone’s mind and that notwithstanding, Good’s appearance and Harris’ name were not added, then it tells us that we have even farther to go than we would have imagined. And if such thoughts did not take place at all it also indicates that we have … even farther to go that we would have imagined. But then, it is a given for anyone with the barest discernment that despite the consequential and laudatory civilizational advances initiated by the epoch of the “60s” (the period stretching roughly from 1955 to 1975) in relation to our species’ understanding of and desire to nullify the destructive patterns and socio-institutional forms of oppression, exclusion, discrimination, and prejudice regarding race, gender, and sexual orientation and regarding such patterns and forms in realms of the interpersonal, the family, the workplace, etcetera … we still have far to go. Either, both and all, alas.

Yet, the pattern of “accidents,” the mechanisms and structures of continuing exclusion and inordinate disparity ought to be no secret at all to those involved in the perpetuation of such “accidents.” But the continuing existence of said patterns, mechanisms and structures means that none of the participants in the perpetuation of these social forms notices enough to care or enough to be affectively and ethically moved or to realize that every such exclusion, no matter how small and incidental, exists in relation to other small and incidental exclusions which, when added up, form a very large structure and one which harms not only the excluded, but harms everyone else, as well, in that it continues to allow us to live in a world where exclusion and disparity are continuing norms. And our comfort with these norms allows us all to not care enough and, each in our own ways, to not notice enough – and thereby this comfort, this illegitimate comfort, contributes to our failure to bring these circular patterns, mechanisms, and structures to an end. But still more, it must be stated that this not noticing or not caring enough is something that cannot be justified in any way at all. Because noticing is not an act or a state of consciousness (or conscience!) difficult to achieve. Such acts are no more difficult to achieve than the simple act of breathing, certainly given the social and socio-historical transformations that have taken place in the last 50 to 60 years of human history. In fact, the kind of noticing about which I speak should now be the simplest and most automatic kind of act and the kind of affective experience and ethical impulse that would have given us Naomie Harris’ and the aforementioned black fashion model’s names, Meagan Good’s photographic presence, and socio-institutional equities which we should not await but which, as the good itself, being neither a substance nor a goal, must always be enacted immediately, on the spot, now or never.

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