Thursday, August 23, 2007

Magical Negroes, Expendable Queers, and other well-worn tropes, part II

I'm swiping a large chunk of this from a (an? Depends on if you say "ell-jay" or "livejournal" in your head while you're reading, I suppose) LJ post I wrote a few weeks ago. I've edited pretty heavily, though, and added rather a lot. So my apologies if you already read the first version -- I'll try not to test your patience.

Part I is here, in case you're just joining us.
If you'd rather not wade through it, here's a brief summary:

Other is a term to describe the phenomenon of the outsider, particularly in fiction, who represents some kind of threat to the community -- but often, also serves as the agent for the community's salvation/redemption.

Familiar examples of other from stuff you've read or seen: Queer characters, like Tara in BtVS; Brown characters, especially as the highly-refined Magical Negro; Women, in almost anything pre-1900; Gypsies in any fiction I've ever seen them appear in; Fairies, in pretty much any fiction that takes them seriously -- but especially in medieval texts.

When we left off, last, I'd just started discussing the Eileen Joy essay, found here.

Now, we're going to skip ahead a bit again, though.

Fast forward, again:

A month or so after K'zoo, I had an interesting and lively discussion with Dawno and Medievalist over Irish coffees in a Hilton bar about the Magical Negro trope in fiction.

Here's a brief definition..
Magical Negroes are always outwardly or inwardly disabled. They are either from a minority that is discriminated against, physically or mentally disabled, or social outcasts (drifters, the homeless, ex-cons)....whose magical minority-powers save the day. It also tends to raise the question that if the Magical Negro is so powerful and intelligent, why he's never saving the day, himself, instead of helping the mainstream hero to get all the glory. Also, quite often he's just ditched off or even killed after he's fulfilled his purpose for the plot.

We had some disagreement, as could be expected, over whether these stock characters were merely tropes, or actually characters in their own right; primarily, the discussion focused around which well-known black characters from books and film were and weren't Magical Negroes, and why.

Then, in one of those serendipitous coincidences that sometimes happen (remind me to post about my Indian Paintbrush Theory, sometime) a few days later Elizabeth Bear posted an entry mentioning the same thing. She wrote:
The clearest example of how this solution could work that I can think of off the top of my head is the so-called magical Negro, which is a phrase used to describe a situation where the (white) protagonist has a (black) mentor figure who is inevitably snuffed in the third reel. (You may substitute the Other of your choice in the magical Negro role, above: Apache shaman, wise old Jew, creepy witch woman, Inuit medicine man, cute nonthreatening gay best friend... you know the character, right?)

...the difference between Ben Kenobi and a magical Negro is that Ben is not Other to everybody else in the film.

And that's also the solution, right there. Because if you only have one of something, it automatically becomes a poster child. You only have one black guy in the movie? Oh, man, we know he's gonna die. Same thing with one queer guy (Heroic gays always die! It's a law! It's how you know they're heroic!). One woman is the love interest, and she will either stand by her man or betray him. And she might also die.

Wellllll....sort of. Other differences between Ben Kenobi and the Magical Negro are that Ben isn't a jobless, homeless wino. Or in prison. Or working as a janitor. And Ben has a past, alluded to as part of the back story; he doesn't simply appear, full-grown, with no explanation other than the protagonist's greater destiny is served by his presence. He also isn't the only character in the story who possesses mystical powers.

There's something rather more complicated to the actual Magical Negro trope, I think. It's not exactly the same as a token (disposable) sidekick of minority race or persuasion.

Here's another interesting thing: Magical Negro characters don't usually get to have sex. They aren't married, or romantically involved. They usually don't have children, or families, or real people who love them. In fact, they often appear out of the mists, full grown, like Bagger Vance.

This contrasts sort of strangely with the token queer character who does get to have sex -- even if only offstage -- who is in fact defined by the sex s/he has, and usually gets killed, messily, often apparently as a direct result.

At this point, I start thinking to myself, "hmmm, self, there's something going on there, about other sex." It seem clear that either extreme -- no sex, no family/shocking sex=death serves strictly to exemplify the specifically sexual threat of otherness . . . a threat that can only be answered by neutering or killing the practitioners.

From the (pretty decent at the time of this posting -- subject to change weirdly, randomly, and without notice) Wikipedia entry on the subject: characters with apparent supernatural powers who are portrayed as independent, who have a level of power roughly equivalent to that of other characters, and who are not subservient to whites — such as Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) in Star Wars, Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) in the Matrix series, and Storm (Halle Berry) in the X-Men — are not usually considered weakened magical negroes; nor are helpful non-white characters without some magical or fantastical element.[2]

...Even though they may play a central figure in a storyline, they are portrayed as being unable to solve challenges without the involvement of a white associate.

In other words, there's more at work here than ordinary tokenism -- plenty of which abounds.

Kip Manley, partially in response to the original posting of this essay, further examines the ideas of both the Magical Negro and the arbitrary knee-jerk offing of queer characters, beginning with a brief examination of Morpheus from The Matrix.

Kip writes:
Oh, hell, let’s chase the red herring for a minute. I’ve got time; I’ve got nothing but time. —So: no. Morpheus is not a magical negro. If nothing else, his touchingly stubborn faith in Neo, which sets him at odds with the magical Oracle, which causes us to doubt him (though we never doubt he’s right: Neo must be the One—look at his name!), and which even causes him to doubt himself—this grants him a degree of agency and protagonism that sets him apart from the mere role of wisely aiding and abetting Neo’s enlightenment. (To say nothing of his captaincy, his popular acclaim in Zion, or the fact that he’s the one who lives to tell the tale—)
Kip uses that as a jumping-off place to examine Romeo and Juliet's Mercutio, specifically in the context of the Baz Luhrman version:
Ostensibly Romeo’s foil, Perrineau’s Mercutio practically foils the whole damn film, othered to his very gills: the only black character, his gender bent in an otherwise rigidly stratified world, his sexuality—well. Even the lightest brush of those buttons with Mercutio—witty, articulate, prancing Mercutio, always a snappy dresser—leaves little room for doubt. —Forever outside the discourse of both those houses, he pushes and pulls and chides his charge until Romeo sees the light and gets off his goddamn ass, and as far as magic goes, well. Queen Mab, bitches. Those drugs are quick.
So we've some definite and demonstrable tension with regard to the conflation of other types of characters. Other = queer. More on this, too, when we forge ahead into part three.

In the meantime, though, we have an observable trend. The subservience, outlandishness, and neutering of other characters works to ameliorate the subconscious sense of threat that their otherness might represent to the reader. The implication, then, is that the threat is justifiable, otherwise the need for the trope falls apart.

Let's look at Stephen King's John Coffey character, in The Green Mile. John Coffey is a childlike but extraordinarily powerful black man, wrongfully imprisoned (and shown more than once literally in shackles) who nonetheless exists, apparently, only to make the (white) characters' lives better, the protagonist and secondary white characters, both.

He's been imprisoned for a particularly horrific and brutal child rape/murder, of which he's innocent. He's physically large -- freakishly so, in fact. The reader knows intuitively and instinctively that the other characters in the novel are legitimately afraid of him. It doesn't have to be spelled out for us, because contextually, it's very clear: John Coffey is very big, and very black. In addition, he's caught weeping over the bodies; it's only natural for the characters to figure he's guilty of something horrible. Now, there's some sub-textual commentary happening, too, of course -- I think King clearly attempts to point out, "look, stereotypes bad..." especially in contrasting the messiah-like figure of John Coffey with the very clearly guilty, dangerous, and truly frightening (white) characters "Wild Bill" Wharton and Percy Wetlow. Unfortunately, it serves instead to underscore the fact that the real power in the novel lies in whiteness -- which John Coffey exists only to serve and never be.

It's clear that if John Coffey decided to stand up for himself and function independently, the white characters would be in deep trouble. Instead, though, he's a lawful good sort of a character. And lawful good, in his case, is defined as self-sacrifice to help out the apparently less-powerful-but-white characters -- even the legitimately convicted criminals -- with acts like curing urinary tract infections and restoring Mr. Jingles, the mouse that Percy the prison guard stomps to taunt one of the other prisoners.

Coffey's great power exists, apparently, only in the context of service of his white captors -- who, in turn, seem to bear no responsibility or culpability for his situation. Instead, they're absolved of their participation in his imprisonment and execution.

Strange Horizons ran an essay that provides an excellent overview of the Magical Negro device as used by Stephen King, online here.

In The Green Mile, Coffey is most gracious. "'You and Mr. Howell and the other bosses been good to me,' John Coffey said. 'I know you been worrying, but you ought to quit on it now. Because I want to go, boss,'" he says near the end to Edgecomb. Coffey basically thanks his jailers who have not questioned his guilt until it's too late and done nothing to help him get out of jail (until Coffey cures the warden's wife) or even convince him to try.

None of this would have worked, if John Coffey had been a white Ben Kenobi character. We couldn't/wouldn't forgive Luke and Leia, had they participated in Ben's imprisonment, mental torture, and execution. For that matter, if the Coffey character had been female and black, even, the reader reaction to the culpable white characters would perhaps have been very different.

Rita Kempley, on The Black Commentator points out:
Cedric Robinson, author of "Black Marxism" and a colleague of Bobo's at UCSB, says, "Males, more problematic in the American imagination, have become ghostly. The black male simply orbits above the history of white supremacy. He has no roots, no grounding. In that context, black anger has no legitimacy, no real justification. The only real characters are white. Blacks are kind of like Tonto, whose name meant fool."

She goes on later to clarify, "It isn't that the actors or the roles aren't likable, valuable or redemptive, but they are without interior lives. For the most part, they materialize only to rescue the better-drawn white characters. Sometimes they walk out of the mists like Will Smith's angelic caddy in 'The Legend of Bagger Vance.' Thanks to Vance, the pride of Savannah (Matt Damon) gets his 'authentic swing' back."

It has to work that way, because that's the only way we can justify the treatment of these characters at the hands of the protagonists they exist to serve. If the Magical Negro isn't a shackled character in service, then he's too threatening to exist in the story.

From the Strange Horizons article linked earlier:
Here are what I call the Five Points of the Magical Negro; the five most common attributes:

1. He or she is a person of color, typically black, often Native American, in a story about predominantly white characters.
2. He or she seems to have nothing better to do than help the white protagonist, who is often a stranger to the Magical Negro at first.
3. He or she disappears, dies, or sacrifices something of great value after or while helping the white protagonist.
4. He or she is uneducated, mentally handicapped, at a low position in life, or all of the above.
5. He or she is wise, patient, and spiritually in touch. Closer to the earth, one might say. He or she often literally has magical powers.

The archetype of the Magical Negro is an issue of race. It is the subordination of a minority figure masked as the empowerment of one. The Magical Negro has great power and wisdom, yet he or she only uses it to help the white main character; he or she is not threatening because he or she only seeks to help, never hurt. The white main character's well-being comes before the Magical Negro's because the main character is of more value, more importance.

Let me emphasize this part:
"The archetype of the Magical Negro is an issue of race. It is the subordination of a minority figure masked as the empowerment of one. The Magical Negro has great power and wisdom, yet he or she only uses it to help the white main character; he or she is not threatening because he or she only seeks to help, never hurt."

At risk of sounding like one of Bear's "3 % who are professionally offended" I think this is a key difference, and an important one. I honestly don't think the writers and filmmakers who employ the trope are inherently racist or bigoted, at least not any more than we're all steeped in that bigotry as products of our society. But I do think we all have a responsibility to identify, mock, and eradicate culturally embedded racism.

There's an inherent morality lesson built into thematic tropes that show up again and again. There's a thing that happens when certain characters always, always die. In the case of queer characters (Tara in season six BtVS, anyone?) the lesson comes across loud and clear, "see what happens to dykes and faggots? Get the message?" And in the case of the Magical Negro trope, it looks rather queasily, to me, like "the only really good nigger is a dead one."

So let's be plain. Let's look unflinchingly at the tropes and cliches we go along with, nodding, without actually looking directly at the mostly unspoken lessons they contain.

This brings us back to the Eileen Joy essay linked at the top. She writes:

While queer theory could be said to have begun with specific human and even posthuman bodies—with their indeterminate and illicit flows and intensities and, let’s say, their once-unspeakable and subversive desires—queer theory today, in the recent words of David Eng, has become “subject-less,” admitting of “no fixed political referent.”[5] As a term, queer cannot be allowed to stray from what might be called its essential contingency, in the sense that it must always pose a certain resistance to whatever is considered fixed or “normal,” an ontological state of affairs that is always changing over time. In this sense, queer studies is about everything, and even, following Carolyn Dinshaw’s lead, about “touching” and making queer “affective contact”[6] with everything: it is about sex and sexuality as always, but it is also about race, religion, empire, immigration, globalization, citizenship, sovereignty, terrorism, etc. And in another sense, queer theory is also now about the end of everything we think we know, about sex and sexuality and human bodies, but also about history and time.

That's the heart of the matter, really -- and the trickiest, most prickly bit to get around if you're writing from a place on the margins to begin with. That queering of everything rankles on a number of levels if you're already inextricably tangled in queerness in its more strictly defined sense.

Interjected note: I've never used this blog to beat my Big Gay Drum -- and I'm not, frankly, about to start now. So if you're here for that, you'll be disappointed. If you're not here for that, I expect you're relieved. And that, all by itself, is deeply revelatory of the sorts of internal tension dynamics we're going to be further unpacking, in the next chunk.

Again, this is getting long for a blog post -- so I'll let it rest here, for now, and I'll see you again in a few days with part III.


Lori said...

Good essay, Mac. I think I'll be turning this one over for a long time.

LauraJMixon said...

Reading with interest... looking forward to more.

kiplet said...

Damn, Mac. And here I am in Ashland in the early sleepy morning, about to see Mercutio tomorrow, and thinking, as usual, about the dam’ good neighbors. You deserve more than I can give, at the moment.

But: the Magical Negro isn’t always about the good and dead equation. There’s also something of an apology there (a self-serving apology), and something of an excuse or justification (though pathetic tea at both): see? They do have power! Though it’s power that doesn’t work so well in our dominant context of lawyers, guns, and money. (Perhaps because it’s so earthy and rhythmic. But it is authentic, and authenticity can be useful, sometimes.) And see? They are nice, and kind, and mild. Though we’ve treated them badly in the past, they don’t so much mind. They have forgiven us. Why, our horrible crime isn’t so horrible after all! Hooray!

Of course, it’s never you do have power, you have forgiven us. Wouldn’t work so well, if one addressed the object directly.

We don’t yet so much have Magical Queers perhaps because there’s not yet enough of a collective sense of shame to crystallize into a limiting, stereotypical trope that allows us through hack storytelling to feel better or at least less worse about the horrible things we’ve done. (The good and dead equation still holds, here, Nick’s point nothwithstanding.) —Though: it’s easy enough to find the queerness in magic (in the specific sense of sexual other), from berdaches to Tiresias. Perhaps because the sexual other has always been found, even within one’s tribe, but the ability to have and hold a racial other, closely enough that its implicit threat must be subsumed but not obliterated, is with isolated exceptions a much more modern phenomenon?

Tish Grier said...

Amazing essays, Mac!

on the Magical Queer side, I got to thinking of "To Wong Foo..." although it has a somewhat happy ending--but the drag queens seem to exist to teach straight women how to be women....which then makes straight women into these hopeless, helpless characters who just can't make it without men in their lives--even if its men in dressess...

but I digress.. (and think kiplet's going in the right direction)

One of the reasons I could never watch The Green Mile was because I could see that nasty-assed trope staring me right in the face from the sappy movie posters. And I'd seen enough of it in my lifetime of movie-watching to say WTF are they doing *that* for again? But, it's a trope that serves an industry which, at heart, is quite conservative...and loves to perpetuate messages that make a certain status quo feel good about itself.