Tuesday, July 1, 2008
Today’s post about movie audiences is a continuation of yesterday’s post about movie audiences. In particular, it’s about the comments that readers wrote in response to yesterday’s post, and I’ll also have more to say about the ostensible topic of both posts—expectations of silence by movie audiences.
I hope that at least some of my readers had fun guessing what I might have really meant by yesterday’s brief, rather enigmatic post. When I wrote it, I knew that its claim—that silence in movie theaters is a common form of behavior among white movie audiences—would cause a negative reaction from some readers of this blog. And sure enough, it did.
For the record, the claim in the one-sentence post is a paraphrase of a sentence in a fascinating book, Performing Whiteness: Re/Constructions in the Cinema. In that book, Gwendolyn Audrey Foster writes that proper movie “spectatorship is nonparticipatory, silent, and white.” At the end of this post, I’ll turn things over to Foster with an excerpt from her book and let her explain how that could be.
As I promised in the comments section of yesterday’s post, I will write about reader reactions to that post in this one, and I want to do so as a demonstration of something. I will then use that “something” to address how we tend to think about whiteness, and race more generally. I also think that the many negative reactions of readers’ to yesterday’s post have implications for the kind of white anti-racist writing that I’m doing on this blog, and perhaps for white anti-racist work more generally.
One interesting thing about negative reactions to the claim made by yesterday’s one-sentence post is that what the sentence says is actually true—sitting quietly in a theater and shushing others who aren’t behaving quietly IS a common form of behavior among white movie audiences. I don’t think that claim can be convincingly disputed, at least in an American context.
The second part of the post, which says that watching movies silently is more common among middle-class white audiences than among other white movie audiences, may be less true. However, the tenuous nature of that second claim, and the lack of any examples or references to audience research in the post to support it, was not what caused a negative reaction. I even entered the comments section yesterday and suggested that the post’s claim could be more about social class than about race, but from what I can see, no one else picked up on social class as a way to consider the post’s claim and its implications.
So why the focus on race, and why the negative reactions to a claim that’s actually true? Because, as many commenters wrote, claiming simply that white folks often do something implies that non-white folks don’t do it—even if the person making the claim actually says nothing at all about non-white folks.
What this whole charade of mine demonstrates, then, is that in our common conception of “race,” whiteness inevitably exists in relation to other categories. It’s very difficult to talk about whiteness in isolation. To talk about it, that is, without talking about other races.
In fact, whiteness has existed in relation to other racial categories from the very beginning of “race” as a concept—“white” folks wouldn’t call themselves that if their ancestors hadn’t decided to make a big deal out of racial differences in order to do things to people from other races.
So, for those of us who focus on whiteness, what do we really talk about when we try to talk about it? Can we actually talk about it without talking about other races? Or must we always talk about it in relation to other races? And if we do talk about other races as we do so, how should we do so?
I’ve noticed, for instance, that when I ask white individuals to talk about whiteness, about what their being white means for them, they usually have very little to say, and they eventually end up talking about non-white people instead. White Americans are usually unaccustomed to talking directly about their own whiteness, and when asked to do so, they often shift to discussing it in relation to other races, and then end up talking almost exclusively about those other people instead.
This kind of removal, or distancing, also happens among white writers on race—most of them write about people of color, instead of about white people. In 1990, bell hooks issued a plea about this tendency that I think still needs to be heard today:
One change in direction that would be real cool would be the production of a discourse on race that interrogates whiteness. It would just be so interesting for all those white folks who are giving blacks their take on blackness to let them know what’s going on with whiteness. In far too much contemporary writing—though there are some outstanding exceptions—race is always an issue of Otherness that is not white: it is black, brown, yellow, red, purple even.
Actually, I’ve also noticed a similar relational conception of whiteness in my own writing. I’ve often wondered if whiteness can be talked about in isolation, since talking about it in relation to other races raises problems about how to represent or describe those other races in my writing.
I too find it difficult to talk about whiteness and white folks without also talking about non-white folks. In the past three months or so that I’ve been writing this blog, I often call on the writings of non-white observers of whiteness for their take on the white thing currently under examination. As several commenters have pointed out, I sometimes run into trouble doing so (and for those who might think that I don’t listen to my detractors, I do—I’m working on these things).
It is important to talk about whiteness in relation to other races, because white supremacy still has so many deleterious effects on members of other races. But in order to examine whiteness, to better understand it, must one always do so in relation to other races? Can it not be isolated for close analysis?
After all, white people have, and still do, try to separate themselves from other people. Indeed, whiteness is all about separation from non-white people; that’s one of its fundamental points, perhaps its very raison d’être. And yet, paradoxically enough, it depends on conceptions of non-white others for its very existence. And as yesterday’s exercise of sorts demonstrates, saying much of anything at all about white people means saying something about non-white people too. Even if you don’t actually, literally claim that something is true about non-white people, if you claim something about white people, you still have, by implication.
And so we continue, in the wake of so many centuries of destruction and waste wrought by the bludgeon of race, with whiteness and its supposed opposites still going round and round, clutching each other in a mad, paradoxical dance of division and mutual dependency.
Can we step outside of the dance and become spectators? If we do, will we remain as silent as well-behaved movie audiences? How about instead, we get noisy, and try to stop the dance?
[And here, as promised, are some excerpts from Gwendolyn Audrey Foster’s book, Performing Whiteness, explaining her claim that silent movie spectatorship is a white thing. As well as a gendered thing. Oh, and a class thing too. To explain how this all came about, she goes back to the early days of cinema, when silent spectatorship arose as a different way of behaving within a crowd that was being entertained. Notice as well that she doesn’t talk about white audiences without also talking about black audiences.
By the way, I don't necessarily endorse Foster's claims here--I offer them as a matter of interest in relation to "whiteness," and I wish she had more to say about the racial differences, if any, among contemporary movie audiences. Because this excerpt is fairly long, I will skip my usual use of italics for quoted material.]
If, as Mary Ann Doane suggests, “whiteness. . . is a form of masquerade which conceals an identity” (229), what does this masquerade suggest about white audiences and their constructions as good or bad? How do white audiences perform good whiteness or bad whiteness? Much has been written about cinema audiences in general, exploring the relationship between the construct of the film being witnessed and the gender and class of moviegoers, yet little reception theory has been written about white audience behavior.
White women were often constructed as bad audiences or bad moviegoers. As Shelley Stamp observes, “the recurring figure of a boisterous, talkative woman” (27) was popular in the silent era and “chatty women became one of the more familiar caricatures of the era” (26). Miriam Hansen notes in Babel and Babylon that the “'rule of the silence' had to be learned in the 1910s” (95).
The white woman was, then, largely constructed as a consumer of images. Consequently, there was much anxiety on the part of theatrical film exhibitors because of the class differences among women. Exhibitors wished to appeal to all classes while appearing to privilege the upper-class woman. Special seats were set aside for “ladies” in a Jim Crow-style arrangement; “ladies” of course, meant white women, and the seating separated them by class.
“Class-conscious women were thereby guaranteed that they would constitute a significant body of the audience and perhaps more important, that they would not have to rub elbows with less cultivated patrons who might also be in attendance” (Stamp 14). While the “[u]nreal unity the on-screen spectacle proclaims masks the class divisions on which real unity of the capitalist mode is based” (Debord 46), the off-screen space both encouraged white class prejudice and encouraged good (read silent) female behavior.
The “genteel culture of female moviegoing promoted by the industry accomplished much more than simply encouraging patronage among this desirable segment of the market. Such promotions also guided women's expectations, furnishing them with clues about how to conduct themselves in picture houses” (Stamp 15). White women were thus being used as colonized figures of commerce while simultaneously allowing themselves to be further colonized by social-conduct guides. They were mocked for being loud and praised for being poised, quiet, white, and genteel. Good-white women were, therefore, subject as spectators to the dualities usually associated with the Victorian age.
“Woman, Victorian society dictated, was to be chaste, delicate, and loving....She was seen, that is, as being both higher and lower, bother innocent and animal, pure yet quintessentially sexual” (Smith-Rosenberg 183). Performing good-white femininity meant shutting up and removing large hats, so it is perhaps contrary to expectations that many women filmgoers actually preferred action and spectacle.
“In fact, women were attracted to sexually explicit, action-oriented, and agitational films that encouraged alternative viewing modes and extra-textual engagement, at a time when filmmaking was increasingly standardized toward classical norms” (Stamp 198). Thus, despite exhibitor expectations, women who were privileged, white, and gentile were invited into cinemas to provide respectability to exhibition houses, yet they made a great deal of noise and liked action-adventure films, especially serials, which often featured female action heroines.
But to be a good audience in dominant white culture increasingly meant to be a quiet audience. Unfortunately, this call for silence meant that many black audiences, who had a propensity to interact with the films they viewed in a call-and-response mode, were coded by white people as poorly behaved: only in all-black theaters could African Americans or others feel free to respond to films as they wished. . .
[A] good audience remains defined as a silent, almost reverent audience, a construct that is deeply related to class, race, and gender. The quietest audiences are those that attend films in museums and retro houses, where all the comments during a film are met with a stern glance and admonitions to remain silent. Happily, there are exceptions to this rule of silence in the cathedral of cinema. These “exceptional screenings,” in which audiences are active and vocal participants during the viewing of a film, break the fourth wall of cinema reception. Audiences who are exiled from one another, silenced by the unseen panoptic presence, enact an agreed-upon definition of good-spectator behavior. Thus good spectatorship is nonparticipatory, silent, and white.