How Racists Cynically Exploit “Cute”

This anti-abortion billboard targets a black community in Oakland, California.  It’s  just been recently covered over because the actual mother of the little girl featured in the ad complained so much to the press that it led to a bit of an outcry.  The mother of this child obviously didn’t think she was signing up to support the suggestion that her child is in any way unwanted (though she gullibly signed the modeling release form).

Similar billboards have appeared in Atlanta, Georgia and Brooklyn, New York too.  I can see why the mother was so offended.  It’s a slick political tactic that appeals to certain religious and nationalistic discourses promoted in the African American community.  The idea that black people are endangered or are otherwise inherently self-destructive (as though there is some perfectly coherent racial “self” to destroy in the first place) is a common white supremacist trope that — perhaps not too surprisingly — circulates throughout some all-black discursive communities, like barbershops and beauty parlors, not to mention far too many black churches.

Of course, blacks are no more endangered than the rest of humanity, but it’s hard to convey that to our folk when we only see social disintegration on a daily basis while, unfortunately, lacking a critical analysis that myopically attends to a world view which highlights personal agency as the end-all-be-all of human interactions. Such assumptions are mistaken because they ignore the various forms of structural and social violence that occur routinely within and across black communities — of which this billboard is a perfect case in point.

Most insidious about this billboard campaign is the suggestion that black people don’t love their children like everyone else (and by “everyone else” I mean white people). And because of this underlying pathos, I believe the billboard’s combination of words coupled with this particularly cute image is patently racist. Moreover, this ad is clearly designed to garner culturally conservative votes from the typically liberal African American voting block. This is a wedge issue similar to that of gay marriage, which has proven to be an effective political ploy to encourage portions of the African American electorate to vote against their own social and economic interests.

Unfortunately though, too many black voters are duped by the disingenuous politics of this conservative agenda. By feigning a concern for the lives and well-beings of black women and children, the right wing can claim to subscribe to a “colorblind” concern for the lives of “all humans” when, in fact, they couldn’t care less. Indeed, if the right wing anti-choice lobby really cared about the lives of women and children — regardless of race — they would make gestational and infant nutrition measures, as well as early childhood education and daycare an integral part of their political platform. If they really cared about women and children, they would make extended parental leave the norm and not just a luxury for the well-situated few. And no woman would ever get fired from her job for being pregnant. Ever.

In the end, it would stand to reason that the only way to reduce abortions is to assure expectant mothers that they will be able to safely bring children into the world without jeopardizing their own futures as well as those of their already living children. Instead, the right wing engages paranoia and fear tactics in order to impede a woman’s right to determine her own outcomes and not be condemned to breed against her will.

The poem below is from 1945 and is called “The Mother.” The Poetry Archive has posted a beautiful recitation of it in Gwendolyn Brooksown voice.

Abortions will not let you forget.
You remember the children you got that you did not get,
The damp small pulps with a little or with no hair,
The singers and workers that never handled the air.
You will never neglect or beat
Them, or silence or buy with a sweet.
You will never wind up the sucking-thumb
Or scuttle off ghosts that.
You will never leave them, controlling your luscious sigh,
Return for a snack of them, with gobbling mother-eye.

I have heard in the voices of the wind the voices of my dim killed
children.
I have contracted. I have eased
My dim dears at the breasts they could never suck.
I have said Sweets, if I sinned, if I seized Your luck
And your lives from your unfinished reach,
If I stole your births and your names,
Your straight baby tears and your games,
Your stilted or lovely loves, your tumults, your marriages, aches,and your deaths,
If I poisoned the beginnings of your breaths,
Believe that even in my deliberateness
I was not deliberate.
Though why should I whine,
Whine that the crime was other than mine?
— Since anyhow you are dead.
Or rather, or instead, You were never made.
But that too, I am afraid,
Is faulty: oh, what shall I say, how is the truth to be said?
You were born, you had body, you died.
It is just that you never giggled or planned or cried.

Believe me, I loved you all.
Believe me, I knew you, though faintly, and I loved, I loved you
All.

February is Black History Sneakers Month!

Aside from the much publicized irony of Black History Month being celebrated in the shortest month of the year, I generally relate to certain other criticisms about these four weeks of commemorative celebration having become pretty much absurd at this point in contemporary popular culture.

But don’t tell that to Foot Locker. These sneakers are from the 2011 Collection of Black History Month Sneakers from Nike and Converse.  No seriously, this is an actual genre of athletic shoes.  There’s also the Negro League sneaker collection from Nike.

I have sometimes held the opinion that sneakers are a sort of cute rhetoric that signifies on certain essentialist claims made about African American men. Of course I’m talking about the troping on the “run, nigger, run”  metaphor from African American literature and folk-tales, which I suspect is informed — at least somewhat — by the 19th and 20th century historical references to youthful black male flight from Southern slavery and Jim Crow lynching.

Certainly, in the sports and entertainment media, young, athletic, African American male bodies are fetishized and made objects of white, middle class, heteronormative spectacle as in the case of baseball, football, and basketball. This emphasis on youthfully playing games  is a “cute” rhetoric. Arguably, sneakers are the cutest menswear shoe style available and, for good or bad, remain a staple of hip-hop style and urban fashion.

And sadly, even up until now many young black men still view professional sports as the only legitimate avenue to wealth and fame, as the frames of black athleticism are narrowly interpreted as the optimal performance of African American masculinity. The popular sports legacy of Michael Jordan’s endorsement of Nike Air Jordans and his influence on urban fashions associated with the late 90s style of dress when grown black men dressed in over-sized jersey tank tops, low-hanging, ankle-skimming shorts, and yes — sneakers. Grown black men wearing play clothes.  The issue of concern for me is that “black” must be modified by “grown” and I’m curious as to how this is related to the performance of gender.

Spike Lee as “Mars Blackmon” parodied this child-like mannishness in his first and highly acclaimed independent film, She’s Gotta Have It, and in his numerous Blackmon reprisals in several Nike ads back in the late 80s and early 90s. Today, there are blogs and chat-rooms populated by intelligent, educated, technologically savvy —  literally well-heeled — black men who spend hours comparing their sneaker collections and discussing the intricacies of limited editions, latest trends, and architectural designs. Within these digital communities, rarely is the issue of exploited overseas sweatshop child labor ever raised. Personally, I don’t claim to understand what motivates sneaker enthusiasts. I guess I’m not much of a sports fan either.  However, I do think the question is worth asking: is this a part of what Carter G. Woodson warned about in The Miseducation of the Negro?

Afro & Aura

When you google the search terms *african* *american* and  *cute* (with no quotes, of course) the first hits you get are associated with hairstyles. After that there are some hits for baby names.  This is a fascinating topic to me and I believe it begs a chapter in my dissertation. Among the biggest vlog topics on YouTube these days is that of one African American woman or another who has embarked on a “natural hair journey” or is otherwise describing some new miracle product that has finally knocked her kinky curls into place.

Hell, I’d be lying if I didn’t cop to picking up a few hair tips in my own quest for cuteness through watching YouTube.

Though I can’t help but notice that the YouTube natural hair community already has several of its own clichés like, “Hey Guys! It’s me and blah, blah, blah. My hair is blah, blah, blah. And it won’t ever blah, blah, blah no matter how much I try to blah, blah, blah. Bye Guys!” I even saw an upload titled  “My 27 Piece Weave Journey”! (For those of you who are black girl hair challenged, a 27 piece is a short weave like the one NeNe from the Real Housewives of Atlanta wears.) For realers. Very comical.

For me, this issue makes me think of Terry Eagleton‘s book, Walter Benjamin: Or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism, especially in the section where he highlights the late 60s – early 70s Black Power slogan, “Black is Beautiful” and discusses how this term is immanently rhetorical because of the way it calls attention to the falsity of Western beauty standards. Therefore, this verifiably questionable discursive utterance is deployed for the purpose of diametrically opposing and dislodging the Kantian assumption about the exclusivity of whiteness as ideal beauty.

Of course the period immediately following the civil rights movement, also known as the Black Power era, was the heyday of the afro and, for me, relates very closely to Benjamin’s notion of the hazy, blurry fluffiness of aura as an halo effect.  But then the afro and the (black) people who used to wear them have mostly gone out of style. Now we are told that “gay is the new black.” Or “green (politics) is the new black” and recently, I even saw a t-shirt that read “broke is the new black.” (Hasn’t it always been?)

Cute is governed by the canons of style (and delivery — as in the case of product packaging). So the racial rhetoric of cuteness is thus problematized, as it constantly moves African Americans in and out of style. As it stands, an entire category of humanity occasionally becomes vogue and then passé… and then vogue and then passé and vogue and passé and so on.

In Film Form: Essays in Film Sense by Sergei Eisenstein blonde hair is implicated as the gold standard of photography and cinema culture, quite literally.  The golden, yellow hair of the Hollywood starlet is a fundamental pathos of the halo lighting effect used to imply desirability and is employed in almost all Hollywood films. As far as film culture goes, what we have seen little of is afro as aura. Well at least not until this public plural space of YouTube where black women are illuminating their own identities in the digital sphere. Stay tuned.

Cute Markets

So based on some things I’ve thought about “cute” as a transcendent sign of global exchange, I think this link says that I’m on to something. I was listening to NPR and heard this:  ranking-cute-animals-a-stock-market-experiment …. Well, if you ask me, this says it all.

Well obviously, not “all.” I’ve got far more to say about this in my dissertation.

Personally, I think the slow loris is super cute. The kitten is too. Come to think of it, the polar bear’s no slouch either. But if I had to choose, I’d say the loris. I would think people would choose the baby polar bear though.

Which one would you choose?

Here Comes BarbieB!tch!

It’s really not a surprise that cuteness is the preferred design characteristic of super-commodity merchandise and is therefore the chief brand aesthetic of multinational mega-corporations like the Disney media empire and the Mattel toy company.  The predominance of soft rounded plastics makes it so.  Known for their pop culture icons, Mickey and Barbie, you’d be hard pressed to come up with examples of more successful and durable branding.

And along comes cute hip-hopper, Nicki Minaj fashioning herself as a Japanese street Barbie. Her name both rhymes and alliterates with Mickey’s. I think she’s brilliant.

Toys can have different characteristics and don’t always have to be cute, per se.  Toys can be quaint like wooden blocks or like cloth teddy bears or Raggedy Ann & Andie. Different kinds of toys definitely have different auras. What I’m talking about in terms of Minaj is a plastic aurality, bereft of all sentimental value, simultaneously stripped and sealed.  Not only does Minaj perform the strip/tease, but she does so through offering herself up as a sealed object — almost hermetically so.  And in true hip-hop tradition, she’s the first to brag about how airtight her entourage is.

Her über lavish lamé and latex costuming makes her seem impossible to undress. Just go ahead and try and get her out of her clothes. She’s tightly corseted, though nothing like a genteel Victorian.  She’s walking around literally sheathed in rubber, her gear is like… well, like a condom.  Her stylized plasticity seems to be almost hygienically engineered. The overly shellacked make-up and wigs seal the deal. (Get it? seal the deal? like sealed… oh never mind.)  It seems like whatever they try to hurl, spit, or squirt at her, it just instantly wipes off.  All antibacterial and whatnot.

Yep. Nicki Minaj is pretty much awesome.

Sappy New Year!!!

One rhetoric of cuteness is expressed through the sentimentality of the New Year.  Of  course, I’m talking about the symbolism of Baby New Year, which is representational of new beginnings and future possibilities. Somehow most (if not all) of us subscribe to the false linearity of this “hit refresh” chronology.  You know, something like a perpetual reset button.

I think this temporal aspect of cute rhetoric can be understood by looking at the spatial conceptualizations laid out by Henri Lefebvre in The Production of Space. According to Lefebvre, social spaces give rise to time spent as social production. This relationship happens so readily that an ostensibly obvious relationship between where we are when we are/were/have been doing something easily lends itself to a tautological frame. As I see it, this a/cute rhetoric of an annual “new year” forecloses on notions of space as arenas of revolutionary production by enclosing our cortical and tactile perceptions of spatial arrangements in such a way that our day-to-day practices actually seem as though they can be readily controlled (and thereby, ultimately predicted).

This workaday rhetoric is expressed through our bodily interactions and “[r]epresentations of the relations of reproduction [as] sexual symbols, symbols of male and female, sometimes accompanied, sometimes not, by symbols of age — of youth and old age” ( 32, emphasis mine). Could this mean that the entire economy of modern global culture significantly depends on a cute notion of temporality for the perpetual renewal and replenishment of libidinally attached families — as the notion of “the family” is seen as the primary incubator that generates and re-generates seemingly natural power relations and structural economies? In other words, do cute spaces offer themselves up to quarters of efficiency?

Of course this social classification process that sorts individuals into various markets is necessarily reproduced in calendars that make time a fetish or object — as though the collection of these little objects — seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, years, decades, and so on —  can be somehow a/cutely contained within a single lifetime or within the span of a few generations. This sense of “legacy” is  absolutely necessary for the perpetuation of inherited class standings and all the subsequently naturalized social relations — namely labor markets —  that govern the ongoing reproduction of spatial practices in the way that we have come to re-cognize them as unavoidably True. Therefore, cute can be seen as a means of marking time through the sorting of populations.  Here’s where Marx’s conceptualization of time as material history really offers itself to an interesting critique of cuteness.

Actually, if you think about it, cute kitten calendars are a literal extension of this idea. Every single month we face a brand new pay/billing cycle with a furry little friend to help us keep track of it all.