International and Multicultural Education,
School of Education, University of San Francisco,
San Francisco, USA
International and Multicultural Education,
School of Education, University of San Francisco,
San Francisco, USA
White Balance: How Hollywood Shaped Colorblind Ideology and Undermined Civil Rights by Justine Gomer, The University of North Carolina Press, 2020, 268 pp., $22.99 (Kindle), ISBN 1469655802
The 100 Greatest Superhero Films and TV Shows by Zachary Ingle and David M. Sutera, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2022, 309 pp., $42.5 (Kindle) ISBN 153811450X
In the United States, news, television programs, films, and other forms of technologically advanced media play a huge role not only in our everyday social life, but also in legitimizing history, influencing identity formulation, and determining the meaning of democratic or undemocratic actions. Further, popular culture is ubiquitous in different creative media platforms. It concerns the most immediate and contemporary aspects of social life, which hold the capacity to bring people together and form distinct memories and discourses (Delaney, 2015). Hence, media is a powerful pedagogical force, shaping people’s understanding of the world (Giroux, 2009).
Superhero movies are consumed internationally despite regional censorship and pushbacks. With half of the top 10 highest box-office grossing movies of all time featuring superheroes or comic characters (All Time Worldwide Box Office, 2021), it is hard to imagine such movies carrying no meaning. For example, in the book the 100 Greatest Superhero Film and TV Shows, one of the authors, Sutera, anticipated 35 years to finally see the Avengers developed from the comic books to the big screen. The anticipation was not merely for nostalgia but, by the author’s own words, the “ultimate wish-fulfillment” (p. 1) for a man whose inner child had a superhero dream. The hysteria and excitement for these movies and characters are shared by countless comic book readers in almost every corner of the world.
When wish fulfillment as escapism into fantastical realms is achieved, cinema must also perform a new feat – the delivery of our current truth. Yet, popular culture has much to atone for in the way of portraying non-dominant cultures in America. For example, American filmmaker Edward Zwick, when asked about his 1989 war drama, Glory, sidestepped questions about a period piece meant to uplift the Black men of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. Rather he seemingly focused solely through the eyes of the White commanding officer. He answered the question by stating, “It is hugely difficult in any society, Black or White, to come up with legitimate heroes” (as cited in Gomer, 2020).
This book review starts with a summary of each book being reviewed, and then discusses two themes concerning the presence of neoliberalism in media as well as the effects of stereotypes and colorblindness within American pop culture. Lastly, the review article concludes with questions about neoliberalism, racialization for readers, as well as queries of how we can use the texts as pedagogical tools to further the discussion in classrooms.
White Balance: How Hollywood Shaped Colorblind Ideology and Undermined Civil Rights
Justin Gomer’s White Balance: How Hollywood Shaped Colorblind Ideology and Undermined Civil Rightscastigates Hollywood for failing to distance itself from the racist political underpinnings of American democracy, a democracy warped by ambiguously racist agendas, decidedly exclusive legislation, and a long, drawn-out war on contentious words most notably the term, colorblindness, which Gomer contends remains at the heart of differences in racial ideology. According to Gomer (2020), colorblindness is part and parcel of popular culture and the ways in which motion pictures markedly paint who the victims and victors of timely and significant cultural happenings are. The trends reveal that in order to appease largely White majority audiences, the White experience is and remains central to any narrative even if it is a narrative meant to uplift traditionally marginalized, non-White experiences. Motion pictures became a place of refuge for White moviegoers to see themselves as either people who were wrongfully disenfranchised by the American Civil Rights Movement or conversely, people who are key to the success of the disenfranchised.
The cinematic experience of many moviegoers is in fact colored by the politics and ideology of the American zeitgeist of the time, and motion pictures have the capacity to either reinforce, or conversely, reframe what audiences perceive appropriate on-screen representations to look like. The way complex topics such as social welfare, affirmative action, and America’s war on drugs are visually represented share common threads of disconcerting connections. A reasonable question therefore emerges regarding the intricacies necessary to birth a movie: What is Hollywood’s role within the larger context of American ideology? Justin Gomer’s text focuses on the ways in which various genres of American cinema were created with unmistakable coherence to U.S. policy throughout the latter half of the 20th century.
The book’s chapters are divided by critical United States Supreme Court cases following the 1960s Civil Rights Movement and each chapter is also connected with two to three different movies that emerged shortly after the passing of such federal legislation. Additionally, each chapter focuses on one particular topic such as: prejudice and anti-statism in Chapter 1, African American representation in Chapter 2, coherence of colorblind ideology in Chapter 3, the rise of Reagan’s War on Drugs in Chapter 4, White ethos in Chapter 5, and hegemonic repercussions in Chapter 6. Gomer lambasts the colorblind hegemony that officially took hold during the intense period of general anti-statism which swept the nation in the 1970s (Gomer, 2020, p. 16). Moreover, what was intensifying with each subsequent decade was Hollywood’s unnecessary influence on largely White majority audiences and the ways in which White Americans felt trapped by the suffocating presence of Neoliberalist agendas and policies (Gomer, 2020, p. 3-4). Gomer considers the need for outlier perspectives from historically marginalized, underrepresented, and largely invisible groups of people both behind and in front of the camera. The effect of such outlier perspectives would help mitigate the undeniable proof of Hollywood’s carefully constructed and phony colorblind past. Ultimately, historically silenced and non-White professionals within cinema would be able to tell and retell stories not driven by what Gomer calls, “an ethos of colorblind white heroism” (Gomer, 2020, p. 4).
The 100 Greatest Superhero Film and TV Shows
The 100 Greatest Superhero Film and TV Shows (Ingle & Sutera, 2022) documents films and TV shows featuring superheroes and comic book characters from the mid-1930s to the present. The text illustrates how imaginary stories and visionary settings can connect with reality and affect change in our lives. The writers state that superhero movies and TVshows have embraced a genre hybridity that exposes and extends symbols and meanings in different discourses; and they disagree with what critics generally think of superhero films, like Martin Scorsese’s viral amusement park theory. The introductory chapter gives a brief yet inclusive history of superhero films and TV shows from the early short serials exclusive in theaters, to the era of television proliferation that made live-action superhero movies a prime creation, and finally to the current worldwide blockbusters with their advanced technology, economic-driven focus, and political proclamations. It took generations for iconographic elements and narrative styles to be developed and for an understanding of the superhero hybrid genre to be reformulated.
The four stages involved in forming a genre are described in the introductory chapter: experiment, classic, refinement, and self-reflective. The experiment stage is based on prior knowledge and expectations, and the classic state is one where an equilibrium is reached and is mutually understood by filmmakers and filmgoers. As part of the refinement stage, storytelling, style, and other cultural forms are expanded, as in Nolan’s re-vision of Gotham City and Ang Lee’s reinterpretation of Hulk (p.6), while the final stage, the self-reflective stage, is a return to experimenting with unknown things. Unfortunately, this book is not organized in such a manner; rather, the authors chose an alphabetical approach for honoring each film’s distinctive merits. As a result, they do not advocate hierarchical ranking systems (e.g., popularity, box office success), but we believe their listing makes it harder for readers to observe the evolution of superhero movies as a genre. A hundred superhero programs are chosen and evaluated based on their narrative quality, aesthetics, box-office success, historical significance, and social impact.
This book is not only a form of information and entertainment; it is a way for readers to rethink and engage with the facilitation of their own transformation and social change. Topics explored include racial stereotypes in the chapter on Angel (p. 25) and Superman Paramount Cartoons (p. 236), assimilation and immigration in the chapter on Sanjay’s super team (p. 207), and feminism and White exceptionalism in the chapter on Capitan Marvel (p. 257). Although the book could be more inclusive in the selections and elaborate more on topics such as racial balance and representational policies in the entertainment industry, we think that this book is a valuable read for people who are fans of this genre or interested in using it as a pedagogical tool in classrooms.
Neoliberalism and Media Influence
As Harvey (2007) argues, neoliberalism has become a hegemonic lens to appropriating and maximizing human actions in the domain of the market. Both of our books weigh in on neoliberalism and identity politics when discussing the significance of the media in shaping our common sense and attitudes. To Gomer (2020), there is a clear need to study the historical legacy of neoliberalism from its emergence to its continued onslaught on susceptible American moviegoers and eventual distillation into mainstream media.
Gomer suggests that when one traces neoliberal ideology along with that of the origins of American capitalism, it is no wonder that neoliberalism paired off with, “the colorblind language of the free market to reinforce White supremacy” (2020, p. 62). “What made Hollywood particularly suited to neoliberal hegemony was the rise of the cult of individualism in the late 1970s” (Gomer, 2020, p. 99). Individual rights over the rights of groups helped to distill the logic of neoliberalism by determining and providing suggestions for change to all individuals who felt forgotten or unseen during America’s socio-cultural revolution of civil rights in the decade prior. As Gomer elucidates, neoliberalism’s “creed – that government inhibits freedom, be it in the market or in the classroom” spoke directly to White Americans who grappled with the zero-sum sense that communities of color were systematically silencing the experiences of White communities (2020, p. 63).
Indeed, neoliberalism has made an impact on the relationships between the state and its people. Its emphasis on individual responsibilities has led people to engage in self-criticism and self-censorship rather than desiring social change. Discussing the movie V for Vendetta, in The 100 Greatest Superhero Film and TV Shows, Ingle and Sutera examine similarities between the reality the movie portrays and what we are facing now. They write, “People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people” (p. 261). The government in the movie seeks to create a homogenous world where the “undesirables” are either ostracized or hold a position where their failures and difficulties are created by no one but themselves. The only way for them to strip off this powerless position is to conform to the dominant moral order, become the “desirables,” and be grateful about what one has while not demanding anythingmore.
This results in individuals adapting to the dominant model rather than society expanding its capacity and bringing about social change. Foucault (1977, 1988) called it neoliberal technology of the self, with individuals taking responsibility for their own change as being a part of the neoliberalist normalization process. A number of superhero movies and television shows discussed in this book explore the theme of some groups or behaviors being deemed abnormal through systematic stigmatization. Some examples include stereotypical Japanese and African imagery in Superman Paramount Cartoons (p. 237); the assimilation of immigrants and undervaluing of their’ cultures in Sanjay’s Super Team (p. 208); and the persistence of racism in Watchmen (p. 270).
In White Balance, Gomer also highlights the ways in which individuals from certain minority groups eventually succumb to assimilation as was seen in the 1976 boxing movie Rocky (2020, p. 61). Titular character Rocky Balboa, also known by his nickname, “The Italian Stallion,” must face-off with the arrogant Apollo Creed. Creed is Balboa’s adversary not simply because he is a Black man. Creed is Balboa’s adversary because he is a member of a minority group depicted as wholly unappreciative of what little he was allowed to achieve. In short, Creed’s gusto and affinity for optics is meant to emphasize Rocky’s humility and need to win the fight against individuals who assimilate into the American melting pot but do so on terms not laid out by White people. Conversely, Rocky fights for justice, the same justice that White moviegoers believed was unfairly stripped from them during the 1970s civil rights battles (Gomer, p. 76). Hegemonic forces needed to see Rocky Balboa fight and win for a nation still grappling with public school integration and affirmative action.
Stereotypes and Colorblindness
It was Lippmann (1922) who initially defined stereotypes as a picture inside one’s head that is shaped by culture and also determines how we acquire and perceive information. Media is a place filled with stereotypes and manipulated images and representations. In regard to colorblindness, sometimes, cinematic media specifically goes so far as to produce new ways of viewing colorblindness via entirely new genres focused on such themes as White feminine saviorism of dark-skinned individuals who reside in urban and impoverished settings. Ultimately, Black and Latinx individuals remain relegated as secondary characters portrayed as needing the help of White affluent influence or are simply present on screen as a nod to diversity.
For example, Ingle and Sutera note that despite the inclusion of an African American character in the television show, Angel, to diversify the cast, that character’s hypermasculinity and fluency in hip-pop conformed to established media representations of Black identity (p. 25). Most superheroes are White, wealthy, righteous, and have a muscular body that is considered conventionally attractive. On the other hand, the authors also point out that the concept of stereotyping is indeed rejected in some superhero movies and television shows. Hence, Black Panther was a message thatexposed the oppression of people of color worldwide, and its exploration of Afrofuturism, Black fugitivity, and global success with multiple Oscar nominations brought the topic of racialization into mainstream culture and discussion (p. 76). Moreover, Deadpool 2 challenged the concept of body image (Deadpool’s scarring caused by cancer and mutation) and the male gender bias in general Hollywood superhero media (p.116). As Lovell (1983) states, great stories and characters must reflect complexity and detail derived from a creator’s observation and interpretation of social reality and connect with social movements.
Much is made about colorblind ideology in American society, and the ways in which colorblindness remains as pervasive as ever in the modern era. On a fundamental level, colorblindness supported the covert ways of Hollywood and its collective attempt to espouse White supremacy and anti-blackness in the 1980s and 1990s (Gomer, p. 5). Most Americans were won over by colorblindness and voted as such in statewide initiatives such as the California Civil Rights Initiative which recentered the focal points of racial and social injustice on the backs of White Californians and essentially gave legal credence to the colloquial term “reverse discrimination” (p. 73).
Since reverse discrimination gained its lawful support in the political domain, it was time for Hollywood to capitalize on the concept in the socio-cultural domain by explicitly promoting antiblackness in cinema. In so doing, White male stand-alone characters such as Rocky Balboa in the 1982 movie, Rocky III, were positioned as the new minority group in America (p. 107). This refashioning of the White male American as the minority in need of help found ardent support from the Reagan Administration doing much in the way of establishing the main foe to be a specific type of Black man: hypermasculine, originating from urban neighborhoods, and a direct threat to the virtues of White women (p. 103).
Education Connection and Conclusion
Gomer’s White Balance (2020) and Ingle and Sutera’s The 100 Greatest Superhero Film and TV Shows (2021)could be used in the American public K-12 classroom to study elements of literature. Both texts partially rely on the reader’s foundational understanding of the tools used to analyze film. One way of supporting new learning is by pairing new learning with what students have already learned. In this case, a comparison between elements of literature and elements of cinema would allow for a deeper exploration of thematic content that might be otherwise solely relegated to one form of media rather than another.
Rudine Sims Bishop (1990) offers a way of studying what she deems “multicultural literacy” in her work, “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors.” Essentially, there are three main ways to digest and consume media – in Bishop’s scholarship, the media in question is literature assigned in the classroom. Most often, students are exposed to content in the form of windows so they might see and study worlds of fact or fiction. Sometimes, the windows offered are moveable and large enough for students to become members of the worlds they read about and are accordingly more like sliding glass doors than windows.
What is more, the glass from such windows might even function as mirrors, creating a reflection where students and their various lived experiences are authentically represented in the content of study (1990, p. 1). White Balance andThe 100 Greatest Superhero Film and TV Shows could be a perfect pairing for providing the space and opportunity for students to watch, appreciate, and critique cinema as engaged scholars of Bishop’s multicultural literacy. Students could be prompted to push back against watching movies for the sole purpose of mindless entertainment or escapism, and, instead, connect scholarly research to that of their own renderings of what makes cinema authentically and accurately multicultural and inclusive.
The media continues to play a major role in our political and cultural lives, and a critique of its impact and possibilities can allow us to become more aware of its agenda, attention, and the normalization process connected to it. These two books, Gomer’s White Balance in particular, embody a pedagogy that criticizes media control and clean-cut comprehension of complex social events, and promotes engagement for problematization, critical consciousness, and utopian hope (Freire & Soler-Gallart, 1970; Lorde & Gay, 2020). Lastly, it is also our hope for students to be able to transform texts, interact with our discourse, and shape personal, interpersonal, and social actions for change and transformation.
Christina Masuda is an Ed.D. student in the International & Multicultural Education program at the University of San Francisco. She is a current English teacher in the Fremont Union High School District of the South Bay Area. Research and scholarship focused on community-engaged activism as well as queer leadership and organization within secondary education are some of her main areas of interest.
Yih Ren is an Ed. D. student in International and Multicultural Education program with a concentration in language and culture at the University of San Francisco. He has published several works in language education and SLA. His primary research interests include identity and language acquisition and performing in the Asian diaspora community, social justice education, and second language teacher’s education.
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