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40 Acres and a Movie

jenna wortham

Hey, all you Still Processing listeners. We mentioned this a few weeks ago, but we wanted to remind you, this season, we are all reading a book together. And the book that we have selected is called “Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning” by the incredible poet memoirist, Cathy Park Hong.

wesley morris

Yes, it’s her explicating her feelings, and a little bit of neurosis about her identity as an Asian-American woman. I will just read what Cathy explains “Minor Feelings” to be: The racialized range of emotions that are negative, dysphoric, and therefore, untelegenic, built from the sediments of everyday racial experience and the irritant of having one’s perception of reality constantly questioned or dismissed. Minor feelings arise, for instance, upon hearing a slight, knowing it’s racial, and being told, oh, that’s all in your head.”

jenna wortham

Yes! One of the reasons we chose the book is because the name and the premise behind the book — “Minor Feelings” — gets at something we talk about all the time on this show: feeling gaslit, feeling erased. And in the wake of watching this horrifying rise of anti-Asian attacks across the country, Wesley and I are both deeply invested in trying to understand the way oppression works to keep us in competition with each other and from understanding our intricate histories in this country. We want to create a fuller picture of the world we live in. And this is one of the ways we’re doing something about that.

wesley morris

So April 29, we’re going to talk about “Minor Feelings,” the book and the experience.

jenna wortham

That means there’s still plenty of time to get a copy of this book from your favorite bookseller, to rent it at your local library or through an app like Libby. There’s also an audio book version that you can listen along to.

wesley morris

And if, while you’re reading, there’s any thought or observation that comes to mind and you want to share that with us, email it to [email protected] And maybe we’ll talk about that when we talk about this book.

jenna wortham

So get your copy and come along with us. We hope to see you there April 29.

[music]
wesley morris

I’m Wesley Morris.

jenna wortham

I’m Jenna Wortham.

wesley morris

We’re two culture writers at The New York Times.

jenna wortham

And this is Still Processing.

wesley morris

You made me aware of the fact that you might have a problem.

jenna wortham

[LAUGHS] Oh, we’re going here today? All right.

wesley morris

And it involves watching a lot of Marvel movies. You have become an M.C.U. person.

jenna wortham

[LAUGHS] I know it’s my not-so-secret shame. Anyone that follows me online knows that I am thirsting after thick Thanos.

wesley morris

Oh, boy.

jenna wortham

And I can’t stop. I won’t be stopped. I don’t want to stop.

wesley morris

So when did this start for you? Like, what exactly happened?

jenna wortham

I mean, many beloved people in my life, you included, my other best friend Kimberly, both of y’all have been telling me about the Marvel Cinematic Universe for years. It just felt like, to me, adult cartoons. And there was something to me that was grotesque about how much money these movies were making, like in the billions, right? It just felt like bloated, late capitalism entertainment, you know? And I just, it wasn’t for me. It wasn’t for me.

Fast forward x number of years. It’s season three of the pandemic. And this is also late February in New York. It’s freezing outside. There are no walks to be had. I am just fully inside my home for weeks at a time. So, I just need more entertainment. I need to be able to shut my brain off at the end of the night and do it in a way that’s healthy. In the midst of all this, a show called “WandaVision” comes out, starring two characters of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — Wanda played by Elizabeth Olsen and Vision played by Paul Bettany.

And what really drew me in were the memes, because at some point, the internet decided that Vision must have been Black and started portraying him as “Vishawn.” And he was wearing a chain in all these Photoshopped images. And it just was making me chuckle. But also seeing a lot of people I really respect chime in about the show and talk about it, and I think what really resonated with me were these comments of satisfaction and gratification. and feeling like the show had a level of substance that was deeply craved. So they were releasing them in real-time. And I got hit a few weeks in. So like any normal human would do, I binged them all in one night.

And when I ran out, I was like, all right, so what’s actually going on here? And I started — I have Disney Plus, thanks to you. Thank you for your login. And so I started going back through the catalog. And there’s a really handy tab within the Disney Plus app that says Marvel. And so I was just like, oh, I can just go backwards and find out how they got into this scenario. Like, what is going on with this show? Does that make sense?

wesley morris

I understand what you are saying. My mind is blown that this is happening to you!

jenna wortham

Well, you can thank Thanos for all of that.

archived recording (thanos)

I’m the only one who knows that. At least I’m the only one with the will to act on it.

jenna wortham

Listen, I know that he is an intergalactic warlord, but the more I read about his backstory, I mean, he also comes from a hard place. And I just find him to be unbelievably sexy. And everybody thinks it’s because of the Josh Brolin voice.

archived recording (thanos)

I like you.

jenna wortham

It’s not. It’s not. It’s the arms. It’s the thighs. It’s the girth. I live alone. I’m horny. I don’t know what else to do. Like, give me a little room. It’s OK. This is my life. It’s fine.

wesley morris

Oh, it’s fine. I’m not here to judge. I love Thanos, too. But Jenna, what else are you getting out of these movies?

jenna wortham

I mean, I think there was something inherently appealing about the moral imperative of these movies, right? This fight against evil. You’ve got Steve Rogers who continues to be this voice of reason about the dangers of fascism, the dangers of dictatorship, the dangers of governments having too much power, right? Because the government in these movies is constantly trying to apprehend and control and wrangle and have access to all this intergalactic wizardry, I guess, for lack of a better word.

wesley morris

Steve Rogers being Captain America, of course.

jenna wortham

Yes, Steve Rogers, Captain America. And like I said, I do think that it was really reassuring. I mean, there’s these moments in “Endgame,” I mean, I’m embarrassed to say, but I was getting kind of choked up. You know, in the scene in “Endgame” when everybody’s assembling and everybody’s there. Everybody’s putting down their differences. And they’re like, we have to defeat Thanos because humanity. And it’s not even just humanity, it’s like the —

wesley morris

The galaxy.

jenna wortham

Yes, the galaxy.

archived recording (black panther)

Yibambe.

archived recording (crowd)

Yibambe.

archived recording (black panther)

Yibambe.

archived recording (crowd)

Yibambe.

jenna wortham

There was something about watching that scene in late February and feeling a lot of despair and a lot of desolation. I mean, there’s still horrible things happening in this country. And then turning on this movie and watching hundreds, dozens, millions of species, intergalactic beings come together, uniting against one shared cause, I mean, it made your girl emotional. And it’s cheesy and it’s corny, but it really meant something to me.

But then, that moment passed. The sun came out in New York. We also had daylight savings time, which I also like to call “depression switch time,” OK?

wesley morris

Wow.

jenna wortham

My mood improved. I felt a little more invigorated. And I started watching these movies with a much more careful eye. And I was like, hold on a second. You mean to tell me they’ve been making these movies for over a decade, OK? 12 years, and you have still not managed to decenter the whiteness of this universe? The series is called Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is not called Marvel Cinematic White People. It is literally called the universe.

And so in this epic portrayal of the universe, you mean to tell me all the main characters are white? So, I had to open my eyes a little bit wider, you know? I was really letting myself tune out. I was gorging on these movies. And I was allowing myself to overlook the problems within them. And it just teleported me back to my childhood, which was full of all the iconic Disney cartoons. And I was just struck by this really disturbing thought that the entertainment obsessions of my adulthood were going to resemble my childhood —

wesley morris

Oh.

jenna wortham

— in that everything was mildly problematic. And I was just willing to overlook it for the sake of being entertained.

wesley morris

I mean, you have zeroed in on some of the Disney problem, right, which is basically that that company owns a huge piece of every living person’s childhood. And it’s not just Disney — the Disney that we all know in this sort of generic Mickey Mouse sort of way. It’s all of the live action Disney movies, obviously, and Pixar. They own ESPN, ABC.

jenna wortham

What?

wesley morris

And they also own Lucasfilm, which means they own “Star Wars.”

jenna wortham

[LAUGHS] Wow.

wesley morris

They have a whole galaxy.

jenna wortham

It’s bonkers, everything.

wesley morris

Oh, I’m not done. Wait one second. Disney now has Marvel. It also bought Fox.

jenna wortham

What? When did that happen?

wesley morris

It bought 20th Century Fox a couple of years ago. And they need new childhoods, basically. My mom is no longer a child. But when she was a child, my mother loved Mickey and Minnie. And this company and its movies made such a huge impression on her, mostly I think not through the movies, but through the Mickey Mouse Club.

jenna wortham

Uh-huh, I remember this.

wesley morris

And my mother had a terrible childhood. And this was the thing that made it pleasurable to her.

jenna wortham

And that theme song is so addictive.

wesley morris

My mother used to sing me that song.

archived recording

(SINGING) M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E.

wesley morris

(SINGING) Mickey Mouse! Da da da.

archived recording

Mickey Mouse! Da da da.

wesley morris

The hooks were deep. My mom, they made such an impression on her, Jenna, that at our house, there was a guest room. And the guest room was decorated with all kinds of Disney paraphernalia. And most of it was Mickey Mouse.

jenna wortham

Huh. Wow.

wesley morris

And I don’t mean there was a stuffed animal in there. I mean, the wallpaper was Mickey and Minnie. All of these stuffed animals were just on shelves and shelves and shelves and shelves. The lighting of that room, it was a Mickey Mouse lamp.

jenna wortham

Wow.

wesley morris

But yeah, we called that room the Mickey room.

jenna wortham

I am so fascinated every time I hear you talk about your mom’s obsession with Mickey Mouse. And I share a similar story in my family. My father was so obsessed with Mickey Mouse. And Mickey Mouse made my dad really happy. But you know what I remember most vividly is that every Christmas, we would get a piece of Mickey Mouse paraphernalia. And when I was younger, sometimes it was jewelry. It was just stuff from Walmart. It wasn’t super nice. But for my dad, who had money troubles our entire childhood, it was extremely generous. I mean, it was the nicest thing he would give us. And so, when you would get to the smaller box in the pile, right, you knew that was going to be the Mickey Mouse gift. And so, no matter how I felt about it, I was going to perform gratitude, right? Because that would be the thing that my dad worked the hardest to get.

wesley morris

But I also think that they built an empire, basically, off of these memories, this company — off this good feeling.

jenna wortham

I know. And I know a lot of these soundtracks by heart. And I did spend a ton of time in my youth and adolescence watching Disney movies. I mean, in the very beginning of the epidemic, I had this moment when my girlfriend and I thought it’d be cute to watch “The Little Mermaid.” And it felt really harmless. It felt like a good rabbit hole to go down. And I remembered I was kind of scaring myself with how much I remember of the dialogue and I remember all the songs. But then rewatching it with adult eyes, you start to see all these new details. I mean, Sebastian — I mean, that song “Under the Sea” slaps, but he is Jamaican inexplicably. He’s just Jamaican.

archived recording

Why, if Ariel was my daughter, I’d show her who was boss.

jenna wortham

And he’s cantankerous. He’s kind of lazy. He doesn’t want to do his job. And then when Ariel actually gets to the place where Prince Eric lives, it’s an island. My guess is in the middle of the Caribbean. Eric’s American. Everyone that works in the island is British. So clearly, there’s some kind of colony situation going on. Then you fast forward to the middle of the movie. There’s this wedding. I had to slow it down because I noticed this row of all these white guests, and then behind them, a row of Black servants.

wesley morris

Uhhh.

jenna wortham

And I’m like, hell, no, this movie is racist. And it’s not the kind of racist where they’re like, Sebastian, you’re an n-word. No, it’s like, we’re just going to set within this colonialistic framework that is just inherently racist to take as normalcy. All these movies have these hideous elements to them. I mean, I was thinking a lot about when I was a little kid, and I was babysitting for my cousins. And they loved “Lady and the Tramp.” And guess what song they loved the most? [GONG] The song featuring the Siamese cats.

archived recording

(SINGING) We are Siamese if you please.

jenna wortham

Which uses all these Orientalist tropes that just kind of further dehumanize people of color and make them seem less human. I mean, they’re literally less human, but it’s not enough for them to be animals. They have to make them racist animal stereotypes to kind of further denigrate and allow Asian people to be the butt of the joke in that movie, which is one of the reasons we are where we are today. But I just, it’s really unsettling to think about how woven into the feel-good infrastructure all of these tropes and stereotypes have been over the years.

wesley morris

Oh, yeah, I mean you can start with “The Little Mermaid.” But then you go all the way back to the early Mickey Mouse movies. I’m thinking specifically of “Steamboat Willie” and “Trader Mickey.” First of all, what was Mickey trading?

jenna wortham

Right.

wesley morris

That’s my first question.

jenna wortham

Oh my God.

wesley morris

The way Trader Mickey works is Mickey and his dog show up on this island, and it is populated by Black savages, who just look like the worst minstrel poster caricatures. This is the basis upon which this giant company built its empire.

jenna wortham

I’m so depressed. That’s horrible.

wesley morris

Things like this recur throughout the animated movies, right?

jenna wortham

Yes.

wesley morris

So Disney is acknowledging this. One of the ways they’ve acknowledged it is to never be able to see “Song of the South” — Disney’s most racist movie. And it never got a home video release. And you can’t find it on Disney Plus. But the movies you can find on Disney Plus that do have some problems, like “Dumbo” and “Lady and the Tramp” and “The Aristocats” — “The Aristocats,” Jenna!

jenna wortham

Mm-hmm. I mean, it’s everywhere, honestly.

wesley morris

Those movies now come with the warning label that includes such lines as, “This program includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures. These stereotypes were wrong then, and they’re wrong now. Rather than remove this content, we want to acknowledge its harmful impact, learn from it and spark conversation to create a more inclusive future together.” So, obviously, Disney knows it’s got all these movies in its past. What can it do to atone in the present for mistakes that people who currently work there weren’t necessarily responsible for in the first place?

jenna wortham

Yeah, and also, I mean, it’s worth noting that for all the movies that Disney put this label on, right, and outright removed, “The Little Mermaid” is not part of it. And again, it’s like we make these decisions based on blatant racism and not so blatant racism. But it’s worth interrogating how all of these movies reinforce the ideas that are so harmful in the formation of this country. And that’s the part that I think really sits with me, which is, they’ve decided, yes, absolutely, this is super inappropriate in the following eight movies. But the rest of the movies, they seem fine. And no one has a problem with it.

wesley morris

But I guess, I mean, what I’m asking, though, is, if the company is doing the following things — let’s go through some of the things that Disney has done in the last decade or so. They’ve done this “Lion King” that’s not a live action “Lion King” — but it’s not a cartoon either — that’s got the voices of people like Donald Glover and Beyoncé playing the main characters. The company is essentially telling the stories of non-white people in places that aren’t Europe or specific parts of the United States. We’re going to Mexico for “Coco.” We’re going to Polynesia for “Moana.” “Mulan,” animated movie from the ‘90s, gets a live action remake that came out in 2020. Not a very good or interesting movie —

jenna wortham

I know.

wesley morris

— but a corrective nonetheless. And you’ve got a movie like “Soul,” which is a Pixar film that is built around a Black male character. Setting aside some of its problems, it is an attempt to correct for this history. And so the question for us is, what is this doing? And what does it mean to have this reparative old intellectual property be restored to its most woke state, woke self?

jenna wortham

Oh, here you go. I mean, Disney is so important and, as we’ve outlined, has such a hold and such a monopoly on our minds and our childhoods. And it is really important to think about them updating property so that we can replace our childhood memories with less problematic ones. I mean —

wesley morris

Hm, I didn’t even think about it that way. Wow.

jenna wortham

I remember when the live action “Mulan” was announced how unbelievably excited a certain quadrant of my Instagram community was. And it was a lot of young Chinese-Americans, a lot of queer folks because “Mulan” is a very genderqueer story. People felt like, OK this is finally going to get at something that I’ve been longing to see and something that was important to me from my childhood, but had had problematic elements. And so, let’s see what they do with it. The energy was in the right place, but the execution was off.

“Moana” and “Coco,” though — I mean, “Coco” I saw in the theater. “Coco” made me cry. I could see the care and the beauty and the love and the emotion and all the energy that went into that movie. And it was, I thought, a perfect example of what a giant multinational corporation like Disney can do and should do at the bare minimum as reparative work. It’s a very, very tricky balance to strike. And I would not be able to do it if I were running that company, so I acknowledge that. But I guess I just want to point out that it’s the kind of thing that takes a lot more time than I think a company like Disney allows for in terms of the life cycle of these productions. I think they probably all need five more years to incubate, honestly.

wesley morris

But I mean, I guess that is energy that I just don’t feel is well spent, right? And I just don’t know if that’s really the right solution. I think the better way to go is to just keep rolling the dice. I mean, not all these things are going to work. Like, I mean, for instance, take a movie like “Soul,” which is coming from such a right-minded place, I would say. But did nobody at any point think it might be a problem to have the white voice of this one character wind up in the Black body of another character —

jenna wortham

Exactly.

wesley morris

— and have the Black body’s voice wind up in the body of a cat?

jenna wortham

And also not think about how it might feel to make a movie that is directly aimed at Black audiences involve a scene in which a Black character is confronted by essentially a white police officer and dies. No one thought about that. Now you’re going to tell me if they had not taken two more years to work on that movie and just had a couple more test screenings and just run it by a panel of people, they wouldn’t have gotten that feedback?

wesley morris

I mean, I hear you. I just think the problem with that is, A, it cost a lot of money. I also think that I don’t know if I want my art workshopped in that particular way.

jenna wortham

This is not just art. This is mainstream popular culture that is spoon fed to impressionable minds of all ages. There is a tremendous amount of responsibility. And if it weren’t, Disney Plus wouldn’t put those warnings on their cartoons. They know they did something wrong.

wesley morris

Well, I mean, I think this is one of the things that is exciting to so many people, perhaps even including yourself, about what Marvel is trying to do, right? In terms of expanding the center of the universe and including more non-white people. And then just to say it again, Disney owns Marvel.

jenna wortham

Yeah. The call is coming from inside the house.

wesley morris

I would love to know how you feel about that. So let’s take a break and when we come back, you are going to break it down for me.

jenna wortham

Well, I better get a big glass of water because this is going to be some heavy lifting.

[music]

Listen, all these Marvel movies are extremely white. And I was willing to set that aside just for the pure pleasure principle of watching these films. I just find them to be so enjoyable. But the more I pay attention to these movies, I started to notice something really suss in how they were treating their non-white characters. Can I give you an example?

wesley morris

Oh, by all means, yes, please.

jenna wortham

Wesley, you’ve seen the “Avengers: Infinity War,” right?

wesley morris

Yes, I have.

jenna wortham

OK, do you remember the part where they take the Avenger named Vision to Wakanda?

wesley morris

No, I don’t.

jenna wortham

OK, that’s fine. It’s great. It’s an opportunity for me to talk about the love of my loins, Thanos. Great. So Thanos is trying to get these gems called the Infinity Stones that are scattered throughout the universe. But one of the Infinity Stones is embedded in the head of an Avenger named Vision.

wesley morris

Yeah, I remember this, yes.

jenna wortham

On Wakanda lives one of the most brilliant scientists in the universe. And it’s the Black Panther’s little sister named Shuri, who I love so much. But the point I’m trying to make is, these Avengers just crash-land on Wakanda. They’re just like, to Wakanda! They crash-land. They roll up in this lab. And one of the brilliant things about Shuri as a character is, she’s just an incredible inventor. She’s an incredible mind. She’s a frickin’ baby genius. And she’s one of the bright spots.

In the “Black Panther” movie, she really is held up as extraordinary, right, in this all-Black environment. And then when the Avengers arrive in Wakanda, they essentially treat her like a lab technician. They’re like, hurry it up. Can you fix them in time? But I’m just trying to point out that it doesn’t feel good to watch. It was really unsettling. That’s one example. But actually, there are several. I’ll give you one more.

wesley morris

Please.

jenna wortham

Which is the most recent one for me and, in some ways, maybe the most painful one because it’s in a show I love so much, which is “WandaVision,” as you know. And there is this government agent named Monica Rambeau, who is a Black woman, who shows up determined to save Wanda and keep her from self-destruction. And as the show progresses, you realize that Monica is also suffering from her own trauma that we never really get to explore, we never hear about. All you see is this Black woman, who, at one point, her eyes turn blue. Somebody please, Toni Morrison is rolling over in her GD grave. She’s only obsessed with saving this white woman at her own peril. I mean, she puts herself in harm’s way several times to save this woman and her children.

I don’t want identity politics in my ice cream. You know what I mean? Like, I’m not sitting here watching these shows looking for the needle in the haystack. I really just wanted to tune out and enjoy. But it’s impossible to ignore. And it points to this larger problem that movies at this scale in popular culture and entertainment have in general when they treat representation like a statistical anomaly. It’s actually dozens of movies over two decades. And as long as we have some semblance of non-white people and non-cishet men on screen, we’re doing our job.

This is how covert racism works. It convinces you that we’re always secondary. Because look at the movies. Look in the movies.

wesley morris

It must be frustrating for a person like you to love this thing, let’s just stay with “WandaVision,” to know that there is this woman there who’s played by Teyonah Parris. She’s the person who plays Monica Rambeau. And by the end of this, we’re told that — we’re led to believe, anyway, that she is probably going to have her own standalone storyline that doesn’t involve these other characters that we’re more familiar with through the Avengers series. That’s an exciting thing, but you’re still waiting because it hasn’t happened yet. You’re still waiting.

jenna wortham

I mean, this is what my therapist calls living in the fantasy of potential versus sitting in the hard truth of reality, you know? And I think it’s so hard to be told to wait your turn. Because what happens is, the moment there is a hint of reflection of your lived reality, the first thing I feel as like a pop culture consumer is gratitude. Like, I just feel so validated. It takes a while for that adrenaline to fade and then for my critical lens to come back on and assess whether or not this is something that’s actually meaningful. And I do think one of the side effects of being denied for so long is that you just lower your expectations.

wesley morris

It just reminds me of why I much prefer in the Marvel universe the X-Men side of things than the Avengers side of things. Because I’m not going to say it would never happen in an X-Men movie, but the X-Men are about — they understand the way race works as a metaphor and kind of as an experience. I just found that story much more resonant.

jenna wortham

I mean, the X-Men are fascinating insofar as their themes of, what does it mean to assimilate into normalcy, and what does it mean to rebel against it, right? It’s this incredibly queer narrative about heteronormativity. It’s like, do we try to pass off as normies? Do we try to convince the public we’re safe? Or do we embrace what makes us unique? I mean, this idea, too, of so much of what happens in Marvel is about the militarization of people with special abilities. And X-Men’s about the abilities, right? It’s about what does the world look like with people who are gifted?

wesley morris

Yeah. And by the way, I should say and bring in the X-Men, guess who owns the X-Men now as a movie entertainment?

jenna wortham

Oh God, who?

wesley morris

Disney!

jenna wortham

Oh my God! The katamari ball continues —

wesley morris

Disney bought Fox.

jenna wortham

— to suck up everything in its path. That’s right. Oh my God. But I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this problem you’re describing, about source material, and what do you do with a franchise that is inherently flawed in its inception? And I think I realized in my research something really interesting that Steve Rogers, who is Captain America, was a character created in the 1940s a couple of years into World War II by these Jewish-American collective writers — including Jack Kirby, Stan Lee — who wanted to advocate for resistance against the Nazis, right? Like, it’s actually pretty amazing as an origin story unto itself.

wesley morris

It’s a war effort, yes.

jenna wortham

It’s a war effort, and it’s a humanity effort, right? But what I also uncovered in my research — and we’ll link to this really incredible grad student paper that I read from my research in the show notes, because these kids really out here were doing the research, doing their homework — in order to get white Americans on their side for the Jewish cause, they would use racist Black and Asian stereotypes in the comics. And I don’t know — I mean, it’s very difficult to undo, but it does explain why the source material is so hard to work with.

wesley morris

But it’s not just Disney and Marvel, it’s Disney and all of its subsidiary properties, right? It’s Marvel, it’s Fox, and whenever Disney decides to go into the stuff that they got through Fox like the X-Men, like Deadpool, and Lucasfilm — all of these companies are in some state of re-examining what their priorities are going to be with respect to who is in what. And there is going to arise some kind of tension between its business interests and what its fan bases are going to allow with respect to reinvention. You have “Star Wars” as a case in point. There was all of that upset when “Star Wars” rebuilt this latest addition under the giant “Star Wars” empire. And they built it around people like Oscar Isaac and John Boyega and Daisy Ridley and Kelly Marie Tran.

There was umbrage taken that people were having their toys messed with. And their toys used to be white. And now they’re a little bit less white than they previously were. But that’s what we’ve been talking about this whole time. Disney has a longstanding determination to get people to fall in love with what it makes and to keep them in love with it. And they’ll make these stories and characters that fans will cling to, and not just a couple fans, obviously, but generations of fans — generations.

So, at the one end of the spectrum are my seven-year-old niece who loves those Spark shorts on the Disney app and my nephew who’s like a little mouse so that whenever — he’s 12 — and whenever I go into the Disney app, there are half-eaten television shows that I know I didn’t unwrap and watch for myself. They’re at one end of the spectrum. And then at the other end is my mom, their grandmother, and your father. Do you identify with him a little bit more, given that you as a grown woman are experiencing a little tiny version of what he experienced as a teenager?

jenna wortham

Of course. I mean, that’s a big part of it. And that’s where the emotions come from. I mean, I think it really was “Star Wars” for me. I really did watch all of those movies, including the trilogy, which shall not be named — which shall not be named! — in the theaters with him. And we spent so much time — as a kid, I didn’t really care about “Star Wars.” I cared about quality time with my dad. And I’m not a parent yet, but there is a part of me that, at least for now, right? Like, in my queer family, this is a way to bond. And this is a way to connect. And this is a shared interest that we can have that isn’t rallying around violent legislation or meeting up at the protests.

This is something else we get to do together, where we get to rest, reprieve, and have this body of knowledge that brings us comfort. But I think that’s why I feel so — the ferocity I feel comes from a place of wanting it to be better so that I can enjoy it and not have to turn my brain off to do so.

wesley morris

I mean, in some ways, it’s kind of too important to get wrong. But at the same — I’m of two minds about this, though, right? I mean, part of my problem is an entertainment issue, which is that I would rather see some of these actors be doing other things than be trapped in these worlds of superheroes and outer space.

jenna wortham

And directors, too Chloé Zhao is directing a Marvel movie, “The Eternals,” which will be coming the day after my birthday this year. So, Scorpio season 2021.

wesley morris

Oh, boy. Yes, Chloé Zhao, nominated for Best Director. She’s probably going to win. “Nomadland” is the opposite of a Marvel movie. It’s just one woman making her way around the country in her RV. I mean, my thing about people like Chloé Zhao and other directors who find themselves brought up by the Disney Marvel tractor beam is that I do not begrudge Chloé Zhao the opportunity to make anything. I just don’t want her to be trapped in Marvel superheroland. I want to see what other movies she can make.

jenna wortham

No, I hear you, and I feel the same way. I mean, I am actually really excited to see what Chloé Zhao does with “The Eternals,” which is a film that takes place after the “Avengers: Endgame” about another alien race of people trying to save Earth. And it has a really incredible all-star cast, including Kumail Nanjiani, Brian Tyree Henry, who we love, Gemma Chan, and Laura Ridloff. And I keep thinking about Laura Ridloff’s character especially, because she’s a Black-American actress who’s deaf. She was in “The Sound of Metal.” She’s playing a Black deaf character in this Marvel movie. It’ll be the first time that’s ever happened. I mean, also, the deaf community, there’s so many movies about deaf people that don’t actually involve any deaf people. And so, it is a major milestone of sorts. And it’s not insignificant, right?

wesley morris

No, no, it’s not.

jenna wortham

This is why it matters. I mean, this is modern entertainment. They are investing dollars at a scale that is meant to infiltrate every mind, every imagination. So when they normalize marginalization, when they normalize the invisibilization of Black people, Latino people, Muslim people, trans people — we haven’t even gotten into gender. I mean, when they normalize that as being the anomaly, it does shape our expectations of society and culture. And what is on our screens matters so much.

It matters so much because it sounds silly to say, but not treating Asian people as human is directly connected to dehumanizing violence against Asian people, right? We see that in our own history. And it reminds me of this art project that I got really obsessed with a few years ago called “There are Black People in the Future.” It’s just that simple phrase, “There are Black People in the Future.” It was created by this artist named Alisha Wormsley. And this project started out as a Black nerd sci-fi joke. And it was a response to the absence of non-white faces in science fiction films and TV. It appeared on billboards. It actually was just reprised in Times Square in New York. So it’s been around for a handful of years.

wesley morris

It’s also in your excellent book, “Black Futures.”

jenna wortham

Oh God.

wesley morris

Which you and your partner in artistic excellence, Kimberly Drew, put out last year. I’m just saying it because it embodies a certain principle of what the book is arguing for, about Black people in the present and beyond it.

jenna wortham

OK, thanks, dad. You’re in it, too. OK. One of the things Alisha cited as inspiration was the musician Gabriel Teodros, who said, if we don’t write ourselves into the future, we get written out of tomorrow as well, right? So just think about that. If the popular imagination cannot imagine us millennia into the future, how the hell are they going to imagine sustainable futures for us in the right here and now and tomorrow? Do you know what I mean?

wesley morris

I know what you mean.

jenna wortham

The power of a radical imagination for social movements really involves being able to look at things as they are and figure out how to make them better. Imagine new dreams for the world we live in now, the way we want our lives to look and feel, the harmonies we want to exist, the institutions we want to thrive.

And I really think that’s what Alisha’s project is getting at. It’s, we have to be able to imagine ourselves whole, happy and healthy in the future for that to be possible today. And it really embodies my frustrations with Marvel on these movies. And it’s why I have such high hope. I would say I’m cautiously optimistic for the next phase of Marvel movies that are coming out over the next couple of years, “The Eternals” among them. And not to be too overdramatic about it, but I’m just starting to realize, it actually has a huge impact on how we see ourselves.

[music]
wesley morris

That’s our show.

jenna wortham

And please, we would love to hear from you if you have thoughts or questions about the book we’re reading this month, “Minor Feelings” by Cathy Park Hong. Please send us an email at [email protected]

[music]
wesley morris

Still Processing is produced at The New York Times by Elyssa Dudley.

jenna wortham

Our editors are Sara Sarasohn and Sasha Weiss.

wesley morris

Corey Schreppel mixes the show.

jenna wortham

Digital production by Mahima Chablani, Des Ibekwe and Julia Simon.

wesley morris

Nora Keller does audience development.

jenna wortham

And a very special thank you to Sydney Harper, Lisa Tobin and Wendy Dorr.

wesley morris

Our theme music is by Kindness. It’s called “World Restart” from the album Otherness.

jenna wortham

And as always, if you want more information about the things we talked about in this episode from early Mickey Mouse stories to thick Thanos —

wesley morris

Oh, lord.

jenna wortham

— all those links are at nytimes.com/stillprocessing.

wesley morris

Thanks, everybody. Happy Marveling.

jenna wortham

Bye-bye.

[music]
wesley morris

Still Processing is pro — [LAUGHTER]

jenna wortham

Still Processing is processed at a plant where peanut products and wheat products are made.

wesley morris

That’s exactly what I — right, right.

jenna wortham

There are traces — there may be traces of nuts in your cereal.

wesley morris

Still Processing — [LAUGHS] that was funny. Let’s just start all over.


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