All That Glitters is NOT Gold

         Some of the most interesting characters that we did not have time to discuss in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth were the members of the Chalfen family. What interested me most about the Chalfen clan was the way that Irie saw them, “She wanted to, well, kind of merge with them. She wanted their Englishness. Their Chalfenishness. The purity of it” (Smith 272-73). She saw them as picture of perfect Englishness and she strove to be more like the family and spend more time with them despite the fact that they were just as dysfunctional as the rest of the families that were portrayed in the novel. I couldn’t decide whether Irie’s fascination with the Chalfens was due to their supposed lack of being immigrants, although Smith does reveal they are immigrants from Germany and Poland (273), that they are middle class, or that their family seemed “normal” on the surface. The reader finds that all of the airs that the Chalfens put on are just an act, and that just because they are white and middle class does not mean they don’t have issues.

         The omnipotent narrator gives an advantage to the reader, because the reader can see into all of the issues that the Chalfens have, like Joyce needing the attention of her family, but also ignoring them, or the way that Marcus lusts after Irie. Irie cannot see these defects, or she chooses to look past them, and it makes the Chalfens appear perfect in her eyes. I think that Irie’s blindness to the Chalfen’s problems was done intentionally by Zadie Smith in order to show how blind society can be simply based off of skin color. The Chalfen family was a white middle-class family, and to Irie, and probably to most English citizens, the Chalfens were perfect because they looked the part of what Britishess should look like. It did not matter that they were also descended from immigrants, or that the family was dysfunctional in their own way. As long as they looked the part, they were British. At least more British than Irie, Milliat, or any of their other family members could hope to be perceived as. I think Archie is included in this because although he is white, he married Clara, very un-British.

          This trend of stereotyping people by the color of their skin is an unfortunate trend that continues to happen. I’ve heard countless stories of colored people being targeted in stores by security or management, simply because they are not white. In my own experience, I have walked out of a store with a cart full of items that I bought and was not stopped by the greeter, but the Hispanic person behind me was stopped and asked for a receipt. Maybe it is because I look sweet and innocent, or maybe it is because I am white. And for many, despite it being 2016, as a white person I embody what an American is. I think that Zadie Smith was criticizing this characterization of skin color and showing the dangers of assuming authenticity based on race.

Smith, Zadie. White Teeth. Vintage International Books, 2001

Subculture in America pt. 2

When taking the time to consider the film Absolute Beginners and its depiction of the Notting Hill riots as a kind of rock opera compared to the novel’s depiction of a darker, more somber toned version of events, we see the conflict of image vs. word. Consider MacInnes’ descriptions: “Quite decent, respectable people they seemed, too: white-collar workers and their wives, I expect, who’d probably been out to do their shopping. Well, they saw the lads get in the Spades’ car, and drive it against a concrete lamp-standard, and climb back in their handy little delivery vans, and drive away” (246). The crowds of white collar workers, quite civilized, escalating racial violence. “Then came another incident–and soon, as you’ll understand, I began to lose count a little, and, as time went on, lose count a bit of what time was, as well” (247). The narrator’s loss of time seems to be a loss of existential identity in the temporal landscape–but it is not silly. The crowd is searching for violence. For a subject to exact violence upon.

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“Well they weren’t disappointed long. Because out of the Metropolitan Railway station–the dear old London Transport, we all think so safe and reliable–came a bunch of passengers, and among them was a Spade” (247). The subject to be brutalized. “A boy of my own age, I’d say, carrying a holdall and a brown paper parcel–a serious-looking kiddy with a pair of glasses, and one of those rather sad, drab suits that some Spades wear, particularly students, in order to show the English people that we musn’t think they’re savages in grass skirts and bones stuck in their hair” (247). What is to be made of the image of this poor victim, so much in contrast to the vibrant silliness of the film’s West Side Story-ish portrayal of the Notting Hill riots?

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I remember an American movie from 1979–The Warriors–a film based on Sol Yurik’s dark novel about gang warfare. The film became a greatly exaggerated version of the book, a musical or fantasy, if you will, as the director felt no one would allow him to make a direct adapation. Hollywood lore posits violence and rioting broke out in response to the film despite its fantastic tone. Fear of glorifying gang violence on the bigscreen became a talking point in the media even though the Warriors depicted gangs of mimes on roller skates, rednecks in overalls, and a weirdo who wore beer bottles on his fingers. This fantastical version of gang warfare in New York sparked fear and debate about how violence should be depicted on screen.

Whether or not this ultimately affected the 1986 adapation of MacInnes’ Absolute Beginners is certainly worth debating, but the spectacle of seeing rioting, the imagery of gang warfare displayed as an actual dance number, allows us to wonder.

America’s subcultures in the late 70s and 80s were marked by fear and violence. Gangs prowling the urban America. To show the reality of this on the bigscreen would be to glorify it–or so people believed.

 

Works Cited

MacInnes, Colin. Absolute Beginners. Allison and Busby, 1980.

Parallels from This is England and the United States

Watching Shane Meadows’ This is England was shocking to me because of how relevant the content of this movie is today. The movie depicted Britain in 1983, but I saw so many parallels between that society and the society that we currently live in.

Combo was able to gain followers by playing off of the fear and anger that some of the characters, especially Shaun, felt. This technique is nothing new, but it is effective and it continues to be employed throughout society. In this last election Donald Trump played off of the fears and anger that white working class America was feeling, and it worked. Many people voted for him because they believed that he would bring change for that group of people without even understanding what his policies would be. Instead, many people focused on the rhetoric that Trump used and his promises to “make America great again.” This became Trump’s slogan, but at what cost? Does making America great mean splitting up families? Does it mean denying women their rights to choose? And does it mean that the white man will continue to sit at the top with no opposition? I want to be clear that I don’t think everyone who voted for Trump is racist or misogynistic, but when Trump was elected president all of the hateful rhetoric that he spewed throughout the election became legitimized. The same thing happens in the film, especially through Shaun’s eyes. Combo took them to a rally where hateful and racist rhetoric was used, and it became validation for their actions because other people felt the same way.

I think one of the hardest scenes to watch in this film, other than Combo beating Milk, is the scene that depicts the skinheads’ violence against children who they believe are from Pakistan. Grown men threatening children because they are a perceived threat is completely unacceptable. I also thought it was inappropriate that just because of their skin color and their clothes that these children were automatically “pakis.” I think that these children could have been from any culture but that it would not have mattered. All that Combo and his group saw was that they were not white. This scene disgusted me because Islamophobia is still something very real happening today. Just the other day I read a news article that talked about the rising rate of violence against Muslims in the United States. It hurts me to know that Muslims are being targeted simply because people fear or disagree with their religion.

The realistic nature of this movie was disturbing because it still resonates in society. I have always been told that we have come so far and that soon racism is going to be a thing of the past. I used to believe that, but now I am not so sure. As I said earlier, I don’t think that everyone who voted for Trump is racist, but I do think he validated that behavior. Seeing someone who acts in that manner and spews hateful rhetoric has opened the door for people who are racist to be more open about it. This is England has so many parallels with our society that sometimes I wonder how much progress we have actually made.

This is England. Directed by Shane Meadows. Warp Films Limited, 2006.

Samantha Hudspeth