Protesting Television Images

I’m not attributing causality here, but there was a pile of midterm exams and then I got sick with a horrible head cold. Coincidence or causation? Perhaps just a spurious correlation. Onward, then…despite the head cold.

The New York Times today is reporting about a protest against the demeaning images on BET that critics of the network’s practices organized outside the Washington and NYC homes of Viacom executives (Viacom owns BET). The protests are organized by community group Enough is Enough which is calling for companies to:

develop standards that include prohibitions on: racial and sexual slurs; the promotion of illegal activity like drug use; as well as content that “objectifies, degrades, or promotes violence against women” or shows black and Latino men as pimps or gangsters.

Launched by Baptist minister Rev. Delman L. Coates of Maryland, Enough is Enough is not without its critics. Some argue that the call for “standards” is little more than a call for censorship, and for not articulating an ‘end-game’ for what victory looks like in this struggle. Still, the Times piece does go on to mention another critic of the network, who is explicitly addressing the gendered racism of much of BET’s programming, Gina McCauley, a lawyer who used her site to help force a name change for the BET program “Hot Ghetto Mess” (to “We Got to Do Better”). Perhaps most remarkable in all this is not that the protests are happening, but that the New York Times deemed this struggle over race, gender and demeaning images “fit to print.”

I say that it is not so very remarkable that these protests are happening because Black folks have been protesting demeaning images in U.S. television since it began. For example, the NAACP protests against the Amos ‘n’ Andy show eventually contributed to the popular show’s cancellation (though, ultimately, not its disappearance from the popular culture landscape).

Last week, I mentioned the work of Sasha Torres, and her book, Black, White and In Color: Television and Black Civil Rights(Princeton UP, 2003), and promised to return to it, and, today seems like an excellent day on which to do so. Torres’ goal in this book is to add complexity and nuance to the traditional way of seeing racism and media, in particular U.S. television, and move beyond the “protesting demeaning images” sort of paradigm. One way she does this is by re-visiting some of the writing by African American scholars, such as bell hooks and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who have included fond memories of watching Amos ‘n’ Andy with their families while growing up (see pp.1-12). Torres is up to much more in this book, however, and what I found most compelling is her treatment of the Civil Rights movement and the complicated relationship between movement leaders and creators of television news, and the “simultaneous emergence of the civil rights movement and television” (quoting J. Fred MacDonald, p.15). Torres writes:

“This convergence resulted also from a quite specific, if also quite fortuitous, coalition of needs and resources. Telejournalism, obviously needed vivid pictures an clear-cut stories; less obviously it also sought political and cultural gravitas. For its part, the civil rights movement staked the moral authority of Christian nonviolence and the rhetoric of American democracy to make a new national culture; to succeed, it needed to have its picture taken and its stories told.” (p.15)

She goes on to make the point that “pictures are the point” of television news. And that the visibility of “race” and “race trouble” fed the new medium, and the “mere fact of television’s coverage served paradoxically to render racism visible in new ways, and to new audiences.” (p.17) Of course, this particular moment in our cultural history has passed and we are now living in a new, and quite different, historical moment.    Still I cannot help but wonder if there are possibilities in the current convergence of technologies and civil rights, — between the Internet, and video sharing sites like YouTube, on the one hand, and grassroots movements on the other hand, such as EnoughisEnough and WhatAboutOurDaughters, along with projects like Witness and CopWatch, to render racism visible in new ways and to new audiences.

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