The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Warning: Slant-Eye Alert

Yes, that means exactly the same thing as "Sambo Alert" only concerning Asians. I openly apologize for anyone who is offended. It was intended to represent an offensive stereotype.
Warning: I'm about to rant. You may want to skip today's column if you're tired of this subject.
Still here? O.K....

The Sociopsychological Reasons "Mummy 3" will Suck, Big Time

Reading the universally poor reviews for "Mummy 3" (Ah...I'll see it anyway--Can't resist Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh) I am irresistibly pulled back to what Nicki calls my "file drawer" conversation: cinematic images and sexuality and unconscious racism.

First, a bit of context. I looked up the ten most popular films of all time, using two different lists: Entertainment Weekly and the American Film Institute. Here's Entertainment Weekly's list:

1) The Godfather

2)Citizen Kane


4) Chinatown

5)Raging Bull

6)La Dolce Vita

7)The Godfather II

8)Gone With the Wind

9)Some Like It Hot

10)Singin' In the Rain

Now, the AFI top ten:

1)Citizen Kane

2) Casablanca

3) The Godfather

4) Gone With The Wind

5) Lawrence of Arabia

6)The Wizard of Oz

7)The Graduate

8) On The Waterfront

9)Schindler's List

10) Singin' In the Rain

Note that most of these films are driven by love and passion. The urge to build and protect family. Sexuality as goal, coin, regret, undoing. "Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl" is the most common, central theme in all of Western literature (with the possible exception of "the child grows up or the old man/woman faces death" but even there, the closest thing we have to rituals of adulthood are sexual awakening and the attendant responsibilities of family life). Not much in "Lawrence of Arabia" to my memory (I won't count "your skin is...very fair") the Wizard of Oz (a child, after all), but in every other case romance, building family, and sex are central themes. Heck, Kane's entire life is initially destroyed because of passion for an untalented singer. So there we are.


I think I've figured out part of this. Sexuality, at least in our culture, is a twining of two threads: beauty and ugliness, supreme good and ultimate evil. Hell, the story of Adam and Eve and the garden of Eden takes on a very interesting twist if the tree in the Garden is viewed as an understanding of sex. As long as Adam and Eve relate as brother and sister, it's cool. But a bite of the "apple" and suddenly they understand the "shame" of nakedness, Eve will bring forth children through pain and blood, and Adam will have to work hard to support his family. Wow.

Remember I asked if there was anyone who

1)Was in a satisfying, passionate romantic/sexual relationship

2) Had no sense that sex is dirty

3) Finds their own body attractive

Who doesn't like sex in films? While I'm SURE that there must be some, I have a very very strong suspicion that the vast majority of people who are repelled by sex in film would, disproportionate to the general population, NOT have all three of these characteristics. In other words, a general disgust with sex or a sense of jealousy ("I can't compete with Brad Pitt, or Halle Berry, and don't want potential sexual partners comparing me to them..") is at some unconscious level, going on here. Please educate me: if you have all three characteristics, and find cinematic sex repulsive, please let me know so I can factor your opinion in.


So we have the incredibly powerful drive to mate paired with a powerful aversion to sex found in our culture. Leading to people sneaking around destroying lives, careers, and families to satisfy the need. In film, it's "dirty" but satisfies a deep, deep drive. But something happens when the "Other" comes into the picture. My theory is that if Brad Pitt is bare-assed, and you are white, on an unconscious level that's YOU up there (if you're a guy). So whatever repulsion you have on the one hand is balanced by the identification and need.

(BTW---ladies, while I DO believe women have a bit less of this racial identification stuff than guys, you still have it. I suspect it manifests in the disproportionate number of fat black women set to directors by female casting agents. It's their way of undermining the "competition")

So...if the star is white, sex and love are central to the story--a core human need for intimacy and connectedness and the continuation of the "breed" takes center stage: virtually all memorable fiction revolves around it. Trust me: if an adult Dorothy returned to Oz, the sequel would be all about her finding love.

If the lead is non-white, suddenly this core human need vanishes, and in a strange unconscious variant of "releasing sterile medflies into the environment" suddenly there is dramatic slight of hand, and something other than this core human need is central. Suddenly, only the "ick" factor remains, and both audiences and Hollywood executives get the "Ah...there's too much sex in films nowadays. Let's try something else!" attitude. It is predictable as hell. I've watched it for upwards of thirty years, and it is as predictable as Liberal guilt.

Which brings me to "Mummy 3." What drove the first two movies? Survival, and the mummy-priest's love for the Pharaoh's mistress, and Brandon Frazier's love for Rachel Weisz. Period. That's first and second chakra stuff, marching right up the line.

And according to all accounts, what drives Jet Li's Mummy Emperor? The lust for power. Skipping right over the second chakra. Sorry: doesn't work. That's a sterile med fly. A sucker's bet. Take that deal "all the power in the world--but no children to pass it to" and you are dead in a single generation. It's equivilent to the Morgan Freeman factor: he's played God more often than he's had kisses onscreen. We'll give you th world, but take your tomorrows.


Of COURSE I could consider this all just coincidence. But when you look through the lens of "if the characters aren't white (European) or Exotic white (Arab, pale Latino etc.) then they will be de-sexualized" then a gigantic amount of this stuff makes sense. Patterns emerge which reveal unconscious social problems rooted in biosociological drives. I only talk about this because, as far as I can see, no one else does.

So if Jet Li appears in a re-working of "Romeo and Juliet" ("Romeo Must Die") suddenly, mysteriously, the entire romantic story line disappears. And no one notices.

Remember: The major reason I consider sex scenes the important measurement here is that they are visual and quantifiable. The truth is that the total ROMANTIC content of non-white mainstream (read: intended for white audiences) films is far lower. But I got tired of arguing about whether a mysterious glance should be considered equivalent to a frenzied make-out session, so I came up with the "movies over 100 million" standard for sexual content. Inarguable. All people can say is: "well, why does there have to be so much sex in movies, anyway..?" Which is the absolutely standard response, and is entirely changing the subject.

Without love to hold the film together at least marginally, all you have is a series of chases, stunts, and CGI set-pieces. It doesn't work. You can't knit body parts together and make a baby. You need a beating heart.

Mummy 3 was in trouble the moment they cast an Asian, because there was no way that he would be accorded his humanity. And therefore, nothing that happened around him would matter, really. So the script would have no life, no momentum, and no real heartbeat. And everyone in the audience would know it on an instinctive level...without understanding what went so damned wrong.

Take another look at the lists of top movies. Classic movies. Top box office movies. These are NOT lists of what Hollywood makes. They are lists of what Audiences crave. Blaming Hollywood is entirely missing the point.


Anonymous said...

Sorry, but I do blame Hollywood.

You're bright enough to see that they're sabotaging themselves. That leads to two possibilies:

1. Steve Barnes is an ultra-genius.
(OK, I like that idea, but sadly, not too probable -- it's like the idea "Erich Schwarz is an ultra-genius," too good to be true.)

2. Steve Barnes is smart, but no smarter than the smart people in Hollywood.

In the latter case, I have no respect for Hollywood at all. How many times in a row do I have to see the Sambo or Slant-Eye Factor pointed out before I decide that Hollywood is basically run by racist cowards?

And if you argue "they have to follow the market," explain to me why Hollywood keeps spitting away its money on market-bombs like In the Garden of Elah that are complete flops at the box office but are reliably left-wing on Iraq? Apparently, Hollywood can make movies that go against the market when it really wants to...

Five Iraq-war market failures in a row as long as they're anti-Bush and anti-American: no problem! Risk actually letting Jet Li or Wesley Snipes have a love scene? Ooooooh, we've got the fear!

Yes, I do blame Hollywood. It's harsh, I know. Cry me a river.

--Erich Schwarz

Steven Barnes said...


I'm not saying they aren't racist. I'm saying they are no more racist than the average American of their income and education level. They succeed to the level that their intuition ("taste") predicts audience tastes. I've met these people, and also Americans across the country. They are no more racist, at all. And if this is a disturbing notion, so be it.

Steven Barnes said...

And Erich--
I'm not talking about America, or white folks. I see this "10% disconnect" as present in 80%+ of human beings, and something that can only be combated by consciousness, education, and a feeling of love so deep that it spills out of us into everyone around us, allowing us to fully FEEL the humanity of all other beings.

CryptoFrenetic said...

"So if Jet Li appears in a re-working of "Romeo and Juliet" ("Romeo Must Die") suddenly, mysteriously, the entire romantic story line disappears. And no one notices."

I noticed. Nothing made sense to me in that movie because they were acting like there was a relationship without there actually being a relationship. They were reacting to non-existent motivations.

Michelle said...

Have you seen Beerfest...or any other Broken Lizard comedies (Super Troopers)?

I thought about you while watching it again the other night. I wouldn't watch if you're easily offended (despite the "file drawer" issue, I don't see you as easily offended.)

Jay Chandrasekhar, an Indian-American usually has a white wife, love affair, etc. The beer goggle sequence with Mo'nique was great...and very obvious. The best part is when he says he knew all the time and puts his arm around her.

I have no point. Just something that I though about.

Nancy Lebovitz said...

This might be a good place to drop in something I've been wondering about. Didn't there used to be more secondary love stories in comedies? I'm talking about love between characters who aren't as pretty or as high status as the main characters.

This is more of an impression than a solid memory, but here are a couple of examples: "The Magic Flute" and Prachett's "Hogfather".

"Hairspray" might count, but (unsurprisingly), it's weird.

As for major movies without love stories, now I'm thinking about "Alien". Are there any female action heroes who also get love stories? There may well be some-- I'm asking because I'm not a movie buff.

Daniel Keys Moran said...

Are there any female action heroes who also get love stories?

Ripley, no. Trinity in Matrix, yes.

Sarah Connor got one in Terminator, but she wasn't really in action hero territory there. By T2 she was an action hero ... but no love interest.

I forget the girl's name in La Femme Nikita, but she got a good love interest.

Haven't been that many female action heroes. I don't recall Angelina Jolie having meaningful love interests in the few she's been in.

Buffy, on TV, had plenty....

Anonymous said...


You are once again right on the money. Just to point out how pervasive this phenomenon is, and how easily it slips under the radar, consider Battlestar Galactica. Here's a show that tries hard (oftentimes too hard) to bring "gritty realism" into TV science fiction. To some extent they have succeeded, with their overuse of handheld cameras, harsh lighting, obligatory pans, zooms, and focusing of special effects shots ad nauseum. This is why they have raving fans.

But... in the midst of this contrived ultra-realism, there is not one significant male character who is Asian or Black. What the frack?

Black female? Anastasia Dualla. Check. Asian female? Boomer / Sharon / Athena playing pivotal roles in various arcs. Check. There's also Kendra Shaw playing the lead in the TV movie. How about the males? Wow. All White except the Hispanic Adama. Who, interestingly enough, has a rather fair complected son.

Where are the relatives of Dualla or Shaw? Where are the people who look like them? Are they all female too?

A fantasy world where pretty much all the notable males are White while the females run the full gamut of racial diversity. This wouldn't happen to have anything to do with the ethnicity of the producers now would it?

Anonymous said...

Hm... I do fit the thinking my body is attractive and that sex is not dirty part (although currently unlucky in love) and I *do* tend to prefer films without lots of onscreen sex scenes.

But even so, I agree with you that love and passion are important to storytelling. Denying characters that possibility when it would make sense for them seems cruel, and denying a filmmaker that tool is hampering their art severely.

And yes to the person talking about the current incarnation of Galactica. They recast Tigh as white for no good reason, and by some miracle, it appears that aside from Adama, no non-white men survive, while the women *do*. Kind of embarassing when your show is less racially balanced than the cheesy 70's show it's remaking.

Anonymous said...

how so many pundits et al
(McCain's campaign people)
can't see
how the ad with Obama and Brittany and Paris Hilton
doesn't have racist elements in it
I can make a case
as I'm sure you too can, Steve

Steven Barnes said...

The question of female action characters is a fascinating one. As far as I'm concerned, Cameron cracked that one open in the 80's, but we're still finding our balance. It's tricky, because there's no cinematic short-hand for the ass-kicking woman. You have to build her back-story every time. Love interests? Difficult. Ripley never had one, although she got laid in "Alien 3" (a loathsome, loathsome film). That question, the one of the evolving female action archetype, is worth a look. Personally, I think ass-kicking women are incredibly sexy. I think lots of other guys do, too. I've known some of them, and every one had a lovely, softer side as well.

Anonymous said...

I'm taking as implied that you only feel this anti-Asian bias applies to the menfolk? Because from what I've seen the Asian woman occupies her very own special fetish ghetto with regards to the white male gaze.

Oh, and what about Enter the Dragon? The black lead in that film got his choice of about five or six Asian women. Two rules broken with one stone!

Then again, not exactly Hollywood-controlled. And it was portrayed as pretty tawdry and shallow.

Yeah, I guess the example pretty much holds up regardless.

Incidentally, Mr. Barnes, have you ever read any of Edward Said's work on what he called 'Orientalism'? Or maybe Hurston's essays on 'How It Feels to Be Colored Me'? They echo a lot of the points you see, two and three generations ago in art, literature, and cultural anthropology.

Anonymous said...

Bennett - you may not have paid close attention to Steve. Enter the Dragon actually followed the formula closely. The black guy (Williams) broke no rules at all. He affirmed the "rule" that a horrible fate awaited those who dared cross the miscegenation barrier.

In the meantime, the white female (Tania) was essentially reserved for the sexual pleasure of the white guy (Roper), who survived the movie. The villain (Han), although portrayed as a powerful male who sired many beautiful daughters, displayed no overt interest toward Tania. How likely is that in a real-life scenario? Or, let me put it another, rather crude way: regardless of your race, if you had that much power and you are in full possession of your male virility, would you not get your hands on everything you can, in the same way that Hefner does?

Bruce Lee, of course, was sexless in the movie. He was motivated primarily by revenge. His male energy was on full display and impossible to ignore, of course, but since he was not shown to drop trou or even lip lock, he safely navigated the unspoken racial rules, thus causing *NO* White discomfort and allowing the movie to become a smash hit.

Far from being an exception, Enter the Dragon fit Steve's pattern exceptionally well.

Anonymous said...

"We'll give you the world, but take your tomorrows."

That is the SCARIEST thing you have ever said.
Wow. tis true though


Anonymous said...

Yeah, it does occur to me that they went with the pattern mentioned in 'Canadian Bacon' among other places. The black character dies first. In fact, on contemplation, wasn't the way his body was displayed awfully similar to that of a lynching victim? Suspended by chains and all that.

Anonymous said...

Oh, another one that was suggested to me while discussing this elsewhere. I've never been bothered to watch it myself, so I can't verify, but reportedly the TV show 'Heroes' has interracial coupling without it being cast as some huge no-no.

I swear I'm not just trying to be contrarian, more looking for the one gem that'll give some hope in amongst the fairly crushing hill of evidence that shows Steve's file-drawer is immeasurably well stocked.

Nancy Lebovitz said...

Do ass-kicking women in movies need their back-stories built every time, or do they just need a worthy opponent/quest and a love story?

Free association here: I'm a big fan of the Modesty Blaise novels, and part of what I find intriguing is that she has a platonic partnership with a man who's about as dangerous as she is (he's got his own love/sex life), but she's in love with a man who *isn't* an action hero.

Could Obama be the first Asian-American president?

Getting back to generalizations, one useful tool I've found is the idea of "rich enough to be stupid". This doesn't mean that rich people are necessarily stupid, just that the more slack you have, the more chance you have to do very non-optimal behavior, possibly for quite a long time.

You've talked about your attraction to capable women, and I've been wondering if the ideal (substantially faded out in recent decades) of the helpless woman is a white thing.

Unknown said...

A while ago I asked people here on this blog if they would take exercise-in-a-pill if they could.

Looks like it might be closer to reality than I thought;


For all who have wondered if they could enjoy the benefits of exercise without the pain of exertion, the answer may one day be yes — just take a pill that tricks the muscles into thinking they have been working out furiously. Researchers at the Salk Institute in San Diego reported that they had found two drugs that did wonders for the athletic endurance of couch potato mice. One drug, known as Aicar, increased the mice’s endurance on a treadmill by 44 percent after just four weeks of treatment.

A second drug, GW1516, supercharged the mice to a 75 percent increase in endurance but had to be combined with exercise to have any effect.

“It’s a little bit like a free lunch without the calories,” said Dr. Ronald M. Evans, leader of the Salk group.

mjholt said...

Only white guys win. Get it? That's the message. Since about 0.25% of the white guys win, maybe SB's 80%+ hate the message for the lie it is. The loud message aimed at women is a woman, white or not, sure isn't going to win. (Thanks, Dan, for bring this up.) Women who are "protected" by white guys don't find it (as) upsetting, because they win by association.

I live (part-time) in this world, and it has made me angry since I was a grade-schooler (really).

Then, in another part of "liberal" WA State, I couldn't see how someone could eat raspberries and hate the Canadian Indian migrant workers who picked them. We lived by some of these raspberry fields, and the neighbors were horrified that I talked to them. These people from Canada were nice people. They had their own ways of doing things (culture, I know now), and most were very respectful to each other and to me. My mother was not horrified. She taught me to be the same to everyone, and get along. "Better than spreading unpleasantness."

The kindness of the Canadian Indian migrant workers is welded in my mind with the fact that one of the white men most horrified that I talked to "those injuns" was a man I was terrified of. (I have read "The Gift of Fear" and believe my gut level fear stemmed from a recognition of what he was.) I knew him as the uncle of a neighbor child I played with. In my mind what is paired with racism is the fact that this white man went out of his way ("almost wreaked my car") to hit and kill my cat Trixie. I was in third grade.

These people hate everything, and think it is their right to kill anything. Be very very afraid. I am. I keep using that gift of fear.

Unknown said...


did you see Sunshine? with Michelle Yeoh in a non martial artist role?

good stuff

Pagan Topologist said...

Slightly off topic here, but a while back, Steve, you asked about superhero movies with female protagonists. I think Catwoman also qualifies. I rank it as my absolute favorite of all the movies I have ever seen. (Number 2 was the movie Under Milk Wood, from the Dylan Thomas play.)

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