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Commentaries on this Media!

Racial Erasure as Utopian

by Dominic

The stakes of “race erasure”, in which the only way to affirm tolerance and equity among different groups of people in an idealized, often democratic and capitalistic society, can best be glimpsed in the examples of Michael Jackson’s video for “Black or White”, and the Sci-Fi commercial “Sci-Fi” me. In the music video, people of several races and both sexes morph into people of different races/sexes, while all moving to the same song, and notably continuing each other’s movements. The commercial, on the other hand, tells us what an African-American woman wants from her futuristic utopia, including wanting to “pick which face I want to wear today”. The faces she receives, however are those of an Asian woman, and assorted white men. Do these two examples of “obscured race” achieve or hope to achieve the same aim?

                The commercial seems particularly troubling, due to the woman only being able to find, in utopian society, a connection with white men, the strongest race-gender group in the country or world, with the exception of the Asian woman. However, given what we know about American sociology, the Asian minority is typically more wealthy and financially stable than its counterparts; such as the black or Latino communities.  The suggestion here seems to be that the woman, rather than having her own unique racial and cultural identities become a part of the total lexicon, is forced to appropriate, via masquerade, an attempted whiteness. Failing that, she should at least aim for being a more “model minority”.

                At its heart, obviously, the Jackson video’s project seems much more egalitarian in nature. By including much more diversity (to expect total diversity in every way may be somewhat unreasonable) in this depiction, he embraces difference, but not solely through this method. Whereas embracing new ethnicities is a process that must happen in a stopped, confined environment in the Sci-Fi commercial, this process continues in the video without interruption – an Asian man’s moves turn directly in to the same moves done by Tyra Banks, a red-haired white woman, black man, Indian woman, etc. The only image here that seems somewhat unsettling is that of the white man morphing into an Asian woman, first adopting her pony tail, and some features, before continuing the rest of the visage of the woman. Here we might ask if there is something to be said regarding the status of those in multiracial identity positions – obviously, these may be harder individuals to present with clarity, but the need for such markers to be so clearly different to create understanding should problematize the notion of inclusion, as though inclusion may only take place among those purely placed in a specific ethnic community – any specific community is less controversial than polar positions (a notion also found in heterosexual-homosexual” debates. We will want to avoid such an understanding of identity that posits too many truths, especially as these walls fall with increased contact between races, sexualities, religions, and other locations of socialized identity.

Visual Effects: Morphing

by Jeremy Butler

“In a medium whose very essence is the ability to reproduce the look of everyday reality, one of the surest ways of attracting the viewer’s attention is to violate that reality,” contends Paul Messaris. What intrigues him is advertising’s use of distorted imagery to make a viewer notice a product. Studies in cognitive psychology show that this distortion is most effective when it varies only slightly from a familiar object. As Messaris explains, “if the discrepancy between the unfamiliar shape and some preexisting one is only partial, the mental task of fitting in the new shape becomes more complicated. As a result, such partially strange shapes can cause us to pay closer attention.” If an object is wholly different from what you are familiar with, you may ignore it completely or place it in a new visual category; but if it is partially similar, then your cognitive processes work overtime trying to figure out whether or not it is a familiar object.

Messaris cites digital morphing as a prime example of this principle. A morph takes two dissimilar objects and creates a seamless transition from one to the other. In so doing, it creates a strange, reality-violating hybrid of two familiar objects. Morphing first came to viewers’ attention in the films Willow (1988) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), where humans morph into various shapes, but it found its widest exposure in Michael Jackson’s Black or White music video and television commercials in the 1990s. Notably, a Schick Tracer razor com mercial morphs between a variety of faces—effectively communicating the idea that the Tracer will fit any shaped face and simultaneously getting viewers to concentrate on the ad by violating the reality of human physiognomy— as when a white man transforms into a black one. Morphing remains a common part of the CGI toolbox. There’s even a quick morph in the Winn-Dixie commercial (2010), when the mother and daughter transition from blackand- white to color.

Morph sequences from Black or White music video

by Steve Anderson

The music video for Michael Jackson's Black or White included two remarkable scenes that explicitly address  issues of race and sexuality. First is a morph sequence in which lip-synching actors of various races and genders morph into each other, echoing the color-blind and gender-neutral politics of the song. The video was deemed too controversial for prime-time broadcast not because of this sequence but because of the next scene in which Jackson smashes windows painted with racist epithets and makes sexually suggestive gestures. These two scenes in juxtaposition offer a glimpse of the ambiguous racial politics of Jackson's work, exemplifying the two extremes of populist assimilationism in the morph sequence and the overt anger and aggression of the window-smashing sequence. This final scene is also bookended by Jackson himself morphing in and out of the figure of a black panther.

Emphasizing Racial Difference

by Lorien Hunter

The issue of racial representation, which Dominic brings up in his comment on this clip, is particularly interesting and gains further meaning when considered within the larger context of the video as a whole.  What Dominic touches on that I find especially important is the notion of difference.  Specifically, how are mediated images used to insist that race no longer matters?  Ironically, as seen in this video and as argued by Erica Chito Childs in her book Fade to Black and White: Interracial Images in Popular Culture (2010), often it is articulated through the emphasis of racial difference.  As Dominic so poignantly puts forward, multiracial people are noticeably absent from this morph sequence—a fact that should, at least in part, be attributed to the problems that would arise as a result.  Without clear, visibly tangible signifiers of specific racial categories, this sequence would lose its meaning.    Similarly, if we were to consider the music video in its entirety, race would continue to be seen as an exercise of difference.   For example, when Michael Jackson is shown in Africa, we do not see Africans living in metropolitan areas dressed in western clothing and using modern technology.  In stead, we see a group of mostly naked men holding spears and covered in tribal body paint in a bush hunting lions.  Next, we see a group of Taiwanese women dressed in culturally specific clothing and performing a culturally specific dance.  Following this we see several similar scenes involving Native Americans, and Indian woman, and Russians, and each time the actions and clothing of the performer(s) are clearly informed by the culturally specific stereotypes of each group.  In this way, while the lyrics of the song and the intent behind the music video clearly seek to convey the insignificance of racial distinctions, it does so by drawing exclusively on them and thus strongly undermines the message.  

Identity morphs from Michael Jackson's Black or White video

The once-celebrated but now largely forgotten identity morph sequence from the Michael Jackson Black or White music video

from Black or White (1991)
Creator: John Landis / Michael Jackson
Posted by Steve Anderson