Teddy Bears in Bear Country: Tamir, Trayvon, Eric, Michael, Jonathan, Sam, Nate…

Tamir Rice memorial, playground at Cudell Rec Center, Cleveland

Tamir Rice memorial, playground at Cudell Rec Center, Cleveland

The “teddy bear effect” is something I’ve touched on before in this blog and is now, more than ever, the topic of exigency. The slayings of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice, among many others whose names are yet fully known bring to mind the work of one of this year’s MacArthur Genius Award winners: Jennifer Eberhardt’s “Deathworthy” study about how the dark skin and African looking facial characteristics of black defendants are highly correlated to the likelihood of their being sentenced to the death penalty.

The spontaneous memorials, such as the one pictured above, have popped up at sites where police (or wannabe cops) have murdered unarmed, often adolescent black males all speak to teddy bears as a visual and spatial phenomenon of race. Alongside the realities uncovered in the Deathworthy study, is another study by Robert Livingston. Coined the “teddy bear effect,” researchers demonstrated how and why our society can enact the “postracial” iteration of Jim Crow in the form of mass incarceration and all these brutal police killings directly alongside the amazing success of the Barack Obama presidency.

It seems, according to the evidence, that successful African American leadership —beyond impressive credentials, competence, and diligence — is accompanied by certain “disarming mechanisms” such as physical and behavioral traits that attenuate perceptions of black threat held by the dominant culture. It appears that some black men have developed an extraordinary psychological capacity to affect the feelings of comfort engendered by persceptions of cuteness in order to assuage white racial anxieties about black men’s purported criminality. Among these disarming mechanisms is that of “babyfaceness,” which some African American men physically possess (and may intentionally play up) because they realize how whites experience their “cuteness” as helpful in reducing the perception of black aggression. White experiences of fear or intimidation may actually be a cultural form of subconscious projection due to the realistic threat suffered by blacks because whites’ possess such inordinately higher levels of social power vis-à-vis their black counterparts in most cases.

Teddy Bear Effect Benefits Black CEOs (2009 Livingston).

Teddy Bear Effect Benefits Black CEOs (2009 Livingston).

Deathworthiness versus babyfaceness serves as empirical evidence of the quantifiably predictable quality of “cuteness” as a racial construct that too often means life or death for our black brothers, partners, and sons. It’s interesting that both studies, particularly in the case of Livingston, make clever nods towards the heavily anthologized Brent Staples essay, Just Walk on By: Black Men and Public Space,” in which the essayist refers to his habit of coping with whites’ perception of black male threat as a “tension-reducing” tactic meant to assuage white fears and and offer a sense of racial comfort in the public sphere. The kicker comes when Staples admits how “warbling bright, sunny selections from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is the equivalent of the cowbell that hikers wear when they know they are in bear country” and speaks most eloquently to the strange dilemma of masculine empowerment and racial entrapment experienced by black men when moving through public space.  

Teddy bears in bear country, sadly, is the perfect trope for the beastly outcomes derived from the unchecked racist policies and legal processes of white American culture and jurisprudence.   #BlackLivesMatter

December 19, 2014. Tags: , , , , , , , , , . African Americans, age, art, babies, Babyfaceness, Barack Obama, children, civic culture, Civil Rights Movement, Colors, cute, dolls, family, masculinity, Obama, parenting, politics, psychology, racism, rhetorics, social media, space, space & spatiality, visual literacy, visual rhetoric. 5 comments.

South Carolina Politics and Racial Decorum by Anastasia of Beverly Hills

GOOD GRIEF! I will NEVER stop being absolutely flabbergasted by the power of EYE SHADOW in the New South. In case you haven’t noticed (in SC), a woman who goes out without her mascara is about as bad as a woman who leaves home without her bloomers!

Because of the exaggerated gender-norming etiquette down here people will assume you’re lazy, no-count, and simply write you off if you dare attend some public spaces bare-faced. True story. It’s jacked up, but I know how it is. I try to resist this conservative politics by playing with these ethics of “pretty-southern-lady” conformity.

In order to experiment with this concept and as a demonstration of my civic duty, today I chose to vote in the South Carolina Republican presidential primary. I did so wearing full make-up face and dressed to the nines (like any *decent* Southern lady would, of course). I made an effort to dress stylishly, yet conservatively.

When I got inside there was less than a dozen other people. All white men (save one woman) and not a single person under 60 years old! The woman standing beside the door immediately greeted me with a huge smile and, for some reason, introduced herself to me as the wife of one of the men and that she was only there because of him. Seriously!! Of course, I responded with equal warmth, a huge smile, and nodded how I “completely understand” (whatever that was supposed to mean).

Now! anybody who knows me knows I *like* to play with make-up, clothes, and cute hair-do’s (so sue me!) —  I wore my favorite wellies, Karen Millen cape, and carried my Kate Spade handbag. I decided to accessorize with a pair of bronze/silver tone Akwaba doll earrings, plus an assortment of colorful, big bangle bracelets. It was raining hard when I pulled up to the polls, so when I got out of my car I decided to use my scarf to cover my head — as though it was an hijab. Once I walked in the door, for dramatic effect, I slowly unwrapped my scarf to reveal PURE AFRICAN CORNROW HAIR TWIST SPLENDOR! LOL! You would’ve thought a talking Panda had just entered the polling place.

It was hilarious. Every single one of those old white folk went out of their way to show EXTREME cordiality. I promise you, each and every one of them individually welcomed and greeted me! The whole room became chatty and smiley. And I was glad to oblige their hospitality! So I entered the booth, voted for the “Making a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrowsuper PAC candidate, Herman Cain.

AND HERE’S THE KICKER: When I exited the booth, one of the greyest, biggest of all the white men actually stopped me, SHOOK MY HAND, HUGGED ME, leaned in, and stage whispered, “So, who’d you vote for?” Then he slyly added, “Only joking.” The place broke into raucous laughter and everyone applauded as I left the polls!

Where else in America does this happen? South Carolina: too small to be a country, too big to be an insane asylum! Now here’s the question, folks. Has the South changed? You tell me.

January 21, 2012. Tags: , , , , . African Americans, civic culture, civics, Civil Rights Movement, conventions, cute, design, dolls, fashion, gender, gesture, hair, history, political campaign, politics, race, racism, rhetorics, sex & sexuality, space & spatiality, style. 4 comments.

Here Comes BarbieB!tch!

It’s really not a surprise that cuteness is the preferred design characteristic of super-commodity merchandise and is therefore the chief brand aesthetic of multinational mega-corporations like the Disney media empire and the Mattel toy company.  The predominance of soft rounded plastics makes it so.  Known for their pop culture icons, Mickey and Barbie, you’d be hard pressed to come up with examples of more successful and durable branding.

And along comes cute hip-hopper, Nicki Minaj fashioning herself as a Japanese street Barbie. Her name both rhymes and alliterates with Mickey’s. I think she’s brilliant.

Toys can have different characteristics and don’t always have to be cute, per se.  Toys can be quaint like wooden blocks or like cloth teddy bears or Raggedy Ann & Andie. Different kinds of toys definitely have different auras. What I’m talking about in terms of Minaj is a plastic aurality, bereft of all sentimental value, simultaneously stripped and sealed.  Not only does Minaj perform the strip/tease, but she does so through offering herself up as a sealed object — almost hermetically so.  And in true hip-hop tradition, she’s the first to brag about how airtight her entourage is.

Her über lavish lamé and latex costuming makes her seem impossible to undress. Just go ahead and try and get her out of her clothes. She’s tightly corseted, though nothing like a genteel Victorian.  She’s walking around literally sheathed in rubber, her gear is like… well, like a condom.  Her stylized plasticity seems to be almost hygienically engineered. The overly shellacked make-up and wigs seal the deal. (Get it? seal the deal? like sealed… oh never mind.)  It seems like whatever they try to hurl, spit, or squirt at her, it just instantly wipes off.  All antibacterial and whatnot.

Yep. Nicki Minaj is pretty much awesome.

January 7, 2011. Tags: , , , , , . Barbie, cute, Disney, dolls, fashion, gender, harajuku, hip-hop, Mickey Mouse, Nicki Minaj, sex & sexuality, toys. 1 comment.

daddy-mommy-me

The image to the left is by Gordon Parks, called “Black Children with White Doll.”

The title of this post is “daddy-mommy-me” and is a quote taken from the introduction to Deleuze & Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia and is related to my cute theory of race. The baby subject feels loyalty to the primary [racialized] nuclear unit in a libidinal economy of desire. The cuteness of “daddy-mommy-me” is abject sentimentality in the most profound and fundamental sense. (This is something I’m not going to tease out in a few paragraphs — it’s Deleuze for crying out loud, people!) I have a year and a half before I have to trace this economy of family cuteness more fully.

Of course, there’s this lovely piece by Japanese theorist, Akira Asada “Infantile Capitalism and Japan’s Postmodernism: A Fairy Tale” that really has fun with notions of cute economy, infantile capitalism — to be specific,  and is all Deleuzianed out with wild proclamations about software & play v. hardware & hardwork. Very fun.

And then today I played around with I-Ching to focus on the question of a fruitful 2011. After six coin tosses, I built the 37th hexagram or ䷤ The Family (the family, in this case is according to the standards of traditional Chinese gender and birth order norms).  This notion of family, of course, operates from a particular logic of oikonomos quite different from the context of Western cultural site of oedipal exchange, but I believe there is a similarity. The Wilhelm and Baynes translation I use talks about the “family is society in embryo… the native soil on which performance of moral duty is made easy through natural affection… within in a small circle of moral practice… later widened to include human relationships in general” (144).  Hmmmm. Now I’m not saying I’ll be citing or actively using the I-Ching in my diss (though I’m fascinated by Gregory Ulmer’s ideas about the system’s flash logic as an ancient hypertext), but it’s certainly possible for me to appreciate this reminder of my social situation while also objecting to the basis of it on philosophical grounds. The oracular reading connects quite verisimilitudinally to this subject of “cute” in my dissertation, though. Or it just might be that I’m seeing “cute” everywhere because I’m so immersed in my topic. Either way, it can’t be too bad of a thing; I’ll need all the imaginative energy I can muster these next 18 months. (For realers.)

The line in the first place is 9 and changes 37 to the 53rd hexagram or ䷴Development/Gradual Progress. The image of 53 involves the gradual progression of a sapling on the side of a mountain.  Influence and weight develops over time. Need I say more?

I think this is an auspicious reading for a/cute growth

December 19, 2010. Tags: . cute, dolls, family, gender, I-Ching, Japan & Japanese, toys. 1 comment.

A “Cute Kitten Theory” of Race

“‘You think you so cute!’  I swung at her and missed, hitting Pecola in the face.  Furious at my clumsiness, I threw my notebook at her, but it caught her in the small of her velvet back, for she had turned and was flying across the street against traffic.
Safe on the other side, she screamed at us, ‘I am cute! And you ugly! Black and ugly black e mos.  I am cute’”(Morrison 73).

“We were sinking under the wisdom, accuracy, and relevance of Maureen’s last words.  If she was cute – and if anything could be believed, she was – then we were not. And what did that mean?  We were lesser.  Nicer, brighter, but still lesser” (Morrison 74).

Of course many of you will recognize this excerpt  from  Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.  It’s the frequently anthologized scene, sometimes referred to as “The Coming of Maureen Peale.”   I believe this  scene from literature really illustrates my conceptualization of cuteness as a racial rhetoric.

A desperate chain of events ensues because of Pecola’s wish for her eyes to magically turn blue like Shirley Temple and the white baby dolls molded in the screen idol’s image. And, along with Claudia and Frieda, having to constantly hear all the surrounding adults describe the little white girls as perfectly lovely, the fragile Pecola is pushed to the breaking point. The arrival of the wealthier and lighter skinned Maureen Peale exacerbates the situation because of the way she is shown favoritism by the teachers and parents in Morrison’s semi-autobiolgraphical Ohio community in which the novel is set. The girls in the schoolyard are stunned when the favored newcomer proudly and maliciously asserts the ostensible fact that she is cute and they are not.

"Little Flower"

My dissertation is about how, similarly to Toni Morrison, this issue of “cuteness” served as productive motivation for Carl Owens and other African American artists of that generation. Owens was an African American artist and illustrator, known for a certain genre of printed paintings.  I think of his most famous image “Little Flower” as the epitome of cute kitten blackness. That the above image could be viewed as agitprop is not necessarily problematic for me. At least not, if we think about agitprop in a nuanced and more complicated way.

December 18, 2010. art, Carl Owens, children, cute, design, dolls, literature. 1 comment.

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