How White Racial Resentment Drives the Right
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Last week witnessed two seemingly unrelated controversies. Vanity Fair magazine was slammed for featuring a cover where the future of Hollywood was envisioned as a group of White actresses with “ivory soap girl features” and "patrician looks and celebrated pedigree," who were better suited to the virulently racist film Birth of a Nation and the politics of “separate but equal” than to an increasingly diverse 21st America. In the same week, the political website Daily Kos commissioned a survey of self-identified Republicans. The results of their poll found that a significant number of respondents were possessed by a collective madness where the most venomous lies and half-truths offered by the Right Wing echo chamber have found fertile ground: Barack Obama is not a lawful United States citizen and thus is ineligible to be President; Obama stole the election through voting fraud enabled by the community advocacy group ACORN; he hates White people, and Obama should be preemptively impeached for imagined high crimes and misdemeanors. Ironically, the Vanity Fair “Hollywood Issue” and the Daily Kos survey both speak to an identical phenomenon at work in The Age of Obama.
At present, the Tea Party possessed Republican Party remains dizzied and intoxicated by a toxic, White nostalgia for a bygone, “noble,” and “perfectly just” America that significant portions of their base believe has been destroyed by the “liberals” and “multiculturalists.” This rearward looking view is colored by a convenient, fuzzy glow for an America that the conservative soul imagines as being homogenous, comfortably White, imminently “moral,” divinely preordained to perfection, and always safe and secure. Not to be overlooked or forgotten in their importance, these are the base elements of a contradictory and internally inconsistent “traditional values,” “small government,” Culture War ethos that still lingering about like a zombie has motivated the Republican Party’s electoral strategy for at least the last five decades.
Vanity Fair’s Hollywood issue offers an image to accompany this dream, a dream that is simultaneously a longing for the past, as well as a hope for the future. As suggested by the cover photo, White is always right--it is a norm and an idealized state of beauty for all people. Moreover, Vanity Fair’s cover offers a safe harbor in a time when “those people” are increasingly visible, if not occasionally central, in the public imagination. Ultimately, the whiteness of its Hollywood issue is both playground and canvas for the white racial resentment that fuels the false populism of the Republican Party and its Tea Bagger cadre.
To marshal a cliché, a picture is indeed worth a thousand words. The Vanity Fair controversy is a powerful example of the politics at work in popular culture where something as seemingly benign as a magazine cover can provide insight into the spirit of the day. Not surprisingly, the editors of the magazine have denied any ill intent. Vanity Fair’s detractors are quick to point out the racially checkered past of the cover’s photographer Annie Leibovitz, who herself is no stranger to racially tinged controversy: she famously produced a cover of Vogue Magazine that featured an image of African American NBA star Lebron James as King Kong and Gisele Bundchen as the White heroine symbolically imperiled by a black rapist transformed into a great ape. I would suggest that it is relatively unimportant if the controversy surrounding the Hollywood issue is a function of a publicity stunt, hypersensitivity by those obsessed with playing “the race card,” or the result of a “harmless” oversight. Intentions aside, herein lies the central problem: in a moment when people of color are increasingly prominent in Hollywood, have been central to the biggest hits of 2009, and where the most powerful person in the world is a black man, a panoply of lily White actresses as the “future” of American cinema is both utterly unreflective and oddly anachronistic.