Understanding Visual Culture- Exercise 24- White

This exercise was based on an essay by Richard Dyer called White. We had to read and make notes on the essay. Within the essay 3 films were mentioned (Simba, Jezabel and Night of the Living Dead), we were asked to watch these or at least Simba. I was only able to get hold of Simba and Night of the Living Dead.

While reading White, what struck me the most was how similar it was to the article we read for the Gendering the Gaze exercise by Laura Mulvey and the subsequent article I read; 20 Facts everyone should know about Gender Bias in Movies by Soraya Chemaly. I found that the issues of “whiteness” and “blackness” were akin to both men and women.

Within the essay Dyer says that “whiteness” is seemingly nothing as it is so common. I found Dyer’s take on “oppressed, marginal and subordinate groups” interesting. He says that by standing up and highlighting these groups as: “odd, different and exceptional” has the effect of reproducing the feeling of how odd and different they are. People constantly talk about the fact that there should be more women or people of different races in film and television but no one ever says “there isn’t enough white people in this film” , despite this the norm continues to be inevitable.

Dyer recognises that in some media, efforts are being made to challenge this inevitability, that in fact, “the norm” itself is a construction. I would highlight the X-Men franchise as a perfect example of this. It uses both male and female heroes, a disabled person and people from ethnic minorities. They are the protagonists, “the norm”. Ironically of course, these characters are all mutants and run outside of human society, however the viewer sides with the mutants.

While discussing the differences between the colours, he notes that his understanding of white and black were at odds with what they actually are. Dyer saw black as a colour as it was added to make a picture but it is actually the absence of all colour. He saw white as an empty space however it is actually all the colours put together. With this in mind, perhaps we could transfer this to the human race and look at it from the view that white people are the result of a blend of different cultures. Dyer also identifies the colour associations of black and white. White representing light and safety whereas black representing darkness and danger.

Dyer also discusses how white people in films are represented in more specific terms i.e. in Brief Encounter they are showed as English middle class first and white second and in The Godfather they are shown as Italian-Americans first and white second. This is a stark contrast to such films as The Colour Purple which is first and foremost about black people and secondly about poor southern Americans.

After watching Simba and Night of the Living Dead I found there were a number of things raised within the films that resonated with what Dyer had said in his article. In Simba, I found the dynamics of the film quite interesting. White people are actually the minority in the film, however they are the most powerful and have the most speaking parts. This may have been different if a black person had been directing. The ideas Dyer expresses about colour associations resonates within the film, the most obvious time is when each group has a meeting. The white people have their meeting in the middle of the day, in a light and airy building, whereas the black people have their meeting in the dead of night, outside and around a camp fire. There is also a strong sense that black people could learn white values and therefore become more civilised, this sadly comes at a cost as they are then singled out as natives no longer see them as black and whites still see them as black. However, there is also the fear that white people could be “engulfed by blackness” and adopt their uncivilised and barbaric traits. This becomes evident in the film when the white people begin to kill the black people who threaten them. Night of the Living Dead was a stark contrast to Simba, as the male character is quite dominant, however none of the other characters want to listen to his advice. The character, Barbara, appears to go out of her way to avoid talking, listening or even helping. Most of the white characters appear to be middle class, whereas the black man appears to be working class as he is very hands on and seems to know what to do. In an unusual twist, the black character is the only one who makes it through the night, only to be killed by the people who have come to help.

The second part of this exercise required us to look at how racial identity and identities were dealt with in visual media over the period of a week. There were a number of films, television programmes and newspapers that I looked at for this

  • The Telegraph (newspaper)
  • The British Journal of Photography- November 2014 issue (magazine)
  • Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie (Film)
  • Grayson Perry’s Who are you? (television programme)

As you can see this is quite a varied choice of media, however they all address race and identity in their own ways.

In The Telegraph, I saw an article about a Conservative minister who suggested Beyonce is a good role model for young women. Esther McVey believes this is because she looks stylish, acts with attitude and is at the top of her profession. Throughout the whole article there is no mention of the colour of her skin or anything belittling the fact that she is a woman. I think that it is good for people to acknowledge people like Beyonce as a role model to women, regardless of their colour or race.

The image that struck me in The British Journal of Photography was an image by Zed Nelson called “M, P & JJ”. This image shows 3 young black people against the backdrop of Victorian and Georgian style buildings. This image is a juxtaposition between the history of Britain when there were very little black people to the present day where there are more. I think that the image sums up what it is to be British in the modern-day. You don’t need to be middle class and prim and proper. Britain in the present day is a very multi-cultured society with people from different ethnic backgrounds living and working together.

Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie is very different from the other things I looked at but it was interesting to see how different people were portrayed. The Brown family are shown as the typical Irish family. They are on the bread line, hard-working and very religious. Other characters in the film such as the people in power have more of an English accent and the “gangsters” are Russian. Towards the end of the film, Kathy makes a speech to the court regarding all the people who make Dublin what it is, these people are from various backgrounds and races.

In Grayson Perry’s Who are you?, within the programme he looked at group identities. He discussed how people felt a sense of belonging and acceptance and proud to be part of something.  Being part of a group can also bring communities together. While talking to people from the BBW (big beautiful women) and deaf groups, they explained how being part of their respective groups helped them to share interests and philosophies with like-minded people and it consolidated who they were as a person. Perry also talked about how some groups we are born into (religious or racial groups for example) and some we actively seek out (peer or sports groups for example). The most poignant moment, in my opinion, was when Perry said “identity is constantly evolving, a process. The most beautiful and complex piece of artwork we can ever produce in our lifetime is our identity”. This spoke to me. Throughout my life I have tried to slot into various different groups without success and you often wonder if there is something wrong with you, however it is just your constantly evolving identity. I strongly believe that everything you do helps to build your character and identity and make you the person that you become.



About kunsworthphotography

I am currently studying towards a BA (Hons) in Photography with OCA and I have 2 children, Evie(4 years old) and Connor(3 years old)
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