Max's Blog

How Pop Culture Leads and Misleads

Tag: white girls

Who’s Sari Now?

As a white tourist you must be mindful of many things. Before we left for India, I promised never to pose for photographs with my hands together in the ‘namaste’ style or crossed-legged with fingertips touching in the lotus position. I made this promise in a facebook status so you know I was serious. While travelling we saw some truly shocking fashion crimes committed by Western tourists, some dressed like they were at home (young women in The Hills tank tops and short shorts) or others who went too far the other way, resembling a wacked-out hippie’s concept of traditional Indian clothing mixed with Israeli rave culture. Another observation: young Asian female tourists love their extreme drop-crotch harem pants. They love ’em.

We tried to strike a balance between dressing like ourselves and being respectful. I wore jeans, t-shirts, polo shirts and hoodies, which is what a lot of Indian men wear. For Indian women, though, the sari still reigns supreme. Simple in construction but complex in draping and detailing, saris come in every vibrant hue of a Bollywood musical or the coloured powder of Holi. And they cross classes. When I noticed that even street sweepers had saris in eye-popping fuchsia, saffron, emerald and cerulean, I realized that the connection between bright colours and wealth may only be a Western thing.

Our first night in Jaisalmer, Kuldeep told us that we could rent traditional Rajasthan outfits at a shop next door for our sunset dinner on the roof of the hotel. Now, as a white person, I realized that dressing up in Indian clothes could be problematic. Mostly, I could be making a tit of myself. But as a student of fashion I felt it would be an educational experience. If I must be honest, what I really wanted was a sari like the girls were getting, but I thought that my bearded self in women’s clothes might be a little too much for Jaisalmer.

My tunic and baggy trousers came with a turban, which is simply a very long piece of fabric tightly wrapped around your head several times. Not surprisingly, the woman who ran the shop kept reminding us that we could purchase our rented outfits, but I knew I would never be able to wrap the turban myself, although I do think men look handsome in them.

Maybe I should find myself a Sikh boyfriend. I realize this may be difficult, but nothing is impossible.

And lastly…



‘Good’ Hair

White women complain about their hair. Ones with straight hair curl it. Ones with curly hair straighten it. They dye it, obsess about the length, and buy conditioners allegedly chock-full of the essence of the rainforest. But there is no comparison with black women.

I knew that black women’s hair was a big deal, but I had no idea how big until watching Good Hair, the 2009 documentary narrated by Chris Rock, who claims he was inspired to make the film by his toddler daughter’s innocent question, “Why don’t I have good hair?” Very quickly, we learn that ‘good’, in terms of black hair, means straight, smooth and shiny. ‘Good’ hair essentially means white hair. And black women will do anything for it, from burning their scalps with chemical relaxers to sitting for hours as real-hair is sown into their heads. And money seems to be no object: a good weave costs upwards of a thousand dollars, and the black hair industry is worth an estimated 9 billion dollars.

The film doesn’t waste any time getting to the politics of all this styling. As an interview subject explains that all every single famous black women straightens her hair or wears a weave, a montage of silky-tressed Beyonce, Oprah, Condeleeza Rice and Michelle Obama proves this to be the case. A group of teenage girls reach the conclusion that they would not feel comfortable going to a job interview with a curly, “nappy” ‘fro. And a clip of Charlie’s Angels-era Farrah Fawcett, flipping her famous feathered bangs, is immediately followed by a black interviewee with very similar blonde-dyed waves. I was shocked by footage of a six-year old getting her hair chemically straightened (shouldn’t that not be allowed?), and the trouble that weaves cause even after they’re in: you can’t wash them yourself, you have to go back to the salon to have them tightened every month or so, and many women don’t ley them be touched, even during the act of love-making. Like breasts implants, which I’ve heard lose erotic sensitivity for the women they’re attached to, getting weaves in your hair seems like admitting that a part of your body is no longer for you. As the Rev. Al Sharpton says, in a very Al Sharpton-y way, “How can we overcome our oppression when we’re wearing it on our heads every day?”

While Rock presents the largest black-owned hair styling company, he spends a lot of time on the argument that the black beauty industry largely benefits white and Asian-owened companies and stores. The documentary becomes borderline racist when Rock targets Chinese and Korean storeowners who sell long, straight weaves for black women, and tries to get them to buy a bag full of black hair (obviously, Afro wigs). Rock gets somewhat offended when the store owners say nobody wants hair like that, but as Sharpton had previously explained, if it’s black women who are doing the buying, and the overall culture which is influencing, you can’t really blame the sellers individually.

While many of the interviewed ladies talk on and on about the process of getting their weaves put in, they draw blanks when Rock asks them where they are from.

“It’s human hair,” a couple of them say.

“Yes, but who was this human? Where are they from?”

Truth be told, I had never considered where all this real hair was coming from, and the answer startled me: India! Young women in India will grow their thick hair as long as they can, cut it off for free in religious ceremonies, after which the temples sell the tresses to North America at a huge profit. There’s so much money in the Indian hair trade that there’s even an illegal black market: women have to watch out for men who will cut their hair off while sleeping or at a dark movie theatre! Thinking about black women importing weaves from India in order to have hair which is more white makes one’s head spin.

There’s two paradoxes in Good Hair. The first Rock points out when he mentions that, despite benefiting large white-controlled beauty companies and Asian-owned business, the beauty industry employs untold numbers of black hair dressers and barbers in every single in North America, who would see their livelihood disappear if more women embraced the natural look the movie appears to promote. Somewhat related, the look of ‘good’ hair is often not simply white hair on a black person: the film displays all the fantastical colours, patterns, shapes and heights that black hairstylists artistically create. While chemical straightening and weaving may have started with trying to look like Farrah Fawcett, by this point it can be seen as a launching pad for whole new, and black-specific, looks.

The irony is if I was a black woman I think I would like an Afro. Not a big one, a cute, compact one, like Macy Gray (who the film could have interviewed, as I read previously that she was advised to straighten her hair if she wanted to sell more records).

But I am Caucasian. I do not know what it’s like to grow up bombarded with imagery which equates beauty with whiteness.

African-Americans have created so much which has influenced and shifted North American culture, through music, language, comedy and fashion. The rhythms of the black church can be heard in the President’s speeches. Black men have influenced white men, through the athletic jerseys, hoodies and close-cropped hair which seem essential for white rappers (think about that term; white has to be added to rappers as black is the assumed). It’s a shame that there’s not more discursive space and appreciation for the beauty natural black hair.

Being Young and White is not a Crime, Ms. Blatchford

Christie Blatchford begins her Globe and Mail column today warning of the “increasingly opaque” Canadian justice system as the case against the 17 protestors charged with conspiracy in connection to the G20 summit begins behind closed doors, with tight security and a media ban.

The idea behind the ban is that the accused, nick-named the G17, are presumed innocent until found guilty, and, in Christie’s colourful language, “should be protected from heinous publicity disseminated against them by the state, its agents and the scum of the press for fear of prejudicing their fair trials.”

While infringement of human rights via last-minute draconian police laws and the exclusion of the public and the press from the court are both issues which should concern all Canadians, Blatchford does her best to undermine her own argument that the media is needed to challenge the spin of the authorities, lawyers and defendants, by slandering an entire age group.

From footage recorded by a undercover police officer of a meeting of the Southern Ontario Anarchist Resistance, Blatchford observes that the G17 “for the most part appear to be the middle-class progeny of the middle-aged urban profession class of this country. They are, in other words, reasonably affluent, lucky, mostly white kids with good teeth.” She also alleges that some of them still use their parents’ cars and cottages. I have not been covering court cases as long as Blatchford, so maybe the connection between Muskoka, dentistry and conspiracy charges is less obtuse for her than it is to me.

Christie goes on to link, through guilt by association, the young people who came to the courtroom with the accused 17, for they were “cut from that delicate yet entitled cloth so familiar to teachers who work in large Canadian cities.”

Blatchford is insulted that a pair of young women dare to request that an unnamed reporter change seats so that they can sit together and mocks them for getting upset because one of their friend’s is in jail. When the women are eventually able to sit together, Blatchford adds some mild-homophobia to her youth-bashing: “Frankly, it looked as though what they really wanted was a room; they were constantly stroking each other’s hair, doing deep-breathing and clucking softly.”

The article ends, not with a return to the legitimate concerns of secretive courts and restrictions placed on media, but with Blatchford’s interview with a father of an accused, who claims that his daughter is not doing too badly in jail and that “Being a parent is knowing how to do the job after the job needs to be done.”

So there you have it: if only some parents had been a little stricter, perhaps taking away cottage-privileges from their spoiled anarchist offspring, perhaps they wouldn’t be in jail.

And they wonder why young people don’t read newspapers.

Most troubling is the realization that, while making the case for the press’s involvement in court cases, Blatchford shows just how biased and superficial that reportage can be.

Post script: I was going to comment on the Globe’s website and hopefully get some hits from it, but they disabled the comments. I hope “lucky, affluent, middle-class white kids with good teeth” crashed the site.

Other People: Dervla 

Dervla and I became friends in high school and, despite the sometime continents between us, have remained a constant presence in each other’s lives. Currently, she is teaching English as a second language, but that’s only until she’s off adventuring again. She is the ultimate world traveler and a constant inspiration.

MM: Describe your job.

DP: I suppose the best way to describe my job is ‘people wrangler’. I set out to wrangle children who were too young to talk back but ended up with teens, old men and everyone in between. I attempt to teach ESL that works for everyone in a class with mixed ages, religions and cultures and, most importantly, personalities. I try to bring everyone together, entertain them, hold their attention, not treat them like kids and try not to laugh at the hilarious things they say and write.

MM: What would you like to be doing in 10 years?

DP: Oh god. Those who know me already understand that my life plan changes on a weekly basis and causes much stress in my life. I am a planner hourly, daily, weekly. Currently, I suppose I would like to take the Foreign Service exam, get accepted, work my way up, become a sweet as diplomat, be given a badass posting in Africa, move into my giant free mansion, and schmooze for a living. I crave adventure, chaos, a sense of raw freedom and wherever I am I hope it is all those things, and absolutely not boring.

MM: What book should people start reading tomorrow?

DP: University has ruined my ability to read for pleasure. It is tragic and I hope it’s not permanent. For the last 6-7 years one of my obsessions has been Africa, and thus all my favourite books seem to be about that enchanting continent. Was that lame? Continent for the Taking: the tragedy and hope of Africa by Howard French, The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski and The Zanzibar Chest by Aidan Hartley have all left a huge impression on me, changed my thinking, and were impossible to put down. They all offer unique journalistic stories, very personal accounts, a rich history and an honest commentary on some seriously messed up shit. I highly recommend all.

MM: You’re a major hockey fan: what was your favourite hockey moment?

DP: Oh easy, but I have two and they are both personal and thus probably selfish. Okay, so in high school I had an unhealthy obsession with Curtis Joseph and the Toronto Maple Leafs. However being a fairly average middle class woman, who lived with a single mom there was NO WAY IN HELL I could afford to go, or even get tickets to a game. You have to be blond, not give a shit about hockey and drive a Ferrari to get those! Okay, so when I was in grade 11 I wrote a letter to the TML Corporation, sent it to the head office and was offered a job. That is part one of story one. Random and AMAZING. They paid me tons of money and once, on my way to work Curtis Joseph himself held the door open for me. I totally froze and he said “Are you coming?” and I said the most eloquent thing that came to mind. “Are you Curtis Joseph?” Of course he was. Fuck.

My other favourite hockey moment was traveling all the way to Boston where they have reasonably priced tickets to see a game. I had made a poster that said “It is sold out in Toronto so I traveled 500 miles to see my boys!” Our seats ended up being right next to the Leaf bench; I could hear them swear and see them sweat. Heaven. I appeared on Hockey Night in Canada with my sign and then at the end of the game. My favourite player came out and said “Hey, you with the sign, this is for you,” and handed me a used hockey stick. It was the greatest moment of my life!

MM: Describe your bedroom.

DP: Chaos. I am in the process of moving; twice.  Once to my mother’s new house and then again two weeks later in with my boyfriend. As a result of my travels I own NOTHING, so my room is currently furnished with a large, dark wood, 1940’s bedroom set that belonged to my grandmother and a mix of old lamps found in the garbage, cast-off IKEA stuff and art from my adventures. I have high hopes for my new apartment, which will be completely furnished by my boyfriend. Like I said, I own nothing.

MM: What’s the last movie/TV show/book to make you laugh out loud? What’s the last one that made you cry?

DP: It has been a long time, which is weird because it usually doesn’t take much. I always used to cry at the end of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and I am not sure why. That’s pretty embarrassing. Also, I cry during epic sporting events. I’m a sucker for those moving video montages they do, so I guess the Olympics was the last time I got teary, but the Stanley Cup is just days away so you never know.

MM: Tell the story of the craziest, most-unexpected-adventurous day of your life.

DP: Oh dear god. I suppose we go back to Africa, land of the unexpected. My friend Dianne and I were heading south from Dar es Salaam hoping to end up in Victoria Falls. We researched buses that would get us there a week ahead of time and found that there was only one: the Falcon Coach, departing at 6 am. We arrived at the insane bus depot in the dark. With very little light we found our way through the already bustling crowd to our bus. We were stared at, yelled at, ogled at, but at this point we were used to it. We handed over our scrap of paper tickets, found our seats and nestled in. African buses leave when they are good and ready. We saw a man get beaten and kicked off the bus, and were on our way.

Sixteen hours later we pulled into the border town, whose name I think I have blocked from my memory on purpose. The bus was supposed to cross and keep going, into Zambia, arriving in Lusaka in the morning but it turned around, and stopped. There was chaos, we went to the “office”, we got our White Girl on, we yelled, we got angry we realized we were calling attention to ourselves. We had to forage, one at a time for water and food, in a dark, horrid border town because one of us had to watch the stuff, although I suppose the danger/ possible getting separated would be worse. It got dark, groups of men outside the bus noticed there were two white girls inside and started yelling, the old grandma in front of us quickly closed the curtains and an amazing Kenyan woman at the very back of the bus advised us to stay inside, stick with the women, and hunker down. So we did me, Dianne and our African mama protectors.

In the morning everything seemed brighter. The bus started, and rolled across the Zambian border. We went through customs, and it was fairly hassle-free. Then the bus pulled over on the other side and stopped. It did not move for another 10 hours. I nearly lost my mind. Again we foraged for food and drink in a dusty, end of the world town. We found a kid selling amazing fresh baked muffins and couldn’t understand why or how he had managed it. We drank multiple cokes and we watched the bus fill up. I wanted to get off and load the damn thing myself. Finally when the aisle was piled high with food, boxes, people and bags and the sun was setting we left. We stopped in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom and due to the aisle situation Dianne and I had to crawl over the top of the seats, and sleeping people to get out, squat and climb back on.

We arrived in Lusaka at sunrise. We had enough money for two bags of chips, a coke and two trips to the bathroom. We decided to just keep going and haggled, exhausted, for a second bus ticket from Lusaka to Victoria Falls. The day passed in a haze; the dust, the view, the careening bus. In the evening we reached our final destination. It took us 57 hours on an African bus to do it but the hostel had a pool and all was forgotten. The next day we woke up early and walked across the Zimbabwean border, cause we were too cheap for a cab, and it was way further than it looked, but that is a whole other story.

MM: You’ve already traveled throughout Europe and Africa, and into Asia and the Middle East. What are the five places you’d like to get to next and why?

DP: Oh god, you know from above that I could ramble about this for ages, so I will keep it short and sweet.

India: I am craving some madness. It has been too long. I want the smells and the chaos and the challenge and I have ALWAYS wanted to go there.

Cambodia: Specifically for Ankor Wat and deep fried bananas. Actually, a trip around the region would be better: Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and back to Thailand again. I had a taste and it was NOT enough.

Mongolia: I dream of wide open spaces, and to feel like I am lost in the world, like no one knows where I am. I love that feeling.

Antarctica: It will be my final continent to see, and my friend Chris went last year and his photos made me ill with envy

Africa Again: I have been Cairo to Cape Town on the east side but I am missing more than half a continent. And I know it is lame but it really does get under your skin and call you back.

MM: If something was going to be named after you when you’re gone (presumably, after a tragic bungee-jumping accident in Thailand) what would you like it to be?

DP: As long as it was named Dervla and not my last name anything would really be okay. I suppose in my dreams, the best travel guide that ever was. Instead of “Hey let’s check the lonely planet,” you could say “Hey let’s look in the Dervla” which also sounds kinda dirty. Oh, or a beer. Yes, a beer in my honour would be so sweet.

In defence of Sex and the City 2

So shoot me, I didn’t hate Sex and the City 2. In fact, I think I enjoyed it more than the first one, although the two raspberry cocktails I downed before going in may have helped. All the girls in high-heels and gay boys who dressed up to go to the cinema (when else do people dress up for a movie?) got me in the right mood, and my friends and I had an absolute blast. I’m not going reiterate my misgivings about setting it in the Middle East. Nor weigh in on ongoing newspaper battle of the sexes (male reviewers hating it, female writers crying sexism, female reviewers saying they hate it too), but I will point out that if it caused people to talk about it so much Michael Patrick King arguably did something right. I’m not even going to discuss the fashion. Well, not exclusively. Instead, I’m going to describe my favourite scene which early on connected the film with the universe and ethos of the original series.

The movie begins with Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Big (if you’re still reading this I needn’t tell you he’s played by Chris Noth) are finally married, living a chic and childless Nick-and-Nora-Charles classic-Manhattan existence. What is the ultimate single girl to do when she is officially off the market? Well, she writes a book titled I do, Do I? and switches from spending all her money on fashion to spending it all on interior design. And, like many wives, she worries that they’ve lost the sparkle when her husband buys a TV for the bedroom, spends every night laying on the couch and flirts with Penelope Cruz. (Rich people have problems too, and although yes, I’m disappointed that all four main characters, none of whom started out as ostentatiously wealthy, now have lots of money, but I was disturbed by suggestion by critics that because Carrie has a beautiful condo with a walk-in closet she has nothing to complain about. But moving on…)

When at one point Carrie needs a break from her marriage and their shared living space, she quietly sneaks downtown to a familiar brownstone. As she unlocks the door to her old apartment, I literally gasped with delight. She walks around, turning on lights and running her fingers over book spines, as the narration explains that the housing market being what it was, they decided to keep Carrie’s old apartment for the time being. She sits down by the desk and turns on that celebrated lap top. I absolutely loved that Carrie, despite getting married, was allowed to hold on to her twenty-something apartment (“An apartment everyone’s had,” the creators described in the Sex and the City book) and that she has a quiet place to write: as Virginia Woolf would say, “A room of one’s own.”

Later, when Carrie glances out her window to see Big waiting downstairs in his limo as he did so often in the show, I was bowled over with nostalgia for the series and what it had meant for me watching it late nights on ‘Bravo’, and then sharing the DVDs with my university friends. It was icing on the cake when Carrie exits the brownstone in a fantastic Dior dress patterned like old newspapers that, if you were a major follower of the show, you would recognize from the third season. It was the exact kind of tribute a movie based on a beloved TV show should throw to their fans.

Compare it to this scene in the first movie, which is ostensibly about the ladies helping Carrie clear her out closet but actually is an excuse for them to drink Champaign, dance to Aerosmith and play dress-up. I love the concept of the scene (who wouldn’t want to play dress-up in Carrie’s closet?) but the clothes featured were not just never on the show but predate the show’s existence (as Carrie calls them, “the worst of the 80’s”). Especially when the other women join in the dress-up fun (seen in the extended film but not the theatrical release because preview audiences balked), costumer Pat Field missed an opportunity to have Charlotte, Miranda and Samantha wear quintessential Carrie looks and even (if I directed it) making fun of Carrie’s stiletto-strut and girlish yelps. I visualize Cynthia Nixon in a giant crinoline, maybe with three flower-pins, tossing her hair around. True, the scene ends with Carrie wearing the famous pink tutu from the opening sequence, which the other girls seem to recognize despite the fact that she never wore it on the show. That’s a funny meta joke, but it’s another example of how the first movie treated the show as a concept rather than build upon the universe that had been real for fans for eight years.

One of the sequel’s themes was ‘making traditions work for you’ (marriage, motherhood, Muslim niqabs) which was much better, and more feminist, than the first movie’s theme of ‘you should forgive people if you love them, even if they cheat on you or leave you at the altar.’ Still, as I’ve said before, the series will always end for me with the last episode, which reminds you to never lose yourself in your relationships, and that “If you find someone who loves the you that you love, well that’s just fabulous!”