Sunday, May 15, 2011

How to Respect Men

I found this image at Feministe. The image above is in response to the image below, originally printed in the Brooklyn Yiddish-language newspaper, Der Tzeitung. They photoshopped Hillary Clinton - our Secretary of State, the person with the most power in that room - out of the photograph of the situation room, receiving news about Bin Laden´s death. They later printed an explanation (which some called an apology, but I would not) in which they wrote:

In accord with our religious beliefs, we do not publish photos of women, which in no way relegates them to a lower status. Publishing a newspaper is a big responsibility, and our policies are guided by a Rabbinical Board. Because of laws of modesty, we are not allowed to publish pictures of women, and we regret if this gives an impression of disparaging to women, which is certainly never our intention. We apologize if this was seen as offensive.

Treating women differently than men in this way is disrespect. Treating images of women - all women - as immodest, while the images of men are not considered immodest is disparaging to women, even if the newspaper claims that is not the intention. Feminism is merely the idea that women are human too.

So, I love the response. Photoshop out all the men. It is respectful to men, to treat them with modesty, by erasing them from reality.

HIV Treatment is HIV Prevention

This week saw big news in the HIV community. A study of discordant couples (in which one partner is HIV + and the other is not) has shown that when the HIV+ partner is on anti-retroviral therapy, the risk of viral transmission is lowered. By 96%. The results were so striking that the study was ended four years ahead of schedule. What would be the point of continuing, when you already know the answer: HIV treatment is prevention.

Read the Wall Street Journal article here.

This is important news as it gives some scientists and doctors hope that maybe we can outsmart this very clever virus. The results seem to imply that more testing and more treatment could possibly slow down transmission rates in a dramatic way - something that abstinence and condoms have been unable to do on their own.

The study results are also a weapon against those who question allocating resources towards treatment, suggesting instead that more resources go towards prevention methods (like abstinence and condom campaigns). Now it seems clear that good treatment is also prevention - it protects the negative partners of HIV+ people. Now there is less reason to have to decide between the two.

Michael Specter, a public health journalist, writes in a short article about the study that some in the health community are already asking the difficult questions. Will this news make HIV+ people on treatment less careful about unprotected sex? There have always been people who have questioned HIV treatment, arguing that resources should instead be given to increasing prevention efforts. There are also those in our society who feel HIV is a result of poor personal decisions and that the enormous financial cost of treatment is a waste.

For some reason, there are people who relish a fatal STI because they can use it to scare people into believing sex is sinful. STIs are terrible diseases, but they are not punishments from above and we should not humor those who want to use STIs to their advantage while on moral campaigns against human nature.

It seems that this news may have some influence on the current CDC and WHO recommendations for the commencement of anti-retroviral treatment. An HIV negative person might have a CD4 count between 500 and 1,500. Many HIV positive people also have CD4 counts around 500. Generally, someone is not diagnosed with AIDS until they have a CD4 count of 200 or lower. One goal of HIV treatment is to prevent the onset of AIDS in HIV positive patients. Currently, the commencement of anti-retroviral treatment is recommended for a CD4 count of 350 or less, but even last year I attended a lecture, sponsored by a drug company, that showed a study of patients who began treatment at a CD4 count of 500. It was already known that beginning treatment earlier is better for patients. With this new study, we find that it is better for their partners as well.

Still, there are caveats. Besides being expensive, treatment is a life-long commitment. Once you start, you should not stop because of the risk of resistance. Drug-resistant HIV is a very real issue. Once the virus forms resistance to one class of drugs, it greatly narrows the treatment choices left. And taking these pills is hard. They come with side-affects like diarrhea, nightmares, vomiting. They are daily reminders that you are living with a fatal, contagious disease - just the act of taking the pills depresses some patients. Doctors often want to delay treatment until it is necessary, to reduce the risk of non-compliance.

Treatment is not simple. Certainly, it will always be better to prevent infection altogether. But HIV is here, and we must deal with it as it is. This study should support increased funding for treatment and a move to earlier treatment - as a prevention method.

Related Posts:

ADAP Mishap: Who Will Have Access to HIV Medications in this Economy?
All HIV/AIDS Posts

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Orfeu Negro: Is It Racist? Part II

It is time to look at Orfeu Negro with a new set of eyes. I want to defend it, of course. It moved me and it has a place in my heart. But part of understanding racism is admitting that you see it, even in places you want to keep innocent of it: in your favorite books, in your family, in your own privileged life.

The film is often called ground-breaking and ahead of its time for employing an all-black cast. The story centers on Orfeu, his fiancée Mira, his neighbor Serafina and her cousin Euridice. They live on a favela high above the city, and are removed from it in every way. An airplane passes over the favela to remind you that no, they are not slaves on a fazenda, they are living in Rio de Janeiro, in the 20th century. The isolation is important. While racist institutions may influence their lives, white people, as individuals, do not play an important role in the story. Black people have lives, communities and stories independent of white people - and that may have been a fairly revolutionary idea on film in 1959. But the movie can, at times, fetishize this culture that would be foreign not only to non-Brazilians, but to white Brazilians as well.

When looking at Orfeu Negro through a racial lens, you must keep in mind of the layers upon layers of various cultural influences laid over the final story. It is a French-made film, set in Brazil, based on an ancient Greek myth. And I am an American, looking at it through my own cloudy pair of glasses. The universality of the myth seems to be an important message. There is the implication that the lovers have been reincarnated. That they should be reincarnated as afro-brazilians, as opposed to say, modern day Greeks, implies love and tragedy are elements to be experienced and understood in all cultures.

Conversely, racism may be experienced in all cultures, but its manifestations will be different in each. You cannot say that the mãe de santo from the Macumba scene looks like Aunt Jemima. You cannot say that Mira, in her Carnaval costume, is trying to be white. To a Brazilian she might look like Xica da Silva. The scene involving watermelon, which I will say is cringe-inducing, may not have the same meaning to black Brazilians as it does to black Americans. I am unsure if Brazilians have the ugly watermelon and fried chicken stereotype. I am unsure if a French director, in the 1950´s, would have been aware of the loaded nature of this image. Are Serafina and Chico just eating watermelon, or is Camus using this image on purpose? Marpessa Dawn, the actress who plays Euridice, was American and was also Camus´wife at the time. While she wasn´t in that scene, it does seem strange that she wouldn´t have said anything about it possibly being offensive. And who knows, maybe she did and no one listened to her.

Is racism universal? Is racism recognizable across different cultures? We like to think Greek myths hold universal truths about the human condition, but what myth speaks to the universal truths of racism?

There are very few white people in the film. After a long opening scene of a multi-cultural Rio celebrating Carnaval, we see a white clerk at the office where Orfeu and Mira apply for a marriage license. He is the one who starts the tension by assuming Mira´s name must be Euridice, as her fiancé´s name is Orfeu. (Just as a man named Romeo might hear jokes about his Juliet.) Not familiar with the ancient story, Mira thinks Orfeu has cheated on her with another woman. This scene is important for plot development – but you could also understand it to mean that Orfeu and Mira are uneducated. Even a lowly government clerk knows about Greek mythology, and they do not. This scene also draws a line between those who live in the favela and those who live in the city, and work at government institutions.

In the first favela scenes, we see a Portuguese merchant who is relentlessly teased and manipulated by the female clientele. The scene is supposed to be funny, especially considering the strange relationship Brazilians have to the Portuguese (Brazilians sometimes make jokes about the intelligence of the Portuguese.) But it also relies heavily on stereotypes of black, female sexuality. Mira herself could be seen as an unflattering stereotype. She is definitely an intense character, edging on hysterical throughout the film. While a breathtaking performance, it isn´t a positive image of a black woman.

The Macumba scene was one that really moved me when I first saw it. I liked how seamlessly the story merged Greek mythology with afro-brazilian religion. However, even my professors pointed out its problematic aspects. For example, in the scene before Orfeu arrives at the ceremony, we see him descending a spiral staircase, at the bottom of which there is a red light. My professors suggested the spirals were suggestive of Dante´s rings of hell. If in the very next scene he attends a Macumba ceremony, it seems to imply that Macumba is hell or of the Devil. I don´t necessarily agree with this association. Neither ancient Greek religion, nor afro-brazilian religions are greatly concerned with good and evil in the Christian sense of those words. Hell is not the equivalent of Hades. Euridice was not in hell, she was simply dead and in the under-world. Macumba was a way to reach her. I found the use of spirit possession (a very real aspect of afro-brazilian religions) as a fitting way to fulfill the myth and allow Orfeu to find Euridice again, if only for a fleeting moment. But I can see how others might be uncomfortable with the imagery. It was up to the director to be sensitive to how viewers would interpret the scene. While some may understand that Hell and Hades are not the same and therefore Camus is not saying Macumba is Hell, the images of spirit possession would have been shocking to white audiences, especially of that era. It probably did reinforce negative ideas about black spirituality rather than teach anything real about Macumba. It was a fairly sensational scene. But it was also real, filmed at an actual ceremony. Is it racist? It´s hard to say.

At the end of the movie we again see Orfeu wander through the bureaucracy of the modern world. After so many scenes set in the favela, in homes without running water, with farm animals in every corner, it is jarring to see Orfeu, in his Carnaval costume, walk into office buildings with file cabinets, temples of the most mundane aspects of modern life. White people exist in these places: in offices overflowing with paper and in morgues with men in suits and sign in sheets. Orfeus´ presence in them is dream-like and anachronistic.

You could interpret the film´s message in several ways. That black people are not part of the modern world; that they live only in the white imagination, dancing and singing and being passionate. Or, as criticism of the white world and its banality and meaninglessness in the face of Orfeu´s harrowing loss. I think the director was probably feeling a mix of the two ideas. He may have loved black people. He married Marpessa Dawn. His greatest work was this film, which is entirely about black Brazilians. But loving something does not erase your own racism. If he valued black culture over white, was it because he found in black culture something missing in his own? This is exactly what Obama criticized his own mother for.

The frenetic energy of the film is cause of both the highest praise and the harshest criticism. Does the constant singing and dancing distract from the reality that life in the favela is a life of poverty? Is it a minstrel show? (Did they even have minstrel shows in Brazil like they did in America?) Actually, this is also a criticism of Carnaval in general. Carnaval is a distraction. But I don´t think the film ignores this. The opening song, A Felicidade by António Carlos Jobim, is a philosophical reflection on just this fact. Happiness is a drop of dew on the petal of a flower...the happiness of the people is the great illusion of Carnaval. And it all ends on Ash Wednesday. The point of Carnaval is that it ends. All the singing and dancing will end. It is all ephemeral, just as love and life are ephemeral. Orpheus and Eurydice had each other for only a moment, and then it was lost.

Marpessa Dawn and Marcel Camus

Is the film racist? Yes. It was made in 1959 by a white French director, how could it not be? (It doesn´t matter that he was married to a black woman and employed black Brazilians in his film) Does that mean it wasn´t groundbreaking for its time or that there isn´t value to be found in it? Obama found it to be a window on his mother´s soul. While he was uncomfortable with what he found there, it allowed him to see his own life in another context. There are many well-meaning white people, who love to travel and to experience other cultures. Learning to do this in the least racist way possible is a work in progress.

UPDATE: A note about comments: As this post seems to bring out a mean streak in some people, I have two requests:

1. Please be sure to read the post carefully before posting a comment.

2. Please be respectful. I don´t mind if you disagree. If you don´t agree with what I have written, that´s great, please explain your opinions and ideas in your comment. I posted the essay because I want to hear other ideas on the topic. But if you use personal or racist insults about myself, the president or anyone else, I can´t publish your comment.

Related Posts:

Orfeu Negro: Is It Racist? Part I

Manhã de Carnaval

Orfeu Negro: Is It Racist? Part I

I am currently reading Dreams of My Father, by Barack Obama. In it, Obama describes a scene in which his mother took him and his sister Maya, to see Orfeu Negro, in New York.

This caught my attention. In the Portuguese program at my university, Orfeu Negro had a heavy role in the curriculum. I must have watched it three times with my professors indicating, frame by frame, the deep layers of symbolism. I love this film. I was excited to read that it was one of Obama´s mother´s favorite films. And sad to read that Obama was offended by it.

Here´s how he describes watching it with his mother:

« and brown Brazilians sang and danced and strummed guitars like carefree birds in colorful plumage. About halfway through the movie, I decided that I´d seen enough, and turned to my mother to see if she might be ready to go. But her face, lit by the blue glow of the screen, was set in a wistful gaze. At that moment, I felt as if I were given a window into her heart, the unreflective heart of her youth. I suddenly realized that the depiction of childlike blacks I was now seeing on the screen, the reverse image of Conrad´s dark savages, was what my mother had carried with her to Hawaii all those years before, a reflection of simple fantasies that had been forbidden to a white middle-class girl from Kansas, the promise of another life: warm, sensual, exotic, different.»

The point of the scene is not to critique the movie, so he doesn´t say specifically what scenes in the film he found so offensive. The point was to discuss what he learned about his mother in learning that what he found racist, she found beautiful. Of course, I think the film is beautiful too. So, what does that say about me?

It´s a good reminder of how hard racism is to understand and how hard it is to untangle ourselves from it. I am not black, and because of that, I can never watch Orfeu Negro through the eyes of someone who knows what it is like to live with the stereotypes, with the discrimination, with the stress of being the Other every day in America (or Brazil).

In these passages, he does seem very critical of his mother and of her decisions. That she might have been looking for something more sensual, more exotic in her life could mean she was fetishizing Brazilian, (and Kenyan, and Indonesian) culture.

Again, it makes me wonder about myself and my own decisions. I wouldn´t say that I have chosen to work in Africa to find an element of myself that is missing...but maybe I am not being completely honest either.

I am acutely aware of my privilege here. Here I am the Other, but that does not mean the same thing as being black in America. I struggle with how to respond to my position here in the right way, the least racist way. As much as I really love this film, I have to try to understand it from Obama´s perspective.

«The emotions between the races could never be pure; even love was tarnished by the desire to find in the other some element that was missing in ourselves. Whether we sought out our demons or salvation, the other race would always remain just that: menacing, alien, and apart.»

I want to say that, Obama wrote these words in a memoir and they may be more an account of how he was feeling at that moment than the way he feels about it now. In the new preface he writes that if he had known his mother was going to die before the book was published, he might have written more about her, and less about his father. It seems that his feelings about his mother have changed since her death, or at least since he watched the movie with her.

«My mother was that girl with the movie of beautiful black people in her head, flattered by my father´s attention, confused and alone, trying to break out of the grip of her own parents´ lives.»

Read the next post for a racial analysis of Orfeu Negro.

Related Posts:

Orfeu Negro: Is It Racist? Part II

The Guardian: Why Obama is Wrong About Black Orpheus