Into the Woods: Giving “Snow White” a New Meaning

I happened to watch the trailer of the upcoming Disney musical “Into the Woods” recently:

Notice anything peculiar? Everyone is white. It’s a large ensemble cast of white people. (Scan through the cast on IMDB for more.) I wonder if this occurred to the people making the film. Did Meryl Streep and Anna Kendrick (who I’m guessing are liberals) exchange glances during the shoot and say “Hey Meryl/Anna, how come everyone here is white?”

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Bonding Social Capital

In a post titled “Social Capital and Cultural Capital” last year, I talked about the British class survey which measured a specific type of social capital – “the number and importance of social contacts”. This type of social capital is referred to by social scientists as linking social capital – the connections we have to people of importance, influence, who can get things done.

There are various other types of social capital used by sociologists. One type generally recognised today is bonding social capital. Bonding social capital is that which exists within a social group, and consists of shared norms and values, reciprocity, trust, expectations and obligations. Social “group” seems akin to the social identity model used by social psychologists – an “in-group” formed through categorisation, identification and comparison (here is a good primer on Social Identity Theory which explains this). We all belong to various social identities – based on gender, ethnicity, wealth, nationality and caste for example. Bonding social capital is the capital we get by virtue of being part of the in-group. Note that like social capital in general, bonding social capital is an asset – a resource that you can use (consciously or not) to your benefit. Secondly, it comes from social structure and processes – the social mechanisms described by sociologists and also the social-psychological processes described by social psychologists.

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An Example Of Getting It Right

A friend of mine told me about this new American TV Series ‘Ironside’ that has just started. I haven’t seen it yet so this isn’t a commentary post on the show. If in case you have, do share your views.

The plot looks interesting. An investigator who is a wheelchair user. And its nice to see a black man lead. Knowing about this show reminded me of a recently watched but not-so-recent film named ‘The Bone Collector’. It stars a black quadriplegic homicide detective, Lincoln Rhyme (Denzel Washington) and a white female patrol cop, Amelia Donaghy (Angelina Jolie). Here are a couple of things about the film that stood out and made it really worthwhile..

1. Black men as protagonists itself are not that usual, but a disabled black man? Only once I’ve seen that.

2. It was ‘HIS’ story. I’m not saying that simply having a disabled character means it should be all about them. But since he’s the lead here. And what’s impressive is that it was done properly. He wasn’t this inspiration porn trope where he ‘overcomes’ his disability by doing ‘amazing’ things or is simply there as some sort of a lesson for non-disabled characters (and non-disabled viewers indirectly). He was lively, happy, sad, angry, funny, etc and doing what he had to do. Neither were the disability-related hurdles he would naturally experience brushed aside. So as a character, he was complete.

3. Now usually what happens if there is a male disabled character is that the female gets portrayed as somehow double inferior than regular. I don’t know if I’m right, but I’ve felt this at times. It’s like their saying, ”See this guy is ‘disabled’. What woman would fall for him? Obviously a really “stupid” type!” That’s like hitting both of them (the man for his disability, and the woman for simply being female). I saw this movie in Malayalam just few days before seeing The Bone Collector (which could also be one of the reasons I immediately liked it). Same, main character is quad. But mainly there to ‘inspire’ others with his cheerfulness and happy-go-lucky attitude. Also it seemed like the writer made him disabled to get away with objectifying women. (”Because c’mon, poor disabled fellow, who cares if he’s sexist. He’s anyway not going to have a woman like him.”) Ugh! So this Rhyme-Amelia relationship was done well in that respect. It showed both their sides and their affection grew in the course of the film.

4. Bonus Point! Prominent and complex black character #2 – Thelma (Queen Latifah). Black and fat actually. And no, she wasn’t just sitting around eating or acting foolish. She was his nurse, a woman who was clever and resourceful.

5. The ending of the film was particularly good. When Richard Thompson, the killer, arrives at Rhyme’s house with the intention of killing him, Rhyme puts up a very practical fight and causes serious injury to his opponent. He wasn’t simply killed with no sign of resistence. Instead, he fought on until Amelia suddenly arrived at the apartment and shot Thompson down.

One minor complaint I had with the film was that initially Amelia had to be given directions for the even the most basic stuff like picking up some evidence on the crime scene (which one would think is lesson #1 in training academy for cops?) Guess they just wanted to show Rhyme’s character as ‘dynamic’ and ‘big bossy’ (as a man). That was unnecessary, but thankfully Amelia’s character evolved later on.

Being happy and having a positive attitude towards life is essential for anyone’s mental peace. No denying that. Likewise, demeaning and insulting words being thrown at disabled people is also no less of a reality. But what differentiates the portrayal of these from reinforcing negative attitudes is how they are responded to in the very same films. If the character, who is obviously living in an ableist environment, appears to be constantly happy and not showing any resentment towards the oppression they face, then it means the oppression is normalized, it’s no big deal. If hurtful and insulting dialogues are met with silent acceptance (or worse, laughter), then it’s just a big screen reminder (or celebration) of the actual prejudices that actually exist. So I think its important to show *some* of the marginalizations at least. Otherwise it becomes unrealistic. And unrelatable for the ‘real’ people with those disabilities. Which means, in reality, their stories are still waiting to be told.

Social Capital and Cultural Capital

In April of this year, the results of the BBC’s 2011 Great British Class Survey were published (free PDF available here). It’s quite a landmark study – it’s the largest survey of social class ever conducted in the UK, and consisted of a web survey having 161,400 respondents, as well as a parallel national representative face-to-face survey having 1026 respondents. The summary of the findings is:

Using latent class analysis on these variables, we derive seven classes. We demonstrate the existence of an ‘elite’, whose wealth separates them from an established middle class, as well as a class of technical experts and a class of ‘new affluent’ workers. We also show that at the lower levels of the class structure, alongside an ageing traditional working class, there is a ‘precariat’ characterised by very low levels of capital, and a group of emergent service workers.

An important and interesting feature of the study was what they measured as an indicator of class. We’re used to thinking of class inequality in terms of income. But the study instead used a more modern approach, where they measured three different kinds of “capital”: economic capital, social capital and cultural capital:

[…] a new, multi-dimensional way of registering social class differentiation. A highly influential scheme is that developed by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1984), which argues that there are three different kinds of capital, each of which conveys certain advantages. He differentiates between (1) economic capital (wealth and income), (2) cultural capital (the ability to appreciate and engage with cultural goods, and credentials institutionalised through educational success), and (3) social capital (contacts and connections which allow people to draw on their social networks). Bourdieu’s point is that although these three capitals may overlap, they are also subtly different, and that it is possible to draw fine-grained distinctions between people with different stocks of each of the three capitals, to provide a much more complex model of social class than is currently used. This recognition that social class is a multi-dimensional construct indicates that classes are not merely economic phenomena but are also profoundly concerned with forms of social reproduction and cultural distinction.

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