The Missing Black Woman Formation
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Apropos of Monday’s political post, I wanted to point out some interesting blog posts. A few weeks ago, author and friend Scott Westerfeld posted this excerpt from his novel So Yesterday:
A focus group of cool-hunters has just been shown a new sneaker advertisement, and they all seem to agree that it’s awesome. That is, until Jen says:
“I was kind of bugged by the missing-black-woman formation.”
Mandy blinked. “The what?”
Jen shrugged uncomfortably, feeling the eyes on her.
“Yeah, I know what you mean,” I said, even though I didn’t.
Jen took a slow breath, collecting her thoughts. “You know, the guy on the motorcycle was black. The guy on the bike was white. The woman was white. That’s the usual bunch, you know? Like everybody’s accounted for? Except not really. I call that the missing-black-woman formation. It kind of happens a lot.”
It was quiet for another moment. But gears were spinning. Tina Catalina let out a long sigh of recognition.
“Like the Mod Squad!” she said.
“Yeah,” Hiro chimed in, “or the three main characters in . . . ” He named a certain trilogy of movies about cyber-reality and frozen kung-fu, whose title ends in an X, counts as a brand, and therefore will not grace these pages.
The floodgates broke. More comic books, movies, and TV shows tumbled off everyone’s lips, a dozen stuffed-full pop-cultural memory banks rifled for examples of missing-black-woman formations, until Mandy looked ready to cry.
She smacked the clipboard down.
“Is this something I should have KNOWN ABOUT?” she said sharply, sweeping her eyes around the table.
An unhappy silence fell over the conference room. I felt like an evil genius’s henchman when something goes wrong in a certain series of secret agent films—as if Mandy might push a button on the control panel and we would be ejected, chairs and all, out the roof and into some lake in Central Park.
His post was prompted, in part, by the Gloria Steinem piece Nora posted about last week. “We have a way of becoming the stories we tell ourselves.” Scott said, and provided some pictorial evidence. Travel on over to his blog to see.
Not long after, author and friend Claire Light posted a response:
Not to be down on Scott Westerfeld, […] but his recent blog post […] needs some complications added to it.
The black man inserted into a white couple says, “Our brand is diverse!” whatever that means. The missing black woman, if she were to appear, would say, “We’re selling to blacks and whites equally!” which is not what most commercials want to say. Most want to say, “Hey, liberal white guilt dollars! Flow this way!”
There’s a fuck of a lot more missing than a black woman. In commercials, one black man is shorthand for all color (i.e. the black woman is not so much missing as unnecessary, since the black man is standing in for her … and the Asian man, and the Asian woman, and the Latin@, and the …)
the MBWF, a white fantasy scenario, is leaving out a much more complicated, and truly diverse, group of people because that would complicate and diversify the white audience’s social scene, rather than placating them for having a mostly white peer group. So it’s a bit more complicated than just a missing black woman. If we’re going to look at negative space, let’s really look at it.
There is also a very, very interesting discussion of bi-and mixed-raciality and how both white and POC perception of that affects how we see/code/react to folks like Keanu Reeves and Barack Obama.
To Claire’s point about the fact that it’s not just a black woman missing in most of these scenarios, but that the black man is standing in for all minorities everywhere–I definitely get that impression. Just thinking of the Clinton/Obama/Edwards formation, it wouldn’t have surprised me if, in the early days, a black woman had made a bid for president and she was shut out because we already had the minority candidate.
It’s reminiscent of the idea that there’s one slot for minorities, and once it’s filled all other minorities are unnecessary. Whether it be in a company, on a TV show, in a community (who’s the next Octavia Butler, anyone? There can be only one!), or in a group of “friends”. It’s some kind of warped version of Affirmative Action that’s neither Affirmative nor Action. Discuss.