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October 27, 2003


America's White Sweethearts

Saving Private Lynch. Bringing Elizabeth Home. America loves its wholesome blonde girls, that's for sure, especially when they're released from the darkness of bondage into the spotlight of a primetime special. Everybody feels scared and violated when little white fair-haired girls -- as much a symbol of "our" imagined national identity as baseball and apple pie (maybe more than apple pie nowadays) -- get captured by The Other. We have posters and ribbons and round-the-clock news coverage and we hope and we pray. And then, due to "miracles", the girls return safe and sound, or so it seems, and we can breathe a national sigh of relief when the families tell us from their front yards that everyone's fine and proud and back to normal. Once again we've vanquished the big bad wolf and feel that as long as everyone's virginity is intact -- at least intact "before the Lord" -- we can go about our business as the compassionate and patriotic folk that we know ourselves to be.

johnsonAnd we can maintain this self-image even as Elizabeth's parents start parading her around White House photo ops and -- after a tasteful pause, of course -- release her to the custody of Katie Couric (" intimate details of their story that no one has heard before") and Oprah ("the only time cameras go inside Elizabeth Smart's home" -- as if we're abducting her all over again). And we hold onto that image even after it turns out everything we had been told about Jessica's capture and ordeal was a lie. A lie so intricate, in fact, that even zealous efforts to unravel the lie fail several times, and everyone is left waiting for the TV movie to figure out what really happened. Probably absent from the TV movie version, though, will be an explanation of why Shoshana Johnson, who was captured and held along with Pfc. Lynch, and who is black, won't get her own movie and book deals, or why, even worse, she's apparently entitled to only a 30 percent disability benefit, instead of the 80 percent benefit that America's sweetheart is getting. Which reminds me that Katie Couric never got around to doing a primetime special about the Latina girl in California who was abducted while Elizabeth was missing and freed herself after a rather harrowing few days. Katie also forgot to talk about Erica Pratt, the black girl in Philadelphia who bit off the duct tape around her hands, removed a gag and blindfold, kicked out a door panel, and cried for help.

prattWhat's going on? Do we not hear about Shoshana and Erica because they're not white? Does the media not cover such stories because we don't care, or do we not care because the media doesn't cover the stories? And who is "we", anyway? Why is that when stories like Johnson's finally get a lot of attention it's because of the racial overtones, not the actual event that originally should have been reported more proportionally? Maybe it's that we don't really want to know, but the media powers-that-be know we'll eat what we're fed?

Maybe it's because America is in denial about its racial and moral identity. Even though white people are soon to be a plurality instead of a majority in this country, we still disproportionately represent ourselves in the media: we like looking at ourselves. I guess the people running the media conglomerates figure non-white people don't mind looking at us, too, so they may as well just keep showing more of us. But since they (and their advertisers) apparently assume white people aren't really that interested in what's going on with non-white people, there's no need to talk about or show them on the news, except when (a) they do something bad, or (b) someone says something impolite about them. So when it comes time to "flood the zone" with the story of a POW or kidnap victim, who's it going to be? The little blonde girl or the big black girl? Who's projected to get more sympathy and attention from the computer-modeled American audience?

At first glance, the stories of Elizabeth and Jessica seem more exciting and cable-ready than the stories of Erica and Shoshana, but if you think about it, Elizabeth's story isn't really fit for tv at all: she was brainwashed and sexually abused and made her way home mostly because her abductor got a message from God asking him to return to Utah. And Jessica's story is so wrapped up in overzealous patriotic mythology and nonsensically-classified reports, a TV movie will inevitably be just a visualization of the lore surrounding her capture and rescue. In other words, as a media-consuming audience, we're blind to the realities of the stories: we just want to tell ourselves -- via Katie Couric or a movie-of-the-week -- that we can save our children from evil, especially when they're blonde.

Not bored yet? Here's a related post on the case of Sakia Gunn, a young African-American lesbian who was killed and ignored by everyone.

categories: Media
posted by adm at 1:34 AM | #


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