Friday, February 25, 2011

Intercultural Dating & Relationships In The Media

cross posted from my Media Justice column

The first annual Rutgers University Sex, Love, and Dating Conference was this past weekend. There were over 250 registered student participants and a great group of workshop presenters, and I was one of them! I did two workshops, one on negotiating sexual identities and the other on intercultural relationships (I’m writing more on my specific experience at this workshop at my RH Reality Check blog so stay tuned for that).

As I prepared for my presentations I found myself more focused on the intercultural dating and relationships workshop. I felt as though there was more preparation for me to do around this topic and I also assumed that a majority of the students present were going to be racially White. However, that was not the case and I was surprised and impressed that a majority of my workshop were students of Color (more than 95%). With so much discussion about the relationships of celebrities who are in intercultural relationships (the break up of Halle Berry comes to mind immediately), I was not surprised there group was so big, rather that it was so diverse!

Part of my preparing for the conference was providing students with a list of resources so that the information and conversations we were having in that space could continue. One of the longer portions of that list was media images and representations. I included podcasts, websites, organizations, books, and film. I think this is a good space to discuss some of the more stellar representations because the list of films were not all of films that are fantastic, some of them are questionable, and I also wanted to hear what films many of you think would be good inclusions for future reference. I recognize that the films I’ve mentioned below only represent a certain relationship, one that is based on monogamy, but also those that are heterosexual; and that needs to change. So, I’m asking for your help in helping me build a list beyond heterosexist representations to ones that are more inclusive. I’ll begin with one of my favorites.

Mississippi Masala
This was one of the first films I saw that discussed intercultural dating, not just interracial but intercultural as well. Denzel Washington plays Demetrius and stars as the love interest of Sarita Choudhury who plays Meena, an Indian woman by way of Uganda whose family relocates to Mississippi after Idi Amin takes power (Amin’s story was the center for the film “Last King of Scotland” starring Forest Whitaker and also represented an intercultural relationship). One of the things I appreciate about this film is the multiple layers of each character, they are not just one-dimensional representations of two young people in love, but the intergenerational and international storylines that play into the relationship of all the characters is rarely seen in such narratives. Check out the trailer below, the film is 20 years old but amazing and fantastic! Then again, all Mira Nair films are.

Romeo Must Die
When this movie first came out I was not too excited to watch it; I thought (and kind of still do) that any film that has DMX in it couldn’t be a quality film. I actually waited until it was on television for free to see the film. Needless to say that was over a year and half, almost two years after it was in theaters. Once I saw the film, I had to admit that I was impressed. Starring Jet Li as Han and R&B singer Aaliyah as Trish, their relationship provides a modern day perspective to the classic Romeo and Juliet story. Han and Trish come from families that are fighting; their love for one another, and their attempts to maintain their relationship is challenged throughout the film. The challenges are not specific to just family tensions, but also to racial and cultural expectations and differences their families have for them. When I discuss intercultural dating, especially when an Asian male character is seen as “getting the girl” in a film, this film is the first one my students discuss. So I have to add this film as a thank you to my past students who have continued to remind me about it and brought to my attention.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding
A film from the last decade, I put this film on the list because it complicates Whiteness in some ways. Often when thinking of intercultural or interracial relationships folks lump people who classify as racially White into one category, not often recognizing the differences within groups. In this film Toula who is from a “traditional” Greek family falls in love with Ian, a young man from a different ethnic background. We watch as Toula preps him to meet her family, how his family interacts with hers, and what rites of passage each brings to their new partnership. I appreciate this film because it discusses age in a way we often don’t see represented. Toula is an older woman (over 25) living at home with her parents and pursuing higher education. We do not often see older women who live at home in such roles, and often when we do they are seen as “old maids” or as failures. In this case Toula is neither.

Chutney Popcorn
I first saw this film when my good friend Daniel Phoenix Singh did a presentation in our college class using this film. The film follows Reena, a young lesbian Indian American woman who lives in NYC and is partnered with a racially White woman, Lisa. This film adds an aspect of surrogacy when Reena’s older married sister cannot get pregnant and Reena decides to be a surrogate for her sister and husband. In an attempt to gain their mother’s respect and support, which we are to believed was lost a bit when Reena came out as a lesbian, we watch as three different relationships shift, are challenged, and transformed.

I Like It Like That
As many Amplify readers already know, I adore this film, it’s one of the first times I believe I saw myself represented in media and in a film. Starring Lauren Velez as Lisette and John Seda as Chino, we watch as they struggle to find themselves, maintain their family, and build a relationship. I find this to be one of the few strong feminist films that represent Latin@s in Hollywood, and that includes LatiNegr@s at that! We watch the –isms unfold within the Latino community Lisette and Chino are a part of, and learn about Lisette’s intercultural background as her father is Jamaican and her mother Puerto Rican. Gender identity is also at the center of this film as Lissete’s sister Alexis is a trans woman and owner of a botanica in the community and has a strong presence throughout the film and in helping Lisette discover her own independence.

Brooklyn Babylon
Brooklyn Babylon is a story about Solomon, a young Black male rapper who falls in love with a White Jewish girl, Sara. Centered in Brooklyn, NY (hence the name), this film plays a bit on the Romeo and Juliet tip, but it adds an additional layer: geographic location and religious communities. I can’t recall if Solomon identifies as a Rastafarian, but the community does have a strong presence in the film. His desire to build a relationship to Sara, a woman from a nearby Jewish community, is difficult as Sara is betrothed to another young Jewish man who has problems with Solomon’s good friend. Tariq Trotter, the front man for the group The Roots, plays Solomon.

Robot Stories
The only science fiction film on this list, I really adore this film. It’s one of those films that I save up money to buy and when I do I end up giving it away as a gift to someone who needs to see it! The last short, “Clay,” of this four part short film, focuses on maintaining memories. We watch as an older Asian artist comes home and finds comfort in his digitized wife Helen, a Black woman. Here’s what writer and director Greg Pak provides about this short on the Robot Stories website:
In John Lee's world, technology allows people to scan their memories - and thus their consciousness - into computers. John (Sab Shimono), an old sculptor, struggles to complete his design for a major public square project, but his body is falling apart. His doctor, his son Tommy (Ron Domingo), and his digitized wife Helen (Eisa Davis) all tell him the same thing - it's time to get scanned. Then he'll merge with all human knowledge and experience, achieving perfect love, perfect art. But John resists, fighting for the right to struggle and die.

Greg Pak is a genius and somebody; anybody needs to fund his media, for life!

Something New
This film was one that I also did not go to see in the theater. I actually waited years until I got the film at the library to check it out. One of the reasons I think I waited so long to see this film was because I didn’t want to see a film about the struggles of a Black woman in the US dating and then her dealing with her frustrations around partnering with a White man. What I was glad to see when I watched the film was a more complicated story, one that included class into the discussion of race and gender and how class and work are also prejudged.

Akira’s Hip Hop Shop
Here is a more modern day film that highlights intercultural relationships in California between Akira and Daphne. Akira owns a record store that focuses on the hip-hop genre and hires Daphne as a part-time employee. Akira’s family lives in Japan and is hopeful he will partner with a Japanese woman. Daphne is a young Black woman who is working her way through culinary school where her specialty is Japanese cuisine. We watch as their communities, friends, and family share their disapproval and ask for confirmation about certain stereotypes connected to their cultural identity and sexuality. I appreciate this film as it provides a more accessible storyline. It’s considered a short film, and that makes it even more useful to promote discussion.

Some less than exceptional films, in my opinion, include: “Rachel Getting Married.” I was extremely uncomfortable throughout watching the film because of the numerous forms of cultural appropriation the couple participated in throughout their wedding preparations and ceremonies. I did however appreciate the familial structure and inclusively of their friends and family during the rituals.

“Bend It Like Beckhem,” I saw in the theater and left feeling odd. The folks I went to see the film with enjoyed it but I had a hard time expressing what my discomfort was with the film. Now I know it is because I found this film to be one where the Indian family living in the UK was seen as backwards and primitive. There was no discussion of the colonization and the attempt at preserving history, cultural practices, and belief systems that play into some families’ resistance to intercultural dating and relationships. This film, however, is not centered on the intercultural dating and relationship, instead its focus is on gender roles and expectations. I found the dating and relationship storyline to be forced, predictable, and tired.

Finally, “She Hate Me,” a film by Spike Lee, which didn’t get too much media attention but the content, sure did! Now, to be clear, I find this film extremely interesting, however, there are some issues of concern I have. The film follows Jack Armstrong, a young Black man who is a whistle blower in his corporate firm, which leads him to losing his job and having all his assets frozen. In an attempt to make money to maintain the lifestyle he is accustomed to, his ex-girlfriend, who is now in a same gender relationship, seeks his assistance in getting pregnant. She then offers to help him and the other women in her network get pregnant for a price. He finds some form of income in having penetrative intercourse with each lesbian-identified woman. There’s so much regarding female sexual pleasure, heterosexism, and male fantasy to deconstruct in this film that I get dizzy sometimes. At the same time the relationships he builds with the various women, and the ending of the film, demonstrate an intercultural relationship that is complex and an important representation of polyamory we rarely get to see.

So, I’ve shared some of my favorites, and not so favorites, tell me what some of your favorite movies and shorts that represent intercultural dating and relationships (and yes I know there are a ton more!) so let’s hear them!

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