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WILDEST DREAMS: Taylor Swift at the Precipice of Prejudice or Ignorance

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A few days back Taylor Swift sent her Swiftlings into euphoric fits with the announcement that she would be dropping a video for her song Wildest Dreams on the 31st of August, the night of the 2015 VMA’s. Tweets announcing the video release and a 15 second teaser on YouTube contained enough mouth-watering features to get fans excited.

Apparently styled after The Notebook, the video appears to be set in 1950s Africa with Taylor Swift and Scott Eastwood entang– Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! REWIND! “1950s Africa?” As in: nineteen-fifties Africa? As in: the African continent in the years dated 1950 – 1959? Oh, boy!*insert facepalm emoji here*

Now, I don’t know how big the issue of Swift’s Shake it off video being racist got (didn’t really follow the story at the time, and as far as I’m concerned the video isn’t racist) but having tread into “are you racist?” territory before, you would think more aptness would be shown by the Swift camp when entering the mother of all “are you racist?” territories: the (mis)representation of Africans.

Not caution in the “let me present everyone as good so as not to offend anyone” sense. Rather caution in the “let’s get our details right so that we actually know what we are presenting” sense – you know, life professionalism dictates.

The possibility that a large number of people can’t fathom why a music video by a (though I detest using skin colour to describe any human being) white musician set in “1950s Africa” is (potentially) offensive suggests just how vacuous this great age of information is.

Here’s the thing: 1950s AFRICA IS COLONIAL AFRICA! Colonial Africa as in oppressed Africa. Colonial Africa as in socio-politically enslaved Africa. Colonial Africa as in European occupation of Africa and subjugation of Africans.

The last female mail carrier service. Photo: C.R. Dickenson, O.B.E, ex. P.M.G. Nyasaland. Donated 1982 (from Flinaa, USA). Mr. Dickenson, Spears.

The last female mail carrier service. Photo: C.R. Dickenson, O.B.E, ex. P.M.G. Nyasaland. Donated 1982 (from Flinaa, USA). Mr. Dickenson, Spears.

The way I see it there are only two ways this can play out: the video will end up as some prejudiced assed ish or some ignorant ass ish. I don’t want it to be. I would much rather be writing the fourth scene of my play or watching re-runs of House than bitch about two people kissing under the rain while zebras run around, but I just don’t see how else this video can end up if not in prejudice or ignorance. Consider the two likeliest outcomes:

1) The video turns out to be an inaccurate representation of Africa in the 1950s.
2) The video turns out to be an accurate representation of Africa in the 1950s.

Outcome A:
History and geography would probably crumple themselves into the foetal position and weep in agony if 1950s Africa in Taylor Swift’s Wildest Dreams video turns out to be generic Hollywood Africa. What greater embodiment of ignorance in the 21st century when a simple Google search with the phone right there in the palm of your hands will give you, at the very least, an idea of something you are clueless about?

The phrase “1950s Africa” doesn’t help either. That’s already a big fat finger pointing at ignorance. Saying “1950s Africa” in the context used is like saying “1950s Europe” or “1950s Asia”. That’s like me saying, hey I’m writing a new play and it’s set in South America of the 1980s … ya, but where though? Reducing the myriad of cultures and histories of a freaking continent to a set of stereotypes is …? No extra marks for guessing the answer.

Outcome B:
If the video turns out to be an accurate depiction of Africa in the 1950s it will be digging one of two graves for itself.  (i) It would be a critique of the colonial era, and we all know that isn’t going to happen, or (ii) It would be a celebration of the colonial era, inadvertently so, at the very least. Any need to explicate why both of these are graves? Good, didn’t think so.

And here’s the thing, except the time period the Wildest Dreams video is shot in changes, there’s no escaping the fact that it is occurring in colonial Africa. Only 6 African countries gained independence during the 1950s (Libya, 1951; Morocco, Sudan, Tunisia, 1956; Ghana, 1957; Guinea, 1958) so it isn’t like the last days of colonialism in Africa. It’s smack in the era which means, if you think about it, Swift and Eastwood are playing the parts of colonials.

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It’s quite ironic that not so long after Taylor Swift’s mini-squabble with Nicki Minaj on Twitter OVER THE ISSUE OF PREJUDICE in entertainment/pop culture, a video teeming with such rich and colourful possibilities for prejudice would be coming from Taylor Swift.

Of course, music or a music video isn’t necessarily a representation of an artist’s personality or personal beliefs. For some the art reflects the artist, for others the art is just an image, a manufactured product. What cannot be ignored is what that art, artist, image or manufactured product advocates in the pursuit of its own success.

That’s why things like this are dangerous. On the 31st of August, 2015, Taylor Swift’s Wildest Dreams video will help millions of people around the world believe that Africa in the 1950s was Zebras running around buck naked or some other blindly painted portrait.

Things like this, in their institutionalised multitude, are the stumbling blocks to the flourishing of inter racial relations at the global level. A music video set in 1950s Africa about colonials falling in love (and getting to second base) is like a music video set in Auschwitz about two Nazi’s falling in love (und immer zur zweiten base) while the Jews watch from queues leading up to the furnace.

Here’s hoping I’m wrong and jumping the gun. Here’s expecting that I’m not. On the flipside:

Find Me in Issue 11 of the Critical Stages Journal

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So I’m super excited to have my works as a playwright be feature in an essay in the latest issue of Critical Stages – a journal published by the International Association of Theatre Critics (IATC). The essay was written by Professor Emmanuel Dandaura – who, among many awesome things, is the president of the International Theatre Institute, Nigeria (ITI). Working as a research assistant on the paper was a great experience for me, and it is delightful to see the final product be so brilliant.

The essay is titled From Page to Stage: Influences and Challenges Shaping the New Generation of Nigerian Playwrights, and I appear alongside two terrific playwrights – Sefi Atta and Donald Molosi.

It’s a great read and if you are interested in theatre, playwriting and 21st century history in African/Nigerian literature, you’ll definitely be captivated by the essay. Give it a read and share a thought if you wish. Linked to the text below:

Critical Stages journal, issue 11: From Page to Stage: Influences and Challenges Shaping the New Generation of Nigerian Playwrights

NARUTO isn’t Sexist Just Because Sakura Is Weak

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So I’m taking a scroll down the ugly-beautiful streets of Twitter when I come across a tweet that brings me to a halt:

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Tyler Perry’s Madea read this and laughed in Ancient Greek

The WORST female character EVER!

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Photo credit: Stefan Schubert

I found this very hard to ignore, especially as we live in a world where Tyler Perry’s Madea exists. A Twitter search on: “Sakrua, Naruto, sexist” led me to various tweets expressing the same sentiment:

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I guess a woman with flaws and challenges = “wretchedness”. Good to know.

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Apparently Sakura gets the same treatment as Tsunade. And Mizukage. And Grandma Chiyo. And Temari. (Maybe there’s an alternate version of “Naruto” I haven’t seen?).

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Who needs rational arguments? “I know it!”

Oh, boy! *Insert face-palm emoji here*

Now anyone who watches Naruto knows that Sakura is a frustrating character. In the first part of the series her dependence on Naruto and Sasuke drives you nuts. In the second part, her indecisiveness and clinging to a bygone fantasy exasperate you.

However, just because she is weak does NOT make the writing sexist. Just because a character, male or female, is weak does not mean he/she is badly written. The notion that: a weak female character = sexism, is, ironically, as linear as the thoughts that lead to sexist writing.

The popular opinions I came across in my search on this topic are:
• She’s weak – physically and emotionally.
• She’s just a plot device.
• She doesn’t show up often in the series.

In order not to veer into the lane of ‘personal opinion’, let me put forward an objective examination of Sakura in Kishimoto Masashi’s Naruto based on critiques of sexism. But first let’s get a definition of sexism from a couple ol’ pals o’mine.

Concise Oxford Dictionary: prejudice or discrimination, especially against women, on the grounds of sex.

Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary: the unfair treatment of people, especially women, because of their sex; the attitude that causes this. (Just realised I have 2 Oxford dictionaries. Chambers, no vex.)

Merriam-Webster dictionary (ipad app): behaviour, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex.

Key words/phrases: PREJUDICE. DISCRIMINATION. UNFAIR TREATMENT. FOSTER STEREOTYPES.

IT’S SO SEXIST!

Now, let’s expand those points which argue that Naruto is sexist because of the way Sakura is written:

1. Sakura is physically weak
Of the four shinobi that make up team 7 (Kakashi, Naruto, Sakura, Sasuke), Sakura is the weakest. In the first part of the series she is always the liability whenever the team faces an enemy and has to rely on her male team members to be saved.

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So what about the other males who are not as strong as Sasuke and Naruto? And what about the other females who, for most of the story, are stronger than Sasuke and Naruto?

Though in the second part (Shippuden) she grows in strength, she is still inferior to Naurto and Sasuke.

2. Sakura is emotionally weak
Love-struck to the point of servility, that is what Sakura is because of her love for/infatuation with Sasuke. We first see this attribute as a crush and after Sasuke betrays his village, Sakura struggles to come to terms with the conflict of loyalty to her village and feelings for Sasuke. She largely comes off as emotionally fragile.

3. Sakura is just a plot device
From the point of view of writing structure, Sakura’s defining role is to heighten the conflict in the rivalry between Naruto and Sasuke as they seek to surpass each other.

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PSA: all supporting characters ARE plot devices. She serves her function as a device and gets character development beyond being a device. Somehow that’s “very bad”.

Naruto loves Sakura, but Sakura loves Sasuke, but Sasuke doesn’t care about Sakura. Yet she dotes over Sasuke so much you just want to pull your hair out and scream. Outside of this, her only other function is to be involved in the plot where required/suitable.

4. Sakura doesn’t show up often in the series
This fourth point is based on Sakura’s intermittent appearance compared to Naruto and Sasuke. Since she’s mainly a plot device, she only shows up when needed and a couple moments when there’s time to spare.

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So a female supporting character = sexism. That’s going to be a long list

Kishomoto involves her sparingly and it is probably so out of sexist disdain.

IT’S SO NOT SEXIST!

Examined in isolation, these points suggest Kishiomoto is a sexist myopic dude worthy of some bitch-slaps from a gender-empowered fist. However, a story does not exist in isolation, it exists in a world (in this case, the Narutoverse) and must be considered within the context of that world.

Taking into consideration key factors such as theme, message and structural cohesion, the counter arguments to the above points reveal layers which we cannot eliminate from the issue of sexism. Let us consider these counter arguments:

1. Sakura is a supporting character.
The crux of the series is Naruto vs Sasuke. This is the defining conflict, the foundation. Everything else exists to serve or expand this. Of course other conflicts and themes exist but they can’t develop fully because they aren’t central.

As a supporting character, Sakura cannot be expected to be as developed or appear as frequently as Naruto and Sasuke. (Perhaps some sexism-accusers assume that she is a lead character.) Though her role is important for the plot narrative and emotional timbre of the story, she is still a secondary character. Her limited involvement is due to STRUCTURE not PREJUDICE.

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Do I even need to …? Oh, boy.

Comparatively, the key male supporting characters aren’t developed any much more than her. In fact, her character gets developed more than the likes of Rock Lee, Shikamaru and, notably, fan-favourite Neji. It cannot be ignored that we see a variety of dimensions to Sakura – weak, strong, crybaby, determined, boychaser, intelligent, studios.

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Because supporting characters who make a fictional world come alive = “useless”

Rather than toss aside Sakura once she has served her function as a source of conflict between Naruto and Sasuke, Kishomoto goes further to add layers to her character and her journey. We see her struggle with her lack of strength then take up tutelage under Tsunade, the fifth Hokage.

But, like all supporting characters, male or female, there is a limit to which the character can be stretched. Scripts and screen don’t have the luxury of space and time you find in prose, a supporting character can’t be as developed as the leads. A casual viewer not realising this is understandable, a writer not understanding this is disappointing.

2. There are strong female characters
You can’t pick one female character out of many, ignore the way women are represented AS A WHOLE in the story, then say it’s sexist because of that one female character whom you don’t like. That, ironically, is prejudiced!

And as a matter of fact, there are more strong female characters than weak ones. Sakura (to some extent), Hinata, Ino and Tenten can be called weak. Their functions and frequency of appearance are limited, they aren’t especially strong and (except Tenten) their roles involve a lot of male acceptance/recognition.

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Apparently being a medic is “useless”. Encouraging for female nurses out there. Oh, and a shy girl who fights to overcome confidence issues is a “pussy”. Ok, then!

But on the strong list we can name female characters like: Tsunade, Mizukage Mei Terumi, Shizune, Konan, Kurenai, Temari, Anko, Kushina, Grandmother Chiyo. These women are excellent ninjas, independent, loving to their male counterparts yet not reliant on them, and highly assertive individuals. They aren’t perfect, they have their troubles and their flaws, but they certainly aren’t weak.

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Ok, so we’re selectively ignoring the tons of other female characters who can and do think and act for themselves? Ok, cool beans, yo!

In the totality of female characters in the Narutoverse, the strong outnumber the weak ones. I’m baffled over how that can be sexist.

3. Sakura fights against her weakness
The reason I added ‘to an extent’ as a condition to Sakura’s inclusion on the weak list is because it cannot be excluded from her characterisation that she recognizes and fights to conquer her weakness. There’s a whole plotline dedicated to Sakura’s frustration with her dependence on Naruto and Sasuke, leading her to seek tutelage under Tsunade.

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Yes, let’s ignore her personal achievements and what they mean to her. But let’s compare her with the lead characters whom tons of other characters are inferior to.

She develops insane physical strength, which other senior shinobi recognise, and becomes a medical ninja. Achieving this is no easy feat for her, she faces doubts and fears but keeps pushing and being pushed by her sensei. As her physical and medical training grows, so does her emotional maturity.

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A writer develops character traits he established, making a weak ninja seek to get stronger, and that is “forced, apologetic and inconsistent?” Ladamercy!

So while she is weak, it’s not just a trait slapped on her and left at that. The writer builds aspects of her character out of her weakness, out of her struggle to conquer them.

4. Sakura’s weaknesses are NOT glorified
This is, in my opinion, the most important point. Kishomoto doesn’t write Sakura in such a way that her weaknesses are lauded. They aren’t admirable qualities. They are traits which Sakura herself recognises as limitations.

Sexism, being a prejudice, is founded on exploitation. Sexism involves a glorification of negative stereotypes. But Sakura’s weaknesses aren’t advocated as traits worthy of a girl or woman. They are attributes of her character which bother her as much as they do viewers.

Neither is Sakura exalted for her infatuation with Sasuke. It’s a complex relationship the three (she, Naruto, and Sasuke) share, and I believe anyone who has been in the position of loving someone who doesn’t/can’t/won’t love you back would appreciate that Kishomoto doesn’t gloss the difficulties of the love triangle.

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So a central character relationship that develops throughout the entire series = “wasted”.

To be sexist, Kishomoto would have to be saying, through Sakura, that weakness is an admirable trait for a woman. But engaging with the character leaves viewers feeling the exact opposite. There’s more than one way to present a case for empowerment, you know.

5. Bonus: male characters are just as goofy, inept and have unappealing traits as well
Naruto is dumb, Kiba is uncouth, Shino has insecurity issues bordering on inferiority complex, Guy sensei is ditzy, Jiraiya and Mizuki are perverts, Sasuke is cold hearted, Iruka is a weak/failed ninja. Kishimoto does a great job overall of not judging characters based on their attributes (not even the core evil ones like Orochimaru) but just presenting them as who they are and letting them unravel as events build. That leaves it up to us to see what we want to see, feel what we want to feel.

Last thoughts

Kishimoto, like all writers, has his flaws. I particularly don’t like the way his plot lines lose tautness when he stretches them beyond necessity. And I haven’t (probably never will) forgive him for that atrocious twist in the climax (who kills the lead villain at the final minute just to introduce a whole new villain with a rushed background story!?!?). But what he does handle well are the characters and character relationships in his Naruto verse. It’s a world rich with people, male and female alike. And we get to learn a lot about each of them.

I understand why many consider Sakura weak, but personally I consider her human. The fact that she doesn’t surrender to her challenges but fights to surmount them has to count for something! Who isn’t struggling with some fear or flaw or personal challenge? It’s called intrapersonal conflict and Sakura has it in loads, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

A weak character, male or female, doesn’t automatically mean a poor character. You must assess the character within the context of the story. I mean, what if it’s a story that needs a man or woman to be weak so as to get its message across? Can I as a man seriously call Dickens’ Great Expectations sexist because in it a woman turns a man into her plaything? Is it really sexist to have fictional characters that are as flawed and complex as real women (and men!) are?

Good female characters can’t all be Ripley or Wonder Woman. Just as good male characters shouldn’t all be Superman or Rambo. Replacing the ‘flawless male’ character with the ‘flawless female’ character does not solve the problem of sexism in fiction, it just changes the form.

NOTE: There is a case for sexism in Naruto, and shounen manga as a whole. But if you’re going to put forward an accusation, you must get your argument right. Just because you are ‘standing for something’ doesn’t mean you should lose your objectivity.

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