Let's take a closer look at the cases of performative progressivism that have been seen recently. Why censor Community is it progressive only on the facade? Why is the change of direction of Wizards of the Coast instead positive? What do Black Lives Matter activists have to do with all this?

Over the past month we have seen a wave of protests against the systemic racism of US institutions, calling for reforms, a re-distribution of police funds, and greater awareness of institutional racism. Many realities have lined up in favor of the Black Lives Matter movement, from Hollywood actors to big fashion brands, from youtubers to information sites. Against this support, we have also seen the shields of reactionary realities rise, as in the case of list of Traitors of America by One Angry Gamer.

As the protests continued in the United States, many entertainment companies have begun to review their catalog, looking for potentially offensive products, to be eliminated in a preventive manner. This is news that we know well by now. And that have delighted the Italian media, very ready to re-propose as the definitive choices of large companies what later turned out to be troll provocations.

Let's break down these preventive reviews a bit. In which cases are they sensible and well done? In what situations are they totally free? Can we really always talk about censorship? Were these decisions made in consultation with activists from the Black Lives Matter movement, or experts in the field? And why do we speak of performative progressivism?

A comment by journalist Oiza Obasuyi on the performative progressivism of Netflix and HBO
A comment by journalist Oiza Obasuyi on the performative progressivism of Netflix and HBO

Performative progressism: what is meant?

Before starting, I think it appropriate to make a small note on the key term of this article, which is "performative progressivism".

Performative progressivism is used to describe an attitude that on the face of it declares itself progressive (i.e. that it is in favor of accelerating the evolution of society in the political, social or economic sphere), but which actually hides prejudices towards the same categories of people who they claim to support. To give an example, a person who makes performative progressivism will declare in public that he is not racist, and then ignore the critical issues that are defined as racist by non-white people. This article by The Harvard Crimson can be a good starting point, as it explains Katy Perry's performative progressivism well.

Performative progressivism is a rather lively research topic in sociology, development studies and cultural studies, especially as regards the acceptance of queer people (therefore non-heterosexual and / or non-cisgender). Cases of performative progressivism towards queer communities are seen when straight and cisgender people they say open and welcoming to queer neighbors, but on the condition that they adopt a "conventional" lifestyle, ie that they marry and have / adopt children, thus conforming to what many heterosexual people consider "normal".

Adapting to the traditional life choices of heterosexual people, or considering these choices the norm is called "heteronormativity" and therefore the expectations we have just seen are "heteronormative" expectations. Supporting the rights of queer people, while expecting them to adapt to a heteronormative lifestyle is a form of performative progressivism: on the face you are progressive, but you don't make the extra effort to better understand the lives of the people you say you are. to support.

A progressive facade only, unreasoned and not made by minorities

Therefore, performative progressivism tends to be made by people who do not belong to the minority towards whom we declare progressives, and who are not interested in truly understanding the struggles and demands of these minorities. Although people who do performative progressivism can be sincere in their feelings, their tolerance tends to extend only within the limits of their comfort zone, and therefore they will be tolerant only towards people they consider "normal", never questioning their own model. of company.

For this reason, the expressions of performative progressivism will mostly be alone formal, without reasoned content. Such are the requests to accept minority people motivated by all being equal, which is a kind of mentality that trivializes the integration of minorities. The use of a is always such politically correct language which, however, does not question what stereotypical narratives we produce, damaging minorities, and therefore avoid offenses such as "black", but not alienating statements such as "you are so exotic!". Finally, it is also performative progressivism to remove an episode of Community in which there is a pseudo-blackface, without questioning how the representation of black people on its platform is negatively conveyed, but in more subtle ways.

Let's move on to the individual cases to be analyzed.

An example of a 30 Rock blackface, canceled in the name of performative progressivism
An example of a blackface from 30 Rock, canceled in the name of performative progressivism

Deleting episodes from TV series due to the blackface: an example of performative progressivism

As you well know, Netflix has canceled an episode of the comic series Community, Namely Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, since it contained a case of blackface. If you want to know more about the blackface, its history and its use in Italy, I refer you to this excellent video of the canal Afroitalian Souls.

In the episode in question, the protagonists of the series play D&D and Chang, the obnoxious community college Spanish teacher, playing a Drow, paints his face black and wears a white wig. Inevitably, then, Chang's makeup ends up being disturbing, as it largely recalls a blackface. This similarity is also underlined in the episode itself, when Shirley, who is a black woman, comments "Are we gonna pretend to ignore that hate crime?".

Now, this Netflix decision is a fairly exemplary case of performative progressivism, and now I will try to explain why. First of all, it is quite evident that it was one internal decision of the company, made to declare solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, but without this cancellation having been requested by the BLM movement. Secondly, it is a decision that would seem to express more of a will than wash your consciencerather than facing the problem critically and mature.

A late and unreasonable cancellation: the criticism of Racquel Gates

In this sense, in fact, Racquel Gates, professor of cinema at the College of Staten Island, comments deleting this episode from Community and other episodes with blackface from Scrubs, The Office e The Golden Girls, In the following way:

It's a weird moment to be living in, as a society and also for me as a Black person, I'm being asked to play along with this ruse that white people and white companies weren't aware of these things when they obviously have been. Whether they chose to care or not is a different matter.

Hence, the removal of these episodes not only comes as a choice late, but also not very reasoned. Indeed, Gates points out that these cancellations do not incite reflection on how and why these episodes were written and produced. So basically, deleting these episodes is a shortcut for to give a progressive image of one's company, without however confronting those who produced these problematic episodes in the first place choosing to use the blackface.

Furthermore, the use of blackface itself is indicative ("indicative" does not mean "acceptable", let's be clear!) Of the historical period in which the series was shot: in The Golden Girls (1988) is indicative of how the ethnic tensions of the time were discussed, while in Community (2009-15) is typical of the type of humor of those years, based on shock and overcoming the limits of what is acceptable. In fact, Gates uses series like The Golden Girls for their own lessons, just to deepen these themes:

These are living documents as much as they're also evidence of a historical time period. Being able to sort of reframe for the audience how we make sense of these feels like a much more productive lens than taking them out of circulation.

Alternative ideas for talking about racism in a TV series without erasing episodes: Alanna Bennett's comment

Therefore, episodes of this kind can be called problematic, they can be called racists, they can be attacked, but if they are canceled from streaming platforms, you are not fighting racism, you are not educating the public, but he is preventing himself from talking about these episodes and their racism. It is not even about damnatio memoriae, but of a performative progressivism that actually tries to hide the dirt of its programs under the carpet.

Rather than canceling these episodes, it is more useful to give them a treatment Gone with the Wind, who remained on the HBO channel, but accompanied by a documentary that reviews his racist stances. Progress can be achieved, in fact, by understanding the mistakes of the past and trying not to commit them anymore: therefore, it is more important that the next film products do not have blackface casesrather than erasing past products that convey racist ideas. So I quote words di Alanna Bennett, African American TV writer:

Not sure I get taking every ep with blackface down. Why not put a disclaimer on them instead? “On further reflection the creators of this program realize they were being insensitive assholes” I'd rather have an archive of the mistake and apology than erasure that it happened.

I want the world to KNOW that the creators of How I Met Your Mother, in the 2010s, thought that a yellowface episode was OK. If they've rethought that decision, I want the world to know that too.

As @HayesBrown pointed out to me, old Looney Tunes episodes have disclaimers. Not suggesting the same language be applied to blackface eps of modern times, but a version of this just feels slightly more honest.

Warning before the Looney Tunes episodes
Warning before the Looney Tunes episodes

How performative progressivism ignores the problems that activists have actually complained about

Seeing this, it is quite clear that the decision to eliminate problematic episodes from some television series does not come from the activists of Black Lives Matter, but is a choice of individual companies.

The criticisms of TV series with racist problems have always been and have generally been made by activists belonging to the minority communities concerned. This was the case for example controversy against Nagini or fearful Dumbledore's queer representation in Fantastic animals, and even the idea of not having a mostly Slavic cast for the series of The Witcher has been frowned upon by Slavic critics. Similarly, the queer representation made with the dropper Disney has always been widely criticized by activists from the LGBTQIA + community, as has been criticized by trans activists casting of cisgender men to play trans women. Also criticism of the mediocre treatment of Finn's character in Star Wars, The Rise of Skywalker including, and in the fandom of Star Wars it is generally carried out by black people.

The blackface: a racist icon that is easy to eliminate

In short, there are many problems related to racism, sexism and homolesbobitransphobia in cinema and television. Blackface is part of these problems and using it without putting it in a critical context is certainly not very sensitive towards the black public. However, it is quite clear that by deleting episodes with blackface, that is, with an instantly recognizable racist icon, is not an effective way to address the problem of racism in film and television, as it ignores not only the reasons for the use of blackface in those particular episodes, but also all the other (less obvious) problems related to racism present on television and cinema.

Removing the blackface will not help black directors / directors / and directing multiple films, it won't help black actors / actresses to have the same salaries as their colleagues and their white colleagues, it will not help to avoid racist tropes like the "magical negro", the "angry black woman", the mammy or the Jezebel (find the explanation for all these stereotypes Thu). Removing the blackface from these episodes is only the simplest thing that these companies can do to seem progressive, but without committing to take an examination of conscience. This is why I speak of performative progressivism.

And this progressivism is even more performative when you notice that, generally, it is not done or asked by black activists.

Image of the Vistani, inspired by Roma culture
Image of the Vistani, inspired by Roma culture

Positive anti-racist changes: the case of the Wizards of the Coast

Of course, there are cases where the changes proposed by the companies are positive. For example, the route change that the W is doing with D&D and with Magic it is sometimes well managed.

Positive changes on D&D: the Vistani

First, the revision of Curse of Strahd and characterization of the Vistani To remove the stereotypes associated with Roma ethnicity, hiring Roma counselors is a good thing. In fact, the stereotypical characterization of the Vistani and their proximity to the derogatory way in which Roma are viewed in the Western world are issues that had been brought to light years ago. I report here only a discussion dating back to 2016, but the fact that this representation of the Vistani was problematic is not a new topic.

Positive changes on D&D: Orcs and genetic determinism

Similarly, the need for better characterize some breeds of D&D, especially inherently evil ones like Orcs and Drow, is another long-standing topic. In fact, already in one of the academic essays also present in Outside the Dungeon you can see how to paint the Orcs and the Mezzorchi as intrinsically wild, that is with social behaviors attributed not to the context in which they lived, but to their geneticshas long been perceived as problematic.

This characterization, in fact, echoes the ideas of genetic determinism, that is, the idea that human behavior is the result of genetic inheritance, and not of the education received. In this sense, genetic determinism has given racist ideas the bases (later revealed to be false) on which to build the discrimination of blacks and non-white ethnicities, with statements of the depth of "blacks are genetically more violent than whites". You can then imagine how genetic determinism, with its scientific racism, then contributed to Nazi theories and practices of eugenics.

So put black and white in a manual that Orcs and Half-Orcs are genetically predisposed to be wild and therefore to make a "Wild Charge" it recalls genetic determinism a little too much. After decades of talking about these issues, therefore, Wizards of the Coast has finally decided to review the way in which genetics and culture affect characters.

The (maybe) less positive changes on Magic The Gathering

Wizards of the Coast was also right in the clear some cards of Magic with a racist subtext, as we also see in this article. In this case, however, it should also be noted that the reasons for the elimination of some cards are not very clear, and in this sense the silence of the WotC does not help to make its reasons more understandable.

Unfortunately, this silence always brings us back to the discourse of performative progressivism: it is understandable that WotC wants to remove these cards from the market, but it should do so after having widely explained their reasons and after analyzing the reasons that led to the creation of these cards. Otherwise there is too much the idea of ​​the dust hidden under the carpet.

Performative progressivism is also the result of the need for change, but we must aspire to something better

However, it is important to note that both the positive initiatives of the Wizards of the Coast, when the purely performative ones of Netflix are probably a consequence of the US protests after the death of George Floyd. If Netflix's performative and patchy progressivism is evidently a corporate policy move, WotC's reaction responds to criticisms that have been around for years and is, in certain cases, supported by the advice of minority people.

So I think it's important recognize when the Black Lives Matter movement prompted many realities to make self-criticism towards their work and their products, and reactions like that of WotC give hope for a positive change in the franchise. However, Netflix's negative example should remind us that we can never expect social struggles to be carried out by large companies, as it is obviously more important for them to avoid controversy in order not to lose spectators.

And although actions like those of Wizards of the Coast are commendable, it is always necessary to remember that it was never the activists and activists of the Black Lives Matter movement who asked WotC or Netflix to withdraw cards or episodes from the market. Therefore, it is essential to remember us towards whom we must channel our discontent for these censorship operations: not against those who fight for their rights, but against companies that prefer to pretend they have never published racist things, rather than confront their mistakes.