After taking an English class in postcolonial literature, I began to see my world in much more critical terms.
Gayatri Spivak’s essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” had the most profound effect on me. In this essay she calls the reader’s attention to the oft-used trope of “white man saves brown woman from brown man.” (A postcolonial reading of literature will allow the reader to view the ways that “brown men” have been constructed as lascivious.) This trope allows us to look at the political discourse surrounding affairs in African, the Middle East, and Asia in a critical light. Suddenly we can conceive of centuries of evangelism and warfare in a new, and sometimes difficult, way.
For example, the events which were discussed in terms of “saving,” take on a connotation of colonizing. This is especially true when we look at the language that Americans, in particular, have used about Muslim women in Middle Eastern countries, who wear the veil. American media constructed the image of the veil as symbol of their oppression. The veil also allowed us, Americans, to other all Muslim women. However, some Muslim women vocalize their choice to wear their veils as a sign of solidarity with other Muslims around the world, to draw attention to the discrimination that Muslims face, to experience a personal relationship with their spirituality, and to feel from from masculine objectification. If we actually tried to deconstruct the veil as a symbol, what we would find is that a) in a dry climate, the veil functioned to protect the face and throat from harsh light and wind, and b) that women who belong to other religions, but share a similar climate, also wear veils. This includes Hindus and Christians. Lastly, in this process of deconstruction, we would call to attention the fact that the Catholic Church, other Christian sects, and Hasidic Jews require women to cover their heads/hair. (Being raised Catholic, I can only reference this religion specifically. I may be incorrect about other religions. If so, I hope that any of my readers will correct me.)
With some of that background in mind, I move on to the discussion of culture, instead of political, discourse. While the second (although technically a prequel) Indiana Jones, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, immediately comes to mind as a story to which we can apply a postcolonial reading, I want to take this opportunity to take the more difficult path.
Gran Torino, starring Clint Eastwood, received an excellent review and was nominated for an Academy Award. This film is about an old, white, Polish man, Walt Kowalski, living in Michigan who must cope with his wife’s death, his unappreciative family, his racism, and ultimately his legacy. To whom will he bequeath his cherished Gran Torino when he dies? While these heavy issues weigh upon his mind, Kowalski confronts the changing character of his neighborhood. The neighborhood has become increasingly a Hmong community. (The Hmong are an ethnic group, based in Southeast Asia, but not limited to any specific country; some live in Laos, others live in Vietnam. They are hill people, as Sue, the young, Hmong neighbor explains.) Kowalski, expressing stereotypically old views of different races and ethnicities, is suspicious of his Asian neighbors. However, he gradually comes to know the family and the culture, and ultimately falls in love with his neighbors.
However, there are multiple instances where we see Spivak’s trope, “white man saves brown woman from brown man,” emerge. The first happens when Kowalski defends Sue from a group of young, black men who are verbally, sexually harassing her. They draw on slurs which are simultaneously racist and sexualized. (Think, “Me love you long time,” made famous in Full Metal Jacket when spoken by a Vietnames prostitute.) Kowalski defends Sue, he uses vicious, racist slurs, violent threats, and a gun to scare the men off. While Sue criticizes the men for drawing on the stereotype of Asian women as passives, subordinate, and sexualized, it is ultimately Kowalski who must come to her defense. The way that he is able to scare other men, functions to allow him to assert his masculine identity as more real, and therein, superior to their masculine identities. When considered within the context of race, we can understand that Kowalski implies white masculinity is superior and more authentic than (urban) black masculinity. In this scenario, Kowalski is the “real” man, and the rest, in their fear, become effeminized.
The other scene, and actually it is not a scene, but rather the entire plot of the movie, which is so problematic under a postcolonial reading, is the relationship between Kowalski and the Hmong gang of deviant youth who terrorize the neighborhood. They assault Sue’s younger brother, and rape Sue. This is made even worse by the understanding that one of the men in the gang is Sue’s cousin. (So the rape is incestuous as well). Kowalski threatens the gang in much the same way that he threatened the group of black men. Ultimately, he arrives at the realization that he cannot beat this gang. Perhaps he believes he is too old. He decides to sacrifice his life, to draw attention to the way he is brutally murdered by the Hmong gang and effectively ensuring their incarceration in order to save Sue and her family, whom he has come to love as his own.
We cannot ignore the fact that the violence that is done to Sue appears to always be sexualized violence. This aspect presents the perpetrators in such a way as to highlight their hypersexuality. The sexualization of the male Other also allows Kowalski to construct his own identity in opposition, as sexuality-less. This in turn allows him to construct his identity as based on rationale, as opposed to driven by, and not in control of, his body.
At the same time, we cannot ignore the fact that the entire plot hinges on Kowalski as the white man who saves the brown community from the brown men who are members of their same community. I am at a loss as to how I can make this clearer. But Kowalski acts like a missionary/colonizer, who assumes he knows what’s best for the Hmong community, and “takes action,” like our society tells us “real” men should.
The repercussions of Kowalski’s actions cannot be ignored. His actions effectively cause the incarceration of a significant number of male youth in the Hmong community. This has the potential to rip apart the kinship ties, which, unto itself is enough to destabilize the community. However, if, as the film presents the information, we believe that the community does not have a strong economic base, then the young men had the potential to make large financial contributions to their families. As men in the United States, they had more earning potential than the women family members.
Futhermore, it is this type of imagery and plot, or as Spivak would say, trope, that has allowed specifically white, middle class police officers, social workers, faith workers, cps workers, et cetera, to explore neighborhoods which are constituted primarily of people of color or of people of lower classes, assuming that a) whites/middle class know the objectively correct way to do any and everything, and b) that people of color do not, and therefore, must be dependent.
At best, the film is problematic. While, as a white, middle class woman, I want to believe Kowalski does the right thing. I want to believe that his sacrifice at the end is good, and right, and selfless, and just, and honorable. At worst, the film is downright racist. Kowalski is another modern day colonizer who first others his neighbors, and then exploits them to construct his own identity, and finally tears apart the seams of the community with violence.