Image Management

By Thomas Kochman - 02.06.2011

I find that people often dismiss representations of their group not so much because the slice of life portraits are distortions of what goes on for members within their group but because the stories are all too depressingly familiar, something they want to distance themselves from.

When that happens the story becomes less about the facts and more about them.

This is often the case among members of ethnic minority groups and it often surfaces when a book about “their” group becomes a run-away best seller, like “Angela’s Ashes” –one Irish immigrant grandmother said disparagingly after reading it, “For Christ’s sake, I could have written that”.

Likewise, the mixed reactions among the people in Limerick, Ireland.

It especially surfaces around “Oscar” time when nominees are announced for best actor or best film.

In 2009 many African Americans had difficulty with the accolades and awards given to “Precious”, or in 2005, with “Crash”.

The Coen Brother’s movie “A Serious Man,” prompted deep and heated debates among Jews.

An Italian American friend didn’t like the 2010 nominated film “The Fighter”.

Those of us hearing his complaint thought that the dysfunctional (“Italian”, “Irish”) family depicted in the film –especially the mother matriarch in the family— resembled too closely his own family experience.

Members of class or ethnic groups do have an issue, if not a problem, that mainstream members of U.S. society do not have.

The former are seen as members of a group. The latter are seen simply as individuals.

When you’re seen, or see yourself, as a member of a group the stakes are higher.  As an insider, you are socially implicated, for better or worse, by the way members of your group are depicted.

When you see yourself or are seen by others as individuals, then it’s just about you or that other person, not about us. Read more »

Imminent Disaster

By Thomas Kochman - 01.08.2010

Some friends of mine asked me about the significance of a scene near the end of the latest Coen brother’s movie, “A Serious Man” in which a decrepit old geezer—most all of the Jewish characters in this movie fit the stereotypical portrait of “how Jews are supposed to look”– is fumbling with a set of keys to open a door to the basement of the building that offers safety against a rapidly approaching tornado that threatens to destroy everything in its path, including, and maybe especially –Jews aren’t “The Chosen People” for nothing– the infuriatingly anxious Yeshiva students waiting outside for the door to open.

I told them, that for me, that scene perfectly captured the survival mindset of many, if not most, Jewish people –the notion that disaster is imminent— and, no matter what you do, there’s very little that can be done to stop it.

Of course, Jews are not the only group who think that.

But what’s different for Jews, and is perhaps decidedly Jewish, is the collective difficulty –some would say inability – to put the notion of imminent disaster aside in getting on with life.

It’s definitely not Carpe Diem or “Eat, Drink and Be Merry, for Tomorrow We Die.” Read more »

Cultural Reality and Stereotypes

By Thomas Kochman - 11.21.2009

The mixed African American reaction to the film “Precious” is a reminder again of what happens when a portrayal of black life draws attention to prevailing social stereotypes of African Americans as a group. One reviewer saw the film as full of “brazenly racist clichés”. Another reviewer talked about what happens when you flatten the black experience by showing only the positive side which “denies our humanity.”

I think the Jewish reaction to the latest Coen brother’s film “A Serious Man,” will be similar. Some Jews will see it as reinforcing stereotypes. My own initial gut reaction was to see it as providing a rationale for anti-Semitism, even and including genocide.  Other Jews will see it, as I also later did, as a defiant film, confronting the public with Jewish stereotypes head on, mocking the mockers, so to speak, and more importantly, a very good film.

Ultimately, the question becomes for groups that have been stereotyped: can the whole truth of an ethnic group be told, one that would show “warts and all.”

The short and quick answer is “yes”, but if the whole truth is to be told then the question is how. Ideally, the public should see any portrait of an individual or family as a slice of life — as one segment of a larger cultural mosaic — and not standing for the collective and varied social and cultural experience of an entire group. Read more »