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“Don’t Ever Try to Judge me Dude”: The Representations of Whiteness Visibility and Crisis of White Masculinity in 8 Mile (Curtis Hanson 2002)
The meaning behind the term “whiteness” has continually evolved over the years. It now stands for much more than maintaining purity in the white race and the distancing of itself from the invasion of other cultures. “Whiteness” is a term that is no longer solely germane to white culture, but to the strength of one racial group from being affected by the customs and ways of another. As the term ‘whiteness’ is a constructed category of identity that encapsulates social and cultural formations it is thus, an inevitable association for many people. The film 8 Mile is one of the most recent examples of a media text that openly addresses the concept of whiteness and the impact it has on certain cultures, more explicitly black culture. Specifically, masculinity and visibility are relevant representations of whiteness that are present in contemporary society and the film 8 Mile. In discussing the critical framework of whiteness, an exploration of the representational intersection of race and gender in the film 8 Mile will now ensue, where white masculinity is shown to be threatened and whiteness visible.
There is often a great deal of confusion when defining whiteness. “Whiteness is not a term describing an immutable biological content, but rather a term reflecting mutable relationships of social power” (Babb, V. M., 1998, p.13). Furthermore, according to Leonardo (2009, p.169) ‘whiteness’ and ‘white people’ are two separate concepts where the former is a racial discourse and the latter a categorisation based on skin colour that represents a socially constructed identity. It is a blatant form of privilege that is dependent on the reliability of white skin and because this privilege is so often indirect it makes the entire concept more prevalent. Whiteness deals with certain elements of racial superiority and “in this white supremacist society, whiteness consistently conveys certain privileges” (Jansen, R., 2005, p.8). Yet in terms of this supremacist society “it must be said that not all white people benefit equally from white supremacy, in particular whiteness is intersected with inequalities of class, but they do all benefit which is an important distinction” (Preston, J., 2007, p.4). Whiteness is often overlooked as a social and cultural categorisation of identity however according to Leonardo (2009, p.91) whiteness and white people become much more distinguished when whiteness studies are conducted, in an almost unprecedented way. Whiteness is so often overlooked in terms of its categorisation of race, in society it “simply became normal” (Anderson, W., 2006, p.255). With white culture simply normalized as the dominant culture, “whiteness is then best understood as a lack of cultural distinctiveness and authenticity” (Rasmussen, B. B., 2001, p.10).
Whiteness is a social construction tied with social status and discrimination against non-whites and as Brattain (2001, p.4) states in terms of social relationships and material benefits whiteness will always be a very real determinant. Often these advantages or benefits presented appear to be invisible to white people but not to non-white people and as Lipsitz (2006, p.23) states in order to face it openly and honestly, our society must acknowledge our possessive investment in whiteness. “The ideology of whiteness asserts that those with white skin are more deserving of employment, sound housing, quality education, and equitable social treatment than those without that attribute” (Babb, V. M., 1998, p.44) nevertheless, the focus of whiteness is more on the disadvantages suffered by racial minorities rather than advantages of whites. Sadly “all too often, racial minorities seek to secure the benefits of whiteness for themselves by gaining advantages at each others’ expense” (Lipsitz, G., 2006, p.185).Ultimately, whiteness presents the idea that every white identity can be accepted into a system of privilege and that historically whites have had more opportunities than other races. From there “whites can use the privilege for purposes of racial justice and therefore contribute to the remaking of whiteness that is not inherently oppressive and false” (Leonardo, Z., 2009, p.93). With that whiteness coincides with the oppression of others and “it is clear that whiteness often served to disguise differences in power, status, and control” (Brattain, M., 2001, p.6). On the other hand according to Sullivan (2006, p.196) white people experience hardship and pain just like everyone else, contrary to popular belief whiteness and white privileges are not monolithic. This becomes clear in the film 8 Mile, “a thinly disguised autobiography of the performer Eminem” (Noble, J. B., 2006, p.93).
According to MacMullan (2009, p.142) how whiteness functions, has always in some way been connected to its invisibility. Whiteness in all its complexity is often deemed the normative and its invisibility is only ever really experienced by white people and this is because “whiteness operates by being “invisible,” so ubiquitous and entrenched as to appear natural and normative” (Rasmussen, B. B., 2001, p.10). According to Rasmussen (2001, p.81) when whiteness refrains from speaking its own name, this is known as “the invisibility of whiteness”. The invisibility of whiteness takes place white people believe or see themselves as racially and culturally absent or ambiguous. The reason this concept is taken so seriously is because as stated by MacMullan (2009, p.143) because of its invisibility to white people, whiteness has become increasingly dangerous. As a result Hess (2007, p.174) states the visibility of whiteness is an issue that has resulted in much scholarly debate. Furthermore, “the invisibility of whiteness is an enabling condition for both white supremacy/privilege and race-based prejudice” (MacMullan, T., 2009, p.143) and in essence this defines the line between blacks and whites. While whiteness is considered invisible because it is known about yet not acknowledged, 8 Mile considers a situation where whiteness is not only acknowledged but sparks conflict. “A film like this appropriates the practice of naming whiteness not as a tool of dismantling White supremacy, but of dismantling challenges to it instead” (Noble, J. B., 2006, p.93).
According to Watts (2005, p.189) by dramatizing a world in which whiteness is the object of racial injury in 8 Mile, the film simultaneously presents a world in which blackness holds the advantage. As a young white rapper growing up in Detroit, in a poor neighbourhood and struggling for the respect of his peers who are mostly black, Rabbit is highlighted for his whiteness and sub sequentially targeted for it in the film 8 Mile by black members of a rap group called “The Leaders of the Free World” who harass Rabbit throughout the film. In this movie Rabbit is a man determined to establish his career and himself as a rapper, accordingly “the invisibility of whiteness in hip hop is invoked in particular for whites in these roles” (Hess, M., 2007, p.138). In the central role Rabbit is racially distinctive from is black counterparts and Rabbit expresses both allegiance to and discomfort with whiteness. He is embarrassed by the white culture he comes from. At the same time Rabbit refuses to deny his identity. With whiteness visibility comes much scrutiny about the concept that is not present when it is invisible and according to Rasmussen (2001, p.10) whiteness may be invisible to whites however it is hypervisible to non-whites or people of colour. Hypervisibility opens whiteness up to critical assessment in the form of open judgement by any individual or race and whiteness is projected as hyper-visible throughout the film.
When skin colour becomes the central marker, whiteness rather than invisible, becomes hypervisible. “Whiteness remains so entirely hyper-visible as everything that it also becomes, paradoxically, invisible as nothing, the norm, as an invisible backdrop against which all other races are produced” (Noble, J. B., 2006, p.89). While there has been great academic focus on the invisibility of whiteness, the film 8 Mile demonstrates what happens when whiteness becomes visible or hypervisible and “rather than relying on white invisibility and normativity for its power and prestige, the film makes whiteness hyper-visible by subjecting it to raced and gendered struggles” (Watts, E. K., 2005, p.189). When whiteness is made hypervisible it suddenly becomes almost a point of negativity as experienced by Rabbit in 8 Mile. However it also puts white people in a position where they can understand how their cultural difference sets them apart from non white. The film therein tackles the issues of whiteness as opposed to blackness. It also gives white people an opportunity to consider how their apparent whiteness has moulded their cultural identity. As Watts (2005, p.187) writes, by subjecting the films main character Rabbit to common race and gender struggles, whiteness becomes hyper-visible as a result. As such, Rabbit’s presence is met with constant hostility in this subculture from black antagonists. However, “whiteness never works in isolation; it functions as part of a broader dynamic grid created through intersections of race, gender, class, and sexuality” (Lipsitz, G., 2006, p.73).
In the film 8 Mile whiteness has been somewhat reversed. Instead of its original meaning the white man, Rabbit is a threat to the purity of the black community. “The film positions whiteness as vulnerable, oppressed, and heroic in its battle against the forces of tyranny – forces racialized as Black – which is a very odd way of thinking about race in the 21st century.” (Noble, J. B., 2006, p.96). Where there was once concern with black culture invading white culture, there is now a black culture been affected by white culture and as a result Hess (2007, p.126) states Rabbit is depicted as an “oppressed minority” in the film 8 Mile. Whiteness is no longer a term to represent the black race interfering with the white race, but as the strength of one race from being “affected” from the culture of another. Basically, “8 Mile is a perfect example of a very sneaky and popular racist backlash against necessary encroachments onto whiteness” (Noble, J. B., 2006, p.96). 8 Mile demonstrates that this term ‘whiteness’ no longer refers to just the Caucasian race. As the film progresses it follows the societal repercussions of being a successful white rapper in a predominately black culture and explores what a white man succeeding in a strictly black world means for the hegemony of rap and hip-hop. As stated by DeGenaro (2007, p.235) in the world of Hip-Hop, in order to gain legitimacy whiteness depends on ghetto blackness. Rabbit must contend with the racial bias that stems from and is associated with performing a traditionally more urban or black musical genre. Rap battles are where credibility and legitimacy are established or proven in the film. “The rap battle is the place in the film where legitimacy and power are exercised. Given its symbolic violence, it is also an arena in which all the conventional attributes of masculinity are on display and tested” (Watts, E. K., 2005, p.193). This is where Rabbit’s white masculinity is threatened in the film and his whiteness is intentionally made visible in order to discredit his ability as a rapper.
White masculinity can only exist in relation to other forms of masculinity and also “white masculinity can only know its power through the mediation of blackness” (Robinson, S., 2000, p.38). White masculinity has been the standard against which all men and their masculinity are measured. However black masculinity differs greatly from that of white masculinity and in society “the visibility of white masculinity is both resisted and welcomed” (Robinson, S., 2000, p.26). White masculinity is a term that encapsulates both identity and ideology and basically conceptions of white masculinity that help define Rabbits identity in the film. “White masculinity is a specific and embodied (racial and gendered) identity” (Robinson, S., 2000, p.17). However, there is a crisis in white masculinity and this becomes increasingly prominent throughout the film 8 Mile. The film illustrates a crisis in white masculinity and this is supported by a representation of a cultural loss of masculinity. Additionally, “the white male victim – personally, individually targeted – is the emblem of the current crisis in white masculinity” (Robinson, S., 2000, p.5). Declarations of a crisis in masculinity occur in the context of depictions of white male oppression in the film and the impact of this crisis greatly affects Rabbit.
Whiteness and white masculinity have not always been acknowledged so publicly as in the film 8 Mile and this is because, as Robinson (2000, p.1) states, keeping whiteness in the dark is extremely beneficial for white male power. 8 Mile puts white masculinity in an unusual position where it stands alone, isolated. “White men most often work to personalize the crisis of white masculinity and, thus, to erase its social and political causes and effects” (Robinson, S., 2000, p.8) and this is the case with 8 Mile and Rabbit. In fact, with regard to Rabbit as Robinson (2000, p.38) states throughout the film his white masculinity is portrayed as dependent and frail, in the sense that the characters in the film must rely on their own instinct and skill to prove their masculinity through rap battles. Proving worth through utilising talent in rap battles is how Rabbits masculinity is saved. These battles are merciless and involve systematically destroying the opponent’s credibility by any means necessary. “The rap battle is the place in the film where legitimacy and power are exercised. Given its symbolic violence, it is also an arena in which all the conventional attributes of masculinity are on display and tested” (Watts, E. K., 2005, p.193). Contestants must rap to a designated beat using some sort of rhyming vocabulary and according to Watts (2005, p.193) emasculate and embarrass. There is an obvious link between masculinity, physical power and violence as “the forced embodiment of whiteness and masculinity is often represented as a violence” (Robinson, S., 2000, p.4). The kind of aggression and acts of violence that are shown throughout the film and in these rap battle scenes are typical of the kind of behaviour that show all the signs of masculinity, “in an arena where symbolic violence is constitutive of sexual potency” (Watts, E. K., 2005, p.93)..By incorporating these ideas into the film to reinforce or legitimate violent masculinity it has now dramatized the injury to white masculinity as a form of sexual dysfunction” (Watts, E. K., 2005, p.193).
White masculinity has always been constructed in contrast to the other subordinate forms of masculinity because white masculinity was the standard to which all else was measured. Often black men are seen as failing to meet the standards of white masculinity. “Masculinity has already been functioning as a strategy through which white men negotiate the widespread critique of their power and privilege” (Robinson, S., 2000, p.6). Yet white masculinity is not placed in a position of power in this film, in some respect, it is victimized. Rabbit’s integrity and white masculinity is constantly under threat from black antagonists. Throughout the film it is challenged and decentred by the prominence of black masculinity and as stated by Robinson (2000, p.38) white masculinity then becomes differentiated while black masculinity is empowered and becomes the standard of masculinity. Thus, 8 Mile exists as an evolution of the conceptions of masculinity where “white masculinity remains a pale imitation of black” (Robinson, S., 2000, p.38).However, white masculinity is always in negotiation with black masculinity. The meaning of white masculinity hinges on the existence of black masculinity and each form of masculinity serves to debase each other. With this negotiation white masculinity is placed opposite the masculinity of the black antagonists in 8 Mile.
Owing to the social and cultural barriers between Rabbit and the black characters of the film, Rabbit must constantly struggle to live up to the standards of his black peers and internalize his white masculinity. Herein lies one of the central themes of the film where challenges are presented to Rabbits white identity, as white is no longer the dominant culture. In something of a role reversal, Rabbit is in a position where it becomes difficult to exert his masculinity as it is being suppressed by the black antagonists of the film. According to Watts (2005, p.204) by constructing a form of racial unity and white masculinity that simultaneously commemorates and exploit black “primitivism”, 8 Mile distances white privilege from racism. White masculinity juxtaposed against black masculinity, both representing different ideals and as a result, the more Rabbit tries to step out of this submissive role, he is discriminated against. Ultimately what 8 Mile does is “make white masculinity visible in order to disempower it” (Robinson, S., 2000, p.26). The meaning of white masculinity hinges on the existence of black masculinity and with this representation of black masculinity reformulation brings with it the simultaneous loss of white masculinity. However, in the final rap battle scene Rabbit defeats his opponents and concurrently establishes his credibility among his peers while asserting his white masculinity.
After discussing the critical framework of whiteness and exploring the representational intersection of race and gender in the film 8 Mile, white masculinity is shown to be threatened and whiteness visible. As Rabbit’s whiteness becomes hypervisible throughout the film, his white masculinity subsequently becomes threatened. This is shown through the rap battles, his interactions with his black peers and his conflict with the antagonists of the film, “The Leaders of the Free World”. 8 Mile is a unique film in its portrayal of black masculinity as the norm and white masculinity as the isolated other. By owning his whiteness and its visibility Rabbit is able to establish credibility among his black peers by asserting his white masculinity through the rap battles.
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