Precious (2009) both tackles and employs some unsettling cultural, societal and sexual stereotypes, so, not surprisingly, in the DVD’s special features, director Lee Daniels continues using stereotypes to paint, in one crafty stroke, a picture of one of the movie’s lead actors: Gabourey Sidibe.
“She talks like a white girl,” Daniels says, doubling over in his chair laughing as he adds, “like when she’s not in character she goes, ‘How are you? . . . Oh, goood!’ ”
His uncontrollable laughter is as cutting as the prejudicial and inexact commentary it brackets, yet, his words are not meant to disparage Sidibe. He clearly speaks well of her otherwise, and in the featurette explains that until she showed up, casting the illiterate, abused, yet hopeful Claireece “Precious” Jones was difficult. Unfortunately, in attempting to illuminate Sidibe outside the role of Precious, he undermines the seeds of hope the film sprinkled in the fight against abuse and discrimination.
What does it mean to speak like a white girl?
Maybe Daniels only meant to suggest that Sidibe sounds like a “valley girl.” But if she does, so what? Is it of any significance, other than revealing another stereotype, this time, of white girls? All of whom do not sound alike, never-mind sounding like rich girls from the San Fernando Valley.
Does a white girl have a large vocabulary? Does she choose her words carefully and annunciate clearly? And if all that is true, is it impossible for girls with more melanin in their skin and not less cells in their brains to also have large vocabularies and show communications mastery? Isn’t fluency in english possible with education, regardless of one’s skin colour?
Various movies, including Pretty Woman, for example, humorously prove it’s possible to be cultured despite one’s background.
In Pygmalion, or My Fair Lady, the journey to refinement is both humorous and thought-provoking because the monied and titled class fail to distinguish a gentrified interloper. In these movies language is clearly tied to social class, but not irreversibly.
Educational research has shown that while there are socio-cultural influences on literacy, race is irrelevant in literacy development.
Last year the Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, presented research showing that environmental factors (including poverty, but particularly the school environment) are major influences in a child’s literacy development.
In light of this, Daniels’ statement on language and race can be discarded.
And while viewers may look at college-educated Sidibe in interviews and see that in reality, both her and her character are plus-size, they should know that the similarities end there. ‘I am not her,’ Sidibe told the New York Times unequivocally in a 2009 interview, determined to drive the point home once and for all.
Do you owe allegiance to the disadvantage bred in the ghetto?
Some girls (just as they are forming concepts of self and dreaming of the person they would like to mature into) are belittled with statements like the one we’ve been discussing.
In my high-school there were black boys who teased learned black girls, calling them uppity and white-washed, etc. Education, to them, apparently meant selling out — as if anyone owes allegiance to the ghetto and the disadvantage it breeds. Their negative words and bravado, fronted other fears (possibly of their own inabilities, or economic limitations).
Precious’ mother, Mary, (portrayed by Mo’Nique) likewise lambasts Precious for pursuing literacy, manoeuvring for control of her daughter’s psyche rather than be left behind if Precious becomes self-sufficient.
However, unlimited by ignorance, it should be easy to see that education increases opportunities for success and lightens the weight of inferiority; but, cancerous, boys like the ones on the street corner who at every opportunity taunt Precious about her insecurities, eat away at the vulnerable ambitious.
Such abuse cannot be allowed to thrive.
Education among people who identify ethnically as African-American is a serious issue, grounded in socio-economic and cultural realities, which the movie airs for cathartic release, but also to galvanize those able to change the situation.
Furthermore, those who successfully defy socio-cultural barriers should be praised, not belittled. In America, they may be the two per cent who are proficient in each of the three areas of literacy documented by the U.S. Department of Education, but they count, no matter how few.
Real barriers to literacy
White girls, however, have no monopoly on education and the ability to communicate effectively. Hopefully, they have smart, loving parents who are good counsellors, helping them to excel. All children deserve that, but there are white girls out there who are like Precious, who don’t know how to read and write, just as there are Asians who have the same problem.
Even in China, as a Newsweek International article by Sara Schafer points out, finances and social standing — not to mention gender — impact literacy. “Many cities deny migrant children access to public schools,” she wrote. And in a culture which devalues girls, boys tend to gain more education. Add to that the fact that where literacy fails to buy better-paying jobs or social standing, people justify other priorities, while bashing book learning, which is admittedly just one component of personal growth.
As a socio-cultural indicator, literacy and language skills are bellwethers of progress, which, if overused, breed prejudice, and though, unlike Sidibe, I didn’t study psychology, certainly it is dangerous to use phrases that attribute intelligence to ethnicity when already we know that self-image is a fragile construction.
“What I learned from doing the film,” said Daniels to the New York Times, in a 2009 interview discussing Precious, “is that even though I am black, I’m prejudiced.” And ultimately, he’s his own best judge. Unfortunately, evidence of this shortcoming is preserved in the movie’s special features, although he may not even realize it.
The film, Precious, and its special features prove that words are powerful and can be used to decorate unsightly prejudices as well as crush a flowering soul. It also shows that the words that link ineptitude to ethnicity disempower and misinform, particularly children of minority groups.
Could more conscious editing have improved the movie’s featurette, keeping it in line with the movie’s implicit objective of sharing hope and understanding, instead of derision and confusion? Possibly.
With language similar to what Daniels used to describe Sidibe, Mary abuses Precious, indoctrinating her with ideas of insufficiency; but as a manipulative creature, she doesn’t want to know or do better; Hopefully, not so with Daniels, who may examine and change his speech, because that’s the opportunity prejudice offers.
For girls (and boys) like Precious who are constantly ridiculed (whether by those who know better, ought to know better, or those who don’t), it is imperative that we choose our words carefully — understanding how each can wound, inspire and transform individuals — both vulnerable children and adults.