“I think Aladdin looked kinda white”: Teaching Cultural Projection in the Classroom

PALS Note: PALS recently published an overview of the Ernest J. Gaines and the Southern Experience NEH Institute written by PALS Co-Managing Editor Shelli Homer. As a companion piece to that post, we have a piece from Matthew Teutsch on a concept, cultural projection, that was important to discussion at the institute. We are happy to help continue the conversation and provide information about the institute to a wider audience. If you participated in an NEH Institute or Seminar this summer, we would love to hear from you about your experience and how it will affect your teaching in the future. 

The NEH Summer Institute, Ernest J. Gaines and the Southern Experience, provided participants with various pedagogical tools to take with them into their own classrooms. There were too many techniques to discuss here, but I would like to focus on the concept of cultural projection that became a topic of conversation during the four week institute. Specifically, I want to talk about how we can introduce that concept to our students and why cultural projection is an important concept to help students think more critically about the media that they consume in their day-to-day lives.

AladdinDisney

Before defining cultural projection for students, we should begin by posing questions to them about the media’s representation of subordinate and dominant groups. To do this, we can provide them with different examples that either uphold hegemonic structures or seek to question and/or change them. One such example comes from P.O.S.’s “Safety in Speed (Heavy Metal),” a song that challenges the projections of subordinate groups in the mass media. P.O.S. raps, “But for a middle eastern guy, I think Aladdin looked kinda white.” Through this line, P.O.S. calls upon the listener to question what Aladdin looking white instead of Middle Eastern in Disney’s Aladdin (1992) ultimately means. Showing a picture of Aladdin to students then playing P.O.S.’s song, or just quoting the line above, will spark conversation by having them interrogate the purpose of a film like Aladdin or even a film like Disney’s The Princess and the Frog (2009).

Another way to introduce students to this concept, before defining it for them, could be through the use of book and film covers. Two examples of this occur with the book and film cover for Ernest J. Gaines’s A Gathering of Old Men (1983), a novel that tells the story of a group of seventy- to eighty-year-old African American men standing up to racism and oppression in a rural Louisiana town. The first edition cover of the novel has an image that encompasses the front and back of the book. On the front, three African American men sit on the porch with shotguns. The back shows four African American men with shotguns and, above them, the white sheriff, Mapes, and Candy, a white owner of the plantation where the action takes place. The paperback edition, though, only contains the front image. Thinking about this, we could ask students what changes about the projection of the book once the back image gets removed.

In contrast to the book covers, the film shows a more white paternalistic image of the narrative. Rather than highlighting the heroic actions of the African American men, the film cover depicts Candy and Mapes benevolently protecting Mathu. Candy even has her arm around Mathu in a paternalistic, protective manner. Ask students to compare/contrast the two covers and have them either discuss or write about what each image makes them think. Students can do this before they even read the novel, having them think about expectations before experiencing the story. It must be noted, here, that a German director did the film. This is important because the cultural perception of the race relations in the Southern United States becomes filtered through European perceptions of America. He has a speech on YouTube about the filming of it and the power of the book.

Gathering Film Cover

After having students think about cultural projection before defining it, they will recognize how the act of cultural projection affects them in their day-to-day lives without them possibly even knowing it. Next, define cultural projection for them and show them more ways that it manifests itself. During the institute, Herman Beavers defined cultural projection by using Richard M. Merelman’s Representing Black Culture: Race and Cultural Politics in the United States (1995). Merelman defines it as follows:

A politically, economically, and socially subordinated group engages in cultural projection when its allies put forth new, usually more positive pictures of itself beyond its own borders. By inviting respect, commendation, debate, and engagement, these new images contest the negative stereotypes that dominant groups typically apply to subordinates. For its part, a dominant group engages in cultural projection when it and its allies develop a newly positive set of self-images, and put forth such images to subordinate groups. These new images not only contend that dominant groups deserve the right to rule, but also ask subordinate groups to approve rather than resist or distrust rule by dominants. (3)

The key thing to take from the definition above is that the subordinate group, along with its “allies,” work to create more positive, non-stereotypical images of the subordinate group. However, even though a dominant group may perceive, and label itself, as an ally to a subordinate a group, that allegiance brings with it cultural baggage that may deter the union’s efforts. Have students think about this juxtaposition and tease it apart before showing them the three varying equations for cultural projection. During our discussion at the institute, Beavers noted that there are three different types of cultural projection: hegemonic (maintains dominant projection), counter-hegemonic (challenging dominant projection), syncretic (dominant and subordinate working together). The most beneficial, of course, would be the syncretic; however, this type does not always appear. In fact, one of the most determinate would be the hegemonic which, while voicing solidarity, maintains its position of power through its cultural projections of the subordinate group.

To help students see these definitions at work, speak with them about film versions of books, especially the film version of Ernest J. Gaines’s The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974). After watching the film, Beavers commented that the movie is a cultural projection developed by the dominant and subordinate groups. However, it is, ostensibly, a film for whites. In that manner, it becomes a form of hegemonic cultural projection. Even though the film garnered nine Emmy awards and paved the way for Roots, it placates a white audience and makes them, in many ways, feel better about their position because the problems of racism and subjugation have been solved, or at least challenged, through the film’s final scene. There are numerous differences between the book and the film that highlight the film’s role as hegemonic cultural projection in opposition to the novel’s position as counter-hegemonic. Ask students, after they have read the book and seen the film (or clips from it), to think about these definitions and to explore how the printed text can be counter-hegemonic while the film version can be hegemonic.

miss jane p

Regarding this, there are a couple of major discrepancies between the film and the book that highlight the different cultural projections that each presents to an audience. When Jane drinks from the water fountain in Bayonne, no one, not even the stern sheriff, challenges her. He stands, as other whites do, above Jane as she drinks from the fountain, maintaining a position of power. In the novel, however, Jane defiantly counters the hegemonic structure of the Samson Plantation by walking directly past Robert as he stands there trying to stop her and the rest of the people form the quarters going to Bayonne to demonstrate after the murder of Jimmy Aaron.

As well, the movie presents a white newspaper reporter as Jane’s amanuensis instead of the African American history teacher that records her story in the novel. This change totally reverses the narrative and who, ultimately, tells Jane’s story. The history teacher wants to record Jane’s story for his students because her story, and others like hers, do not appear in their text books. Since the books do not contain Jane’s story, the history teacher seeks to challenge the hegemonic cultural projection that marginalizes her and others by providing a counter-hegemonic cultural projection. The film, however, chooses to maintain the hegemonic cultural projection because the white journalist comes to interview Jane for an article, not to fill in gaps for students who need to know her story but for a public who wants to feel better about themselves and their hegemonic position. Expanding upon these examples, have students think about what other aspects of the film and the novel highlight the different forms of cultural projection apparent in both.

Tying this all together, show students Lecare’s TED talk “Heroes and Villains? Is Hip-Hop a Cancer or a Cure?”

In his talk, Lecrae speaks about the semiotic meanings of “hero” and “villain.” On a basic level, this creates a cultural image of people, whether good or bad (terms which in and of themselves are problematic). What Lecrae does, though, is then walk through a history of Hip-Hop and how it began as a cultural voice that eventually, while still providing a cultural voice, became gangsta rap, a genre that “glorifies” violence. Using statistics about the drug trade and the availability of drugs in the 1980s during Ronald Reagan’s presidency and the rise of gangsta rap and incarceration rate in the 1990s, Lecrae weaves a brief history of Hip-Hop that can be seen through the lens of cultural projection. Specifically, at 14:20, he states, “In order to wear the badge of authentic masculinity, you had to be associated, in some kind of way, with this wayward [gangsta] lifestyle. You certainly needed it to get a record deal.” In two sentences, Lecrae summarizes cultural projection and its mediation. The mediation of culture, through a company or distributed, needs to be examined in conjunction with the creator of the product. In many ways, this aspect determines how the public will receive the cultural product. Above, Lecrae briefly points to this in regards to the way record labels sign then market Hip-Hop artists.

For students, have them, after speaking about cultural projection and providing them with examples, find various cultural projections in the media that they consume on a daily basis. They can do this as a homework assignment or as a larger project. In my classroom, I would have them give brief presentations on the product that they chose to examine and how that product’s cultural projection is either hegemonic, counter-hegemonic, or syncretic. This type of activity could be done either in the literature classroom, as discussed above, or in the composition classroom, as the references to P.O.S. and Lecrae show.

I want to conclude with lines from P.O.S.’s “Safety in Speed (Heavy Metal)” that students need to think about when confronted with the image of Ronald Reagan as a hero to some and villain to others as Lecrae states. P.O.S. intones,

You ever feel like you’re being tricked
Tricked-out, dicked, or dicked around with
Or flat out lied to?
Welcome to Hollywood, DC
Where Reagan Youth grew up cowboys
Off Ronnie’s westerns

Works Cited

Merelman, Richard M. Representing Black Culture: Race and Cultural Politics in the United States. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Contributor Bio:

Teutsch

Matthew Teutsch is a graduate of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and currently, he is an English Instructor at Auburn University. He maintains Interminable Rambling, a blog about literature, composition, culture, and pedagogy. In the classroom, he strives to provide agency to students through collaborative and active learning assignments. He does this in both composition and literature classrooms.

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2 thoughts on ““I think Aladdin looked kinda white”: Teaching Cultural Projection in the Classroom

  1. A few questions: 1) Why would syncretic cultural projection be more beneficial than counter-hegemonic cultural projection? And 2) Referring only to the text of the novel, is A Lesson before Dying cultural projection, and if so, of what type? How does the character of Paul Bonin figure into the answer?

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