It’s been impossible to be a redhead and not get asked about M.I.A.’s short film. I’ve been told by at least a dozen friends that I had to see it and I wonder if this is how black people felt when Do The Right Thing was in theaters. Voyou Desoeuvre has an interesting analysis – there’ve been a lot of analyses of cultural studies darling Lady Gaga’s video for “Telephone” but I haven’t found many for “Born Free” – in which he sees redheads as insufficient metaphorically.
The video’s big “reveal,” that the state’s violence is directed at the redheaded, turns any possible shock into pure silliness. Now, I imagine someone will say that I’m missing the point here, that prejudice directed against redheads is really no more silly than prejudice directed against black people or Muslims, and that by showing us this, the film makes a serious point about the arbitrariness of racism. This is wrong: racism is indeed unfounded and constructed and arbitrary, but it is not silly … Worse, perhaps, the video ends up letting the actual racism and violence of the US state off the hook. The first half of the video presents us with a mystery: who are these police, and why are they raiding this building? The moment when we see the bus full of red-haired young men functions as an explanation, an explanation which immediately places us in an alternative reality in which the US features a number of signs of oppression that suggest places out side the US: Northern Ireland (murals) or Palestine (kids in keffiyehs throwing rocks). The problem is, that this, it seems to me, strongly suggests that we should see the first half of the video as also part of this alternative reality; but police raids of this sort are of course no “alternative” at all to actually existing US reality.
I think there’s a good point here about the dangers of viewing current forms of racial hierarchy as merely one arbitrary possibility. White supremacy is intertwined so intricately with American society and culture that to imagine that we could swap in another characteristic and everything else would remain the same is wrong. Forms of hierarchy and the oppressive social relations they engender are not self-contained; you can’t pull a single thread without undoing the whole tapestry. But I don’t agree that this is primarily what the “Born Free” video calls into question. M.I.A. did not write a science fiction novel in which she replaces an American oppressed minority group with redheads. Instead, I see the video instead as commenting on the way we react to State violence perpetrated against white bodies. The gruesome final scene in which the soldiers slaughter the fleeing redheads – thanks for the nightmares by the way, that cute kid whose head gets blown to pieces looks exactly like my cousin Oliver – isn’t shocking just for the violence. Newspapers have pictures of bloody Iraqi and Afghani children all the time, but it doesn’t provoke the same reaction. We’ve become so desensitized to images of soldiers, many wearing American flags on their shoulders, shooting at brown people that if this same video were shot with Arabs or Latin@s, people would find it an inartful work of propaganda. It wouldn’t even touch them.
When the State’s police extract the young redhead and bring him to the bus, the narrative is ill-defined. The cops are being assholes, clearly, but what are they after? A terrorist? Illegal immigrants? Jews? Even when the soldier/police have the man, the meaning is still illusive. This wouldn’t necessarily be the case if it had been a black man or an Arab, then the narrative writes itself. If the man had been a Palestinian wearing a keffiyeh, he becomes, by the narrative logic of the scene, a terrorist. His skin and clothes would be enough to fill in a story about why what was happening was happening. One redhead in isolation is generally a normal white person, not acquiring any larger symbolic representational value until juxtaposed with others. When the camera turns to the back of the bus, the narrative becomes instantly clear. The commonality that all of these boys share, the organizing principle for the group as such, is their hair color. The arbitrary commonality betrays the State’s arbitrary violence.The execution scene is a bit overdone, but the visual of American guns turned against white children is jarring. I see the red hair as a convenient narrative tool that gets the story quickly and comprehensibly to the real weight of the video: a scene of arbitrary State violence against white bodies. Think of the last time you saw a scene like that. Update: Thought of a couple. Coincidence that they’re both about the Irish?
Unfortunately, red hair is not quite the empty signifier M.I.A. might have hoped for. Desoeuvre worries that violence against red heads would be thought silly, linking to a tweet about “ginger kids getting blown up.” Is there another group that we could insert in the place of red heads that would yield the same fear? Is there any other group that could be rounded up and executed in a video, only to be laughed at by people who don’t have closets full of the latest in Klan-wear? Ever since the writers of South Park used redheads in a similar way, as a group marked by arbitrary difference used to stand in narratively for oppressed groups, no one can get over how funny it is to call us gingers or talk about how we don’t have souls or whatever. “Ginger” was routinely used as an diminutive on the comment threads for my Diamondback column, e.g. “He’s certainly entitled to his little, misguided, ginger opinion.” There are a lot of words that could take the place of “ginger” in that sentence without changing the tone, and they’re all othering terms. As a college kid (soon to be post-college kid), I don’t have to worry about it so much, but I’d imagine it got a lot harder to be a red-headed 5th grader. In post-modern America, the metaphor is prefigurative. How hungry we are for categories of limited difference that even the jokes will do.