Wednesday, March 10, 2021

She's got Bette Davis cigarette: What to do about the past?

In case you have not heard, the company responsible for Dr. Seuss books, decided to discontinue publishing six of his due to racial stereotypes. Aunt Jemima is now rebranded as Pearl Milling Company. Pepe le Pew has been scratched from the new Space Jam movie due to his insensitivity towards the female gender (Penelope Pussycat). And the Muppets (yes, those Muppets!) are now accompanied by warnings of racial portrayals. And these are merely examples dating barely back to the beginning of the year.

I am not defending cigarettes, but the idea of Betty Davis without one seems - not just odd - inauthentic. Yet, when her stamp was issued in the US, guess what was missing between her fingers? Of course, anyone from Ronald Reagan to Bing Crosby did cigarette ads. "More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarettes" - this alone is an ad that sends you chills. "Before you scold me, ma maybe you better light up a Marlboro". Look, Tom and Jerry had a lot of racial undertones and overtones (anything from full racial stereotypes to blackface). Breakfast at Tiffany's - let us to be honest remembered mostly for Audrey Hebpurn - had the otherwise lovely Mickey Rooney portraying I.Y. Yunioshi - an Asian character.

In the Casterman published "Martine", the little girl had a "doll" called Cacao. The doll was black-skinned. That Cacao ended up carrying Martine's bag is of little surprise. That she also cannot remember her name "though it is not difficult to remember" only highlights her stupidity. Do I go on?

Lebanon tends to specialize in this racism. Long ago, there was an ad which, to highlight how good a detergent was at whitening, saw the Sri Lankan maid put in the washer. We still have "sif el abed" (sif - or steel wool and abed - slave) with the appropriate imagery to match. Up until 2010, Gandour had an immensely popular product called "ras el abed" (head of a slave). A competition was launched to rename it and we ended up with "Tarboosh". But the original name still stands.

When Star Academy was immensely popular in Lebanon, there was a nightly program about what these youngsters did. All the Arab youth wanted to emulate them for sure. Still, in one of these nightly episodes, there was a cut of all the young men agglomerated and sharing cigarettes. When my brother called the person responsible for the program and complained, she answered: "Chou 3alei, ma ana bdakhen?" (What does it matter, I smoke too!).

Of course, the point I am trying to make is: How far back do we go? How do we "rectify" the past (because, at this stage, we are assuming the past needs rectification). Am I of the generation that saw Pepe le Pew and saw their mother use "Sif el Abed"? I am. Am I racist or do I harass women? I do not. Did I see my parents smoke like a chimney growing up? I did. Do I smoke? Again, I do not (but let this not be a "rule" like the woman responsible for Star Academy made it -  if it applies to her it applies to everyone else). 

Social norms changed, case in point? In 1989, my cousins were lighting up a hubbly bubbly, when my (male) cousin offered it to her sister she said: "Ana bint bte7terem 7ala!" (I am a girl who respects herself). Lately, with hubbly bubbly became a vogue item (which are much more harmful than cigarettes) I saw the said cousin preparing her own "narguile" (or hubbly bubbly). It ceased to become a stigma to smoke it.

And before we part. Here's a last anecdote. A student of mine was preparing her thesis about "metrosexual men". Then she told me that she had dinner with her boyfriend and told him about her thesis. Metrosexual men are men who, despite not being homosexual, care a lot about their appearance (clothing, manicures, etc...). She told me, in the beginning he laughed it off. Then at the end of the dinner he asked her: "Do you think my nails need a manicure?" Suddenly, realizing there was no shame in it, it became also socially acceptable to do it.

As morals change, how much should we go back? L.P. Hartley said: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”