I am a ginger. There, I said it. And yes, I do look different from all the other white people out there with my auburn-colored hair and recessive genes. When I walk down the street I do get looks, with eyeballs staring and young faces turned upwards in amazement. And yes, I have seen M.I.A.’s latest music video/ginger-pocalypse, “Born Free,” in all its nine-minute, banned-from-YouTube glory. But no, I didn’t like it. And no, it’s not for the reason you’re thinking.
For those of you all who haven’t seen it (please do, embedded below), it goes something like this: Somber military/policemen (it’s unclear) drive over a desolate bridge in Los Angeles at dawn, pull up to an apartment building, bust past a person of color doing drugs, and arrive at an apartment where two quite unappealing white people are making love. They beat them mercilessly, enter an adjoining unit, beat another guy with added vigor, enter a third unit and pull out a defiant red-haired teenager, grabbing him by the jacket and taking him back to their idling vehicles. Instead of what you might think—this lanky fellow committed a crime and these goons are just over-eager to use their batons and brute force (imagine that!)—the red-haired boy walks into the back of a bus filled with a dozen other eumelanin pigment-deficient youths.
This moment is the ginger equivalent to The Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up” (embedded below), a video from 1997 shot from the perspective of what we assume could only be a violent, drug-induced male jackass, who turns out to be ... ta-da ... a woman. If only M.I.A.‘s video would have ended at this point. Instead, these red-haired youths are driven down the street only to pass by a pro-ginger militant mural and three ginger youths, poised with red and white keffiyehs (the stylist for the shoot must have been in love with Urban Outfitters for stocking these), who subsequently chuck rocks at the passing caravan.
The Palestinian parallels continue as the ill-fated red-haired crew is bused to an unidentified desert location where the gingers are loudly ordered to get off the bus. After a bit of unsure resistance by our lanky teen, they all do, lining up horizontally on the dirt with their hands on their heads. They are told to run into a barren field, but no one moves. One military/police pulls out a gun and points it at a young boy’s red locks. No one moves. He pulls the trigger. The dead boy falls as the others begin to run, with Hollywood explosions littering the scenery, which looks like Southern California’s answer to the DMZ. Eventually all the gingers, including our original protagonist, perish amidst severed limbs and flailing batons.
I get it. This can happen to anyone. A friend of mine suggested that the video is challenging our worldview by showing Palestinians as Irish-American kids. Fair enough. Others connect the violence to the struggle of ethnic Tamils in M.I.A.’s native Sri Lanka. The video could refer to just about any group that has been singled out. Difference is created by human beings, as Rwanda’s Tutsi and Hutus were phrenologically separated, with Hutu noses flat and wide and Tutsi noses long and slender. Indigenous folks in Mexico “look” different than Spanish-blood mestizos. Women, who just happen to have ovaries, are weak (we are told), while men, with their penises and all, are strong. But there’s something about these examples that seems real to me while our ginger-cide remains a bit hollow, a tool to show us how ridiculous it is to discriminate, especially based on pigmentation (yes, we’re talking to you, Arizona), facial structure, or genitalia.
The reason I think the video doesn’t work is that discrimination isn’t about what’s underneath our swimsuits or why my nose looks like Cardinal Richelieu’s while another person’s may look like an actual button. Discrimination is about real, historical inequalities that use difference to justify disparity. Our red-haired foray into the phenomenon of prejudice and intolerance significantly decontextualizes the struggles of the Palestinians or Tamils, if we want to read those conflicts into M.I.A.’s video. Instead of the fact that the Palestinians have been jerked around, with their land occupied and their society colonially administrated for centuries, we relay their plight with some metonymic magic to prove how unreal and unjustified violence is. But is it the same thing to tell a story of oppression with not-so-oppressed groups of people, just to let those of us who aren’t in some discriminated-against minority know that it’s not just for people to be treated that way? What political or cultural work does substituting red-haired people for actually-oppressed people really do?
I don’t want to be curmudgeonly, and I also don’t want to dismiss the reprehensible attacks that have happened in high schools against people with red hair. Nor do I want to appear to be a purist, declaring “how dare you!” to M.I.A. for meddling in the world of “real oppression.” I think the video is smart, and I think it does make people think differently, much like The Prodigy did, and much like any ending with a twist. But does thinking differently, or acknowledging the baselessness of oppression, help us better understand conflict? The collective outrage that we shared when we learned that Matthew Shephard was killed for being gay should not be handled with the same tepid pacifism that a schoolteacher sternly suggests to two feuding classmates: “Stop doing that.”
We have been telling the Middle East to “stop” for decades, and we have pleaded with our children and parents to “stop” being so racist, for gangs to “stop” the violence, and for everyone to “stop” being homophobic. But saying “stop” really doesn’t stop it. Rather, by saying “stop” to Palestinian militants and Israeli soldiers, we are merely waxing over the colossal land grab that Israel has made of Palestinian territory over the last 60 years. And by saying “stop” to racism, we are falling back on some archaic notion that racial discrimination is something just about skin pigmentation and not about slavery, wage disparity and, let’s be honest, the struggle for white people to keep living with privilege.
M.I.A.’s video asks us to stop in the most bland manner. This is not to say that the video isn’t in itself one of the most gratuitous visual displays since those “Saw” movies I refuse to see. But rather that it works on the same level as the bloated black child surrounded by flies, making us wince at the inhumanity and, maybe, fork over some change to thwart hunger in the imprecise foreign land of “Africa.” But where does that child really live? Is it malnourished because of war or famine? And why in the world is that particular country in Africa having an issue feeding its own people? These are questions that complicate charity, as well as complicate the situations in the Middle East, Sri Lanka, or even Arizona. And these are the questions we should ask, rather than be wowed at the shocking intolerance M.I.A.’s video offers us, to which we can pretty much map any serious conflict of the past 100 years from the FBI’s attacks on the American Indian Movement to the LAPD’s ongoing war against black people.
Gingers, redheads, carrot-tops, Agent Oranges, lil’ reds, big reds, Fred the Reds, fire crotches, los gingerinos (if you’re not into the whole brevity thing)—we are doing alright nowadays. While I do think that people who dye their hair red are no-good cheaters, basking in the exotic nature of whatever it is we have, yet avoiding the years of teasing that make all of our post-adolescent “I love your hair” compliments worth it, we aren’t oppressed. But M.I.A.’s video doesn’t address that. Instead she’s trying to make a statement, as weak as it is, that ultimately relies not on political intrigue or artistic innovation, but on violence and sex to get the public’s attention for her upcoming album. Is it cynical to say it’s all a ploy? Sure ... but, at the end of the day, despite all this critique and intellectualizing, the song behind the video is pretty awesome.