The Vulnerable Tissue of His Brain

The cover of The Sympathizer

I’m reading “The Sympathizer” by Viet Thanh Nguyen. (affiliate link) It’s a Pulitzer Prize winning novel about a spy – a communist sympathizer living in America after the end of the Vietnam war.

The unnamed main character continues to work as a communist spy in America. He is hired to work as a Vietnamese expert on a movie about an American soldier and a Vietnamese hamlet destroyed during the war. Here’s a quote from chapter 11.

Movies were America’s way of softening up the rest of the world, Hollywood relentlessly assaulting the mental defenses of the audiences with the hit, the smash, the spectacle, the blockbuster, and yes, even the box office bomb. . . .

An audience member might love or hate this movie, or dismiss it as only a story, but those emotions were irrelevant. What mattered was that the audience member, having paid for the ticket, was willing to let American ideas and values seep into the vulnerable tissue of his brain and the absorbent soil of his heart.

Viet Thanh Nguyen

This description of what the writer considers propaganda is a beautifully written explanation of why representation matters.

By seeing something on the screen, something outside the normal parameters of your limited daily life, whatever is represented seeps into the vulnerable tissue of your brain and the absorbent soil of your heart.

Indya Moore in Pose
Indya Moore in Pose

That’s why getting to know the transgender characters in a series like Pose or Grey’s Anatomy is important. That’s why seeing women take charge of their own destiny in Widows or the series Wanted is important. That’s why a white woman and a black man kissing in Bird Box is important. That’s why seeing LGBTQ love stories in a series like Wynonna Earp or Lost Girl is important. That’s why films and series about body image like Dumplin’ and Dietland are important. That’s why issues of racism from films like The Hate U Give or Dear White People is important.

I review things here that I watch, and I hope you watch, because representation matters. You want to be a wiser, kinder, better person? Take care with what you offer the vulnerable tissue of your brain and the absorbent soil of your heart.

A bit later in Chapter 11 of “The Sympathizer,” as the filming of the movie is reaching an end, the author says,

. . . as the technical consultant in charge of authenticity . . . my task was to ensure that the people scuttling the background of the film would be real Vietnamese people, saying real Vietnamese things and dressed in real Vietnamese clothing, right before they died. . . . [Wealthy white people] owned the means of production, and therefore the means of representation, and the best we could ever hope for was to get a word in edgewise before our anonymous deaths.

Viet Thanh Nguyen

It isn’t only the opportunity for representation. It’s also the necessity to be in charge of production. To make the decisions at the top of the food chain of Hollywood as writers, directors, and producers. To manage the studios and decide which projects to back. To be the critics.Women are stepping up to create and assume positions at the top of the food chain. It brings great hope to my heart. Women are also banding together to rid the system of its abusers. The future will offer better material to our minds and hearts.

To get down to my personal level, it’s important to be the voice of the viewer. To talk about the films and TV shows that explore what you want explored about your life and your country. I so appreciate all the readers and commenters here on my little blog who are heading down this road with me. Let’s help move the arc of history in the right direction.

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