Review – Contemporary Media Culture and the Remnants of a Colonial Past

Kent A. Ono, Contemporary Media Culture and the Remnants of a Colonial Past (New York: Peter Lang, 2009), 167 pp.

Reviewer: Pramod K. Nayar
pramodknayar@gmail.com

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Kent Ono’s task in this book is to demonstrate how colonial ideologies persist in veiled, shadowy but palpable forms in contemporary media culture. The underlying assumption here is that “colonialism has gone underground, is shrouded by discourses that deny it . . . [yet] exists and continues to operate and function” (13). Ono also proposes that we need intersectional approaches to understand contemporary, neocolonial ideologies and politics where we foreground not only racism but also other “oppressive relationships” based on social variables like ethnicity, class, sexuality, colonialism, and the nation (16).

Ono opens with the cult TV series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, now the subject of considerable cultural studies work. Ono proposes that the series subtly codes the vampire as a metaphoric figure who threatens racial boundaries. At work, Ono suggests, is a white ‘heroification’ where the white woman saves humanity from dark people. White power is, Ono argues, the normative, maybe even the normal.

Chapter Two takes an entirely different event as its case study. The pending sale of the Seattle Mariner’s baseball team became a media spectacle. The entire event was projected in American mass media as embodying the imminent and real threat Japan posed to an all-American cultural practice like baseball. The ‘yellow peril’ discourse, Ono demonstrates, recalled the Pearl Harbor events, but modulated it to showcase the threat as primarily economic rather than military.

The threat the black man—especially in the African context—poses to the virtuous white woman is the underlying discourse of the children’s TV show, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, argues Ono in Chapter Three. Rescuers are technologically enabled, clad in white attack suits whereas the ‘villain’ is initially dressed in a mock gorilla suit but then turns Primator.

The children’s animated film, Pocahontas, writes Ono, gives us contrasting white men in the quiet, benevolent John Smith and the mercenary Ratliffe. The love story of Smith and Pocahontas, argues Ono, is embedded in traditional colonial tropes: of the savagery of the Native Americans and of the oppressive patriarchal system that traps Pocahontas in a marriage. Even though the film, in Ono’s reading, is situated within contemporary debates about postfeminism and environmentalism, it ends up justifying colonialism.

In the final chapter Ono examines one episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It is now no longer the explore-and-colonize theme, Ono argues, but the reach-and-rescue one that informs the classic tale. The plot, of rescuing a white woman captured by Ansata, echoes the ‘war on terror’. Palestinian resistance and terrorism provide the allegorical models for the episode, argues Ono.

Ono’s aim, as he states throughout the book, is to examine how ‘ordinary culture’ participates in the neocolonial project by recalling, reworking, and recasting traditional tropes, ideologies, and politics from the colonial period. While this is an admirable attempt, Ono’s book remains at the level of a commentary rather than incisive scholarship for several reasons. One episode of a TV series cannot stand in for an entire series. While it might be symptomatic, to make a case on one episode is not convincing enough. Ono’s problem is that he tries to do too much—sexuality, race, gender, and ethnicity—in what is essentially a slim volume. The book also ignores numerous studies of popular culture in which some of these themes have been addressed. Insightful, however, is the observation he develops mainly in the conclusion that the rescue narrative is at the heart of neocolonial discourse, just as it once was in the colonial period.