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MUO Analyzing Poverty & Diversity in Midnight Cowboy & Precious Essay

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Cultural Consumption and Rejection of Precious Jones: Pushing Disability into the Discussion of Sapphire’s Push and Lee Daniels’s Precious Michelle Jarman Sapphire’s novel Push (1996) and Lee Daniels’s film Precious (2009) provide multiple and intersecting representations of race, gender, and class, which have been recognized and analyzed by film critics and academics. The representations of disability in the novel and film, however, have rarely been connected to these categories of identity (or oppression). Because disability—“obesity,” Down syndrome, HIV—and cultur­ ally pathologized and disabling traits—illiteracy, poverty, abuse—are intricately woven into rhetorical discussions about the film, critical disability studies provides a crucial theoretical framework for analyzing the cultural consumption of Precious Jones. Resisting either a blanket celebration or dismissal of Precious, the article argues that the intense emotional reactions evoked by the film—from inspiration to repulsion—have much to say about the broader cultural tensions around reading disability within the registers of race, gender, and class dynamics. The article focuses on systemic, intersecting forces of oppression by placing into dialogue Daniels’s film, Sapphire’s novel, and the popular public discourse around the film. Central to this analysis is the figure of Precious Jones—embodied by actress Gabourey Sidibe—and the “problems” this figure elicits and reveals. Keywords: Daniels, Lee / disability / HIV / intersectionality / obesity / poverty / Precious / Push / racial representation / Sapphire / sexual abuse Upon the release in 2009 of Lee Daniels’s film Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, a wide range of critical commentary ignited—from praise of the film’s Oscar-worthiness to dismissals of it as “poverty porn” (Marble 2009). The ©2012 Feminist Formations, Vol. 24 No. 2 (Summer) pp. 163–185 164 · Feminist Formations 24.2 film narrates the self-determined redemption of Precious Jones, a poor, teenage African American girl who is relentlessly abused by both parents, impreg­ nated—twice—by her father, and betrayed by the educational and social-service systems put in place to sustain and protect her. Many critics condemned the film for its profoundly negative racial portrayals, and indeed, the abusive figures of Precious’s parents summon many of the worst racialized stereotypes of the U.S. urban poor. Precious’s mother, Mary Jones, shamelessly defrauds the welfare system and abandons Precious to her craven, sadistic father, who repeatedly and remorselessly rapes her. The representation of Precious herself as an illiterate, “obese,”1 HIV-positive teenage mother of two, while admittedly highlighting her victimization, has also been seen by some critics as perniciously re-inscribing negative racial and gender stereotypes. At the same time, it bears noting that Sapphire wrote Push after working closely with young women in Harlem who were living through crisis situations similar to those of the fictional Precious Jones, and that, by shining a light on this extreme story of incest, abuse, and social neglect, her novel and Daniels’s film do important cultural work of expos­ ing personal and systemic dehumanization experienced by real people whose struggles often go unnoticed. Concerns about potentially racist and sexist images must be taken seri­ ously, of course, especially considering the accolades the film received from predominantly white viewing audiences. At this point, the mainstream critical success of Precious is well known. In the early months of 2010, the film nearly swept the Indie Spirit Awards and was nominated for several Golden Globes and Oscars—including best picture—with Mo’Nique claiming both awards for her portrayal of Precious’s cruel mother, Mary Jones. Yet, even as the film has been widely celebrated, the controversy surrounding its depiction of African American families and its protagonist remains compelling. Resisting either a blanket celebration or dismissal of Precious, I argue that the intense emotional reactions evoked by the film—from inspiration to repulsion—have much to say about the broader cultural tensions around reading disability within the registers of race, gender, and class dynamics.
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