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SXSW’s 60 Second Lapse in Progressivism

The South by Southwest festival (SXSW) is the young, quirky-hipster’s answer to the somewhat stodgier Sundance, where everything indie—from film, to music, to innovative technologies converge.

Propped up in the city of Austin, Texas—which itself can be likened to a lonely island of youth, progressivism, and niche culture surrounded by a sea of electoral red—the festival lends itself to a certain reputation, which is why I was surprised to see this short film called “Cherry on Top” by Mike Damanskis featured as a contestant in the Midnight Shorts Competition earlier this month.

In under a minute, the short not only makes light of the commodification of women’s bodies (prostitution), but also enters another level of denigration by sorting out the value of the sex workers by race—by way of Groupon.

The first woman—who is beautiful, tall, “well spoken,” and white—is full price.

But the second woman—also beautiful, but short, black, and with a “janky blaccent”—is taking Groupons.

In the opening scene, in which the unidentified male customer asks the first woman where Cherry is, she asks back: “What do you want with her when you can have Ginger Snaps?” He replies that he simply needs to redeem his Groupon.

Ginger Snaps, now annoyed, juts her thumb behind her toward Cherry, who is surrounded by dozens of other men who are also carrying Groupons.

In these hard economic times, start-ups like LivingSocial and Groupon have made bargain shopping easier and, more importantly, clandestine for those who want to keep up appearances. To make this connection between bargain shopping in the privacy of your home and cruising for prostitutes under the cover of night is grossly offensive and is worsened by the strikingly clear racism. (Not only is Cherry cheaper, she’s also more sexually accessible and is depicted as having more sexual partners than her white counterpart —a stereotype that disproportionately clings to women of color even if their white counterparts are also engaged in sex work.)

This one short is by no means indicative of SXSW’s festival at large, but it is disheartening that an event that includes Samhita Mukhopadhyay, the executive director of Feministing.com, doing a book signing, pro-union campaigns launched by the Texas AFL-CIO, and Wu Tsang’s documentary on the safe spaces for Los Angeles’ LGBT immigrant communities would let something like “Cherry on Top” slip through—and even more, as a contender for the SXSW accolades that typically cloak nominees, winning notwithstanding.  

To give the festival some credit, the less than 60-second progressive-slip was relegated to the midnight time slot. But considering how social media can make snappy shorts like these go viral within days, SXSW may want to reassess whether providing any time slot for sexist and racists clips is worth eclipsing lengthier, more noteworthy projects shopped around at the festival during the day.

Naima Ramos-Chapman is an associate editor at Campus Progress.

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