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Everyone Is Guilty October 8, 2009

Posted by monty in civil rights, TV.
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One of the longest running shows in Australian television history is something called Hey Hey It’s Saturday. I don’t know much about it.  The show’s entry on Wikipedia makes it sound like a fast-paced sketch and variety show, which I don’t really think has a contemporary American equivalent.  The closest corollary I can think of is Saturday Night Live in its first couple seasons, when it often had more than one musician, sometimes a stand-up comedian, a short film or two by Albert Brooks, and the usual sketches.  Anyway, Hey Hey It’s Saturday started in 1971 and was canceled in 1999.  Australia’s Nine Network recently aired a Hey Hey reunion special, a stated goal of which was to feel out the possibility of bringing the show back to the airwaves.  This is where things get interesting.

One of the segments on the show is something called “Red Faces,” a Gong Show-y sort of thing where three individuals or groups of performers, all amateurs, perform before a panel of three judges.  “Red Faces” was revived for the recent reunion shows, and musician Harry Connick, Jr., made an appearance as one of the judges.  My guess is that Connick won’t be making many more of these appearances unless he’s personally able to vet the performers he’s judging.  Here’s the video.  And, oh yeah, did I mention one of the groups called themselves the Jackson Jive and performed in blackface? (Watch a bit of their performance, then skip to 1:50 to get Connick’s visibly uncomfortable reaction to it.  Watch to the end, or skip to 4:17 to catch the show’s special apology.

There are a couple things about this that strike me as interesting.  The first is how the cultural mores regarding race and ethnicity shift from country to country.  The shitstorm would be fast and furious if a singer showed up in blackface on American Idol, for instance.  But I think it’s especially fascinating that a country like Australia – with its own racial sins to atone for in its treatment of its aboriginal people – would find blackface acceptable and funny.  When the host asks the audience what score they’d give the group, you hear a smattering of “10’s,” but you certainly don’t hear the shouts of derision you’d get in this country.  I think this speaks to how prominently racial identity and the struggle for civil rights has been ingrained in our culture.  You just don’t spoof various ethnic groups for comedic value.

Or do you?

Here’s another video of Harry Connick, Jr., that stalwart defender of African-American dignity, on MadTV in 1996 (embedding has been disabled; click the YouTube link in the lower righthand corner to watch it there in a new window):

Now, look: I’m not calling Harry Connick, Jr., a racist, or even a hypocrite.  I don’t think he’s either of those things, and it’s not exactly clear from the sketch what the object of his mimicry is.  You could probably make the case that he’s merely imitating Southern Baptist preachers, but the similarity in hairstyle and vocal cadence between the two characters surely didn’t happen by accident.  This opens the door to the possibility that the sketch is mimicking black preachers, stopping just shy of blackface. I don’t know which it is, and it doesn’t really matter, at least not for the purpose of what I’m trying to say here.  The difference in acceptability between these two clips reveals the other fascinating thing about this mini-controversy.  When is it okay for one ethnic group to adopt the appearance and mannerisms of another for a joke – especially when the adopter is a member of the majority culture, and that majority culture has a long history of oppressing the mimicked minority?  I don’t have a solid, this-answer-is-carved-in-stone answer.  My gut tells me that it has something to do with the observation George Carlin made years ago about when racist language is acceptable: it depends on the context.

In the Hey Hey It’s Saturday act, the context made the group’s use of blackface unacceptable.  All-white group in a cartoonish performance, all-white judges, performed on a show in a country with an overwhelmingly white population, and if you look at the shots of the studio audience – not many black faces there.  On MadTV, though (setting aside the fact that it sucks), Connick’s appearance in a sketch with an otherwise all-black cast lends it a tacit stamp of approval.  It’s a sort of non-guilt-by-association.  If the other actors had been whites in blackface, it would have been completely offensive.  But with the other cast members being African-American, we see that they’re in on the joke (and, not knowing MadTV well enough to be familiar with its writing staff, they might even have written the joke), and that makes it okay.

It’s a tricky thing, this business of context and, as I said above, there are no firm rules governing it as far as I can see.  I do, however, think intelligence and intent play a huge role.  This is the why the jive-talking, gold-tooth-sporting robot caricatures in the recent Transformers movie are offensive, and John Cleese in blackface as one of the three wise men in The Life of Brian isn’t.  Cleese almost assuredly understands A) the historical accuracy of portraying the three wise men as Africans, and B) the cultural baggage attached to the act of wearing blackface.  The joke is, as much as I hate to use the term, meta in nature.  Cleese in blackface is funny not because he’s supposed to be making fun of black people, but because we recognize how ridiculous it is for John Cleese to be wearing blackface.  The joke isn’t on blacks, but on him.

Michael Bay (director of both Transformers movies), on the other hand, seems completely oblivious to the racist stereotype embodied by the two robots.  “We’re just putting more personality in,” he said, and added, “Young kids love these robots, because it makes it more accessible to them.”  I’m not sure what the implication is here.  That little kids love offensive stereotypes?  If that’s the case, maybe Bay should have included a female robot who’s no good at math and science, a yarmulke-wearing robot who loves money and says, “Oy vey” a lot, and a burrito-eating Mexican robot who’s too lazy to get up and fight the Decepticons.

My point – and I do have one – is this: The issue of racism is every bit as complicated as it’s ever been.  Maybe even more so.  We’ve got instances in popular culture like the few I’ve just described.  Politically, we’ve got liberals accusing conservatives of being racist, a popular talk-show whack-job accusing President Obama of being racist, and conservatives accusing liberals of being racist for accusing conservatives of being racist.  For supposedly being such a post-racial society, we sure do seem to talk about it an awful lot.  One thing I’m going to posit is that, even though I think we’re too sensitive as a society, racism, as with sexual harrassment, is in the eye of the beholder.  I may not have a firm definition of racism in popular culture, but I know it when I see it.

Keeping that in mind, I have two suggestions:

1) Audience members need to be more critical of what they’re watching, reading, and listening to.  And by “critical” I mean thoughtful and discerning. There’s often a knee-jerk reaction to things involving race, but little attempt to actually unpack what happened.  After Michael Richards had his meltdown a few years ago, I was one of the few who was convinced he wasn’t actually racist.  Likewise, I’ve been very reluctant to portray Obama’s detractors – no matter how misguided I think they are – as racists the way some have.  It’s usually much more complicated than simple racism, and I think people often need to be more intelligent in the way they process what they see in the media.

2) The necessary counterpoint is that people always need to be mindful of how their message comes across to others.  I’m sure the Jackson Jive didn’t intend for their act to be racist.  It is.  I don’t think Michael Bay set out to make two racist robots.  He did.  Claiming ignorance just isn’t good enough. This is what I think is really at the heart of political correctness: it means not being a thoughtless dipshit.  I know the term political correctness has been perverted and bent out of true by both ends of the political spectrum, but I think its tenets are sound.  Think before you speak.  Who’s your audience?  How will what you say be interpreted by someone who’s not a member of your core audience?  Do your words match your intent?

It’s called being an intelligent, thoughtful person.  A little more of that might prevent us from ever again being faced with the awkwardness of seeing Harry Connick, Jr. speaking on behalf of the American people.


Current listening:

Neds atomic dustbin brainblood

Ned’s Atomic Dustbin – Brainbloodvolume