Mystique Was Right – (On All-New Wolverine # 1 & 2)

Mystique WolverinesWolverine is one of the oldest X-Men institutions. He has his own rogue’s gallery, his own X-Men teams, and his own onomatopoeic sound effect. He has had more mini-series than some entire X-Men titles have had issues and has appeared in every single live-action X-Men movie, often as the main character. Even after his canonical death in the comic, two full series were dedicated to just his legacy. He’s that important.

One of these series, Wolverines, did the tortuous work of fleshing out the villains, clones, children, and friends that have orbited Wolverine, proving, amazingly, that despite their healing factors, claws, rage, and willingness to kill that they were more than just pale derivatives. Even better, the series was propelled by a lesbian love story.

All-New Wolverine, a relaunch of the Wolverine character, cements his death but preserves the institution. In the first issue, X-23, a clone of Wolverine, descends upon Paris in search of a man being targeted for assassination by an unknown group. Rushing through rain in a bulky overcoat, she finds him near the Eiffel Tower, saving him mere seconds before sniper fire rains down upon them both. The man escapes, but X-23 takes a bullet to the brain, momentarily killing her.

All-New Wolverine X-23 Laura Kinney

As her healing factor brings her back from the dead she unconsciously recalls an exchange with the original Wolverine where he encourages her to resist her programming, to be Laura Kinney and not X-23, the programmed assassin. They both wear their X-Force uniforms, grim gray costumes with black stripes and splashes of red: they are killers. Wolverine regrets X-23’s inheritance of his burden, but he praises her reluctance to kill. She holds promise, he believes.

This scene is the crux of the comic and the subtle justification for the new series. Laura is not Logan: she is someone and something different.

Potentially. When X-23 recovers from the kill shot, setting her sights on the person who fired it, she throws off her overcoat, revealing the iconic blue and yellow costume of her genetic father. Enraged, she storms the Eiffel Tower. Bolting up the tower, she sniffs out the sniper then confronts her, beating her into submission. The fight scene emphasizes X-23’s reluctance to kill. She begins the fight by slicing through the sniper’s gun. For the rest of the fight her claws are retracted: her weapons of choice are fists and finesse. This is a subtle move, establishing this Wolverine’s desire to be ethical, to be better. 

Laura Kinney X-23 nonviolence

Panels from Issue #1

In the moment it works. When the defeated villain summons a drone and then jumps from the tower, killing herself, X-23 screams “No!” and it feels sincere. Death was precisely how she didn’t want this encounter to end.

This disinclination toward violence continues in issue 2, where the villain from issue 1 (who turned out to be a clone of Laura, sigh) is revealed to be one of many clones. In a sequence that is similar to the confrontation in issue 1, Laura pops her claws just to disarm her opponents and then pleads for the encounter to not end in death.

X-23 All-New Wolverine

Panels from Issue #2

Again, in the moment this works. But in the context of the institution of Wolverine, this fear of being an instrument of death is stale. Since at least 2000 Logan has had this exact relationship to death: the mini-series “The Twelve” had him literally become a character named Death; Uncanny X-Force explores the absurd circularity of his wanton killings; Uncanny Avengers explores the direct consequences of his killings; Wolverine and The X-Men explores the tension of trying to teach others to respect life when you’re a known killer; Wolverine (vols. 5 & 6) features him without his healing factor, rendering him vulnerable to death both literally and psychologically.

If the point of this comic is to establish Laura as a different Wolverine, to saddle her with the same enemy, the same fears, the same burden that the character has dealt with for ages, is grossly lazy at best and deeply sexist at worst. Is being a literal clone not torture enough?  Is constantly screaming “No!” the extent of her character?

Even her supporting cast is stale. In the first issue, the X-Man Angel, who has been established as her love interest, helps her take down the drone and attempts to comfort her as she recovers.  In the second issue he flies her to her apartment and they flirt in mid-air. There almost seems to be some weak joke at work. The original Wolverine and Angel were notoriously at odds. Angel regularly accused Wolverine of savagery, once even leaving the X-Men because he couldn’t stand Wolverine’s presence (Uncanny X-Men 148). The relationship might not be a callback to that old tension, but even if it isn’t, why is the so-called all-new Wolverine already being tethered to a character who is [literally] from the 1960s? (through a goofy time-travel plot that is now canon – i.e., the series All-New X-Men vol. 1 – the 5 original X-Men have returned to the present.)

Wolverines ended with a rejection of the need for Wolverine. Although the series was framed as a quest for Mystique to resurrect Destiny, her dead lover, the final issue revealed that Mystique had been tricked (by Destiny) into resurrecting Wolverine because, in Destiny’s words, “The world needs a Wolverine.” Deeply outraged, Mystique disagreed, choosing to leave them both dead. Although All-New Wolverine #1-2 has flashes of promise, as long as X-23 is fundamentally the same character, Mystique was right. Wolverine – whether Logan or Laura – is better off dead.

Mystique Wolverines X-Men

 

This Excludes Me: On the Dangers of “I Can’t Relate”

I can't relate

(Via ryaneagle.com)

“I can’t relate” is a common response to artworks, ideas, people and other things that just didn’t feel quite relevant to one’s experiences or interests. On one hand, it’s an alternative and somewhat polite way of saying, “I don’t care.” If a close friend or co-worker passionately introduced you to something or someone that gets them off and it just didn’t do anything for you, “I can’t relate” is perfect for claiming your disinterest without risking insult. On the other hand, “I can’t relate” is a very literal statement. For some reason, a person or idea that you encountered was unable or unwilling to establish or maintain a compelling relationship, like a bad first date.

I’ve often seen “I can’t relate” used in response to narratives or pieces of art that felt either exclusionary or just non-inclusive, the former pushing one away and the latter just not acknowledging one’s existence. I think that these feelings and this particular way of articulating them – “I can’t relate” – are completely legitimate, but I also think that “I can’t relate” has some noteworthy limitations that shouldn’t be overlooked.

The first limitation is the kind of relationship that “I can’t relate” tends to refer to. In most cases, the relationship is one of direct correspondence. People “can’t relate” because the person or object in question doesn’t directly connect with them on the registers that they find important. Another way to put it is that the object doesn’t present itself in the way one prefers. The show Girls (Full disclosure: I’ve never watched it) has been attacked on these grounds on multiple occasions because of its absence of women of color. SNL was recently attacked on similar grounds for its absence of black women. I sympathize with these attacks in practice because they call attention to problems with our media landscape, but I wonder how well they articulate what plaintiffs really want. In other words, could people [of color] not relate to Girls and SNL because 1) they saw no people of color or 2) because they felt people of color were actively written out of these shows? Or perhaps there are other reasons entirely. Whatever the actual case, “I can’t relate” always frames grievances in terms of direct correspondence.

There is a distinction between these two options (1 & 2) that “I can’t relate” can’t really address. SNL’s subsequent hiring of more black women, for example, changes the presentation of the show, but it’s unclear how [or if!] it changes the experience of the show, the actual relationship one has with the show. If it does, how does this happen? What about the presence of a black woman on a tv show makes the show palatable to black viewers generally and black women specifically? “I can’t relate” answers this question by saying that the presence itself is the important factor because the absence was the original problem.

I’m not entirely satisfied with that answer, especially when you consider the second limitation of “I can’t relate,” which is that it doesn’t quite account for people who in fact do relate to the object in question despite not being directly represented. For example, my stepfather, my stepmother and my stepgrandfather, who are all black and from the South, are all very fond of Westerns. On one hand, I’m sure this is a product of them growing up in a time where Westerns had the same prestige and ubiquity that action movies have today. But on the other hand, for whatever reason, the three of them are simply intrigued by the genre. I know from speaking with them that they would have liked to have seen more Westerns with black characters, especially black characters who weren’t servants, sidekicks, prostitutes, cannon fodder or menial workers. In fact, they all seem to know who the black actors were by name, implying that they had an enhanced relationship with those particular actors, much like a young black kid (like me) being able to specifically name-check black superheroes. Given these enhanced relationships, I think it’s fair to say that the three of them would have liked to relate to Westerns in a different way. That said, they each managed to relate to the genre anyway, despite its lack of direct correspondence and despite their very concrete incentives to actively shun the genre (i.e. being black in the 60s and before). That is important to recognize.

“I can’t relate” wouldn’t be able to recognize that persisting relation” because it posits our relationships with media as being direct, solid, when they are in fact much more liquid or even gaseous, impossible to grasp. Even if it is useful for framing grievances and is sometimes true – there are definitely things I like just because of one black character or one female character, etc. – “I can’t relate” is a tactic that I would use very strategically because it reduces relationships with media down to checklists that don’t reflect real problems with the media landscape. This is dangerous because these checklists are readily co-opted into the service of statements like, “This show has no white men. This is racist” or “All the men die. This is sexist.” As silly and pigheaded and just plain wrong as those statements are, I think that their ability to be uttered is also a function of “I can’t relate.” As a frame, it simply can’t reliably relay the complexity of legitimate grievances against our distorted, dehumanizing and disrespectful universe of media. So instead of saying, “I can’t relate” sometimes it’s better to change it up and say, “This excludes me” and insist that “excludes” is a very, very active verb.

“Where Is the Hidden Labor?” – On How It’s Made, Kara Walker and Infrastructure

Artist Preface A Subtlety Kara Walker

“A subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby. An Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant”

Last fall I took a class on “current controversies” in critical theory, which essentially meant we read what was “trending” in academic thought. Though we read some very disparate texts, throughout the class, under different variations, the professor repeatedly posed the same essential question: “How do things work?”

The variation of the question that stuck with me most vividly was, “Where is the hidden labor?” Much more polemic than “How do things work?” this particular variation asks what or who makes things work, and why exactly their labor is invisible. The reason this particular question resonates so much for me is that implicitly, it asserts that labor is a form of infrastructure and furthermore, that this labor should be valued. To put it bluntly, I was once an unpaid intern.

In her new installation, “A Subtlety,” Kara Walker takes this assertion seriously, taking the viewer into an old sugar refinery and magnifying the infrastructure that made – and makes – sugar possible. In the absence of machines, equipment and devices, there are instead sculptures made of brown sugar and molasses. Depicting weary and dirty little black boys at work, the sculptures have an aura of profound exhaustion, some even actually melting during the exhibit, as if even the display itself is a form of tiring labor.

Little Sugar Boy Sugar Baby

Stretching all the way down the factory’s incredibly capacious passageway, the sculptures form a meandering path to the exhibit’s prime feature: a giant sphinx made of pristine, refined sugar. The rub, however, was that this sphinx depicted a behemoth, buxom black woman, not the familiar mythical creature. Standing 50 feet tall with her genitalia exposed, her rump raised and an Aunt Jemima handkerchief tied tight, this sphinx was a grotesque and awesome sight. Her size and the sheer spectacle of the exhibit – which actually requested photography – only amplified both the grotesqueness and the awe. Even further, the fact that she was composed of white sugar, which contrasted with the brown sugar of the little boys, made her even more compelling. She was not melting or impure; she was purified, perfect, poised.A Subtlety Kara Walker Sphinx Sugar

A Subtlety Sphinx Sugar Nude Kara Walker

Yet she was also not a giant cube of sugar. This sphinx was clearly a black woman. In other words,she actually embodied the labor that made her possible: she appeared as a denuded, mammified, audacious, sugarcoated black woman. The infrastructure was the structure.

The exhibit points toward this revelation quite doggedly, asking us to confront history as it was made – through black bodies and black labor – not as it is presented in the form of tiny, delectable, processed granules. In the sense that the exhibit explicitly draws attention to infrastructure, it is strangely in the same tradition as one of my favorite tv shows, How It’s Made.

That said, what has struck me about “A Subtlety” is that Walker has actively reimagined the final product. In addition to rarely choosing products that are controversial or not mechanized, when How It’s Made shows the underbelly of familiar products, at the end of the process we see the product in its familiar form, infrastructure acknowledged, yet ultimately still not visible, as if we’ve learned a secret, but only to guard it more closely. In contrast, Walker reveals the infrastructure and forces it to the surface, like a muscle bulging through skin, becoming the skin. This is not defamiliarization or enlightenment or unveiling, all of which imply that we were looking from the incorrect angle, from an obscured perspective. No, this is metamorphosis. Through “A Subtlety,” sugar becomes a legacy of exploitation and devaluation of labor and life as well as a sweet confection. Every sugar crystal becomes a piece of the sphinx and the little children.

Of course, this becoming is never complete. Stephanye Watts at Gawker notes that unsurprisingly, the revelation I’ve outlined and experienced is one among many, namely one that manages to trivialize the entire exhibit in one phrase: “Sugar tits.” Even further, the exhibit is not permanent, so soon the labor and life embodied by the sphinx will be just as invisible as the labor that previously animated by the formerly productive factory.

That said, the value of “A Subtlety” is that it offers a glimpse of what things can look like when infrastructure, particularly labor, is made bare and made to remain that way. Seeing this exhibit gave me visions of The Great Wall of China with skeletons at its base; of Wal-Mart with its employees wearing name badges that also show their wages; of burger joints with cow heads engraved into the tables; of Qatar’s World Cup facilities littered with the corpses of dead workers; of iPhones with preloaded and undeletable photos of the people who manufactured them. These visions didn’t present a flattering portrait of the world, but the world could probably use less meticulously-orchestrated selfies and more detailed, unflattering accounts of what and who actually makes this world possible.

We have already began to view these unflattering accounts in the food and health industries. In fact, the ubiquity of nutrition facts labels shows how mundane of an idea it is for infrastructure to be apparent. There’s no reason not to branch out. After all, even though Walker herself is ironically engaged with a food item, she shows that food is always just one axis on a much more expansive grid, one that ridiculously connects us through time, space, history and memory, like a naked black sphinx in the middle of soon-to-be-redeveloped abandoned sugar factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.


P.S. Here’s a slideshow that Walker made to highlight some of her inspirations. It is also very attentive to infrastructure.

Bombs Over Boondocks: On Season 4

I’ve been regularly watching the 4th season of the Boondocks and it hasn’t been a pleasant experience. I know that the show has always had problems, but watching the 4th season made me really think further about these problems for a few reasons. First, just before it premiered, it was revealed that series creator Aaron McGruder did not participate in the making of this season. Second, few characters from the previous seasons have returned. Ed Wuncler Sr. Ed Wuncler III, Jazmine, Sarah, Thugnificent and Gin Rummy have been almost completely absent, rarely having any lines and even more rarely appearing on screen. Lastly, the episodes have been strangely focused on the concerns of Robert Freeman, rather than oscillating between the members of the Freeman family.

None of these new developments are particularly unusual in the abstract. Many tv shows have lived on in the absence of their original creators; many shows have abolished characters; and many shows have altered their main character. These things happen. But in the case of the 4th season of The Boondocks, these developments have really amplified two of the show’s more chronic problems: the show’s treatment of women and it’s intelligibility as satire. Keeping in mind that these problems really are chronic – so they can’t be solely scapegoated to McGruder’s absence – I’m going to survey some choice moments from this season and previous seasons, exploring not only how this season has veered off course, but also how the steering wheel was already shaky.

I: New Characters, Old Tactics

The Boondocks notably has no central female characters. That’s just a fact. Secondary characters Sarah, Jazmine and Cynthia, are the show’s only female characters that have speaking roles in 3 or more episodes (out of 53 in total so far).* Beyond those three, guest female characters and unnamed female characters are typically one-dimensional. Ebony Brown from “The Lovely Ebony Brown,” Luna from “Attack of the Killer Kung-Fu Wolf Bitch” and Deborah LeVil from “The Hunger Strike” are exceptions, but even they aren’t the most flattering examples. Otherwise, the show is unrelentingly troubling when it comes to women characters.

Crystal from “Guess Ho’s Coming to Dinner” is probably the worst example. She is a hoe by design, legitimating the idea that hoes actually exist (they don’t; there simply is no nonjudgmental or empirical way to categorize people by their sex lives) and that there is something wrong with them for following their sexual urges. Of course, the show is satirical, so characterizations are always subordinated to the target of the satire, which was intended to be gold diggers (they even play “Gold Digger” during the episode) in Crystal’s case , but I don’t see any reason why a satirical goal has to be accomplished at the expense of all women or some lame caricature of women. At one point Huey, confidently says that “at least 20% of women are hoes” and he’s not joking. That is some straight up lazy writing. 

Unsurprisingly, this season has also been plagued by lazy writing of women characters, which is somewhat sad since Angela Nissel has written more than half of the episodes ,and there have been more women characters introduced in this season than any other because the show has largely focused on the exploits of Granddad. Two episodes stand out: “Breaking Granddad” and “Early Bird Special.” The former takes a jab at the black hair care industry and the latter aims at the black relationship advice industry. In the real world black women are deeply invested in both of these subjects, but in the episode, they simply appear as punchlines to jokes.

For instance, in “Breaking Granddad,” Huey develops an explosive chemical compound that he wants to use to commit a murder, which strangely turns out to also cause miraculous hair growth and make hair straight and infinitely malleable. When Granddad finds out, he forces Huey to allow him to sell the dangerous compound to a profiteering hair company called “Right Like White” that is ran by a no-nonsense black woman named Boss Wilona, who, despite being a black woman herself, has no qualms selling a dangerous product to other black women. Wilona’s big moment is when she delivers this spiel justifying her actions: “Explosive? You think them bitches out there care about a little fire? This here will turn your brain green, this stuff has plutonium, this one is acid… just acid. Don’t you get it? These bitches would put napalm on their hair if it would make it straight!”

When I first heard these lines, I laughed because I thought they were the setup for a more nuanced take on why black women would risk their health for certain kinds of hair, but that didn’t happen. This was just a punchline to a very familiar and stale ComicView style observation that masquerades as a joke: black women invest a lot into their hair. Once Wilona and Robert make their agreement, we’re treated to a montage of black women lining up to buy the product and then putting it to use. The montage features outrageous hairstyles and self-deprecating one-off comments from unnamed black women.  I don’t expect satire to do intellectual work for me or for anybody else, but this episode really did nothing more than make fun of black women, effectively calling them stupid for caring about their hair, as if black hair is “just hair.” It’s actually kind of stupefying how diminishing this episode is. We’re living in the age of the Natural Hair Movement, after all.

Boondocks Helicopter Hair Season 4

“Early Bird Special” follows suit, featuring another profiteering black woman named Geraldine who hires Robert as a prostitute specifically for black women who are emotionally needy. In other words, Geraldine is a straight-up pimp. Eric Thurm at A.V. Club noted that Geraldine and Wilona are very similar and he’s quite right. They even have the same voice actor, Jennifer Lewis. Geraldine’s big spiel is also a justification of her participation in an industry: “Women don’t pay for dangle…What you’re doing for our women is bigger than that. You’re boosting their self-esteem, making them feel loved, desirable. [Vanessa] found our ad in the back of that book ‘Think Like a Dude Cause Your Lonely Black Ass Ain’t Never Gonna Get One Anyway.’…You’re making these lonely black women feel loved and that feeling is the most powerful fucking drug in the world.”

Although the episode references Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man and the toxic industry it represents, it goes on to focus on a woman, Vanessa, who is so desperate to find love from a man that she sells her house to have Robert be her full-time escort. Because Robert isn’t comfortable with fulfilling Vanessa’s needs in a way that will clearly never fix her issues, she convinces him that they should have an actual romantic relationship, not just a commercial one that is designed to be romantic. He agrees, but the plan is inhibited by Robert’s inability to get out of his escort contract due to Geraldine’s violent tactics. She is a pimp, after all.

When Robert returns home after failed and violent “negotiations,” Vanessa greets him and introduces him to her two unnamed friends, who are literally introduced as “lonely and bitter.” Seriously, these traits are their names. The three women then begin to praise Robert, contrasting him with the trifling men that they’re used to. For a moment, it seems like the episode may be headed in a smart direction; these women are lonely and bitter for a reason, I’d imagine. But nope, when Uncle Ruckus enters with a fawning white woman, Vanessa and her friends feel instantly betrayed, as if the mere presence of a white woman is lethal to a black relationship. They then angrily leave, bitterly condemning black men. 

Again, like the women in “Breaking Granddad,” these women are just punchlines. They are presented as bitter and lonely because that’s just what they are, as if these are innate traits rather than reactions to sordid pasts or a sprawling media landscape that constantly judges black women as failures and then uses that judgment as an opportunity to take those same women’s money. Even the fawning white women is a lame punchline, the “joke” being, “White women and black men sometimes date.” As I said earlier, I don’t expect satire to do my intellectual work for me, but this entire episode works by throwing women under the bus, running them over, then claiming that they were already in the street. This kind of unapologetic plot progression is quite common in The Boondocks catalog and is very important to keep in mind when thinking about what makes the show intelligible as satire.

Boondocks Season 4 White Woman

II: The Boondocks is Satire, Right?

Is The Boondocks a satire or is it just a cartoon about ( or mocking?) black people? I’m not being a contrarian. The show is not always clear on this point. I think that the ambiguity of the show is both a function of satire as a genre and a product of the show’s approach to that genre. In my view, good satire has an intimate relationship with what it targets. After all, if the goal of satire is to shift how that target is perceived, in order to intervene in that perception, one must know how it is currently perceived and why it is perceived that way, then strike at those vulnerabilities, subsequently producing laughter and/or new perspectives. Heck, the comedian in me would argue that laughter itself can be a new perspective. The way The Boondocks approaches satire is very detailed, but frankly I think this detail primarily stems from one point: the sheer particularity of the subject matter.

Alongside the Proud Family, the Cleveland Show, Static Shock, The PJs, Waynehead and Little Bill, The Boondocks is one of the few animated television shows in the past 15 years to be about black people. In that sense, the sheer existence of The Boondocks demonstrates an intimacy with its subject matter. Beyond its ontology, The Boondocks actively focuses on black life through its cast, its plots, its animation, its music and its production, which are all demonstrably immersed in black people’s lives. Even further, The Boondocks often focuses on real-world events and people, demonstrating an interest in black life in particular instances, not just in general. Even among the shows listed at the beginning of this paragraph, this focus is unique.

The liability of this focus is that its intelligibility as satire hinges on previous knowledge of these real-world events and characters. This is the liability of all satire, but for The Boondocks this liability is heightened because it is 1) a cartoon 2) airing on Adult Swim, 3) which is apart of 4) Cartoon Network, a channel that is mostly for kids, and 5) it references and represents black lives, which aren’t really represented in the current media landscape. Given these circumstances, especially the latter, The Boondocks is in a precarious position. In order to depict and discuss black life without alienating black people, the show has to assume that black life is intelligible to the viewer despite the fact that anyone could rightfully stumble upon this cartoon on a cartoon station and think that it’s “just a cartoon.” What I appreciate about the show is that at its best, it overcomes this precarity with style and wit.

“The Invasion of The Katrinians” is probably the best example. Though it’s damn near unimaginable that anyone didn’t know about Katrina, the episode has a brief preface that sets the episode up for even the most uninformed viewer, allowing all of the show’s humor to emanate from that context. In many other cases, the show is not always clearly satirical. For instance, beyond his first appearance, which targeted men’s fragile egos and senseless love of violence, I can’t say that the character Stinkmeaner ever really offered anything other than an excuse for fight scenes.

This season has suffered very heavily from the show’s entrenched precarity and I think this suffering is a direct product of something I’ve already identified: lazy writing. However, while in the past this writing had primarily plagued the community of female characters and sometimes Uncle Ruckus, this season’s lazy writing hasn’t been so discriminating: everybody is affected.

Huey and Riley are the most palpable examples. According to this season’s portrayal, Huey is the voice of reason and Riley is the voice of base desires, effectively making them function as a devil/angel pair (often perched on Robert’s shoulders). To be fair, these portrayals aren’t ostensibly far from how Huey and Riley have always functioned within the series, but in this new season these functions have been notably automatized. In other words, when Huey and Riley speak, they say what they are programmed to say rather than something in response to their situation and their perspective [reword].

For instance, in “Breaking Granddad,” Boss Wilona’s right-hand man is an immaculately dressed gay man named Hot Chocolate. When Hot Chocolate points a gun at Riley during the episode’s climax , Riley complains, “I’mma get shot by a gay dude! How embarrassing!” Riley’s homophobia is nothing new, but in the past it was always explicitly tied to Riley’s fragile masculinity, which he is constantly asserting in order to remind everybody how allegedly hard he is (or rather how hard he wants to be). In this episode, there is no connection to fragile masculinity. Riley is homophobic because Riley is “supposed” to be homophobic. This is a problem. Once his homophobia is just another character trait, akin to his shoes or baggy pants, it doesn’t really have a satirical edge. It just sounds straight up homophobic.

Huey as a distilled voice of reason has similar problems. In the episode, “Freedomland,” which is the final act of a narrative arc in which the Freemans have actually sold themselves into slavery (this arc is very poorly explored throughout the season, which presented actual slavery as “being broke”), Huey delivers a speech about freedom that was clearly intended to be climactic and powerful. “For the moment, the little guy won. But for how long? How long before those at the top figure out another way how to make a buck off of those at the bottom? Then maybe, just maybe, those at the bottom will realize that some of the people they trust may not have their best interests at heart.”

Freedomland Boondocks Season 4

This is Huey’s speech after a successful slave revolt. A slave revolt! Slavery is the most visceral and searing pain in African-American history, yet Huey, who is supposedly so radical that he is labeled a domestic terrorist, narrates the conclusion to a slave revolt as if he has diligently moved up the chain of command at his local Wal-Mart and finally gotten a refund for his one month-old-yet-faulty new television. Just a few episodes ago (“Breaking Granddad”) he was willing to murder someone to get his freedom back and now he’s satisfied with the destruction of a slavery-themed amusement park? (which was very poorly executed, by the way).

I guess that’s a reasonable level of satisfaction, but when has Huey ever been reasonable? In the first season, he attempted to use an elementary school Christmas play as a vehicle for black power. In the second season, he attempted to destroy a movie reel of “Soul Plane 2” because he believed that  the movie was oppressive. In the third season,  he was so dissatisfied with the reaction to Obama’s election that he contemplated allying with a known white supremacist. Of course, all of these actions were satirical, so they can’t be taken just at face value, but my point is that the extremism embedded in them has never just been to get a point across. As a character, Huey really is an extremist.

More importantly, beyond Huey, the recurring cast in general is extreme and this extremism is the lifeblood of the show. This season seems to have taken that extremism and mechanized it, reducing the cast in size and in complexity to predictable drones that strike as programmed, in any context, in any story. The result of this approach is a season that frequently lacks fangs and persistently misrecognizes its barks as its bites, its references as its commentaries. In short, this is a season that isn’t sure if it’s doing parody or satire.

III: Conclusion

All in all, when I say that this season has been characterized by lazy writing, what I’m really saying is that the writing has been overconfident. Characters, references, jokes and satirical objectives have all been presented as if they are immediately intelligible, without need for editorial intervention. The Boondocks’ track record with women has always been plagued by this overconfidence, but this season saw that flaw contaminate the series as a whole, tipping the show’s intelligibility firmly into the realm of parody rather than satire. In my view, the treatment of female characters indicates that the show has always sat at this tipping point. By formalizing a plot formula in which someone is always sacrificed for the greater satirical/comical/social goal, The Boondocks set itself up to eventually sacrifice itself. In the absence of its usual extensive cast, the show intensified its interest in the Freeman family, progressively routinizing their traits into odd,automated assemblages that were always familiar and never surprising.

In the end, I don’t think that the course that this season took was inevitable, but I do strongly feel that it was always already possible. Sure, Aaron McGruder probably kept things on course during his tenure, and that should be acknowledged (though we could never know for certain without understanding how exactly animated shows get made in terms of production methods and in terms of internal hierarchies), but the problems that I’ve explored have been in play since the first episode, so his absence doesn’t explain much. Furthermore, things were often kept on course at the expense of women and other groups, so the path this season went down is a clear legacy of previous paths. Never forget.

*Regina King voices Huey and Riley, but I’m talking about characters, not actors.

Link

Building from the updated form of the Bechdel Test that is explained above and Alaya Dawn Johnson’s POC variation of the Bechdel Test, I would like to introduce the Crispus Attucks Test. A movie passes the Crispus Attucks Test if it has a person of color who:

1) Has a name.

2) Doesn’t die first.

3) Has their death mentioned later in the film.

4) Doesn’t die within the first 1/5 of the total running time of the film. (This one is optional)

If you’re familiar with the Bechdel Test, you’ve probably noticed that I have not included the typical requirement that there should be at least two members of the group being discussed. At first glance this is probably blasphemous, but allow me to explain. As I understand it, the ultimate goal of the Bechdel Test is to shed light on the entrenched and problematic practices of the entertainment industry. The test does this by highlighting the presences and absences of women (and now persons of color) in movies and then showing how these presences and absences indicate how the overall story values women. In other words, the Bechdel Test shows who matters to a story and how they matter. Though dying in a film is not precisely the same as being marginalized within it as the sole woman or person of color, or as a woman or POC who only speaks with or about men, I think that focusing on death is definitely in the spirit of the Bechdel Test in terms of showing who matters and how they matter to the overall story.

Death and when it occurs are a particularly meaningful point of insight because a death often makes explicit how relevant (or not) a character is to the overall events of a story. While a late death will often resolve or propel a story and profoundly affect how characters develop, early deaths often just set events in motion, rarely doing much else, especially in terms of character development. In fact, Law and Order has perfected this formula. Every episode of Law and Order begins with a death, and even though that death is central to the events of the story, the person who died is literally never fleshed out. Throughout the episode we will only see this person in a ghastly state of incompleteness at best and complete absence at worst. Yet the story goes on.

I do not intend for the Crispus Attucks Test to be applied broadly, especially to movies that do not have death as part of the story or that contain an entire cast of persons of color. My intention is for the test to be applied to movies in which a death advances the plot (or is at least supposed to), namely action movies, horror movies, thrillers and blockbusters.

Like the Bechdel Test, the Crispus Attucks Test does not necessarily say anything – whether the movie passes or fails – about the aesthetic qualities of a film. Rather, it highlights the social, political and economic circumstances under which films are made (which are certainly related to aesthetics, but not always directly). Particularly, it draws attention to the devaluation of the labor of POC writers, actors, producers and general workers within the film industry and the unrecognition* of POC characters as integral elements to the telling of a story, not mere cannon fodder or plot devices.

There are many movies that I love that fail the Crispus Attucks Test. Right off the bat, I can think of Scream 2, Aliens and X-Men: First Class. I can still appreciate and enjoy these movies despite their shortcomings, but I do recognize that the way that they told their stories did not have come at the expense of persons of color. The events of the stories could have easily happened otherwise and the Crispus Attucks Test is a small way of recognizing and encouraging that change.** That said, as Anita Sarkeesian says in the video, changes to the entertainment industry are ultimately in the hands of creators. All we can do is keep our hands at their necks.

*Unrecognition was coined by Audre Lorde in her open letter to Mary Daly to refer to the experience of being represented in an unfamiliar way by someone who was supposed to be a collaborator. It’s more than misrepresentation. Unrecognition is a feeling of being instrumentalized, of being used toward some end that you oppose. It is a feeling of betrayal, objectification and exploitation.

**The early deaths of Omar Epps and Jada Pinkett can be read as parody, but I’ve never really bought that reading. Who says parody has to be so straightforward? Another way to get the point across without slitting their throats could have been to have one of them fall asleep during the movie and imagine that they were murdered. I’m no screenwriter, but in a movie that is by definition an assemblage of other movies, I’m sure that other options could have been explored.

Not Just Funny: On Diversity in Comedy


Earlier this month Jerry Seinfeld made some troubling comments about diversity in comedy. Sitting down with Peter Lauria of Buzzfeed on CBS in the Morning, Seinfeld asserted that viewers who have highlighted the lack of diversity in his web series, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” are practicing “anti-comedy.” Responding to these viewers’ demands for more diversity, Seinfeld said, “People think [comedy] is the census or something, it’s gotta represent the actual pie chart of America. Who cares? It’s just funny. Funny is the world I live in. You’re funny? I’m interested. You’re not funny? I’m not interested. I have no interest in gender of race or anything like that, but everyone else is calculating: ‘Is this the exact right mix?”

As a rich, straight, white male, Seinfeld truly opened a can of worms. Comedian Nicole Byer angrily threw these worms back in his face. Ruben Navarette Jr. went back to the factory where these canned worms originated – Seinfeld – and highlighted the few Latino characters he recalled. Maya Roy called Seinfeld racist and heralded his imminent irrelevance in comedy. Dave Schilling argued that Seinfeld and Seinfeld should be left to their own devices, with diversity being supported elsewhere instead of being injected into shows that aren’t concerned with it. I want to do some other things with these worms. By thinking about what it means for something to be “just funny,” I will explore what this troubling idea means for comedians who aren’t straight white males as well as comedians at large.

The Politics of Comedy

First off, I want to talk politics. To start, it must be clear that the politics of comedy is not the politics of comedians. Following Jacques Ranciere, I conceive of politics as a partition of the sensible, an active intervention in what can be perceived. In other words, a particular politics is the set of actions that makes certain things in the world intelligible in a certain way. Comedy essentially works by taking a description of a real or imagined world and making it intelligible as funny. This is the politics of comedy. Comedy makes things funny. Other modes of perception like sarcasm and parody and mimicry and even horror can perform the same politics, so funniness is not unique to comedy, but funniness is the primary goal of comedy, whether it is successful (causing laughter) or not (causing non-laughter).

In practice, this politics gets mixed in with other politics, other ways of rendering certain things intelligible. For instance, at a typical stand-up comedy show, the space and technical layout of the venue are to make the performer visible and audible: chairs face a centralized location, microphones and speakers are directed toward the audience and lighting is concentrated on the performer’s location. These are political acts. Through this concert of spatial and technical arrangements, comedians are able to rise above their lowly statuses as anonymous members of the crowd and temporarily be an individuated person saying hopefully funny things.

The entanglement of political acts extends further into where a venue is located, whether or not it serves alcohol, who is on the bill, who got to choose who appears on the bill and so forth. Most importantly, it gets mixed in with the political beliefs of the performer. I’m not trying to schematize the entire political landscape of a comedy show, so I will stop here, but my basic point is that comedy itself, as well as the social scene in which it unfolds, is not some neutral space that people walk into, then leave. At every level, politics occurs. Both the act of making something funny and the act of choosing who can attempt to say something funny are political choices.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. It takes a certain knowledge to make things funny and to know who is funny, and I think that people attending or watching a comedy show reasonably expect these things to have been organized by someone who knows these things. That is a given. I just think that it’s utterly naive to think that the political acts of declaring who is funny and what is funny are somehow immune or detached from the political acts that exclude certain genders, races, creeds, ages, colors, sexualities and so forth. In short, how can anything be “just funny” when funniness itself is the result of numerous political acts laboring to make things funny? Even if Seinfeld himself has not made these acts, the world he lives in, “funny,” is founded upon them. Each act has privileged certain kinds of people, collectively creating a world that doesn’t accurately reflect the incredible range of people making jokes.

Nothing Is Funny?


Seinfeld the show is often described as the show about nothing. Even the show itself once slyly asserted this in the episode, “The Pitch,” cited above. Though I don’t think this description is true, I think we should momentarily take it at face value. What does it mean to be a show about nothing? Stated differently, what does it mean for a comedy show to aspire toward nothingness? For Seinfeld, I think that this meant that no subject was particularly significant. From that perspective, each joke and the corresponding observation that led to that joke could be viewed as just another joke, just funny. The goal of each joke, each bit, is just laughter. Enlightenment, critique, anger, displeasure, empathy and other possible outcomes of jokes, are undesirable at best and unwarranted at worst. Seinfeld is about laughs, plain and simple.

I don’t buy that. In 1998 Greg Braxton wrote an interesting article about how Seinfeld’s season finale was largely a “nonevent” for black audiences. Focusing on the lack of diversity within the cast and within the show’s stories, Braxton writes, “Observers said that the lack of ‘Seinfeld’ fever among blacks is mainly attributable to the almost total absence of minority characters on the New York-based sitcom. Some supporting characters–including an attorney modeled after defense lawyer Johnnie L. Cochran Jr.–have been featured in the last few seasons, but many said the show is still seen as a program that excludes minorities.” The claim here appears to be that audiences want to identify with the characters they see. Braxton later qualifies this claim by quoting a tv executive who cites the popularity of Walker, Texas Ranger among black viewers. As the executive emphasizes, black people, and presumably any demographic, don’t need to see themselves in order to like a show. Yet that does seem to play a crucial role in how the show is received. To put it slyly, I think there’s a reason that Ruben Navarette Jr. can remember every single Latino character he ever saw on Seinfeld.

Keeping that executive’s comment in mind and relating it back to Seinfeld’s comments, I don’t think that people are making a purely demographic request when they highlight the lack of diversity in his show. Even if they frame this request in “census” terms, for me, the black response to Seinfeld hints at the privileges embedded in aspiring to nothingness. In other words, though Seinfeld is posited as neutral, just another vehicle for laughs, just funny, black viewers saw it as a vehicle for a particular group’s experiences of the world. For them, Seinfeld was not just funny; it was funny in a certain way, a way that came from a particular way of experiencing the world. Thus, they laughed, but they saw more than just the joke. They saw the world that the jokes come from, a world in which tensions about gender, race, class, occupation etc., could be sidelined instead of being one’s main focus. Stated bluntly, they saw a world of privilege, a world in which wealthy white folks got into hilarious and crazy antics because they had the luxury to not constantly think about paying their rent or eating or their cars breaking down or their grandmother dying. These wealthy white folks could make jokes and live those particularly strange lives because they had “nothing” else to worry about, even though the show clearly had something happening in it.

How Comedy is Made: Seriously, Nothing is “Just Funny”

I’ve touched on how comedy politically works and how Seinfeld’s/Seinfeld’s comedy has a certain infrastructure of privilege, but to underscore the latter point, I’d like to talk about my own experience of making and performing jokes, particularly observational jokes (my favorite kind). From my understanding, moreso than other forms of comedy, observational comedy is especially tied to the person observing. Even if this observer is effaced in the delivery of the joke – as in the joke itself doesn’t include “I” – observational jokes always have an implied source. For instance, when watching Mitch Hedberg perform, even when he’s telling jokes about stuff he’s seen, it’s clear that he was the person who saw these things and turned them into jokes. More than “just observations,” these are his observations and through his skill he has made them into funny, quirky jokes. The act of turning the observation into a joke is an abstraction and performing the joke live actually takes the abstraction further, but these abstractions always have a source. There is always an originary point of reference being abstracted from one thing and toward something else.

In my own experience, I was once told by a friend that some of my jokes are too focused on race. For him, the “from” was always too apparent, subsequently limiting how far the joke could travel, how funny it could be. In his mind, jokes seemed to be like kites: the best ones fly away (“Hahaha”) and the bad ones either stayed confusingly wrapped in my hands (“I don’t get it?”) or lamely sank back down to the earth, settling on my black face (“That was not funny”). Looking back, I think that some of these jokes were actually pretty bad, but not because they talked about race. I think that they were bad because I attempted to talk about race without making them intelligible as jokes. They just sounded like declarative statements from a black guy rather than jokes. I think that that admitting this and changing it was an important development for me as a comedian, but not on my friend’s terms. For him, the problem was that my jokes were too personal; for me, the problem was that my jokes weren’t jokes.

I think that the difference between these two positions is what’s at stake in Seinfeld’s comments. In the world that my friend and Seinfeld allegedly occupy, jokes are jokes. Their origins don’t matter. All that matters is whether or not the joke is funny. In the world that I live in – which is actually the same world they live in – jokes don’t exist just to make people laugh, to be just funny. Jokes and the people who tell them make me laugh as well as cry, frown, pout, yell, grimace and gasp. In this world, performers don’t deceive themselves into thinking that they aren’t part of the act, that their jokes and how they deliver them are unrelated to how they experience the world or are forced to experience the world via gender, class, race, religion or sexuality.

If this world is the world of anti-comedy, I think that the definition of comedy needs to change. Because if it doesn’t change and Seinfeld and my friend continue to define comedy by dismissing the origins of jokes, it’s doing a disservice to all comedians as well as Seinfeld’s own legacy. After all, Seinfeld’s jokes aren’t “just jokes.” They’re the product of a mind that observes the world with a keen eye and turns these observations into hilarious, insightful statements that often change how we view little dimensions of life. These jokes can be called “just funny” or “nothing,” but they’re so much more than that. To not give other people the opportunities to make their observations from their experiences of the world – be it through actively granting these opportunities à la SNL or just plain listening when they say that these opportunities are rare – is to make comedy into something that it is not and never should be.

On Blue Bear and the Brutal Reality of Oppression


Portrayed by actual champion boxer Lucia Rijker, Billie the Blue Bear is a boxer and the primary antagonist of the 2004 movie Million Dollar Baby. Fighting with complete disregard for rules, decorum, honor and safety, she is a pure representation and enactment of all the contingencies underlying the sport of boxing. She exists solely to utterly destroy the body and the fighter that the main character, Maggie, has studiously developed throughout the course of the film. More than just Maggie’s foil, Blue Bear is the physical manifestation of all the danger that has lurked in each of Maggie’s previous fights. Blue Bear is the imminent destruction of the boxer’s body and spirit.

Blue Bear interests me because after she brutally and unfairly maims Maggie in their climactic fight, she never makes another appearance in the film. After their fight, the film solely focuses on how Maggie and her trainer never recover from this fight and respond to the impossibility of recovery. There is never a scene where Blue Bear is fined by the World Boxing Association or publicly scorned on ESPN or even approached by a muckraking journalist. Blue Bear directly ruins Maggie’s life and there are no consequences at all.

This is precisely how oppression works. In one brief moment, the forces that imminently threaten the fortified selves we build and maintain come at us from behind, sneaking into our moments of glory, pain, relaxation and just plain existence, and flooring us without warning or mercy. Most of us get up from these experiences, brushing off the dirt and staggering on, but I think Million Dollar Baby shows what’s at stake every time this happens. These aren’t just inconveniences or bad days. These blindsides threaten one’s very ability to exist, to regularly convince oneself that getting out of bed isn’t a dangerous existential decision.

Blue Bear disappears once her cinematic duty is done, but her brief appearance reminds us that there’s a reason why experiences of oppression can be so easily recalled. When these large and tiny tears in the social fabric materialize in the midst of our lives, we’re spectacularly (and sometimes mundanely) reminded of that fabric’s horrifying fragility. In other words, each of Maggie’s fights had Blue Bear in the ring. And while it’s easy to abstract Blue Bear as just a symbol of mortality and unfairness, I think it’s more interesting to also view her as the sheer, brutal reality of oppression: the blitz is coming whether the ball was snapped or not and justice will probably never occur in any form – neither judicial, nor social, nor poetic. This is a hideous reality, but knowing its contours is the first step toward imagining and later enacting different strategies in real time: punching back, dodging, dancing around the ring.

Above all, I think Blue Bear calls attention to the limits of strategies of preparation and risk management. Too often the response to experiences of oppression is, “Don’t go there” or “Don’t talk to that person anymore” or “Don’t shop there,” as if avoiding oppression is simply a matter of making better decisions, as if one actually decides to be cheated, robbed, maimed, disrespected and violated. All Maggie did was train. Her body was prepared specifically to endure unbearable stresses, whether hypothetical or immediate. But what she wasn’t prepared for was those unthinkable stresses, those things that can’t be anticipated. The unthinkable can only be endured, never prepared for. And though strategies of endurance aren’t foolproof because endurance is an inherently intensified experience, meaning that every moment of endurance is felt at heightened levels (Maggie actually abandons her strategy of endurance via assisted suicide because she can’t continue to endure),  these strategies fundamentally understand that fighting doesn’t occur on a plane of pre-coordinated abstraction. Endurance requires recurring reflexive improvisation, constant readjustment and response to Blue Bear’s brutal right.

This isn’t something we can train for or something we can endure for very long, especially when we encounter it in the form of Blue Bear, the crushing spectacle of violence, but when we have the luxury of being outside of the spectacle (this is always a fleeting position, of course), we have time to think about what enables this spectacle. For instance, as the provided clip shows, Blue Bear is allowed to wreak havoc despite her reputation because the fans love her, suggesting that the WBA values money over fighters. This is the world we live in.

Valuations are made and reified in the form of privileges, preferences, prejudices, accessibilities, and institutions, but we encounter these valuations as manifested in the surfaces of the world: people, media, events, discourses, imaginations, histories. It’s incredibly difficult to tussle with these surfaces, so we should celebrate when we win, but there’s levels to this shit* and Blue Bear is like the bottom floors in Game of Death. All the floors are dangerous, but if we linger on those bottom floors for too long, we’ll never get to the top and throw the boss from the roof. As Maggie’s experience shows, getting to the top isn’t necessarily about having an iron will or strength or determination. Sometimes terrible things happen without reason. But for those of us who’ve been lucky or privileged enough to be spared – for now – I hope it’s clear what’s at stake.

*I sincerely apologize for linking you to a Meek Mill song.