Ain’t I Clean Though? Quick Notes on Respectability Politics and Vanity

Last week, Code Switch ran an article about the origin of respectability politics. They didn’t find an exact answer (because there probably isn’t one), but I don’t want to focus on that. At the top of the article was a sample of directives/advice/commands that a respectability politician might offer:

Pull up your pants. Calm down. Get good grades. Stop the violence. Buy a gun. Fix your hair. Go to church. Have a normal name. Speak properly. Be polite. Put your hands up. Stop loitering. Go inside. Have a good job. Smile. Apologize. Don’t shout. Try harder. Own a home (in the right neighborhood). Lose weight. Be braver. Do better. Don’t move. Seriously. Stay. The heck. Put.

There’s a clear individualist bent to all of these mandates. This is DIY anti-racism, the self being the only thing that needs to change. There’s no point in reiterating how ridiculous and condescending it is to be told that beating structural racism is simply a matter of self-improvement, but I do think that it’s worth noting how deeply vain this list is.

Smile, pull up your pants, go to church, speak properly – all of these instructions can be flipped: be seen smiling, be seen with your pants up, be seen at church, be heard speaking “properly.” Respectability politics is heavily invested in perception, in surfaces.

It’s not surprising that a racial group that has [primarily] been visually marked would invest in perception. But what’s troubling is how naive this investment is. To strive for respectability is to submit your self-image, your self-worth, your self-importance, to the person looking at you, judging you, evaluating you, shaming you. To be respectable is to become a surface.

Respectability isn’t so much individualist as it is submissive, deferential.

I can see the appeal. There’s an inherent contingency in submission. Looks can change. Judges can break with precedent. Shame can become admiration. Maybe if we just look good enough, they’ll have to smile back.

But what if there’s no one looking back at you? Structural racism has always struck me as horrifyingly inhuman. One of the most memorable things about the Case for Reparations was that although Coates followed the Ross family, the outcomes for an entire generation of black people were largely the same. This really can’t be overstated. Despite the fact that black migrants from the South traveled north along different trajectories, settling in different cities, and interfacing with various government institutions – they largely all had similar outcomes. And this isn’t surprising. As Coates forcefully argues, absconding with black wealth was policy. In other words, what he gets at in that piece is that institutions are designed to eliminate contingency, to standardize outcomes.

So even if respectability politics did begin to acknowledge structural racism, to concede that there is a system, not a just a bigoted person or two exacting judgment and pulling triggers, it could still only submit, looking flawless in front of the obelisk instead of toppling it or finding away around it. I honestly can’t imagine a belief system that is more suited (pun intended) for late capitalism.

So, all that to say, maybe Riley Freeman should be the new poster child for respectability politics. I think he gets it.

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The Future of Satire

College evokes a lot of memories for me, but even in a world of easily traceable moments courtesy of Facebook and smartphones, my most potent memories are of conversations. Overriding the memories of pizza and movie nights and unceasing lust, conversations hold eternal.

One conversation that was pivotal for my relationship to comedy – how I think about it, how I do it, how I want to do it – was a brief discussion that I had with a peer who I had an immense crush on. We were sitting in my dorm room, flipping through channels on my roommate’s television and we stopped on Cartoon Network. The Boondocks was on and we decided to catch the tail-end of an episode before she headed back to her dorm (much to my silent distress).

I don’t know what episode we were watching, but in it, Uncle Ruckus gave one of his typical self-hating monologues, filled with innovative uses of racial slurs and alarmingly specific insults. My crush cracked up, doubling over, cackling, and grazing me on the shoulder with her soft , brown hand. The joke had touched a nerve, as she had touched me.

I was laughing too – the specificity of Uncle Ruckus’ comments has always been his main selling point for me. For someone who hates black people, he knows them incredibly well (which is how most self-hatred plays out, I think).

As our laughter subsided, with relief, she said, “So true, so true,” endorsing Uncle Ruckus’ deranged statements. I grimaced, but I didn’t think much of it because I had more primal things to think about it.

Those thoughts were short-lived because she continued, “The Boondocks is so on point sometimes.” “How so?” I asked, curious. “Uncle Ruckus is just so right,” she explained.

Willing my primal thoughts back to the fore, I conceded. “I know what you mean.” Minutes later, I escorted her out of the building.

Before that night Uncle Ruckus had been one of the most unambiguous characters I had ever come across in any work of fiction. He was black, his first name was Uncle, and nothing he said was even remotely salvageable. He was racist to the core, someone who could only be hated, objected to and mocked. Sure, his character had range, but his range was like the surface of a pool, expansive, but ultimately flat, infinite ripples of the same vile substance.

My crush’s endorsement of Uncle Ruckus broke me. How could a black person hear his lines and agree with anything he said? Was he actually an ambiguous character? Was I an idiot? Was I just bad at dating?

A recent essay at the Baffler wrestles with similarly perplexing questions, noting that satire has recently been used to obscure rather than illuminate the truth. Citing the CIA’s first tweet, Obama’s appearance on Between Two Ferns, the institutionalization of late night humor as a source of news, and the general ubiquity of humor in contemporary life (i.e. Twitter), Ben Schwartz makes a strong indictment of satire in 2015. The article has a twinge of nostalgia to it, seeming to long for some mythical past when all satire hit hard, but in terms of surveying the field, Schwartz is right on. Satire is definitely the lingua franca of the times and there is certainly something alarming about its widespread appropriation, especially by those in power.

But though satire’s recent incarnations are alarming (and often not funny), I don’t think that the problem Schwartz lays out – politicians, institutions and lame late-night comedy shows easily defanging satire through their appropriation of it – really has anything to do with the genre of satire.

My experience with my college crush is insightful. I was disappointed by the fact that she didn’t “get” Uncle Ruckus, that she didn’t see that he was the joke, not the things he said. But now I know that she absolutely got the joke. Satire doesn’t belong to anyone, even the people who make it and who they ostensibly make it for. Her seeing Uncle Ruckus as a truth-teller and the CIA tweeting self-referential jokes are of a different order, but the same dynamic is at play in both scenarios. In both instances satire is doing what satire does, serving as a palatable vehicle for observations and worldviews that are too taboo or too risky or too unthinkable to be uttered in their raw form.

This has to be understood. Though the history of satire suggests that satire itself does things like threaten people in power and mock society’s absurdity, satire as a medium, as a particular way of acting in the world, can ultimately be understood as humor + an agenda. And everyone – the CIA, President Obama, Comedy Central producers, bougie black folks – has an agenda.

Schwartz’ real observation isn’t that satire has changed; it’s that satirists have changed. The history of satire being used to challenge power and mock society is more a history of the challengers and the mockers than the history of the genre itself. Satire can be (and has been) wielded by anyone. It just so happens that it’s typically been favored by people who like mocking monarchs and presidents.

That reality might be disappointing for people who want to believe in the eternal power of satire, but for me it’s refreshing. Instead of attempting to redeem a genre that is doing what it has always done, or encouraging traditional satirists to be edgier, or crushing on someone who is toxically bougie, maybe the true satirical act is to not be a satirist. Everyone has an agenda but how many many people have the will to follow that agenda to its bitter end, giving up on their favorite art form in the process? I don’t know, but if the legacy of satire lies in the ambitions of satirists rather than in the genre itself, there’s already plenty of precedent.

How Questlove Failed Hip-Hop

The Hunger Strike Boondocks BET

The two-part season finale of the second season of The Boondocks was a satirical weapon of mass destruction. Explicitly accosting BET, The Boondocks presented the network as a cabal of callous, cynical, self-hating and utterly wretched black people who actively sought to undermine black American existence. Though this presentation was clearly satirical, unabashedly wearing its dense layers of hyperbole, parody and reference on its face, there was also a clear contempt for the network. In fact, in one scene the head executive of the network, Deborah Leevil, a grotesque caricature of Debra L. Lee, literally bows to a white man. This unapologetic tone works great for laughs, but it also underscores the simplicity of the episode’s argument. Rather than targeting the industry-wide media practices that make a network like BET sustainable – racialized market segmentation in particular – the show simply points to the network itself, singularly pinpointing BET as a source of black pain and dropping satirical nuclear missiles over its board of directors.

In his essay series “How Hip-Hop Failed Black America” Questlove makes a similar move, berating hip-hop for its cultural dominance, its values, its diminishing of black cool, its parallels with disco and its indifference toward black culture, yet not directly dealing with the world that made and makes hip-hop possible. In this response to his essays, I’m going to simultaneously sketch out this world and highlight hip-hop’s place and history within it.

Remembering Record Labels

In a blog post from earlier this year, I explicitly challenged the notion that hip-hop represents all black people, arguing that it never has, never will and probably never should. I’d like to double-down on that point here because Questlove’s fundamental premise is that “hip-hop has taken over black music.” To underscore this claim, he points to the late 80’s, citing musicians like Michael Jackson, Tracy Chapman, Lionel Richie and more, and highlighting how these musicians coexisted with hip-hop acts like Queen Latifah and EPMD. “Hip-hop was just a piece of the pie,” he writes with nostalgia. Nowadays, he feels that hip-hop essentially encompasses the entire pie of black music, rendering other forms of black music susceptible to hip-hop’s follies and making hip-hop itself less potent.

There is a strange gap here. While Questlove has been a member of the music industry as both a producer and consumer for nearly 3 decades, he does not cite any particular mechanisms for how hip-hop rose to its alleged dominance. Even as a mere consumer, in my blog post I was able to cite instances of hip-hop not really dominating black life, mentioning how older relatives found themselves represented by gospel, jazz, movies, television shows and R&B. Despite his years of experience, Questlove strangely fails to offer a single anecdote. For him, hip-hop’s dominance is just a fact, plain and simple. Thus, the contemporary disposition of black music is all hip-hop’s fault.

I think that this is a very strange logical leap, especially if we consider the dominant mechanism through which music has been produced and distributed throughout hip-hop’s existence: record labels. There is a reason why the major label is hip-hop’s favorite whipping boy. Major label deals and their consequences – both good and bad – have had profound impacts on how hip-hop has developed. One useful way to think about the significance of label deals is to look at rap groups where the various members have had different label deals as individual artists. Wu-Tang Clan is a prime example. With the exception of the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard, the core members RZA, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Method Man, U-God, GZA, Inspectah Deck and Masta Killa have all released at least 3 studio albums through various record labels. Of these numerous individual releases (42, by my count), 9 have gone gold or better. Of those 9, literally all of them were distributed through a major label.

Now this doesn’t mean that record contracts have a 100% success rate. Of the 42 albums in this sample, 22 were released through a major label, so the actual percentage of gold+ sales through record deals is 41% (9/22). And even that percentage should be understood carefully because we have no knowledge of the bottom line – perhaps the albums were given the budget of a platinum album, making a gold certification just a 50% return – and because most of these albums went gold+ in the ’90s and early aughts, meaning that they are time-stamped by a period in which music sales were relatively high.

Even with these caveats in mind, this sample illustrates the tremendous differences that a record contract can make. Unsurprisingly, the Wu-Tang members with the most fame and notoriety – Method Man, Raekwon and Ghostface – have released the most major label albums, including one with just the three of them (RZA is more famous for production than rapping, I think). Sure, this is one correspondence among many: they have also each been highly prolific, for example. But I’ll be blunt: when it comes down to it, their fame is a direct product of the power of labels, particularly the power of distribution. Distribution should be taken very seriously. It is much more than printing packaging and shipping. Distribution is the operational apparatus through which albums are made purchasable.

Wu Massacre

Depending on the label’s investment in an artist, this apparatus can be exquisitely thorough. For instance, whenever there is a new Justin Bieber song, he appears on the front page of the iTunes interface. This is no accident. Labels understand that the front page is a valuable position, so they arrange for the song to have heightened visibility. The same goes for physical stores. Labels have been known to sell albums to record stores at slightly lower prices if the stores agree to display the albums more prominently or on a higher shelf. For established artists, labels have even been known to design their tours around cities where albums have historically sold more copies. Though they are not foolproof because people actually do listen to music (I hope), these kinds of direct interventions in the marketplace have profound effects, especially when they are concentrated toward one artist or act or market.

One particular effect is the flexible allocation of resources. Because labels do not have infinite resources, when they concentrate their capital toward one artist/one market, this is at the expense of other artists/markets. Thus, even when labels participate in multiple markets, they don’t tend to have coinciding release dates. They consciously decide when to release albums, considering their fiscal projections for distributing the album as well as looking at other factors, like the release dates for competitors. For example, Roc Nation is never going to release a J. Cole album, a Jay Z album and a Rihanna album all on the same Tuesday, even if all three artists turn in fully mixed and mastered copies of their albums at the same time. More than likely, they will release Rihanna’s album first, then Jay Z’s, then J. Cole’s.

The consequence of that release order may be that J. Cole’s buzz dies down because his hit single drowns in the ever-flowing stream of new Nicki Minaj songs. Consequently, when he releases another single and it does relatively poorly, the label decides to allocate more money toward Rihanna, subsequently limiting J. Cole’s possible talk show and radio appearances to promote the album. Eventually his album is released and it does poorly, so the label drops him. It may be hard to have sympathy for this fictional J. Cole or even the real one, but if you replace him with an entire genre, like jazz or blues, it becomes clear how punishing labels can be. Though labels decide how to intervene in the marketplace, individual artists and entire genres ultimately pay for those interventions, especially if there are negative effects. In the case of hip-hop, during its coming of age, other forms of black music were cast aside in order to concentrate resources toward hip-hop. In other words, hip-hop didn’t take over black music. Black music was left behind. And I’d be willing to bet that it was left behind precisely because black people have questionably been assumed to be its only viable listeners.

I Never Saw Luther Vandross on TRL

When I interviewed the rapper Skyzoo a few years ago, he mentioned being deeply inspired by Chi-Ali, a rapper who he saw on Yo! MTV raps as a kid. I never watched Yo! MTV Raps because I wasn’t even born during the first two years that it aired, so I don’t have anything to say about the show’s content. That said, the existence of shows that were exclusively dedicated to rap is worth considering. In my own lifetime, before Youtube, I can recall watching Cita’s World, Rap City, Direct Effect, Sucker Free and MTV Jams (it was a crappy show before it was a crappy channel). In contrast, for other forms of black music, I solely recall watching Midnight Love and Soul Train. That’s it. And Midnight Love came on at midnight, while Soul Train came on on Saturdays at noon, so these other forms of black music were culturally and temporally marginalized.

This marginalization was not accidental. Artists like Whitney Houston, Prince, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross and the Isley Brothers were all still signed to major labels, and they continually toured and appeared on television, but they were notably quarantined. I never saw Luther Vandross appear on TRL. I never saw Anita Baker on 106 and Park. I never saw Kevin Aviance on the cover of Vibe. These are not just errors of history. They are the effects of conscious efforts to construct and maintain markets. And because these markets (and subsequently the artists and genres they contained) were not consistently maintained, some fell into disrepair, obscurity and ruin.

It is always tempting to narrate the rises and falls of musical genre on aesthetic grounds, in terms of coolness and meaning and style. After all, the structural realities that make music possible are rarely visible: music is experienced as music, not the arbitrary machinations of corporate investments and whims. And even artists paint over these structural realities, often vaguely speaking of either song popularity or song quality as if these are unaffected by outside mechanisms. That said, in the same way that there would be no car industry if the US government hadn’t spent decades building highways and untold billions subsidizing American car companies (through bailouts as well as tax breaks), hip-hop as we know it wouldn’t be hip-hop without major labels concentrating their resources on keeping the genre afloat. This doesn’t mean that hip-hop is merely a puppet genre or that the record industry had some evil, conspiratorial agenda. Most recognizable genres are subsidized by the behemoth record industry( In fact, we can see these subsidies happening to “EDM” in real time). It just means that because hip-hop came of age in a marketplace where black music was already circumscribed, labels’ investment in hip-hop necessarily came at the expense of other forms of black music. Structural racism is to blame, not hip-hop’s values.

Of course, hip-hop’s collective values could certainly use some work. I’m tired of hip-hop continually producing the same narratives: rags to riches, remaining rich, being rich, becoming richer, regaining riches after momentarily wearing rags, reminding haters why they’re not rich, recanting respect for other rappers because they sold out to become rich, remembering discounts at Rich’s before it was acquired by Macy’s, etc. Hell, I’m also tired of hip-hop’s gonzo journalistic perspective. In fact, when I reviewed Common’s new album for Paste, my criticism was essentially that the album fails because he raps about himself too much instead of getting inside the mind of other people or other genders (or other species, like Aesop Rock in this song). And the worst offender for me personally is hip-hop’s continued misogyny. The fact that radio versions exist and do well is perfect proof that songs don’t require these words (or more importantly these sentiments) that intentionally and instinctively diminish women.

But all of these practices are ultimately aesthetic, so no matter how successfully hip-hop manages to purge itself of its entrenched iniquities, the fact remains that hip-hop exists within an ecosystem in which black media is already under tight restraint. And I’ve never broken out of handcuffs before, but I’m pretty sure that no amount of finger-wagging, self-scrutiny, nostalgia or brutal satire, will singularly enable escape. Say hip-hop no more, son, it’s bigger than that.

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.