Friday, December 09, 2005
The abuse of "social commentary"
I have become consumed with the San Francisco police department. As I'm sure you all have heard, they've recently gotten into some trouble with offensive videos that were made to “boost morale.” The videos show officers running over black people, objectifying women, making fun of the homeless and a variety of other unacceptable things. The videos attack the diversity that the city celebrates. The officer who directed the videos is flummoxed by the fact that it offended people. He said that if it did offend someone "he is sorry." But he is "not sorry he made the videos" only that they were released to the public. A recent statement says that the officers meant the videos to be "social commentary." People are going crazy over this. I understand the outrage. But I also understand how these officers can use this excuse. As someone who has always struggled with humor found on Reno 911 and the Chapelle Show, it makes me uncomfortable when people answer claims that their humor is offensive with the excuse of "social commentary" or "irony.” I will admit, I have watched both of these shows (and many others that often make fun of marginalized groups: Will and Grace, Family Guy, Simpsons) and laughed. However, I feel slightly sick about it. I really feel sick now that I see these officers using the same excuse that many comedians use. I would like to think that I am intelligent enough to realize the ridiculousness of people thinking that these stereotypes are real. I'd like to think that most of my friends do not form their opinions of minorities based on Dave Chapelle or Reno 911. I'd like to think that by watching those shows we better understand all the stupid people that exist in the world—not the minorities that are represented. But the thing is--not everyone is as smart as my friends or myself. There are people out there who watch these comedy sketches and think to themselves, "That's right! Those homeless people deserve to be run over." There are people who watch last week's Family Guy (which made fun of date rape) and laugh without giving pause to the fact that rape is not funny yet many people think getting women drunk and taking advantage of them is acceptable.

I have devoted my life (so far!) to studying messages, trying to understand the power of language and how words reinforce structures of power which subordinate women. By default I often study how "in" groups are able to define what an "other" is. So often the "in" group put these “others” on display, makes fun of them, and use them as examples of what not to become. That is NOT funny. It is NOT ironic. It is real and damaging. There are better uses (and needs) of social commentary than reinforcing stereotypes.

I'm still wrestling with these ideas. But I do know this, if humorous shows increase the liklihood that powerful people (like police officers) are able to make videos in the name of "social commentary," I will have no problem boycotting the "social commentaries" I once viewed as harmless and comedic.


Anonymous Kourtney said...

Oh I guess you are going to tell me that you don't find Butch Cassiday funny either! ;)

Anonymous drew said...

so long.
don't know if i can read it all.

Anonymous Kourtney said... that also irony drew? I just no longer know what is true or not!

Anonymous BillyD said...

I think that Chapelle was able to actually convey a message though. Much like Pryor, Dave satrizes black culture to make it accessable to mainstream white america - hopefully leading to more understanding. The police video is not social commentary, despite the claims made. It doesn't show a human side to minorities or homeless, it turns them into a comedy prop - without a soul. I don't think just claiming social commentary makes it so.

Thank you for leaving out the example of ironic t-shirts poking fun a marginalized groups.

Anonymous BillyD said...

Also, Drew -
I got a treat for you. I took a picture with my phone of naked photo hunt. I snapped a picture of the woman with the turbin an assualt rifle. It's a tasteful pic - want me to email it?

Blogger kristen said...

Interesting Chapelle analysis. I pretty much agree with you. However, I would argue that you are above average in terms of understanding the plight of many minorities. aka--you are not an idiot. Most people that watch Chapelle probably are. I agree that the police video is not social commentary but to the idiots that made it, they probably do not recognize the difference between themselves and Chapelle. For people that do not already see the human side of homelessness or racial minorities, the positive aspects of Chapelle go right over their heads.

P.S. I find it hard to beleive that any photo that is taken with "naked photo hunt" is taseful.

Anonymous BillyD said...

I think the fact that these videos come from people in a high position of power disqualifies it as social commentary. Chapelle was providing a message from a slighted demographic- giving them a voice. At best, 'social commentary' from an authority is propoganda.
Unfortunately you are correct that a lot of people probably do see this at the same level as Chapelle. "Dave makes fun of black people, why can't the police?" Maybe some kind of irony class could be taught in elementary school across the country.

Would it be more tasteful if I refered to it as erotic photo hunt?

Anonymous drew said...

(a) billyd: color me interested - thank you for thinking of me - you are a wondrous individual
(b) kristen: you can't tell billyd he isn't an idiot and then condemn his taste in erotic art.
(c) billyd: your definition of power is wack - today, kanye is more of an "authority" than any politician you can name.

Anonymous BillyD said...

Dude, McCain's new hit single 'Straight outta POW camp' totally blasted Kayne off the charts. What kind of power are we talking? Swooning jr high girls or the legal authority to change law?
Ok, just trying to figure out a way to get this pic onto the computer...

Anonymous drew said...

if there is a power greater than that which makes jr high girls swoon then my name is danny bonaduce

Blogger s. cagney said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Blogger s. cagney said...

I do agree with you. Irony or excess as a means of social commentary is often claimed but rarely achieved. For it to work I think it must be obvious that the work is not trying to be realist at all, it should embrace its excess. For an example Will and Grace does not do this..Will and Grace is dangerous.

Will and Grace may operate under the guise of championing homosexuality by portraying homosexuals with a tinge of reality, but this is a careless ploy. This show operates under the guise of realism, it uses conventional dramatic structuring and, therefore, it becomes difficult to differentiate what is social commentary by irony and what it being depicted as realistic drama that is why Will and Grace sucks.

Chapelle, Family Guy, and Richard Pryor are successful because they make no claims to truth, but instead they make observations of pop culture for us to construct our own truths or lack thereof..... Although Chapelle's dick and excrement jokes get somewhat boring

Blogger s. cagney said...

Whoa Drew, we both submitted our posts at 4:53, on differnet days, but still at 4:53.....What does this mean????

Anonymous Anonymous said...

are you ever coming back from vacation?

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