Friday, April 27, 2012

Entertainment/Social Activism: What Dave Chappelle and David Simon Can Teach Us (or Learn)

I'm writing a paper about Dave Chappelle. Actually, to be accurate, I'm writing my second paper about Dave Chappelle. The first one was a textual analysis of some of Chapelle's Show most racially-charged material. Dave Chappelle walked off of his show (and away from a $50 million contract) during the filming of the third season. In interviews later, he cited that a staff member laughed "the wrong way" during the filming of a sketch about racist pixies. He called his work "socially irresponsible" and lamented on Oprah that he didn't fully consider the way people would "use" his work.

In that first essay, I used Wayne Booth's understanding of the duck/rabbit metaphor to examine Chappelle's claims that his work was socially irresponsible.

Booth maintains that we can see the above image as a duck or we can see it as a rabbit, but once we see that it can be either duck or rabbit, it ceases to be a representation of either one. From that point forward, we can only see it as an optical illusion.

Similarly, Chappelle's questioning of his material's social responsibility questions whether his work (which frequently relied upon parodying racial stereotypes) was funny because it ridiculed the stereotypes into absurdity or functioned as reinforcement that drew laughs at the disparaged group's expense. This is also known as the Archie Bunker question: does showing racism in humorous popular culture work to expose and eradicate it, or does it work to reinforce and normalize it?

But here's the thing: it's going to do both. I know this hurts. It hurt Dave Chappelle so much that he fled to Africa without even telling his wife where he was going and hid out while the American media speculated on his mental stability and potential drug use. Some of your audience members are going to see the duck (reinforced racial stereotypes that support their own racism); some of your audience members are going to see the rabbit (lampooned racial stereotypes that offend/disgust them). But some of your audience members are going to see both, and this is where social commentary takes place.

But you can't control your audience. You have to take those who see the duck right along with everyone else. If you don't, you don't reach anyone.


David Simon recently responded after he gave some heart-felt criticism of people who he says are using his show The Wire the wrong way. I love his response. It is intelligent, passionate, and demonstrates a man who cares about his art and his art's impact.

But it also worries me.

It worries me for the same reason that Chappelle's departure worries me. It's not that I don't think Chappelle made the right choice. If he was tormented by what was happening on the set of the show, he was right to follow his ethics and get out. But I, like many other people I know and have read, saw Chappelle's Show as a powerful force that could do some good. I saw it deconstructing racial stereotypes in a medium that was accessible. I took part in conversations sparked by the show, and they were good conversations--conversations where people questioned their privilege, confronted their prejudices. You know, the type of conversations that suggest people can change.

But that's apparently not what Chappelle got to see. Chappelle was faced with hordes of fans screaming "I'm Rick James, bitch!" At one live performance, he went off on his fans:
You know why my show is good? Because the network officials say you're not smart enough to get what I'm doing, and every day I fight for you. I tell them how smart you are. Turns out, I was wrong. You people are stupid.
I bet they just laughed at him.

I can't help but notice the similarities between Chappelle and Simon. Chappelle laments people screaming meaningless taglines at him, and Simon laments bracketology over the best character and fan sites devoted to which season is best. In both cases, fans have boiled down their intelligent, thoughtful commentary into sound bites and platitudes.

And both of them are trapped by their industries. They work in television, and television is consumed by the masses, masses who want to be entertained. As Simon explained:
I know there’s a low end.  There’s always a low end.  And as an apostate reporter taking a check from the entertainment industry, I’m certainly not entitled to any illusions about what the low end can be.  A more calculating fellow would withdraw.  He’d make some television, take the check and tell everyone that they’re right:  Omar is the bestest.  He’d say thanks for thinking so, then go hang out by the kidney-shaped pool with the rest of the people we overpay to keep us entertained.
But maybe we can take that same idea and spin it around, look at it through a different perspective.

They're paid to entertain; without the element of entertainment, they wouldn't get the money to put forth these creations at all.  This fan base, the ones who are merely entertained, the ones who are "misusing" this socially relevant and intelligent commentary are actually providing the means for it to exist. And once it has the means to exist, it can reach the segment of the audience you're really aiming for.

That's not to say that I don't see why the artists are annoyed. I get it. But I'm worried that if they focus too much on trying to manage the audience (which is, I'm fairly certain, impossible) that they'll stop creating at all. Chappelle has been largely absent from the mainstream stage since his departure from Chappelle's Show, and I mourn that loss. I don't want to see other socially conscious, risk-taking artists lose hope.

For every fan who is making a bracket of whether Stringer is better than Bubbles, there's a fan who is having a conversation about the drug war. Okay, maybe there's one fan having a conversation about the drug war for every ten fans making brackets, but--and this is the important part--that's still a lot of people!

And, perhaps most importantly, putting these difficult, abstract social problems into concrete, accessible pop culture texts allows the people who do get it to talk about it more easily with people who don't get it yet but might get it in the future. These artists are giving people tools. Like any tool, it sometimes won't be used the way it's best suited. Sometimes someone's going to bang in a nail with the handle of a screwdriver, but that doesn't mean we should stop making screwdrivers.

"Just wrap this around your leg a few times. It should totally stop the bleeding."
Just as I said in a previous post that cruel online comments shouldn't keep people from writing on the internet, fans who oversimplify complex narratives and ignore commentary for entertainment's sake shouldn't keep brilliant artists from producing their works.

Of course insane trolls who write in all caps and sling racial epithets like they're pixie dust are going to stand out more than carefully-crafted responses on blogs. Of course fans who shout "I'm Rick James, bitch!" at live performances are going to get more attention than ones who are having serious conversations about racism and society back in their living rooms. Parts of the audience may be quieter, but that's because we're thinking. Please don't stop giving us things to think about. 

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