Of the many things I’ve received from the inimitable Grandma Charlotte, including second-hand smoke, the basics of knitting, and a tendency to yell at people appearing on television as if they can somehow hear me, her literary example and advice on general matters are probably the gifts I hold most dear. Grandma Charlotte is always reading; she has been known to give people book covers as gifts because she has not finished the book it clothed. Along with telling me that books were my friends, it was from Grandma that I first learned the following axiom on semantics, “It’s not what you say, but how you say it. It’s not the words that you use, but the way that you convey it.”
The above saying was one of the first things I thought of when I heard about the response (and ensuing "controversy") to the latest episode of the increasingly popular webseries, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, which has garnered praise from several websites including this one. Like many, on the first Thursday of each month or thereabouts, I log-on toYoutube and watch Issa Rae's extremely likable character, J, get in and out of awkward situations at work and in her dating life. This last clip is no different. After having dissed her best friend, Cece to continue trick-or-treating with one of her suitors, White Jay, J has to implore Cece to forgive her, because after an awkward moment on her date with White Jay, she needs advice. The trouble is this: the couple run into White Jay's ex-girlfriend, a moment that renders him speechless and J invisible. As J and Cece discuss what happened, J admits to feeling like Missy Elliott (she was wearing a garbage bag; see Missy's video "The Rain [Supa Dupa Fly]" to catch the reference) next to Angelina Jolie, to which Cece replies that "[White Jay's] ex-girlfriend is a tranny bitch in heels."
A letter appeared on the Crunk Feminist Collective Tumblr site in response, mainly, to this bit of dialogue and some other issues the composers of the letter wanted to bring to the fore.* A mini-internet controversy commenced in response to the response, with commenters calling the writers of the letter too sensitive, too politically correct, too much. In other words, many were just not going to allow any sort of critique of ABG stand, while others defended the perspective the letter took, while still others simply instigated everything. My purpose here is to do none of that. Rather, I'd like to unpack what I think the entire issue circulates around, which, put succinctly is this: the joke just didn't work.
Part of what makes Rae's series successful is main character J's likability, and part of this likability is the audience's ability to readily identify with J's context, her cultural touchstones. We understand the above Missy reference without the assistance of Google. We appreciate the casual shout outs to Saved by the Bell and California Dreams. We've seen School Dazeas many times as she has; we'd quote Sam Jackson characters in our rap lyrics, too. Her touchstones are ours. To echo one of the central themes of this season, we get J. And we think J, in turn, gets us.
What we also get is that the writers of ABG know how to navigate touchy subjects like race and gender for comedic effect very well. They know what the words mean, they know what they meant, they understand interlocuters' relationship to them and how, then, audiences might respond to their use. They're well-versed. And generally the effect is funny. ABG thrives on our understanding that what happens is ironic and/or absurd. So when the omniracial character uses his racial illegibility to make stereotypical statements, but is later outed as Armenian and has to go to racial sensitivity training, we're supposed to laugh because it's ironic. Sub-plots like that work because we can see how the writers' mastery of the subject matter allows for that kind of manipulation. The writing is less successful when the fat jokes and lines about tranny bitches in heels get used as throwaway dialogue that is supposed to make J feel better and/or audiences chuckle. It becomes clear that the writers were less adept at understanding how those phrases might come off than they are about others.
And I think that's where I can understand what the letter posted on the CFC Tumblr was trying to do, but was unsuccessful because it resembles the kinds of texts people often associate with censorship through the forwarding of politically correct language and language policing. I understand another version of the letter might have read: Hey, FYI: These words may connote some stuff you might not have realized and/or may want to think about the next time you decide to use them. kthxbye. I may have written a version of the note that simply said: I don't think these kinds of jokes work, and here's why... But that message gets buried by the rather unfortunate line, "We have seen your responsiveness to the fans of ABG and we hope that by raising this concern you will respond accordingly by not using such language in future episodes."
Right or wrong, asking/telling people not to say things because they hurt our feelings inevitably engenders the kind of backlash we saw after the letter was published, and truly undermines the other, really useful parts of the note. Instead of a fruitful conversation about what does and doesn't work in this genre, the black versus queer debate was again inflamed and the lede got buried. Now we have, oddly, blackness in one corner and queerness in the other. Even worse, those on either side of the debate are deploying what I, in my secret life of writing stand-up jokes, call The Nigger Test.
Bear with me.
If I were a stand-up comedian, I'd have a joke called The Nigger Test. The Nigger Test is something people use when someone says something that is ostensibly, debatably offensive. It works like this: someone says fag, someone takes offense, some else says, "What's the big deal?" Then someone else says, "If they had said nigger instead of fag, you'd feel differently." In other words, substitute the offensive word in question with nigger, try the statement again, and see if it's offensive now. This test is in the politically correct handbook or something--and I hate it: 1. I'm tired of black people being used as some baseline example of discrimination, as if that's all we're good for; 2. If I am ever in a situation where I'd have to use The Nigger Test, I'm going to gouge out my eyes because the person I'm talking to ended up in the wrong century. Seriously, if your response to hearing someone use The Nigger Test is, "Ohhhhh, I get it now," please leave 2011; 3. Nigger is not a synonym for other offensive words. It is not analogous to other words, not even slave. Nigger has its own history, and it is not available for lease; 4. Slurs and other offensive language have their own histories that need to be heeded and known on their own accord.
Folks defended both sides by using The Nigger Test, and it doesn't work. It didn't work because it obscured the issues the letter writers were concerned with and placed queerness and blackness at odds. It also didn't work because we know that the writers of ABG know how to deploy nigga properly. In addition, The Nigger Test also allowed for the false analogy of ABG and other, non-fictional use of slurs and offensive language like Michael Richards or Don Imus, for example. The fallacy of those comparisons is that the latter examples were moments where such language was used with either lack of forethought or with the precise desire to incite, whereas the scene in ABG offers none of that. Which brings me back to Grandma Charlotte's point: It wasn't simply what Cece said; it was how she said it. Reviewing the scene, it's clear to me that those who wrote it have no Imus-like intentions, which is to say, they know what they're saying is problematic, and that's exactly why they're deploying it. Instead, what I saw was an attempt to say something snarky, funny even without knowing the full context. Like a kid cursing. The remark seemed lazy, haphazard. An attempt at a quick laugh that fell flat.
The joke didn't work. And it didn't work for the same reason the other jokes in the series do, which has nothing to do with being part of the in-group. Rather, it is a matter of being impeccable with language and requires an intimate knowledge of the words that are deployed. Still, eliciting offense instead of laughter does not call for the jettisoning of such language altogether. We must allow words, even the ones that hurt our feelings, to breathe. As writers, we have to be purposeful with our language. And should we choose to water the seeds of certain words, then it behooves us to understand the soil from which they grow. And if we fail at that, then our narratives do, too. It's a risk we take. It's why revision is key. It is why criticism--including the CFC letter--is crucial. It is why Grandma Charlotte, as she told me when I was a child, is always right.
*Full disclosure: I consider myself a friend of Moya Bailey, one of the letter writers, and chatted with her briefly regarding this issue.
N.B. There's a really good scene in the series, Louie that articulates this issue much better than I have. Feel free to skip to the 5:10 mark. *NSFW*