Tuesday, July 28, 2009

You're Welcome, America

It's no fun to be a racial scold. And it feels pretty ridiculous when I've vociferously defended Resident Evil 5 from charges of racism---maybe more than it deserves. But among the many good things about the end of the Dubya regime, one benefit is that I'll no longer have to watch liberals wandering into genuinely icky minstrel-show territory.

The most recent sample is Will Ferrell's one-man show: "You're Welcome America - A Final Night with George W Bush", which was shot for broadcast on HBO. For the most part, it's a fairly entertaining piece---though the jokes are mostly just recitations from the Harper's Index, Ferrell's Bush impression has always been eerily spot-on. It's not just the accent, though he does do a lovely job of nailing the way Bush's affected drawl slips and slides depending on his self-image. What Ferrell gets is Bush's belligerent confusion, the way his slitted eyes seemed to be looking equally for a brawl or an escape. No matter how much I hated the guy, I always felt a little bad for him too---deep down, he seemed to know how out of his depth he was, and much of his cowboy toughness was a transparent cover for his well-deserved insecurity.

All that's fine, and good, and pretty funny. The problematic part comes about halfway through, as Bush/Ferrell is going through his memories of the members of his cabinet (you already see where this is going, right?). There's fairly standard jokes about Wolfowitz, Rummy, and a pretty funny bit about tickling Richard Perle's jowls to make him giggle. But then he turns to Condoleeza Rice, and things get profoundly icky, as an African-American woman dressed up like Condi comes out and does a music-video lambada with Bush.

Allow me to proffer a suggestion to comedians who would like to not be racist assholes: If your gag involves an African-American woman doing a hoochie-mama dance, think twice. If your gag involves a powerful African-American woman being turned into a white man's sexual fantasy, think three times.

The worst part---what makes it not funny along with racist---is that the tired sex-mammy stereotype doesn't map onto Condi at all. What's striking about Condi is her icy hatred, the way she would always flash the stink-eye when she thought no one was looking. Building jokes around her evil-nun persona could be plenty funny, and you could even get some comedy gold out of the contrast between Bush thinking of her as a warm mammy, and her actual chilly deadliness---like everyone in the Bush administration, she seems to have specialized in carefully manipulating the dauphin.

But presenting her as a gyrating stripper doesn't map onto her as a person---it's simply the most available stereotype of a black woman under 50. That's what makes it racist as well as bad comedy; it's hard to believe a pro like Ferrell could come up with something both less funny and more egregious than the Right's ugly-Chelsa jokes, but he did.

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