When watching a mundane primetime sitcom when I came back to the United States after a long summer of visiting Cambodia, I could not understand much of the jokes. I felt out of the loop, which isn’t too bad – I felt out of the loop all through out high school, any who…. It was ok this happened but I saw these jokes as horribly unfunny. The jokes were innocent (in 21st century American terms) enough, so I wouldn’t misinterpret the jokes too much. The way the jokes were encoded in a way that a transnational person of color wouldn’t understand – or more specifically, for White Americans. The way I decoded it was – well, there wasn’t much decoding for what the jokes meant on my part – not the way it was intended to be understand.
What I’m trying to get at is how entertainers encode (put meaning into) their narratives and how the audience decodes (deconstructs to understand) the messages. Everyone is filled with stories and experiences that create the way they think, and if you are living in American society you will understand some people’s stories and experiences. You will understand any story in American society to some level, and people will understand yours. Everyone in American society is totally disconnected, we are filled with overlapping, if not, similar cultures and counter-cultures.
Now you have the background, here is an example: take Dave Chappelle. He had an extremely successful show, and critically acclaimed stand up specials. He, like many other comedians, made a career off of social commentary. Talking about exaggerated and real experiences of his life and the lives of people within a racialized context. He was in the news for turning down a large sum of money offered to him by comedy central in 2005. I am a fan of Dave Chappelle for his layers and layers of sociohistorical, socioeconomic, and racial context within his jokes and skits. But for much of America, the layers of context will not get decoded in the right way, if at all. For example, the character Mr. Chappelle creates, “Tyrone Biggums” is a facetious example of the “crackhead” during the 1980s and 90s. For many people in the new millennium, crackheads were not visible due to the decline in the sale and usage of crack since the mid 90s. But the crackhead image carried a Black face throughout – although, statistics show that the main users of crack cocaine were White – American society believed the word crackhead connoted a black body. Many people did not understand what he was trying to do with the character, in many ways the message was decoded as perpetuating the stereotype, but what Mr. Chappelle was trying to do was turn that image back on White America to make them feel uncomfortable for the image they created. If you didn’t the first layer – he was trying to humanize a dehumanized figure – then you probably didn’t see the other layers.
Then in more recent times we have the example of Miley Cyrus. My feminist side tells me to support her, and I do support some of what she does – I like how she is discovering her sexuality, and how she is exploring it. But I cringe every time I hear her speak of, and accessorize big black butts. To many people this message will be decoded as, “ooh big butts are cool!” and unconsciously, “ooh being black is cool!” But to the trained mind of a critical race theorist (I’m exaggerating) she is speaking of the racist ideals of American society – as well as appropriating and commodifying the music. The same message, decoded differently, yet still along the same lines. Being part of the same culture gives us common/broad ways to decode mass mediated messages, but somewhere along the lines we are differently articulating it.
The intent of these artist might not reach out to the artist. We have Dave Chappelle who hoped people would think about the racist ideals of American society critically, and we have Miley Cyrus who hopes the masses will take her messages according to the status quo. The intent by the artist/entertainer is there, but it is up to the audience to construct the meaning.
So, Dave Chappelle failed by overestimating America’s knowledge about racial issues, and Miley Cyrus succeeded because America is color-blind – ignoring her acts of perpetuating the degradation of Black bodies and Black culture.
Book of the week: 5 Grams by Dimitri A. Bogazianos