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April 7, 2007

is that you shirley?

WOW! It's a good week for posts generated by comments, because someone whose email suggests they might just be the honest-to-god Charles Knipp/Shirley Q Liquor wrote in to say:

I'm poor. If he would just give me money I'd be rich. I'm fat. If he would just never say I'm fat I'd be okay. I'm a woman. If he wouldn't look at pictures of beauty queens I'd be happy. I have a problem. If he would just...[the comment]

Now obviously, I have no way to know if that commenter is the IRL Knipp-Liquor, but what I have to say applies to such sentiments in general, so I think they're fair. To wit:

Give it a rest. This deep-thought, existential, misunderstood-victim act is as put on as Knipp's' blackface show (which, for the record, I researched when all this blew up because I was curious as to what the fuss was about.) No one is suggesting that if Shirley Q. Liquor went away the lives of black women would magically improve. What Jasmyne Cannick and other black gays and lesbians are arguing, though, is that the overwhelming embrace (and then defense) of Knipp's character makes them feel unwelcome among their purported (white) brothers and sisters in the LGBT community. This isn't about utopia, it's about deliberate and ongoing betrayal by people who pretend to be your friends and compatriots. It's exactly Jane Hamsher sitting up on a nationally-recognized, progressive high horse while simultaneously encouraging and abetting yahoo-racism on her website under the cover of fake "punk" rebelliousness. The adamant refusal of Knipp and other white folks to acknowledge the possibility that the character might legitimately insult members of their own community (their refusal aided and abetted by LGBT talking androids, of course) is the root of the problem here, not some insistence on blaming poor, innocent Charles Knipp for the problems of the world.

You know, when I do something that offends large numbers of people I claim to want to live in fellowship with, I stop doing it. But, considering that Knipp is making a buck here, I guess that option is off the table. I said earlier that I wasn't interested in boycotts, but comments like those above make me inclined to revise my position, as they fairly deliberately misstate exactly what someone like Knipp does for a living. The "he" in the above formulation isn't just some random guy that the "I'm poor" positionality is demanding "give me money." "He" is someone who is actually, actively profiting from the sale of yucked-up images of "I'm poor's" suffering. I mean, I can't even write the name "shirley q liquor" on my own blog without the google links directing people to sites selling SQL recordings, so not only does Knipp profit from SQL in general, he even profits from this specific controversy.

If my commenter actually lived in the real world, this is what they would have written instead:

I'm poor. If he would just stop making money off of images derived from my poverty, I wouldn't necessarily be rich, but I might feel less used.

I'm fat. If he would just stop leading a room full of people who aren't my gender or race in a hour-long laugh-off centered on re-enacting stereotyped images of my fatness, I'd be okay.

[ebog note: I'm not even going to come near the irony embedded in an obese, old-ish, white man becoming the toast of his notoriously body and age conscious scene by inducing people to laugh with him by laughing at, uh, a plus-sized black woman. I mean, if you think about the layers of displacement and substitution at work there too much, your head explodes.]

I'm a woman. If he would stop doing a show and making cds centering on contested images of my body, I'd be happier.

I have a problem. If he would just making a buck off of it and telling me he has nothing to do with my problem and really, truly loves me...

The argument that Knipp is an artist doing some kind of loving "work" around black womanhood is as much of a false pretense as Tyler Perry's claim that his buffoonish caricatures are an homage to (and I'm paraphrasing here) "big, powerful black women we all know and love." These men aren't artists, they're chitlin circuit hacks profiting off the low expectations of their given media ecology.

I'm not suggesting that it's impossible to do "good work" in these arenas. Although I'm increasingly known as "blackface guy," I generally subscribe to Eric Lott's analysis in Love and Theft where the history of blackface minstrelsy can be seen as encoding as much desire as hatred. My point, though, is that even with the dynamics of love and theft in mind SQL isn't half as interesting, timely or well-crafted as, say, Borat, Bruno, or Ali G.

Every marginalized group has artists whose materials are images that were previously used as weapons against them. I can't really speak for the black gay and lesbian community, but I think of artists like Issac Julien, or, more germane to this fracaso, Kalup Linzey, a sampling of whose occasionally NSFW work can be seen below:

Now compare any of those clips to this:

Or this:

Or this:

Or this.

By any possible measure - be it craft, or the live-wire buzz of connection produced by a particularly apt or deft reference, or the level of lived interiority that underscores the humor, or just plain kindness towards the character being embodied - Shirley Q. Liquor is nowhere near the same class as Linzey's or (going a little afield) Sasha Baron Cohen's work. (I don't want to start any kind of new squabbling, but all I keep hearing is "But RuPaul loves SQL!?" I'd be curious to know what Linzey or Cohen thinks.) When Knipp or Perry pull the "loving homage" card, they're referencing a methodology related to - but distinct from - their own practice, one that deals with similar questions of love and identity and hurt and safety and transgression and desire and theatrical embodiment and so on, but simultaneous has an explicit relationship to the tricky problems of audience, distribution and community that put Knipp's work in such an unsavory light.

Linzey doesn't get a pass in embodying black women just because he's black (although, let's be real: it helps) but because he deliberately estranges the work through editing and audio. Linzey also deliberately points his audience to the media contexts in which he operates - say, daytime television or the art market - while Knipp steadfastly denies any tie to his obvious tradition, i.e., blackface minstrelsy. Similarly, without getting into the whole "is it real?" debate around Cohen, Borat, Bruno and Ali G go for jugulars whereas SQL just aims for boozy laughs, the safety implicit in playing a black women in a room full of white gay men completely unrelated to the kinds of physical and spatial risk at the core of Cohen's practice. All of which is to say that the "loving homage" thing is a methodology developed by people who are artistically smarter and braver than Charles Knipp or Tyler Perry ever were. (Artistically! I'm not talking IQ, biography, or Tyler Perry crying to Essence about how he used to be homeless until god and drag saved his life.) And yet here we are allowing these gents to wrap their random, off the cuff, poorly constructed comedy in the mantle of deep and important things being said about the black female. It's bullshit, and said bullshit is the biggest reason don't think of Knipp in terms of racism. I just can't get past how corny and lame and full of shit he is. I mean, my brain shuts down before I even get to the r-word.

But Mr. Knipp, if that was you commenting above, here's a little challenge: I know you already do Betty Butterfield, but why not for the next year try only doing comedy about obese, Southern, white drag performers of a certain age? Heck: you can even do work about obese, Southern, white drag performers of a certain age who also love black women so much they wear blackface; I'm pretty easy. Instead of doing predictable riffs like "Ebonics airways," why don't you do comedy about the black people who accost "Charles Knipp" on flights to tell him how much they love/hate Shirley Q, or the bloggers you have never met who say mean things about you, this without ever pausing to think how poor "Charles Knipp" wears the mask, too, the one that laughs and cries and all that. If you tried my little experiment, I guarantee you that one of two things would happen at the end of your year interacting with audiences in the new mode: either you would regularly crash and burn on stage, thereby bringing you face-to-face with the fact that you have very little to say. (More kindly, you would realize that your previous success relied on your audience's racism.) Or, you would have the proverbial artistic rebirth, finding a more interesting, more truthful character to play that would had grown organically from the facts on your own identity. Either way, though, I think your understanding of the whole Shirley Q. Liquor controversy might be deepened.

But you're not going to do that, are you? You're going to claim that your refusal is bravery, that you don't intend to knuckle under to unfair, illegitimate attacks on your racial virtue. But the real reason will be that you're afraid. What if engaging this controversy with the one thing you and your defenders claim you are good at (i.e., comedy) puts you out of a job? Because we both know that at the end of the day nobody cares or wants to see Charles Knipp perform. What they all want is Shirley Q.

Posted by ebogjonson in race and other identities, on April 7, 2007 11:32 AM


Its not about smarts, it's about intent.

When Eddie Murphy's movie about the Fat Black Lady came out, I didn't want to see it, because I assumed that the "Of course, I'm wearing bottoms!" joke was pretty much the apex of its comedic thrust. The humor of the movie is derived just simply from the existence of a Fat Black Lady, which objectively just isn't funny.

It wasn't just I didn't want to see it because Eddie Murphy dressed as the Fat Black Lady. Sometimes the Fat Black Lady is funny to me. Like sometimes when Tyler Perry or Martin Lawrence trope it to make larger - though extremely simplistic - illustration about the black family and Christian values. Or when Murphy uses it as shorthand to make hilarious points and tweak assumptions about weight with men, women and African Americans.

Murphy was attacked /boycotted when Coming to America came out and accused of negatively portraying the African community. He even took heat about how he portrayed the Black preachers. He was vindicated not because the movie accomplished some larger good, but because it was evident that the imagery and the symbols -that, again, Blacks have really earned the right to co-opt -- were used to illuminate other points.

I think Ebo/Gary's arbitrary distinction between the "smarts" of artist leads to the idea that "Shirley Q. Liquor" isn't what's wrong; it is his application of Shirley that makes it racist.

You don't see a huge market about films of white/black men dress as Fat White Ladies. And you don't need thesis paper to prove this guy is a racist. Its my contention that there are only two reasons any man dresses as the Fat Black Lady: #1 the stereotype provides shorthand to larger point -- whatever that is. #2 some A-hole thinks that fat +black + and woman alone is funny.

Posted by: ProblemWithCaring at April 9, 2007 11:03 AM