Speaking of TV, I'm not sure if any of Jstheater's regular or periodic readers have caught the MTV show Yo Momma, hosted and produced by former That 70s Show star Wilmer Valderrama (photo at left, in center, with co-hosts Jason on the left, Sam on the right).
If you haven't you aren't missing anything of note, but if you have watched the show, I have to ask if you're as disturbed as I am by how this show, piggybacking on the current Nick Cannon-inspired vogue of using what has historically been an important form of African-American cultural performance--known as "joning," "signifying," "snapping," "the dozens," trash-talking, etc.--employs this insult-trading to supposedly witty and comic ends but with the ultimate result of regularly reinforcing extremely hateful, racist and white supremacist notions about Blackness. In particular, many of the insults traffic in the most negative, deprecatorily retrograde ideas about skin color, sub-Saharan African-descended facial physiognomy and hair and body traits. To put it more simply, if you're black--dark-skinned--on this show, you betta get back, because there's nothing worse or more insulting--here cast as humorous--that anyone can toss out.
The fall-back insult for many of the comedic winners, who're cheered on by their home crews and selected by Valderrama and his judging partners, is often a degrading comment about nappy hair ("the back of your head looks like pubic hair"), dark skin ("Yo mama so dark I couldn't see her"), a broad or wide nose or big lips, etc. Black is the (new, old) abject. The few times I have caught the show the final contestants have usually been two Black people trading these insults, and it is particularly in these instances that the troubling color and physiognomical (word?) hierarchies come to the fore. It's hardly an insight to note the ongoing power of colorism and color fetish, in Black or other communities (including White ones) in the US or across the globe, or the inhering power of white skin privilege and racial supremacy in the mass media; but this show, which is sometimes truly funny, appears to be a perfectly dangerous vehicle to reinforce and reinscribe them, especially for younger viewers. (Dave Chappelle's skit in which he plays a (badly white-faced) White judge who contemptuously labels a black defendent a "big-lipped beast" runs through my mind every time one of the comics snaps off a piece of her or his opponent in this way.)
Neither Valderrama nor his assistants ever steps in--as that would defeat the purpose of the show. The celebrity guests also say nothing, though ironically I did see Houston rapper Mike Jones's eyes widen to cyclone size after one set of exchanges. Several of the competitors have tried "You so _(signifier other than black)_" jokes, but it's clear that the subtext is that, unless the participant is identifiably not Black and tired stereotypes for her or his group can be trotted out (and this has happened with Latinos and Asians), Blackness, especially racially marked, physically represented Blackness, becomes the ultimate, negative limit of signification. I won't be watching the show again, though I almost feel like with programs of this sort, someone needs to be monitoring it, as it's of a course with a subtle racial backsliding and use of psychic, symbolic violence that masquerades as the product of a new liberalness and progressiveness.
I actually received an email about this, though the writer's focus was on the White participants who were using the "You're so Black" formula and the "N" word. As problematic as both are, the general acceptance of retrograde racist and hierarchically colorist assumptions about beauty, physiognomy and so on, in the name of "humor" and "wit" are far more troubling to me. As has so often been the case with the TV media over the last few decades, I think, MTV may be leading the way.
It all sounded so...novelistic. Kaavya Viswanathan (at right, photo from Playfuls.com) a rising Harvard sophomore, secured a $500,000 two-book contract at age 17, and a Dream Works option, for her first novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life*, an autobiographically based narrative about a smart but too-narrowly-focused young Indian-American high school student whose father strategizes to get her into...guess where...Harvard! When I mentioned what I'd heard of Viswanathan's book deal to my graduate fiction class this past winter, they all groaned. All were older than 21 and thus beyond the age of "boy/girl wonderdom" that the publishing industry so fetishizes, and none were at Harvard, the institution whose very name alone sends the New York Times, still one of the major arbiters of (high) literary culture in this country, into sustained paroxysms.
Unfortunately, it appears that Viswanathan borrowed passages, almost wholesale, from author Megan McCafferty's novel Sloppy Firsts (and another, Second Helpings?) without attribution. Or her "book packaging" company did. (Say what?) A reader alerted McCafferty and her publisher, the Harvard Crimson newspaper got on the case, as did other media outlets, and thus the brouhaha began. Whatever the case may be, Vishwanathan's selections appear to be clearcut cases of plagiarism. If you use exact or near exact phrases and don't give credit, it's a problem. Viswanathan, apologizing, says that she "internalized" Megan McCafferty's work. Random House, McCafferty's publisher, however, isn't accepting the excuse for now. McCafferty, for her part, suggested that young novelists find "their own voice." This sometimes is a long process, of course, and overlooks the fact that it was once common practice for beginning authors to write out and copy the work of predecessors, or to use them as guides. It also passes over the point that a number of well-known authors have "borrowed," sometimes with little or no attribution, texts, phrases, plots, and more, of peers or antecedents. Guy Davenport, a sublimely inventive fiction writer and thinker, reprinted a section of Robert Louis Stevenson's Robinson Crusoe, with slight modifications, I believe, and labeled it "Home." The late writer Kathy Acker openly admitted that she plagiarized as a critical strategy and in several of her works--her version of Great Expectations comes to mind--raised the technique to an art.
Then there is that issue of "cryptomnesia," or unconscious borrowing or theft, though perhaps that deserves more extensive discussion if the case goes to court.
Harvard meanwhile is looking into the matter seriously as Viswanathan is making media rounds, appearing this morning on the Today Show, to defend herself. She says she will change the passages completely in the next edition. (Hint: get yours before the first are completely sold out.) The Crimson editorial staff opines, and its verdict on the Harvard undergrad isn't pleasant. The New York Times asks the question I'm most curious about, which is: what on earth was the role of the "book packager"?
*This has to be one of the worst novel titles I've ever heard of. Too long, too trite, too close to Terry McMillan's blockbuster, and utterly grating on the ear. Please, Ms. Viswanathan and Little Brown, don't just change the passages in the book, change its title!