Wednesday, April 26, 2006

MTV's Yo Momma's Racism + Vishwanathan Flap

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.


VishwanathanIt all sounded so...novelistic. Kaavya Viswanathan (at right, photo from 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!


  1. hey john! glad to see a new post from you! :)

    "Yo Momma"--that show is extremely disturbing and racist and saddening. My kids watch this show and go off on one another about similar jokes in the lunchroom and before or after school...I had to break up a near fight between a Trinidadian girl and a Dominican boy during a break between classes (I have them for 90 minutes a day, twice a day), because the dominican boy was specifically referencing the girl's hair (which has been a SORE point of contention for her..i've been trying to instill in her how beautiful her afro is and how she should not be phased by what others think of her, but its been a rough process) and I had to stop it and have a discussion on these jokes and racial connotations (VERY negative) behind them...

    I saw one show where they were just going after each other, and I actually started crying when a contestant was cracking on another person's hair and lips. it immediately made me regress to being a middle schooler and how everyone--black, white, latino/a, etc. made fun of me all of the time because i had an afro and huge glasses and the i was singled out because my lips were too big, etc.

    I don't watch that show and I seriously DO sanction discussion of it in class, but it should be monitored. I'm QUITE disturbed by Sam Sarpong, who is an African Brit. I get that he's the host and needs a job, but COME THE HELL ON! SPEA UP..seriously, SPEAK UP!

    Viswanathan: trifling..'I internalized her work' chile, PUHLEESE! you go to SO don't plagarize THAT BLATANTLY (come on, it's a KNOWN fact that Harvard kids dont REALLY BRING IT in the classroom and spend four years and a LOT of money plagarizing and cheating..YES, I have HARVARD HATE! We LEARNED at Oberlin...okay, we were more slick about our cheating and plagarizing! HA! LOL!) but, i hope harvard does a thorough investigation AND i hope that the student newspapers go after her, because she knows she's wrong. and, her book title DOES SUCK!

    hope all is well...OOOH, got a tentative date for a school visit/interview at East Side Community High School, John! wish me luck! :)

  2. i unfortunately had the (dis)pleasure of watching "yo mamma." in fact, it was the one with mike jones guest hosting.

    it made me sick to my stomach to see the overt racist statements hurled back and forth. it makes me heart hurt to hear white men, black men, latina women, black women, talk about black women (the mama) in such derogatory terms for a cash prize of what, 1000 bucks or something?

    but i don't expect much from mtv. i remember when i was younger, bet had a show like this. but it featured all black contestants and i used to laugh--i thought it was funny to hear things like "yo mamma so black she pees oil"--but that was long before i understood racial politics.

  3. I just had to stop reading the comparisons between Viswanathan and McCafferty, because it was too sad. And I'm not surprised to hear that her sales rank has gone up substantially. I hope your students aren't too demoralized by this situation. After all when they are published and/or win awards at least if they do it with integrity they won't have to look over their shoulders like Frey and Viswanathan.Oh and let us not forget the revoking of the 2004 Flannery O'Connor Award given to Brad Vice for his 2005 published fiction collection one story of which took uncredited material from Carl Carmer's 1934 non-fiction book, Stars Fell on Alabama. Vice, an Assistant Professor of English at Mississippi State Univ. commented, "I made a terrible mistake in neglecting to honor Carmer in my acknowledgments--though I made it out of ignorance." The remaining book stock was pulled and publication was cancelled (Poets & Writers, Jan/Feb 2006). Evidently Vice had talked about using the Carmer work in interviews and apparently communicated in an email his thought that “as a nonfiction resource, the dialogue [in Carmer's non-fiction book] had a truth value outside of Carmer’s text."
    Here's another take on that case with some interesting links.

  4. John, on the inadvertent plagiarism: isn't that the oldest excuse? Or, should I say, the most common excuse? "I didn't know it was plagiarism."

    And, you're absolutely right about the Harvard connection: Harvard produces genius writers, always, especially when they are hyphenated Americans and, better, prodigies! (Long rant on how unreadable I find Beast of No Nation, might have the title wrong.)

    I have huge problems with anyone who trumpets writing 50 pages every two weeks while caught up in finals. Very few people produce quality writing within such time constraints. (Am I really as conservative as this statement implies?)

    But I wonder if it's also a case of name (Harvard), ethnicity (Indian-American), and relative youth (19), all of which create a certain celebrity factor. How is this different from the manufactured pop-tarts of yester-year? (Britney, et al.) Did we believe writing would escape the circuits of pop-celebrity?

  5. Ryan, thanks for posting, and best wishes with East Side! It's a great school. As for Yo Momma, yes, Sarpong is silent, but then everyone is. As I noted, the reactions of Mike Jones's face told a different story--and you know what his music is like!

    Nubian, I hear you; I expect little from MTV too, except that it's often a televisual thermometer of certain aspects of American pop culture. The transracial narratives of commodity fetishism and gross egocentricity of "My Super Sweet 16," for example, provide one index of what we can read in other ways in other cultural and social forms in this society. And yes, the misogynistic focus on mothers/mommas, and in particular on the Black mother (where would BE without our Black mothers???), coupled with the particular racialized discourse that the competitors traffic in, makes the show NOXIOUS. Even worse is that the people who're producing it don't seem to realize this!

    Audiologo, thanks so much for bringing up Vice (LOL) and for the link! BTW, did you save that Troy Duster piece from the Chronicle? I could never access it and do want to read it. Also thanks so much for your other suggestions and responses!

    Keguro, yes, the inadvertent plagiary is the oldest excuse. But then plagiarism no longer commands the disgust it once did; in certain circles (the Far Right) it's become normalized, you know. (Coulter, Domenech, etc.). Actually, Harvard is a writing factory (just look at the roster of who came out of that place between 1944-1954; it's kind of scary), but Viswanathan is another case altogether; her debacle is the end result of our marketing culture, and you're right that she's like the pop tarts and sickles of yesteryear (before Brittany there was Dion, and Troy Donahue, and...). Harvard definitely ups the ante, though, as does her youth and her belonging to a currently exciting ethnicity (though the majority culture still doesn't yet know how to deal with South Asians/Desis). I tell you, come up with an alter ego who's a 16-year-old refugee who the Darfur crisis to write a novel that quotes Descartes, Derrida and Alice Walker, and you'd be feted from one end of New York to the other. Percival Everett wrote a novel along these lines (though without the international/Diasporic flavor), and then there was Pessoa, who actually wrote in multiple personalities, none of whom plagiarized each other.

  6. John, can you remind me of which Duster that was?

  7. hey there,can't add anything to yo mama cept thanks for the thoughts and the ammunition for the little peoples i teach, so sad! re the author and the plagiarizing, i think that actually i read the other day in the times that they were pulling all the books and _not_ reissuing them...right? anyway, who the hells gives a 500K advance to a teenager? idiots. i love teenagers, but even i remember part of my process of becoming a writer was severe imitation and thinly veiled re-writings of books i loved. in fact, i remember rereading a line in a poem and being really freaked out because I had lifted it wholesale into a poem of mine! of course, i never received 500K for my poem, but now, looking back on it, i suppose that was a good thing...

  8. Yo momma is the stupidest show I think I have ever seem...honestly Id rather watch blues clues or something.... Its not funny and seeing people laugh at some of those jokes makes me question peoples intelligance anymore...

  9. the dialogue, watered down & predictable mostly. has its moments & hidden stars, but i only watch it for JASON - he is SUPER YU-MMY!

  10. I actually think "Yo Mamma" is a supberb show. For the simple reason being that racial stereotyping exists and will always exists. That fact will not change because a television show pinpoints this.
    I think its great a television show does something fresh inspite of soft minded liberals throwing the racism card. This is NOT racism, its mere stereotyping that DOES exist. Lets be honest, stereotypes can be funny, even with racial subtext.
    The fact that people can be open about the differences in races is great, and the more people can be open instead of being frightened to pinpoint differences is races is the time racism will diminish.

  11. Somebody is always the butt of a joke. If it offends you, turn it off. I don't understand why people are always so concerned with what other people do or say. It's so easy to just turn the channel or change the station. If you are concerned about your kids, then watch them and monitor their exposure. This country needs to quit being so damn liberal and blaming other people.

  12. Your truism says so little it's underwhelming. Yes somebody is always the butt of a joke, but when insults become or contribute to outright physical attacks, murder and mass killings, it's a different story. Or do you disagree? Turning off the TV is a simplistic response; the kinds of racist, homphobic, etc. on this show can be found throughout the media and society. Are people not supposed to go outside? And it's not being "liberal" and "blaming" other people, it's calling attention to their hateful statements--but maybe you'd rather that if you insult someone with racist comments that they smash your teeth out. Is that being "liberal"? Is that what you want?

  13. This show is serving another purpose of the media.. to show prodominatley people of color disrespecting their race and mothers who have sacrificed their lives. My BIGGEST dissapointment is the amount of self hate we have towards ourselves as a race. To sit up there and talk about someone being SO DARK(LIKE THATS A BAD THING). Take out your history books! It was not long ago that during the Civil Rights movements we were screaming "BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL"! And it is! Please dont let the majority of shows we have out there and the BLATENT discussing show Yo momma to feed off of this discussing manner of disresptecting the beauty of being BLACK, OR BROWN OR whatever nationality you may be!

  14. Yo Momma is terrible and not funny at all. The only thing it provides is racial titillation, which some people enjoy. To think that this show will be seen all over the world is really disappointing. Naturally, the ignorant people out there will think all black people speak this way to one another. Why is it that with MTV’s reality shows the people that get to be shown as full, thinking, feeling human beings are almost all white. Meanwhile, on Yo Momma and on VH1’s Flava of Love the blacks get to exhibit nothing but buffoonery. MTV, VH1, and Viacom in general is the most racist outfit on television today.

    So when are our black entertainers going to organize a boycott of appearances on MTV, VH1, and maybe even BET (part of Viacom)?

  15. You people cant take a joke and have no since of humor, the show is very witty and all races are included
    all of yo mammas are so ugly, your dad probably takes them to work so he dos not have to kiss them good buy! ha ha ha. waaaaaaaa! Im black waaaaa! people make fun of me waaaaaa! well Im black and all you cry babies give us a bad name.!!!!!!!