Tag Archives: minstrelsy

In the Playground of Parody

We’ve all had that heart-stopping moment going through airport security, when our bag (or the bag of someone near us) is swept off the belt and meticulously torn apart by grim TSA personnel.   Everyone lucky enough to have already passed through watches out of the corner of their eye as they hurry to get their stuff and get away — just in case.  We all know that those orderly lines are just a stampede waiting to happen.

And we’ve also all felt the intrusiveness of a TSA agent who got a little personal and over-aggressive with the wand or with a manual search because the scanner picked up the quarter we forgot was in our breast or pants pocket.   We know that vulnerable moment of personal terror when we realize that our line leads to the scanner that requires us to raise our hands over our head rather than just walking through — in spite of the fact that our belt, now riding in the gray tub, was the only thing keeping our pants up.  We know that we’re just regular folks, but it feels like a violation when we’re singled out for further screening.  Terrifying, too, as we know that with the threat level at Orange or above, they aren’t messing around; protestations of innocence will be utterly ignored.  And forget it if you even look like you fit into one of the “terror profiles.”  You’re positive, right then, that you’re about to find out just how tenuous our freedom actually is.  Gitmo, here we come.

This spring, director Roman Coppola (son of Francis Ford Coppola) teamed up with comedian and actress Debra Wilson to play on these collective fears and feelings of vulnerability in — of all things — an Old Navy commercial.  The ad has roused much comment, running the gamut from its dismissal as racist trash and egregious minstrelsy to its celebrations as hilarious, as brilliant parody or satire.

Wilson, an eight-year veteran of MADtv, plays a TSA agent who tries to spice up a job that is both high-stress and boring, injecting a little humor to keep herself awake and alert as she’s encouraging passengers to follow the rules and keep the lines moving along:

“Sir, keep your pants on.  Ma’am, water is a liquid all over the world, so that’s H – 2 – no!”

The characterization is pitch perfect, balancing just the right amount of bored stoicism and aggression with humor.  Then the comedian takes it over the top:

So, is it a brilliant spot or is it a particularly egregious bit of corporate racist fantasy, blackface minstrelsy haunting us still?

The answer, perhaps, is both.

In creating characters, Debra Wilson draws a firm distinction between doing “impersonations” and “impressions.”  In impersonation, her goal is to “be” the person she’s impersonating, to make someone feel that they’re seeing that person, actually meeting that person.  Impressions, on the other hand, are presentations of “social perception” — take-offs of what people see or want to see, of public persona and behaviors.

Impressions are parody, and Wilson says, “I am there to represent what most people are saying, most people are thinking, most people are reading about.”  Her intent is not to represent the real person, but rather to parody what is acted out in the social arena, to parody and caricature the public actions of a person, or the public’s perception of that person, rather than the person herself.   The object of the impression, then, is to hold the public image, actions, and social perceptions up to a mirror of parody.

Wilson further argues that there’s “no point in doing it if it’s not a playground.”  She loves complex situations, with multiple levels of actions, opinions, perceptions clashing, which offer her “the opportunity to have a larger playground.”  (See interview below, of Wilson’s 2010 appearance on the Gregory Mantell Show.)

So what is the “playground” of parody offered in this commercial featuring Connie, the TSA agent?  Continue reading →

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The Trouble Begins at Nine?: Mark Twain, “A Speech on Women,” and Blackface Minstrelsy

“Trouble,” as I may have said once or twice, was Twain’s trademark.

On 11 January 1868, Mark Twain was asked to give a speech (printed in full below) responding to a toast at the Washington Correspondents’ Club.  The toast: “Woman, the pride of the professions and the jewel of ours.” 

John F. Scott, ed. New York:  Dick & Fitzgerald, 1868.

John F. Scott, ed. New York: Dick & Fitzgerald, 1868. Collection of the author.

The speech was well received and widely re-published in newspapers — and also in an 1868 book called Brudder Bones Book of Stump Speeches, and Burlesque Orations, which contains a variety of humorous speeches and sketches from the blackface stage, variety houses and the lecture circuit, all indiscriminately mixed together.  Twain, though, is given special recognition in the text, being referred to as “the celebrated humorist.” 

While Twain was initially tickled both by his speech and its coverage in the press — and even sent a copy to his own mother, who apparently loved it — he later worried about whether the speech was too vulgar in places.  In the various reprints, it would seem that some editors agreed with him, as they omitted bits here and there.  Their choices are interesting.

The Washington Star version (13 January 1868), for example, mildly says that Twain “responded” to the toast.  It omits an off-color reference to wives cuckolding their husbands and bearing others’ children and an appreciative tribute to Eve in the pre-fig-leaf days.

Brudder Bones, on the other hand, offers that Twain “was called upon to respond to a toast complimentary to women, and he performed his duty in the following manner.”   The book changes that “manner” a bit, by striking the final, conciliatory paragraph that puts all “jesting aside” with a toast honoring each man’s mother.  Brudder Bones also omits Twain’s stated desire to “protect” women, apparently not seeing this as necessary or appropriate, or perhaps funny.  Like the Star, the minstrel show version omits the reference to women’s infidelity and the children that arise from it, but reprints in full the appreciation of Eve, which celebrates female beauty and sexuality.

TroubleAtNineBut for Twain enthusiasts and scholars, Brudder Bones also includes another item of interest.  It is well known that Twain advertised his lectures with various versions of the phrase “The Trouble Begins at Eight.”  And his favorite blackface minstrel troupe, the San Francisco Minstrels, also used variations of the same phrase to advertise their shows for almost two decades, an association Twain seemed to enjoy — and certainly never complained about.  Brudder Bones, though, confirms that both Twain and the San Francisco Minstrels likely had an earlier source for that particular phrasing.  The 1868 book includes a sketch written and performed by blackface minstrel, entrepreneur, and promoter Charley White —  De Trouble Begins at Nine, as played at the American Theatre, 444 Broadway.  This theatre burned to the ground on 15 February 1866, according to theatre historian George Odell (VIII.84).

So . . . the trouble actually began at nine — nine to ten months before Twain’s inspired first use of a variation of the phrase.

And now, let’s take a look at the mild trouble Twain stirred up about women at the Correspondents’ Club, trouble that he felt that “they had no business” reporting “so verbatimly.”  For those who appreciate Twain’s later 1601, this “trouble” will seem tame indeed, but it does have its charms:

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A Speech on Women by Mark Twain

Washington Correspondents’ Club, 11 February 1868

MR. PRESIDENT: I do not know why I should have been singled out to receive the greatest distinction of the evening — for so the office of replying to the toast to woman has been regarded in every age.  [Applause.]  I do not know why I have received this distinction, unless it be that I am a trifle less homely than the other members of the club.  But, be this as it may, Mr. President, I am proud of the position, and you could not have chosen any one who would have accepted it more gladly, or labored with a heartier good-will to do the subject justice, than I.  Because, sir, I love the sex. [Laughter.] I love all the women, sir, irrespective of age or color. [Laughter.]

Human intelligence cannot estimate what we owe to woman, sir. She sews on our buttons [laughter], she mends our clothes [laughter], she ropes us in at the church fairs — she confides in us; she tells us whatever she can find out about the little private affairs of the neighbors ; she gives us good advice — and plenty of it — she gives us a piece of her mind, sometimes — and sometimes all of it ; she soothes our aching brows; she bears our children — ours as a general thing.  In all the relations of life, sir, it is but just, and a graceful tribute to woman to say of her that she is a perfect brick.[Great laughter.]

Wheresoever you place woman, sir — in whatever position or estate — she is an ornament to that place she occupies, and a treasure to the world.  [Here Mr. Twain paused, looked inquiringly at his hearers and remarked that the applause should come in at this point. It came in. Mr. Twain resumed his eulogy. Look at the noble names of history!  Look at Cleopatra! — look at Desdemona! — look at Florence Nightingale! –look at Joan of Arc! –look at Lucretia Borgia! [Disapprobation expressed. “Well,” said Mr. Twain, scratching his head doubtfully, “suppose we let Lucretia slide.”] Continue reading →