?

Log in

No account? Create an account
click opera
February 2010
 
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
 
 
 
 
 
 
Page 1 of 2
[1] [2]
Fri, Jan. 23rd, 2009 06:34 am
Nisemonobama is worse than Fauxbama!

Nisemono means fake, imitation or counterfeit in Japanese. Nisemonobama is a word I've made up -- on the model of "fauxbama" -- to write about the storm-in-a-teacup surrounding Japanese comedy impersonations of the new American president. Have a look at this photo:



It's a still from this Japanese TV comedy sketch in which a bunch of kuroko stagehands assist comedy actors to impersonate a game of Super Mario Brothers. Halfway through, a man dressed as Barack Obama crosses the screen. Blink and you'll miss it. But, according to some, this (together with people from the Japanese town of Obama dressing up as their namesake) is "totally inexcusably awful" and "truly terrible".

In an entry entitled Japan: Obama is the guy with the black face, so blackface, Marxy demands: "How many more of these are we going to have to see? Comedians and yuksters want to look like Obama, so they darken their faces. Does no one know that this is not okay outside of Japan? And more to the point, do people understand that putting these images on the internet means that non-Japanese will view them and say, wow, this Japanese man in blackface in imitation of Obama is a total bummer and a blight on the Japanese nation?"

Marxy continues: "Obama will be president for at least four years, if not more. Someone needs to drop the hint now — in some kind of well-orchestrated national campaign — that Japanese comedians and actors can’t do their Obama imitations in blackface (or even worse, crappy blackface) for the entire span of the Obama administration. Otherwise, this problem is only going to get worse."



We've been through this before. In 2007 I wrote an entry entitled Yes, Kate Moss is not black about the similar controversy surrounding Nick Knight's image of a blacked-up Kate Moss in The Independent's AIDS in Africa special issue. In response to Hannah Pool's Guardian article saying The Independent should have got a black woman to do the image instead (preferably, Pool said, Iman), I said that if this image of Kate Moss was unacceptable, so was Tibor Kalman's famous 1993 image of Queen Elizabeth as a black woman.

"The "why didn't they go the whole hog and employ a black person instead?" argument is like saying an impressionist shouldn't play the prime minister if the prime minister is available to do it himself, or that all drag queens should be replaced by real women," I argued.



Marxy's perspective is that Japan is letting itself down in the eyes of the world, and that this would never happen in today's America. A couple of his commenters take it further, saying that Japanese people dressing as Obama mark Japan, in the eyes of the world, as "a backward, isolated, vaguely authoritarian state", a sort of North Korea with BO.

And yet Americans do exactly the same thing. In February 2008 US sketch show Saturday Night Live cast mixed-race team member Fred Armisen to play mixed-race candidate (and self-described "mutt") Barack Obama in a skit. The Venezuelan-Japanese Armisen, with the application of a little make-up and some cantilevering around the ears, looks a lot more like Obama than black SNL team member Kenan Thompson does, so Armisen got the Fauxbama job.

Now, true, some commentators on blogs and in newspapers did object. "Call me crazy," wrote Maureen Ryan in the Chicago Tribune, "but shouldn't 'Saturday Night Live's fictional Sen. Barack Obama be played by an African-American?... I find 'SNL's' choice inexplicable. Obama's candidacy gives us solid proof of the progress that African-Americans have made in this country. I guess 'SNL' still has further to go on that front." A reader poll in the same paper the same week, though, showed that most readers disagreed. Asked if Obama should be impersonated by an African-American, 74% ticked the "Doesn’t Matter" box.

In Marxy's view, when someone (anywhere in the world, mind) who is not black applies makeup to look black, that's blackface, and blackface is minstrelsy, and minstrelsy is racism. It's basically the same argument Debito uses when he parlays a sento owner in Hokkaido banning whites after problems with Russian sailors into apartheid and slavery.

We could call this argument "Godwin's Law of metonymy" or "the metonymy of the worst": it turns a non-German speaking with a German accent into a reference to Hitler. The argument doesn't seem to realize that it is, itself, inherently racist. If a non-German speaking in a German accent is making a reference to Hitler, there's a built-in assumption that all Germans are essentially Nazis. In the Fauxbama example, this argument performs a whole series of questionable essentializations: it essentializes the mixed-race Obama as black, essentializes black people as victims, and essentializes all masquerade as minstrelsy.

The argument is also racist insofar as it blames Japanese people for something Americans do too, not just on SNL but in art. Above you see Cindy Sherman in blackface as part of her Bus Riders series, for instance. Below, Japanese artist Yasumasa Morimura blacks up as part of his series Self-Portraits as Art History. One of these artists is letting down Japan, right, Marxy?



To exclude black people from representation by others is rather like excluding them from restaurants or hotels; it performs, basically, the same series of reductions and stereotypes as the thing it claims to be against. It would also condemn us to four, or eight, years in which representations of the most powerful man in the world would either be banned, or coded, or performed by actors more black than he himself is.

In a comedy re-run of the argument that you shouldn't use Kate Moss when Iman is available for the work, Obama (who found the Armisen sketch funny) temporarily solved the representation problem by appearing on Saturday Night Live as himself a couple of months later. I'm told he may have less time for the role in future.

78CommentReplyFlag


(Anonymous)
Fri, Jan. 23rd, 2009 06:44 am (UTC)
Well

In Marxy's view, when someone (anywhere in the world, mind) who is not black applies makeup to look black, that's blackface, and blackface is minstrelsy, and minstrelsy is racism.

I think my point was not "blackface = racism" in all circumstances, but that Japanese blackface would most likely be interpreted by non-Japanese audiences as having a racist motive. I don't think it brings any good cheer.

Most Japanese blackface of Obama, by the way, is not even borderline nuanced. They don't look like him. They literally have an afro wig and paint their faces black. This is kind of an absurd reduction. They actually spent time on making Mario look like Mario, and he's not even a real person. Obama is just "black curly wig + black face paint." (is the guy wearing glasses???)

This is an interesting discussion regardless of me being set-up as the self-righteous bad guy. I would love to see this debated in Japan more than in English, even if everyone decides that it's "none of Americans' business" how the Japanese choose to visualize Obama. (I share the blame for only writing my post in English.)

This issue was perhaps best tackled by episode #38 of '80s TV show "Gimme a Break," where Joey Lawrence does a blackface routine and learned a valuable lesson at the end.

Marxy


ReplyThread
akabe
akabe
alin huma
Fri, Jan. 23rd, 2009 07:30 am (UTC)
Re: Well

here, they manage without the blackface

and getting closer:


those crazy japs


ReplyThread Parent

Re: Well - (Anonymous) Expand


(no subject) - (Anonymous)
imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Jan. 23rd, 2009 09:22 am (UTC)

Well, isn't there a danger in this argument that Obama himself wouldn't get the Obama job? "We've discovered that you -- as our first African-American president -- are half white, and are therefore giving the job to someone else. Someone 100% African-American."

As for "someone from Japan pointing out the issues around a comic full of hypersexualized teenagers in mini-skirts and midshipman's blouses drawn by an American", it would never happen. They'd simply think that America had come to its senses.


ReplyThread Parent


(Anonymous)
Fri, Jan. 23rd, 2009 07:51 am (UTC)

Forget all this blog bs did you know that Bowie is recording in Berlin? You should be knocking on his door begging to collaborate!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


ReplyThread

(Anonymous)
Fri, Jan. 23rd, 2009 08:48 am (UTC)

Wrong, Bowie should be banging on Nick's door for as we all know well, he's a GENIUS! (Momus that is, not Bowie, pfff)


ReplyThread Parent Expand



(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand
bugpowered
bugpowered
Fri, Jan. 23rd, 2009 09:49 am (UTC)

The argument is also racist insofar as it blames Japanese people for something Americans do too,

It's worse than that.

It blames Japanese people for something *only* Americans invented and done historically.

It is Americans who had blacks as slaves, it is Americans that enjoyed minstel shows and lynchings of "strange fruit" and it is Americans who, as late as the '60s had segregated establishments. It is also Americans who, currently, have an extremely disproportionate percentage of the black population in jail.

Now the pretend to have "seen the light" and go about lecturing others for the error of their ways.

Talk about guilty conscience.

(Oh, and yeah, just because this wrongdoing was done by previous generations of Americans doesn't mean the younger one's are in the clear: a historical wrongdoing by a culture and a state is only corrected through reconciliation and specific action, not just by having the privilege of being born after the fact. Black people are also born after the fact --yet the face all the consequences of the older oppression (including that of being born not in their originating culture but in the place their ancestors where brought to as slaves). And no, electing a token black person as president does not qualify, either.

If they want to lecture Japanese people, they better stick to their treatment of Chinese and Koreans...


ReplyThread
krskrft
krskrft
Fri, Jan. 23rd, 2009 12:07 pm (UTC)

I'm not trying to be the ultra-patriot here or anything, but are you from America? Do you have any sense of it whatsoever based on real experience?


ReplyThread Parent

(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand


qscrisp
qscrisp
Fri, Jan. 23rd, 2009 10:31 am (UTC)


ReplyThread

bugpowered
bugpowered
Fri, Jan. 23rd, 2009 11:50 am (UTC)

what bugs me is not so much that japanese people don't know "what blackface means" but that japanese still continue to live in a world that lacks any concept of racial meaning. i always feel that the racism japanese people indulge in is an exceptionally naive racism, and that's what irritates me.

As opposed to the exceptionaly "practical" and exploitative racism American people indulge(d) in?

i feel often when i am in japan that japanese people feel like i'm there to entertain them, and they don't realize gaikokujin don't owe them anything.

But you do owe them.

You seem to forget that *you* are the guest at *their* country.



ReplyThread Parent Expand










(Anonymous)
Fri, Jan. 23rd, 2009 11:54 am (UTC)

I mean this as more question than comment, which other nations have produced blackface Obamas in celebration of his electoral victory? Are there Israeli blackface Obamas? Swedish blackface Obamas? Chinese blackface Obamas? It'd be interesting to know.

Why does Japan currently have the monopoly on blackface Obamas? Just a bigger media?

Marxy


ReplyThread
xyzedd
xyzedd
xyzedd
Fri, Jan. 23rd, 2009 02:43 pm (UTC)
Who is Mr. Bones?

Interlocutor: Good question! Don't we all want to see these here impersonations, Mr. Marxy?

Mr. Marxy: Sho' 'nuff!

Me: I'd really enjoy seeing some Kenyans in whiteface doing Bush and Cheney; it's about time the white world got a taste of its own medicine, followed by a swift purgagative.


ReplyThread Parent

(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand


(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand

krskrft
krskrft
Fri, Jan. 23rd, 2009 12:03 pm (UTC)

What's worth finding objectionable is if such a performance is made to approximate, overtly, subtly, or even by accident, a minstrel show, and one that has no satirical value ... one that is, in other words, done unironically and totally in earnest, in order to demean and spread hatred.

The reason why I don't find this Super Mario/Obama thing, or the SNL sketch, objectionable is not because it's always okay for non-blacks to don makeup and play them in performances, but because neither is using its specific scenario to demean black people. The problem with blackface was never the fact that white people were donning makeup; it was the characterizations they presented that were the issue. Obviously in the Super Mario thing, the point is that all these things they're running past don't belong in the video game, and the Obama thing is just a timely issue for people to identify with. There is no minstrelsy to it whatsoever.

Another even more high profile incidence of this is Robert Downey Jr.'s recent role in Tropic Thunder, in which he plays an Australian actor who's so into the method acting shtick that he permanently dyes his skin in preparation for the role of a black soldier in his new movie. I wonder if Marxy would call this minstrelsy, because it comes a hell of a lot closer than that clip from Japan. But of course, there is a point to it (i.e. lampooning the puff-uppery of megastars who try to portray themselves as "serious actors"), which I think puts it safely outside the danger zone.

Anyway. I'll never concede that we should just let every representation of this sort float on by, because we're post-racial or something like that. But I think Marxy is focusing on the wrong aspect of the performance. He sees make-up on a non-black person and immediately the alarm goes off, but that's never been the important part of the representation. It's the nature of the performance that must be questioned, what it alludes to (consciously or unconsciously, overtly or subtly) and what its aims are.


ReplyThread

(Anonymous)
Fri, Jan. 23rd, 2009 12:17 pm (UTC)

Well there is the question of whether slapping black paint on one's face "makes you Obama." The lack of subtlety is striking. As we've seen in the above YouTube clips, you don't have to do that to actually look like Obama. So why does that become a short-hand for Obama?

Do Japanese performers change their face color to emulate other world leaders?

I definitely think there is room for exploration in these issues, but my initial worry was about seeing "black paint on face = Obama" for four years in the Japanese entertainment world.

Marxy


ReplyThread Parent Expand


(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand



krskrft
krskrft
Fri, Jan. 23rd, 2009 12:52 pm (UTC)

I think maybe we should just go ahead and let Paul Mooney explain this to us:




You know, we're Americans, we have the right to freedom of speech, we have a right to be funny as comedians. I believe in that, and he just crossed the line. It wasn't funny. There was no, he couldn't let me out of it, you know? He spilled the beans, and then he didn't pick them up. He left. So it made me think that he meant it.

I think that's the essential thing with humor that has a controversial element, race in this instance. However slight the joke is, the comedian has to develop an out. I think that in the example of this Japanese comedy show, the out is pretty much instantaneous with the joke itself, which is that it's quick and pithy, but also that race isn't really at the crux of it, and we know that as the audience. It's part of a larger sight gag, and that's pretty much it.


ReplyThread
xyzedd
xyzedd
xyzedd
Fri, Jan. 23rd, 2009 01:13 pm (UTC)
New Christy Mongrels

Well, it's a complicated issue, and there are no easy answers, are there? Hold on for a lengthy post!

First of all, it's important to consider the history of blackface and minstrelsy in America, and to some extent England and the rest of the world, which began not so much with white people imitating black people, but as white AND black people imitating white peoples' ideas about black people. Many of the first blackface minstrels were indeed "black" themselves, that is of African stock, but even they charcoaled their lighter-skinned faces to look more "authentically" negroid. And white people imitated black people imitating white people imitating black people, and so on. I told you it was complicated.

Although a complicated, controversial journalist himself, the (white) American Nick Tosches wrote a pretty compelling book about one of the most important semi-forgotten semi-minstrel singers, Emmett Miller: "Where Dead Voices Gather." It has about as thorough and entertaining history of blackface as you're likely to get in a nonacademic book. I could quote scads of it here, but that would take too much of my--and your--time.

So, you're likely to find a growing number of arguments, at least in America, that blackface was a "celebration" of black culture more than it was a parody or travesty. (This is hardly to say that a lot of those early white blackface perfomers or their audiences were not racists!)

Ask Michelle Shocked about this issue: less than twenty years ago, she got into a lot of trouble with her record company for daring to come up with a blackface album cover for her "Arkansas Traveler" (largely a revisionist retake on southern minstrel traditions. The singer capitulated, but I still think it's an excellent Americana album.) Or ask Silver Silverman, who exploited blackface and racial stereotyping, as well as knee-jerk liberalism, to good comic effect in a recent episode of her American television program (she even dons an Aunt Jemima bandanna). These are but a couple of recent examples of how the lingering legacy of blackface is still a hot-button issue in popular American culture; I wonder if such controversies are even noticed in Japan.

Last summer I had dinner with two close friends, women who told me how happy they were that Barack had chosen a fairly dark-skinned black woman as his wife, because they knew that in American black culture it is all too often a matter of "moving up" or even "passing" to acquire a wife at least a shade "whiter" than oneself. Both of these women are pretty dark-skinned themselves, but only one is African-American. The other is Jamaican-American, and she often sees American racial differences from a very different perspective--leaving me and our other black and racially mixed friends wondering who has the more naive or misinformed outlook. I mention these friends because I have to admit that I would not feel comfortable showing them any of these Japanese satires, even if I might find them funny. Oh, they might laugh, too, but wonder what kind of point I was trying to make--and was I trying to make our Japanese-American friends look bad?

Oddly enough, it's only in the "high class" world of opera that one sees both racial and gender barriers being broken regularly without a single gasp from the loges. Men play women, women play men, women play men playing women, blacks play white, whites play Asians, Asians play Europeans, Europeans play Asians playing Europeans, etc. As a friend points out, it doesn't matter when it only matters if you can sing the part. (One could argue that Shakespeare productions are similarly egalitarian.)

An Obama presidency doesn't mean all our racial problems are magically gone, of course, and now we can make jokes at anyone's expense without considering contexts, intents, and audiences. But I do find myself agreeing more with Momus than Marxy here, though I do think Marxy has sincere reasons to feel a little nervous. More importantly, what does he think of Asian caricatures dones by Caucasians in America? There seem to be more than ever, at least on Comedy Central...

PS My vote for blog post most likely to get the most responses this month!


ReplyThread

(Anonymous)
Fri, Jan. 23rd, 2009 01:33 pm (UTC)
The Abrahamic patriarchy and the need for leader-saviours

Once a faceless digital democracy is established the notion of leader-saviours will be on par with trepanation of the skull to let out evil spirits. In fact, they’ll probably have a statue of Ted Heath in the Wellcome Library’s section on psychological illnesses.


ReplyThread
boof_boy
boof_boy
boof_boy
Fri, Jan. 23rd, 2009 02:18 pm (UTC)
Racist Japan

And yet you surely recognise, with your experience of Japan, that it is essentially a xenophobic and racist country? I was unlucky enough to spend five days in hospital in Japan in 1999 (unlucky because I was in hospital - Japan is lovely). The only person who spoke English was a Turkish porter, who was married to a Japanese woman. Despite having lived there twenty years, he told me, he was still discriminated against when it came to housing, bank loans, immigration at airports. Furthermore, there was no likelihood he would ever be granted citizenship or a passport.


ReplyThread
imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Jan. 23rd, 2009 03:10 pm (UTC)
Re: Racist Japan

"Essentially a xenophobic and racist country" essentializes too much, I'm afraid. Race and blood have different meanings in Japan than they do elsewhere, mainly because Japan is racially monolithic and uses jus sanguinis.

In the case at hand, I'd point out that Japan invented neither slavery nor political correctness, and that there may be a relationship between slavery and political correctness, and that we shouldn't universalize a very specific cultural injury. In Japan there's no reason to adopt the American cultural practice of compensating for slavery with PC. This symbiotic relationship should not be universalized.

Political correctness brings with it a kind of misanthropy -- the "metonymy of the worst" I mention in the piece. All motives and all representations become guilty and hateful ones; all Germans become Hitler, and all blacks shackled slaves. Forever. As a result, reductiveness, essentialism and misanthropy rule the day, even as we proclaim our hatred of these things. To proclaim that Japan is racist through-and-through is to fall into this trap. It's also, of course, to be racist about Japanese people. It is to project our own racism onto someone else, and to attempt to impose on them our specific solution to our own racism, whether it's wrong or right. This process repeats the vices it seeks to end.


ReplyThread Parent

(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand


(no subject) - (Anonymous)
qscrisp
qscrisp
Fri, Jan. 23rd, 2009 03:04 pm (UTC)

Why did they ban the Golly from the Noddy books and the Marmalade jars when apparently it's still OK to reduce other races down to stereotypes?

I don't intend to say anything insightful - or I'd fall short of my intentions, no doubt - but I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I don't think those conventionalised toy figures of 'Chinamen' are especially racist (though open to other opinions), and think that banning some things is going a little too far (I found a copy of Little Black Sambo on the bookshelves where I live recently, and thought it a nice find in an antiquarian kind of way), but on the other hand, I do find that on British TV at least, depictions of Japanese people (and other Asian nationalities) in comedy are cringeworthy. I've sat there with Japanese friends and felt very uncomfortable, even with 'self-aware' comedy like Extras.

I think one reason for this might be a low Japanese population in Britain, and lack of Japanese activism, also a kind of lack of interest (so it seems to me) in such issues in the Japanese at an international level. That probably sounds like an excuse, but it's not. Unforutnately, it seems to take some kind of activism to make people aware of these things.

BUT, then again, I think it's possibly quite true that people can just become hyper-senstive to these things and lose their sense of humour.


ReplyThread Parent
milobusbecq
milobusbecq
Fri, Jan. 23rd, 2009 02:36 pm (UTC)
Wow

When you're right, you're right. You're on a roll this week.


ReplyThread

(Anonymous)
Fri, Jan. 23rd, 2009 02:41 pm (UTC)

the great thing about America as we move towards the next decade is that race is becoming less and less of an issue. i honestly believe this. i mentor a group of kids here in new york and a few months ago we had a chat about obama. all of them started singing the young jeezy song "my president is black" even though the kids themselves are asian, black and hispanic. when i asked them if they were excited about a minority as president, they replied with typical 12 year-old indifference. they find it inspiring, sure, but it's really not that big a deal. it was just a song. they were born in 1996, for crying out loud. for them a minority in office will be a status quo by the time they have kids.

my 17 year-old cousin is in high school in north carolina with chinese, hmong refugees, africans, hispanics, blacks... you name it. he says the only people who openly face discrimination from the other kids are the uptight "preppies"--the WASPS from the rich neighborhoods who interact only amongst themselves.

i think the youngest generation of americans won't give a shit about this sort of thing in 20 years. the context is all gone. race riots of the 60s, poll taxes, jim crow; these will all be alien to them, something in their history books that they'll shake their heads at. they'll see fred armisen doing obama and just think "god, snl is so corny". it's only us older folks stuck in the atrocities of the past that like to dredge up such indignance.


ReplyThread
imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Jan. 23rd, 2009 03:20 pm (UTC)

I think these things do change fast. But I think outgroup projection based on race doesn't go away. It just tends to pass from one group to another. I think that black people stopped being Public Enemy Number 1 in the US when 9/11 happened. The villain-villified role then passed to Middle Eastern people, Islamists, etc. 9/11 opened up the Obama candidacy, but there is still a great deal of hatred in the US for the racial other. Iranians, possibly, in future, Russians (again) and Chinese. Alas, I don't think racial atrocities are only in the past. I think we have some up our sleeve still. Our capacity for them is revealed every time we make reductively-essentializing statements about people who remain irreducibly different from us, even when we use liberal language against them, calling them racists or misogynists or human rights abusers.


ReplyThread Parent Expand

(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand



(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand





(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand