In the wake of George Floyd’s death and the sudden prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement across the world, there was one area where unexpected conversations about race began to erupt: the film and TV industry. Episodes of shows including Fawlty Towers and Little Britain were pulled from streaming services at the behest of no one, not least the actual Black Lives Matter movement, for whom this was neither a demand nor a priority.
This wave of removals hit its peak at the end of last month, when an episode of The Golden Girls in which its leads wore mud masks was pulled from Hulu in the US. The author and cultural commentator Roxane Gay described the decision as “weird, counterproductive and stupid. It diminishes the effort to actually end racism. It’s just so dumb.” The author Sathnam Sanghera echoed this sentiment, describing the “panic-erasing” of British television programmes such as The Mighty Boosh as “idiotic”, arguing that it would “make the deep concern behind BLM seem like political correctness”.
However, despite the unpopularity of such removals among many people of colour, rather than, say, adding a content warning as has been done with Gone With the Wind, the idea of “ironic racism” was once again at the forefront of the cultural conversation. Actors and comedians performing racist tropes from a “liberal” perspective seemed more problematic than ever, and the idea that a creator cannot be racist if their work is made ironically, is naive at best and dangerous at worst. The comedian Gina Yashere recently posted a video on Instagram to denounce that particular defence, making clear that these racist depictions are taken as face-value racist entertainment by many: “What happens is these white actors and white creators bringing back blackface pretend it’s ironic: ‘Oh, it’s just characters, I just want to play characters.’ You’re making a fool of black people for your own audiences, because you know these shows are not made for us, they’re made for white people.”
The stagecraft of ironic racism is one that invites a nominally well-educated and bourgeois audience to ridicule and belittle the apparently inherent racism of less well-educated, working-class and socially marginalised groups. This allows comedians and actors to “safely” perform absurd racist tropes through the malicious deception of an actually racist audience, therefore creating distance between artist and artwork. The logic follows that the scriptwriter, producer or actor cannot be a “racist” or participating in “racism” themselves if their work is being used to draw out the racism of a sub-class of citizens, an uneducated constituency who are the only people who could be truly capable of racism.
In the US, the comics Tina Fey, Amy Schumer and Sarah Silverman have found themselves in the line of fire for performances which many believe perpetuate racism via “meta” disparagement. Episodes from Fey’s NBC comedy 30 Rock that featured four incidents of characters in blackface have been permanently pulled from circulation, inspiring broader scrutiny of her reliance on ironic racism. Her depiction of Asian characters in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Mean Girls was also criticised by the likes of Vox’s Alex Abad-Santos, who pointed out a recurring theme: “The underlying ‘joke’ is that they’re hypersexual and looking for green cards/can’t speak English.”
Similarly, Little Britain was once again critiqued for its strains of classism, misogyny and homophobia as well as racism. Marjorie Dawes, the overbearing organiser of the Fat Fighters weight-loss class who repeatedly and intentionally misunderstands the accent of Indian character Meera, and ridicules other members of the group for their weight, is an example of at least two forms of prejudice. For many, it was now clear that the distance between Matt Lucas, who portrays Dawes, and his colleague David Walliams – both educated, middle class and white – was uncomfortably far from their creations. Often this was even presented as them “making light” of the out-of-touch, traditionalist pensioners such as Walliams’s character Maggie Blackmoor, who projectile vomits when she eats food made by a homosexual or ethnic minority, serving as a superficial pastiche of other quaint television icons such Keeping Up Appearances’ Hyacinth Bucket.
But, for many, the joke never moved beyond replicating racism and homophobia. Clive Nwonka, a fellow in film studies at LSE, described this kind of comedy to me as “hyper-racial contrivance”. “Performers will defend their racist portrayals, or their mimicking and mockery of black and Asian individuals by insisting that the characterisation is so hyper-contrived and unrealistic that the audience, which crucially is primarily white, will somehow recognise the absurdity and irony of the characterisation,” he says. The idea might be, therefore, for viewers to “confront their own prejudices and racialised thinking”, but the reality is that many will still take such portrayals at face value.
Indeed, a sense of haughtiness from liberal audiences seems key to understanding why “ironic racism” has had the foothold it has in popular culture. In his 2006 piece The Heyday of Snobbery in The New York Times, columnist David Brooks writes of us entering “the era of mass condescension”, whereby “cultural entrepreneurs” have enabled us to “look down at our mental, social and spiritual inferiors”. His criticism of Sacha Baron Cohen’s 2006 comedy film Borat is particularly evergreen; having described Baron Cohen’s franchise as often dependent on “an explosively funny rube-baiting session orchestrated by a hilarious bully”, 14 years later Baron Cohen still secures his cultural cachet through baiting and caricaturing what liberal, bourgeois audiences consider to be the unfashionable, stupid and obnoxious face of racism – all the while giving oxygen to abominable views.
Last month, Baron Cohen “pranked” the far-right March for Our Rights 3 rally in Olympia, Washington, disguising himself as a country singer and encouraging the crowd to sing along enthusiastically to a bluegrass tune with obscene lyrics. These lyrics ranged from patent racism (“Obama, what we gonna do? Inject him with the Wuhan flu, “WHO, what we gonna do? Chop ’em up like the Saudis do”) to conspiracy theories about coronavirus being a “hoax” tied to 5G.
As many have observed, the prank was a real-life pastiche of an outrageous segment from Baron Cohen’s own series Da Ali G Show, which, in 2004, featured the character Borat performing In My Country There is Problem, otherwise known as “Throw the Jew Down the Well”, with the stated aim being to expose the bigotry of the performers’ audience. As Baron Cohen is himself Jewish, one may be inclined to pardon this particular song as the self-parody minorities often make towards their own ethnic and cultural groups. However, this performance exists within the context of Borat being used in the presentation of Kazakhstan as exceptionally intolerant and “backwards”, and it is overwhelmingly this specific trope that the comedy is extracted from. His portrayal culminated in the government of Kazakhstan threatenening legal action against Baron Cohen after he hosted the 2005 MTV Europe Music Awards in Lisbon in character.
In 2020 – particularly considering the often obsequiously pious mode of liberal self-reflection and “anti-racism” in light of Black Lives Matter 2.0 – Baron Cohen’s stunts simply don’t land like they used to. It was foreseen: his unauthorised appearance as Ali G at the 2016 Oscars, apparently a physical commentary on the racial politics surrounding the awards show, which had reached a fever pitch with #OscarsSoWhite. As Emma Brockes commented, the trope is exhausted and simply serves to “gratify the comedian’s intellectual vanity” – although she observed that the stunt appeared to be better received in Britain than in the US.
While 2016 seemed to be a turning point, criticisms of Ali G have been long-term and consistent, even if quietly marginalised in the 00s cultural renaissance of disparaging comedy. It is not true that everyone once found these performances funny, but they have simply now reached their expiration date. The black actor and comedian Curtis Walker described Ali G as “offensive” 20 years ago, saying that Baron Cohen is “dishing out all the cliches and stereotypical language. I find it quite degrading and sad that this is what catches people’s attention. I don’t like the concept of a white guy playing a black guy anyway, and when he is playing a stupid stereotype it is even worse.”
Defenders of Ali G often falsely claim that the depiction does not amount to blackface because it does not feature the physical blackening of the skin. However, as Walker says, it is the embodiment of black stereotypes and the cliches of dress and language, from gangster chains to his misappropriation of Jamaican patois – “wagwaan” and “big up yaself” are regular catchphrases of the character.
Although blackface has been a dominant, and for many inappropriate, talking point in recent months, there are many unresolved, and potentially more worrying, areas of racism that still exist on TV and in culture. Earlier this year, a new British sitcom, Kate & Koji, debuted on ITV, which drew its comedic appeal from the interactions of a traditionalist white, working-class seaside cafe owner and an asylum-seeking doctor “from Africa” who speaks in a thick, non-specific accent. The sitcom has been previously described in the Guardian as “a show so distasteful and dated that watching it is like looking into a time-capsule montage of Britain’s finest moments of racial prejudice”, while the Independent called it “agitprop”.
Critical engagement with the racism underlying film and TV is a start, but scrutinising the liberal attitudes that allowed, and still allow, “ironic racism” to flourish is another challenge, as middle-class viewers continue to enjoy the entertainment created by a perceived distance between them and the “real racists”. But it is not the people they disparage who have presided over or are responsible for the entertainment that they are now having to publicly and embarrassingly backtrack on. As Nwonka says, the “racist character which exists outside of racism” is, at its heart, a flawed premise.