Friday, August 15, 2008

It's Such a Fine Line Between Stupid and Clever

In the great mockumentary film, "This is Spinal Tap," the band learns that its new album, "Smell the Glove," will not be released because the cover---featuring a "greased naked woman on all fours with a dog collar around her neck, and a leash, and a man's arm extended . . . holding onto the leash, and pushing a black glove in her face to sniff it"---is sexist. Band member Nigel Tufnel is confused. "Well, so what?," he asks. "What's wrong with bein' sexy?"

Thus we come to the Spanish Olympic basketball team, which, as part of an ad display in Spain, posed around a court decorated with a dragon (okay) holding their eyes so as to appear, they thought, as though they were Chinese (not okay). The gesture has been widely and fairly criticized as inappropriate and offensive. Some commentators have linked the pose to other instances of racism, directed against Black athletes, among Spanish sports fans. Interestingly, the Spanish players have responded with Nigel Tufnelian obtuseness.

Consider L.A. Lakers center Pau Gasol's statement: "It was something supposed to be funny or something, but never offensive in any way. . . . I'm sorry if anybody thought or took it the wrong way and thought that it was offensive."

Or the explanation of Jose Calderon (who plays professionally in the NBA for the Toronto Raptors): "We thought it was something appropriate and that it would always be interpreted as somewhat loving." He went on: "Anyone who would like to interpret this differently is absolutely confused."

I'm going to give Gasol and Calderon the benefit of the doubt and assume that they did not subjectively intend to cause offense. But that leaves the question of why they would have thought it would honor their Chinese hosts to simulate what they (the Spanish team) took to be distinctive morphological characteristics. If the games were being held in Lagos, say, surely the Spanish team would have realized that putting on blackface would be understood as something other than a gesture of respect. Indeed, it's hard to think of any distinctive physical trait of a group of people---whether real or falsely stereotyped---that would be a fit subject for homage via simulation.

By contrast, cultural homage is perfectly acceptable. Thus, Barack Obama's donning of native Somali garb in 2006 was taken as a sign of respect by his hosts (before it became an issue in the current Presidential campaign). And it's not hard to see why the two forms of imitation would be understood so differently. Imitating (real or imagined) morphological differences is a way of saying that such differences matter (even if the imitator is trying to say that he admires the imitated), while adopting native garb or a host's symbol (as with the dragon) expresses a common humanity. These meanings were not inevitable, but they do seem to be pretty well understood---except, apparently, in Spain.

Posted by Mike Dorf


egarber said...

This is obviously a ridiculously insensitive gesture -- and it's hard for me to fathom that there wouldn't be at least one single player or team rep seeing it as such.

But let's travel down the spectrum a bit. Would a comment like this below be "racist" in the same way?

"I don't know who won that 10K, but it was probably a Kenyan."

Part of me thinks that's just fine. After all, the empirical record clearly shows that runners from Kenya are stellar. But there's another part of me that wonders about a more malicious motive behind those kinds of comments.

Lastly, "This is Spinal Tap" is an all-time classic -- good reference.

Here's one of my favorite quotes (which adds nothing of substance to my post : ):

Marty DiBergi: “This tasteless cover is a good indication of the lack of musical invention within. The musical growth of this band cannot even be charted. They are treading water in a sea of retarded sexuality and bad poetry.”

Nigel Tufnel: That’s just nitpicking, isn’t it?

heathu said...

Or as Jon Stewart remarked, “How would [the Spanish basketball team] like it if the Chinese team posed as unbelievably handsome Spanish sex gods who spent their nights eating paella and dancing the forbidden dance?”

Caleb said...

Just out of curiousity, what about "traits" that cross the line between morphological and cultural?

I believe that Karen women from Burma/Myanmar wear multiple rings around their necks (In some refugee camps in Thailand, they are basically tourist attractions). If the next olympics was in Burma, would the Spanish team get in trouble for posing for a picture with rings around their necks? (Or--to take a different example--bones in their noses?)

I think that the second example (at least) might be deemed offensive. But it seems to me that this springs from our cultural associations, not necessarily the fact that it is cultural garb or a morphological feature.

If so, although they could be accused of being willfully blind (or just incredibly ignorant), there might be a cultural gap between Spain and other parts of the world that explains why they thought that it was okay? (I'm not trying to defend them, but it does seem to me that part of our outrage is because of our own cultural baggage)

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