In 1963, James Baldwin published his seminal The Fire Next Time. The first half of this foundational work was a letter to his nephew regarding America and race. In 2015 the journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates published a letter to his son, also about America and race. The literary device employed is no coincidence. Toni Morrison has anointed Coates as the successor to James Baldwin, and while that is a heavy burden for any 40 year old to bear, it is one that he just might manage to handle with grace.
I didn’t know what to expect when I heard Stephen Colbert would be leaving his Comedy Central show to become the new host of The Late Show on CBS.
My first thought was, how can he pull this off? He had built a career by brilliantly sending up close-minded, ignorant neo-cons through a finely crafted satire of Bill O’Reilly. Surely that character would not play on a mainstream vehicle like The Late Show. Still, I was willing to give the guy who mocked George W. Bush to his face (at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Dinner) a chance.
So now that we have had a glimmer of the new Stephen Colbert what does it look like CBS is going to allow?
In 2014 I published a book on Spike Lee called The Spike Lee Enigma: Challenge and Incorporation in Media Culture. In this book I argued that as Lee became increasingly embraced by mainstream Hollywood the rough political edges of his work were inevitably honed down. It was a long way from She’s Gotta Have It (1986) to the 2013 action-flick Old Boy.
Now it seems like we are faced with The Stephen Colbert Enigma, as another artist who came into his own challenging mainstream culture has now been thoroughly incorporated into it.
Instead of caustically mocking George W., we now have Colbert gently teasing the climate change agnostic (!) Jeb Bush about the exclamation point in his Jeb! campaign signs and telling him he could even vote for him.
The New Colbert turns a potentially sharp critique of Donald Trump into an extended product placement for Oreos. (This, shortly after an extended product placement for a national brand of hummus.)
The New Colbert polishes up corporate CEOs like Elon Musk and Travis Kalanick, the founder of Uber, and engages in an almost embarrassing love fest with the most mainstream of mainstream politicos, Vice-President Joe Biden.
The most interesting and challenging moment during Colbert’s first week never made it to television. During Kalanick’s interview a protestor in the audience disrupted the taping. Uber has drawn criticism from taxi companies for running an unregulated service. Cab drivers’ livelihood is undercut by Uber’s practice of outsourcing jobs to independent contractors who are non-unionized and receive no health or retirement benefits. It’s been reported that Colbert dealt generously but smoothly with the protestor and even incorporated his issue into the subsequent interview, but evidence of the protest never appeared on screen (what a compelling moment of television that would have been) and the question was served up to Kalanick as the softest of softballs, allowing him to easily defend his company without facing any hard follow-up questions. Instead, Colbert gently mocked Kalanick’s next big plan for Uber drivers to deliver food. Good boy, Stephen. I’m sure CBS is relieved. Me, not so much.
This is a long way from the Colbert who made politicians squirm during his hilarious “Better Know a District” segments by confronting them with their own ignorance and hypocrisy. Clearly CBS will not allow that type of satire in a showcase forum like The Late Show. While it’s still early, from the look and sound of things, from the glossy production values, to the kid-glove questions, to the cozy chit-chat with A-list celebrities, to the silly rather than sharp comedy bits, even to the smooth jazz that your great-aunt in Omaha can groove to, Stephen Colbert has decided to be a good boy after all. Another one bites the dust.
“Serena Williams is built like a man.” “Serena Williams looks like a gorilla.” Serena Williams should be ashamed of her body. From random blogs to the pages of the New York Times she is told by the world of media both old and new that her body, a body that has scaled the heights of athletic performance, a body that has been honed through years of excruciating hard work and discipline, is too big, she is too heavy, her arms are too muscular. Former George W. Bush speechwriter and current editor at The Atlantic, David Frum, even insinuated that Serena Williams uses steroids.
Why Serena? Why is one of the greatest tennis players in the history of the sport subjected to this sort of bodily scrutiny? Why don’t MLB and NFL players face the same sort of hyperanalysis of every portion of their bodies? What could it be?
The answer is simple, at least on the surface… Our media culture tells us that women’s bodies are supposed to be soft, sexy, seductive—not athletic, not strong, and most importantly not powerful. Feminist media scholars have long pointed out that preoccupation with what Naomi Wolf called “the beauty myth” constrains women from achieving personal, professional and political success. Through the media’s policing of Serena Williams’ body it becomes clear that no woman, not even a Grand Slam champion is free from these narrow expectations.
However, Serena Williams’ real affront is not that she is unfeminine. Rather, she is attacked because her success challenges institutions that benefit from the status quo. And in a time when more and more women of color, like Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Bree Newsome, to name just a few, have gained visibility for their important roles in effecting social change, the power base seems to be shifting. When power is challenged it fights back. And often this fight is centered on the bodies of the challengers. And this is where it gets a little more complicated. Because Serena Williams is not just a woman. She is a woman of color.
In his devastating new analysis of American racism Ta-Nehisi Coates employs the word “body” over and over and over as he explores what we should actually be ashamed of: Not bodies themselves but the horrors inflicted on black and brown bodies that were measured and prodded and poked in ways that white bodies never could be and are still subjected to surveillance and peril and violence in a manner that those with white male bodies will never fully appreciate.
This is little comfort, but Serena Williams is far from being alone. White America has been obsessed with black bodies since the earliest days of this nation. This is not a unique case that might only be understood with a brand new paradigm. Ms. Williams’ body is being subjected to a technologically enhanced version of the same white male gaze that black women have known since the founding fathers first dragged their bodies to the auction blocks. The body shaming of Serena Williams is consistent with the twin legacies of misogyny and racism promulgated in the media environment we all inhabit. Coates notes simply, “black beauty, was never celebrated in movies, in television, or in the textbooks I’d seen as a child.”
This is just one reason why media education is so vital. Higher levels of awareness and media literacy must be cultivated in all of us: journalists, bloggers, advertisers, tweeters, media CEOs, and the young people who ingest their goods. Poisonous messages are toxic to our minds, just as poison is toxic to our bodies, but antidotes to both are available. Late in his book, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about developing a critical awareness as a form of power… “because they could no longer insult me by lying to me.” The media industries tell many lies about race and gender but lies can be deconstructed and in this act of deconstruction comes a new sort of freedom.
Bobby Jindal, Governor of Louisiana, future failed presidential candidate, is on my television screen talking about his “plans” for education. He says that children and families should be able to escape from failing schools.
Escape. Not that we should provide assistance for struggling public schools and help them to meet their educational mission for all children. No, instead, we should leave, exit, flee. Proverbial rats and proverbial ships.
This is the language of abandonment and individualism rather than progress and solidarity. It is highly instructive about the mindset of conservative politicians and their view of the world.
Driving to my daughter’s soccer game I listen to a story on NPR about the horrible torture and isolation of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in Afghanistan. But it wasn’t just the Taliban who did this to him. We did this. We sent him there. When it comes to destroying American soldiers, we are the enemy we fear.
At the game I keep thinking about this bewildered young man, held in a small cage, cut off from human contact, subjected to sensory deprivation. Driven crazy. On the street next to the field where my daughter is playing a caravan of army vehicles drives by.
A young boy, three or four, is hanging out with his mom and dad, watching his sister play. He is wearing camouflage shorts. His mom points out the caravan to him: “Look buddy! Look at the army men! See? Isn’t that cool?”
The boy gazes at the military vehicles passing by. His parents gaze at the screens of their smartphones.