Still Looking For the Great Latino Family Comedy: ABC Tries Again with Cristela
Jason Ruiz / University of Notre Dame


ABC’s Cristela

The new sitcom Cristela premiered as part of ABC’s Friday night lineup on October 10th, part of a slew of new fall programs, including the Emmy-winning Jane the Virgin (CW) and the already-cancelled Red Band Society (Fox), that feature Latino and Latina actors in prominent roles. Among them, Cristela stands out as the one best positioned to become what we might call the “Great Latino Family Comedy,” the show that will finally succeed in shifting Latinidad (rough translation: Latino-ness) from the margins to the center of the TV family sitcom without compromising its Latin soul. Many Latinos have long been waiting for the Latino Cosby Show, the program that, for better or worse (and plenty of African-American critics have panned Cosby’s assimilationist leanings and “politics of respectability” and are now struggling to make sense of his recent fall from grace), changed the racial landscape of television by exposing audiences of all colors to a loving, functional black family. Although the show failed to define “family” beyond a heterosexual nuclear unit, as subsequent sitcoms have done, its vision of blackness was groundbreaking for its time.

Latino audiences still cannot claim a Cosby of our own, despite the increased visibility of Latino characters on network and cable television and the meteoric rise of Eva Longoria and then Sofia Vergara in recent years. ABC seems to hope that Cristela Alonzo, a Tejana comedienne, is the TV star to fill this niche.

The George Lopez Show came close to achieving what ABC has in mind for Cristela. Lopez appeared on the same network and had a similarly winning lead actor, but could never fully balance its star’s edgy standup persona with the banal suburban setting the show placed him in. Although Lopez positioned itself as something of a class comedy by frequently referencing Lopez’s blue-collar roots and job as a manager in a factory, its setting and characters had a distinctly middle-class feel, not exactly relatable to the Latino audience the show’s producers presumably wanted to court and not unlike the class politics of Cosby. Lopez, in the eponymous role, seemed to have his wings clipped under the pressure to represent the Latino family in a blandly positive light. Margaret Cho’s 1994 series All American Girl, another precursor to Cristela, suffered under similar constraints. Both Lopez and Cho had much to say about the minority experience in their standup routines, which appealed to both white and non-white audiences, but both of their shows, though designed as star vehicles, diluted their capacities for social and political commentary.


The George Lopez Show

As a result of this stifled tone, what we got in Lopez was a generic Cosby without the undeniable charms of that show’s stellar cast or the top-notch writing of a Carsey-Werner production. What is more, the family dynamics that it depicted (stubborn husband, exasperated wife, wisecracking grandmother) were played for bigger laughs in Everybody Loves Raymond and The King of Queens. Although it ran for six seasons and 120 episodes, George Lopez never ranked above 50th in the Nielsen ratings. The sitcom does not enjoy a legacy among Latinos and Latinas as particularly groundbreaking or affirming, unlike Lopez’s classic standup routines. Years after its cancellation, scholars in Latino television and media studies continue to pay scant attention to the show (except in a few smart pieces that have appeared in Flow).


Ugly Betty

Ugly Betty, another ABC property, serves as a better template for the Great Latino Family Comedy. Sure, the real drama occurred at Mode, the high fashion workplace where Betty Suarez (played with winsome sincerity by America Ferrera), the sartorially challenged daughter of Mexican immigrants felt like a fish out of water, but the Suarez family provided a warm blooded vision of Latino domestic life. Importantly, it did so while avoiding many of the stereotypes associated with Latinos throughout television history: Ignacio (Tony Plana), the paterfamilias, defied the longstanding trope of the macho head of household—unlike, for example, Cristela’s brother-in-law Felix (Carlos Ponce)—by feeding and tenderly nurturing his family over the course of four seasons; when Betty’s nephew Justin (Mark Indelicato) comes out, the series showed that, despite popular media representations, Latino families are not necessarily more homophobic than white families; Betty herself had plenty to say about Latina feminism (even if she would have never called it that). In these ways and many others, the show quietly subverted a century of film and television stereotypes that have constructed the Latino family as inherently dysfunctional, capable of producing only thugs, maids, drug dealers, and stereotypes that we have seen played as clowns or threats. But Ugly Betty was a single-camera dramedy, not a multi-camera sitcom with a laugh track or studio audience like Cosby, Lopez, or, now, Cristela.

Cristela Alonzo’s standup is funny. As a performer, she is charming and down to earth, unafraid to laugh at herself or the dominant culture’s expectations of her as a Chicana. Her career, boosted by several recent late night appearances and now her own sitcom, looks like it is off to a strong start. I wish I could say the same for Cristela. The jokes and repartee feel too familiar (“If you were my wife, I’d put poison in my coffee,” threatens Felix. “If I were your wife, I’d drink it,” retorts Cristela, to super-sized laughs), the stereotypes too broad (A culturally incompetent and overly Catholic immigrant mother nags the titular character about finding a husband and a real job), and the setting too sanitized (The family’s huge suburban-looking house resembles the one in Lopez) to stand out as something original in the noisy landscape of primetime TV. Just like with Ugly Betty, the pilot paints Cristela as the underdog as she pursues and wins a plum internship—this time at a Houston law firm—but the premise does not go far enough in presenting the lead character as something more complex than just a wisecracking dreamer of the garden variety. Many of the jokes in the pilot are drawn directly from Alonzo’s standup routine but do not feel as funny or vital now that they are situated in the canned world of the sitcom. I found it especially surprising that the first season so liberally borrows plot points and jokes from Ugly Betty, The George Lopez Show, and Margaret Cho’s stand-up routines. This derivative feel suggests that Cristela is not exactly striving for greatness, even if coverage in the New York Times and other media outlets saw the emergence of the show as a significant step forward in Latina/o representations. ((See “Cristela Alonzo Wants to Make America Laugh,” New York Times, October 17, 2014)) The show does tackle Mexican-American stereotypes in just about every episode, but it plays them for laughs rather than to dissect and upend them as, for example, Black-ish attempts to do on Wednesday nights on the same network. Time—and Nielson ratings—will tell if the show will find an audience beyond its inaugural season. I, for one, have tuned out but will keep looking for the Great Latino Family Comedy.

Image Credits:
1. Cristella Promo Image
2. The George Lopez Show
3. Ugly Betty

Please feel free to comment.

Defending Dexter
Dawn Keetley / Lehigh University

Dexter Final Season

The Final Season of Dexter

Showtime’s Dexter (2006-2013) has taken some criticism over the last few years, but its recent final episode (which aired on September 22, 2013) stays true to what has been great about the series. For ninety-six episodes, Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall), a self-confessed “monster,” has struggled to maintain relationships and have a “normal” life, to evolve and become “human.” The finale made it clear that he can’t do any of those things. Dexter was “born in blood,” as he said more than once, and there he remained.

Americans tend to believe we can transcend circumstances that limit and entrap. Metamorphosis is what drives our favorite TV narratives. Mad Men’s Don Draper, Breaking Bad’s Walter White, and Homeland’s Nicholas Brody overcome poverty, disease, and trauma to become the centers of their fictional worlds, steering their own courses, sometimes seeming more like Nietzschean supermen than mere mortals. And however tenuous their power, however fragile their rise above their origins, their stories are driven by their willful self-making.

Dexter Morgan, however, did not make himself and cannot, it turns out, re-make himself. He was “born” at the age of three in the shipping container where his mother was butchered by a chainsaw-wielding drug dealer and where he sat for two days soaking in her blood. He was nurtured by a foster father who believed Dexter could not overcome his urge to kill. “It got in you too early,” Harry Morgan (played by James Remar) tells his young son. So Harry channels Dexter’s urges, giving him “the Code,” whereby Dexter kills only those who kill. Reinforcing the inevitability of Dexter’s nature, Harry shows him scans of his brain and those of a serial killer: they are identical.

Born in blook

Harrison (above) and Dexter (below), born in blood

That Dexter was born not from his mother’s body but from the place where he witnessed her slaughter never lessened the point the series wanted to convey: Dexter was born a killer, even though he was “born” when he was three and from a deeply traumatic event. Nature and nurture were thoroughly intertwined: nurture (his mother’s death, Harry’s “code”) became his nature. In this, Dexter represents complex truths about propensities to violence emerging from the field of neuroscience. As Adrian Raine, criminologist and psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, puts it in his new book, The Anatomy of Violence, social factors do not shape our behavior in a vacuum—there is no “blank slate”: our environment interacts with our bodies, “directly producing the biological changes that predispose a person to violence.” ((Adrian Raine, The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime (Random House, 2013), 9. See also Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (New York: Penguin, 2002).)) Or, as Dexter says in a season five episode, “Some experiences are so big they change your DNA.” They also change your brain, and no amount of struggling on Dexter’s part could change the dictates lodged in his body.

If narratives about our being determined underscore our “stuckness,” as Jennifer Fleissner has argued about American naturalist fiction, ((Jennifer L. Fleissner, Women, Compulsion, Modernity: The Moment of American Naturalism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 9.)) Dexter emphasizes how its protagonist is “stuck” through the always palpable presence of blood. Dexter can never be free of blood (his urge to kill) because it’s literally in his blood: it’s what he’s inherited by birth in the conventional sense (from his biological parents), but it’s also what he inherited when his mother’s blood seeped in him from outside. His inheritance by blood is doubled—and the series dramatizes this truth from beginning to end, never allowing Dexter to evade it although he sometimes, tragically, believes he can.

In season one, the “Ice Truck Killer” (in reality Dexter’s brother, Brian, played by Christian Camargo) leads Dexter back to the memory of his “birth” at age three. In “Seeing Red,” Dexter realizes that the frightening “boy in blood” that he’s been glimpsing in his head is himself. He remembers his mother’s murder, and he realizes why he’s chosen a life where he searches “for meaning in blood.” After all, “the sole memory I have of [my mother] is being covered in it.” The moment of Dexter’s “birth” is shockingly repeated in the season four finale when Dexter’s wife, Rita (Julie Benz), is killed by the serial killer he’s been pursuing all season (brilliantly played by John Lithgow), and Dexter’s son (Harrison) is left sitting in her blood. Dexter’s voiceover tells us, as shots of his son sitting in blood are intercut with shots of himself, at three, in blood, “I thought I could change what I am—keep my family safe. But it doesn’t matter what I do, what I choose. I’m what’s wrong. This is fate.”


The ending of the season four finale, “The Getaway”

Dexter’s “fate” moves inexorably on and in the final season he finds himself in a pool of his “mother’s” blood again, as the woman who helped create him, Dr. Evelyn Vogel (played by Charlotte Rampling), has her throat cut by yet another serial killer (the “Brain Surgeon,” played by Darri Ingolfsson). Dexter says: “The last time I was in a pool of my mother’s blood, I was too young to do anything about it,” but what Dexter does this time, in his doomed struggle to change his fate, leads to his sister getting shot, lying in another pool of blood. Dexter’s job as blood spatter analyst may give him a feeling of control over blood, feeding his hope that he can transcend his “blood,” overcome who was born to be, but that control, that hope of transcendence, end up utterly foreclosed.

Vogel Death

Dr. Evelyn Vogel has her throat cut by the “Brain Surgeon” in front of Dexter

Debra's Death

Dexter sister, Debra, is shot by the “Brain Surgeon”

The working out of Dexter’s fate culminates with the death of his sister (played by Jennifer Carpenter), about whom he says, in the very first episode of the series: “If I could have feelings for anyone at all, I’d have them for Deb.” And he did have feelings for her, and he suffered from her death in the season finale. But mostly he suffered the loss of what she was to him. As Vogel had pointed out, Debra reflected a positive image of himself, one that balanced the “monster” he sees. But the mirror Debra held up to Dexter cracked when she found out who Dexter really was (at the end of season six), and then it broke when she died. Dexter was forced to look at himself, finally, not at the reflection Deb offered him, and he saw the unmediated monster he was: he saw a “trail of blood and body parts.”

The illusion that he can be anything other than the monster he was born to be, that “there’s a human in there,” as Debra had hopefully told him, falls from Dexter at his sister’s death. He takes her body out to the middle of the ocean and drops her in, his last victim. And Dexter Morgan drives his boat into the hurricane and dies.

Burying Debra

Dexter “burying” Debra

Whoever, whatever, we see in the last scene of the series, logging in the Northwest, it is not Dexter Morgan—son, brother, father, lover, friend, blood spatter analyst. In the final frame, the shell of who Dexter was sits at a table and stares blankly at the camera. There is no more voiceover, no more self to articulate—only emptiness, only silence.


The ending of the season eight finale, “Remember the Monsters?”

Dexter said once that he’s “evolving from the primordial ooze of my mother’s blood.” He learns, however, that he cannot. The final episode is entitled “Remember the Monsters?” Well, Dexter does remember. He remembers that he is the monster.

Image Credits:
1. Dexter Final Season
2. Harrison (above) and Dexter (below), born in blood
3. Dr. Evelyn Vogel has her throat cut
4. Dexter sister, Debra, is shot
5. Dexter “burying” Debra

Please feel free to comment.

The Others on Bravo: The Entertainment Value of the Eccentric Ethnic Character
Keara Goin / University of Texas at Austin

Bravo logo

Bravo Network

I have argued elsewhere that the Real Housewives of Miami (RHOM) trades on the discourses of what Diane Negra has called “excessive ethnicity,” ((Diane Negra (2001) Off-White Hollywood: American Culture and Ethnic Female Stardom. Routledge: London.)) and builds a dichotomy of a new vs. old Miami based on notions of whitening. With the recent airing of the third season, I have been reminded just how often the show’s producers deploy a character’s ethnicity as a way to enhance the storyline, facilitate narrative drama, or spike controversy. Whether it is the secret marriage of the Brazilian Spitfire Adriana or the supernatural beliefs of Cuban-American Marisol (whose mother Mama Elsa I have discussed previously elsewhere), RHOM exploits and Others these “reality” show figures in a way that differentiates them from the more normalized cast due to their “eccentric” behaviors.

In reflection of many of Bravo’s other programs, RHOM is not the only show that capitalizes on the excessive ethnicity of a handful of secondary “characters.” The network’s programming as a whole seems to use the eccentric ethnic character as a formulaic strategy to enhance a show’s entertainment value. With a quick survey of several of Bravo’s programs it is clear that such a strategy has become standard practice on the network. Those that stick out to me most, and those I will go into more detail with shortly, are Asa from Shah’s of Sunset, Grandma Edith from Million Dollar Listing Los Angeles, and Zoila from Flipping Out and Interior Therapy.

Before moving on to discussing these ethnically eccentric figures, I think bell hooks’ “Eating the Other” is particularly useful. In her canonical piece she contends that “the commodification of Otherness has been so successful because it is offered as a new delight, more intense, more satisfying than normal ways of doing and feeling. Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes the spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture.” ((bell hooks (1992) “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance.” Black Looks: Race and Representation. South End Press: Boston: 21)) Ethnicity, due to its Otherness, can transfer onto mainstream cultural products different and seemingly more interesting qualities that can be used and then discarded as producers see fit. They gain the value of momentary difference, cool, or appeal without having to deal with the baggage that goes along with hegemonic processes of Othering. In the context of the Bravo network, secondary ethnicized characters function as a splash of difference into the overall narrative of a given reality show. Able to ignite discussion of and attention to their shows in a wider pop cultural context, ethnic secondary characters and their lives are painted as eccentric and therefore something entertaining and inherently humorous.

On Shah’s of Sunset, cast member and self-proclaimed “Persian Pop Priestess” Asa Soltan Rahmati has been set up by the show’s narrative as a figure who the viewer is supposed to find ridiculous. This characterization provides the audience with the permission to laugh at her seemingly outrageous behavior that is rooted in her own interpretation of her Persian identity. Her eccentricity is probably best exemplified through her promotion of a product she created called “diamond water,” which, according to Asa, is infused with the powerful energy of diamonds. The viewer is taken along on her journey, from purchasing a large expensive diamond that she chooses based on “feeling its energy” to the production of the finalized commodity. Seen in the following clip, Asa’s diamond water is just the brightest star in her constellation of Persian eccentricity.


Asa Explaining Diamond Water

Million Dollar Listing Los Angeles’ (MDL) Grandma Edith, a spunky older Jewish woman, is a Holocaust survivor and former fashion designer. An accomplished figure in her own right, when her grandson Josh Flagg was cast on MDL, viewers were introduced to her as Josh’s grandmother and “best friend.” A constant source of advice for Josh, Grandma Edith speaks her mind and is formulaically consistent with other characters common within the lexicon of Jewish regimes of representation. As an “Old World” Jew, Grandma Edith’s presence in the show works to reinforce her grandson’s whiteness through comparison. The candid and brash comments delivered by a woman in her 90s are reality show gold for Bravo.

Josh Flagg’s Best Friend, His Grandma Edith

However, my favorite by far is Zoila Chavez from Flipping Out and Interior Therapy. This sassy housekeeper is both surrogate mother and thorn in the side of her employer Jeff Lewis, the main star of both shows. Their frequent bickering, punctuated with Zoila’s broken (and therefore subtitled) English, is the crux of much of Flipping Out’s comedy. Even though she is an older woman and a mother figure, the rest of the cast playfully discuss her sex life with her and often encourage her to flirt with men who appear on the show. To top off her and Jeff’s unusual and often inappropriate relationship, as a gift Jeff pays for multiple plastic surgeries and private recovery (while still teasing her through the entire process, of course). In Zoila, Bravo cashes in on both the stereotypes of the Latina mother as well as the Latina spitfire and she has become one of the most popular secondary reality stars on the network.

Zoila Participates in Sexually Charged Banter

So far I have used the terms “character” and “figure” interchangeably as the assumption is that when referring to “reality TV” that you are talking about “real” people as opposed to fictionalized ones. However, as Andrew Tudor argued when analyzing sports programming narratives during the Soccer World Cup, “television, it is suggested, tells us stories, even—or perhaps especially—when it tries to imply otherwise, and those stories are constructed from familiar narrative materials and along relatively standardized lines.” ((Andrew Tudor (1992) “Them and Us: Story and Stereotype in TV World Cup Coverage” European Journal of Communication 7: 410)) Reality TV, just like all television programming, constructs narratives that involve characters, whether or not these characters are also real people. And as characters, those figures that are framed within televisual discourses of ethnicity are subject to what producers think will make the most entertaining narrative.

While it could be argued that this is true of US media in general, the Bravo network is an offender par excellence. One just needs to observe the behavior of network executive, and host of Watch What Happens Live, Andy Cohen and his predilection for racialized/ethnicized catch phrases or subject matters. Not only readily deploying the popular sayings of the network’s racialized/ethnicized reality stars, he also seems to have developed an obsession with certain ethnic/racial cultural phenomena such as “weaves” and “twerking.” I argue that his intention with this type of appropriation from his network’s most popular figures is to imbue upon himself a sense of whimsy, silliness, and cool. hooks would see Cohen as indulging in an appropriative tradition where those “critical of white imperialism and ‘into’ difference…desire cultural spaces where boundaries can be transgressed, where new and alternative relations can be formed” ((bell hooks (1992) “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance.” Black Looks: Race and Representation. South End Press: Boston: 36)). Bravo’s strategy to utilize these secondary ethnicized characters as eccentric narrative entertainment is undeniably Othering, turning these Other figures into caricatures intended to keep us laughing.

Image Credits:
1. Bravo Network

Please feel free to comment.

Flow Favorites: Seeing in Spanish: The Nat King Cole Show
Herman Gray / University of California in Santa Cruz

Flow Favorites

Every few years, Flow’s editors select our favorite columns from the last few volumes. We’ve added special introductions and included the original comments to the piece below. Enjoy!

Flow Co-Coordinating Editor Keara Goin:
Herman Gray in this piece addresses the complexities of African diasporic connections that have a musical alignment and confluence. Linking the work of musician David Murray to that of Nat King Cole, Gray articulates a sonic thread running through the web of the Black Atlantic. The Spanish language recordings of Latin American music by both African American artists, what Gray terms diasporic conversations, inspire him to reflect on the power of transnational musical expression to provide people with a way to hear visually and see sonically. Concluding with a reflection on contemporary African American-targeted media, Gray laments the relative inability for diasporic projects like Cole’s or Murray’s to be utilized in these media spaces.

Nat King Cole

Album Cover for Nat King Cole en Español

Long before he was a television host and celebrity Nat King Cole was an accomplished jazz pianist and song stylist. Over the course of a very successful musical career Cole recorded hundreds of songs with his innovative jazz trio including a series of records featuring classic song from Latin America including pre-Castro Cuba.

Nat King Cole Performing “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas”

In his most recent compact disk release, David Murray’s Cuban Ensemble Plays Nat King Cole (En Español) (3d Family 2011; 3d, saxophonist, composer, and arranger David Murray revisits some of these classical Latin American recordings by Cole. David Murray’s reinterpretation of Nat King Cole prompts me to rehear The Nat King Cole Show, especially in the context of black televisual presence in today’s digital platforms. What Murray has done with this remarkable project is to signal some of the radical possibilities in sight and sound, hemispheric transnationalism, border crossing, and the politics of representation that Nat King Cole gestured toward in the short run of his television show. David Murray’s sonic riff on Cole’s often commercial and sometime brazen south of the border collaborations is no mere project of nostalgic recuperation either. David Murray links Nat King Cole’s sonic presence on television to a powerful musical tradition and diasporic conversation.

Murray’s exploration of Cole’s Latin music archive provides the chance to reflect on Cole’s impact on 1950s American television sonically (through Murray’s sound, arrangements, and reconnections to what Jelly Roll Morton called the Spanish tinge) rather than just visually. Indeed for me Murray’s recording suggests a conception of Cole as Ellingtonian, a figure exuding the celebrity persona necessary to command a television show and cultural gravitas to disturb (even if momentarily) the racial order of things. Murray, who came of age politically and culturally in the 1960s, uses the musical and television legacy of Cole to take listeners through the history of exchange, collaboration and borrowing from Cuba, Mexico, Argentina, and Puerto Rico; Murray places Nat King Cole in the company of black American composers and performers (e.g. Randy Weston, Sarah Vaughan, Josephine Baker, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, John Birks Gillespie, Miles Davis, Melba Liston, and Sonny Rollins) who musically probed black American diasporic connections to Central and Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa.

Sonny Rollins Performing Jazz Calypso Live

Forging connections to the political and racial history of the US and Latin America in the 1940s and 1950s is fraught since it is saturated as much by nostalgia for the good old days of resorts and playgrounds for the wealthy as by illicit commerce, Jim Crow racial terror, economic inequality, and authoritarian governments. Yet, it is precisely these collaborations, both Nat King Cole’s original work with musicians in Cuba, and Mexico and David Murray’s contemporary collaborations with musicians in Cuba, Argentina, Spain and Portugal, that continue the complex sonic transactions that go back to the founding moment of black Atlantic exchange and exceed the boundaries of the national and the visual.

David Murray

David Murray

Sonically, Murray manages to do what television could not or perhaps, more to the point, would not. That is, make explicit Nat King Cole’s (and black America’s) cultural and aesthetic alliances with diasporic communities of affiliation in Europe, Latin America, and the Caribbean. After listening live and on record to David Murray’s Cuban Ensemble play the Spanish music of Nat King Cole when I see black and white television footage of Nat King Cole on fifties American television it is not just though the patina of nostalgia for the golden age of television or the liberal American gesture toward racial tolerance. (Anna McCarthy’s excellent, The Citizen Machine: Governing By Television in 1950s America analyzes, in rich and fascinating detail, the role of American broadcast television in the story of liberal racial tolerance.)

This is a double move too. Cole’s musical collaborations with musicians in pre-Castro Cuba occurs at the same time as black artists like Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne, and Paul Robson in the US and revolutionaries like Fidel Castro, Ernesto “Che” Guevara in Cuba were helping to imagine and usher in a new world. In his embrace of Cuba, Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil, both Nat King Cole and David Murray continue to forge sonic links among black diasporic speaking communities in the global south and the global north.

What better translator to reanimate this imaginative possibility for our time than David Murray. The songs featured on David Murray’s Cuban Ensemble Plays Nat King Cole (En Español) include some of the most recognizable and frequently recorded Spanish language material—“Quizás, Quizás, Quizás,” “Cachito,” “Piel Canela,” “A Media Luz,” and “Aquí Se Habla en Amor.” Murray’s arrangements update the Nat King Cole songbook without sacrificing the soul of the music or the richness of its tradition.

David Murray plays Nat King Cole en Español – “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas”.

To hear this material and to look at that old television footage now is to see different black Atlantic communities with distinct cultural histories engaged in diasporic collaboration and celebration. While this collaboration is neither original with Nat King Cole nor unique with Murray today (others worth noting include Steve Coleman, Jerry Gonzalez, Roy Hargrove, Stephan Harris, Regina Carter), with this recording Murray conjures something valuable and important, what I would describe as the invitation to hear visually and to see sonically in the black Atlantic sonic and visual imagination.

This raises the question thus, of what The Nat King Cole Show and the Latin American songbook might mean for black televisual presence in the US today with the new crop of new black owned, themed, and focused broadcast platforms: OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network cable network which partnered with The Discovery Channel), Bounce TV (broadcast network started by Ambassador Andrew Young and Martin Luther King III), TV One, BET (Black Entertainment Television). Ironically, like the broadcast environment in Cole’s time, these days black original programming is a rarity in the contemporary prime time schedule. Unlike television in the mid-nineteen fifties, black characters and black story lines are considerably more dispersed and visible across broadcast and cable programming schedule.

What is more, it is not surprising that more black owned cable and media platforms appear with the transformation of the digital television environment and capacity to identify and reach distinct demographic niches. For the new black focused networks, access to the archives of global entertainment companies like Viacom makes syndicated programs and reality-based appeals to race, gender, and lifestyle more cost effective than expensive original scripted programming. Russell Simmons, BET, and Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions demonstrated that they could brand and market blackness across different media platforms. BET and then TV One proved the financial viability of stocking the broadcast schedule with low cost and high return programming. So viewers turning to recent ventures emphasizing black themed content will find a mix of old movies, sports, syndicated situation comedies, in-studio talk shows, and canned programming from the archives of parent and affiliated companies.

What, I wonder, of the histories, collaborations, aspirations, and memories in this generation of broadcasting platforms aimed at black audiences? The programing offered by these new ventures model middle class arrival and tutor viewers in normative ideals of citizenship and self-improvement that turn histories of struggle and collective action into iconic images and heroic individual efforts. The poor, displaced, and most marginalized sectors of our communities stand as the limit of what is morally permissible and at the limit of a social order that continues to be ordered racially. David Murray’s homage to Nat King Cole’s Español recordings and The Nat King Cole Show taken together evoke, for me, the hidden histories of black diasporic collaboration and circulation. Unlike Murray, the account of our present and the programing choices presented in the new black owned platforms remind us as much about the exploitability of the black market niche for corporate investments and brands as they do about the unwillingness of sponsors a generation ago to invest in The Nat King Cole Show, because it defied the racial order.

Image Credits:
1. Nat King Cole en Español Album Cover
2. David Murray

Original comments:

Meenasarani Linde said:

Thank you for this elegant post. The connections you make are lucid and provocative, and make me want to reconsider Cole’s show in light of his connections with the Latin American songbook. Additionally, I’m struck by the modernist set design of his performance of “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas.” Owing more to Mondrian than trying to capture a postcard-like setting of the Global South, this mixture of a sonic Latin-inflected transnationalism with a visual minimalism, also resonates with Lynn Spigel’s work on television and modern art, specifically Ellington’s Black Atlantic created in the TV special, A Drum Is A Woman. As Shane Vogel has also worked on this special, especially the importance of dance, I wonder how a consideration of dance on television as it relies on the visual and the sonic, would impact a reconsideration of other black televisual performances in the 1950s as well as today? Keeping in mind how Katherine Dunham was also invested in the project of making diasporic and transnational connections, as well as education, what other performances are there to be excavated from tv history that are part of this circulation? How does the movement of bodies on screen connect to a body politic or public if at all? This post excites me, as Gray asks us to look past what could be nostalgia for exotica, and consider television as that which can look past the confines of the nation and the racial order.

-January 30th, 2012 at 9:22 pm

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-February 21st, 2012 at 4:40 am

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Faux Gender and the New Popularity of Drag Culture
Keara Goin / FLOW Senior Editor

drag professors

RuPaul’s DragU Professors

While performative drag and its correlated culture has been part of the LGBT community since before the now infamous Stonewall Riots, there has been a recent exponential explosion of drag within mainstream popular culture. Much of the US has been introduced to the world of drag through drag superstar RuPaul, first as a popular culture icon and then through her/his hit Logo network shows RuPaul’s Drag Race and RuPaul’s DragU. And while my own loyalty and devotion to the art, and I do mean art, of drag performance has deterred me from even approaching analyzing Drag Race, the emergence of DragU, the show’s spin off, and its subsequent destabilization of hegemonic constructions of gender has prompted me to write this post. Judith Butler’s innovative scholarship on the performative reality of gender, as exemplified through the practice of drag, revealed the fallacy of essential gender and sex, and furthermore exposed how all of us, as humans, “do” our identity as opposed to “are” our identity. DragU takes this critical interjection to a new degree, and shows how all gender is faux gender. Said best by the grand dam of drag herself, “you are born naked, and everything else is drag” (RuPaul Charles).


The Iconic RuPaul

Shortly after the second season of the run-away success Drag Race, Logo began airing what they felt was the natural spin-off of the hit series: DragU. The premise of the show follows the franchise’s most popular queens as they work to transform “biological women” through what RuPaul has deemed “the miracle of drag.” Put simply, it is a show where men who look like women teach women how to be “women.” However, as the queens work with each contestant, they work on more than their brow arches and cleavage, they attempt to inspire within these women a sense of confidence and self-esteem. And in teaching them how to be the ideal, and above all fierce, woman they see in them, the queens dissolve essentialist notions of gender and replace them with a suggestion that being a “woman” can mean anything you want it to mean. Normally not one to wax poetic over a reality show, especially one that can potentially be seen as a masquerade of the art of drag (I am aware of the irony in this statement as masquerade is a fundamental aspect of drag performance), I nevertheless find in it important ruptures in the fabric of gender ideology. DragU, through the use of a culture that is more familiar to some than others, shoves the construction of gender in our faces and demands that we see it for the fallacy it is.


DragU Professors Introduce Themselves

In Judith Butler’s own analysis of drag, she discusses the film Paris is Burning and its depiction of the New York City ball scene which includes, among other aspects of 1980s gay culture, performative drag. She posits that as a “deconstituting” practice, within drag “the ideal that is mirrored depends on that very mirroring to be sustained as an ideal” ((Butler, Bodies That Matter, pg. 539, 1997)). Her contention is that drag proves, by its ability to exist, the constructed reality of gender; femininity is constituted by what is seen as femininity. Not an innate feature of birth, a person’s gender is ascribed, self-identified, and reinforced through gendered behavior. For Butler, “Gender is not passively scripted on the body, and neither is it determined by nature, language, the symbolic, or the overwhelming history of patriarchy. Gender is what is put on, invariably, under constraint, daily and incessantly, with anxiety and pleasure” ((Butler, “Performative Acts and Gender Construction,” pg. 531, 1988)). Drag unmasks this process, and asserts that, by collapsing supposed gender opposites, that gender is a performative role, with society as its playwright.

Certainty, Butler’s analysis applies to Drag Race in a direct and unproblematic fashion. However, when we inject DragU into the equation, we can see that there is something very different going on with the practice of drag. It is because drag queens (appearance aside) for the most part identify themselves as men, what is being transferred from them to what they call “biological women” is a femininity that is framed within notions of masculinity. Moving clearly beyond the increasingly less taboo and mainstreamed practice of “normative” drag—a reality that Butler probably could never have foreseen—DragU is more than the unsettling of gender and femininity that we see in more classic and popular forms of drag. The representation of women performing feminine drag initiates a second level of unsettling, where not only is the performance a reflection of the absence of an ideal to performatively and bodily imitate (as Butler correctly asserts traditional drag does), but critically ruptures and exposes the influence of certain kinds of masculinity on what it is to perform femininity. Subsequently, DragU should be taken as a unique text with a specific comment on gendered identity apart from that of traditional drag.

three profs

Professors Morgan, Chad, and Willam on their way in to whip these contestants into fierce women

I leave you with the drag artist Morgan McMichaels and her/his recent performance at a club in Southern California where, she/he transforms her/himself from an already transformed queen back into a “boy.” While lip-syncing to Beyoncé’s “If I Were a Boy,” Morgan demonstrates, through her/his performance, that all gender is faux gender, and imparts a symbolic interpolation that defies the reduction of what she/he does to mere fancy. Drag may be camp, it can be raunchy, and it is almost always entertaining, but it is, most importantly, fundamentally a rejection of hegemonic and normalized constructions of gender that is beginning to play out in new and even exciting ways.


Recent Performance by Morgan McMichaels

Image Credits:
1. RuPaul’s DragU Professors
2. RuPaul Charles
3. Professors Morgan, Chad, and Willam

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Act your Race, Not your Age: Performativity and the Many Faces of Comic-Con Cosplay
Keara Goin / FLOW Senior Editor

comic con logo

2012 San Diego Comic-Con Logo

I went to the 2012 San Diego Comic-Con (SDCC) with a mission to seek out and identify those fans who took the practice of “cosplay” (or costume play) to the racial extreme: black-face, brown-face, yellow-face, or red-face. However, while I did not find such instances (which came as a very real surprise to me), I nevertheless found proof that, as it is said, “race matters” in the realm of stepping into a cosplay character. While I might not have seen any black-faced Uhuras (Star Trek), I did notice a few distinct trends that revealed the importance of race in constructing a fictional subjectivity in both exnominated and nominated fashions. Specifically, I discovered the following racialized practices: (1) donning the mimetic facade of a character that one would consider of the same race as oneself, (2) the use of non-“realworld” skin paint—blue, red, orange, silver, etc.—to be able to indulge in racial cross-dressing without the baggage of racist accusation, and (3) the practice of what I am calling “alien-face” or “zombie-face” as a means to embody the pop cultural Other.


Group of Cosplayers

By sticking to the seemingly safe identification with characters that are perceived to be of the same race/ethnicity as oneself, cosplayers attempt to negotiate the anxieties concerning the trangressive nature of cosplay. As an activity that is by nature based on escaping one’s identity to live out a short-term fantasy as (an)Other, it seems that characters are chosen not on fandom based reasoning alone. For example, thousands of attendees of this year’s SDCC were fans of Star Trek, but I only saw one person dressed as Geordi (portrayed by actor LeVar Burton) and it was by a black man. The same situation is seen in the case of a black woman dressed as Zoe from Firefly (portrayed by actor Gina Torres). What is essentially occurring as a result of a society that is both racist and repressive, is a racialized performative mimesis of character identity as an appropriate practice of pop cultural cosplay. And while transgressing gender through the characters one chose to embody was a common sight, crossing into another race was strictly avoided. Whether it was Asian attendees dressed as popular anime characters or white fans suited in Battlestar Galactica uniforms, cosplayers seemed to draw the line at racial transgression—or did they?

While I did not see examples of blatant racialized/racist cosplay performativity as exemplified in U.S. historical minstrelsy, I nonetheless insist that race played an essential role in the fantasy identity play that constructs cosplay reality. Maybe their face paint was not black or brown, but it was still blue, silver, red, or gold. These body painting practices reflect back on the hegemonic centrality of skin color in identity and categorization, one so ingrained in the way we think about subjectivity that it is difficult to even notice when we are indulging in it. It serves to reason, that behind the physical application of such out-of-this-world pigmentation, lays an assumption rooted in the perceived significance of one’s skin color as a fundamental component constituting who one is. Furthermore, as such instances of performativity were not overtly seen as racist—as the races alluded to are fictional and alien ones—cosplayers are provided with an escape hatch from the taboos and prohibitions associated with racial cross-dressing. Black-face, in its own time, was once popularly thought of as a trivial and meaningless practice; is it the same for these paintings of the skin in colors that do not correspond to actual skin colors found on Earth? Are silver and blue the new black/brown face? I assert, that while the symbolic violence (Stuart Hall) is not as clearly directed at racialized groups compared to more historical representations of racialized painting of the body, it is still a factor in the articulation of such occurrences of performing the Other.


Gamespot’s Day 1 Coverage of Comic-Con Cosplay

The painting of one’s body in a fashion that is supposed to reflect the essence of the character is only a part of the whole package of cosplay performativity, which also encapsulates costuming, hairstyling, behavior, speaking style, and gesture. As such, the use of extra-terrestrial body makeup is a fundamental example of how it is not only whiteness that is exnominated, but fantastical bodies as well. However nonsensical that might sound, by cosplaying in blue body paint instead of brown, for example, the character performer distracts everyone around them from focusing on their actual race which becomes normalized in comparison to that which is fabricated on their person. In the process, the power of the normative human body becomes obstructed from our sight and we become engulfed in the fantasy of racelessness. It is not until one overtly transgresses the limits of normative and acceptable subjectivity into the realm of the Other—puts it on like a ill-fitting pair of jeans—that the racialized nature of extra-worldly cross-dressing becomes clear.

blackface minstrelsy

Black-Face Minstrel Performers

While fandom can be a wonderfully enjoyable and creative engagement with the appealing world of pop culture, at the same time it is often a hornet’s nest of social tensions, anxieties, obsession, fetishes, and fears. As such, the exercising and negotiation of said social realities within the performative nature of cosplay reveals the ingrained status of racial essentialism within commonsense notions of identification and subjectivity. Not to wax overly psychoanalytical, but as an assertion that I feel most people recognize as logical, cosplay is an escapist performance of one’s fantasy. Furthermore, this performance, while not sanctioned in the “realworld,” is fully acceptable in the realm of the SDCC. As an alternative to the realworld, SDCC has alternative Others one can embody as part of the fantasy of cosplay. Moreover, with the long-term popularity of cosplaying images of aliens combined with the more recent phenomenon of zombie cosplay, an emerging sense of alien-face and zombie-face becomes a veiled exercise of appropriating the Other, one that is directly reminiscent of racist black-face performativity.

Robert Kirkman with zombie-faced cosplayer

Creator of The Walking Dead Robert Kirkman with Zombie-Faced Cosplayers

So what do we make of cosplay practices that use such bodily painting techniques? Surely we cannot chastise the Avatar fan for dressing in a blue leotard with their face and arms painted blue? My answer to that is a reminder of how important it is to ask ourselves why when we feel compelled to dress as the Other. As a seemingly harmless and therefore trivialized activity, the popular donning of zombie costuming is frequently accompanied by the now iconic body makeup mimicking the aesthetic of the walking dead, decomposing and oozing what remains of their humanity. And while the performer in zombie-face might not intend to or be cognizant of a racialized painting of their body, such practices nonetheless draw from the legacy of black-face performance. New cultural phenomenon is not created in a vacuum, but built onto the foundations of already existing cultural structures—a process that often obscures the origin of such cultural practices and artifacts. Consequently, acts of zombie-face, and the more extended use of alien-face, are rooted in minstrelsy era racial performativity, which functioned as a means to confront the social anxieties and tensions of that historical moment. While I am not trying to make a judgment against those who enjoy and find great fulfillment in the practice of cosplay, I do contend that before taking up the Other as a performance of one’s fantasy, ask yourself why do you want to look like a disgusting, gross, rotting zombie?

Image Credits:
1. Comic-Con 2012 Logo
2. Cosplayers
3. Black-Race Minstrelsy
4. Zombie-Face Cosplayers

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Dragging Dominicaness: Saturday Night Live and the Creation of a Performative Drag of Latinidad
Keara Goin / FLOW Staff

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SNL actor Fred Armisen playing the character of Manuel Ortiz

As a curious addition to the reoccurring sketch repertoire of Saturday Night Live (SNL), “The Manuel Ortiz Talk Show” has now had three or four incarnations over the last couple seasons. While undeniably a caricature based on perceptions of the Spanish-language television talk show genre, it seems to also be a unique text in that it does not refer to an ambiguous Chicano-centric latinidad. The sketch provides an opportunity to examine emerging alternatives to dominant representations of a Latino/Hispanic identity for it utilizes a representation of a Latino population less familiar to a U.S. audience. However, as the sketch is performed by almost exclusively white actors, it operates not as a reflection of Domincaness, but a performativity of Dominicaness. In this column I am attempting to do a performative analysis on a media text that’s intention is to be a performance. However, I am not looking at the literal theatricality, but the symbolic performance of identity as costume. Within this performance of a Latino other, a construction of Dominicaness is therefore created for a uniform U.S. mainstream audience. Consequently, this seemingly out of place sketch moves satirical and parodic performance beyond the theatrical to a level of performativity of identity, more specifically, a drag of latinidad, that is based on an appropriation of constructed essentialized Dominicaness.

Manuel Ortiz Talk Show Sketch that aired during the episode hosted by James Franco

While not unusual for the mostly white cast of SNL to quite literally, as well as symbolically, perform sketches in black or brown-face, the sketch of “The Manuel Ortiz Talk Show” seems to be an ethnic representation without a well known mainstream referent. Situated as Dominican only through a brief channel promo that displays later programming, the viewer is shown the channel name, television dominicana, displayed in blue with a red and blue emblem that is reminiscent of the Dominican flag. Without this introductory promo, the large majority of SNL’s audience would not be able to identify it as representation of Dominican television. While it does vaguely draw on and subsequently parody a few aspects of Dominican talk show formatting and style, for a mainstream audience not in the know, it seems like a very generic spoof of Spanish-language programming. However, because of this promo introduction to each sketch it is positioned within a highly specific space of Latino representation, even while the ubiquity of Latino or Hispanic generic representational aspects within the sketch itself are undeniable. For example, Manuel himself, as well as every man that is featured in the sketch, has been packaged with a certain generic Latin look that involves characteristics such as dark hair and mustaches. These markers disavow, for the purposes of the sketch, the white performers’ racial identification, providing an ethnicized reading of identity.

While the packaging itself is reason enough to analyze this particular sketch, it is the behavior of the performers that locates for the audience the highest intensity of comedic appeal as well as the most exaggerated aspects of the sketch. This exaggerated behavior is best highlighted in the staging of performers entering and exiting the stage of this fictional show. As the show’s guests enter onto the stage they are greeted with Latin-Caribbean music which signals to everyone on the fictional talk show that they should dance. Throughout the sketch, as a new guest comes onto the stage the music again plays and every performer stands up and dances this same dance. The sketch will involve 10-20 of these entrances and exits that are accompanied by this music and the simultaneous dancing. It is as if exaggerated “Spanglish” was not enough for the over the top caricature that the sketch’s writers aspired to, they needed this shared and repetitive dancing behavior to push the sketch over the edge to the ridiculous. It is this heightened sense of performance and caricature that transcends the sketch from mere theatrics to a performativity more reminiscent of drag.

Manuel Ortiz Talk Show Sketch that aired during the episode hosted by Betty White

According to Judith Butler, gender is not something that one is it is something that one performs. To highlight the performance that is gender, she references drag as a means of exposing this constructed performativity. She insists that “drag…implies that all gendering is a kind of impersonation and approximation…gender is a kind of imitation for which there is no original…” (( Butler, Judith. “Imitation and Gender Insubordination” in Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader, ed. John Storey, 4th ed. (Harlow: Pearson Longman, 2009), 230. )). Furthermore, “by disclosing that there is no original to imitate, drag denaturalizes, divulging the culturally fabricated nature of gender. It reveals all gender as only ever parody” (( Lloyd, Moya, “Performativity, Parody, Politics,” Theory Culture Society 16 (1999), 198. )). While the above cited discussion of performativity is located solely in the academic discourses of gender, this concept is not un-reconcilable with performances of both race and ethnicity. Just like gender, race and ethnicity are identities with no natural or essential existence and are, accordingly, performed in similar ways.

Furthermore, due to the fact that none of those who are performing this Dominicaness within the sketch are in fact Dominican, what we actually have here is something very similar to gender oriented drag performance. In essence, “The Manuel Ortiz Talk Show” is a drag of Dominicaness where white actors are embodying and offering a parody of what they are constructing as Dominican. The embellished packaging of the performers is an entry into the embodiment of what is being represented as Dominicaness, where they subsequently are able to “wear certain cultural signifiers…” through their performance (( Butler, Judith, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory,” Theatre Journal, 40, no. 4 (1988), 525. )). When speaking of gendered drag, Butler argues that drag “produces on the skin, through the gesture, the move, the gait…the illusion of an inner depth” (( Butler, Judith. “Imitation and Gender Insubordination” in Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader, ed. John Storey, 4th ed. (Harlow: Pearson Longman, 2009), 235. )). In the same way, the sketch is a parodic illusion that is produced on the performers’ bodies.

Fred Armisen dances with host Scarlett Johansson

Here Fred Armisen dances with host Scarlett Johansson

One of the most confounding aspects of “The Manuel Ortiz Talk Show” is that it exists at all. A mainstream U.S. audience has very little knowledge of the Dominican Republic and Dominican media. However, the fact that SNL is produced in New York City does seem to suggest that the writers of this sketch might have an atypical awareness of a Dominican presence. The sketch would be most entertaining for those familiar with Dominican media, for instance Dominicans in the U.S., people in New York City (who because of their proximity to Dominican communities have a better insight into Dominican culture), and other Latinos of Caribbean origin or descent. Outside those three groups, these references would not connect to already known aspects of Dominican media.

It is because of this lack of an original referent, this text therefore does not operate as a simple parody of already understood Dominicaness, it becomes constructive. While politics of representation are just as valid to discuss, it is the embodiment of what is represented as Dominican latinidad that seems most important here. The sketch breaks with an unidentified representation of generic latinidad (while continuing to use the conventions of that form of representation) to provide an alternative performativity of a more marginalized and specific latinidad. This break is something infrequent in U.S. media, one that would normally provide potential of a better mainstream understanding of a not so pan-ethnic identification of a unified latinidad. When alternative representations are performed as a reflection of the performers’ identity, not as a drag of ethnicity or race, we see that “at the heart of the intersection of performance and latinidad is a desire to find spaces of possibility, instability, and coalition across difference which are not static, sentimental, or overly utopian” (( Calafell, Bernadette Marie and Shane T. Moreman, “Iterative Hesitancies and Latinidad: The Reverberances of Raciality” in The Handbook of Critical Intercultural Communication, ed. Thomas K. Nakayama and Rona Tamiko Halualni. (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010, 403) )). However, that is not the case in the performativity we see in “The Manuel Ortiz Talk Show.” This constructed Dominicaness, which has no authentic or original referent for the mass audience, is utilized by the sketch as a mask, as a costume. As such, the performativity of the sketch is little more than an inside joke to a select few and the drag of Dominicaness for the majority of its audience.

Image Credits:

1. Franky Benítez
2. Hot Off The Press

Please feel free to comment.