Quote: Make It More Ethnic

I have been on sets before when a director says ‘can you make it more ethnic?’ I always say ‘can you demonstrate to me how you want it done?’ That usually ends it.

–Yvette Nicole Brown

Reading this article by Jabari Asim made me think about another pernicious aspect of the “sassy fat black women” stereotype, which is that almost any strong or angry character played by a fat black actress is going to come off as the stereotype, even when that’s unfair. Years before she starred in “Community,” Yvette Nicole Brown’s photo from a Dairy Queen commercial illustrated this New York Times article about the stereotype.

But the photo, from a Dairy Queen commercial about a guy who repeatedly drops his carry-on luggage1 on another passenger’s head, is a marginal case at best.

Brown’s job in this commercial is to be comically enraged. She uses wide eyes and an angry voice to do this. I don’t think a big white guy, given the same part, would have performed it differently. But when Brown did it, her photograph was published in the Times as an example of a troubling racial stereotype. That can’t be fun.

As Ani remarks in the comments of pre-Racialicious:

I would be pretty sassy and annoyed if a someone’s large carry on bag was repeatedly dropped on my head. I didn’t think her reaction was totally out of line for this type of situation. [...]

I am not saying terrible racial stereotypes don’t happen, but does context (ie carry-on being repeatedly dropped on head) ever trump that?

Obviously, the stereotypical casting of fat black women as “sassy” happens a lot, and should be criticized. But I also don’t want a situation where an actress like Brown automatically gets criticized if she ever plays strong or angry.

Anyhow, great quote, isn’t it?

  1. It took me a few moments before I got why Youtube’s suggested next video to watch was Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” []
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10 Responses to Quote: Make It More Ethnic

  1. 1
    Kevin Moore says:

    Weird. I really have to stretch to see how YNB’s performance fits a “fat, sassy” stereotype. It’s not like she had some snappy quip with “urban” (note the scare quotes) affectations. She’s just pissed the dude is more concerned about his Blizzard than about giving her a concussion.

  2. 2
    Elusis says:

    Interesting, because I don’t see her character on “Community” as a SBW stereotype either. She plays very much the opposite – meek, naive, friendly, always wanting to be the peacemaker, a little curious about what it would be like to be less of a “good girl” but mostly trying to please others.

  3. 3
    SeanH says:

    Her performance on Community – which I love, she’s maybe my favourite character next to Chang and Abed – always seems to be to be playing around knowingly with stereotypes of black female characters. The way she switches from a hyper-enunciating, high-pitched “ooh, that’s nice” to a much deeper, eyes-wide-open “careful, boy!” is very clever, I think.

  4. 4
    Adrian says:

    Brown’s job in this commercial is to be comically enraged. She uses wide eyes and an angry voice to do this. I don’t think a big white guy, given the same part, would have performed it differently.

    Of course, Brown played the part well, and without racial stereotype. If the actor in that commercial had been a big white man, a similarly angry response would have come across as a serious threat to the ice-cream stealing, luggage-dropping guy. It wouldn’t have looked like comic outrage. Starting from a position of lower social power tends to undercut expressions of anger or strength (because of pushing uphill against the kyriarchy) –directors use that all the time, for comic or dramatic effect, and many of them don’t care if their work reinforces stereotypes.

  5. 5
    Adrian says:

    Re: my comment #4:

    It may be obvious to you what the director was doing, and why, but I just figured it out (now that I see the pattern, I can see an awful lot of directors and writers using it.) My intent is to thank you for the insight, not to clueless-splain, but I know I’m starting from pretty clueless.

  6. 6
    Elusis says:

    Her performance on Community – which I love, she’s maybe my favourite character next to Chang and Abed – always seems to be to be playing around knowingly with stereotypes of black female characters. The way she switches from a hyper-enunciating, high-pitched “ooh, that’s nice” to a much deeper, eyes-wide-open “careful, boy!” is very clever, I think.

    I tend to agree – Community (and Modern Family) have mis-steps, but both of them seem to be written with the assumption that the viewer knows the easy, stereotypical tropes, so the shows walk or sidle up to the edge of those tropes and then turn them on their head. They fail sometimes, but when they succeed, I enjoy the sense of being in on the joke – “you thought we’d go for this cheap broad brushstroke, but we didn’t!” As opposed to Glee, which seems to be making all these claims of universality and yet constantly going for the stereotype – faggy gay kid! sassy fat black girl! (who is the one character who never gets any romance opportunities) fat girl who eats all the time! marginalized disabled kid! – and meanwhile I think I’ve now seen at least three national magazine covers in the last year that featured some of the actors, all of whom just happened to be white, thin, and able-bodied.

    But I digress.

    “Community” and “Modern Family” are both interesting explorations of this question – does the stereotype undercut any attempts to portray something other than the stereotype, or does any hint of the stereotype immediately collapse the whole performance into Yet Another Sterotypical Illustration?

  7. 7
    Robert says:

    I think “Modern Family” (which I watch religiously, as opposed to “Community” where I watched the D&D episode but otherwise have ignored) both invokes and undermines stereotypes by presenting them as sometimes factual (there are “swishy” gay people in the world, many Colombians have a distinctive vocal pattern) but never the full story. Everyone is a complex (well, as complex as you can manage in a 22-minute sitcom) human being with a full and unique story.

    Would that we all consistently saw one another in that way.

  8. 8
    Mandolin says:

    I wish I could watch Modern Family. I just can’t really watch TV without doing something else at the same time–beading, knitting, whatever–and for some reason, my brain tunes out all those documentary-style shows as background noise even though it’s pretty good at keeping track of traditional style shows while I’m multi-tasking. I can’t watch The Office, Parks and Recreation, Arrested Development…

    Barry keeps telling me I should pick up Community though.

  9. Pingback: links for 2011-02-17 « Embololalia

  10. 9
    Ola says:

    Anyone in my life who uses the word “ethnic” around me to mean “non-white” immediately gets the cut eye.