An actor friend of mine tells me that the hardest roles to play are “dumb” people. It’s easy to play the less-intelligent too broadly, like a bunch of “dumb people” cliches. Making them sympathetic, nuanced and interesting? That’s hard.
Parody is kinda the same.
The Twin Cities conservative blogosphere has more than its fair share of brilliant satirists and parodists – people who attack with humor, and by getting inside their targets’ styles, peccadillos…heads for comedic yet pointed effect.
The roll call is long and distinguished; “Sisyphus”, “Nihilist in Golf Pants”, “Wintryminx”, Brian “Saint Paul” Ward, Joe “Learned Foot” Tucci and Ryan “Dirty Shroom” Rhodes are all known quantities who dominate in print (and conservatives going by the names “Spotty”, “MNob” and “Phoenix Woman”, their true identities unknown, do spot-on sendups of smug, overpraised, overwrought “progressive” bloggers); Tom “Swiftee” Swift is by far the most talented, iconoclastic visual satirist in the Twin Cities; and of course, James Lileks is the Segovia of multimedia satire.
Doing good adversarial satire is like playing a dumb person; it’s easy to do badly, and very hard to do well.
So I’m puzzled as to who wrote this Strib parody masquerading as “op-ed”, entitled “The subtle racism around us (even in a cup of coffee)”. With a stable of satirists like we have in the Twin Cities, we could certainly come up with something less over-broad and hamfisted.
For starters, the “writer” is “named” “Hinda Mandell”, and is purportedly an “assistant professor of Communications at Rochester Institute of Technology”, who graduated from Edina High in 1998. Why not name “her” “Golda Schimmelfarb-Williams, adjunct visiting scholar in Victimization Studies at Radcliffe”, while you’re at it? Have her come from North Oaks? Maybe have her complain about her asthma and constantly ask if it’s too cold in the room and start sentences with “oy vey” before nattering about white privilege? If you’re going to run with the cliché, why not go all-in?
Cliché is not satire, and stereotype is not parody.
Anyway – with that out of the way, the piece is about that ultimate “progressive” cliché, hYpStR coffee!
What do you do when a favorite coffee shop features various coffee blends with racially tinged names?
Just a tangent here; twenty years ago, when gourmet coffee shops were a new thing, and I would order a cup at the Dunn Brothers by Macalester College. And I’d occasionally ask – “are all you liberals aware that the coffee you’re ordering, from Ethiopia and Java and the Celebes and Peru and Venezuela, supports a lot of ugly, authoritarian regimes?”
They’d stare blankly.
Just a tangent. Apropos nothing.
Emphasis is added below as “Ms. Mandell” continues:
I was sitting in this beloved joint in New York recently, with its hipster-hippie ambiance, when I overheard a conversation. I’m convinced that the barista and customer, both white, were oblivious to the racially charged nature of their utterances.
Asked the customer: “What type of roast is the Jungle Roast?”
The barista, who looked on the younger side of 20, answered: “It’s a darker roast.”
I sat there flabbergasted. These two women were engaging in a practical conversation — is the coffee a light or dark brew?
But because of the name of the roast — and its richer flavor — they were in fact reinforcing the notion of the jungle and its people as “dark.”
Now, this is funny – but pretty rote. An overweening liberal petty academic,finding racism in coffee? It’s freshman level stuff.
Perhaps you think I’m making too much of a simple exchange.
Oy. To the serious parodist, saying “maybe you think I’m making too much of this” is like waving a sign saying “I’M PRETENDING TO HAVE THE VAPORS FOR COMEDIC EFFECT. PLEASE LAUGH NOW”.
And, unfortunately, it’s a rookie flub that telegraphs a descent into hamfisted absurdity rather than good parody:
But consider, too, that while eavesdropping I was sipping on a luscious coffee blend that the shop calls Jamaica Me Crazy. It’s seasoned with fresh cinnamon. Maybe that’s what they drink in Jamaica? I don’t know, since I’ve never been there.
But I do know that if the coffee was labeled Protestants A Plenty, Catholics Be Crazy, Jews be Jivin’ or Blacks Be Boppin’, there would be an uproar. Of course, Protestants and Catholics, as part of the religious mainstream, do not typically face the brunt of prejudice in the United States.
As I drank my French Roast this morning, trying to recover from last night’s Irish coffee and Swedish meatballs, I shook my head. Too obvious.
And most know that intolerance against Jews and blacks is not publicly accepted. Blatant bigotry is easy to spot, while covert bigotry — where an entire group is used to sell coffee — can be easier to stomach and therefore ignore.
Right there – that’s the bit that threw it over the top.
The key to great parody is painting a picture of your target that is just sympathetic enough to be plausible. It’s the touch that separates a good parody – Dwight Schrute, for example – from a bad one, like Stephen Colbert. Is Hinda Mandell sympathetic? About as sympathetic as a turd on your kitchen floor – a turd that nags and hectors you about the racial overtones of the dark stain you used on your bedroom floor!
It’s been nearly a decade since I learned one of my biggest life lessons. Difference is all about perception.
For instance, perceiving that coffee that is roasted to a darker hue is “dark”?
Seirously – calling this “satire” is like calling someone who walks onstage and bellows “Durrrr! I am teh DUMMY!” “acting”. Whoever is writing this “Mandell” character just swerved past parody into group defamation.
I mean, how is this – “Durr, I am a spoiled, cossetted pseudo-academic who draws lessons that impugn others from my own provincialism!” – any different?
Do I embarrass the cafe manager by saying something? Do I become complicit by ordering a medium Jamaica Me Crazy with steamed milk, please?
Yes, unknown parodist – we got it. ”Hinda Mandell” is tortured by the racism in the mundane. Let it go. I’ve given up on finding a reason to like “her”; I’d settle for believing “she” was plausible.
Deciphering these messages might be the easier part. Figuring out what to do with them afterward is a lot harder.
The scary part is, someone apparently wants us to believe we have an entire academic discipline to help people “figure out” “hidden racist messages” in everyday objects – if you believe that “Hinda Mandell” is real.
But I think we all know better.