Can enough time ever pass to joke about the horrors of slavery?
By Ellen Snortland 05/22/2014
Some people don’t appreciate humor. For instance, my parents always pretended they neither smelled nor heard one of us pass gas. What’s up with not laughing at farts? Are they not one of the simple delights of walking around in a body? For some people, apparently not. Pretty girls especially aren’t supposed to fart, or have any other publicly obvious bodily functions because, well … you know, even though you can’t even see them, farts aren’t pretty!
Speaking of gas, several months ago Saturday Night Live and Lorne Michaels got a bad case of social flatulence for being too white and too male. As a result, one of the new hires was Leslie Jones, an audacious, gorgeous and hysterically funny African/American writer and performer. She is my Beautiful Woman of the Year. I’m betting she would not sit in a room and pretend anything. During the Weekend Update segment of the Andrew Garfield/hosted show that aired on May 3, Jones delivered one of the best truth to power monologues I’ve had the pleasure to witness, essentially around a theme of pretty.
You can see it here: nbc.com/file/1707986. But for those who can’t access the video, here’s a thumbnail sketch. A statuesque woman, Jones started riffing with Weekend Update host Colin Jost on the subject of beauty vs. being useful, mentioning how the ultra/slender Lupita Nyong’o was just named Most Beautiful Woman by People Magazine. Jost might pick Lupita for a date, but which companion would he prefer if he were in a dark parking lot facing down some Crips? Jost immediately picked Jones, and she replied you’re damn right you would! Jones then made a sharp left turn into Subversive/ville as she ruminated on not getting romantic attention from black men, but in the plantation days she would’ve gotten lots of male attention, albeit forced. She even drew parallels between the plantation slavery system of the 19th century and today’s NBA, and she said this before the Donald Sterling flap! Coining a new quotable phrase, she ended her not/pretty rant with, Can’t a bitch get a beef bowl? You must see her to get the impact.
Soon after, the recrimination storm happened. Jones got taken to task for all sorts of crap: she was racist, she was this, she was that. She’s not supposed to comment on her own life? Through humor, she called out the hypocrisy in her own world and generated a social media brouhaha, which in this case might be called a BRO/haha. Just like all of us, black men are capable of being racist, sexist, classist, ageist, and in this instance, size/biased toward traditional notions of European standards of beauty. African/American women have borne the brunt of so much of our social isms, the least we can do is not enslave their expression! The one ist we can all get behind is the gift of the humorist, which Jones certainly has.
Yes, she dared to joke about slavery, at her own expense. Too soon? Ironic that Lupita Nyong’o would come to our attention through one of the most brutal anti/slavery films of all time, Twelve Years a Slave. Jones talks about her desirability as a breeder for slave stock, had she lived during the plantation era. As Carol Burnett so aptly said, Comedy is tragedy plus time.
When it comes to the topic of physical desirability, one pillar of our society is the idea of people as property; another is compliance and controllability through force. Sadly, the concept of women as chattel is still pertinent today. If you think we have slavery handled just because we fought a civil war and declared it illegal here in the states, think again. Slavery is more prevalent now than it was in the 1800s. For proof, I dare you to see an equally horrific film about contemporary slavery and human trafficking called The Whistleblower, starring Rachel Weisz and directed by Larysa Kondracki.
There are many freedoms we’ve all fought for, including liberation from stultifying stereotypes. One of them is that women are supposed to be young and beautiful, which is pummeled into us daily through advertisers and the white male/dominated media. It would require great resistance to not buy into at least some of it. We need Leslie Jones and women like her to give us regular reality checks.
Diane Vreeland, the late, great international fashion maven, hit the nail on the head when she said, You don’t have to be pretty. You don’t owe prettiness to anyone. Not to your boyfriend/spouse/partner, not to your co/workers, especially not to random men on the street. You don’t owe it to your mother, you don’t owe it to your children, you don’t owe it to civilization in general. Prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked ‘female.’
PS: Hey, Altadenans! There’s a town council election coming up on June 7. I’m so excited that Jennifer Lee is running for the seat for Census Tract 4612. To find out if that’s your tract, visit: http://altadenaelection.org
Ellen Snortland teaches a writing workshop in Altadena: snortland.com