MTV's Racist Programming Contradicts Its Theme of Tolerance
By: Amanda Kiser, The Battalion (Texas A&M)
November 28, 2006 3:15 PM
(U-WIRE) COLLEGE STATION, Texas - MTV is having a serious identity crisis. In its efforts to stay hip and appealing to its target audience, the network's programming and principles have expanded into dramatically different and frequently contradictory categories: low-brow entertainment and socially relevant content that aims to mobilize viewers to action.
While features like "Think MTV" and its Web site attempt to align the network with progressive ideas such as fighting racism and uncovering hidden biases, much of the channel's content actually promotes the negative ideas such efforts claim to oppose.
A perfect example is the show "Yo Mamma," in which contestants compete by trading insults. The show reinforces and promotes racist stereotypes and assumptions. It is a perfect example of the theft and commercialization of unique cultural elements and exposes MTV's discourse about the importance of fighting racism as mere lip service.
In an interview with the New York Times, the host of "Yo Mamma," Wilmer Valderrama, said he got the idea for the show while watching a scene from the movie "Summer Catch," in which two characters trade insults. Despite Valderrama's account of how the idea dawned on him, the real origins of insult trading are much more interesting.
Competitively trading insults, or "the dozens," has been a part of African-American culture since the days of slavery. Slaves who had been dismembered as punishment for disobedience were grouped into "cheap dozens" for sale on the auction block, the most shameful insult possible.
"In an effort to toughen their hearts against the continual verbal assault inflicted on them as part of the 'dozens,' blacks practiced insulting each other indirectly by attacking the most sacred 'mother' of the other. The person who loses his 'cool' and comes to blows loses the contest," said Dillard University professor Mona Lisa Saloy.
The dozens has changed over the years, but has remained an important part of black culture. References to the dozens can be found in places ranging from the classic "Their Eyes Were Watching God," to sketches on "In Living Color." And now it's a game show on MTV inspired by a Freddie Prinze Jr. movie.
Much like the mainstream's denigration of hip hop music from being a means for personal expression to a shallow moneymaker promoting materialism and destructive behavior, this treatment of "the dozens" demonstrates MTV's willingness to pillage culture and appropriate the elements it usurps into profitable, corrupted forms of the original.
In a press release regarding the show, casting associate Yancy Zetina firmly stated that the one thing the show will not tolerate is racism; however, racist jokes are not only frequently tolerated on the show, they are rewarded. Many of the most negative insults contain extremely white-supremacist, retrograde ideas about color. It would appear that there is nothing more shameful than having darker skin than your opponent or physical features more African than Aryan.
For example, one contestant won with the joke, "Yo mamma's so black, they use her bathwater to dye bowling balls!" That such remarks have sting is evidence of the extent to which white hegemony has resulted in internalized, racist conceptions of beauty and value. Even in jest, such jokes require a belief on some level that darker skin is less desirable than lighter skin, and that anything that deviates too far from the white standard is shameful.
Also, jokes frequently revolve around outdated ideas about the morals and values of people of different races. Jokes about deportation or menial labor are frequently made toward contestants that look Hispanic, while laziness is a preferred theme for those aimed at black contestants.
"Yo momma's so lazy, the last time she worked, the minimum wage was slavery!" said a white winner to a black contestant. Leave it to MTV to reward someone for making a joke out of the chronic exploitation of an entire population.
MTV can give all the tips it wants about getting involved and fighting discrimination, but if the network ever wants to be truly effective, it needs to follow its own advice and start by examining itself.