August 16, 2004
Do you get it? It's Irony +
Our friend Rungu took notice of a feature piece in today's Times about a group of ladies from San Francisco called Double Dutchess who do double-dutch jump roping. But these girls have a website, on which they sell t-shirts and DVDs. They also perform at hotel parties sponsored by city newspapers. SF Weekly loves them, and they were invited to perform at the Christmas party for Zoetrope, Francis Ford Coppola's literary magazine. So what has propelled these girls to the art-world A-list, and not the girls who do double-dutch every day at the Stanley Isaacs Playground on 1st and 96th? When black girls do it, it's a non-notable emblem of urban culture. When white girls do it, it's avant-garde and worthy of national press.
Not surprisingly, some people have wondered about race issues when approaching Double Dutchess. The article reports, "The women of Double Dutchess are regularly confronted with questions about their race, often by young black boys at the largely African-American community center in the South of Market neighborhood where the team practices. The women do not treat the issue lightly. "It makes me sad when we get hassled for this race issue," said Ms. Dougherty, a 21-year-old office worker. Ms. Hupp said that the women in Double Dutchess were largely drawn to the sport because it was affordable. "We live in an urban area, and we don't have a lot of money," she said. Ms. Herrera added, "It's just a really, really good friendship thing.""
So they claim to jump rope for the exercise, and for the "friendship thing," but since their earliest days they were performing on stages in front of audiences. And each performance has a theme, usually a sexual theme. Girls, if you wear hot, matching outfits and do your routine on a stage, or if Dave Eggers is in the audience, you are not just exercizing in a way that you and your admin homegirls can afford, you are using someone else's cultural expression to promote yourselves. Just call it what it is.
Well, we'll let Rungu give you his ideas:
a) they wear funny clothes,
b) they have bigger breasts than the 9 year-old girls who usually do this stuff (but not substantially, frankly) and,
c) they are white.
And of course, it's c that makes the difference. I hate to sound like a whiny liberal, because I'm not a whiny liberal, but really, if four black girls from Oakland put on a double dutch show, they would not wind up showing it at the McSweeney's/Zoetrope Christmas party. Sure, it's all in who you know, but it really strikes me how blatant an appropriation this is. They're good, but all this hooting and hollering is for run of the mill double-dutch stunts with cool costumes. No wonder the Times talks about some people complaining about their race. I know when straight people get famous for doing things gays see as their turf (disco, fashion, flamboyant magic involving great cats) the gays get pissed, though it's generally more grumbling than anything else. I think black people get more upset about blatant appropriation than gays do, since all we want is to be noticed anyway.
The other aspect of this I thought was fascinating was how superficially European it is. One thing that I find fascinating and bizarre about Europe is the way Europeans appropriate things from other cultures (dreadlocks, Arab music, bhangra, the blues) without any real understanding of where it comes from. Japanese people don't even pretend to care about context, and Americans are so self-absorbed we don't even bother. But Europeans think it's a political statement to wear dreadlocks, when in fact, it makes them look stupid. (Though the Rolling Stones got the blues right, as history has shown, and white Americans who were too racist to perform it were wrong.) Anyway, this Double Dutchess is an obvious case of appropriating an aspect of another culture without paying any attention to where it comes from, but, God love us, Americans do things ironically. So the fun is watching women dressed as criminals, or Catholic school girls, jumping rope. Europeans would just dress as black girls, jump rope, and think it's a statement. Americans dress as Black Sabbath, jump rope, and call it a party.
This all reminds me of those Radical Cheerleader groups that were popular about 4-5 years ago. Except that the RCs use their performance to promote social and political causes rather than promoting themselves and their careers as performance artists; they preach non-ironic respect for actual, non-avant-garde cheerleaders; and they are often recruited from poor neighborhoods, like the squad discussed in this Guardian article.
Outside discussions suggest that people might have some insightful comments to make on this issue. So if you have something to say, feel free to comment.