Sunday, December 19, 2010

Black and White and said all over

“The Rubberbandits are offensive, not because they swear and reference drugs, and not because they reinforce a jaundiced and incorrect view of Limerick; the Rubberbandits are offensive because they are Modern Irish Society’s equivalent of ‘The Black and White Minstrel Show’.”

This is the point of view*(* I haven’t quoted directly but I believe that that’s the gist), put forward by a contributor to the comments section of the blog I did about Liveline, and I have to admit: It has me thinkin’.

And the ‘gist of the gist’ is, that the Bandits embody, in their act, a marginalised minority of Irish culture that the rest of us fear and at the same time look down upon, ie: ‘The Scumbags’, ‘The underclass’, ‘The knacks’.

The gist of the Minstrel comparison is; that laughing at caricatures, of this oppressed and feared element, is ultimately satisfying to the rest of us.
It mitigates our fear of them; while at the same time making us feel good about our own relative position in society.
The fact, that it’s popular and entertaining, doesn’t justify it.
If anything, the fact that it’s widely popular, suggests that we have huge problems as a society confronting our own prejudices.

I find this an interesting point of view, so I thought I’d have a closer look at it.

The way I see it, the Minstrel/Entertaining-Scumbag (hereafter known as ‘Happy-Knack’) analogy, doesn’t hold up to scrutiny on two points:

(as ‘Bock the Robber’ pointed out) ‘Knacks’ are not really an identifiable minority in the way that black people are. The notion of ‘black people’ as a set of human beings is difficult anyway because as soon as you wish to treat people in terms of these sets you’re going to have problems about who you leave in and who you leave out, but there are those close enough to the ‘type’ to fit everybody’s general idea. So we can agree that Samuel Jackson yes, Ali G, not really.
In contrast the ‘Knack/Scumbag’ term is a relative one, just like the term ‘Snob/Posh’ and when we use either generalisation most of us are usually accurately speaking of how we perceive ourselves in relation to who we’re talking about rather than any agreed general group in our society.

Secondly, the Black and White minstrel of the stage and screen were of necessity watered down and inoffensive. Their only fuction was to entertain, neither the original minstrels or their white-skinned-blacked-up successors ever challenged the idea that they were anything other than delightful child-like performers. The confrontational vulgarity of the Rubberbandits does fit the perceived stereotype of whatever a ‘Knack’ is, but bringing that to the stage and defending it on aesthetic grounds has more in common with Punk or the Dadaist movement than The Black and White Minstrel Show.

So, for me, there’s no way the Rubberbandits are Black and White minstrels but that’s not to say that I don’t see the point of the comparison. Perhaps if they were puppets like Dustin and Podge and Rodge, I’d find them easier to get my head around, perhaps if like Ross O’Carroll Kelly they represented a caricature of the most comfortable in this country rather than the most dangerous\vulnerable they’d be easier for me personally to find amusing. When I was a kid, a slagging match was only good if the participants were both doin’ the slagging and were on some sort of equal footing, otherwise it was just bullying, and bullying’s not funny.

But I don't think that's what's going on here.These lads are well able to stick up for themselves, as well as write a catchy tune.

What the Bandits are at isn’t really all that new; it’s new for this country though.
And while it remains to be seen if they can maintain any cultural presence beyond a novelty single, their intellectual and articulate defence of their art, while maintaining their ‘Knack’ personas, clears them of the charge of ‘minstrelcy’, and so far, been the most subversive thing about them.


  1. Paging Dr. Sacks we seem to have an acute case of paraphrasia!

    In the interests of clarification, yes, indeed, i was those cheeky chappys,‘The Scumbags’, ‘The underclass’, ‘The knacks’ as our best beloved blogger colourfully puts it, though i never said they were oppressed.

    In my response to the last blog i included a quote from 'Brave New World' which makes clear that the prejudice in this case was one based on class discrimination, not, racism.

    Class discrimination operates through discrimination by cultural signifiers, such as, income, place of residence, education, group custom, clothing, accent.

    Originally, i did not specify which minority group i referred to, yet, using the social signifiers in the Bandit's material it was obvious to certain commentators just which social set i may have been addressing. To my mind this only re-enforces the general prevelence of the social signifiers that the Bandits are using in their material.

    There also seems to be some confusion about Mistrelcy. In what sense did i use the minstrel show comparison?

    First i'd like you to dismiss the accepted 'friendly' blackface of minstrelcy, as i'm referring to the rotten roots of the Mistrel show.

    At the heart of Minstrel show was the distortive characterization of black people, primarily white performers in 'blackface'makeup, and contemporary black culture. However, the Minstrel show did not restrict itself only to caractatures of black people but also Native Americans, Chinese, and yes, the Irish, in otherwords the bottom rung of society.

    Apart from reinforcing vicious stereotyping, the content of the shows also revolved around slapstick, innuendo, and social satire. One particular feature 'stump speaking' might be worth a mention

    So, we have musical and comedic performers who wear blackface disguise, who parody those on the bottom of society, who indulge in slapstick and innuendo, and, music apart, whose only redeeming feature maybe the odd bout of social commentary.

    Sound familiar?

    But now, 'These lads are well able to stick up for themselves, as well as write a catchy tune.'

    Now it may be true that these fellas are intelligent and can give as good as they get in a given exchange, the character defends himself, but if you look at their material in general how does it hold up?

    For me this is the big question, who is the Bandits humour directed toward or indeed against? Is it social commentary that attacks or reinforces social prejudice?

    If we regard the bandits characters it is noticable that though they do parody certain elements of, lets just say, a lower income machismo to the point of bufoonery, they are pointedly not violent characters as you would expect if they were indeeed attacking violent 'scumbags'.

    So much so that i would be doubtful if it could be really be said of them that they are directing their comedy against scumbaggery as a specific but rather against low income male culture in general.

    I suppose a more generous man would say, that by presenting their characters as harmless the Bandits are 'helping to dispell the threat of the betracksuited goldchained male',but, for my argument here, i'm not willing to be that generous, its not alms i'm giving.

    If we are speaking in terms of a fair slag,do the bandits offer a level playing field to all the partys that they mock?

    Would it not be more appropriate for the Bandits to be going up against some of the people they are parodying instead of being the peoples favorites up against, but supported by, the powers that be?

    Or would that be just too uncomfortable an act to witness?

    Its great to hear colloquilisms and limerick jargon on d'telly, the big cheer for Donkey Fords and all, but is it that there is a case for the argument of 'don't be knocking the local lads done good'?

    Thats the other twist on the tail of 'don't be knocking the towns reputation'.

  2. “Dear me, I never knew that the lower classes had such white skins.”

    Lord George Curzon.

    ‘Knacks’ are not really an identifiable minority in the way that black people are, certainly, but then the argument that was being put forward was one based on class discrimination not racism. Both are undefendable forms prejudice yet to conflate them both to undermine the argument at hand is a wee bit disingenious.

    'Gammas are stupid. They all wear green, and Delta children wear khaki. Oh no, I don't want to play with Delta children.'

    Class discrimination does not rely on skin pigmentation but rather on arbitary value judgements on background and social custom.The Bandit's characterizations rely on the use of cultural identifiers such as modes of dress and speech, delivering us stereotyped low income Irish males. In order to be recognisable all stereotypes have elements of truth to them, but in so doing they also run the risk engaging elements of bias and prejudice.

    The real questions for me are how well, and, to what end, does the Bandits material address the issues arising from their stereotyping?

    "...the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow citizens."

    Thats how ex-slave and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass describes those 'delightful child-like performers' who worked blackface in the minstrel shows. This form of once popular entertainment relied mainly upon the parodying and stereotyping of black people and black culture, but not solely, they also found time to include other minorities such as Native Americans, Chinese, and also for a time, the Irish, all those on the bottom rung of the social ladder.

    Apart from stereotyping minorities, minstrel material would use comedy and music the tone would mainly be coarse and vulgar, relying heavily on slapstick and sexual innuendo. From time to time however it could prove subversive by attacking the social norms, but, this was rare, on the whole they served only to reinforce low brow prejudice.

    Music and comedy, blackface, stereotyping, slapstick and low brow sexual innuendo, my oh my but why does that sound familiar?

    'Satire – particularly visual satire – is a finely tuned medium, and a useful ground rule is that you only satirise people more powerful than you are.'

    Martin Rowson.

    That they can give good account of themselves in an exchange is a credit to their wit, but, really to what end is this wit being used? In my opinion its certainly not in defense or in redress of the social group they are stereotyping as ill educated buffoons but rather their wit is used to further the integrity of their 'characters', characters that for all their guff conform to and serve to enforce social prejudice.

    "The prevalent fear of poverty among the educated classes is the worst moral disease from which our civilization suffers."

    William James

    Sigh, aint that the just the truth Willy?

  3. Well now, 'Testy', (that name of yours is no lie).

    I do think I get what you're saying,-and I do agree with you to a point. But for me, the comparison to minstrels that you used to illustrate your point is unsatisfactory.

    This comparison/analogy is what joined the issue of class discrimination and racial prejudice in my head, and it's not a good fit because, (as you point out) they're two very different groups and two very different issues.

    My original post was prompted by the 'Liveline' discussion, not the body of work
    that the bandits have produced to date: much (if not all) of which, could be considered guilty of the criticism you level at it.

    But I don't agree that, by being articulate, (and defending their work on aesthetic and intellectual grounds, while maintaining their 'personas'), they are enhancing the characters of ill-educated buffoons conforming to, and serving to enforce social prejudice.

    If anything, it seemed to me, to be the opposite of that.

  4. Well fair enough boss,i'm not about to mustard your muffin.

    I just responded agin as i thought your gistations and paraphrasia are a bit off,iffy like.

    Still, all that to one side, i can respect why you disagree and all, and, so leaving behind the Minstrels thing (i always preferred Maltesers myself), I have but one last question, one final consideration, a wee hook (jaysus,a 'wee hook', theres something that'd bring a tear to your eye)if you will.

    Is there a chance at all that the bandits may be benefitting from another side of the 'don't say anything bad about limerick' thing, that being, 'don't say anything bad about local boys done good'?

    No catch, I'm just curious to see your opinion.

  5. A hook without a catch is it?
    Well this is a whole new thing your at now…Hand on heart , everybody lives within the bubble of their own experience and… I just don’t know Ted.

    What I’ve observed on the interweb is that the person who originally gave out about the lads received a huge response (and 185 comments is unusual for a facebook post) so certainly feelings are running high, and it takes a brave one to stand in the face of practically universal (if your universe is Munster) opposition; so I see what you’re gettin’ at.

    Would Willie O’Dea or his ilk feel inclined to support the lads if it wasn’t for a lingering Limerick feeling that “anytime we’re on the news it’s only the genuine scumbags get their faces upon the telly and isn’t a relief to see somebody who, not only takes the piss out of those guys, but gets away with it, do very well out of it?”.

    I dunno.

    You mentioned before about satire being only directed at those in power; I don’t think that it’s over-melodramatic to state that there are Happy-knack caricatures in Limerick who wield enormous power in terms of the money they make and the fear that they exert, not only on the street but sadly also in the courtroom.

    In this, uniquely Limerick context, a couple of local boys done good is indeed cause for celebration, a couple of local boys done good lampooning the scariest fuckers around is nice, a couple of local boys done good by embracing the stereotype, rather than ‘playing down’ their origins is a better one again, a couple of local boys done good to the point where they are challenging a superbland X-factor single ,with a song that makes so many people just plain uncomfortable is an attractive banner to stand under for the folk here let’s be honest. There hasn’tbeen anything like that for a while; I’m not sure there’s been anything like that here ever.

    Now I don’t know anything about how those outside Limerick see things and I know only how the tiny minority of folk, that I know personally, in Limerick see things, but if your point is that right now in Limerick is the wrong time to be a bandit retractor then you’d be entirely correct. If you are suggesting that the country as a whole is being singularly uncritical of a highly questionable comedy act simply because they feel they’ve been down on Limerick too much lately then I dunno, you’d have to ask them; but I don’t think it’s likely. I think that they are either happy to see a stereotype that confirms their feelings about what they think about the town,- or else they actually get the joke.

    Anyway: Testy, tetchy, festy or flighty,- 'tis a pleasure as always reading your comments.

  6. I ask for crumbs of wisdom and i get served up a whole pie, thanks for that reply.

    The way i see it the Bandits are riding on a wave of general dissension, never mind those polls that the papers plague us with, if you want public opinion on how things are then you qouteth the bandits 'fuck you'... or indeed the last internet mob driven christmas number one 'fuck you i wont do what you tell me'.

    The Bandits are the peoples champions, no doubting that, that they are providing much needed irreverence is likely too, that you hear local jargon and familiar names thrown about aswell, sure thats the whiskey nip in the pudding.

    Like i said at the start of all this lets just hope that when they come out the other side of this media charged bandit supersaturation that they are suitably moneyed and that folks don't become quickly jaded and give time to continue developing their shtick.

    And a merry seasonal to you Mr. Daz, i hope you'll be continuing these blogs in the comng year, they're always a welcome addition to my day.