Word Games

Trio’s The N-Word investigates the history of America’s most ambiguous racial slur.

The N-Word, a documentary by Todd Williams that premieres July 4 at 9 p.m. ET on the Trio network, opens with a striking montage in which the word “nigger,” one of the most loaded sounds in the American language, is uttered over and over again, in tones ranging from affection to hatred, by everyone from The Jeffersons’ Sherman Helmsley to rap entrepreneur Russell Simmons to a hooded Ku Klux Klansman. The strategy: to bring us face to face with our culture’s ambivalent relation to the word through sheer exposure to it. A song by the spoken-word group the Watts Prophets repeats the word until it slowly transforms into “a gun, a gun, a gun.” We hear Samuel L. Jackson, his voice dripping with irony, reading out such Oxford English Dictionary definitions as “nigger jockey” (“a gentleman that trades in niggers”), “nigger-stick” (“an officer’s baton”), and “nigger heaven” ("the top gallery of a movie theater.”) Yet later, Jackson embraces the use of the term in his own personal lexicon, announcing proudly: “I’m an actor, I’m a nice guy, but the first thing you need to know about me is I’m a nigger.”

A clip from a Chris Rock standup routine outlines the debate about the word among African-Americans: “There’s like a civil war going on among black people, and there’s two sides: black people and niggers.” Rock goes on to conclude that “the niggers have got to go,” but many of The N-Word’s interviewees would disagree, insisting, for example, on the key difference between the racial slur (“nigger”) and the hip-hop endearment (“nigga”). At times, the controversy about the N-word appears to divide along lines of generation or class: Actor and rapper Ice Cube scoffs at the idea of “some bourgie black man or woman telling us we shouldn’t use the word because of its history.” But just as suddenly, another rapper of Cube’s generation makes the opposite argument. Chuck D. of Public Enemy (who will also be serving as guest programmer  on Trio this week) questions the efficacy of hip-hop attempts to re-appropriate the term: “Black people didn’t invent ‘nigger.’ It was thrown at us, and us accepting it is like someone just catching garbage and lovin’ it.”

“No one could use the word more beautifully than Richard Pryor,” observes Whoopi Goldberg, amid a series of moving tributes to Pryor’s huge influence among black artists. (“He is poet, he is genius, he is storyteller, he is language, he is everything,” observes playwright George Wolfe.) But The N-Word’s emotional centerpiece has to be the anecdotes in which interviewees recall their own first experience with the word. Harvard professor Alvin Poussaint recounts how, at the age of 9, he was sent to a convalescent facility for children with rheumatic fever. As the only black child there, he was teased so mercilessly he finally went crying to the head nurse, saying, “The other kids are calling me a nigger.” After a  pause, she replied, “Well, aren’t you a nigger?” Before you catch the fireworks displays this Fourth of July, take an hour to check out this smart and lively discussion of America’s most explosive word. 1:35 p.m

Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Dull Eye for the Drab Guy

Last night, Bravo’s Queer Eye for the Straight Guy paid tribute to Gay Pride Week by staging its first-ever makeover of a gay man. Wayne H. is a living refutation of the show’s founding premise that love for one’s own sex brings with it an inborn sense of style and wit: He may be as queer as a three-dollar bill, but before Queer Eye got to him, he was every bit as pasty, leaden, and charmless as your basic frat boy. One friend describes the décor of Wayne’s fifth-floor walkup as “dorm room meets ‘blah’.” His wardrobe, left over from an earlier, heavier period in his life, runs toward saggy black T-shirts and pleated Dockers. More depressingly, Wayne has no apparent interest in anyone or anything: He hasn’t been on a date in four years, hasn’t left New York City in 15, hasn’t been on a bicycle in as many as 20. He lives on hot dogs and grilled cheese sandwiches, reading comic books and watching pro wrestling. In short, he’s a big gay dud: in theory, the perfect target for the shock-and-awe tactics of the Fab Five.

For some strange reason, though, last night’s was one of the dullest QEs yet (and the season started off so well with the “twins” episode!). Without the frisson of forbidden sexual attraction that sparks the boys’ interactions with their usual straight subjects, the show drags, and Wayne’s apathetic cluelessness becomes a source, not of affectionate ribbing, but of barely disguised irritation. In theory, of course, the flirting ante should have been upped, given that there was some chance Wayne might actually respond to the boys’ advances. But instead of showering Wayne with double-entendre compliments, the Fabs kept a polite distance, and the concept of getting lucky remained strictly abstract. At one point in last night’s show, Wayne receives a bicycle as a gift from Kyan, the grooming guy (shouldn’t that have been a job for Jai, the chronically underemployed “culture” consultant?). As the two cycle through Hudson River Park, Kyan muses: “Wouldn’t this be fun to do with a boy?” The subtext: it’s not fun yet; you’re not what I would call a “boy”; and in your dreams, pumpkin.

Since the show’s basic gag is that the boys treat straight men as if they were gay anyway, not much is different this time around: there’s the horror at empty refrigerators, the cooing over new outfits (Wayne gets a paisley shirt and a belt engraved with the word “Daddy”), the supervised piping of goat cheese into stuffed-date hors-d’oeuvres. (The fact that usually-witty food guy Ted Allen blows his chance to make a “stuffed date” joke is evidence enough that it’s an off night.) As always, Carson Kressley, the wardrobe maven, gets off the best dirty lines: “This shirt says pickle smoker, in a good way.” (Why you would take fashion advice from someone wearing ripped white jeans, a brown shirt open to the waist, and a rosary is another question entirely, but such is the ineffable charm of Carson.) Arguably, the ideal gay subject for a QE makeover might have been an ultra-fag, someone so stereotypically effeminate that the boys would have to toughen him up a little. Half the fun of the show is watching the straight subject slowly come around to his own form of gay pride—by the end of the hour, most men are near tears, clinging to the Fab Five’s necks like shipwreck victims to their rescuers. The dour, uptight Wayne seems too self-absorbed to give the boys due props—and in his show-closing monologue at an open mic, he even neglects to thank them by name!

Wayne does emerge a little sharper at the end of the hour, though he ignores pleas to shave his mini-goatee: “Definitely get rid of the man-gina.” (Does anyone on Queer Eye get to keep their facial hair?) And Jai Rodriguez gives his first-ever piece of advice worth jotting down: “Sometimes you’ve got to leave the house to be in the mood to have a good time.” I’ll remember that next time I’m feeling too lazy to socialize during prime time. But not next Tuesday, when Queer Eye is calling in a poker champion to help overhaul a retired cop’s weekly card game. I’m definitely staying in for that one. 4:02 p.m

Monday, June 28, 2004

A Pamela Anderson Olympics

Another reason to watch Olympic gymnastics
Another reason to watch Olympic gymnastics

Welcome to “Surfergirl,” a new Slate feature that is not so much a TV column as one watcher’s online diary, a dispatch from the wilds of American pop culture. I’ll be posting several entries a week to start; I look forward to your feedback to see where to take this next.

The smart TV money this weekend was on Everyday People, a widely acclaimed made-for-HBO movie that premiered on Saturday night and will be re-airing throughout the month. Everyday People seemed well-acted and well-meant, but it suffered from the after-school special syndrome common to TV movies. Unable to focus on the film’s account of the earnest trials of the staff of a New York restaurant falling victim to gentrification, I kept switching back to the U.S. trials for that most telegenic of Summer Olympic sports, women’s gymnastics. These were only the preliminary trials, of course; the games themselves don’t begin until mid-August, when they’ll be broadcast in unprecedented 24-hour live coverage on NBC and affiliated networks.

Now, mind you, I don’t know much about women’s gymnastics. I tend to forget it exists in the intervals between Olympics. But the chummy, jargon-filled banter of the commentators has a way of making you feel like an old pro after just 20 minutes: “She’s got to stick that dismount,” I heard myself mumbling as one girl approached the balance beam. (For a tutorial on judging the sport, see here.) Women’s gymnastics is the Marilyn Monroeof Olympic Sports, irresistibly watchable even as you question the ethics behind its production and exploitation. Yes, I know the old argument that these girls are adored as cute novelty objects for a few short years, then thrown away without so much as an Ice Capades circuit to turn to. But let’s face it, the imagined sacrifice of these young women’s childhood, education, and adolescent sexuality to the brutal rigors of world-class training only adds to the watchability, not to mention the operatic pathos of the commentary—everybody’s either been through an “emotional wringer” or they’re an “indomitable spitfire,” preferably both, and in that order. Above all, though, there’s the sheer, exhilarating athleticism of these swaybacked, prancing creatures, the simply impossible things their bodies can do. That, and the glitter. Did glitter always figure so prominently in Olympic-level gymnastics? It’s everywhere, thick as frosting on the girls’ eyelids, highlighting their cheekbones, sparkling in the tightly pulled hairlines of their stubby ponytails.

The weekend’s trials took place in an Anaheim stadium known as The Pond, and the big fish was unquestionably Mohini Bhardwaj. The daughter of an Indian mother and Russian-Indian father, “Mo” is notable for the astonishing height of her jumps, her advanced age (25, which in gymnastics years, is apparently post-menopausal) and most of all, her sponsorship by actress and model Pamela Anderson. Yes, Pam, who practiced gymnastics as a youngster and continues to follow the sport, met Mohini when the athlete was selling raffle tickets at her gym to raise money for training and travel. Rather than buying a ticket, Pam chose to write Mohini a check for $20,000, and this weekend, there she was: holding aloft a “Go Mo” sign from a luxury box in the stands, her, um, enthusiasm barely contained in a white wifebeater tank top. Pam’s presence gave the team of color commentators plenty to josh about: “Let her know we have adult classes at my gym,” begs one. “Based on Pamela Anderson’s acting history,” ventures another, “We could say the ‘Bhardwatch’ is officially on.” (What about the “Baywaj?” Or hey, what say we don’t make any dumb puns at all?) I’ve always known Pam was cool: her column in Jane magazine; her voice work on Spike TV’s animated series Stripperella; that widely misunderstood, self-mocking sex tape. Mo is not yet a lock for the Olympic team, but given her talent, her stage presence, and the support of the biggest pair of pom-poms in the cheering section, she seems like a good bet. If Mohini Bhardwaj does make it to Athens this summer, you heard it here first: It’s going to be a very special Pam Anderson Olympics. 4:54 p.m.