Ashton Kutcher, “Brown Face,” And Why These Images Persist in Media

May 7, 2012  |  

While I don’t consider myself part of the PC brigade, I also failed to see the funny ha-ha! moment in Ashton’s caricature. Where was the punch line in it? Or was the mere idea of mimicking a culture foreign to Kutcher–as well as the advertising team and the Popchips executives that okay-ed the advert–the joke in itself?  Currently, I am reading this book called Beyond Anthropology: Society and The Other, by Bernard McGrane. In it, McGrane talks about the manner in which Western culture and civilization defined differences in others – whether it is nations, religion or actual people – and how Western culture, particularly those of European descent, self-conceptualized itself in relation to that understanding. In one chapter of the book, McGrane writes about Daniel Defoe’s classic novel, The Adventures of Robin Crusoe. In Defoe’s book, Crusoe discovers an island of cannibals and “saved” a young man for whom he christens Friday, from being devoured by other cannibals. As a result, Crusoe takes this foreign man under his wings and begins to teach him the “right” way of life.  In contemplation of that book, McGrane writes:

“The cannibals had been in many respects the otherness of the world: they existed as a parameter, a limit to Crusoe’s world, beyond his comprehension and beyond the threshold of his order. “Friday” undergoes the necessary transformation and becomes the other in Crusoe’s world. He takes his assigned place as a subject inside that world, subject to, subjected to, its order. The Other is transformed into a subject of discourse and interaction by submitting his alieness for identification and domestication. Prior to being named he does not exist, he has no name of his own, no world of his own that would be intelligible to us. Similarly he has no language: Crusoe teaches him how to speak English, how to speak European. He is both nameless and languageless, a prime and perhaps necessarily illustration of the contemporaneous epistemological concepts of human beginning of the beginning to be human, of the threshold to the human: the Enlightenment’s famous tabula rasa.”

In the past (and in many respects, the continued present) it was Cadillac cars, gold teeth and big lips, now it is what is deemed as “cheesy” Bollywood movies and funny accents and foreign customs.  We see similar forms of stereotypes that exist in all of the minority groups – from Asians to the Hispanics and even the LGBT communities. And in all of these instances, we are told that by virtue of these traits being foreign and different from what is accepted as cultural norms, they are worthy of being mocked for amusement, or as the Popchips CEO suggests, a few laughs.

I don’t know that this is outright exclusive to white folks as much as it is the privilege of being the dominated culture. I know that when I watch Tyler Perry, as well as some other black films, I see similar stereotyping of white and gay people. But I do know that the exclusion of said other groups from the creative and decision-making process, which is basically the M.O. of Hollywood and big corporations, only helps to perpetuate the beliefs that other cultures are strange, mock worthy and not meant to fit into their ideas of normal society.  And strangely, it’s more telling about those doing the mocking than it is about the culture they seek to ridicule.

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