5. Gangsta Othello: Complicating Identity Tourism Online
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 1 The next YouTube posting I examine is a performance of Othello that is labeled as a “gangster” adaptation, and it too signals the ways presumed racial and ethnic cultural distinctions are blurred and deconstructed in performance. One of the comments posted to YouTube describes the adaptation as “Chinese folks trying to be black la cosa nostra,” thereby making explicit the ways the boundaries bleed between gangsta and gangster. Othello, then, becomes a vehicle through which these students access, explore, and appropriate black cultural performance. Running around seven minutes, the video updates the end of act four, scene one of Othello, tracing Lodovico’s arrival in Cyprus and Othello’s destructive turn towards jealousy. The setting of the play, however, has been transported so that Cyprus becomes “Grove Street” (although the students consistently pronounce it “Groove Street”) and Venice becomes “Compton.” To accompany the South-Central-Los-Angeles inflected flare of the setting, the language of the play is completely rewritten. For example, when Lodovico arrives in Gro[o]ve Street, he greets Othello and Iago with, “What is up my home dizzles for shizzles,” and Othello replies, “No much G, just chillin.” Moreover, four of the six students in the video are clearly non-native English speakers, and the emphasis on the gangsta rhetoric and dialect is particularly jarring because of their lack of fluency in English in general.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Tricia Rose gives voice to what many scholars view as the impetus behind mainstream appropriations of black culture: “white teenage rap fans are listening to black culture, fascinated by its differences, drawn in by mainstream social constructions of black culture as a forbidden narrative, as a symbol of rebellion.” For critics like Rose, the diminution of African-American hip-hop culture to a generic “symbol of rebellion” is part and parcel of America’s history of denying black authorship. Likewise, Susan A. Phillips argues that “the privilege to flirt inconsequentially with gang culture is an undeniable aspect of their [‘middle-class youth’s’] socially unmarked racial and class categories.” Several of the comments posted to the video support these arguments against appropriation. One post complains that the performance in fake black slang is “degrading [to] the black race.” And another objects, “that was the dumbest shit ever . . . u aint gangstas . . . damn son . . . yo fuck you n ur gay ass crew . . . D.O.C. fo life. if I evea see yo face ima get my crew to beat on you . . . you don’t wanna fuck wiff us crips yo . . . so shut ur dumb ass up . . . fag.” Clearly, then, there was some online discussion about the politics of “identity tourism”: “performances online [that use] race and gender as amusing prostheses to be donned and shed without ‘real life’ consequences.”
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 4 Yet the students in this video—young, recent immigrants, who are newly speaking English—do not seem to be afforded the “privilege” of “identity tourism” in exactly the ways described above. The students do not seem to be operating from positions of “privilege”: they are interpreted as cultural outsiders, as many of the comments posted to YouTube make clear. As one person posts, the video is “Probably some English practice thingy, like a language school project or some English practice learning slang.” Over and over again the posts stress that the students’ Asian identities are decidedly marked, visible, and non-neutral, as opposed to Phillips’s assumption that cultural appropriations signify the “unmarked” nature of the “racial and class” status of the participants: the students are “Asian,” “Chinese,” “Viets,” and “Fobs” (at least 15 posts include this acronym for newly immigrated people: “Fresh Off the Boat”). And their need to “learn to speak English” is also stressed frequently in the posts. More disturbingly, there are many posts that use the occasion of this video to unleash racist, anti-immigrant, sexist, and homophobic screeds: “Jesus fuck . . . that was absolutely fucken horrible. Get back on your ship and go back to China.” “[W]ack u all losers go do ur math or something.” “I want to lick her pussy.” “[I] bet they have some crazy orgies.” “[I] just want to stick my dick in her mouth.” “[W]hat a bunch of fags.” “[N]ice nice show how nigers are gay.” “[T]his is so gay . . . watching it has actually made me gay and now i must kill myself. Thanks.” If online “identity tourism” marks a degree of the power of privilege, it is fully harnessed by the unseen viewers who know how to search, watch, and comment upon the videos without having to suffer any “real life” consequences for their blatant and unmasked racism, sexism, and homophobia.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 1 One viewer even declares that the video is “even worse then [sic] with white actors,” making it clear that the Shakespearean plot is not read as racially un-marked either. In fact, it is the blending of Shakespeare—which seems to be explicitly read as “white” in the commentator’s mind—black gangsta culture, and the newly immigrated Asian students that the viewers’ find humorous. While the video has received over 200 posted comments (and over 47,000 overall viewings), the vast majority employ acronyms for humor: “ROFL,” “LOL,” and “Haha” (“roll on the floor laughing,” “laugh out loud,” and “laughter,” respectively). And yet none of the posts comment upon the plot revisions. While Shakespeare’s Moor is clearly conflated with the African-American experience in an uncomplicated and naïve way, the ways these students have rewritten the ending of Othello creates a space for re-imagining the performance of cultural and racial identity.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Like many DIY YouTube Shakespeares, this Othello is comprised of part of a scene and not the entire play. More particularly, this video depicts the very end of act four, scene one, focusing on the equivalent of seventy lines of the playtext (4.1.205-279). Yet the video does not announce itself as filming only part of one scene; instead, it announces itself simply as Othello. While it is clear that it is an updated version of Othello—it is called “gangster” after all—it is not clear that this is not an updated version of the entire play. And it is this ambiguity that provides the potential to re-imagine Shakespeare’s role in performances of cultural and racial identities. First of all, it is difficult to tell what distinctions, if any, are maintained between Othello, the Venetians, and the Cypriots. The student who plays Othello, for example, is neither more nor less gangsta than the other characters in the video: all six of the students speak the same stilted slang, and no visual markers—costumes, props, make-up, etc—have been employed to separate the characters. Thus, while this video traffics in troubling racial stereotypes, it does not traffic in ones constructed by Shakespeare. This is an all gangsta world, and, therefore, Othello is not isolated by his racial and cultural differences. The only thing that seems to separate him from the other characters is the fact that he is on “parole.” Lodovico asks if Othello is “smoking rocks,” perhaps alluding to the reason Othello is on parole. But the video leaves this ambiguous and thus maintains cultural and racial unities between all of the characters.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Second, Desdemona does not die in this version of Othello. Othello beats her mercilessly in front of Iago and Lodovico, but she survives and runs away. Without referencing the final murder in Shakespeare’s act five, this YouTube Othello does not provide the near pornographic murder that occurs in Desdemona’s bed. Without a familiarity with Shakespeare’s version of the play, one could imagine that Desdemona lives a happy life away from Gro[o]ve Street and Compton. She does not express a desire to return to Gro[o]ve Street or Compton in this rendition, nor is she fated or destined to return. She is not fatally punished for her cross-cultural love affair because no boundaries are actually crossed.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 The ending of the video, however, presents the largest revision to Othello. Despite the fact that most of the video follows a close re-writing of the ending of act four, scene one, the video’s ending offers something wholly original. After Lodovico expresses dismay at having seen Othello beat Desdemona, the Venetians are set upon by two “Gro[o]ve Street Hoodrats,” who proceed to taunt, rob, and chase them out of Gro[o]ve Street. If Gro[o]ve Street stands in for Cyprus, then this video gives voice to a population that is nearly silenced in Shakespeare’s original: the Cypriots who are in need of protection from the Turks, but who must pay the extremely high price of colonization by the Venetians for that protection. This YouTube Othello, however, allows the representatives of the silenced, the invisible, and the colonized to talk back, to be highly visible, and to exist autonomously; they take back Gro[o]ve Street after all. For me, the “Gro[o]ve Street hoodrats” are a symbol for the potential power of the non-native speakers in the video, who were probably given a school assignment to demonstrate their ability to understand a canonical text of Western civilization by translating it into modern slang. The students, like the “hoodrats,” have the opportunity to demand to be recognized on their own “turf.” The questions the “hoodrats” ask are appropriate questions for the students to ask of their teachers and viewers: “Yo guys what are you guys doin on our turf yo? . . . Yeah man, what do you guys think you are man?” Whose “turf” is Shakespeare and Shakespearean performance? Whose “turf” is gangsta culture? And what “turf” are we willing to recognize as belonging to the recent immigrants in our classrooms?
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Now I do not want to overstate the radical potential of this Othello YouTube video. Based on the comments posted to the video, I am alone in recognizing the ways the video pushes the boundaries of racial and cultural production. Aside from the comment about the performance being “worse” than with “white actors” and another comment asking people to “look at our version of Othello and tell us what you think,” none of the other 200 posted comments remarks on the plot, the re-writing, and/or their relationships with Shakespeare’s original. Nor do I want to downplay the way the video traffics in the perverse pleasures and powers afforded “identity tourism.” The students are clearly marking gangsta culture, and by implication black culture, as the alien that cannot be fully integrated into American society. And yet to approach contemporary black gangsta culture through William Shakespeare demonstrates just how outside these students are. And the way they re-imagine the ending of Othello creates a small space for alternatives to the traditional formations of cultural and racial performance. The students seem to indicate that they may not fit into Shakespeare comfortably.