The National Book Review
ESSAYS: ”Somebody’s Gotta Say It”: A Feminist Wrestles with Chris Rock’s Humor
My husband and I presented our tickets to see comedian Chris Rock perform at the arena at Mohegan Sun last spring. I’d asked for the tickets as a gift, wanting to know what Rock had been making of life in Donald Trump’s America. We surrendered our smart phones to guards, who locked our cells in individual pouches to prevent us from recording the show. It occurred to me then that the tour’s title, Total Blackout, a reference to Rock’s race-based humor, had as much to do with making money as it did with Black culture. There’s nary a video of the current tour on YouTube. I later learned that Netflix is paying Rock $40 million to broadcast this latest stand-up tour, making him the second-highest-paid comedian in the country. If you think Rock is a big deal now, wait ‘til Netflix brings him to your living room.
Rock, 52, has brilliantly mined the themes of money and race in America since 1984, when he began performing in New York’s comedy clubs. He joined the cast of Saturday Night Live in 1990 and released his first HBO special four years later. Bring the Pain, the tour he taped in 1996 for HBO, elevated Rock to the stand-up stratosphere. “Black People vs. Niggaz,” a scalding riff on race and class from that show, moved Rock from the very good to the great. His bit on the difference between the rich and wealthy sealed the deal. L.A. Lakers player Shaquille O’Neal is rich, Rock explained. “The white man who signs his check is wealthy.”
Though the country may be experiencing new lows in race relations, it’s also producing some of the most powerful commentaries on race in recent memory, from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me to the ESPN series O.J.: Made in America to the documentary film I am Not Your Negro to Jordan Peele’s horror comedy Get Out to Danielle Allen’s Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A. As insightful and powerful as all these works are, their collective heft seems bloated compared to Rock’s brief assertion that a responsible African American father will start his son’s day with a punch to the face.
As usual, Rock uses his humor in Total Blackout to deconstruct current events. He doesn’t know why whites are complaining about Donald Trump’s election, given that there’s nothing new to African Americans about a corrupt, 70-year-old white man making bad decisions that affect everyone. He tackled police violence by describing himself as “three feet away famous,” which is to say, not recognizable from the distance it would take a cop to shoot and kill him. Maybe, he mused further, barring blacks from stores is illegal nowadays, but a $7 orange keeps Whole Foods white.
I laughed on cue with the crowd until about two-thirds through the show, when Rock introduced the topic of his recent, acrimonious divorce and counseled the audience to forgive him if they saw him in a bad movie or TV show. He needs to make money, he explained, to pay alimony and child support. Others were clutching their chests for breath as Rock told jokes about manipulative, stay-at-home wives, the difficulties of dating younger, sexually aggressive women, and a porn addiction so powerful that it prevented him from showing up anywhere on time. As an aside, Rock asserted that porn stars are actually better actresses than Meryl Streep. By the time he explained that these actresses have an edge on Streep – they can shoot several scripts in a day…and “squirt” — he had lost me.
Critics, all of them men, as far as I can tell, have lavished praise on the autobiographical material in the last third of Total Blackout. Christopher Borelli described the show in the Chicago Tribune as “necessary, and even thrilling at times,” with Rock delivering material that “stopped the room cold.” The material wasn’t off-putting, Borelli argued – rather, it gave Rock a chance to “cut through the noise in his head” so that he could “take the temperature of his country” and “shiver.” “This is not his funniest show,” Jason Zinoman wrote in The New York Times, “but it might be his most compelling….” Zinoman noted that Rock’s cynicism towards marriage was longstanding and that “his jokes regarding relationships” have always been “rooted in regressive stereotypes about men and women.” In Rolling Stone, Steven Rodrick interviewed Rock about the new material from his divorce, giving the comedian room to explain his disappointment, frustration, and desire to “find God before God finds” him. Rodrick pushed Rock, who admitted that he was aware the material might offend his wife and daughters. But, as long as audiences laugh, Rock told Rodrick, he knows he is close to the truth. “That’s how we eat,” he says, “I would love it to be different.”
I didn’t laugh at much of the divorce material, and it wasn’t because Rock was being contemplative. When he evaluated Meryl Streep’s orgasms by reducing her to any female body, he participated in a culture of oppression and abuse that I can’t find funny – and I saw the show before women in this country launched the #metoo movement.
A feminist without a sense of humor – here am I, a stereotype. I needed a different framework to understand my dearth of yuks. In a recent Op-Ed she published in the New York Times contending with revelations about Louis C.K.’s use of power to sexually abuse women, comedian Lindy West set out the paradigm shift I was missing. “One of comedy’s defining pathologies, alongside literal pathologies like narcissism and self-loathing,” she wrote, “is its swaggering certainty that it is part of the political vanguard, while upholding one of the most rigidly patriarchal hierarchies of any art form.” Rock has always delivered cutting-edge humor criticizing America’s inability to distance itself from the most sinister types of racism. He has assumed, I imagine, that this has given him a free pass when it comes to holding patriarchy to the same level of scrutiny. “The solution,” West concludes, “is putting people in positions of power who are not male, not straight, not cisgender, not white. This is not taking something away unfairly – it is restoring opportunities that have been historically withheld.” Rock fits several but not all of the categories West lists. His cluelessness about the privileges he enjoys as a straight, cisgender man have prevented him from generating material rooted in something other than his blackness.
This isn’t to say that Rock hasn’t plundered gender for humor or critiques. Far from it. But the material incompletely skewers masculinity. There are two other places, in particular, to consider the collisions Rock experiences when he brings together categories of identity: some of Rock’s past stand-up material, and his 2009 documentary Good Hair.
Rock’s standup purports to shine a light on the “real” powers women possess, which relate to their abilities to manipulate their husbands and boyfriends by spending their hard-earned money. Rock almost always portrays women as conniving rather than smart. One routine from the ‘90s begins this way: “Lotta women here. That’s good. I like women. My mother’s a woman. That helps. Women control the whole thing, man.” Rock describes a man and woman walking down the street. The man crosses the street out of fear when he sees “a bitch he fucked in 1972.” He uses the example to illuminate the relationship between power and gender. “That’s how fly women are. Women are fly. Women got it good, man.”
In another bit, Rock purports to sing the praises of older women who can cook. Putting a twist on the old adage, “the quickest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach,” Rock counsels women to indulge in the “power of the pot.” “Anybody can suck a dick, but gravy’s a whole ‘nother story.”
In the wake of the Monica Lewinksy scandal, Rock ridiculed Hillary Clinton for not having had enough sex with her then-president husband. “Lotta this shit is Hillary’s fault. That’s right. I said it. It had to be said. Someobody’s gotta say it.” Why? The fate of the free world depended on the willingness of the First Lady to perform oral sex.
“Somebody’s gotta say it.” This is a phrase Rock has long used to set up his punch lines. Do I laugh at these jokes? Sometimes. The jokes work (or don’t, depending on your point of view) much as the analogy comparing Meryl Streep to porn stars. It doesn’t really matter how bright or accomplished women are. Their value and power come from their looks and how quickly they are willing “to be the first one on [their] knees to suck [a man’s] dick.” Jessica Valenti’s memoir, Sex Object, came to mind as I wrestled with my silence in the face of Rock’s riffs. The only way the material is funny is when all of us, having “given up on the expectation” of women’s safety, agree to continue “walking around in a permanent dissociative state.”
I found myself in that dissociative state frequently when I watched Rock’s 2009 documentary, Good Hair. Rock is father to two daughters, Lola and Zahra, with his former wife. “[E]ven though I tell them that they are beautiful every, single day,” Rock says just after the opening credits, “sometimes, it’s just not good enough.” Those opening credits feature images of glamorous African American women, some with hair that is processed and marcelled, most with hair that is either straightened or wearing wigs or weaves that flow and swirl. Why, viewers might wonder, is his daughters’ beauty his central concern rather than their imaginations or their intelligence?
Rock explains in the film that when Lola was a toddler, she asked him, “Daddy, why don’t I have good hair?” He answered her question with a film exploring industries revolving around Black women’s desire to have straight hair. As always, Rock’s analogies astonish, and his keen eye for the incongruous settles on extraordinary hypocrisy. For example, he compares “Kiddee Perm,” a hair-straightening product targeted at children, to a hypothetical beverage called “Kiddee Beer.” He has the sophistication to deconstruct the economics and politics of weaves, which rely on the theft and sale of women’s hair from, among other locales, Southeast Asia. It’s impossible not to laugh at another segment of the film, when Rock tries unsuccessfully to peddle unprocessed black hair to weave suppliers.
But how to reconcile his keen eye for incongruity with his “eye for the ladies?” Rock tries to explain the complexities of “good hair” by interviewing African American women who make their living being looked at. They include public beauties such as Nia Long, Sally Richardson, Melyssa Ford, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Eve, Raven Symoné, Marvet Britto, and Meaghan Good – musicians, dancers, entertainment executives, and models for men’s magazines and Hip Hop videos. To lend an air of gravitas, Rock also interviews Maya Angelou and Al Sharpton, both of whom appear with processed hair.
Though the film is a knowing, loving insider’s look at Black culture, it is, ultimately, made a mess by Rock’s difficulties seeing women as something other than objects. Granted, reading facial expressions is nuanced, but I can’t be the only viewer of Good Hair creeped out by Rock’s on-camera leering. His questions about “weave sex” – whether African American women are willing to let their lovers touch their hair – surely aren’t meant for his young daughters. By the time Rock asks himself what he should tell these girls at the film’s close, the conceit that the film is for these kids doesn’t hold up. Rock answers his own question about what to say to Lola and Zahra as their images, with natural hair, flash across the scene. “I tell them that the stuff on top of their heads is nowhere near as important as the stuff inside their heads.”
Rock has said in interviews that he wants his taping for Netflix to be in front of an all-Black audience. He describes a particular kind of “rumble” he hears in African-American crowds. I wonder if the Black women who turned out to defeat Roy Moore in Alabama would contribute to the noise. I want to believe that they’d hold him to a higher standard, demanding outrageously funny and true analogies rooted in intersections of gender as well as racial absurdities. To be really funny and to deserve the $40 million Netflix will pay him, Rock has to be willing to tackle his maleness, not just the country’s issues with blackness.