thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

“Call Me Doctor”: Rachel Bilson Raps, Girls Like Giants Scratch Our Heads.

In gender, race on January 23, 2012 at 4:41 pm

Rachel Bilson plays a doctor on Hart of Dixie. Some critics have a hard time buying it.  Last week, Bilson shot back with a Funny or Die video that features her throwing down by… rapping.

Chelsea B. was on the case, writing to some fellow Girls Like Giant-ers:

I feel so conflicted. I mean, it’s a fame thing and I get that Hollywood is weird, but also, watching this and not acknowledging or critiquing the inherent privilege and appropriation is a problem.

Since the rest of us were equally puzzled, we decided to try and sort things out with a good old-fashioned roundtable. Let us know what your take on Dr. Dolce Labcoats is in the comments.

Sarah T:

Chels! I’m glad you started this conversation. So, my immediate reaction here is that while I see why it’s potentially discomfiting for the reasons you mention, I’m having a hard time mustering too much discomfort? But I am also really interested in hearing other opinions on this too, because I could be swayed by a counter-argument.

But watching the video, my first response is that I think the intended joke is about the gap between Bilson and the kind of hip-hop songs she’s parodying. She’s got the grills and the hoodie and the car and a lot of the other traditional hallmarks of hip-hop videos, and I can see why the appropriation angle here is potentially a problem.

But on the other hand, the video seems aware of how little her situation (a white celebrity getting criticized for her supposedly unbelievable depiction of a doctor on a CW show) has in common with the situations black american hip-hop artists are often rapping about. (Although to be fair, there are also plenty of hip-hop songs of the “Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems”/”Heart of the City” variety that are also about the travails of commercial success–but still, obviously coming from different experiences of privilege.) So my impression was that the concept of the video acknowledged privilege–kind of like how the ridiculous premise of “Amish Paradise” automatically signals an awareness that Amish farmlands do not equal the projects Coolio was rapping about.

BUT part of what’s influencing my reading of the video may be that while I understand and agree with many concerns about the appropriation of hip-hop by white mainstream popular culture, I don’t think there are clear answers about what’s off-limits and what’s in-bounds. There’s a clear privilege disparity between, say, Kreayshawn and Nicki Minaj. But does that mean that Kreayshawn shouldn’t engage with any of the conventions of hip-hop, which are necessarily largely drawn from and influenced by the experiences of black urban communities? How should those disparities be acknowledged in Kreayshawn’s music? Do they necessarily need to be acknowledged in her songs? I don’t know the answers to these questions. But I guess the inarticulate thing I’m trying to say is, what’s the line between acknowledging difference and privilege and raising barriers?

And when it comes to comedy–not that this music video is hilarious, but it’s definitely supposed to be funny–I think some of these questions get blurrier. Because clearly Bilson’s not taking herself seriously as a rapper, and the video is a parody, but it’s not clear to me if it’s necessarily a parody of the rap genre, or a parody of herself, or both. So, is it automatically problematic for a white girl to rap jokingly/badly? (Problematic for reasons besides hurting ears, I mean.) Is it okay for Bilson to rap jokingly but not okay to jokingly appropriate certain components of hip-hop? It’s this last point that I think makes the video a squeamish experience.

And more broadly, on one hand there’s the problem of comedy as a shield to ward off accusations of offensiveness while actually doing really offensive stuff–the old “Lighten up, I’m just kidding” issue. But on the other hand, there’s the fact that comedy–smart comedy–can also be an important way of pointing out topics that make people uncomfortable, and making people laugh in order to get them to think about all kinds of things that are normally closed up in their brain-drawers. So I think maybe the biggest problem with the video is that it isn’t smart enough about what it’s doing.

On a sidenote, I was sad she dissed Mischa.

Chelsea:

I like your thoughts and your brain, in gen. Thanks for taking the time to write all of them out for me! Okay. I have some disjointed points, some independent and some in response to you.

-I get that the central joke of the video is about the disparity, but that’s also where the problem lies. Part of the way that Bilson distinguishes her rap persona from other assorted rap/hip-hop personas that she’s imitating is through emphasizing her petite, conventionally pretty whiteness.

-This performance of self is so rooted in appearance that it seems that’s the only merit she’s falling back on to defend or justify her supposed acting chops in Hart of Dixie. I mean, her rapping sucks, she isn’t really doing much “acting,” so all that’s left is how she looks, dresses, and comports her body. It’s not just that she’s cute (or thinks she is), but that she’s also snubbing rap writ large by doing a terrible job of performing it and making that the point. She acts terribly in Hart of Dixie (yet it continues to air), thanks in no small part to the whitewashing of the show and its skewed, disingenuous relationship to the history of the South in which it is set. Bilson is pulling the same stunt in this video, leaning on her white privilege to give the video meaning.

-If I’m not mistaken*, the only black or brown person in the entire video is the woman who seems to be playing her assistant at the end and opens the door to her office for the camera and then is blurred and completely eclipsed by Bilson’s body in the center of the frame. As Jessica Pressler and our other beloved Gossip Girl recappers over at NY Mag would say: no points, just noticing.

*Closer inspection shows that the same lovely brown woman also appears in the literal periphery of some earlier scenes at the bar, though some shots don’t even show her face.

-I think you’re totally right about the complexities of white appropriations of hip-hop culture. I feel concerned about this all the time, which means I usually just do the super responsible and intelligent thing and suppress those feelings while going about my business of loving on Jay-Z and Rye Rye. What we both seem to be asking is, what is the difference, or where is the line between appropriation and appreciation? I suppose I don’t feel any real appreciation for the mode or form of hip-hop in Bilson’s video, which is more indicative of Funny or Die than Bilson, I’m sure. Perhaps that was what left the sour taste in my mouth. That and the feeling that despite whatever criticisms are being directed toward Bilson, she’ll keep doing what she’s doing and be celebrated and rewarded, with every form of capital (hello there, privilege).

End note: This screenshot from the video sums up what I was trying to point to earlier:

Bilson’s whiteness is constantly being emphasized and her particular brand of girlishness is crafted through wardrobing and makeup to communicate a sweet sex appeal (can we talk about the signifiers of bright pink lipstick as opposed to red, orange, or deep berry?) that is clearly meant to be juxtaposed with the music, rap style, and intentionally poorly imitated movements of hip-hop. In other words, I don’t think Bilson wouldn’t be wearing a grill if she weren’t parodying an entire genre. I could understand wanting to mobilize the strength and power of hip-hop to call out your critics, but making a mockery of the form just makes you look even worse.

Phoebe:

So I just watched the rap, which was painful. Yes, quite painful indeed, although I think I just have trouble with Bilson in general at times and the kind of girlishness she embodies on Hart of Dixie particularly. I definitely agree with what Chelsea is saying in regards to Bilson, and so here are some of my disjointed and reaction thoughts.

1) I think the issue of appropriation is interesting and important here. I spent a good part of the video waiting for a moment in which she acknowledged her privilege and I agree with what Chels said in regards to that lack of acknowledgement in the video. There is definitely a fine line between appreciation and appropriation, but this video appears to be mostly and wholly on the side of appropriation. Particularly given that Bilson does not seem to appreciate hip hop or rap except when in this moment it is in her service. Granted, she is trying to be funny and part of that humor, I think, is supposed to emerge between the disparity of her body (small white girl) performing a rap and the expectations and history of the genre rooted in black urban cultures. This disparity is brought out in her costume change from lab coat into sweats, the Kings hat, giant shades, and the aforementioned grill. Post-costume change, she does cite Kanye and Jay-Z’s “Monster” and then she mentions “Watch the Throne,” which could be–in a generous reading–a nod of appreciation, an acknowledgement of appropriating, or she could be using those moments to make fun of herself and her position as a terrible rapper. However, I tend to lean towards thinking that is not what was afoot. Rather, those moments were, for me at least (like much of the video), uncomfortable in that they showcased a lack of awareness of her privileged position, but also made light of a genre that challenges that very privilege (maybe?).

2) Also interesting were some of the final shots with the two white dudes washing the car (one of them is Wayne from Hart of Dixie). In that moment, they seemingly were fulfilling positions normally occupied by women, but there was some sort of queer tension or positioning as the shots alternated between one guy spraying the hose like a make-shift penis and the other sort of looking sexy-like. Again, like much of the video, this particularly moment felt uncomfortable, in that two seemingly super-straight guys wind up mocking the possibility for men to be the object of desire of other men. And that made me uncomfortable in that rather than queering a convention, they seemed to mock themselves or the very possibility of men desiring men. This is a smidge inarticulate (I apologize), but I would be curious what other people thought on this note …

3) Also, Chels you are right in regards to the lack of diversity. But that diversity definitely reflects the diversity, or rather lack thereof, on the show–which, as you point out, envisions a really strange and post-race South. Although this same post-race South is totally obsessed with its own history, but of course a revised version of that history that is also post-race.

4) Lastly, that video is terrible! And Rachel Bilson IS not believable as a doctor, although I wouldn’t care so much if the rest of the show wasn’t SO terrible I suppose …

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  1. PS, Phoebes: Are you always anti-Bilson or mostly anti-Hart of Dixie-Bilson? Because… Summer Roberts! Pancakes the rabbit! Captain Oats and Princess Sparkles! (AKA, she was totally my favorite character on The OC.)

    • ST, I am mostly just anti her in HofD but also in those terrible ice cream commercials. I wasn’t a huge huge OC fan when it was on and still need to watch most of it. That said, I did rather like Summer (and Seth of course!) …

  2. I’m so glad you ladies tackled this! I also had a very conflicted response to the video, or a jumble of uncomfortable cringes and giggles although I could not quite pinpoint why. I don’t really have anything to add to the conversation but thanks for discussing it.

  3. Well Dr Hart, my first impulse is to think, “what would my mother say if she saw this video” since she was the one who first introduced me to the show. I think that might be where the general “cringe” is coming from. It’s a CW show, but it has a little ABC Family vibe to it. It’s got down home themes that appeal to the old-fashioned-mom in all of us: “homemaker vs. modern woman”, “community as family”. So, it makes me worry that OTHER people will be turned off from the charms of the good times “city mouse, country mouse” show as a result of this hard edged foul-mouthed exhibition. (My mother doesn’t approve of the F-bomb.)

    BUT. I thought it was freaking hilarious and I like her (and the show) even more now. An oven mitt? I really appreciate the aluminum foil grill. The comparison to Dougie Houser M.D. is a good point. Since when do we watch television to see something realistic? AND I’m totally crushing on Wilson Bethel (as scruffy Wade, *sigh*) and really appreciate the mental picture of him washing a car shirtless. That therapeutic image is getting filed away for later use.

  4. Take a chill pill, your humor sucks. This a really fun video, the lyrics are awesome, the rythm is great and Rachel totally pulls it of

  5. You guys should really read this:

    http://thedoorknockerblog.tumblr.com/post/14707766230/soundbite-on-odd-future-and-the-delegitimization-of

    http://thedoorknockerblog.tumblr.com/post/18226957327/soundbite-on-the-european-roots-of-real-music

    I don’t know if any of you are people of color, but as someone whose culture produced hip-hop, I was a bit offended by how non-offended you guys were(that sounds weird)? But yeah, my main issue is how her video serves to delegitimize rap

    • Hey R! Thanks for reading!

      I was definitely irked by the music video and tried to point to that in the discussion of appropriation and the ways in which Bilson mocks hip hop music and culture and from her super privileged position and for her own gain. And, I think, Chelsea focused on this issue of appropriation too in order to consider what is indeed problematic (or offensive) about the video.

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