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Sunday, 04 December 2005


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Zach S.

I can't believe other people know about Shirley Q. Liquor. I used to think she was this obscure internet find that only I accidentally stumbled upon. (Don't ask what I was searching for when I discovered her five years ago.) But now I see her on and friends of friends have actually seen her perform in Washington D.C.

While I can understand how some might find it overtly racist, I think he's able to get away with it on some level because it's done in drag. Drag queens get away with things. If it were a real white woman in black face, then it would definitely be racist. But there's a sort of Matryoshka doll thing going on that distorts the reality of what's really going on. A white male dressed as a woman who is dressed as a black woman. In the world of drag performances, anything goes.

Sure, it's not PC and it's slightly racist. But real African-Americans make fun of themselves with the same sort of humor all the time. Watch MAD TV or Chris Rock or old "In Living Color" clips and it's everywhere. Shouldn't gay white male drag queens in black face be able to do the same thing?


I join you in your condemnation, but am intrigued by your statement:

...I cannot parse this absurdity outside of an institutional context. If Mr. Knipp—a.k.a. "Shirley Q. Liquor"—were a former student of Judith Butler's I would consider this "performance" a poorly executed "subversion" of something vaguely "political."

Do you think that such ideas of performance are only effective when circumscribed institutionally in order to make explicit what their purpose is? I mean, if you were to extend that, then outwith an institutional context then drag itself could be seen as offensive to women - a narrow enacting of the essential qualities of what gay men believe constitutes femininity.
I see your point though - I suspect behind your "is this another collision between the politically left-of-center and the "politics" of the academic left?" question is the conviction that "Performativity is the discursive mode by which ontological effects are installed" (Butler, here) and whether Knipp himself is choosing to tell the difference between performativity and performance. I believe (looking at his website et al) that he's leaning towards the latter, and to believe anything else would give him far too much benefit of the doubt.


ps: (sorry to go on) seems to me, though I haven't seen the movie, a converse version of Knipps' act is the Wayans brothers' White Chicks...have you seen it?

Kevin Andre Elliott

Sure, it's not PC and it's slightly racist. But real African-Americans make fun of themselves with the same sort of humor all the time. Watch MAD TV or Chris Rock or old "In Living Color" clips and it's everywhere. Shouldn't gay white male drag queens in black face be able to do the same thing?

seems to me, though I haven't seen the movie, a converse version of Knipps' act is the Wayans brothers' White Chicks...have you seen it?

I think there is a subtle distinction between what Chris Rock does and what Shirley is doing. Rock is critiquing the ways African Americans behave--not to make fun of us, but to make us see how fucked up we act sometimes (you know spending more money on "rims" rather than textbooks for kids). Bill Cosby has taken the more serious approach, which didn't fair as well as Rock's humor, but that's for another discussion.

I may be wrong, I've never seen Shirley's "performance," but I just can't see any instructive critique to this act. Knipp claims that his show is a celbration of southern black women. Well, what, exactly, about black women is he celebrating? Their "ignunce"?

As for White Chicks, I never saw the movie, nor do I plan to. Yes, it seems as fucked up as Shirley to me.

What troubles me is that many in the African American community seems to think that it is ok for blacks to use offensive imagery as long as it is between themselves. Steve Gilliard recently posted a picture of Michael Steele, a black man who's running for the Senate in Marylandas a Republican, in black face with the caption "I's simple Sambo" underneath. I'm not from Maryland, and I know little about Steele, but what I do know of him, I don't like. To me, that still does not excuse Gilliard's (who by the way is black) portrayal of Steele. What is worse, is that when Gilliard was called on his shit, he said that he could do so because he's black. The conservative blog camp with wild with it, resulting in one of Gilliard's advertisers pulling their ads. This sent Daily Kos and the liberal blog camp (normally a sane bunch) into a hissy fit. With the exception of Oliver Willis (another black liberal blogger), I know of few on the left who felt the need to criticize Gilliard's action. I call bullshit. We need to condemn patently offensive imagery regardless of where it comes from. There is time and a place for satire. Gilliard was not engaging in satire. He was in attack mode. And when we defend such actions, we make it easy for people to defend the Charles Knipps of the world.

Rich Puchalsky

"Should I condemn him for being a "racist" or a racist?"

Does it matter? One of the problems of academic politics is this kind of concern with why people are doing things. Figuring out why someone is doing something is a good thing to do if it gives you knowledge that you can then use in order to help you change what they're doing. But otherwise, who cares? We don't have to analyze the reasons for this guy's particular performance in order to write to a radio station and demand that they stop playing a song that is going to be received as promulgating racist themes no matter what its intent was.

Shades of "death of the author" here, by the way -- very much reminds of the protracted Wolfe discussion, in which every bit of authorial history-biography-trash was tossed into the air to "prove" that the text could not possibly be received in the way that I said that it appeared to be likely to be received. I wouldn't mind if people were consistent about this, but they aren't. The general rule appears to be that in terms of aesthetics, the author is dead; in terms of anything even vaguely political, intention is all.


Isn't there a category such as tasteless anymore? Racist schmacist. Think of "Springtime for Hitler" in "the Producers." It's button pushing. The offense isn't the message, which is probably contentless. It's that it disrespects people's sensitivities. It's hard not to be sensitive. Arguably the message in such performances whether on stage or not is "Hey, lighten up about [your hot-button issue here]." In the abstract, the message has merit. But it's hardly a welcome sentiment just any old where and any old time.


Bellow: "The genius of Stalinism was its ability to turn any political discussion into an argument about motives."

Vonnegut: "We must be careful what we pretend to be."

Chris Rock (wildly paraphrased): "White people keep asking me why they can't say n*****. 'You people do it all the time,' they complain, 'and I would find it so liberating.' 'Yeh, it'd make me liberate your head from your neck, man.'"

It's hard to care about what Knipp thinks he's doing, given what kinds of people are using his work and for what purposes they're using it. I think I'll agree with Rich (as usual) and commit the heresy of saying that its meaning is not necessarily identical to his intention.

And while Steve Gilliard says something offensive every Monday and Thursday, the presence of comments like "Sure, it's not PC and it's slightly racist. But real African-Americans make fun of themselves with the same sort of humor all the time," even in the mitigating context in which it appears above, is just the sort of thing that makes me grateful he's out there to point out what's wrong with that kind of assertion.


I hasten to add that I'm expressing agreement with Bellow's distaste for that analytical tactic, not his decision to associate it specifically with "Stalinism."


This seems like an interesting case of a performance being too poorly executed to avoid giving offense. It's not that it's a white drag queen performing in blackface, it's the fact that it's puerile and gauche enough to make white supremacists laugh, basically. If the "song" weren't comprised of lines she could have culled from a white supremacist message board... well, actually, most of the performance would have to be different. I understand the exceptional status of drag performances, I see how drag works as a filter, but I also think it's a matter of fine nuances in style, taste, tone, etc. -- if you can't do all of that right, you can't pull it off. For a parallel phenomenon, I guess, check out Sarah Silverman, who is so meticulously controlled that she can sustain the cognitive tensions in her jokes through the punch lines. (I haven't seen her fuck up yet, anyway.) It is simply hard to do. I'm not sure what Judith Butler would have to say about "The Twelve Days of Kwanzaa," although I can't imagine her excusing it, but I think it's fair to talk about execution as well as motivation, particularly with performance: it isn't a blueprint, it isn't hypothetical, it has to happen, and if you theorize about it you have to account for what happens. What happens here, all theory aside, is obviously offensive and racist.

John Omega

The thing that really gets me about this discussion is the incredible extent to which leftists get bent out of shape whenever someone is made fun of. Here in San Francisco twenty police officers are currently suspended without pay for participating in a video skit in which people in a number of protecteds groups were made fun of. Oddly, whwnever someone made fun of me I was always told that the appropriate thing to do is to tell your Mommy or your teacher.

Robert Simmons

I think all this uproar about Shirley Q’s ‘racism’ is pretty funny.

I was also (long ago) once bemused by the more easily inflamed feminists who got in a twist about songs like Kinky Friedman’ s “Get Your Biscuits in the Oven.”

There are some people who want to make a lot more out of Shirley's act than
is really there. The premise being tested is one that says a person
of a certain culture cannot make fun of another culture- one can only
make fun of a culture if one happens to be OF that culture. That is:
Larry David can make fun of Jews because he IS a Jew, but if Dave
Chappelle makes fun of Jews then he is ‘racist’. Or, if a hetero
makes fun of gays then he is a homophobe, but if Rosie O’Donnell does
it, it is ok. Ditto for Margaret Cho re: Koreans etc. (Should Dame Edna be making fun of women with her drag act?)

I personally think many people wear their ‘feelings’ about
‘prejudice’ on their sleeves in order to gain advantage or notice…(some
people need all he advantages that they can get). I subscribe to the theory that 'race' doesn’t exist. Cultures exist, and there is a lot of conflict between some of those cultures as they clash and compete for turf or political power. Using the epithet ‘racist’ is just political name calling, and it is a power play and is often simply a tool used by someone looking to stir up an issue
that will give them a voice, in some cases, a voice that should not be listened to. “Racist’ is one of the easiest names to call… and the safest.

I liked what I heard Wesley Clark said to Sean Hannity a couple of
weeks ago on Fox. “The first person to use the word “Nazi” (when
describing someone you disagree with) loses.”

Shirley Q used to be on the radio… in character, in New Orleans.
Some people thought she/he was racist. Most people didn’t. They
simply understood the particular sterotype she was satirizing. You
may know that Charles Knipp also does some pretty hysterical (depending on the primitive nature of your tastes) ‘white fat ladies’ too. Hollywood can make fun of hillbillies, but god forbid they be black.

I think giving black culture a ‘pass’ when it comes to satire is a way of saying that 'they' are not strong enough to take a jibe from another culture. Now THAT is racist. I think those days are in many ways over. ‘Black’ is hardly an issue anymore. Poor is an issue. Ignorance is an issue. Backward cultures left out of the mainstream is an issue, but stuff based solely on color is simpleminded. Most people don’t care what ‘color’ anyone is anymore. What they want to know is what is your level of education. How smart are you? Do you have a decent job?
Do you even ‘want’ a decent job? What are your values? People have allegiances to their culture or to their affinity group. If it is a black gang in Watts or a ghetto in New Orleans, or a cabal of college professors…they are all cultures that are vying for power within the larger body
politic. Racism is such an antiquated concept…cultural comptetition is much more refined than that today. Study a little sociobiology or modern cultural anthropology...OK?

The thing that also strikes me is how easy it is to call Shirley’s portrayal ‘racist’ and be done with it. Certainly it has earmarks of old fashioned racism, except for one thing, it is done with a sense of compassion and good humor for the character who, to my way of thinking, is quite sympathetic. So she has “19 chirren” and has a son named El Dorado. She is the still the black version of Tom Joad’s mom. She be holdin it all together. Big deal. Did people get bent when Redd
Foxx admitted to stealing hubcaps for that junkyard that he and his son ran on “Sanford and Son”? I don’t think so. "So what is it with this fat faggot making fun of the oppressed? I mean my god…with Katrina and all…" Oh calm down honey.

I hope I don’t seem defensive since I sincerely believe I am not ‘racist’ in any way. I do,however, have cultures I that prefer over other cultures, and I think I have seen a pretty good cross-section
of them. I say it again….RACE does not exist. Ask any geneticist. I think going after Shirley is a cheap shot by dimbulbs with overly developed sensitivities and other agendas.

(Stay tuned for the Palestinian/Swedish comedy hour.)

Taking all of that into consideration, I say rave on Shirley Q. You give people something to both laugh and think about.

And so on,
Robert Simmons
(from down South somewhere...naturally, where we like big confident black ladies, even when they are silly white boys in disguise)


I scanned the Shirley Q comments quickly, and didn’t see any similar, so just wanted to add that my black friends enjoy her every bit as much as I do, if not more! They said they all know someone just like her. One of them always greets me now with "How you durrin?"

I'm always intrigued, tho, how the same thing can amuse some people and anger others. I can see how it could easily go either way with Shirley.

I think there is simply a fine line between making fun vs. parody-- and that line is not drawn in the same place for every person. If there is malice and intent to harm, then I think it's a problem. If it's just humorous or satirical mimicry, then that's all it is. If someone doesn't find it funny, that's ok too. But I humbly suggest that if we can’t laugh at ourselves, we’re just takin’ it all too damm seriously.

We can all be caricatured, and sometimes we don't like seeing some of our traits and qualities magnified-- I know I don't. But, nonetheless, it happens and life goes on. Live and let live. If you don't like Shirley's show don't go-- cuz I wanna be right up front. Thanks for listening!

Sincerely, David Cattin – Washington DC

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