Could Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm Be Anti-Racist Art?
As one of the lead writers and executive producers of the revered show Seinfeld, and writer and star of his current show Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David, has always pushed the envelope with respect to challenging social norms. Being able to watch characters refuse to just go along with widely accepted "normal" behavior is both hysterical and exciting for the average well-behaved, self conscious, repressed American. David's character on Curb (Lets just call him Larry) is completely un-PC and dares to say aloud what we are all thinking. In the privacy of our own homes without any consequences, except squirming into our own couches, we get to watch Larry play out all of our "Id" fantasies. In Larry's world, there is no holding back, no weighing of social consequences, just a black and white universe where he filters nothing and publicly digests everything. Larry moves through life attempting to meet his immediate needs, stating the social hypocrisies that he cannot bear to tolerate and finds completely unjust. And of course audiences are entertained as he often winds up paying for his choices by getting kicked out of various facilities, peoples' homes, and even their lives. I love watching this man.
Before you remind me that Larry can be a pompous, privileged ass, and wonder if I am forgetting that he is an affluent white straight man, (so the social risks he takes are not that big of a deal since he has less to lose), I want to assure you that I am aware. He isn't worried that his outrageous behavior in a store will get him shot, or that his inappropriate remarks to women will bring on a lawsuit, or that his rude criticism to a hotel manager will get him taken away in handcuffs. He can afford to "blow things up" so to speak.
That being said, his ego takes a hefty beating that even few privileged folks I know would be willing to risk. It would be easy to write off Larry's character as an old, sexist, racist dude. However I argue quite the opposite. Privilege aside, it is Larry's lack of concern for the way he is perceived, that actually allows him to be culturally subversive, and even an advocate for minorities at times. "WHAT!?" you say? Yes, I said Larry is actually an advocate for marginalized populations at times. HE IS. Let me explain.
In one of the recent episodes of Curb, Larry hits a guy's car (who winds up being a total jerk) and his friend Jeff recommends a mechanic to Larry for his own car's damages. Larry talks to the mechanic on the phone and sets up a time to bring in the car. On the day Larry brings the car in, he meets the mechanic in person and sees that he is Black. The first words out of Larry's mouth are something like "oh, you're Black." The mechanic's race was different than Larry envisioned over the phone. Now, a couple of things are going on here. In our society, sociologists argue that not only do we all notice race, it's counterproductive to pretend that we don't. Many Americans still think that if you admit that you notice someone's race, or even mention someone's race, that you must be racist. So of course, when Larry says something like "oh I didn't know you were Black," he sounds like a racist…but really he is saying what most white people are thinking. Just by saying that assumption aloud, Larry makes white viewers squirm in their seats, particularly those viewers who are privileged enough to be able to go days, weeks, and even years without mentioning race. Larry is calling out the elephant in the room here… 'come on white people…you know you see Blackness', and white viewers are clenching their fists and squirming, mortified that Larry is betraying their inner "inappropriate" thoughts. Guess what America… we all see race, and Larry knows this. Seeing race is not the problem.
Larry takes his subversive comedy to another level when Leon (his Black roommate who lives in the pool house) answers Larry's door one day and allows the white guy (who has been extremely aggressive and angry towards Larry for hitting his car) to believe that Leon (a Black guy) is Larry. The white guy, assuming Larry was white is clearly caught off guard. He did the same, but reverse thing Larry just did, assuming over the phone that the person he was talking to was white, and is now faced with the fact that not only was the guy who hit his car Black, this white guy had been being a total jerk to him over the phone. When he assumed Larry was white, he was aggressive, cocky, and told Larry he was going to get the "most expensive estimate from the dealer." When Larry and Leon trick the guy into thinking Larry is Black, the guy spirals into shame, embarrassment, and clearly white-guilt, telling "Black Larry" (actually Leon) that he can just forget about the estimate, forget about the accident, and apologizes awkwardly and hastily, leaving Larry's house as apologetically as possible.
Here, we see Larry's show "poking the bear" of white-guilt. This episode is only funny because it capitalizes on the guilt many white people feel but don't know what to do with and certainly don't know how to articulate. In a world where we are trying to make Black Lives Matter, white people are still so scared to talk about race, it's implications in our society, and even admit that they notice it. While Larry's comedy is a slight exaggeration, he still succeeds at pointing out that if well meaning white people can't even mention race, we are far from being able to fight racism.
Larry is having none of that. Larry, as a white man is calling white people's bluff. OF COURSE YOU NOTICE SOMEONES RACE, of course you feel guilty that you don't have to experience racism as a white person. Larry also points out that, that doesn't make you racist and that it only makes you a hilarious subject of one of his skits. It's 2017, and if you are still a white person pretending not to notice race…well than you are a joke and Larry will make sure we laugh at you.
By Rachel Hall, Rachel has a Masters in Cultural Gender Studies, and a BA in Communication & Culture, is a Certified Life Coach, and can often be found hiding in her laundry room from her two children. More about her on her website.
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