Girls touches on cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - STYLE - SO­NIA RAO

Girls Trip is a raunchy com­edy that cen­ters on four col­lege friends who re­unite years later for a booze-filled week­end in New Or­leans. But Mal­colm D. Lee’s new film also cap­tures how black peo­ple are of­ten tasked with alert­ing others to cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion.

Regina Hall stars as Ryan Pierce, a re­la­tion­ship ex­pert who ap­pears to — as her book’s ti­tle, You Can Have It All, would sug­gest — have it all: a suc­cess­ful ca­reer, a pic­ture-per­fect mar­riage and a quirky agent, Liz Davelli (Kate Walsh). Liz means well but proves to be prob­lem­atic at times, ca­su­ally throw­ing around phrases like “hash­tag black girl magic.” (She is not black.) Ryan pulls her agent aside early on in the movie to dis­cuss the lat­ter’s in­ap­pro­pri­ate use of black col­lo­qui­alisms.

“Liz, and I say this out of love,” Ryan says, “please re­frain from say­ing things like ‘ Preach,’ or ‘ Go, girl,’ ‘ Bye, Feli­cia,’ ‘ratchet’ or any other col­lo­qui­alisms that you might have heard or looked up on Ur­ban Dic­tio­nary.”

And that’s it. Ryan is po­lite, but she gets straight to the point. As the woman sit­ting next to me in the the­ater re­marked, “That’s how you say it!”

The scene de­picts a sit­u­a­tion that other black peo­ple might find fa­mil­iar and is dis­cussed within many mi­nor­ity com­mu­ni­ties but is not of­ten ad­dressed so con­cisely on-screen.

In De­cem­ber, Slate pub­lished a con­ver­sa­tion fea­tur­ing Code Switch blog­ger Gene Demby, Slate writ­ers Aisha Har­ris and Jamelle Bouie and so­ci­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor Tressie McMil­lan Cot­tom in which they dis­cuss the bur­den black peo­ple face of “manag­ing white emo­tions.” Bouie states that peo­ple “vastly un­der­es­ti­mate the ex­tent to which our lives are filled with a level of racial stress most white peo­ple sim­ply couldn’t deal with.”

“And we’re hav­ing con­ver­sa­tions with peo­ple who are some­times well-in­ten­tioned and just start­ing to wade into these con­ver­sa­tions and grap­ple with these ideas,” Demby re­sponds. “And so it’s hard to fig­ure out where to start, be­cause we’re not in the same place.”

The scene in Girls Trip ex­em­pli­fies the con­ver­sa­tions Demby de­scribes, and its use of com­edy to do so shows how these di­vi­sions can be over­come with a light touch. It’s clear that Liz’s mis­guided word choice both­ers her friends, but she is not vil­i­fied for it. In­stead, it turns into a run­ning joke. Later on in the movie, Dina, played by Tif­fany Had­dish, threat­ens to cut Liz off from al­co­hol af­ter she ex­claims, “For real, though!”

Lan­guage spreads quickly, es­pe­cially in a world where slang- filled tweets can go vi­ral in a mat­ter of min­utes. Many peo­ple are of­ten un­aware of where “new” words and phrases such as “throw­ing shade” or “fleek” orig­i­nated, and some peo­ple are there­fore un­aware of when it is or isn’t con­sid­ered ac­cept­able to use them. The best route, it has been ar­gued, is to avoid us­ing slang terms when un­sure of their et­y­mol­ogy. Ryan’s re­mark is a friendly wake- up call to those who, for ex­am­ple, jumped on the “ratchet” band­wagon a few years ago with­out be­ing aware of the word’s ori­gins. (“Ratchet,” orig­i­nally a black slang term, was briefly re­claimed by black women be­fore it en­tered the main­stream.)

Pop cul­ture has hu­mor­ously ad­dressed the cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion of lan­guage be­fore. In 30 Rock’s sev­enth-pre­miere, for in­stance, af­ter Liz Le­mon (Tina Fey) says, “That’s not how I roll” to Tracy Jor­dan (Tracy Mor­gan), he re­sponds, “Thank you for say­ing that in dated ur­ban slang so that I’ll un­der­stand you.”

Walsh ad­dressed the movie’s clever han­dling of the sit­u­a­tion in a re­cent in­ter­view with Peo­ple mag­a­zine.

“I think that (come­dies) can con­cur­rently get to the very se­ri­ous busi­ness of solv­ing prob­lems with race in our cul­ture and also laugh about it,” she said. “I think there’s a way to do both and be sen­si­tive and ac­tu­ally do the work that needs to be done in our cul­ture.”

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