Love Him, Or Leave Him?
Thursday, November 2, 2006
It's hard to match the conniption fits flying in the wake of VH1's outrageously popular "Flavor of Love," in which our unlikely hero, Flavor Flav -- tacky, lumpen, gargoylesque -- searches mightily for a lady love on whose teeth to bestow a golden grille. In the midst of said search, all manner of made-for-reality-TV atrocities are committed -- we'll elaborate later -- resulting in much outrage and denouncing of Flavor Flav in the blogosphere as a "minstrel in action" and a "recovering crackhead and ex-con" who has taken his race-baiting antics to "all-new depths."
Then there's the chatter on Flavor Flav's clothing-challenged suitors: "Twenty current/former/future strippers compete for the attention and affection of a cracked out deadbeat dad." They're decried as weave-wearing, booty-shaking "hos"; critics argue their desperate-to-please antics signal the ultimate degradation of women of all colors, particularly African American women.
Or is it just camp? Should we be outraged? Or is it just outrageous?
"Flavor of Love" -- think "The Bachelor" without network censors -- has just wrapped its second season, with Flav exiting hand-in-hand with his lady of choice, Deelishis, the proudly round-rumped Detroit native. (How things will work out between Deelishis and Flav now that the news is out that he's having a baby -- No. 7 -- by another woman remains to be seen.)
What is clear: Nearly 7.5 million viewers tuned in for the October finale, according to Nielsen, stellar numbers for basic cable and a record for VH1. On Sunday, 6 million people tuned in for the reunion show.
That success has led Public Enemy hype-man Flavor Flav, nee William Jonathan Drayton Jr., 47, to become a franchise in his own right: Flav's first-ever solo album, "Hollywood," drops this week, and at least one satellite show is spinning off his orbit: the hair-weave-and-insult-slinging New York, twice rejected by the Flav, will now be looking for love with her own upcoming show, "Flavorette," in which lucky viewers will witness her penchant for proud assertions ("Call me a crazy-[expletive] psychotic [expletive]!" and "I'm fab-u-lous !").
In a society like ours, laden with heavy racial baggage, is there room for farce featuring black folks? Or is, as Dave Chappelle says he found out before famously walking off his show, the difference between racial satire and perpetuating racial stereotypes too fine a line to tread? And what's to be made of the fact that in its second season, more than half of the women in "Flavor of Love's" key 18-to-49 demographic are African American? Or the fact that Flav, a classically trained pianist, is one of the founding members of a rap group known for its political militancy and black nationalist pride?
"On the surface, it's very easy to see this as the second coming of Sambo," says Mark Anthony Neal, associate professor of African American studies at Duke University and author of "Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic."
"The problem isn't Flavor Flav," says Neal. "The problem is Flavor Flav becomes the stand-in for the one or two black people you see on TV. And a figure like Flavor Flav takes on more importance than he should."
Consider also that Flav has long played the fool, even in the midst of his fist-raising days with Public Enemy, as the comic foil to Chuck D's intensity, with top hat, goofy sunglasses, platinum grille blinging from his teeth, giant clock banging across his scrawny chest, chanting "Yeeeeaaaahhhh booooyyyy!"
"Flavor of Love" is not a show that exactly screams Cultural Significance.
Contestants line up, Flav caresses faces, palms behinds and paws at breasts before christening the ladies with new names: Choclate. Bootz. Somethin'. They all purport to be in love with Flav, a man who refers to himself in the third person and whose idea of fine dining is a dash to Red Lobster. (Neither Flavor Flav nor the contestants were made available for comment.) To win Flav over, contestants pole-dance, stick their gyrating rumps in the faces of his rapper friends to "entertain" them, spit at each other, push, shove, scream, insult and administer well-timed beat-downs, like the second-season premiere face-off between two women fighting over a bed.