Love Him, Or Leave Him?
Flavor Flav's Popular Show Sets Off Passionate Debate On Comedy and Race

By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

"It's like watching the Hottentot Venus on display," says author Debra Dickerson, who penned an essay for Essence criticizing the show. "It's without redeeming value. . . . It's just about exploitation. It's like having slaves fight for your amusement."

Much of the appeal of "Flavor of Love" may come from its adhering to reality TV's ultimate rule: Nothing is too much. Witness the first episode of Season 2 when Somethin' apparently lost control of her bodily functions, relieving herself on the floor to the amusement and derision of her cast-mates.

"They have a woman taking a [expletive] on the floor; they're in a position where they have to push the envelope and be as ridiculous and disgusting as they can be, and it seems to be working for them," notes Todd Boyd, professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California and author of "Young, Black, Rich and Famous: The Rise of the NBA, the Hip Hop Invasion and the Transformation of American Culture."

Is this just a harmless entry in the gross-out canon of "Jackass" or "South Park"? Or does the fact that a flesh-and-blood woman, a black woman, is doing this on national television take on a certain racial resonance?

"On an audience that grew up with Dave Chappelle, we're not talking the normal rules of engagement," argues Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, "where we argued about whether or not J.J. Walker on 'Good Times' was a bad thing for African Americans. Back then the argument was so simple."

And then again, sometimes a comedy is just comedy.

For a down-on-his-luck rapper -- who just a few years ago spent time in Rikers -- reality television provided a second life: Flavor Flav first appeared in VH1's "Surreal Life," where he hooked up with Danish giantess Brigitte Nielsen. Their pairing so enthralled viewers that it spawned the couple's own reality show, "Strange Love," on which Nielsen kicked him to the curb. Flav's onetime band mate Chuck D publicly denounced the "Flavploitation" of "Strange Love," which has seen "his character and private issues . . . being trashed in front of millions for the mere sake of profit and ratings."

Flav wasn't doing TV, Chuck D declared, TV was doing Flav.

Or is it that simple?

Historically, minstrels -- white or black performers in blackface -- performed demeaning racial stereotypes for the pleasure of a segregated white audience. Cable is open to anyone. If African Americans are tuning in, in droves, does the charge of modern-day minstrelsy still ring true? The argument becomes more complex.

Viewers like Yvette Brullard say they tune in for both the yuck factor and the yuk-yuks.

"I like the show," says Brullard, a 39-year-old administrative assistant from New Jersey who watches the show with her three teenage daughters. But sometimes the depiction of the women gives her pause. "I always said Bubba from the sticks was watching the show and he's still back in 1960; he'll think this is how black women are."

She says it's like watching an accident: "You don't want to look but you can't help it. I even got my mom into it. It's like her regular soap opera."

And perhaps therein lies the key to "Flavor of Love's" popularity. It's a comic soap opera starring an oddly compelling character, who for all his flaws has a certain weirdly repulsive charm, refereeing catfights with sweet concern. Not to mention that, next to the shenanigans of New York and her "I Have a Condition" mama, Flav actually seems sane. You might not want to watch him French-kiss Krazy or Bootz, but it's hard not to root for him as he tries to find, among the gold-diggers, if not true love then someone to kick it with after the credits roll.

"I get a little upset when people criticize Flav," says "Flavor of Love" co-creator Mark Cronin. "He's so honest about who he is. . . . He just behaves the way he wants to behave. . . . I'm sorry some people think he's behaving in a way that people see as demeaning.

"Going on television is a very dangerous thing," Cronin adds. "I feel if we do a show that wasn't controversial or outrageous, then why bother? It's entertainment. It's meant to be fun."

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