I haven't posted in a while, so this is a re-post from a blog entry I wrote for another class.  References to "the textbook" are to the class text, Bryant, J., Oliver, M. (Eds.). (2009). Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research. Third Edition. New York. Routledge.


Mel Brooks may be best known for his spoof comedies; Blazing Saddles, Spaceballs, The Producers, Young Frankenstein, History of the World (Part 1) all come to mind.  Yet the more serious work of his production company Brooksfilms, which has included iconic films like The Elephant Man, The Fly, and 84 Charing Cross Road, suggest a more complex artistic modus operandi than “funnyman.”

Blazing Saddles is a perfect example; though the film’s comedy value is second-to-very few (in my opinion, anyway), there is little doubt it is a salient lens for examining the concepts in the chapters on race and gender stereotyping.  Of course, to evaluate a spoof in this manner, one must have at least guarded faith in the notion that postmodern forms like spoof and satire are valuable cultural lenses and not simply art for art’s sake.  There is academic precedent for this view; Verstraeten (1996)(n.1), suggests: "... every dominant public sphere almost inevitably calls up an 'anti-publicness'" (p. 358).  This is a fundamental concept if one is to accept postmodernism as academically valuable, and particularly for adopting post-structuralism as a critical media perspective.  Post-structural media products exist as counter- or anti- publics; for example, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart can only be a (self-proclaimed) faux-news program by virtue of its satirical emulation of the antecedent social consensus delineating 'conventional' press characteristics. 

In the present context, I am suggesting that Blazing Saddles represents a sort of counter-product for the western genre (as Spaceballs is for science fiction).  Thus to call it a ‘spoof’ is to suggest that its purpose is the critical examination of that genre - or to place the genre ‘under the cultural microscope,’ if you like.

Three particular exchanges are useful for describing Brooks’s cultural ‘spoof’ of the concepts outlined in the textbook chapter 16.  The useful relationship in Blazing Saddles is between ‘Bart,’ the black railroad worker made Sheriff (played by Ceavon Little) and ‘Jim’ (played by Gene Wilder), the white washed-up drunken gunfighter and between Bart and the townspeople (perhaps representing the white public at large).

First, the use of a black Sherriff protagonist is itself a comment on expected race rolls in the Western genre.  This is clear when Bart and Jim first meet:

Bart: Are we awake?
Jim: We're not sure. Are we... black?
Bart: Yes, we are.
Jim: Then we're awake... but we're very puzzled.

According to the text, “Although their rate of appearance exceeds their proportion of the real-world population, Black Americans are not seen across a variety of film genres.  Instead, they are most frequently featured in films starring Black American characters” (p. 326).  By placing a black character in the protagonist role, Blazing Saddles invites a sort of chaos; that is, the “fallout” from this initial premise gives rise to the illumination of further stereotypes (even those not necessarily native to the Western).

One of the typical portrayals mentioned in the textbook is the expected ‘provocative’ characteristics and behavior of black characters (p. 326).  Blazing Saddles spoofs this expectation:

Bart: [on grandstand to the townspeople] Excuse me while I whip this out.
[reaches into waistline as crowd gasps and screams; Bart pulls out paper, they sigh with relief]

The textbook further suggests that media cultivations predispose white audiences to believe racial socio-economic discrepancies are innate or inherent characteristics of black people themselves.  Blazing Saddles is well attuned to this stereotype, and counter-examines it via the relationship between Bart and the townspeople:

[the Johnsons load their guns and point them at Bart. Bart then points his own pistol at his head]
Bart: [low voice] Hold it! Next man makes a move, the nigger gets it!
Olson Johnson: Hold it, men. He's not bluffing.
Dr. Sam Johnson: Listen to him, men. He's just crazy enough to do it!
Bart: [low voice] Drop it! Or I swear I'll blow this nigger's head all over this town!
Bart: [high-pitched voice] Oh, lo'dy, lo'd, he's desp'it! Do what he sayyyy, do what he sayyyy!
[Townspeople drop their guns. Bart jams the gun into his neck and drags himself through the crowd towards the station]
Harriet Johnson: Isn't anybody going to help that poor man?
Dr. Sam Johnson: Hush, Harriet! That's a sure way to get him killed!
Bart: [high-pitched voice] Oooh! He'p me, he'p me! Somebody he'p me! He'p me! He'p me! He'p me!
Bart: [low voice] Shut up!
[Bart places his hand over his own mouth, then drags himself through the door into his office]
Bart: Ooh, baby, you are so talented!
[looks into the camera]
Bart: And they are so *dumb*!

In this exchange, the all-white townspeople are depicted as buffoons, whom Bart outwits.  The comedy (under tension-resolution models) of this scene descends not only form the absurdity of holding oneself hostage, but also from the situation.  Bart needs to resolve the racially tense situation with the townsfolk, caused by their prejudicial reaction.  Because the resolution depends on the buffoonery of the townsfolk, it portrays racial prejudice in general as buffoonish.

In summary, "spoof" and "satire" serve as social critique. As I have tried to show, evidence of the sort of normative stereotyping our textbook discusses resides within these critiques.

This brings up a related point about racial humor.  I think we laugh at stereotypes when they're presented in the extreme because we need to resolve the tension between their functional usefulness and the social self-consciousness that stereotypes are bad.  I think this kind of humor is good; the more cognizant we are of the tension between the good and bad aspects of stereotypes, the more likely we are to apply them judiciously. Humor, I'd argue, is a good way of bringing that tension to the forefront.  Of course, there is a whole school of thought that says that racial humor only perpetuates racism, but that is a debate for another time.

(n.1) Verstraeten, H. (1996). The Media and the Transformation of the Public Sphere: A Contribution for a Critical Political Economy of the Public Sphere. European Journal of Communication, 11, 347-370.

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