Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Somebody calls Top Gear on their xenophobic rubbish... But it's not racism.

Once upon a time, I thought BBC's Top Gear was the coolest thing going.

Irreverent hosts, fast cars and absurd humor made for great, unsophisticated viewing.

I loved it - or, at least, I did, right up until I moved to France in 2001.

Because from then on, watching Top Gear became somewhat embarrassing.

It suddenly occurred to me that a vast majority of their jokes weren't just blokey and irreverent, but also kind of xenophobic.

Oh, those stupid French with their poor personal hygiene. Oh, those neat-freak Swiss, who all own machine guns, but ban the 'Spirit of Ecstasy' on Rolls Royces. Oh, and don't forget those lovable Germans - can't get the autobahns right, but they sure can organize an invasion.

When I was a deeply insular young adult, this was the height of sophisticated humor. Then I moved abroad and realized it was childish tripe. It was the kind of absurdist humor that appealed to people who'd never actually been abroad or had any interaction with anybody who didn't speak English (about 78% of the Top Gear audience, I'd guess.)

Not that Top Gear still didn't appeal to me - I loved the bits where they bought clapped out old sports cars (the kind I still drive today) and schlepped them across Europe, or demolished them with grand pianos. It was just that the bits in between - the interminably smug, self congratulatory, ignorant tosh - that made my skin crawl.

And for years it seems like nobody's really noticed it; or, at least, they've given the Top Gear boys a free pass. But finally, they crossed the line and it looks like an (Imperial) shit-ton of bricks is about to land on them.

The three amigos, Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May, were test-driving Mexico's new car, the Mastretta.

"Why would you want a Mexican car?" Richard 'the Hamster' Hammond scoffed. "Cars reflect national characteristics don't they? Mexican cars are just going to be lazy, feckless, flatulent and overweight..."

"Mexicans spent all day asleep," Jeremy Clarkson chimed in. "That's why we won't get any complaints about this - because at the Mexican embassy the ambassador's going to be slumped in a chair, snoring."

I would normally write "unsurprisingly, outrage ensued" but it actually was fairly surprising when people kicked up a fuss, since Top Gear have been spouting this frankly appalling rubbish for years now.

But outrage did ensue. The Mexican ambassador spat: "The presenters of the program resorted to outrageous, vulgar and inexcusable insults to stir bigoted feelings against the Mexican people, their culture as well as their official representative in the United Kingdom."

He continued: "These offensive, xenophobic and humiliating remarks serve only to reinforce negative stereotypes and perpetuate prejudice against Mexico and its people."

I mean, good for him - but how come it took a slurs against Mexico to raise the red flag against a program that's been perpetuating the basest national stereotypes for decades now?

In all honesty, it's kind of reverse racism; and it's actually where I end up defending the Top Gear crew; despite me attacking them for this xenophobic rubbish for years.

My American friend Frank snapped: "Pasty faced supremacists insulting people of color again" and personally, I don't think that's exactly fair.

To us Brits, Mexicans aren't 'people of color.' In the European Union, we certainly don't think of the Spanish as a different ethnic group, so from our limited understanding of North American culture, we make the assumption that Canadians, Americans and Mexicans are all one happy, homogeneous conglomeration of people.

That's why Top Gear's comments, while disgustingly ignorant and xenophobic, weren't exactly racist (and were certainly not unprecedented.)

They've said the same sort of offensive crap about the French, Spanish, Italians, Germans and just about every other nationality in the book - so I don't think you can suddenly accuse them of being 'racist' just because they attack Mexicans.

In some ways, it's rather like how vile, bloated hypocrite Rush Limbargh got into trouble recently for mimicking Chinese President Hu Jintao's speech on air - complaining it hadn't been translated and sounded like "ching chong, ching chong, ching chong."

That, according to the Chinese, was racist.

But what if he'd mimicked the German president's speech? Or the French ambassador's? Nobody would have raised an eyebrow if Rush had mimicked the accent of a white foreigner. Which is where the contradiction of confusing xenophobia with racism becomes apparent - and how it's hypocritical to condone one, while condemning the other.

The Top Gear boys, along with Rush Limbargh, weren't being racist. They weren't attacking anybody because of their race or ethnicity. They were being xenophobic - attacking them because of the country they came from.

To anybody with half a brain, they're one and the same thing. However, far too many stupid people seem to believe that one is acceptable (yay, xenophobia!) and one is obscene (boo, racism!) and don't understand that the motivation behind them both is exactly the same (and equally awful.)

So on the charges of 'racism' aimed at the Top Gear team, I'll give them a free pass - but hopefully this is going to be a wake-up call for them and their writers to stop being such smug, self-congratulatory idiots who base far too much of their material on inaccurate national stereotypes.

What the writers of Top Gear seem to be unaware of, in addition to their critics, is that prejudice is colorblind; and they're guilty of it.


Suki said...

You know what would make the whole thing okay for me? A healthy dose of self-deprecating humour against the Stereotype American!

(Yes, note the spelling of humour :P)

Daniel said...

Shows you no nothing about NORTH AMERICA. MEXICANS are not SPANISH, just because they speak Spanish, no more that US Citizens are English, because they speak English.
A majority of Mexicans are 'mestizo' mixed with Indigenous bloodlines and speak more that Spanish in their country. Indigenous culture is a big part of the Mexican identity, food, music and art. Stick to writing about the lineage of the monarchy.

Roland Hulme said...

Suki! Great to see you! The Top Gear crew are English, but they are generally pretty good at the self deprecation.

Daniel - I never said Mexicans were Spanish. I said that the English (who live in England) wouldn't consider the Spanish (who live in Spain) as a different 'race' than them, so the Top Gear crew (who are English) didn't view the Mexicans (who live in Mexico) as a different race from the Americans (who live in America.)

At issue is nationality, not race. You're the one bringing race into it.

Darby said...

The assessment of whether or not something hits the mark of racism is up to the people it targets, not some random white boy standing on the sidelines observing. You don't get to call the shots on racism because you often don't recognize it when you see it. Don't presume to dictate to a group of people what kind of insult they were just faced with. That's a subtle racism all by itself.

Roland Hulme said...

No, Darby - racism stems from what the person who said it implied (either deliberately or accidentally.) You don't get to pick and choose what you get offended by - either it's offensive, or not - and either it's racist, or not. In context, what the Top Gear team said was undeniably xenophobic, but not racist.