Racquel Gates’ Double Negative and the film The Associate
by sam a carter
Racquel J. Gates, Double Negative: The Black Image & Popular Culture. Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2018. 248 pg. $24.95 paperback.
Day One Bardigang
Double negativity mapped onto living bodies
Sweating through my make-up with nerves, I sighed relief at a familiar face in the audience and slid into the chair next to Amari Lewis. She would later teach me that she is one of about fifty Black women enrolled in computer science PhD programs in the United States and Canada combined. At that time, she was just checking on me: “You ready to present? Nervous?” A public speaking coach had given me great advice that I had ignored that day and have since learned never to do again: always bring a change of outfit. Of course, my all white dress had ripped at the hips on my way over, and I was now dropping down next to Amari in an all-black dress with more give.
“Yeah. I’m a little nervous. I got a video of Cardi B Ima play though.” That fact brought me comfort and fear at the same time. I was beginning my first year of graduate school, presenting at the 2017 University of California Irvine Summer Research Symposium. Many of my peers were in STEM. But me, I was day one bardigang.
Amari’s face lit up just before her eyebrows furrowed her expression downwards. “Wait… is it bad?” She was concerned for Cardi. So was I. My presentation was titled Bad Things. I was presenting my research design, developed with the support of Allison Perlman, for my dissertation about underrepresented artists in the broader entertainment industry. In contemplating how to share the premise of my research with an interdisciplinary audience, the first pressing issue to me was to unsettle their conceptions of what art was worthy of our attention and which artists were worthy of our reverence. Thus the title, but I was still concerned for Cardi. For some, she is a kind of negative text, a seemingly bad example. But she has inspired me: a Caribbean rose from New York concrete. We had both come from tough backgrounds to find ourselves on the rise in 2017; her breaking charts, me making literal charts. “Bodak Yellow” may be the only song I listened to that year. I wore heels for the presentation, because I was serious about the task at hand.
“Naw, not like that. It’s the one where she talks about feminism, and how people don’t want her to be great.”
“Yeah, Cardi’s dope. You got this.”
Something else gave me the confidence to share my thoughts that day. My peer mentor, Mehra Gharibian, had shared Racquel Gate’s 2017 article, “Activating the Negative Image” with me. Talking to Mehra after, I shared that I was glad to become a media scholar in the wake of Gates’ work. Her article empowered the research I wanted to pursue and made me feel like there was intellectual value in bringing my whole self to the academy. Bardigang bamboo earrings and all. Reading Gates’ work brought the same relief to me as seeing Amari’s face in an uncertain audience. Our concern for Cardi was probably also a concern for ourselves.
In the fall of 2018, Racquel Gates published her book, Double Negative: The Black Image & Popular Culture, which explores many questions she raised in “Activating the Negative Image” but in more depth. Her contributions to media studies are essential, her interventions biting. They bear implications across disciplines, certainly in the humanities.
Here I will summarize Gates’ main argument and the mode of analysis she defines and uses throughout the book. After a brief summary of her main argument, I take time to explore the interventions made in chapter 4, "Embracing the Ratchet: Reality TV and Strategic negativity" in more depth. I choose this chapter, because I find it illustrative of the critical work Gates does in this book. Her contributions in chapter 4 have resounding implications for future scholarly work on reality television. Then I will revisit scenes from a film Gates discusses in Double Negative—The Associate, starring Whoopi Goldberg. The goal of this section is to use the analytical tools Gates’ offers to explore what else might be drawn from this critically discarded film. To conclude, I want to turn back to that moment I described in the introduction above, stepping into my own career to emphasize that real bodies are implicated in Racquel’s work, too. Bodies like mine.
Gates’ main argument is that much can be garnered by re-evaluating texts that have come to be understood, for varying reasons, as negative. Each chapter explores a social dynamic through which a text might become seen as negative and offers an alternative reading. In doing so, Gates brings light to the underlying cultural values that mark these binary qualitative categories. She argues that these disreputable texts have their own potency, because “negative representations serve as the repository for all of the feelings that positive images cast aside.” (Gates, 21) Negative texts wield a power that reputable texts eschew for social status. Gates argues that focusing on “[stereotypes] or politically regressive [constructs]” at the representational layer prevents critical analysis from moving “past this first level of scrutiny and on to the question of what meanings these texts hold relative to the culture that produces them and their positive complements.” (Gates, 19) As evidence to support her argument, Gates returns to previously dismissed films like Coming to America and The Associate and examples from reality television, discussing the narratives, production details, and critics' reviews. I want to turn to a moment of analysis in the book that I find illustrative of her dynamic intervention in Double Negative.
Embracing the ratchet
Gates highlights queer explorations in reality television in chapter 4 in a section titled, “The Queer and Womanist Nuances of Love & Hip Hop and Basketball Wives.” This section contains what I found to be one of the most stunning examples of Gates’ mode of analysis, intervention, and contribution. Gates returns to an article by Boyce Watkins condemning reality television called “7 Ways VH1 is Destroying the Black Community.” Gates here uses Lee Edelman’s concept of futurity to argue that these negative assessments often reveal “an investment not in social change, but in the idea of the promise of social change as a moderating force for the present.” (Gates, 176) Then, reading Watkin’s critique against the grain, Gates’ extracts from the article the political investments that act as a moderating force in the unfolding present. Her reverse reading demonstrates that these critiques often say much more than they might intend—not about the texts they are directed towards, but rather about the values of the speaker.
“The rhetoric in Watkin’s article emphasizes white, middle-class, heteronormative family structure and appropriate gender roles as the standards by which the shows and the women on them should be judged.” (Gates, 177)
Her reverse reading here reminds me of the work that Bridget R. Cooks does in Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans and the American Art Museum, where she revisits reviews of Black exhibits and reads subtexts of racism and prejudice that inform the critique. In this case, Watkin’s critique is representative of a general view of reality television, especially that which centers women of color. Looked at in this way, within these critiques the surveillance of and parameters placed on black femme bodies (and our conduct) becomes apparent. To expand on this point, I want to turn to Gates' discussion of the term ratchet.
What Gates points to in analyzing Watkin's article is that the boundaries of respectable behavior are not neutral, and they place a particularly exacting toll on bodies that sit, at once, at the intersection of multiple identities and on the social periphery of acceptability. Gates turns to the word ratchet to identify the contours of the social center, arguing that the term holds all that respectability cannot.
"In common parlance, 'ratchet' connotes behavior that is crude, socially unacceptable, and, more often than not, associated with lower-class black vernacular culture." (Gates, 144)
I would argue that this applies to other similar terms like "ghetto" or "hood," words that become catch-all terms for that which a culture discards. Ratchet is also a gendered term, so while it refers to lower-class culture, it is more precisely a word used to describe the stereotypical behaviors of poor black women. Gates describes ratchet in this chapter as a behavioral excess, making the negative connotations behind the word a mechanism for policing the spillage, so to speak. Borrowing from Kristen Warner to build her intervention, Gates' asks readers to consider ratchet as a space of "performative agency." Just as respectable, quality texts eschew a degree of creative freedom in exchange for social status, I find her argument to apply to conduct as well. It’s to say, there is a creative, personal, and professional autonomy possible when the excess is embraced. Considering ratchet in this way reveals the performative nature of respectable culture as well. Some of us are acting out, some of us do not know how to act, and yet we are all acting and the choice of how to do so is political. Her argument here transcends media texts, as it describes the parameters Black femmes navigate in this life, whether pursuing a rap career or becoming a scholar.
Gates' intervention is substantial and calls for a reconsideration of our approaches not just to reality tv, but to a variety of texts. Diverging from the common view of reality television as "[reflecting] or [promoting] sexism, racism, and homophobia," Gates argues that
“reality television involves deeper considerations of race, gender, class, and sexuality precisely because it is perceived as frivolous, fun, and trashy. It is reality television's distance from respectability, its location in the gutter of television programming and critical regard, which allows it to delve into topics and issues that its respectable counterparts shy away from.” (Gates, 147)
I would extend this by adding that reality television's location in the gutter also allows it to treat these issues with a productive messiness. It is not always about having the right language and thoughts, it’s not about perfection or clear, happy endings. Instead, reality tv's position in the social gutter allows it to concern itself with "[providing] a safe space for emotional and psychological catharsis and the exploration of complicated, messy, or 'negative' feelings." (Gates, 167) Or, more specifically, for "[providing] its women of color viewers with a space to work out the complicated issues of living an intersectional existence." (Gates, 168) Gates' argument poses a challenge to much media scholarship but also notably puts her in contention with renowned black thinkers and entertainers like Angela Davis and Melissa Perry-Harris, whose views Gates discusses in her book and articles. Gates identifies this contention and elaborates further, asserting that black respectability politics carry their own valence, and "do not map as easily along political lines as Edelman's right vs. left comparison." (Gates, 175)
"While those African-Americans who advance respectability politics tend to echo conservative rhetoric, they also do so in an effort to counter the racism that has historically and politically been a tool of the conservative right." (Gates, 175)
Gates brilliantly argues in this chapter that the public perception (and industry projection) of reality tv as unmediated, captured life obfuscates the labor of performers like Nene Leakes or Kandi Burruss, while also placing a large burden of representation on these same artists whose work we do not even often recognize. As an avid Real Housewives of Atlanta fan and a performer myself, I have always admired these artists for their skills. Though the general public often delights in being too smart to think reality television is real, the next cognitive leap is usually absent. If it is scripted and produced, comparable to, as Gates claims, genres like the soap opera, then I think that has implications for how we have received and evaluated performers like Nene Leakes. In other words, how do we reclaim the artistic merit in the work Nene Leakes does on a show like Real Housewives when the conventions of the genre itself refuses to acknowledge it as performative labor at all? Although Leakes has starred in this popular show for more than ten years, with a performance that spans improvised comedy to dramatic acting, that is all largely overshadowed "as the facets of production strive to render invisible the labor that the women actually put into the show." (Gates, 149)
I conclude with Gates' words to summarize her intervention in chapter 4, before turning to a general overview of the arguments covered in each chapter:
"Whereas some critics of the genre might view these women's distance from traditional modes of acceptable femininity as troublesome or stereotypical, .. these kinds of negative behaviors and representations—understood as ratchetness in the context of this iteration of reality television—enable liberatory possibilities not always enjoyed by their respectable counterparts." (Gates, 151)
Double Negative’s arguments reverberate with implications inside and outside of media studies.
Gates offers negativity as a tool of analysis to study texts such as these, dividing her chapters according to four main categories of the negative that she defines: formal, relational/comparative, circumstantial, and strategic. Each chapter takes a few media texts as case studies to “provide an explanation for how these texts become negative, the implications of that designation, and an exploration of what texts offer us as far as an understanding of how the media and racial identity intersect.” (Gates, 32)
Four categories of negativity
Formal negativity: In the first chapter, Gates discusses formal negativity, when elements of a text’s formal qualities render it negative. The author uses details of Coming to America’s production along with an analysis of the narrative, to bring attention to the more compelling work the film might be doing. This critical gesture alone contains an intervention. Gates shows that a formally negative text can at times play with artistic conventions in innovative ways that warrant further examination. For example, in the case of Coming to America, Gates argues that “the film reverses the standard formula for conventional romantic comedies by emphasizing its comedic B-plots rather than its main romantic story line.” (Gates 32)
Relational/comparative negativity: The second chapter explores what the author calls relational or comparative negativity, or cases in which a film is received as negative because it comes to be read in relation to other texts released in a similar moment. Chapter 2 focuses on what Gates calls overlooked sellout films of the mid-1990s, like Strictly Business, True Identity, and The Associate, which I return to later in this review.
Circumstantial negativity: Chapter 3 examines circumstantial negativity, defined as a media text that has been categorized as negative “due to the issues and debates surrounding it, rather than because of a direct relation to its positive counterpart.” (Gates, 33) Here Gates examines Halle Berry’s evolving artist persona marked by everything from changes in her hairstyle to the racial composition of the films in which she plays.
Strategic negativity: Though I will next turn to focus on a film discussed in chapter 2, in fact, Gates’ chapter 4, “Embracing the Ratchet: Reality Television and Strategic Negativity,” is admittedly my favorite. Gates makes a few arguments in this chapter that I believe call for media scholarship to apply new frameworks in their approaches to reality television. For example, she discusses the obfuscated labor of reality tv cultural workers and how their negative labeling may in fact be a result of representations that challenge dominant social values.
Next, I want to take up Gates’ call to resurrect these neglected texts by revisiting her reading of The Associate starring Whoopi Goldberg, to see what else might be gleaned from that film and its negative designation.