When Subtitles Are Racist

For reasons I’m reluctant to explain, I was watching CMT (that’s Country Music Television, y’all). Actually I should explain, in case one day my professional reputation depends on it. See, it was late, I was bushwhacked, I was between inane sports highlights, and surfing around. And there were this reality show on CMT, where “ladies” try out to be Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders. Ladies is in quotes because it’s interchangeable with girls on the show. I’d suggest “bimbos,” but that runs the risk of offending one of the 144 ladies/girls who might actually have a brain.

But I digress.


OK, fine, I get it. The show is a no-brainer in a high-concept sort of way. Nubile, telegenic young women gyrate while scantily clad. Then there’s the whole drama of human competition, plus the cachet of being not just a cheerleader — not a Seattle Sea Gal, a Buffalo Jill, or a Tennessee Titannette — but a Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader. I found myself really rooting for Kelly-Jo, when I wasn’t checking out her jiggling cleavage.

Anyhow, there was the usual reality crap. Bright-eyed girl says something about her audition. The director of the auditions (named Kelli with an i, of course) says something about the high level of talent. Girls/ladies writhe enthusiastically in tight bikinis. In millions of trailers in rural America, you can hear the sound of Wranglers straining as rednecks pop boners. That sorta thing.

Then this African-American girl comes on, and starts to do her thing. Or in her case, thang. Because she’s got it going on, in a very non-cheerleader sort of way. But it works. She can dance, she lights up the room, and the starchy white Texans find their bodies moving in unfamiliar but strangely liberating ways.

With the African-American lady, they run the voiceover of her interview while she’s dancing. And even though it’s perfectly clear what she’s saying, they add subtitles.

Now, maybe I’m just being a hang-wringing do-gooder liberal here, but isn’t that racist? I mean, unless you never leave the compound where you live with your white supremacist group, you’re probably around black people and hear them talk. Black English has some quirks, but the only thing she said that was the slightest bit hard to comprehend was when she referred to her “ashy legs.”

(She was wearing hose, which I’m guessing were mandatory. And they did indeed make her legs look ashy. On white girl-ladies, it’s not as noticeable, as they’re ashy to begin with.)

Anyhow, when a Caucasian airhead ummed and liked and you-knowed, there were no subtitles. I know, it’s not the Jena 6 here in terms of being a double standard, but still. I felt the cold draft of condescension, a limpness come over me at this tasteless editing, a sudden sagging of desire to head to the bathroom to claw into my Wranglers, if you know what I mean.

But before you get all relative and try and argue that some people will struggle to understand her, I hasten to produce Exhibit A, everyone’s favorite Miss Teen USA, contestant: Miss, like, South Carolina. Someone has thoughtfully added subtitles to thisahere video, and boy does it help. Well, as much as anyone can help this poor girl. Lady. Whatever.


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