Sunday, February 6, 2011

Top Gear provokes the ire of Mexicans

The hosts of the BBC's popular motoring program Top Gear found themselves under fire this week after some disparaging comments about Mexicans.
The actual offending footage of Richard Hammond, James May and Jeremy Clarkson is a bit hard to find but you should be able to see it here.

HammondCars reflect national characteristics, don't they, so German cars are very well built and ruthlessly efficient, Italian cars are a bit flamboyant and quick, a Mexican car's just going to be lazy, feckless, flatulent, overweight... leaning against a fence asleep, looking at a cactus, with a blanket with a hole in the middle as a coat.
May: It is interesting, isn't it, because they can't do food, the Mexicans, can they? Because it's all like sick with cheese on it, I mean...
Hammond: Refried sick!
MayYeah, refried sick.
HammondI'm sorry, but just imagine waking up and remembering you're Mexican: 'oh, no'.
Clarkson: No, it'd be brilliant… because you could just go straight back to sleep again.

They also joked that they were unlikely to get many complaints from the Mexican ambassador because he'd probably be snoozing in his chair. Snoozing or not, the ambassador did hear it, and made an official complaint.

And yes, you did hear that right: that was James May claiming that Mexicans "can't do food". May is British. Just think about that for a second.

Perhaps the worst comment of the lot, which surprisingly hasn't got that much attention, comes from Richard Hammond. "Imagine waking up and remembering that you're Mexican," he says, making a disgusted face.

That so offended Manchester United's striker Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez that he participated in a campaign with PowerAde, that turns the comment on its head. Next to an image of the proud Hernandez reads, "Yes, imagine waking up and remembering that you are Mexican." Beneath it reads, "Less prejudice. More exercise."

The BBC have duly apologised, but also said that remarks centring on stereotypes of various nationalities are part of British humour.

I don't necessarily have a problem with that in theory. Jokes about various ethnic stereotypes can be and often are funny. But there's only a certain extent to which you should take them, and I would certainly say that the Top Gear hosts stepped way over the line.

It's notable also that this is hardly an isolated incident. There's plenty of form there, and it wouldn't be overly cynical to assume that it is mostly about attention-seeking. It was after all a scripted segment, not an impromptu riff.

Jeremy Clarkson, for example, has been referred to as a "dazzling hero of political correctness", which is certainly one way of putting it. In one incident in 2007, he found himself being criticised in the Malaysian Parliament after describing the Malaysian Perodua Kelisa car as one of the worst in the world, claiming its name was like a disease and suggested it was built in jungles by people who wear leaves for shoes. He then attacked the car with a sledgehammer and then blew it up.

Should Mexicans, and any other ethnicity offended by Top Gear and its presenters, just grow a thicker skin and deal with it? Is it any worse than the jokes British comedians make about Americans and Australians and Scots and Northerners and Welsh and French people? Or for that matter, the jokes Australians make about Brits and New Zealanders, and so on?

And at what point does someone cease being "cheekily irreverent" and "politically incorrect" and just become an offensive tosser?

I cannot express it any more eloquently than another British comic, Steve Coogan, who confesses to being a big fan of the show, and has appeared on it, but wrote in The Guardian that the hosts have well overstepped the mark this time.

If I say anything remotely racist or sexist as Alan Partridge, for example, the joke is abundantly clear. We are laughing at a lack of judgment and ignorance. With Top Gear it is three rich, middle-aged men laughing at poor Mexicans. Brave, groundbreaking stuff, eh?
There is a strong ethical dimension to the best comedy. Not only does it avoid reinforcing prejudices, it actively challenges them. Put simply, in comedy, as in life, we ought to think before we speak. This wasn't one of those occasions. In fact, the comments were about as funny as a cold sweat followed by shooting pains down the left arm. In fact, if I can borrow from the Wildean wit of Richard Hammond, the comic approach was "lazy", "feckless" and "flatulent".
Richard has his tongue so far down the back of Jeremy's trousers he could forge a career as the back end of a pantomime horse. His attempt to foster some Clarkson-like maverick status with his "edgy" humour is truly tragic. He reminds you of the squirt at school as he hangs round Clarkson the bully, as if to say, "I'm with him". Meanwhile, James May stands at the back holding their coats as they beat up the boy with the stutter.
It's not entirely their fault, of course. Part of the blame must lie with what some like to call the "postmodern" reaction to overzealous political correctness. Sometimes, it's true, things need a shakeup; orthodoxies need to be challenged. But this sort of ironic approach has been a licence for any halfwit to vent the prejudices they'd been keeping in the closet since Love Thy Neighbour was taken off the air.
The Lads have this strange notion that if they are being offensive it bestows on them a kind of anti-establishment aura of coolness; in fact, like their leather jackets and jeans, it is uber-conservative (which isn't cool).
Here's another perspective on Top Gear's brand of "edgy" humour, which precedes this particular incident.

See also: Racial humour - is it ever OK?

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