Wednesday, March 12, 2014

K&P's Black Ice: Denotation, Connotation & Myth about Color & Race

Sketch Comedy & Semiotics! Use this Key & Peele sketch to introduce Roland Barthes' notions of denotation (primary, literal, explicit or commonsense meaning), connotations (secondary meanings or implications), and myth (bundles of historically constructed meanings that become naturalized as truth--like stereotypes or "universal" values). In "Black Ice," the Black weather correspondents become outraged at the connotations of the terms used for dangerous road conditions by their White news anchors who seem oblivious to the racial implications of their literal language. So, get ready to list all the ways the characters describe (and images portray) black ice in this video; then, identify connotations and denotations while making some notes about myths or stereotypes you see in the comedy:
Key & Peele manage to expose the myths of both the "outraged Black person who makes everything about race" and the "ignorant White person who is completely unaware of race issues." But what do they do with these stereotypes? Are they reinforced or subverted through the humor? To make this conversation more fruitful, back up and analyze how K&P communicate those myths--What techniques are used to get laughs about the stereotypes? This makes a great introduction to these basic semiotics concepts in high school English or college media studies, and could start some interesting conversation about race, stereotypes, and humor. Students could try their hand at writing comedy revealing connotations about stereotypes of their own ethnic or social group (always safest to speak about your own oppression), through a news sketch like this, or a short ad in print or video.

K&P have an interesting backstory and talk about using their biracial identities and abilities to "code switch" (change between speech patterns to fit social context) to explore stereotypes from multiple angles while showcasing the real diversity of Black masculinity across the range of their characters. Their most famous character, Luther the anger translator (for President Obama), also works to undo the double bind around the stereotype of the angry Black man. K&P's approach to humor about Black male identity would make a great research topic for interested students, especially in comparison to other comedians who take on the topic.

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