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Ashton Kutcher’s Comical Masculinity and the Meaning of Whiteness

5 May 2012
As for white males after 1800, masculinity has had do in part with the power to assume others’ identities.  One might try to stand apart in one’s whiteness (donning a Klan cap perhaps), but more commonly the better strategy is to show one’s range of mastery of identities.  How much knowledge does a guy have of “non-white” culture, like hip-hop and sushi?  How many languages does he know?  Is his spirituality able to draw off of many world religions?  A white man’s pursuit of plurality and cultural flexibility can count as a masculine pursuit insofar as it establishes him as one who stands in and above multiple personas. In recent years a comical variety of this has come forward, in which a man’s “sense of humor” is the arena in which to demonstrate his intelligence and power to navigate other cultures.  Debate as to whether this kind of thing is colonialism in disguise (see the work of Vine Deloria, Jr., for example) or genuine multiculturalism is up for grabs, and often evaluated by Americans on a case-by-case basis.
 
In this instance, Ashton Kutcher, already known for exploring new comical masculine avenues (the brilliantly funny stoner in Dude, Where’s My Car?; marrying Demi Moore, fifteen years his senior), tried pushing the envelope with his new Popchips advertisement.  In it he plays a biker, a hippie, a diva – and a Bollywood producer named Raj.  This Indian persona has created a small storm of outrage from critics, claiming that Kutcher is doing “brownface” to get a laugh.  By playing into the stereotype the ad is racist, goes the argument.  The Popchips ad has been pulled.
 
The “brownface” terminology alludes to a common practice a century ago (though also more recent in parts of the south) in which white men would don paint on their face, preferably black (and thus “blackface”)  in order to sing songs, act sillily, and relive the sentiment of childhood through a race deemed naive and childish.  The meaning of whiteness thus became the ability of whites to utilize other racial identities for their own gain.  Kutcher crossed over too far into this tradition and got called on the carpet.
 
What isn’t being discussed by critics is why Kutcher cannot play an Indian movie producer, but why he can play a biker, a hippie, and, most notably, a woman.  The freedom of role-playing for funny white men still boasts quite a range.  But is there any firm principle behind any of society’s latitude and restrictions toward white man’s “faces”?  For the time, it appears that the ethical scoresheet is as white and unmarked as the comedians daring to color themselves.
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