If I had to pick one feature of the development of minstrel-type performance from the past 30 years as the most pivotal, it would have to be the spectacularization of their audience. The white working-class demographic of original minstrelsy served as the basis for an entertainment that simultaneously redirected proletarian ressentiment toward racial stereotypes and appropriated/celebrated the racial other’s folk culture. The minstrel performer produced a fraudulent image of the black, Chinaman, etc. as a fraudulent citizen. The effect was the same regardless of whether the performer was racially black, Asian, etc. or not, though this of course did not negate whatever power was gained for individuals within these racial groups (or the group as a whole) by exploiting the minstrel images.
Today the screen includes the stage along with the whole theatre; and on to the town, state, and region. This allows the middle to upper middle class to join in the fun, albeit on different terms. Only natural that they consist of ways to avoid getting one’s hands dirty, of establishing proper distances. We’re seeing the gradual decline of the paternalistic standpoint of ‘learning about the other’s authentic culture’ (already a form of detachment from supposedly ‘direct’ or obscene pleasure) that was still present in the early years of gangsta rap. The last vestiges of those expectations are now reserved for representations of poor brown people and ‘the (vanishing, white) working class,’ and are more often the province of the documentary than entertainment. It is poverty and suffering, not culture, that truly authenticates today. Borat, for example, proved that 300 million dollars worth of Western audiences don’t give a shit about the indigenous culture of Kazakhstan. As soon as we know it’s poor, white, and backwater, we think we know all we need to.
Today, middle class liberals are not after authenticity from the minstrel show, but the patina of sophistication that comes from being in on every joke. The appreciation of skill is wholly concentrated on the performer, and wholly disassociated from the role. The minstrel character is talentless, whereas the performer’s skill is displayed by drawing out reactions from rubes which confirm that they are in fact rubes, and by transgressing (thereby reproducing) the laws of ‘political correctness.’ With Borat/Bruno/Zizek, the central minstrel figure is an obvious cliche — the joke the knowing audience is supposed to ‘get’ — even as it is the one we have to be taught: we are presumed to know nothing about Kazakhstan or Slovenia; we are presumed to find Bruno’s queer diva shtick outdated; we’re told how to find them funny. The on-screen targets of the ‘satire’ (various species of dumb whites, usually, though in Bruno there’s an episode with overly-sensitive blacks) are also reduced to stereotypes: these are the ones we are presumed to accept. A vision of a ‘real America’ is assembled via these performances. It is just as dumb, ugly, racist, arrogant, and fradulent as anyone else who aspires to what we’ve rather arrogantly branded The American Dream, and inferior to anyone who happens to be watching.