“I Transcend Race, Hombre”: Hegemonic Masculine Whiteness in Eastbound and Down

April 26, 2012
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In case you hadn’t heard, America is postracial. Apparently, if a (half) black man can be president, white folks can make bigoted comments about hoodies and green cards, while white supremacy, misogyny, and homophobia pass for news entertainment. Strangely, postracial American media remains saturated with whiteness. As it turns out, imagery of dominating and violent whiteness actually works against racial tolerance by allowing viewers to distance themselves from an obviously destructive social construct by comparison, as Richard Dyer argues in White. This kind of dominant white imagery is the legacy of HBO’s recently concluded Eastbound and Down.

The ultimate in camp masculinity, Eastbound and Down’s primary character is Kenny Powers (Danny McBride), a man who, after being fired from professional baseball for “juicing up,” becomes a substitute gym teacher in North Carolina. As Powers struggles to reenter the Major Leagues, the show follows his daily activities of “cruising in his Denali,” snorting cocaine at a sleazy local bar, and riding his jet-ski, “The Panty Dropper.” The HBO series illustrates this hyper-consumerist lifestyle through the character’s racist, homophobic, misogynistic one-liners, the best of which have been dubbed “powerisms.” While this term nods to the character’s last name, Kenny’s dialogue reeks of white masculine power. As cultural critics, then, we need to ask how this type of supremacist rhetoric functions in America’s “postracial” political climate.

Kenny’s overbearing white masculinity nestles securely into white mainstream media, which made Powers’ season two move to Mexico surprising. The narrative, which situated the burned-out ball player outside of his signature dominance, follows his failing cock-fighting career as his only friends (Powerism: side-kicks) abandon him when his rooster is killed. It turns out that whiteness is not so powerful when personified as an isolated white dude in Mexico. If we didn’t know better, we might think that Powers’ masculine white power had lost its sting. However, Powers soon uses his assumed racial dominance to take what he believes is rightfully his: a pitching job with The Charros. In this role, he is back on top, parading his white masculine bravado as Mexican baseball star “La Flama Blanca” and forcing his way into his girlfriend’s personal and professional life.

Fans shouldn’t have been surprised by his forceful resurgence; this is how whiteness operates in postracial America. In the U.S., the last few years have seen a slew of violently aggressive anti-immigration laws, born primarily of the fear that American white males will be swallowed up in an actual postracial (Powerism: Mexican) culture. When hegemonic masculine whiteness is challenged, it takes by force, in politics just as it does in comedy. While lawmakers like Jan Brewer and Scott Beason recoil at accusations of racism, comic hero Kenny Powers quips, “I transcend race, hombre.” And just as Kenny’s come-back campaign unapologetically entreats, “Mexicans, for once in your life get off your couch and do something,” so too have lawmakers suggested that remarks about shooting Latina/os from helicopters are harmless. In short, masculine white power, personified in Eastbound and Down and postracial America, is only interested in “making the world your bitch.”

Of course HBO does this all in the name of comedy. Kenny shoots his friend, but we laugh when he disinfects the wound with margarita mix; he casually tosses a pistol to a child in the baseball stands, and her cheerful expression is incongruously hilarious; and when Powers violently destroys a Mexican music studio, his oafishness set against a cheesy 1970s soundtrack had me rewinding my DVR to watch the sequence again. But bringing a critical eye to this type of racial and gendered violence is unsettling, especially when we consider the cultural context. Maybe in a postracial society a white dude joking about Mexican poverty, rape, and exploitation would be funny, but this is not a postracial society. The white power movement is thriving in America, and Kenny Powers is a microcosm of this backlash; when white masculine dominance is threatened, it responds violentlymilitaristically, and without regard to innocents in the line of fire.

Eastbound and Down will be remembered for one of the least likable characters ever written into comedy. Kenny Powers was a misogynist, homophobic white supremacist. And as much as it pains me to admit it, I laughed. I watched old episodes on HBOGo. I even bought the season 1 DVD set. It’s a funny show. And after thirty minutes of powerisms, American really does seem postracial – at least when compared to Kenny Powers’ universe. But I can’t ignore the way that Powers’ extremist white masculinity pushes the boundaries of racism, allowing us to discount everyday examples of bigoted behavior as part of the postracial bubble. There is nothing funny about white supremacy, misogyny, or homophobia, but they are ever present in our media. Maybe we’re not as postracial as we thought – all the more reason to bring a critical eye to our television screens.

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2 Responses to “ “I Transcend Race, Hombre”: Hegemonic Masculine Whiteness in Eastbound and Down ”

  1. Eleanor Patterson on April 27, 2012 at 4:39 PM

    Great post, Amanda. I wonder what you think of this show’s function as satire? Does Kenny Powers operate, as Ethan Thompson might say, as a mock intolerant? Is his hypermasculine whiteness and politically incorrect sexism/racism so extreme that it is clearly meant to be read as making fun of Powers, while also allowing us the pleasure of his hypermasculinity?

  2. Amanda Nell Edgar on April 28, 2012 at 9:08 PM

    You make a really good point, Nora, and honestly it’s something I’ve gone back and forth with a lot. To me, it comes down to cultural context (and obviously reading position — I can only speak to my own). In the first and third seasons, I think the satire works better — the problem I have is with the second season in Mexico. I don’t mean to rank racisms as more or less dangerous, but I do think that the nature of racism levied at the Latina/o population has been really scary, and the series seems to reinforce all of the stereotypes that back up that racist position.

    I also found the second season a bit less funny than the first, which I think lessens the program’s satirical power. . . While the first season felt like South Park, the second season felt more like Fox News, if that makes sense.

    But you raise an excellent question, and it’s something I continue to grapple with regarding EB&D.