White Chicks and Privilege

- Karabo Mashaba

From its release in 2004, White Chicks can be approved as one of the most significant films in pop culture. Apart from its rigorous humour, the chick flick has undeniably had an incredible impact on cinematic history due to its exploration of controversial social issues present in society.

Its controversy is rooted in its plot which entails two Black men, Kevin and Marcus (Shawn and Marlon Wayans respectively), disguising themselves as white women. These two FBI agents go undercover to discover the criminals behind the kidnapping of Tiffany and Brittany Wilson – a pair of rich, hotel heiresses. Amidst their disguise, they are faced with the added pressure of interacting with the Wilson sisters' actual friends, admirers and even foes.

When you think of all the movies you loved as a child, you come to realize how little you actually understood the film. In the current era, however, people have a more introspective way of watching movies that would make it near impossible for a film like White Chicks to be created without a more intricate and nuanced perspective. For example, when Jeremy Saville released the trailer for his upcoming film Loqueesha, social media buzzed and was outraged due to its explicit use of digital blackface. The plot is essentially a white man who uses the persona of a black woman – he adopts African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) and calls himself Loqueesha – in order to win a radio show contest that specifically seeks minority women. This inevitably received backlash and Saville tried to defend himself by declaring the movie a reversed version of White Chicks. This then raises the question: did White Chicks have a much deeper meaning that simply went unnoticed 16 years ago?

Although the concept of white privilege has been present for generations, the term moved into public discourse in more recent years as it has become more common to witness incidents in which white people call the cops on Black people for simply existing. By dressing up as white women, Kevin and Marcus are able to enter spaces that Black people would typically not be granted access to. When you disregard the humour for a second and focus on the depth, it can be realized that the film actually makes use of reverse blackface by turning Black men (which is arguably the most policed demographic in America) into white blond women, which is the most privileged demographic apart from white men. Therefore, the film fights back against the historical oppression that has defined society for generations.

The history of American entertainment was largely dependent on minstrel shows whereby white people used blackface to create a 'comedic' atmosphere. The widespread use of caricatures and stereotypical images of Black people quickly became the dominant narrative of Black people. The culture and vernacular of Black Americans was mocked. They were portrayed in a negative light and this is something that is still happening, even in the present day.

The use of 'whiteface' by African Americans has been a tool to highlight the differences and disparities between these two racial groups. It does not have the same historical connotations that blackface has and therefore cannot be considered a form of oppression. In contrast, whiteface is essentially a direct response to the violence that is asserted by blackface or brownface. This is, in essence, what the Wayans brothers did with White Chicks. The film explicitly contrasts the Black experience with that of their white counterparts.

When the brothers in disguise meet the Wilson sisters' squad, the girls immediately point out how different the fake Tiffany and Brittany look and then proceed to conclude that they simply just got plastic surgery. “Your lips went from Cameron Diaz to Jay Z” says one of the friends. Black bodies have a long history of being both hypersexualized and policed. Features that are commonly seen on Black and brown bodies (more especially Black women) are considered hip and cool, just not on an actual Black person.

In one of the film's most iconic and memorable scenes, all the girls sing along to Vanessa Carlton's A Thousand Miles, which is a song that can typically be associated with white circles. The music is then switched to 'Realest Niggas' by 50 Cent and Biggie Smalls, which is the disguised cops' version of what 'real' music is. Initially, everyone is shocked as they are aware that the use of words such as 'nigga' is problematic. However, they eventually join in enthusiastically because “no one is watching”. In this manner, they get to feel cool without the added baggage of being 'real niggas'. This pinpoints the difference in how Black culture is perceived when it is perpetuated by Black people versus when it is done by non-Black people.

Even though the Wayans brothers admitted that the film was not necessarily centred on the concept of white privilege, it is very much noticeable – whether subtlely or overtly – through how the brothers are treated before going into disguise. Right from their first interaction, the heiresses treated the two detectives like servants, despite it being explained that they are policemen. This is a classic case of racial profiling where it is automatically assumed that a Black person is indeed The Help.

However controversial it may be, the film was most certainly ahead of its time as it managed to highlight the social issues that have long plagued society and still persist in the present day.