Sunday, July 7, 2013

Paula Deen, the N-word and America


PAULA ANN Hiers Deen fired her agent on Thursday, ending a 10-year relationship. It’s OK if you thought you heard that before; the last two weeks have seen the slow unraveling of a gastronomic dynasty. Day by day, endorsement by endorsement, the cook and homemaker who transformed a friendly, plain-spoken style and a thoroughly unapologetic televised evangelism of the high-caloric cuisines of the American South into a multimillion-dollar cooking-show, food and product empire, is making her way through a very rough patch.

Deen, bless her heart, is body & soul a child of the American woods she comes from, a fact that once made her salt-, sugar- and fat-laden recipes the toast of overweight America. But Deen is facing social blowback for revealing, in presumably private moments, her embrace of a more toxic American ingredient, something that’s a product of where she hails from. Regionally and nationally.

Like the accidental open-mike missteps of Lonesome Rhodes, the media-savvy megalomaniac of Elia Kazan’s “A Face in the Crowd,” Paula Deen’s revelations, her true feelings about some of those in her vast audience, say as much about us as about her. This is an American story.

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Deen, of course, was recently sued by a former employee of Uncle Bubba’s Seafood and Oyster House, one of the restaurants Deen owned with her husband. Lisa T. Jackson, a manager at Uncle Bubba’s, sued Deen for allegedly engaging in racial and sexual discrimination.

On June 25, the Huffington Post reported that Jackson “contends that she was the victim of a persistent pattern of racial discrimination in the workplace during her five-year stint. And despite being white, Jackson says derogatory remarks regarding African-Americans are even more personally offensive than they would be to another white citizen, because her nieces are bi-racial with an African-American father.”

In a May 12 court deposition, Deen admitted using racial slurs in the past, especially the N-word. Once word of that got out —in a June 19 story in the National Enquirer claiming video evidence of Deen using racial epithets — Deen took the initiative to short-circuit the controversy. The Deen All Apologies Tour began.

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SHE rush-released a self-produced mea culpa video, followed by two more less polished productions, and conducted an emotional interview on the "Today" show. The short-term outcome of these serial apologies has been sadly predictable, if professionally necessary.

Like an artichoke of financial collapse, the days since the news broke have seen Paula Deen sponsors bailing out, one after another. First the Food Network decided not to renew her contract, ending a 14-year relationship. Then Smithfield Foods bailed on its business dealings with the queen of Southern chow. Then Wal-Mart and Target and Novo Nordisk, Home Depot and QVC.

Walgreens has announced plans to “phase out” her products. Kmart and Sears have adopted a similar stance. Caesars Entertainment is “rebranding” her four casino buffet restaurants around the country.

Some are standing with her. Her latest cookbook took off big on Amazon after the scandal broke. At this writing, she’s still booked to appear at the Metropolitan Cooking and Entertaining Show’s various venues in Washington, Dallas and Houston, later this year. Landies Candies, Epicurean Butter and Springer Mountain Farms are hanging tough, too. But these are regional entities whose financial commitments never came close to the big-ticket, deep-pocketed endorsers and clients Deen enjoyed before everything, uh, boiled over late last month.

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She might have ridden this thing out, of course, except for the fact that the root to Deen’s declining fortunes was her touching the third rail of American life, the one that risk-averse advertisers are loath to get anywhere near: Race.

"From a business angle, a business will never risk being associated, even short term, with having the label of being racist," said Mike Paul, president of MGP & Associates PR, to USA Today. "They will cut you loose first to save their own reputation."

Paula Deen, a product of the South, is a curious case in the annals of race and redemption according to America. That she crossed the line and actually said what she’s accused of saying doesn’t seem to be in doubt. But her attempts to situationally contextualize the racist comments of her past — in the three-hour deposition, she said she used the N-word once when she told her husband about “when a black man burst into the bank that I was working at and put a gun to my head. I didn't feel real favorable towards him” — have only made things worse.

They come across as shrill and defensive. And they’re only made worse by more comments from the deposition, one of which makes context utterly irrelevant.

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ACCORDING TO the National Enquirer, when asked in the deposition if she’d ever used the N-word, Deen said, “Yes, of course.”

Yes, of course. There’s a very good chance that upon discovering that corrosive little testimonial, the Food Network and Novo Nordisk, Sears and Caesars, Smithfield and Walmart and all the rest may well have decided they didn’t need to hear any more.

Implied in that single sentence is the crux of our deepest American problem. It’s not the admission contained in the word “yes.” That was bad enough. What makes things worse is that poison grace note, “of course.” That phrase embodies the presumption of normality, as if this is the way people are supposed to behave, as if that word is de rigeur for the national conversation.

And to the extent that Paula Deen is a product of America — not just Georgia, where she was born and raised and first discovered, or the South in general — the widespread revulsion toward her and her comments ought to be a wake-up call for the nation to check itself.

In ways we’re not comfortable talking about, Deen’s tragically anodyne view of the place the N-word has at the table of everyday discourse is one shared by others, in the use of the word and the discriminatory behavior that the word approves. In the use of a variation of the word and the malign cultural self-identification which that variation validates.

The fault isn’t just in our celebrity chefs, but also in ourselves.

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There’s already talk of Deen rehabbing herself in the public eye. There have been rumors afoot that she may join ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” for the show’s 17th season. There needs to be some way to stop the bleeding. Her quasi-full disclosure didn’t have immediate traction.

Sometimes going the full hangout route works. David Letterman, hobbled in October 2009 by his own admission that he had his worldwide pants down with a number of young female staffers, rode that out mainly by coming clean with the affair, getting in front of it, and doing it on his terms, in the friendly confines of his late-night arena.

Sometimes it doesn’t. Michael Richards, the “Seinfeld” star whose N-word-laden meltdown onstage at a West Hollywood comedy club in November 2006 was followed by an emotional apology (on Letterman’s show), has been largely sidelined in the teleculture ever since.

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BUT FOR Deen, the DWTS rehab option is hardly appealing. To even consider it is frankly sad: The 66-year-old self-described “fat girl” out on the tiles, hoofing it on network television with more athletic dancers half her age, the tight smile of imposed contrition plastered on her face ... all in the name of moving more Paula Deen Southern Grillin’ Butter.

Whatever road she takes back to redemption, Deen is learning the hard American way that there’s not gonna be any way to rush this. Rehabilitation equals disappearance plus time, and the disappearance part gets tricky when you’re at the helm of an empire upon an empire.

Despite the hair-on-fire dimensions of her current situation, she’s in a position to take the best advice of her recipes: Don’t skimp on the cooking time. Be ready, for a while, to spend some time in conditions of an elevated temperature. And hunker down. Think. Preparation and honesty are everything.

Of course.

Also published at Medium.com. Image credits: Deen: "Today" Show/NBC News. Deposition image: via The Huffington Post. Food Network logo: © 2013 Television Food Network, G.P. Roasted turkey: via pauladeen.com. Walgreens logo: © 2013 Walgreens.

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