We Talkin’ ‘Bout Genre

Richard Sherman talked smack after a football game and the internet exploded.

Of course, because it is the internet, the conversation has mostly been about 1) whether or not Sherman was right or wrong to say what he said and 2) the extent to which his race, class, and biography (son of a garbage man, Stanford graduate) should enter into our conclusions about #1.

But what I want to talk about is aesthetics. What Sherman did was interesting not just because of the vexed position of black men in American culture (though that position is incredibly vexed) and not because of Sherman’s biography (as interesting as it is) but rather because it violated genre.

What Sherman said to the reporter after the game would not have been out of place on the field. But it was out of place in the post-game interview, which has a very specific structure—a pandering, breathless, thankful, selflessness in the service of banal clichés. These clichés attempt to defuse the physical violence that has just taken place on the field. The genre of the post-game interviews reassure us that, no matter how brutal the spectacle, we spectators aren’t really encouraging brutality. Sports are civil, after all!  (This is, perhaps, why so many post-game interviews are conducted by women—emblems of civilization and all that.)ponytail

The reason why Sherman’s infamous ten seconds works, like aesthetically, is because it wasn’t mindless genre-bending just for the sake of chaos or nonsense. It works because he pushed the boundaries of one very specific genre—the post-game interview—right in its weakest spot: his speech was an affront to the very concept of the post-game interview. Sherman’s speech in the interview did not pander, and it certainly was not selfless. It was self-aggrandizing and unmerciful.  He showed for a moment how porous are the boundaries between organized game and ungovernable energy.

Please note: it’s specifically in the context of these aesthetic observations that the political and social dimensions of Sherman’s interview snap into focus.  Form and genre let us describe how the otherwise unrelated elements of Sherman’s yelling, his (for example) dreds, and Erin Andrews’ (for example) ponytail created a perfect internet clusterfuck.

Sports in general are, of course, a genre, an arbitrary set of rules that govern expression and provide an audience a set of expectations. Sportsmanship, interviews, comportment in practice, taking a knee at the appropriate time, not to mention the formalized rules of the various games themselves, all serve to offer some structure that give our movements meaning. And let me be clear, this is a good thing! But what is even better is when someone comes along and kicks out a leg, and shakes the structure a bit.

I’m probably preaching to the choir here, but moments like these—when you can watch an amazing athlete do something so interesting with words, body, form, and content and understand how and why his expression just worked hundreds of thousands of people over—these are the moments when it’s clear why you should take a goddamn English class or two in your life. Or why, as Phil Maciak said recently, those of us who can think through the aesthetics of Richard Sherman are just better at life than others.

And, yes, that’s me, nerd trash talking just a bit. If you try formal analysis up against all those sorry think pieces, that’s just the result you’re going to get. Don’t you open your mouth about the best.

Sarah Blackwood: Team Bella