White Chicks in Discourse
In the study of Discourse, the all of communication, it becomes apparent how unavoidable Discourse is. Even in movies such as White Chicks, viewers can make connections to Discourse and the many layers of it. James Paul Gee, one of the foremost thinkers on the concepts of Discourse, offers a complex standing on what a Discourse is truly capable of. His paper on “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics: Introduction,” explains and introduces his ideas of Discourse. One of his claims is that people are limited in their primary Discourse; this is where many people begin to reject his ideas (Gee 10).
One of the people who reject his ideas on the limitations of Discourse is Lisa Delpit. Her ideas are not as grim as Gee’s; she believes that so long as an individual believes that it is possible, then mastery of a Second Discourse will be feasible. Her stance on Discourse’s limits are that they may be limited only by what the mind limits itself to. Delpit paints a pretty picture that leaves an individual with hope of achievement whereas Gee’s grim nature does not encourage accomplishment.
Other points of Gee, like the complexity of Discourse were more readily accepted. His idea that Discourses have two sides is something in hindsight that seems obvious. The idea that Discourse has many faces. The first and foremost, is Primary Discourse. This Discourse is learned in the home and influenced by peers. This one is easy to see how it might be difficult to overcome but could still be achieved. The other side of Discourse is Secondary Discourse, this can then be further broken down into dominant and non-dominant Discourses. These are the Discourses that are learned after the Primary, and are separated only by the majority of the room. In the movie, two FBI agents must enter a society that does not recognize their Discourse as dominant, they are forced to become the outsiders.
Being the outcast or the non-dominant Discourse can sometimes be beneficial, for it “often brings solidarity with a particular social network…” which would allow individuals to have the oddball connections that members of the dominant Discourse would be unable to obtain (Gee). The individual or outcast can offer views and opinions that the dominant members might not be able to express. In an office, many companies look for a diverse cast of people to work there. Especially with jobs that require creative thinking, those ‘oddball’ people, the ones that failed to meet society’s norm may be the ones who create the best solutions.
The benefits of having a non-dominant Discourse are brought to life in the film, White Chicks. This movie brings two male FBI agents who are black, and dresses them into two their complete opposite form of two females that are both rich and white. The girls who Kevin and Marcus Copeland have to imitate are the true stereotypes of rich white girls. Those girls had fulfilled their gender roles completely and now so must the FBI agents. With only a brief preview of how the girls actually behaved, Kevin and Marcus must substitute their knowledge and mushfake their way through the weekend in the Hamptons and catch the bad guys. Mushfaking is a term coined by Gee; it is the idea of imitation.
The first of their struggles comes from their meeting Brittany and Tiffany’s friends. Right after they enter the hotel, the two must use their abilities to overcome the barrier of this Discourse. Luckily for them, the friends accept them and become a mentor for them. Under their guidance, the men are more easily made aware of acceptable behaviors and actions. Without the aid of the friends, their mission to uncover the bad guys and save the true Brittany and Tiffany would have failed.
The next of their obstacles to overcome were Heather and Megan Vandergeld. These two girls were the ‘enemies’ of the film. They embodied the Discourse of rich girls and tried to square off with Marcus and Kevin at several different points of the movie. The first of their encounters was at the opening party where they had a verbal fight. At this point, Kevin and Marcus’s now non-dominant discourses came to life and allowed them to win the fight which had the effect of drawing the attention of society. Usually the idea of drawing attention would not be the idea for anyone undercover but in this scenario it was actually beneficial. The ‘winning’ of the verbal fight allowed the two to be better accepted and allowed their status to be raised. Their non-dominant Discourse was again proven to be beneficial when they were challenged to a dance off with the Vandergeld girls. When their friends who were the ones initially dancing failed, even though they were in their dominant discourse, Marcus and Kevin stepped in with some moves of their own. Their street style dancing brought an uproar that the Vandergeld girls could not compete with. This moment furthered their status and acceptance into society.
In the film, when they are leaving the mall, a thief attempts to steal their purse. Due to Kevin and Marcus’s non-dominant Discourse they were able to catch the purse snatcher. An actual standard white rich girl would be unlikely to be able to accomplish more than a call to the police, but because of their Discourses they are able to pursue and apprehend the culprit. This moment exemplifies their abilities and brings further solidarity between them and their friends.
This is where Gee’s ideas of non-dominant Discourse begin to fall apart. He had claimed that non-dominant discourses would bring “solidarity with a particular social network, but not a wider status and social goods in the society at large,” but in the film their non-dominant discourses were improving their status (Gee 8). It is true the non-dominant Discourses can have a unifying effect but the idea of it not affecting status is farfetched. Connections are a fundamental part of status; therefore, they must have an effect on the growth or shrinkage of one’s status.
All throughout the film, the men are also accomplishing something. They have begun to acquire the Discourse of a woman. Delpit would agree that “individuals can learn the “superficial features” of dominant discourses, as well as their more subtle aspects,” (Delpit 554). This is a major conflict between Delpit and Gee, the ability to acquire the dominant Discourse of the room. Gee has the idea that individuals are unable to overcome any of their primary Discourses that hold any conflict with new Discourses and as a result they will be unable to obtain new discourses whether they are dominant or not (8-9). The film choice tends to favor with Delpit’s views that “acquiring the ability to function in a dominant discourse need not mean that one must reject one’s home identity and values, for discourses are not static, but shaped” (Delpit 552). Her ideas are more realistic than Gee’s because all Discourses are learned. It is not an inherited gift that people understand when they are born. Discourses are learned through imitation and mentorship. They take a long time to perfect, in part because they are constantly shifting. The influence of society is overwhelming and unable to be ignored.
Under society’s influence, a Discourse is subjected to change; when the friends of Marcus and Kevin give their “proper support, can ‘make it’ in culturally alien environments” (Delpit 550). Which is why the idea of Marcus and Kevin putting their careers on the line for this case, is not completely unfeasible. If they fail, they will not only be expelled but also be terminated and could face serious repercussions. They are also at risk of losing their relationships with their romantic partners. Gee’s article would have them fail. It does not allow for their success; the odds are too stacked against them. Yet the two men have the support of their friends that their non-dominant Discourse allowed them to obtain and unify with.
The idea of achievement is possible because they have the support and the belief that they will achieve (549). Their mindset of success, allows for the opportunity of success. When the option of failure is revoked and persistence is continuous, failure becomes an uncertainty. But success also requires support. That is the other factor that goes into the film. Without their friends, who provided mentorship, and the environment of the discourse, success would have been impossible. Success has two factors that coincide with Delpit’s views, belief and support. Without both of these, Marcus and Kevin would have failed.
Delpit, Lisa. “The Politics of Teaching Literate Discourse.” Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom. New York: New Press, 1995. 545-554.
Gee, James Paul. “LITERACY, DISCOURSE, AND LINGUISTICS: INTRODUCTION.” The Journal of Education, vol. 171, no. 1, 1989, pp. 5–10. www.jstor.org/stable/42743865.
White Chicks. Dir. Keenan Ivory Wayans. Perf. Marlon and Shawn Wayans. 2004. DVD.