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Cutouts

voices essay

I have a life-sized cutout of Lil’ Wayne. I like him. And I think he likes me. Those who have not met my cutout freeze when they see him for the first time. They are not accustomed to seeing black men at Yale. But once introduced, they develop a surprising and immediate intimacy.

The icon acts as an object relative to devotion. My seeming devotion to my cutout has led to a social media presence. My cardboard cutout has his own Facebook page. Hoping for tagged photos together, my friends dress him up, adjust the lighting, and pull out their iPhones. As long as the photographer can guide Lil’ Wayne and his new friend into the perfect half-hug, assuming the right angle, background, and zoom have already been decided upon, Lil’ Wayne the cutout will come alive. The moment is saved, filtered, geo-tagged, captioned, and shared across platforms, making sure to capitalize on the boredom of others–Instagram’s peak hours are mid-afternoon, Sundays are best for Facebook. The push notifications illuminate my phone, but they can’t arrive fast enough. I robotically open the applications, just to verify information I’ve already become privy to. The likes and comments reinforce that I’m the one with the cardboard cutout of Lil’ Wayne. I’m looking for the proof that this Lil’ Wayne cutout and I are the perfect couple. Like all good partners, he allows me to be me. At this point, we’re codependent; I define him and he defines me.

My devotion and my friends’ devotion of my devotion, however, do not lend themselves to the figure of which the icon is symbolic. Instead, the cutout has the power to reflect as a mirror, showing a devotion of self. The personal nature of an icon solidifies this concept, proving that anything meant to be worshiped between individuals reaffirms one’s own identity and explains that identity to others.

A modern day pop culture icon like a cardboard cutout of Lil’ Wayne should be symbolic of a devout love of the man depicted. Flattening the importance of its meaning, the Lil’ Wayne cardboard cutout can be read as simply an icon of devotion to the rapper. The two-dimensionality of Lil’ Wayne’s cardboard cutout off sets the greater depth of his art and character. But that reading negates context and environment, aspects, which differentiate a physically imposing cardboard cutout from a poster on a wall.

A life-size cardboard cutout has the power to immediately disarm its viewer. Part of its shock value is undoubtedly its large physical nature. But it is also unexpected because of its ability to make a larger-than-life persona life-size. As young Americans, our consumption of popular images takes place most often on a computer screen or smart phone. To reconcile the larger-than-life characters that flood the media network, we make the medium through which we consume smaller and smaller. These personas become digestible, and then relatable. When these characters are projected in human size, a funny thing happens. We are made to think that these figures, who exist because of their seemingly unattainable perfection, interest, and talent, are in fact real people. We are eye-level with the cutouts, who then beg for our interaction. A photo or a taped-on beer can, the relationship becomes personal. At the same time however, their made-for-computer larger-than-life personas are now larger-than-larger-than-life, exposing their true ridiculous nature. Ironically, Lil’ Wayne, one of the most powerful figures in the music industry, is belittled to his real life stature: a measly five foot six. In the case of Lil’ Wayne, the satire runs deeper.

Lil’ Wayne recognizes his greatness and flaunts it unconditionally. Through the bravado that defines his performance, Lil’ Wayne offers self-awareness and mockery. Katie Couric explains this phenomenon after interviewing the rapper, “At first blush, you might think it pretty easy to size up Lil’ Wayne…But this tough-talking rapper insists that what you see might not be what you get.” The life-size cutout tells the truth about a man who claims to be bigger than his five and a half feet. This parallels the genuine nature of a man whose caricature is more introspective than expected. Lil’ Wayne is a joke, a joke that he takes very seriously. He calls himself a “Martian” or an “alien”, liberating himself of any human responsibility. Lil’ Wayne obstructs his voice, making it sound computer generated, even when it’s not. He juxtaposes hip-hop and skate board culture, rap and rock, sagging denim and skinny jeans. Lil’ Wayne is a fearless risk-taker when it comes to experimenting with his identity. He is allowed that freedom, because his background and performance of race solidify his presence in the hip-hop genre. His seemingly disjointed personas do not attempt to make the cutout three-dimensional. They simply make the base at which he stands stronger.

Assuming that artists acquire followers primarily through their authentic performance of “self”, the relationship between Lil’ Wayne and the typical hip-hop fan would be reasonable and expected. The fan that relates to the content of Lil’ Wayne’s work is someone, who could devote physical space to his body. Even though this fan might attempt to make a statement about his own identity–beyond appreciation for hip-hop–he is not given the chance because of his race and gender. This fan is normalized, and is therefore a black, uneducated male; he is supposed to like Lil’ Wayne. The relationship between Lil’ Wayne and this potential cutout owner is flat and linear. The owner is not provided the privilege to be read with nuance. I’m not that fan.

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The political nature of the grassroots rap revolution of the 1980s made the art form inherently subversive, counterculture, and racial. Although mainstream and accessible to most young people today, rap music and hip-hop culture are still black male spaces. Because of the ideologies that constitute American racial folklore, rappers must be violently masculine, rags-to-riches, and uneducated. The good ironic fan is therefore his exact opposite. The cultural and political institutions that inform society must be considered in this upper-middle class, college-educated female’s “big joke.” Race plays an important role in both of the identities of these fans. In the first example, the man’s blackness allows him to enter a community without question. For the second fan, class, gender, and race all act as barriers to pure enjoyment and idolization of Lil’ Wayne. These factors also act pivotally in the use of Lil’ Wayne as an ironic icon. Along with the physical embodiment of the cutout and Lil’ Wayne’s own embrace of sarcastic humor, Lil’ Wayne is not expected in a college apartment; the situation is incongruous.

As the black cardboard man rests in a Yale living room, he is surrounded by privilege and academy. His interactions are clouded by political correctness. Lil’ Wayne becomes a no-need-for-apology joke, only once his presence can be confirmed as an act without racial harm. Its owner’s identity becomes the catalyst for this reading. Racism can be negated by its owner’s ability to at least check the metaphorical race box. With this recognition of identity, she can ward off assumptions that this object is patronizing a black community or simply racist. The ironic fan should know the social constructs that keep the members of her otherwise all white liberal world from owning their own personal Lil’ Wayne cutouts. In fact, she would probably be the first one to call out the “problematic” nature of this object in a strictly white home. This irony hinges on her self-awareness. To be different and challenge understandings of the status quo, one must recognize one’s own place in the greater society at large. Therefore one does not have to be a fan of Lil’ Wayne to enjoy the laughs his cardboard cutout elicits. Without devotion to another figure or object, the devotion mirrors back to oneself and the maintenance of personal identity, life-size or otherwise.

I am that ironic fan. I don’t mean to be, but a genuine, without reservations, love of hip-hop is hard to pull off when you look like me. It’s hard to see evidence of a black father, when you have green eyes. My two-dimensional Lil’ Wayne gives me a concrete two-dimensional identity. The relationship with which I have developed with my cutout is a useful dynamic to consider between artist and listener. In 2014, we–both artist and fan–commodify our identities. The cardboard acts as an intermediary–a presentation of both an artist’s self-identity and the fan’s. By flattening the fan’s identity, one can find relation to the cardboard cutout. This relationship is not to be confused between artist and fan, because they have still yet to meet.

We use iconography to signify value. Reducing the presentation of race, class, and gender in 2014’s “post-racial” America can come in the form of a cardboard cutout. Artists use derivatives to present a curated lived experience. I use my relationship with these derivatives to prove my lived experience. Lil’ Wayne’s cutout proves my blackness, because my green eyes can’t.