Thursday, July 26, 2007

In Response to Mac at Slowlearner

Mac at Slowlearner has decided to take on both George Hunka and me in the same post. My response to him, and indirectly to many of you who have filled my comments box, follows:

This is not about me, nor is it only about theatre. It is about a culture. It is about a mass media that regularly focuses on the metropolis to the near exclusion of rural life and the south, and when it does refer to them, does so using demeaning stereotypes almost exclusively. The theatre follows that trend. So is there a NY aesthetic? There is a metropolitan coastal attitude that privileges certain types of content over others.

I refer you to your own link of non-musical plays: do you see any that seem to be set in the south or a rural community? What I see are some international plays, some classics, and some plays that SOUND as if they take place in NYC. So what, you say? In the current theatrical climate, mostly NYC plays get produced across the country. Films and television are also centered in NYC or LA, and also reflect the experiences and attitudes of that place.

Let me ask you a question: What is the ratio of television shows set in big cities to television shows set in the south or in a rural setting? Or if that is too hard, name some TV shows set in the south or a rural setting. Next: when was the last time you saw on TV or in a movie a southern police officer who wasn't represented as a stupid racist? When was the last time you heard a southern dialect that wasn't being used as shorthand in support of a stereotype? When was the last time you saw a farmer -- and I mean a contemporary farmer, not some historical "Little House on the Prairie" farmer -- who wasn't presented as a hayseed? These characterizations are based on stereotypes that are insulting and offensive.

In Spike Lee's "Bamboozled," Delacroix's first meeting about his new African-American show has a writing staff who are all white. When he expresses his frustration with this, and wonders why there are no black faces around the table, the writers all chime in with a series of reasons based on racist stereotypes that Delacroix caps with "and maybe they couldn't put down their crack pipes long enough to apply." At the end of that film, Lee strings together a long montage of racist images from cartoons and films over the years. Each one, taken separately, might seem harmless; taken together, they support racism.

In academic terms, this is known as "cultural hegemony," a term coined by Antonio Gramsci: "It means that a diverse culture can be ruled or dominated by one group or class, that everyday practices and shared beliefs provide the foundation for complex systems of domination." These shared beliefs are created, in part, through the repetition of images that are internalized by the culture, including those that it insults. (To see this in action, read Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye," which is a powerful illustration of the destructive power of internalized racism.)

What are the effects of internalized geographism? Children on farms or in the south are regularly told that their lives are boring, their values are reactionary, their history is despicable, their accents are ignorant, and their beliefs are evil. They rarely see anything that looks like their own lives, that reflects their own experiences, or that supports their own values. Rather, they are fed a steady diet of cosmopolitan values, morality, and ideology. They are told that, if they are smart, they will migrate to a big city, which is where all the smart people go. They are told that farming is of little value, small town life is tedious, and that life is only valuable if lived at a torrid pace, and that concrete and streetlights are more exciting than grass and starlight.

This is hegemony, plain and simple. And like most hegemony, those who perpetuate it aren't even aware they are doing so. They have internalized the images so thoroughly that they innocently reproduce them without thinking. It isn't until somebody draws their attention to those images, and forces them to see them for what they are, that they begin to understand.

No, I have not read the script for "Iowa 08," but I have for nearly fifty years been fed a regular diet of these stereotypes enough so that I can recognize the clues pretty easily. It doesn't take a genius to see from the "Iowa 08" evidence that this material is insulting. But if it makes you feel better, I will condemn only the YouTube video and the blog posts. Either way, the argument still stands: the American culture, most of which emanates from either NYC or LA, presents a skewed, stereotypical, and insulting view of the lives of rural and southern people, and also valorizes life in the metropolis. I would be happy to stand corrected should my attention be turned to overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Finally, I am not insulting your community, I am calling on your community to respect the members of other communities.

[I ended this response with a short note to George Hunka, who made a snotty comment about "community" and "tribalism."]


Joshua James said...

I call shenigans on this whole post, which is the civil word for the term you used in the previous post, which began with a B and ended with a T . . . and I would note Vita's response after viewing Iowa '08 seems to sum everything up nicely.

Scott Walters said...

As you have probably noted, Joshua, what you "call" doesn't carry a whole lot of weight on this blog. You will also note that when I called bullshit, I spelled it out. You just shout it through a crack in the door and then run like hell.

Joshua James said...

I stand by my posts and my positions, Scott . . . post and then delete and / or run or avoid questions entirely.

And yes, I'm fully aware of the weight I carry, on or off the blog, means little to anyone else.

Joshua James said...

I left this on Mac's, and so I'll leave it here as well . . . I've refuted your argument re with the Iowa No Shame example, and in countless other ways, before I "made" it about "you" and would add that "you" made it about "you" when you accused the New York Theatre Community (of which I am one) of Bullshit politics toward Iowans (of which I am one) with regard to one single showcase playing less than 16 performances, and did so with little evidence to back it up.

I would note, as I did earlier, that there is a significant amount of my work set in the midwest, and addresses issues therein.

And I know other Iowa writers who would probably chortle at the thought that Iowan's are being somehow persecuted by Iowa 08 . . . as if a showcase is all the evidence one needs to show New York hates the rest of the country, which seems to be your position, in a way.

Furthermore, Iowans aren't being discriminated against, no one's keeping them from voting (far from it) no one tells them they can't be married (unless they're gay, but that has nothing to do with being Iowan, only with being gay) can't make the same amount of money someone else does, can't do what they want, so to compare this show to racism against Iowans is an insult to anyone who's ever been a victim of real racism and discrimination.

And last but not least, if you wish, you could write and direct your work, seeing as that you're unhappy with the showcases being staged regarding Iowa and any other state that is not New York or California.

And I'll leave it at that.

David M said...

No, I have not read the script for "Iowa 08," but I have for nearly fifty years been fed a regular diet of these stereotypes enough so that I can recognize the clues pretty easily.

So, what you're saying is, "I know it when I see it"? Really? Do you really want to associate yourself with that censorious point of view towards the arts?

Alison Croggon said...

I don't know, Scott. Maybe I'd have more sympathy with your arguments if this blog were not itself so US-centric.

Scott Walters said...

You know, Alison, I write what I know. And I think you can read every post I've written over the course of this blog and you won't find an Aussie stereotype, nor disparaging images of Europeans, South Americans, Asians, nor Africans. But I did grow up in the midwest (specifically, Wisconsin), lived in Minnesota and Illinois, and now reside in North Carolina. And I am married to a woman who grew up in the south. So these stereotypes are something I have some experience with. So if you have nothing to say except personal digs, then please feel free not to share.

David M -- Censorship involves the power to prevent a work of art from being seen -- I do not have such power, nor, if I did, would I use it. But I will use the platform of my own blog to express my personal view regarding a nationwide problem that is illustrated by a play such as "Iowa 08," or at least by its chosen method of marketing.

Scott Walters said...

Oh, I also lived -- twice -- in NYC, and I was an editorial assistant at Performing Arts Journal / PAJ Publications where I had regular contact with the OOB avant garde artists and productions. I have met Robert Wilson, whose office was right down the hall, and spent an evening drinking with Richard Foreman in an apartment in Soho; I have spent several days with Joanne Akalaitis, and shared conversations with many members of Steppenwolf.

And I have spent 49 years as an American citizen.

I am writing what I know.

David Alan Moore said...

Just FYI: Although I am reading all of this with interest, and have posted comments on Scott's blog in the past, I am NOT the "David M" who has posted comments, above.

When and if I do weigh in -- here or elsewhere -- I will use my full name: David Alan Moore.

Thank you.

Alison Croggon said...

I wasn't being personal, Scott. I was just noting a sidelining of the Rest of the World that is an abiding flavour here, and which seemed strangely at odds with your complaints about the pernicious cultural dominance of NY. It's a little baffling all the same that every single artist you name in your defence against being US-centric is, er, American. Nothing against Americans - I respect those artists highly as some of the leading theatre artists around - but they are still American: not African nor Asian nor European nor Pacific Islander...

And if you dislike stereotypes so much, why caricature contemporary artists as snottily elitist pretenders who hate their audiences? If you dislike the centralising pull of cultural centres, why ignore the dominance of American culture as a side effect of American economic dominance? Or is that not a question?

Yes, we all write what we know and from where we are, and so we should: I write about theatre in a little city near the Antarctic, which is about as far away from the cultural centres of Europe and the US as it's possible to get. There's a difference, all the same, between regionalism (what a poetic colleague of mine, John Kinsella, calls global regionalism) and parochialism.