Tuesday, July 31, 2007

What Is a Stereotype?

It occurs to me after reading many of the comments that we lack an agreement about what constitutes a stereotype. Here is what I mean when I use the word. A stereotype is:

a. an exaggerated image
b. of a subordinate group
c. created and perpetuated by a dominant group
d. and repeated throughout the culture without significant balancing

So a minstrel show (to use a clear example) was an exaggerated image (black dialect, exaggerated "black" features, shuffling gait, stock characters) of how black people (a subordinate group) behave that was created by white people (a dominant group -- minstrel shows began as white people in blackface, and later migrated to black people in, implausibly, blackface) that were repeated throughout the culture without significant portrayals of black people in respectful, less exaggerated ways.

Consequently, when Jon Stewart skewers George Bush, it is a caricature, not a stereotype -- an exaggerated image of an individual. If he skewers "Republicans," it would fit item a above, but not b, c, or d.

How does this apply to my point about Iowa 08 and, more significantly, television shows like The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, Dukes of Hazard, Smoky and the Bandit, and most shows that include southern or rural characters?

Portrayals of rural and southern people tend to be exaggerated images (item a) of a subordinate group (in this case, subordinate because most mass media is produced in urban areas by people who live in urban areas in New York and California, thus item b) created and perpetuated by a dominant group (the urban media intelligentsia, including the theatre, who control what is seen by the country) which are repeated throughout the culture with little significant balancing of the image by more real, dignified portrayals.

As long as the media is centralized in NYC and LA (and I'm not certain how you can argue that it isn't, given the shape of the arguments made in other discussions about why so many theatre people seem compelled to take up residence there), as long as no significant effort is made to present dignified stories about southerners and rural people, then stereotypical representations of southerners and rural residents should be called what they are -- ideologically skewed insults designed to maintain dominance by one group over another.

Robert Brustein was frequently and rightfully attacked for his belief that August Wilson should have stopped writing about the plight of the African-American in each decade of the 20th century and instead focus on something more "universal." As Wilson pointed out, "more universal" meant "more white." The same is true in this case. The default for universality in film, television, and theatre tends to be urban, white, northern, middle class, and educated. And as such, it is not representative, and because it tends to be created by urban, white, northern, middle class, educated people who have little experience of people outside those categories, it tends to utilize stereotypical images of those outside that group. Ignorance leads to stereotypes.

And that is what needs to be stopped. Those who recognize those stereotypes for what they are need to call bullshit every time one pops up until the dominant group finally gets it through their skull that they are not superior, they are not more educated, they are not less racist, they are not more open-minded, they are not cooler, and they are not more sensitive than any other group in this nation. They have very specific cultural reference points that are not universal, and not universally desired.

It is time that people on farms, and people in the south should be able to see themselves represented in ways that make them proud. Am I advocating censorship? Again, a definition: censorship is the institutional power to prevent something from being seen. No, I am not advocating that. But I am advocating peer pressure, social pressure. It worked with Imus -- it needs to be applied in other areas.


James Winston said...

"Those who recognize those stereotypes for what they are need to call bullshit every time one pops up until the dominant group finally gets it through their skull that they are not superior, they are not more educated, they are not less racist, they are not more open-minded, they are not cooler, and they are not more sensitive than any other group in this nation. They have very specific cultural reference points that are not universal, and not universally desired."

Who is "the dominant group?" New Yorkers and Los Angelinos? Based on what evidence do you make that statement? Simply because those cities that headquarter most of the media? How does that make them dominant? The last I heard both of the last presidential elections, for example, went to the candidate not widely supported in either city. What's your measure of dominance?

And when you say "They have very specific cultural reference points that are not universal, and not universally desired," and you therefore making the argument that the rural areas of the US do have the "cultural refernece points" that are universal and universally desired? If so, then aren't you making exactly the same argument about New Yorkers and Los Angelinos that you claim "the dominant group" is making about
people in the South or Midwest?

And in asking this, I ask you and you alone, since I do not presume to state that everyone in those areas holds with your beliefs. New Yorkers do not think with one mind. People in the media do not think with one mind. I'm curious about your definition of the media, as well, since that word can be used to apply to TV, movies, theater, newspapers and any number of people and professions which have little connection to one another. To say nothing of banding together to create some kind of cultural conspiracy against the South.

Scott Walters said...

James -- We are talking about representation fictional media: TV, film, theatre. We are not talking about politics. We are talking about how specific stereotypical images are reproduced and propagated. So, yes, for TV, film, and theatre, NYC and LA are the seats of power.

Second, no, I am not saying that rural and southern people have any more claim for universality than NY or LA. I am saying they have equal claim to understanding and respectful representation.

And while NYC has many, many wonderful people -- hell, I was twice a New Yorker myself, and several of my best friends are NYers -- that isn't the point, nor does it negate the point. The point is that stereotypes are regularly being used in the media (TV, film, theatre) to marginalize and insult a huge portion of the US citizenry whose way of making a living, or way of speaking, or life values do not match up with an urban, northern image of "normalcy." I am talking about foundational assumptions -- shared images that have been propagated for so long that they are no longer questioned. It does not require a conscious conspiracy, simply a repeated use of unquestioned stereotypes.

Mac said...

Scott, it's worth pointing out that you still haven't demonstrated that New York theater regularly uses stereotypes to insult rural or Southern people. You use the word "regularly," which must at least mean "more often than not."

And yet you haven't yet named one single play to support this contention, one you have made over and over again. A YouTube doesn't count as an example, an Edward Albee quote doesn't count as an example, and an absence of plays set in the South doesn't count as an example (in fact, the latter must negate the contention, right?).

"Regularly" is a term that, given a specific context, must surely be demonstrable through data, right?

Are you comfortable repeatedly making an assertion without substantiating it?

(I don't speak for the theater or film industries, nor, I imagine, does anyone who has thus far participated in this conversation, but folks who do I'm sure will correct me.)

Mac said...

Correction to my last comment: the last parenthetical sentence should read:

(I don't speak for the television or film industries, nor, I imagine, does anyone who has thus far participated in this conversation, but folks who do I'm sure will correct me.)

Aaron Carter said...

My concern about stereotypical portrayals of the rural and religious is that lately I've seen them deployed as knee-jerk liberal shorthand.

I feel it is our job as artists to challenge the status quo - not only of the culture at large but also within the sub-culture we do our work. In the theater sub-culture, a general dislike for W and a skepticism of religion is assumed. As a result, I believe the challenge is to find what is attractive in viewpoints we disagree with.

Stereotypes make it impossible to actually investigate an issue, and serve only to reinforce existing perceptions.

And perhaps sometimes that is needed. Perhaps a particular sub-culture gets a much needed energy boost from a work that reinforces their beliefs. And perhaps that involves two-dimensional portrayal.

But if our goal in theater is some sort of discourse or dialog, mocking conservative views with stereotypes is going to shut out a good portion of the potential audience.

A recent example was Cynical Weathers by Douglas Post. In the play, Post got a lot of mileage out of connecting end-time visions to a calculated disregard for climate change. But the play conveniently ignored the vocal portions of the evangelical movement who see stewardship of the Earth's resources --including combating climate change-- as part of God's purpose for humans.

I am an atheist, and I was offended by how the play handled faith.

If I understand Scott's argument correctly, it is this kind of portrayal he is commenting on.

Scott Walters said...

Mac -- As I have repeatedly said, this issue bridges all of the art forms, so confining it to theatre alone is inappropriate.

Also, as has been noted by others in reference to a different topic, there is no requirement that bloggers be journalists, nor present academic papers. I am not willing to spends months culling data from over the years of theatre production to prove this point -- especially since common daily experience provides evidence enough. But let's think it through, Mac -- with a small sampling: current Broadway theatre listings.

I see "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," which is suspect might be set in a rural setting. I don't know enough about it to tell whether it has stereotypes or not, although a "spelling bee" by itself has a sort of quaint, backwoods quality that seems to imply that rural = not quite of this world. Still, jury is out.

Avenue Q: New York.
A Catered Affair: 1953. The Bronx.
Chicago: Chicgao 1920s.
Color Purple: South. The past. Race.
Curtains: Boston. Past. New York show on pre-Broadway tryout.
Deuce: Can't tell.
Dr Seuss: never mind
Drowsy Chaperone: Broadway theatre scene.
Farnsworth Invention: Iowa and NYC. Hasn't opened, so don't know about Iowa portrayals.
Female of the Species: hard to tell where this is set. But among the intelligentsia.
Frost/Nixon: rich and famous.
Grease: Don't remember. But I don't think it is a southern or rural setting.
Hairspray: Baltimore. 1953.
Homecoming: England.
In the Heights: NYC.
Jersey Boys: nuff said.
Legally Blonde: Harvard.
Les Miserables: France.
Lion King: Africa.
Little Mermaid: Underwater.
Lone Star Love: Merry Wives of Windsor in post-Civil War Texas.
Mamma Mia: Greece, I guess.
Mary Poppins: London.
Mauritus: Can't tell.
Spamalot: England.
November: Don't know. Washington DC?

I don't have time to finish, but you get the drift. Also on tap: Rent and the Ritz.

The point is that there are virtually no portrayals of contemporary rural or southern life , and those that do rely on stereotypes.

Now what do you want -- TV shows?

Mac said...

"Mac -- As I have repeatedly said, this issue bridges all of the art forms, so confining it to theatre alone is inappropriate."

What I'm suggesting is that the allegation is inaccurate as far as New York theater, and that NY theate should therefore be excluded from your writing on this subject.

I can't tell what your list of Broadway shows is supposed to demonstrate about the preponderance of stereotypical portrayals on non-New York cultures in NY theater. Which of the shows on your list above traffics in the stereotypes you decry? It would need to be most of them for your allegation to be correct, yes? For the phenomenon to be "regular"? So which ones?

As I wrote in my response to your post, it's fine for bloggers to not be journalists as long as they don't make statements they don't know to be true. Would you agree that writers, as well as people in general, shouldn't make statements they don't know to be true?

A related question: is "common daily experience" the same thing as "evidence"? If so, how are you defining the term "evidence"?

One other point of contention: Aren't spelling bees carried out in elementary schools throughout America? Isn't there a national contest, televised each year, featuring a competition between children from all 50 states? Isn't the spelling bee one of the most pan-cultural activities in the United States?

Scott Walters said...

Mac -- The point is that NY theatre and TV and film do one of two things:

1) ignore rural and southern experience completely, or

2) portray it through stereotypes

Thus, the Broadway listing showed that, while many shows were set in NYC, few were set in the south or rural settings, and those that were were set in the past and dealt with stereotypical things such as racism (as if the south has a corner on that market) or other "quaint" topics.

The lack of rural and southern portrayals means that the stereotypes have nothing to balance, them, unlike NY stereotypes which are often balanced by portrayals of NYers as admirable in some way.

The issue is one of balance, Mac. Or lack thereof.

Scott Walters said...

Thank you, Aaron, that is exactly what I am saying. Now multiply that by many, many years and you have the current situation.

Mac said...

Aaron, thank you for your comment, and that example. I recall reading a few bad reviews of this play when it opened in Chicago earlier this year. Has "Cynical Weathers" played in New York City?

Your point about seeing what is attractive in viewpoints with which we disagree, particularly in matters of faith, is well taken. To read a conversation between two New York theater bloggers on this very subject, go here and scroll down to the third exchange:


Aaron, I don't disagree with anything in your post. I'm pointing out that Scott's description of the New York theater scene as a force that perpetuates these stereotypes is demonstrably inaccurate.

Scott, a question (though I've had remarkably little luck getting you to answer anything so far): on your list, the one show that you identify as being set in the South is "The Color Purple," based on the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winning book by Alice Walker. Is it your contention that this musical traffics in stereotypes of the South? Are the characters one-dimensional and exaggerated? Was it morally wrong for the producers to mount a musical of this story without also opening, at the same time, a show set in the South in 2007 with brilliant intellectuals of all races getting along and doing great things?

Mac said...

I noticed that the link I provided above didn't post entirely, Aaron. I made a shorter link to the same page, if you're interested.


David M said...

Thank you, Scott, for writing this post and clarifying your points from the discussions last week. I feel like your outline of the way in which you are using the word "stereotype" clears up a lot of what felt like hypocrisy in earlier posts when you dismissed the points about the negative stereotypes of NY/LA which are also rampant in our society.

When you speak of New York Theater, are you thinking predominantly of Broadway? Certainly that was the example you used earlier, and it is also the segment of NY theater which is most readily apparent to non-New Yorkers. It is, in fact, theater that is economically dependant upon non-New Yorkers for its audience, as well as the only segment that receives exposure on national television (for all 37 people to watch.)

So, if no one is making all of these tourists see a show, and in fact they are paying thru the nose to be able to get into the theater, isn't there some argument to be made that they are, at least on average, receiving a product that they want to see?

One could argue that they are really paying for the experience of seeing a Broadway show, and that the content is secondary. So how about movies and television? Any artistic endeavor in these industries is dependent upon an audience far broader than those in NY or LA for its economic sustainability. If a TV show or movie is successful, doesn't that mean that it is providing what the audience wants?

People are paying for the product (either directly or thru opportunity-loss), and presumably they're enjoying the product (if they keep coming back for more), and yet the product is generated by a small subset of cultural elite who reside in these two little blips of geography on either coast. And these cultural elite have pervasive stereotypes of their consumers which they pack into the product they sell, to great detrimental effect.

But if the product is so filled with negative cultural stereotypes, and the audience is aware of, and resentful of, these stereotypes...why are they still buying? Why are they still enjoying the product they purchase? Why are they asking for more of the same?

David M (who is not David Alan Moore)

Scott Walters said...

David -- I suppose one might argue that minstrel shows were very popular in their time, even with black audiences, and so they were giving people what they wanted. Nevertheless, the stereotypes were socially destructive.

Perhaps more important, particularly when it comes to the black audiences who attended such minstrel shows, might be the lack of alternatives. Bert Williams was a brilliant comedian -- W. C. Fields called him the funniest man he'd ever met -- was an educated, articulate man who was forced to play in blackface as a way of making a living. Given his brilliance, it wouldn't be surprising that black people attended his shows, despite the stereotypes.

Finally, there is something called "internalization," when an oppressed or marginalized group comes to believe the images about itself that the dominant culture puts forward. Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye" gives us a portrait of this in her Breedlove family. Or go to YouTube and watch "A Girl Like Me," paying particular attention to the segment about African-American children choosing between a white doll and a black doll if you want a portrait of how stereotypes affect self-image.

It isn't right, David. All of America deserves to be represented on its stages, TV screens, and movie screens, and they deserve to be represented in a manner that is fair and respectful, rather than insulting.

Brian Santana said...

For anyone interested in black minstrelsy and its past and contemporary effects on regional and class divides/indentification, I heartily recommend Eric Lott's Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class.

Many of the issue addressed here in this post are brilliantly examined. Here is a link to where you can get it on amazon:


David M said...


Yes, I am familiar with everything you're talking about. I think I didn't ask a very good question. Let me try again.

What is the motive of the Northeastern Cultural Elite is propagating these negative stereotypes of Southerners? Certainly one can expand the internalization argument to say that the Elite have internalized the stereotypes as well, and so they aren't using them for a reason, they are just using them because they don't know better (which is, I think, arguably true when looking at the White Man's Burden etc.) But I question whether we as a culture truly lack that kind of self-awareness after the social upheavals of the last 50 years. Making art involves a series of specific choices, and most artists worry endlessly about those choices, on a conscious or subconscious level. So I question the validity of the internalization argument, both with regards to those who are stereotyped and those doing the stereotyping.

(To be sure, the thing that started this all, Iowa 08, has a clear motivation for its use of stereotypes. But it is a political one, and your previous posts seem to indicate that you're less interested in including that arena in this discussion.)

Also, we've glossed over the fact that there are, in the exact same media and cultural products, negative stereotypes of Northeastern city-dwellers, and positive, romanticized stereotypes of the country-dweller. These are deeply ingrained in American culture and I think it is only in the latter half of the 20th century that city culture gained the upper hand. (Though obviously the seeds of that binary conflict go back much further.) Country-dwellers are honest, good-hearted, generous, value family and friends, loyal (sometimes to a fault) and just. City-dwellers are corrupt, selfish, greedy, ambitious, lack a moral compass, cheat, lie and steal. The classic American journey is one that starts in the country, sends it's protagonist through a series of trials in the urban environment, which serve to remove the veil from their eyes and bring them full-circle back home to the country.

(I can't help but think of the great American mythologies of the 20th century articulated in comics books: Superman is raised on a farm in Kansas, but goes to the great Metropolis to fight crime and injustice. Superman receives his power from nature -- the light of our yellow sun -- and embodies Truth, Justice and the American Way qualities which grow in the fertile soil of Kansas. Batman is an urbanite, but his urban world is one of crime and corruption. He battles this with the moral authority of "frontier justice" -- that distinctly American standpoint, born from the writings of Enlightenment philosophers, that views government with skepticism and believes there are times when a man just has to stand up for what he knows to be right -- and has the moral authority to do so. Spiderman is also a purely urban construct, but he was born and raised in Woodside, Queens, which I think all New Yorkers will agree is the Five Boroughs' answer to Iowa.)

All of which is to say, what is the motivation of the urban cultural elite in propagating these negative stereotypes of themselves and their chosen geographical environment?

David M (who is not David Alan Moore)

Scott Walters said...

David -- Good questions. Let's think it through together, perhaps.

The North-South divide is a continuation of the Civil War, frankly. History is written by the victors, and the North has been relentless in its portrayal of the South as racist and uneducated, while simultaneously ignoring its own faults in these areas. In fact, an examination of 20th-century race riots shows that the North has as many if not more as the south (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_race_riots).
And yet, if you want to do a film on racism, dollars to donuts it will be set somewhere in the south.

The anti-rural prejudice is modernist in its roots. Small towns were seen as the seedbed of narrow-mindedness and insularity, and modernists wanted to create an artistic class that was cosmopolitan and not committed to any particular place. Thus, the American artists who moved to Europe in the 1920s, for instance. Sinclair Lewis made a living ridiculing the small town in books like Main Street and the south in books like Elmer Gantry, and books like Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology and Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome contributed as well.

So the values and experiences of northern cities become the moral touchstone for contemporary arts. The mythology of NYC, with its Sinatra theme song that positions it at the "top of the heap," is part of the competition. With the media centered there, or in LA, those two cities garner considerable attention. A minor example would be sports stars, who gravitate toward NY because they know that their reputation will be magnified by the NY-centered media. Major newspapers such as the NY Times, whose stories are picked up by newspapers around the country, focus almost exclusively on the NYC theatre scene. The Tonys are broadcast to the nation -- what about Chicago's Jeff Awards? When was the last time a Pulitzer Prize went to a play not performed in NY? To my memory, it was The Kentucky Cycle, which caused a great deal of confusion, and eventually came to NY where predictably it failed because why would NYers care about Kentucky?

Those with power want to keep power. The current system works to the advantage of a certain group of people, and they are loathe to give it up.

Your ideas?

Mac said...

"When was the last time a Pulitzer Prize went to a play not performed in NY? To my memory, it was The Kentucky Cycle..."

If you mean, "not performed in NY prior to winning the Pulitzer," it was "Anna In The Tropics" by Nilo Cruz, in 2003. This can be determined through only a few seconds of internet searching. Not knowing what you meant by the "confusion" that greeted "Kentucky Cycle's win, I researched and found this on Wikipedia:

The play generated controversy with some Kentucky writers claiming it trafficked in stereotype while others lauded its honesty and noted that they, too, suffered similar criticism from their peers when their work was deemed "politically incorrect." Several articles and editorials were written, including a book, 'Confronting Appalachian Stereotypes: Back Talk from an American Region.' However, in 2001, when the play was finally produced in Eastern Kentucky at the Breaks Interstate Park, directed by native Kentuckian, Stephanie Richards, with a cast that included both professional and local Kentucky actors, the audience response was overwhelmingly enthusiastic. Whatever academics thought of the play it was clear that Eastern Kentuckians had embraced the story as their own.

Is this the confusion to which you refer?

Scott Walters said...

Mac -- I seem to remember a certain sense in the media of "where the heck did THIS play come from?" Can't document it -- just remember it.

Thanks for the info on "Anna in the Tropics" -- I had forgotten that one. Point taken.

The quotation about "The Kentucky Cycle" is interesting, and I would like the read the book in reaction. That the Kentuckians were happy to see some aspect of their lives portrayed onstage, and acknowledged with a Pulitzer, in some ways isn't surprising. As I mentioned in reference to Bert Williams and minstrel shows, there is a tendency to rally around your own. The audience reaction does not negate the apparent fact that the play relied on stereotypes.

Regardless, I am not holding up The Kentucky Cycle as a model of what I'd like to see. I raised it mainly as an example of how a NY production is usually required for a Pulitzer. Two plays in a 90-year history probably doesn't disprove the rule.

David M said...

Yes, agreed about the sources of this conflict. Before the Civil War, the power polarities were reversed: the agrarian South was the economic powerhouse of the nation, and that power allowed the representatives of those states to have an unequal distribution of power written into the Constitution. The 3/5 Clause is usually viewed as a horrible statement that black slaves are only 60% human (where "human"= white male.) But the real tragedy of it is that it made it basically political impossible for abolitionist forces to abolish slavery in the country as a whole, because it gave the Southern states representation in Congress and the Electoral College that was disproportionate to the voting population of those states.

The Civil War reversed that polarity by breaking the economic power of the South -- though arguably that was somewhat inevitable, as the Western world was as a whole moving towards an industrial economy rather than an agrarian one. The Civil War just sped things along.

Your comment about the birth of a cosmopolitan artistic class of the 1920s set off some interesting bells in my head, relating to my earlier comments about the incongruity of a cultural elite propagating self-demeaning stereotypes with near-equal fervor as those that demean others. I think part of the trouble I'm having making your arguments add up has to do with (may the gods of the blogosphere forgive me for saying this) the difference between "high" and "low/popular" art forms.

Generally speaking, however, the forms we;'ve been talking about fall much more into the popular art category. Broadway is not high art; it is popular art for the non-New York City masses. It is a vital part of the NYC tourism industry, and that industry is a vital part of the city's economy (look at the fact that Broadway was one of the first sectors to receive economic relief following September 11th; the city needed it's theaters open to draw the tourists back.) And many of your points about the side benefits of being based in New York (with regards to media outlets, the Times etc) are most valid when applied to Broadway.

But then I run up against the same question I have when thinking about TV and mainstream film, which is that these are artistic industries which rely overwhelmingly upon non-New York/LA audiences for their success. The question of "Will it play in Peoria?" is still asked every day by producers.

(Which brings up a different kind of region-based discrimination, the idea that one has to "dumb down" or otherwise reign in the artistic daring of a work in order to achieve success outside of New York or LA. But I'd been avoiding that line of thought til now because you've kind of been of an anti-avante garde bent of late, so I was trying to focus more of widespread popular art which made it less germane to the discussion -- am I wrong about that?)

I guess I'm still interested in hearing what your thoughts are on why the negative stereotyping goes both ways, if one group exerts such editorial control and power over the cultural product.

Sorry, this was a bit rambly.

David M