Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Active, Passive, and Active Non

In an essay entitled "Defining Racism: Can We Talk?," from her book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race, Beverly Daniel Tatum draws a distinction between "prejudice" and "racism." "Prejudice" she writes, "is a preconceived judgment or opinion, usually based on limited information. I assume that we all have prej­udices, not because we want them, but simply because we are so con­tinually exposed to misinformation about others." On the other hand, racism, she writes, is "a system of advantage based on race." Using David Wellman's book Portraits of White Racism, she notes "he provides example after example of how Whites defend their racial advantage—access to better schools, housing, jobs—even when they do not embrace overtly prejudicial thinking." She concludes, "Racism cannot be fully explained as an expression of prejudice alone." So prejudice exists at the level of the individual, racism at the level of the system.

She goes on, "Cultural racism—the cultural images and messages that affirm the assumed superiority of Whites and the assumed infe­riority of people of color—is like smog in the air. Sometimes it is so thick it is visible, other times it is less apparent, but always, day in and day out, we are breathing it in. None of us would introduce ourselves as "smog-breathers" (and most of us don't want to be described as prejudiced), but if we live in a smoggy place, how can we avoid breathing the air? If we live in an environment in which we are bom­barded with stereotypical images in the media, are frequently exposed to the ethnic jokes of friends and family members, and are rarely informed of the accomplishments of oppressed groups, we will develop the negative categorizations of those groups that form the basis of prejudice."

What I have been arguing over the past week or so on this blog is that there is "cultural geographism," cultural images and messages that affirm the assumed superiority of educated, white, middle-class, city-dwelling northerners and the assumed inferiority of those who do not share those characteristics. In the past, I have also written on this blog about class, which is connected to this issue as well.

Tatum goes on to note that "most of the early information we receive about 'others' -- people racially, religiously, or socioeconomically [and I would add geographically -- SW] different from ourselves -- does not some as the result of firstahd experience. The secondhand information we receive has been distorted, shaped by cultural stereotypes, and left incomplete.She goes on to illustrate her point:
"Several years ago one of my students conducted a research project investigating preschool­ers' conceptions of Native Americans. Using children at a local day care center as her participants, she asked these three- and four-year-olds to draw a picture of a Native American. Most children were stumped by her request. They didn't know what a Native American was. But when she rephrased the question and asked them to draw a picture of an Indian, they readily complied. Almost every picture included one central feature: feathers. In fact, many of them also included a weapon—a knife or tomahawk—and depicted the person in violent or aggressive terms. Though this group of children, almost all of whom were White, did not live near a large Native American population and probably had had little if any personal interaction with American Indians, they all had internalized an image of what Indians were like." How did they acquire these images, she wonders? "Cartoon images, in particu­lar in the Disney movie Peter Pan, were cited by the children as their number one source of information. At the age of three, these children already had a set of stereotypes in place. Though I would not describe three year olds as prejudiced, the stereotypes to which they have been exposed become the foundation for the adult prejudices so many of us have."

In addition, she notes that
"Sometimes the assumptions we make about others come not from what we have been told or what we have seen on television or in books, but rather from what we have not been told."

Tatum is saying, in much clearer fashion, what I have been writing about lately concerning the south and rural areas: the predominance of distorted information distributed across the country, and lack of information to counter the distortion. It isn't acceptable when it comes to race, gender, or sexual orientation, and it shouldn't be acceptable when it comes to class, geographical location, or dialect.

Going back to racism -- the systemic advantages that, in the cases she is describing, white people have as part of a racist society -- Tatum makes a distinction between "active racism," "passive racism," and "active non-racism." To illustrate the difference between these three types of racism, she draws an analogy to the moving sidewalks you most commonly see at airports. Active racists are the ones who are walking with the direction the treadmill is going, passive racists are those who are standing still but nevertheless are being moved in the direction the treadmill is going, and active non-racists are walking in the opposite direction. Active racists are people who actively discriminate based on race -- KKKers, people who refuse to rent to black people, people who refuse to hire black people, etc. Passive racists are most of us who claim to not be prejudiced, but who benefit nonetheless from the system that works against non-Whites, and active non-racists are those who are trying to stop the racist system.

Let's take a specific example from actor training. If you arrive in a voice class with a "regionalism," you are actively trained to get rid of that accent and assume what is called a neutral dialect, but is actually a northern dialect centered somewhere in Nebraska and exemplified, when I was being trained, by Walter Cronkite. This is not exclusively directed against southern or rural dialects -- Brooklyn accents are equally obliterated -- but it is an example of how the sound of one's region can work against you. Now, are the voice teachers active geographists? Probably not -- although they may hold personal prejudices about certain dialects, their reason for trying to get you to drop yours is so that you can "fit in" to the system, so that you can "do anything," so that you won't be "pigeon-holed" or "typecast." This passive geographism actually foregrounds the systemic prejudice against regional identity: your teacher is afraid you won't be hired. Like the black job applicant who is passed over in favor of a white one, the actor with a regional dialect will be discriminated against on the basis of their speech pattern.

Over at Rat Sass, Nick has written a long post discussing my recent abandonment of my New Code of Ethics, which I adopted in mid-June, which took a more non-confrontative approach that was to ignore the NYC theatre scene. It is a funny post, especially the image of me as some cross between St Paul and Clint Eastwood. But the reason for this change is tied directly to Tatum's article: it is not enough to not be actively in support of something that is wrong, because as long as the system continues, you are moving with it. I feel that I must assume an "active-non" role.

And so I am calling bullshit.

I am actively resisting the privileging of the metropolitan life over the rural. I am actively resisting the privileging of the northern life over the southern. I am actively resisting the privileging of the middle class over the lower. I am actively resisting the privileging of the formally educated over the informally educated (I refuse to use "uneducated"). Many people have done this in reference to race, gender, and sexual orientation. It is time that we see that there are other discriminations as well; discriminations that are supported by stereotypes and lack of information that lead to prejudices; prejudices that lead to systemic discrimination and a lack of equal opportunity.


macrogers said...

Scott, I think this is a beautifully written post and an admirable mission. I would only ask one thing: do you think you can pursue this mission through only writing statements which are true?

Scott Walters said...

All I can promise is that I will write things that I believe to be true.

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Anonymous said...

Oh my, such excitement happened while I went to my dentist appointment!

Scott, I just read your comment on Rat Sass. I think there's a bigger action in the way stereotype is often used in or culture which you're ignoring. I've been thinking a lot about movies or TV shows or theater pieces I've seen that utilize some sort of stereotypical view of Southerners or Midwesterners, and what that character arc is in those cultural works. I feel like a very common journey is one in which a character is presented as a stereotype (say, the way a city-slicker character initially sees the residents of a small town in the midwest) but then over the course of the piece we see the depths of those characters fleshed out; we see the city slickers character change his or her opinion of them, and perceive the things which make them unique, which defy the stereotype -- while at the same time not necessarily dismissing the stereotype, since most stereotypes contain a kernel of truth.

Isn't this a positive thing? Isn't this, in fact, exactly the way in which we can effectively combat stereotypes? If you pretend the stereotype isn't there, we all see that for the lie it is. We stop trusting the artistic presentation, because we can see it is patently untrue. But if we confront the stereotype and then alter it, expand it, push through it, don't we ultimately undermine the negative effects of that stereotype?

In a bizarre coincidence, after I left my apartment this morning to go to said dentist appointment, I had my copy of Anne Bogart's A Director Prepares with me as reading material. After a few minutes on the platform I finished the chapter I had been reading, turned the page, and was greeted with a new chapter entitled, "Stereotypes."

She writes:

"Perhaps we spend too much time avoiding katas, containers, clich├ęs and stereotypes. If it is true that creativity occurs in the heat of spontaneous interaction with set forms, perhaps what is interesting is the quality of the heat you put under inherited containers, codes, and patterns of behavior."

I think her idea of applying heat to (or, as she uses it earlier in a phrase from Tadashi Suzuki, "light a fire under") the stereotype is not dissimilar to (though more artistically complex than, I think) this prototypical journey of openings your eyes to the realities of people, rather than the limiting pigeonholes we put them in. Both rely upon facing the stereotype head on, and then transforming the perception in some way, through subversion, addition, subtraction, juxtaposition, etc.

I would view the ArtsJournal blog in the same way. Their use of "Flyover" and "American Outback" are a means of facing the stereotype head-on -- they're not mincing words, they know what people think of the middle section of the country and they'll put it right out there. But the content is in no way limited by that stereotype; it is lighting a fire under it, expanding our perceptions of that geographical region, and in that way putting the lie to the stereotype of the "Flyover." So it seems to me that the whole thing is providing enormous value.

David M

Freeman said...

Hey Scott -

It's your blog and you can say what you like, of course. What I hope to see, as you continue this line, are:

1) Specific examples that support your ideas.

I'm willing to read on and learn about how Metropolitan areas dismiss or judge those outside of the region. As of now, I've yet to see concrete examples of how this is a systemic and oppressive problem. That's not to say they don't exist, that's to say I would like to read them.

2) Something actionable.

By way of your protest against what you see as regionalism as a prejudice akin to racism, I think the obvious is question is: what should be done?

I'm inclined to keep an open mind, and even I feel pretty defensive when I read your posts. I'd rather not feel defensive; rather, I'd like to know what specifically I can do to solve this problem if I become convinced it exists.

3) Practice what you preach.

As of now, I feel very much as if you are speaking about those from Metropolitan areas, like New York, as if we are one entity with a single attitude. My background, for example, is growing up in rural Pennsylvania. There are others that have entirely different backgrounds. We're all different and approach this differently. Specificity would help a great deal. It would, at the very least, not present all New Yorkers or urbanites as bigots.

4) Support or abandon your comparison with racial prejudice.

I simply don't see this as an apt comparison presently. To me, racial prejudice is a deeply complex, systemic, political and social issue with a history of struggle, law, and difficulty. This geographic "bigotry" you're referring to, as far as I can tell, even at its worst, can't possibly compare to racial inequality.

If you're going to use this comparison, it would really help me if you would show me how they are comparable in their oppressiveness or damage. Currently, you're using racism to illustrate the point, and that makes me feel as if you're either overestimating the effects of geographic prejudices, or underestimating the effects of racism.

Where do you see geographic prejudices having, for example, apt comparisons to slavery or Jim Crow laws?


Right now, it's clear you're furious and trying to make a point. That's about all that's abundantly clear. Regions are different, yes, and some regions are competitive with or stereotype others. New Yorkers sometimes stereotype those from New Jersey, for example. That doesn't mean that laws should be passed or meetings held on the borders of the Hudson River, at least to me.

I guess I just need to see action, perspective, and evidence that this is more than a pet peeve with a megaphone.

Ben Kessler said...


I like your basic sentiment. It's something that "arty" New Yorkers need to hear. Many of them, unfortunately, are deaf to the idea of "geographism" because they've become so used to not thinking of themselves as Americans. As citizens of nowhere, they eagerly lap up the culture's regurgitated junk without any authentic reference point from which to refute it. No wonder, then, that their own contributions to the culture are so flimsy.

macrogers said...

Ben, what percentage of New York-based artists don't think of themselves as Americans? How was this determined? A survey? What was the methodology of the survey?

Can you define the following terms:

"the culture's regurgitated junk"
"authentic reference point"

Who is making flimsy contributions to the culture? All New York artists? Some? How long has this been going on?


Freeman, that comment of yours was written with admirable care and intellectual integrity. I wish, in fact, that I had written it.

Freeman said...

Wow, Ben... that's a pretty harsh sentiment. I haven't seen evidence of New Yorkers not thinking of themselves as Americans. In fact, that's a bit Ann Coulter-ish.

Personally, I think of myself very much as an American. I wouldn't speak for all New Yorkers, nor would I presume to. I'd hope that you wouldn't presume to speak OF New Yorkers as a single entity either.

Freeman said...

Thanks Mac. I appreciate it.
I second, in fact, your questions: where do these assertions come from? Are they based on some quantifiable facts? Even experiences or anecdotes that specifically support them?

Scott Walters said...

*LOL* Mac! What do you think we're running here, some sort of massive research center? Have we reached the stage where bloggers cannot speak a generalization without having done a formal survey first? Surely neither Ben nor I are the first theatre blogger to generalize, and surely we won't be the last. Lighten up!
Matt -- I think I've said this before: racism is an analogy, and the focus is on the mechanisms used to support racism, so the effects of racism itself. Yes, certainly the legal and political (i.e., institutional) effects of racism were much, much more severe than the topic we are discussing, but what Marx called the super-structural elements and what Gramsci called the hegemonic techniques do bear similarities. I would recommend reading the writing of Harlem Renaissance thinkers such as WEB Dubois, Charles S Johnson, and Alain Locke about how they felt racism would best we undermined. They strongly felt that the images of black people needed to be changed, and the best way to do so was through the arts. The goal was to change the way the mainstream thought about the African-American -- chang minds, which will make changing laws easier.

As far as something actionable, the first thing that has to happen when dealing with foundational assumptions that lie beneath a society's conscious mind is to call attention to those assumptions and demonstrate that they are not "natural" or "true," but rather manufactured images in support of a specific ideology.

As far as practicing what I preach, no oppression can be addressed one individual at a time -- some generalizations must be made. You can't talk about a system by talking about individuals, you have to talk about larger trends. I'm sorry if you felt smeared by my comments about the NYC-based media structure -- surely you don't think I believe every NYer is evil, or every artist is a bigot (by the way, bigotry means only "stubborn and complete intolerance of any creed, belief, or opinion that differs from one's own," it is not specifically racist). In fact, I don't think even the people who are perpetuating the stereotypes are evil -- I just think they don't know any better because the stereotypes have been repeated so often that people think of them as self-evident truths.

Finally, as far as evidence is concerned, if I said that since 9/11 the nationality of our film and television villains have become much more likely to be middle Eastern, would I have to provide chapter and verse of every example, and would a counter example of, say, a Nazi villain be enough to undermine the generalization? Isn't the near total lack of plays on rural subject matter enough to indicate that something is amiss? I don't have the time or the inclination to provide a detailed list of every play now on the NY stage that uses a stereotype, but doesn't common sense lead in the direction of which I speak. Apparently not, or we wouldn't be having this discussion.

Aaron Carter said...

I once read an essay - I believe it was by bell hooks and will reference it if I can ever find it - that talked about the pointlessness of ranking degrees of oppression.

Does racial prejudice have a more damaging and violent history than geographic prejudices? Certainly. But what does that prove or disprove about Scott's assertions? Nothing that I can see.

I've read these discussions with interest, and have found that it is pretty clear that Scott is comparing the mechanisms of oppression and stereotypical imagery, not the degrees to which they affect people.

If Scott were making an argument that equated geographic and racial prejudice, I think there would be validity in Freeman's point 4. As it is, I think the comparison of mechanics is pretty astute.

Freeman's other points are quite strong, and I hope that more people participating in the conversation will bring in examples - even anecdotal - to support their claims.

Freeman said...

Scott -

Not that Mac needs me to defend his point, but I don't think he needs to lighten up. He's making an excellent point: There's an irony in defending the use of generalities while making a case that the stereotyping of a particular group is unacceptable.

And I don't think that anyone is seeking a pool of freshly minted data on an excel spreadsheet. Specific examples, at the very least, would suffice. Not ideological comparisions, but specific examples.

When calling for the end to a problem, it behooves you to show that, categorically, the problem exists. As of now, I don't think anyone would argue that stereotyping doesn't happen. What's more apparent, without solid supporting evidence, that it is not done on near the scale that you're describing, and it isn't remotely as harmful as you're making it appear.

I understand, of course, that racism is an analogy. It just doesn't seem apt, presently. For example, the comparison seems to call from a change in LAWS about regionalism. Do you feel that strongly about this? Should it be illegal to portray a New Yorker as a snob or a Texan as eating BBQ?

As far as what you're expressing as "actionable," it simply comes back around: your action is to prove the problem exists on the scale you're presenting. If that's the only goal, the mission isn't quite accomplished yet.

I didn't feel that you were presenting NYers as evil, just prejudiced and limited in their view. Of course you can't take each individual to task, but the flip doesn't equal trafficing purely in generalizations without any facts to back them up. As of now, I don't see the clear line between an unwillingness to approach this on the atomic level, and the desire to only speak about undefined general trends.

As far as plays that happen outside of urban settings, what about the plays of Sam Shepherd? He certainly doesn't present stereotypes of rural Americans.

Ben Kessler said...

"Regurgitated junk":

There are too many examples to name, but a good one is the Borat movie. Anything by Michael Moore, Curtis Hanson, Neil Labute, or Miranda July would also serve.

"Authentic reference point":

This can be any set of values that transcends fashion. It can come from church, home, historical study, culture, or rigorously investigated myth. The left has lacked this for most of my lifetime. Today's "progressives" are dedicated to convincing people that it's possible to live a full existence without it. By contrast, authentic progressives are distinguished by their tireless searching after it.

Democracy is the clash of authentic reference points in public space. As much as I dislike what most conservatives say, I think the time has come to admit that "liberals" are now no more committed to defending democratic principles. Borat, again, is a great example. "All derision, no democracy" is the new American motto. But without the faith to confront the Other without a derisive mask, democracy (America) is doomed.

Freeman said...


Thanks for the specific examples. They say quite a bit more than the generalities do.

macrogers said...

"Have we reached the stage where bloggers cannot speak a generalization without having done a formal survey first? Surely neither Ben nor I are the first theatre blogger to generalize, and surely we won't be the last."

Since you've taken this opportunity to defend generalizations, maybe you can answer some questions about them:

1. What is the value of a generalization to a discussion of ideas?

2. How true does a generalization have to be to be worthy of discussion? What percentage of New York artists would need to not consider themselves American for Ben's statement to be considered seriously? How am I to argue against it, if I'm denied the option of arguing that it simply isn't true?

3. If I read a statement of fact on Theatre Ideas, not an opinion, but a statement of fact that can be proven or disproven, and I believe the statement to be flagrantly untrue, is the burden on me to disprove it or is the burden on the person who made the original statement to prove it?

4. What is the intellectual etiquette on this website? What is this blog's attitude to verfiable truth? Do you believe that you should get to say anything you want without accountability?

5. Scott, do you agree with Ben's statement about New York artists? Why or why not?

6. Finally: can a "near total lack of plays on rural subject matter" and a preponderance of plays on the New York stage that "regularly" use rural stereotypes exist at the same time? How is such a thing possible?

Tony Adams said...

Well if you look to past examples . . .

There has been some excellent essays I've read (sorry can't cite them off the top of my head right now--I think one was by Skip Gates) about how this played out in the last century as more rural people moved in to the industrial north for factory work.

A microcosm of this is the second migration. When the educated artists and city dwellers turned their backs on those moving to the factories, the seeds were sewn for much of the projects and trailer parks of today.

I would argue, it is not a New York specific, or media specific, or theatre specific phenomenon though. You can find a lot of the same attitudes in Atlanta.

Scott Walters said...


"1. What is the value of a generalization to a discussion of ideas?"

Most ideas are generalizations which are then applied to specific instances. Peter Brook talks about Dead Theatre, for instance, and he describes the general characteristics, but he doesn't create a laundry list of every example he can think of. Rather, he provides a few illustrative examples.

"2. How true does a generalization have to be to be worthy of discussion? What percentage of New York artists would need to not consider themselves American for Ben's statement to be considered seriously? How am I to argue against it, if I'm denied the option of arguing that it simply isn't true?"

You are not denied the option of saying it isn't true. The level of specificity of your refutation should at least reach the level of specificity of the original post. Ben's original post was a brief and sweeping generalization, which could be matched at a similar level by saying "That ain't true." His second post was more specific, and requires refutations match that.

"3. If I read a statement of fact on Theatre Ideas, not an opinion, but a statement of fact that can be proven or disproven, and I believe the statement to be flagrantly untrue, is the burden on me to disprove it or is the burden on the person who made the original statement to prove it?"

Facts are things that cannot be refuted. If I say that the character of Hamlet says "To be or not to be," that is a fact -- it can be objectively verified. Therefore, if the fact is incorrect (it was actually Claudius who said it), you can offer the correction. If, however, it is not objectively verifiable, then it is an arguable claim. An arguable claim must have a possibility of being true but also not be obvious. For an arguable claim to function well, reasons must be offered to support the claim, and evidence in the form of facts. An arguable claim may be made with a level of certainty that makes it sound as if it were a statement of fact, but as long as it is not objectively verifiable, it is arguable.

"4. What is the intellectual etiquette on this website? What is this blog's attitude to verifiable truth? Do you believe that you should get to say anything you want without accountability?"

I believe any blogger can use his or her blog to express an opinion. Bloggers should be keenly aware of the effect of what they write. Verifiable truth is nice; so are passionately held beliefs. Since this is a blog and not a peer reviewed journal, I am allowed to use whatever level of prove I feel is sufficient. Readers are allowed to demand more proof. It is my option to provide it or not.

"5. Scott, do you agree with Ben's statement about New York artists? Why or why not?"

Well, I don't know. I thought his second comment was pretty interesting. I do values that transcend fashion are very important. Is it important that I publicly agree or disagree with each comment?

"6. Finally: can a "near total lack of plays on rural subject matter" and a preponderance of plays on the New York stage that "regularly" use rural stereotypes exist at the same time? How is such a thing possible?"

See, that's why I used the word "near." While rural and southern settings are are scarce as hens' teeth, when rural or southern characters or settings do appear, they often have stereotypical characteristics. For instance, was it you who asked about "The Color Purple"? First of all, it isn't set in 2007, but rather has a contemporary frame to a play set in the middle part of the 20th century. Producers like that time period because we have all that juicy racism we can portray. As brilliant as the book is, and as brilliant as the play is, and as much as I might love it if I had an opportunity to see it, the subject matter is still pretty stereotypical when it comes to southern representations: incest, sexual abuse, physical abuse, and so forth. That it turns these elements into a story of personal triumph is admirable and inspiring, and I would likely stand up and applaud like mad after the show is over. But it doesn't contradict my point, which is that this stereotypical subject matter is what makes it attractive to NY and LA producers and audiences, because it reinforces the stereotypical belief that the south is backwards, violent, and incestuous.

Anonymous said...

I’m curious to know why so many obviously intelligent and open-minded people continue, in post after post after post, to try to engage in a discussion with someone who clearly doesn’t want to engage in a discussion.

Scott Walters has little to offer except his knee-jerk reactions, gut-feelings, deeply ingrained prejudices, unsupported generalities, hypocrisy, a victim complex and a huge chip on his shoulder. He can’t give examples to back up his statements; he mostly refuses to respond to direct questions; he calls valid points irrelevant and off-topic; and his definitions slip and slide all over the place. What it comes down to is this: Scott, in his heart of hearts, feels slighted and insulted by condescending know-it-all New Yorkers. Everyone else is wrong, and no one can get him to believe otherwise. He hasn’t given a single inch in this discussion, and he never will.

What is the point of having a discussion with someone so willfully close-minded?

macrogers said...

"But it doesn't contradict my point, which is that this stereotypical subject matter is what makes it attractive to NY and LA producers and audiences, because it reinforces the stereotypical belief that the south is backwards, violent, and incestuous."

I'd just like to ask anyone still following this discussion to read the above sentence carefully. If there is such a thing as geographism, then how can this sentence be considered anything other than the statement of a bigot?

For myself, as of the above comment, Scott Walters has officially exempted his blog from the world of intellectual accountability, and I no longer know how to talk to him.

Hillary, the answer to your question is that Scott was a really great blogger for a time, and I guess it's hard for some of us to let that go now that it seems to no longer be the case.

Anonymous said...

Scott --

Things have gone off in all sorts of directions since your original post, but could we go back to the very start for just a moment? This is part of your original post...

"I insist that the NYC aesthetic is not universal, and in fact is openly scornful and dismissive of experiences and lifestyles that take place west of the Hudson and in places with less than 7 million people. There is an arrogance just beneath the surface -- hell, lying right on top of the surface -- that needs to be called out by every non-New Yorker who is tired of seeing good people insulted, and every New Yorker who has even a small conscience left. This happens regularly."

You have said that you refuse to give a power-point presentation to support your statement, and I certainly wouldn't ask for one. But could you at least provide a COUPLE examples of plays that ridicule, scorn and insult non-New Yorkers in such an offensive and hateful way? I must say, I see plays and musicals in New York three or four times a week, and I literally can't think of one show that paints such a vile portrait of non-New Yorkers. I don't need a long list from you, just a couple. Two. So I can get my head around what it is you're claiming.

I don't think that's TOO much to ask, do you? Considering your claim that it is so widespread and rampant, and that it happens regularly. Just a couple titles. Heck, I'll take even ONE, so long as it's not that Iowa skit thing on YouTube.

Thanks in advance for clearing things up.


Scott Walters said...

Hilary -- It is very interesting that you think that I am the one who needs to change, and who is being stubborn for not doing so. Couldn't the same thing be said of my responders? Is the difference that you agree with them, and so you believe I am the one who needs to change? Plus it is amazing to me that you show up out of the blue, having never been heard from before on this blog, and hurl insults like Zeus hurling thunderbolts!

Mac -- What is it about that sentence that puts me beyond the pale? I have already said that this attitude is subconscious, the result of years and years of repeated imagery originally used for a specific ideological purpose that now has been forgotten. The fact is that such subject matter plays to preconceptions and prejudices.

Gary -- OK. I've already offered "The Color Purple" as reinforcing stereotypes, despite good intentions. Please note that all reinforcement of stereotypes does not come out of evil motives, but nevertheless builds on stereotypes. 110 in the Shade just closed. Let's look at it, and at it's source, The Rainmaker. First, it follows the pattern that if a play is to be set in the south or in a rural setting, it must also be set in the past -- in this case, 1930s. This happens for differing reasons, depending on the orientation of the author. If the playwright has Romantic leanings, the south is used to evoke a simpler time when simple people lived simple lives close to the earth -- this is 110 in the Shade. Nothing horrible there, except that it refuses to view the south as being part of the modern world and reinforces an image of southern people as simple and somewhat backward. The other motivation to set a play in the south in the past is to draw on the history of racism. While this history cannot be denied, the insistence on situating all racism in the south ignores the fact that as much racism occurred in the north. And so we have films like Mississippi Burning. Vincent Canby, in a NY Times review of that film, writes of Gene Hackman's character: "Anderson is one of those independently minded Southerners who confound all out-of-state preconceptions about Mississippi , or any other place in the supposedly solid South." Now, what form would that independent-mindedness take, do you suppose? Why, he's not a racist, which goes against "out-of-state preconceptions"!

Let's look at another review of that film, this time by by Rita Kempley of The Washington Post"

"Mississippi Burning" surveys the geography of racism, sheds light on the dark night of the soul. Director Alan Parker stokes the inferno with cruelty, hatred and charring crosses, then sifts the cold ashes for clues. The mystery, ostensibly about the murder of three young civil rights workers, is the inhumanity of man.... Parker, a director of breadth, not depth, never supplies the big answers, but he does powerfully depict the climate of the Confederacy in the "Freedom Summer" of 1964. "Mississippi Burning" offers an appalling litany of white supremacist atrocities in the guise of a buddy detective thriller."

Perfect! Charred crosses, white supremacist atrocities, the climate of the Confederacy -- all wrapped up in a buddy movie! Cool!

Now, don't mistake my reaction as a condemnation of the quality of the film, or the reality of the facts it is based on. Rather, ask yourself what made this film so attractive to those who decided to produce it? I'm not saying this is a conspiracy, but rather a preconception.

Cultural critic bell hooks, when asked a leading question about violent gangsta rap that she was supposed to answer by condemning rappers, instead shifted the discussion to the white record executives who promote the music and the white surburban teenaged males who buy most of it. Like many others, she referred to gangsta rap as a "modern minstrel show" in which black men act out for a white audience their image of what it is to be African-American. It is popular because it reinforces popularly held stereotypes.

The same is true with Mississippi Burning and 110 in the Shade: they reinforce popular stereotypes by giving the audience the pleasant sense of being morally and intellectually superior to those Mean Bad Racist (or Simple Minded, Gullible) Southerners. Part of the controversy that surrounded the film of The Color Purple came from African-American men who felt that their portrayal reinforced stereotypes about African-American men.

Do you see how this works? First plays and films set in southern or rural settings are marginalized by their scarcity. Then, when they ARE produced, their subject matter reinforces longstanding stereotypes so that no "out-of-state preconceptions" are undermined. An entire sub-genre, "Southern Gothic," has been created to encompass this type of material.

Now, I suspect I am being stubborn by insisting that this pattern exists, but that's just how we southern rednecks are. Now, where did I put that sheet...

Alison Croggon said...

I'm with you there, Matt. Funny, I clicked on this immediately after clicking on Encore Theatre Magazine's astute analysis of the Royal Court's apparently new embrace of middle classness. As Theatre Worker says: "Without some clarity about what middle class means, about why it should be represented, and what is politically at stake, the call to bring the middle classes back will remain absurd and shallow. Encore doesn’t want to get all Michael Billington on yo’ ass,
but a bit more analysis wouldn’t go amiss here."


Scott Walters said...

OK, I'm missing the point you're making, Alison. Help me out.

parabasis said...

What Mac and Matt said, better than I could've said it.

Frankly, I'd be more likely to listen to this critique if it weren't so frequently built on (and inspiring to) knee-jerk NYC-bashing.

Anonymous said...

re: New Yorkers not thinking of themselves as Americans--

Wait, are my fellow New Yorkers really refuting this claim? REALLY? I mean, I don't think it's quite as simple as all that, and I think it's a much more accurate statement if you hone in a little bit on what subsets of New Yorkers you're referring to (say, liberal intellectual creative types with a tad too much formal education under their belt -- my people!) And it should be taken with a grain of salt -- the sense of New York as "not being part of America" is less of a statement of what those New Yorkers might want, and more a reflection of their sense of having had something taken from them. "I thought America meant this, but now everyone is saying that America means that, and I don't care much for that, I want my old America back..."

All that being said:

Most people I know in New York talk about not feeling like a part of the rest of America. Like New York is some haven for an older America that they miss, or the actualization of what they think America should be.

Wasn't it Time Out: New York that, for a while there, ran an annual issue featuring the dream of New York City seceding from the Union? I mean, it was published with tongue firmly planted in cheek, but there was more than a bit of truth to it. And you know we all sighed wistfully at that photoshopped image of the cover of a passport for "The Republic of New York"... With Woody Allen on the currency...

[Oh look, I lied, it was New York Magazine, I think. ]

New York City is the only place in America where teenagers turn 16 (17, 18, 23, 33...) without learning how to drive a car. That's a fundamental cultural divide right there. And have you ever tried to teach a 30 year old New Yorker how to drive? Dude...

Personal anecdote: a Slovenian tour guide at a museum in Ljubljana told me that, in her experience on the job she has noticed that while most Americans, when asked "Where are you from?" will respond "The U.S." or some such, New Yorkers almost always say "New York City." (This, of course, after I had just done exactly that.) Arrogance? Maybe. Insightful Freudian slip? Yeah, I think so.

All of which is to say: give Scott a little bit of a break. He's right, discussions like this almost always happen in generalities, with specifics pulled out as needed to advance the discussion. Pointlessly calling people out for using generalities when we all know them to be (generally) true, is, well, pointless.

David M

Anonymous said...

Mac and Joshua-in-Exile --

OK, having a moment of denseness here, please spell it out even better for me: in what way was Scott being a bigot for his analysis of the appeal of The Color Purple (or 100 in the Shade or Mississippi Burning?

That sentence he wrote exposes his bigoted views of...New Yorkers? Southerners? And why?

The very confused,
David M

Scott Walters said...

Thanks, David -- even though I think Ben overdid it just a wee bit.

Isaac, I get tired to kowtowing to the delicate sensitivities of NY bloggers. All this whining is about a small part of the original post. What I am talking about are the seats of cultural power in this country. You may or may not be sitting on that seat, Isaac, but it wasn't you or Matt or George or Mac that I was singling out. I'm talking about power relations working within the larger culture -- power that is centered in NYC and LA. If you want to make that about you, and to block out an argument because you feel wounded, then that's the choice you make. But it is a choice, make no mistake about it.

Anonymous said...

Is what I have to say to that.

Paul Rekk said...


I'm still moderately on your page (moderately because I obviously am not as impassioned as your are), but the anti-redneck racist portrayal seems to be a case that could go all its own here, and doesn't seem to mesh well with the greater picture of rural America. Of course, my roots are firmly rural, and you have a good deal of Southern, so that alone is enough to explain the gap in our leanings. I am tempted to say that it also explains a lot of the gap between you and your firing squad as well, but am loathe to lest I get presented with a blindfold and last cigarette myself.

Aw hell, I'll do it anyway. The NY blogosphere needs to take a second from your railing for individualism and realize that there is a common thread amongst you all: you are from New York, and at the risk of sounding painfully obvious, there is an identification factor involved. Whatever your definition of the common New Yorker is, you nonetheless relate to art set in or portraying aspects of New York. And why not? You're New Yorkers! I would imagine the same holds true on the borough level as well; I know it does on a moderate scale for Chicago neighborhoods.

Here's where the problem begins in my mind: If you, as a New Yorker, find a depiction of yourself that you see as completely wrong-headed (perhaps, and I only say perhaps, in some of Scott's word choice in recent days), you can rally and cry foul and move on, because it's inevitable that there is a new depiction for you to consume right around the corner.

Me? I identify with Iowans. And, believe me, when we see or hear Iowa break into the pop culture, ears perk, because it just don't happen all that often. And when, for example, I don't associate myself at all with baseball in cornfields (because say what you will, but that's all anyone took out of that movie -- even "Is this heaven? No, it's Iowa." is only catchphrase, never a sentiment, for Iowans and non-Iowans alike... but especially non-Iowans), then it's a big fat opportunity to see identification with my home presented in mainstream culture pissed down the drain. And there just ain't many opportunities like that.

That's the main problem -- not that Iowa (or what have you) is portrayed in a hateful light, but that a wide majority of the time, as far as the mainstream culture is concerned, we don't even exist.

As to the answer? Well, you see, that's where I'm no help. Yeah, bunches of shows set in, on, and about Iowa would be neat, but it's just not a problem I have any interest in tackling. Personally, my time would be better spent bringing theatre to Iowa than Iowa to the theatre. But just because I'm not actively working to solve a problem doesn't mean I won't acknowledge that it exists, or that I won't support Scott's efforts to correct it.

Anonymous said...


I'm an Iowan, and though I currently live in New York, I'm definitely not a fan of the city . . . and will probably move when my wife learns to drive.

That being said, he's not speaking of New Yorkers, but New York Theatre . . . which has presented Horton Foote, Tennessee Williams, Naomi Wallace, Sam Shepard, scads of folks from all places, including the south.

He's speaking of something, New York Theatre, which he doesn't attend, only reads about in the paper, and his assumptions aren't based on what he knows, but what he thinks he knows - trust me, I'm as sensitive to bigoted slights as anyone, he's off base here . . .

Scott Walters said...

Joshua, I am going to leave the link to your post, because I think that's fair. Even though you are proposing to boycott my blog, I will leave the link up because that is fair.

And while I obviously disagree with pretty much everything you wrote, I will only address one thing I consider a misconception: yes, my initial post took off from a theatre production, but "New York aesthetic" paragraph did not confine itself to theatre -- in fact, it doesn't even mention theatre. Had I a chance to edit, I would have used the word "ideology" rather than "aesthetic," because aesthetic implies something about form rather than content. But otherwise, the paragraph and, indeed, the rest of the original post was pretty broadly defined. In fact, it doesn't single out theatre at all. I welcome anyone who wants to look at the original post to find references to theatre beyond the Iowa 08 jumping off place. Let's focus on the text, not on your interpretation of the text.

Anonymous said...

Even including film and television, your argument doesn't hold water . . . there is not one NY ideology, shoot, if there was, I'd admit it . . . there are NY cultural tendencies, just as there are Iowa cultural tendencies (and Nebraskan and Minnesota) but in New York you have many cultures and therefore, many different types of ideologies and identities . . . the idea that there is ONLY ONE just doesn't compute with the world I've work in, here in the arts, for the last 12 or 14 years . . .

I will confess, and I'm not accusing you of this, mind you, I will confess that the only time I've EVER heard anyone complain about a NEW YORK arts ideology from a rural person here, what was really being said was:

1) Too Jewish
2) Too gay

I don't believe that's what you're doing, I'm just pointing out that the only time I've heard this complaint has been from people I viewed as bigots themselves . . .

Which may explain why tempers are up. I also offer up that I know many, many writers from places not New York who have done well for themselves . . . writers not just of theatre but of many things, and artists and so on . . .

My wife is Japanese and a designer, and she loves it here . . . her views are very different, definitely unique and not New York but, in a way, it is because New York is a hodge-podge of cultures.

The fact remains that, for every film you trot out that makes fun of rural folk, there's one that makes fun of New Yorkers, and there's also one that does't make fun of rural folk . . . there are many voices in the arts, some listen well and express themselves well, and some don't.

So mull that.

And Scott, how can you claim, from where you sit, to be an authority on "New York arts ideology"?

parabasis said...


Are you this Ben Kessler:

Anonymous said...

For the last 6 months I've been working of the tour of a show by a young playwright here in New York. She's Asian American, and a year or two back, when she was an up-and-coming figure on the downtown scene, she would have these meetings with artistic directors. And they would tell her how much they liked her work, were interested in producing something, etc, and then inevitably ask her whether she had any plays about her identity as an Asian-American. This can from artistic directors of Asian-American theater companies, and from white ADs of "general" theater companies.

This pissed her off to no end. Her white (and especially white male) peers were allowed to write any damn play they wanted, but because she was Asian she was expected to write solely about her identity as an Asian-American (even better if she would write something about her identity as an Asian-American Woman. Finally she had enough of this, and decided, "Fine, you want an Identity Play, I'll give you an Identity Play," and she wrote a ballsy, brash, complicated script unlike any other Identity Play I've seen. It was fantastically successful in New York, and now we're touring it all over the world.

Some observations:

1) Absolutely there is stereotyping, even perhaps racism, operating here. (If it is racism it's of a terribly postmodern sort, since it's a racism born out of a profound and sincere attempt to correct the racism of the past, to foster mutual understanding, etc. Very Michel Foucault.) Her artistic options were being curtailed by the powers that be based solely on her race. It is internalized racism (they don't mean to be racist, in fact they're trying to be the opposite) and it is present in both the white ADs and the Asian-American ADs.

2) She wrote this play as a big "fuck you" to the entire concept of Identity Plays, to the stereotype that all she can write about is her ethnic or racial identity -- and it was her big breakout play, her most successful show up to that point. She was revolting against the system, but the system still managed to put her back into the stereotype, and rewarded her for it. Again, see Foucault.

3) All that aside, it is hard for me to ignore the fact that she hated the idea that she was expected to write about her membership in this group. To be sure, she has the ability to do so, she has the inside scoop, and she did it very well (IMHO). But this trap she found herself in, where she's expected to "represent for her people" in order to achieve some broader culture balance of white to non-white perspectives -- this was profoundly oppressive to her.

So who's supposed to write those plays about Iowa? I mean sure, I agree with you that it would be lovely to hear more voices on our stage from around the country, but it sounds like you're saying (because of your examples about not seeing many plays set in the Midwest or South on stages in New York) that if we had a cadre of fabulous playwrights from Iowa and Georgia and Ohio and Louisiana, all with shows running non-stop; but if none of them were set in Iowa, none had the sound of Georgian voices and accents on stage, none were directly addressing life in Louisiana; it sounds like this would not meet your criteria for being examples of the broader geographic culture of the United States. Am I misunderstanding you? Is it in your opinion enough that those playwrights were having their voices heard? They are, after all, Midwestern and Southern voices, even if they aren't speaking directly about Midwestern and Southern things.

David M

Anonymous said...

Scott –

Thanks so much for your response. What I asked for was just a couple specific examples of work that exemplified what you called “the NYC aesthetic” that is “openly scornful and dismissive of experiences and lifestyles that take place west of the Hudson.”

What you GAVE me were examples of work that you considered guilty of “reinforcing stereotypes.” So I can’t tell whether you think those two things are one and the same, whether you’re now backpedaling and softening your terminology, or whether you’ve chosen to ignore my request. All of the above is of course within your right – it IS your blog after all – but I want to be clear what it is I’m responding to.

Working on the assumption that you ARE trying to answer my question, I’ll assume that the three examples you gave are in fact example of the NYC aesthetic that you find so widespread, rampant and derogatory. Since that is what I asked for. (If not, would you mind giving me an example of THAT, since it WAS the gist of your original post, and the thing you claim to see everywhere.)

110 Degrees in the Shade – I agree that it’s pretty offensive, but it’s also a corny old musical that’s almost 50 years old. Yes, it was produced this season, but I think most everyone in the audience can contextualize the work as the outdated warhorse it is. It’s clearly not a very good example of the current attitudes and aesthetics of New York City-based art-makers. I don’t suspect it was fifty years ago, frankly.

Mississippi Burning – you wrote a lovely analysis of a fact-based movie from two decades ago. Again, not the best example of the current attitudes and aesthetics of New York City-based art-makers.

The Color Purple – Yes, a currently running musical, so I guess that’s fair. And it certainly traffics in stereotypes (in particular of African American men) but for the life of me I don’t know what makes this show uniquely New York. In fact, I would personally categorize it as one of the LEAST New Yorky shows on the boards.

Yes, the Color Purple happens to be running on Broadway, but it’s based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Southern writer Alice Walker (born and raised in Eatonton, GA) and adapted for the stage by the Pulitzer Prize winning Southern playwright Marsha Norman (born and raised in Louisville, KY.) The songs are by Detroit songwriters Allee Willis and Stephen Bray. And the show was directed by Chicago-based director Gary Griffin. The musical premiered at the Alliance Theater in Atlanta, GA before eventually coming to New York. So while I certainly can agree that there are some stereotypes in there, for the life of me I can’t see how those stereotypes are a result of New Yorkers’ scornful anti-Southern attitudes and aesthetics. I don’t think any of the creators are even New Yorkers. (Marsha Norman may be a transplant, but my god is there a MORE Southern playwright than Marsha Norman? Maybe Beth Henley, but that’s it.)

You may be right about non-New Yorkers being woefully under-represented on New York stages – though I don’t know if that’s accurate or not. But for the life of me, I personally don’t see the blatant (or even subtle) examples of what you call “geographism.” You are obviously passionate, and downright enraged by it, so please please please I beg of you, give me your very best example, just ONE example, one CONTEMPORARY example of a show that not only reinforces stereotypes – but the show that to you best exemplifies the “the NYC aesthetic” that is “openly scornful and dismissive of experiences and lifestyles that take place west of the Hudson.”

I am really just trying to figure out SPECIFICALLY what it is you keep referring to.

Thank you again.


Ben Kessler said...

I'm not that Ben Kessler. It's rather confusing that there are two pissed-off guys out there with the same name, I know. :) Also, my doppelganger has much more Google visibility than I do, which sucks.

Freeman said...

After reading this response to Isaac...

"Isaac, I get tired to kowtowing to the delicate sensitivities of NY bloggers. All this whining is about a small part of the original post. What I am talking about are the seats of cultural power in this country. You may or may not be sitting on that seat, Isaac, but it wasn't you or Matt or George or Mac that I was singling out. I'm talking about power relations working within the larger culture -- power that is centered in NYC and LA. If you want to make that about you, and to block out an argument because you feel wounded, then that's the choice you make. But it is a choice, make no mistake about it."

...I'm sort of embarrassed to have given the discussion as much time and attention as I have.

It's a childish, dismissive response which, if nothing else, lumps New Yorkers together by their region. For anyone bothering to think about the very topic of this discussion, that's at best ironic, and at worst hypocritical. It undercuts to me any validity the discussion might have had, and that validity was already tenuous.

My conclusion is, essentially, that the issue brought up the in original post hasn't been illustrated effectively, to put it politely. I don't agree that New York-centrism (a popular topic on "Theatre Ideas") and Regionalism are serious issues worthy of this much consideration. They might make Scott personally feel peevish, but that's really not something I need to involve myself in. It seems very much like an overblown frustration, and not a societal problem akin to racism or cultural prejudice.

Mark said...

>The NY blogosphere needs to take a second from your railing for individualism and realize that there is a common thread amongst you all: you are from New York

Point of order: Freeman is from rural Pennsylvania, I am from northern Minnesota and Joshua is from Iowa. I do not know of any participant in this conversation that is "from" New York.

Paul Rekk said...


I do agree, there's a lot more to this than meets the eye, and thanks for raising the points that you have. I was merely trying to address the points to the level that we currently seem to be running on (which is not a judgment aimed at either side, just an observation that we seem to be arguing about the topic rather than on the topic).

I really don't have any good answers, and I was being perfectly honest in saying that I'm not terribly interested in the problem. Sure, I took minor exception at Iowa 08 (and sure, I did so not having seen the show), but I called it as such and was content. And sure, I will continue to take note whenever Iowa gets noticed on a large scale. But I don't really feel that the lack has created that large of a hole in my soul, so I'm not going to spend much time worrying about it.

However, I look through these comments and I see Scott getting mobbed for what seems to me to be a select choice of what may or may not have been poor word selection that has little to due with the issue he is raising. He has a valid concern; the importance of it, as Freeman points out, is certainly up for argument. I don't see that argument taking place. I see hurt feelings and retaliation and I was trying to bring it back around.

Which is a long way of saying: very good points, sincere thanks for the consideration, I hope it can help further the discussion, but like Freeman, it's just not my thing.


These are the sorts of non-issues that I think are killing any chance of a true discussion. I see myself as both an Iowan and a Chicagoan, amongst many other societal roles. You're going to have a hard time convincing me that you only feel one cultural identity and that is based on your point of origin, but if that's the case, fine.

But these points of order and selective readings and calls for hard fact are stopping the real discourse dead in it's tracks. I've made my attempt to get this back on track, I won't get dragged into the frivolities.

And, truly, Mark, none of that or the above is meant as an affront to you or the NY blogosphere; simply to unfortunate depths to which what could have been a lively and interesting debate has been plunged.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to add that Alison Croggon is Australian.

I'm also Australian and I think Matt from rural Pennsylvania's conclusion is spot on. And Scott, if you read it in relation to Alison's post, it might help illuminate the point that you couldn't grasp when you responded to her earlier in this thread.

Alison Croggon said...

All I was pointing out was that a good thinker, like Theatre Worker, is clear about the terms under discussion. And Scott isn't: it's theatre culture, it's media, it's cultural hegemony, it's this, it's that, steretype is ok in one moment but not the next, etc etc. That's why he's impossible to argue with, and why discussions here seem to end up in such a kerfuffle of personal insult.

It's a pity, because underneath all that balderdash, Scott has a point. I'd suggest a more fruitful place to begin would be John Berger. Who says, among many other interesting things, that the greatest division in the contemporary world is between urban and rural communities. I think Berger's right (Berger is for the rural, btw) and there are some interesting places to begin discussion there. But unfortunately, Berger is not American, but English, and worse still, he lives in France, so he might be counted as irrelevant to this conversation.

macrogers said...

Paul, Ben, Gary, David M, Hillary, Tony, Alison, Isaac, Freeman, et. al. - I'd be happy to continue this discussion at your blogs, at my blog (, or over email (mac dot rogers at gmail dot com), should you wish to.

Anonymous said...

Scott, you say in a comment above that "The Color Purple" traffics in stereotypes and elsewhere you've mentioned that the inclusion of incest in its storyline continues a negative stereotype of the prevalence of incest in the South/rural communities. Yet you also hold up Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye" as emblematic of how internalized self-hatred, derived from dominant cultural paradigms, affects minorities/disempowered communities. (I believe that was the gist of your argument -- please correct me if I'm wrong.) Yet as you undoubtedly know, incest is also at the heart of "The Bluest Eye."

So -- is Morrison trafficking in stereotypes, too? And if so, what makes it less objectionable for her to do so than for Alice Walker to have done so in her story? More to the point -- who gets to be the final arbiter of what is or is not a stereotype? Or is this like the famous saying on obscenity -- "you know it when you see it?"

Not trying to be snarky -- like many others trying to follow this discussion, I find myself confused by the seemingly shifting sands of your rhetorical inconsistencies. This is just one that really stood out for me, because though I haven't seen the musical of "The Color Purple," I think both Walker and Morrison achieved something fine and lasting in those respective books, and it's hard for me to think of Celie or Pecola as stereotypes in any way.


Anonymous said...


If I'm correctly following Scott's thinking (Scott, please correct me here, I'm not trying to put words in your mouth) I think the answer to your questions has to do with the difference between content and form.

The Bluest Eye illustrates, in its content, the effects on an individual of internalized stereotypes.

The content of The Color Purple is not stereotypical, and by itself it is not formally stereotypical. But when you place it in a long line of plays (movie, tv shows etc) which consistently represent the South as racist, incestuous and violent (without offering other examples of what the South is as a culture) then it becomes, in form but not content, a stereotype of life in the South.

(By that reasoning, of course, one could say that The Bluest Eye is also formally stereotypical, if one also felt that there was a similar dearth in literature of alternate depictions of Southern life.)

Yes? No?

David M

Scott Walters said...

David -- Pretty good. Be careful -- you'll be accused of being crazy.

I would also add one thing: while I might have to say that The Bluest Eye also traffics in certain "tropes," which you note (although it is set in Ohio, not the south), it balances those tropes within the work itself. Thus, the McTeer family provides a balance to the Breedloves that shifts our focus away from stereotypes because it provides an alternative image.

I have great admiration for The Color Purple, by the way, and I have said so, but within the context of this discussion of specific stereotypical subject matter, it isn't to be seen as the antidote, the balance.

Anonymous said...

But now I must ask: is it the inherent responsibility of an artist to provide "alternative images" and "balance?" Is Alice Walker (or Toni Morrison, or Suzan-Lori Parks, or Kia Cothron) to be held lacking if they fail to provide what an outsider to their world deems "balance" to their stories? After all, Walker was also berated for trafficking in "stereotypes" of brutal black men. Yet such men do exist -- is it her responsibility to provide "the antidote" to a situation (male violence against women) that she didn't create? (In a much less significant vein -- I could get up in arms at all the stereotypical images of hard-drinking Irish and Scots out there, but coming from a long line of such, when I read, say, Frank McCourt, I don't think "Oh, here we go with the dissolute Irish Da again!" I think "Well, he's writing what he knows." That it plays into an unfortunate stereotype isn't his fault. Nor is he required to provide "balance" -- he's an artist, not a network news outfit.)

And I'd still like an answer to the broader question -- how do you make the intellectual determination as to what is a stereotype? Not "Oh, this makes me uncomfortable or angry, therefore it must be bad." I really want to know how you determine that. I would trust that if one of your students chose to evaluate a piece of work based on a fragment (as you did with the video that started this whole thing in the first place), you would question their academic rigor.

As a side note: how, in the past, have you handled people you've encountered in rural or southern communities who may have expressed negative attitudes toward New Yorkers or northerners or urban dwellers? (Referencing here in part Joshua's note from god-knows-where in all of this that he has encountered people who use "New York" as code for "Jewish" or "Gay" -- just as Nancy Pelosi's alleged "San Francisco values" were used as code by those on the right for "sexual libertines who hate America.") Surely you've come across them. Do you call them out on it? How? Have you found, in other words, an effective offline strategy for countering those you've met in the course of daily life who use negative stereotypes based on regionalism?


Scott Walters said...

Kerry -- Interesting questions you ask. WEB Dubois encountered the same one during the Harlem Renaissance when Langston Hughes rose up and said, in "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," that he was tired of writing with white people in mind, and tired of caring what white people thought of black people, and trying of trying to "be white." He just wanted to write about all kinds of black people -- poor, criminal, lazy, whatever. Dubois warned that the battle wasn't over, that many white people were using the fact that a few poets like Hughes were getting published as a reason to declare the racial problem over, and ended up saying that he didn't give a damn for art for arts sake because all art is propaganda!

Well, I wouldn't go as far as Dubois, and I also think Hughes had a great attitude (basically, "If white people are pleased, we are glad; if they are not, it doesn't matter, because we are proud black men writing good poetry"). But I have often expressed the belief that an artist is responsible to more than themselves -- that what they put out in the world should make the world better.

That said, to lay the responsibility for balance and alternative images on the backs of individual artists isn't right, because it shifts the onus of responsibility from the system to the individual. In a cultural situation where there were many portrayals of differing views of the south, for instance, one could be less concerned about stereotypes. But when this is not the case, then each use of a stereotype adds another straw to the cultural camel's back.

As far as encountering prejudice in daily life, I do what I can, and not as much as I might. But again, that is at the level of the individual, and I am speaking here about the level of the system. I'm not trying to cop out on that question, but rather to separate the two strands.

Adam Szymkowicz said...

I think what many of us were reacting against was that we felt we were being stereotyped as liberal geographically bigoted New Yorkers while at the same time you were railing against stereotypes against southerners.

I think you are right actually about much of the media--tv and film. they are, after all, built in LA and in NYC. But I don't really think the New York theatre scene or theatre in general has the same inherent problem. Especially the off off theatre scene and regional scene that i think us bloggers live and thrive in.

It is true that sterotypes exist because they are based on fact. But also stereotype writing is bad writing. and it's writing that ignores humanity.

New York theatre has its share of bad writing of course and so does theatre in general, but I'm optimistic about new writing and new writers for the theatre right now. And these people are not all new yorkers nor do they all live in new york or write about new york. I just want to put that out there.

Scott Walters said...

Adam -- My focus on NY is more on NY as the seat of power, rather than individuals. You are right that OOB and the theatre in general is less likely ot fall back on stereotypes. But I would also argue that theatre tends to create many more stories about the urban experience than the rural, and more about the northern experience than the southern. And there isn't anything particularly surprising about that -- people write what they know. What is problematic is when the topics being written about and performed start losing diversity -- that isn't good for the theatre or for the culture. And when it does become narrow, then it is more acceptable to use condescension to portray experiences outside your own.

I would say, in reference to Kerry's Frank McCourt reference, that there is a difference between writing from personal experience and writing about something you know only secondhand, or as a stereotype.

I also just realized, Kerry, that I failed to answer your other question about what determines a stereotype. In many ways, the definition I offered on Tuesday is a good starting place. 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 it isn't just one thing, but a repeated image. And so forth. Does that answer your question, Kerry?

Anonymous said...

It does partially answer my question, though, again, I would like some specific examples offered of what cultural artifacts you think contain such damning and repetitive use of stereotypes.

Outside of lazy sketch comedy artists (the "Appalachian ER" recurring sketch from SNL comes to mind), I can't think of people who routinely draw upon lowest-common-denominator images of rural life or southerners in their work. (And most of those lazy short-hand stereotypes are applied equally by these hacks to urban Italians, blacks, Latinos, Asians, etc.) Now, we could argue an ABSENCE of rural life in mass media. But that could -- could -- also be a reflection of the fact that people in Hollywood also "write what they know." And increasingly, the populations in the U.S. are urban and suburban. I'm not arguing for a tyranny of the majority -- but surely you recognize how problematic it is when people outside a community attempt to speak for it or write for it? I have some knowledge of rural life based on the fact that my mother grew up on a farm and several of her relatives are still farmers. But rural life in central Illinois probably doesn't closely resemble rural life in the Carolinas or Alabama, and I would be hesitant to write about that world unless I spent a lot of time there first.

This, again, speaks to why a lot of people in urban areas who read your blog got upset at your broad generalizations (and it appears not to be the first time they've cropped up here). I didn't like people in San Francisco telling me about what a racist horrible city Chicago is (not that the race problem isn't here, of course, but San Francisco is far from the liberal egalitarian mecca some of its denizens imagine), when they had never spent any time in Chicago and were basing their statements largely on the race riots of the 60s, the Elder Daley's comments on Martin Luther King Jr., etc. You know -- things that had happened 40 years ago.

So surely you can understand why people in New York, in particular, would be upset at your characterizations of their theater community (and regardless of your subsequent widening of the terms of discussion, it did initially start out pretty pointedly as an attack on New York theater, and you have made similar comments in the past). Even if you did live there at one point and feel that your impressions are valid based on that, communities change over time. I certainly wouldn't go to North Carolina and expect to find lynchings and cross burnings in full force, for example. So I don't think it's unreasonable for people in New York to ask "So what have your recent experiences been like in New York that has left such a sour taste in your mouth?"


P.S. A (soon-to-be-former) Chicago playwright you should check out is Brett Neveu, who has written several terrific plays about small-town life. He is from Iowa originally and is on his way to LA. I particularly recommend "Eric LaRue," about the aftermath of a school shooting, and "American Dead," which is really about a small midwestern farm town dying on the vine -- a play I saw, ironically enough, the same week the NY Times had an article on just that phenomenon. (See! They did notice!)

Tracy Letts' new play at Steppenwolf, "August: Osage County" is also a terrific exploration of midwest family dysfunction. Yes, there is incest in it. No, it's not like you might imagine. And the family is from an academic background, so they're not just salt-of-the-earth farm stereotypes. Just sayin'.

Anonymous said...

Scott, I apologize for taking up so much time and bandwidth today, but there is one other thing to consider that a friend just reminded me about: the influence of two married Christians from Texas on the entire textbook industry for years and years.

As an educator, I'm sure that's something you find worrisome. Is this a fair example of "regional values" being imposed by fiat on an entire nation? I think it is. I of course am not asking you to "distance yourself" from it (that would be astoundingly silly and stupid), but to consider it as part of the whole, part of the "culture wars" in which writers, editors, educators, and artists have been engaged by non-members of their community for many, many years. So not all the balance of power favors the leftie northwestern liberal media elite.


Think Again: Funding and Budgets in the Arts

Every once in a while, I think I'll post a link or two to posts written earlier in the life of Theatre Ideas that seem worth revisiting ...