Friday, August 03, 2007

Roy Blount On South (and North)

Here is a wonderful article by Roy Blount about being from the South entitled "Deep in the Heart of It: Where Sounding Dumb Doesn't Equal Being Dumb." (Thanks for the referral from the "Ghost Light" blog).

I'm quoting only a small piece of the essay here, which is very funny and very insightful in the way only Roy Blount can be. (I loved the Michael Dukakis / John Edwards story near the end). Blount tends to use the stereotypes to his advantage, sorta like Mark Twain (yeah, I'm sure I'm not saying anything particularly original there -- every humorist who uses a folksy delivery probably gets that one). Anyway, he writes about when he was young:

Here’s what happened when I moved to New York. I hadn’t unpacked my bag before people started telling me, “You’re not from around here.” Didn’t I know that? “I see you haven’t lost the accent,” they would say severely, as if I were willfully convicting myself of narrow-mindedness with every syllable I uttered.

That was awkward, but interesting. As a white Southerner I had come to terms, on my own recognizance, with being a (heartily) recovering Mr. Charlie. It kind of tickled me, as we say back home, to suddenly be an object of prejudice. Since I couldn’t see that it would keep me from doing anything I really wanted to do, it even gave me a kind of edge. Years ago at a New York cocktail party I was chatting with George “Jerry” Goodman, who wrote and spoke trenchantly about money matters under the name of Adam Smith. Nice guy. Evidently I said something that struck him as halfway cogent (so it couldn’t have been about money), because he gave me a sincerely startled look and said, “You’re not so dumb.” I have to admit, I was surprised. Not so much by his surprise as by how unselfconsciously he expressed it. He seemed to have been caught more off guard than I was, so I was able to think to myself, “You’re not so broad-minded."

I'm just sayin'...


Over the course of the past week, I have been repeatedly asked to provide examples of the type of contemporary play that I feel illustrates the point I am trying to make. This has proven more challenging than expected for a variety of reasons, most notably, that the best plays tend not to use such stereotypes because as Adam Szymkowicz noted, "stereotype writing is bad writing. and it's writing that ignores humanity." Bad plays are usually not the ones who make it onto the publishers lists and into the anthologies where we out-of-towners in the "outback" get a chance to encounter them. There may be dozens and dozens of plays each month like Iowa 08 that use such stereotypes and run for a small number of performances and then are never heard from again. Or there may be none. It is not something I am able to comment on. So I will confine my examples to fairly major plays after making one caveat: many of these plays, in fact most of these plays, are powerful, wonderful plays that I enjoy reading, seeing, and teaching. Their inclusion in this list should not be seen as condemnation of their value as works of art, but rather examples of how even great plays can reinforce stereotypes. If there were greater balance of representation on stages, this would not be an issue at all.

In addition, I would reiterate what another blogger has already noted that the mass media is more responsible for perpetuating stereotypes than the theatre. In the case of theatre, the "sins" may be of omission rather than commission, i.e., it may be exemplified more by a lack of stage space devoted to rural or southern plays than plays that actively advance a stereotype.

OK, enough disclaimers. By request, here are a few plays that strike me as reinforcing stereotypes:

Mud by Maria Irene Fornes. Set on an isolated farm. Populated by uneducated, illiterate, violent characters, one of whom regularly has sex with a pig.

Sam Shepard has been held up as a positive example, but let's really look at some of his greatest plays.

Fool for Love. Set in the rural southwest. A violent, incestuous relationship between a half-sister and half-brother.

Buried Child. Set on a farm in Illinois. Characters include a one-legged, abusive son; another son who is seemingly lobotomized and cannot remember his own child; incest and murder. The only characters with any sense of normality are from the city.

A Lie of the Mind. Set in Wyoming and Arizona. Main character beats his wife nearly to death; her brother, also a violent psycho, shoots and holds captive the main character's brother; father of main character has tanning paste repeatedly rubbed into his feet because he thinks it helps. General sense of narrow-mindedness and intolerance.

How I Learned to Drive by Paula Vogel. Set in rural Maryland. Incest. Stereotypical portrayal of family members.

Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean by Ed Graczyk. Set in a small Texas town. Homophobia. Narrow-mindedness. Lives defined by an encounter with Hollywood.

The Last Meeting of the White Magnolias by Preston Jones. Set in Bradleyville, TX. Caricatures of southern "good ole boys." Reinforcement of racist stereotypes. (In many ways, the entire "Texas Trilogy" is problematic.)

Given more time, access to some play catalogs, and most importantly, the willingness to spend additional time doing this, I could probably add to the list. But for now, let these plays stand as an illustration of the topic.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

A New Idea on an Old Theme

"Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — 'Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.' — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood?" -- R. W. Emerson

Actually, Ralph, yeah it is bad to be misunderstood, but I like the quotation anyway -- good slogan for a blogger.

So at the risk of being accused of changing the direction of the discussion, I want to follow an exchange on Issac's blog that has led to a lightbulb for me. The idea is too young for me to determine its viability or usefulness, but I hope some of you can help me with it.

I tend to me what I think of as a "mashup thinker" -- I like to put together things that don't usually go together and see what happens. So I need to quote the comments to display the elements.

Here is the series of comments:

Isaac wrote:

The first thing that bugs me is that I'm not exactly sure what we're talking about. I've read the posts and (most of) the comments, and I still don't quite know. Are we talking about urban areas vs. non-urban areas? Not exactly. I'm sure Scott would agree that citizens of Atlanta fall prey to the "dominant culture" too. Are we talking North and South? Not exactly, as most of Maine probably bears more similarities to North Carolina than it does New York City. We seem to be talking about some subset of Northeastern Liberal Elites, you know the kind of guys who are portrayed in the Itchy and Scratchty an dPoochie epsiode of The Simpsons. But since this group is hard to define, a whole bunch of stereotypes have entered the conversation. And since the terms of what's being discussed are vague, the anxiety level gets ramped up quickly, which in turn boosts the hostility level up which in turn makes sure that nothing being said will be listened to or built off of. For the purposes of this conversation, I'm going to be referring to the two groups Scott is talking about as The City and The Country. This is vague, I know, but I just need to find something.

I responded:

Hey, Isaac. The City / Country dichotomy is good. I'd also say there is a North / South as well, one that is perhaps stronger.

Tony wrote:

Scott: I think the city/country dichotomy Issac proposes works much better than a North/South one. This is in part due to the sheer number of people who moved up north in the first half of the last century looking for factory work, which changed the cultural landscape immensely.

To which I responded:

Tony -- I see the point you are making about the Great Migration during the early part of the 20th century. I don't want to quibble, but the same pattern has occurred with the City / Country, with the migration of rural residents to the city. Then, just to make it even more unclear, we have the migration that started in the 1980s from the north to the south, as cities like Atlanta and Charlotte grew rapidly as did the rest of the sunbelt. So here's my question: given all this intermixing, shouldn't all these stereotypes have disappeared long ago? And if they haven't (and I don't think we can say they have), why haven't they?

This led me to a comment on Travis Bedard's "Midnight Honesty at Noon," where, after making a list of his own biases, he writes:

This of course will feel different than, say, being biased against the Country (to borrow Isaac's construct), but they are just as destructive to the work, and towards building community (which I take as part of my responsibility as an artist). Besides I'm not sure where I fall on the City/Country scale with my 24 years in New Hampshire, 5 in San Francisco, and 3 in Austin. I have more raw years in New Hampshire, but the large percentage of my adult life in urban and semi-urban environs.

And suddenly I remembered other bloggers: Mac is from North Carolina; Joshua is from Iowa; Matt is from Pennsylvania; James Comtois says " I'm from New Hampshire. I live in New York;" I'm from Wisconsin now living in North Carolina after having lived in Minnesota, Illinois, and NYC. Like most of the US population, we are all constantly on the move. And my mind snapped back to my question: "given all this intermixing, shouldn't all these stereotypes have disappeared long ago? And if they haven't (and I don't think we can say they have), why haven't they?"

And an unexpected answer popped up: perhaps the issue isn't North vs South, or City vs Country. Perhaps the issue is native vs non-native. Here in Asheville, for instance, we have been experiencing a population explosion comprised mostly of northern retirees. They arrive with, of course, their northern way of interacting that is different than the southern way -- nothing awful, just a different way of doing. But then they make a Big Mistake: they start trying to tell the natives how things OUGHT to be done. And this causes conflict. To the point where I have seen bumper stickers around town that say, "We don't CARE how you did it up north." The northerners who have moved here don't identify themselves as southerners now that they are here -- they remain, in their heart of hearts, northerners and probably always will. For instance, it took me several years to finally switch my football allegiance from the Minnesota Vikings to the Carolina Panthers -- a step that required that I admit to myself that, in fact, I LIVE in North Carolina. (This step was made easier by the total fucked up mess that the Vikings went through around that time.)

Anyway, all these people mix together, and they adopt little pieces of their new land. Perhaps Matt moves to NYC and starts talking or walking a little faster, and my Wisconsin/North Chicago accent starts to take on a bit more of the elisions of Southern speech. But the natives stay the same.

And it occurs to me that THEY are the ones the stereotypes are about. That there is a sense of scorn for people who stay in one place their entire lives, and on the other side a sense of distrust of those who come bopping in from somewhere else and try to change the way things have always been done.

And those involved in the arts, and involved in television and movies, are much more likely to be migrants, not natives. And their simultaneous bafflement and attraction to the idea of being in one place, of having a intergenerational home, leads to comic stereotypes on the one hand, and romantic idealizations on the other. The stereotypes still exist because we can't quite come to terms with people who haven't melted in the melting pot. It's the same thing we see when people are angry with immigrants for holding on to the traditions of their former culture -- "Melt, dammit!" we insist.

And there are parts of the country that we assume are filled with more natives. Iowa, for instance, because some people can't imagine why you would live there if you weren't from there; small towns, because we tend to think bigger is better; and so on.

We write what we know, and what we know is migration and adaptation. So it is hard to write about what it might feel like to live the same place that your father and grandfather lived, because most of us haven't been where we are long enough to put down more than the most superficial roots.

New York is the ultimate migrant town, filled with people from the 50 states and most of the countries of the world. What could it possibly mean to have lived all your life in a single place? How could that possibly be interesting?

Those are the new thoughts.

Action Plan: A Modest Proposal

A while back in this discussion, Matt Freeman asked for an action plan as it applies to the issue of regional representation in the arts. And of course, this topic also connects to my opinions concerning the value of decentralizing the theatre. So I allowed myself the luxury to imagine that I was suddenly named the head of the NEA -- what one thing would I do to enact change?

I decided that I would make the following rule in regards to funding:

If you are a regional theatre, you will receive NEA funding only if you meet the following criteria:

1. 75% of the talent involved with your theatre (actors, directors, designers, artistic director) is drawn from artists who have lived in your state for at least a year.

2. At least one mainstage production each year must be written by a playwright who is a resident of your state, and be set in your state.

The effect of these two little rules would be dramatic.

Suddenly, the necessity of moving to New York in order to be considered for regional theatre roles would be eliminated. Theatre artists, like almost all other workers in our national economy, could choose where they would like to spend their lives, rather than being compelled by conditions to make a choice between their lifestyle and their art.

Playwrights would suddenly spring forth from all kinds of unexpected places. As Robert Gard found when, in the 1920s, he put out a call for plays about Wisconsin, there are many, many artists whose love of theatre is powerful, but who have no outlet for their work. They write plays that they put into their desk drawer never to be seen except by their descendents when they are cleaning out the desk after the playwright's death.

But but sputter. Wouldn't quality suffer? Maybe at first, while the theatre scene was rearranged, but I suspect that soon we would see a rise in quality, diversity, and energy in the theatre scene. I also suspect that nationwide support for the arts, and for the funding of the NEA, would become stronger as a larger portion of the nation felt more closely connected to its theatres.

In addition, the issue of the perpetuation of stereotypes would be weakened, as people who were from an area created art that was about that area, and began to tell stories of all the wonderful characters from its past, from its myths. There might be an increase in the gathering of oral histories, which could be used as the basis for productions, and also as a means of preserving the daily life of everyday folks who make up the bedrock of a state's population.

But it sure would look different.

Think I'll drop Dana Gioia a note...

Another Voice

For those of you who might want to hear a voice other than the usual suspects about the topic we are discussing, I refer you to Cherryl Floyd-Miller's blog, Rootwork: A Writer's Life and Poetics. Floyd-Miller, known by many artists as "Blue," is a poet, playwright, fiber artist and advocate for fellow artists (for a more detailed bio, click here). In her post "Stereotype, Caricature...Balance," she talks about the ideas being debated on this blog, and her experiences as a Southerner and Southern writer, and the caricatures and stereotypes that she deals with regularly.

Many prominent NY bloggers have weighed in on this debate and declared there is no problem. In fact, they have declared the discussion over. On the other hand, bloggers from the South such as me and Floyd-Miller, have said there is, indeed, a problem. One might raise a question about who would be more likely to be aware of a problem, those affected by it or those who aren't. When African-Americans insist that America is still a racist and prejudiced society, white people tell them, "Oh, no. That's not happening. Things have changed. You're imagining things. You're exaggerating. Why don't you just calm down?" In that instance, who would you believe: the white person or the black person? And the difference when it comes to the south? Check out Floyd-Miller's Boston cabbie quotation, in case you don't think Southern stereotypes abound. It would be interesting to know just how much time this cabbie had spent in the south, and where he got his opinion from. Gee -- you don't think it might be from the media, do you? Naw -- I must be imagining it.

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.

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.

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 ...