26 March
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Writing for Stage and Screen

Through the Backward-Looking Glass

I’m hooked on Downton Abbey, that wonderful British soap with sharp production values and the catchy sense and sensibility of Austen mixed in with the storytelling panorama of James Cameron. Perhaps that is too literal since the Titanic’s sinking in 1912 is what starts off the show, and Downton creator Julian Fellowes is debuting his own Titanic miniseries in April 2012. But Downton’s affinity with Cameron’s retelling goes far deeper than the shared reference to a well-known historical tragedy.

Whether or not you like Cameron’s Titanic, he does manage to capture a bit of that zeitgeist told through a modern point of view. For example, Leonardo di Caprio’s Jack is absolutely heroic as he cuts through the priggishness of society and exists romantically as a well-traveled self-taught artist, a far more lucrative and respectable prospect today than a hundred years ago. While the wealthy guard their Monet and Degas paintings, only Jack manages to really appreciate what is special about them. In other words, he is a character from our time trapped among well-heeled moneyed barbarians. Poetic ironic justice is had because we all know that history will eventually catch up and take sides with our hero’s ideals.

Similarly in Downton, we have characters who struggle against the decline of the British aristocracy and others who embrace it. Such mundane aspects of modern life as applying for a non-servile job, answering a phone, driving a car, or even dressing oneself are treated as uncommon occurrences in the context of a rather rigid class system. And while most of the characters struggle against the decline of British aristocracy, a few characters embrace it and share our modern sensibilities. They are for worker’s rights, women’s rights, and also know somehow that applying for socially-mobile jobs, answering phones, driving cars, and dressing oneself will be the norms of a distant future. In a certain sense, the writers of the show mean to tell us that we ought to identify with these modern characters, because they have chosen the correct version of the future.

Shows like Downton Abbey and films like Titanic flatter us with the idea that we, the audience, live in a blessed world that has graciously overcome all the class struggles of the past. We can be who we want to be, and our rights extend equally to all members of society. In recent years, these backward-looking shows have gained steamed, and their poster boy, Mad Men, shows us an anti-Semitic, sexist world of well-dressed white men working in corporate advertising right as the 1960s counterculture will overturn all of their assumptions. Even last year’s breakout blockbuster, The Help, was a backward-looking film showing a racist, segregated world of well-dressed white women around the time when the Civil Rights’ Movement will overturn all of their assumptions. In all of these cases, we are presumed to be on the right side of history, and perhaps are supposed to be relieved that the prejudices of the past were indeed fought and defeated.

But were they?

As the events of recent days and weeks and months reveal, a lot of the same issues we “won” in the past have actually returned in new forms. Sexism is alive and well in the form of a Congressional hearing of all men denouncing women’s rights to health care and in Rush Limbaugh’s “slut” and “prostitute” comments which sent advertisers fleeing in droves. Unlike the servants in Downton Abbey, we live in a less socially-mobile era than our fathers did. Being an African-American teen means you can be falsely stereotyped as a drug-dealing thug, even after you’ve been senselessly murdered and your killer has not faced criminal charges. And while having a black President encourages us to see an historic victory for race relations in America, we also saw the ugly smearing of Obama’s credentials regarding his country of origin and his religion not to mention his policies.

What makes the backward-looking show particularly popular today is that we have become an age obsessed with irony. Even a modern-day show like The Office is populated with characters who only thinly veil their prejudices. On that show, a comment from the boss meant to demonstrate racial sensitivity comes off as racist and ignorant. What gives the show its humor are the reaction shots of horrified people who look into the camera to share their disgust and shock with the camera and, by extension, us. We are told that being a sexist, racist simpleton is funny, because we all know that sexism and racism has been vanquished. This has led to “hipster racism,” the phenomenon where good-intentioned and avowedly non-racist individuals attempt to show off how edgy (read “ironic”) and hip they are by repeating the horrifying epithets and stereotypes of the past.

At this year’s AWP Conference, I attended a panel called “Writing about Race in the Age of Obama.” The panelists consisted of two Asian Americans and two African Americans (notably, one also identified as Native American). While the Q&A session tried courageously to navigate the tricky world of writing about race, the discussion suddenly turned to the subject of an anonymous white woman who had walked out during one of the talks. The African-American speaker noted that she may have left due to being uncomfortable about race, but that it may also have been to go to the bathroom. No one knew. But in the Q&A, another white woman revealed that she forced herself to stay at the panel simply to avoid being viewed as being insensitive to racial matters though she did have to use the bathroom. From then on, it was a back and forth negotiation with tension always on the verge of escalating. Was the speaker attacking the woman who left? Was it an innocent observation? Was it simply an error to even have mentioned it in the first place?

What I came away with was the realization that it wasn’t that race bothered people; it was that anger about race bothered them. People don’t mind a calm discussion where they get to be equally on the “correct” side, but as soon as it gets accusatory and becomes a shouting match, people lose their rational thoughts about race and let loose ideas and comments which are ugly, even though the spark may have been something as innocuous as a white woman leaving a room for an unknown reason.

Recently, I found myself engaged in a debate about Ken Narasaki, a veteran Japanese-American actor and writer, choosing to walk out of a show based upon racist epithets against Asians in the show. Narasaki said that while censorship wasn’t the answer, he felt the carelessness of the epithet used was a cause for concern in driving him and possibly others away from theatre, and he ended by saying he’d most likely never return to that theatre. For some of us, this was a calm and reasoned argument and a source of pride that an Asian American had the courage to stand up for his convictions. For others, his statement was an attack on the theatre itself, a censorship screed, and above all a false accusation of racism. One of the counter-arguments made included reference to the play, Clybourne Park, which won the Pulitzer and deals with the difficulty of true racial sensitivity. The back and forth was flippant, ugly, and finally maddening, an endlessly vicious cycle of hipster racism and outrage.

Perhaps this virulence was best described by Bruce Norris, writer of Clybourne Park, who said in the a TCG-published interview, “We white people (because we are the oppressors) sit around going, ‘Is it time now? Has enough time elapsed? Can we now say ‘nigger’?’ But of course that never happens, so white people feel resentful because we realize the past is going to hang around our necks like millstones forever.”

As much as I like to believe we live in the world where all the evils of the past are now easily blown away like so much dust, instead I now see that these backward-looking shows, though designed to make us feel complacent, should really serve to remind us that we need to remain vigilant about what exactly we fought in the past and how to continue to live up to our ideals today. While we might be tempted to stand in place and to whack-a-mole the straw men, we might benefit more from thinking about how long the road still remains in reconciling our past selves with the ones we hope to become.

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3 Responses to “Through the Backward-Looking Glass”

  1. JC says:

    Howard – Interesting article. I’m always so intrigued by this topic. I have a couple of comments on this.
    I find myself at odds with the humor in comedies like “The Office”. I think they do a good job at poking fun of stereotypes and racism, but then does that fuel the whole “hipster racist” movement? You look at Tosh.0 and they take a lot of liberties with making jabs at all groups. Now, if we knew that the writers at Tosh.0 were completely diverse, representing a wide range of racial and ethnic backgrounds, would those jokes be acceptable? Or, because they are coming from a White person, does that nullify those jokes?
    I recall back in the Narasaki dialogue, there was a comment by the original poster. He said something about how his Asian friend made a joke about how bad Asian drivers are, but what’s scary is that the poster really thought that because she said it, she was giving him her blessing to walk away with those stereotypes reaffirmed in his pocket, as if it was now okay for HIM to make jokes like that. A wise person would have said “OK. She can say it because she’s poking fun at herself, and whether or not I’ve seen evidence of this, it doesn’t make it a truth and in no way does it make it okay for me to perpetuate that stereotype.” It’s a STEREOTYPE. The dangers with stereotypes are that they take an observation about a group and apply that observation to everyone they meet who they think represent that group. In cross-cultural studies, they talk about “tendencies of behavior”, which explain qualities as they tend to apply to cultures (national, ethnic, gender, etc.), but those tendencies should never be applied to all people, they only describe what MIGHT happen if person from country X should run into a person from country Y. Stereotypes could very well be based on a very real dynamic and could be explained for their existence, i.e., “bad driving” could mean that older generations have never driven in their home country, which could apply to older people living in Estonia or India or China or Australia, but now they are in the U.S. and may be driving for the first time.
    To go further on the dialogue stemming from Ken Narasaki’s protest of the play, rarely do these conversations move forward without a lot of tension and frustration, and with good reason.
    On one hand, you have groups of individuals who have lived their lives being quite aware of racism at both the very overt and subtle levels, and on the other you have, for the most part, White males who don’t quite understand the concept of privilege and what it means NOT to have to worry about this kind of thing. It’s easy for them to say “don’t let it bother you” when they themselves are coming from a place where they don’t have to think about it. Being a White male myself, having studied these issues in grad school, and being married to someone who has experienced this kind of thing all her life, I’m very aware of what it means to deal with the subtle and explicit racism. Mind you, I’m not saying I know what it’s like, I’m saying that I DON’T know what it’s like, but I know it exists and I’m in no position to tell others how to feel or react when they become angry at something that they feel is racist.
    In that dialogue (and other similar conversations) I have seen that defense mechanism go up in the non-minorities (White males), and I suspect a lot that is because they feel attacked for being a racist themselves or they feel guilty about being White. The reasoning for either reaction is counterproductive for several reasons: (a) it gets in the way of progress and (b) for many it becomes the impetus to carry the “White man’s burden”. That “burden” is insulting because it says “I’m here to save you”. Civil rights have never been about White people carving the path for minorities, they have been the result of White people stepping aside and letting the oppressed voices be heard and not squashed. Now that I think about it, that comment, “don’t let it bother you”, is almost like saying, “Let me speak for you. There’s nothing to worry about”, which, in essence, is similar to speaking for others. It’s invalidating and it takes power away from those who are already fighting hard enough to be heard.
    I could go on. And I didn’t get to respond to other parts of your post, but it was definitely a good read and has me thinking about the role of art, theater, music, comedy, etc, in finding solutions for social issues. And although this issue does get quite intense, it’s good when it happens because it gets people talking. If we don’t talk about it, the issue will continue to exist and nothing will ever get solved.

  2. Dinah says:

    Howard, such a thoughtful post—and a strong reminder that the work does and can (and should) resonate in all kinds of ways, and that art at its best, doesn’t only move and delight and entertain, but reminds us who we are, who we’ve been, who we want to be…

  3. jully says:

    I recently had the honor of performing in the East West Players’ Theater for Youth production of TAKING FLIGHT, a biopic of our nation’s first Asian-American aviatrix, Katherine Cheung. We toured in local schools throughout Los Angeles and the surrounding areas. It was an honor to be part of a mission in exposing young audiences to theater (many for the first time), and also in promoting diversity and sharing stories of such a significant and inspiring Asian-American woman in our history.

    We were often met with administrators thanking us, and hearing “We’ve never had Asian-Americans perform in our school telling these kinds of stories before!” made it all the more worthwhile. Kids would ask questions about how we as Asians came to become actors, and would try to find out more about Katherine Cheung’s personal life and how she came to overcome the challenges in becoming the first Asian-American female pilot. There was a curiosity and an interest that was sparked by our just being there. We were there to educate and entertain, and we were proud to be doing this work.

    During one of our performances in one of the high schools in Los Angeles, during a dramatic exchange between Katherine and her ailing father, I heard a student in the third row cough out “Chink!” It was discreet enough for as to not disrupt the entire auditorium, but audible enough for the giggling kids around him to respond, and loud enough for me to take pause. After the first couple of “cou-Chink-gh’s” I insisted that I had heard incorrectly and that my ears were playing games with me. By the 3rd “cough-Chink!-cough” and the growing giggles, it was confirmed for me.

    It is very hard to put into words how this feels – but the effect of this blind-sided me. It was strange to be doing this kind of work, and to be met with such flippant racism. Even to call it “racism” feels weird. This word gets thrown around so much, it almost doesn’t mean anything anymore — being on the receiving end of this “racism” is… Well, it was deeper and more infuriating than I could explain. It wasn’t rational or logical – it just hurt. And I couldn’t explain it. I actually rarely deal with such direct racism, and my reaction to it shocked me more than the “Chink!” itself.

    I just wanted to share this experience, perhaps continuing the dialogue will help me understand my knee-jerk emotional response to such a casual display of “racism.”

    btw – great clip from Downton Abbey! ;)

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