Tag Archives: Stereotypes

Cultural Appropriation vs. Cultural Exchange

25 Oct

(Via)

From the Archives

 

As Halloween approaches along with all the stomach-turning caricatures of minorities and foreigners, I find myself repeating the same question over and over: When is it okay to wear or adopt something from a culture you don’t belong to?

Obviously, the most offensive appropriations rely on inane stereotypes most people I know would never go near. But this doesn’t mean that globe-trotting, multicultural enthusiasts—like myself—can do no wrong.  Since the 1960s, upper/middle class whites dabbling in other cultures has been celebrated under the banner of “Diversity!”  But from the point of view of certain cultures, Nigerian writer Jarune Uwujaren argues, it’s often just another chapter in the long tradition of Westerners “pressing their own culture onto others and taking what they want in return.”  American Indians do not appreciate headdresses used as fashion statements.  Hindus do not applaud non-Hindus flaunting bindis.  And Mexicans don’t enjoy seeing Day of the Dead re-appropriated as just another Halloween costume. 

Yet the Mexican Día de los Muertos is the result of Catholics adopting what was originally a pre-Columbian tradition.  Modern German children meanwhile have taken to celebrating Halloween, much to their parents’ chagrin.  There isn’t a holiday on earth that hasn’t been adapted from something else, leading atheist comedian Mitch Benn to observe, “If only practicing Christians can celebrate Christmas, then only Vikings can say, ‘Thursday.’ ” 

Indeed, intercultural contact always leads to intercultural mixing. Nowadays brides in China often wear two wedding dresses on their big day: a traditional Chinese red dress and a traditional Western white gown.  When a friend from Chengdu married her German husband in Berlin, she turned this trend on its head, wearing a Western designer dress that was red and then a cheongsam that was white.  Borders move and cultures blend constantly throughout history, often blurring the line between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange.

For this reason, it is important to remember that absorbing the fashions and customs of another culture is not always offensive.  But it is just as important to remember that it is not always open-minded, either.  After all, colonial history is rife with Westerners who filled their homes with foreign gear and lectured others about the noble savage.  Among the most ardent fans of Tibetan Buddhism, American Indian animism, and Norse mythology were the Nazis.  

We all love to show off what we’ve learned and delving into another culture can be enriching. But minorities tend not to like it when an outsider appoints herself an expert and lectures more than she listens.  Or thinks that listening to minorities is a heroic act, rather than common courtesy.  Visiting another country feels special when we’re the first of our friends and family to go, but there is no guarantee we’ll truly be acquainted with the culture.  Thanks to language barriers and the insular nature of expat bubbles and tourist tracks, it is fairly easy to study or even live in another culture for several years without getting to know a single person from that culture.  (Waiters and receptionists don’t count.)  

Whether venturing to the other side of the world or the other side of the tracks, it is always much easier to buy something, taste something, or get a bit of history from a book than to talk to someone from another culture.  Because books and merchandise can’t talk back.  They won’t call us out if we make false assumptions.  If we do actually strike up a conversation with someone from another ethnic group, whether Liverpudlian or Laotian, the temptation to flaunt the experience like a feat of greatness can be overwhelming. Jarune Uwujaren wrote about this pervasive temptation last month:

I remember that at my sister’s wedding, the groom – who happened to be white – changed midway through the ceremony along with my sister into modern, but fairly traditional, Nigerian clothes.

Even though some family members found it amusing, there was never any undertone of the clothes being treated as a costume or “experience” for a white person to enjoy for a little bit and discard later. He was invited – both as a new family member and a guest – to engage our culture in this way.

If he had been obnoxious about it – treated it as exotic or weird or pretended he now understood what it means to be Nigerian and refused to wear Western clothes ever again – the experience would have been more appropriative.

But instead, he wore them from a place of respect.

Appreciating the beauty in other cultures is always preferable to xenophobia.  Enjoying a trip abroad that happened to involve minimal interaction with the locals is perfectly fine.  But drawing attention to oneself for reveling in the mysteriousness of a culture is to revel in its supposed Otherness.  Whenever an entire culture is reduced to its exoticism, it becomes nothing more than an accessory or a toy – not a sign of cultural understanding.  

And while adopting a sacred custom “just because it looks cool” can be inconsiderate, imbuing our reasons for adopting a trinket with too much meaning can also make a native roll their eyes.  It’s one thing to buy a handbag on a trip to Tokyo simply because it’s beautiful.  A Japanese woman is buying it simply because it’s beautiful, after all.  But it’s another thing to flaunt it like a badge of enlightenment. 

The blog Hanzi Smatter documents and explains the snafus and utter nonsense that so often result when Westerners get tattoos of Chinese characters copied off the Internet.  Such incidents demonstrate that vanity is often mistaken for art.  We’re all a little vain, yet the difference between art and vanity is crucial because vanity is an indulgence, not a challenge or an attempt to communicate.  When Dita von Teese donned yellowface for a London performance titled “Opium Den,” fellow burlesque artist Shanghai Pearl wrote:

I am not saying artists should not tackle controversial or challenging subjects. However, if we choose to take on challenging material, we should be prepared to have challenging conversations. I absolutely believe that art will not suffer from sensitivity. Sensitivity should make us work harder, research more, and think more. Art can only benefit from that.

Indeed, nothing suffers from genuine sensitivity.  The lesson from colonialism is not to stop exploring the world and reading about it, but to always bear in mind that there can be no cultural understanding without dialogue.  When deciding whether to adopt a tradition or style from another culture, we should consider what several people from that culture have to say about it.  Because there are no cultures without people.

 

 

Originally posted November 3, 2013

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Political Correctness Makes You More Creative

21 Dec

Europe According to Germany(“Europe According to Germany” by Yanko Tsvetkov used under CC 2.0 via)

 

Study On Avoiding Stereotypes Smashes Stereotype About Avoiding Stereotypes. Sounds like an Onion headline. The recent study at UC Berkeley reveals that encouraging workers to be politically correct—that is, to challenge and think beyond stereotypes—results in their producing more original and creative ideas. As Olga Kazhan points out at The Atlantic, this flies in the face of conventional wisdom, which asserts that political correctness stifles the truth for the sake of acquiescing to the hypersensitive. Yet the study shows that truth and knowledge are obscured when facts are simplified into stereotypes.

Take, for example, the belief widely held in the West that women talk more than men do. Unpacking this stereotype unleashes several revelations about modern Western culture. All in all, women do not use more words than men on average. Women do talk more than men in certain small groups, but men talk more than women at large social gatherings. Listeners, however, tend to become more easily annoyed by women talking in such settings, so they notice it more. Baby girls in the West do start talking earlier than baby boys do, leading pop culture to promulgate the idea that female loquaciousness must be inborn. Yet more than one study have found that girls’ advantage may very well be because mothers talk more to their infant daughters than to their sons. And what about the stereotype that women remember emotional experiences better than men do? There appears to be evidence for this, rooted in the fact that American adults tend to ask girls more questions about their feelings during their developmental years, while encouraging boys to instead focus on their actions and achievements.

So while the genders may behave differently in some respects, further scrutiny shows that we certainly treat the genders differently. Political correctness demands we alter this. And then see what happens.

But instead of being seen as a great generator of progress and innovation, political correctness is more often perceived as a silencing technique, if Google’s image search is any indication. There is some valid cause for this concern. One of the worst tactics taken up by some minority rights activists is the phrase You can’t say that. It often stems from the noble idea that no one should have to endure threats, harassment and direct insults in everyday life. But simply banning bad words can lead to the destructive assumption that simply using the right words makes everything okay.

After all, avoiding stereotypes is not about shutting up but embracing depth and nuance. Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi researches happiness and creativity, and in his latest book, he finds that one of the best tools for innovation is not limiting our own selves to gender stereotypes:

Psychological androgyny… refer[s] to a person’s ability to be at the same time aggressive and nurturant, sensitive and rigid, dominant and submissive, regardless of gender. A psychologically androgynous person in effect doubles his or her repertoire of responses and can interact with the world in terms of a much richer and varied spectrum of opportunities. It is not surprising that creative individuals are more likely to have not only the strengths of their own gender but those of the other one, too.

While the studies cited here focus on gender stereotypes, it’s easy to see how political correctness can foster productivity when applied to all sorts of minorities. For example, one way to react to  urgings to avoid antiquated terms like “Bushmen” and “Hottentots” is to ask why. This will reveal that “Hottentot” was a name assigned by Dutch and German colonists meant to caricature the sound of the Khoekhoe language, and that “Bushmen” was a derogatory name for the San first assigned to them by the Khoekhoe. This uncovers the fact that the San have been the most exploited people of southwestern Africa, primarily because their society has no system of ownership. They have been stereotyped as primitive and therefore less intelligent, but like so many non-state societies surviving into the present day, they have done so by developing skills that help them live in isolation – i.e., in unforgiving environments where other peoples have perished.

Or you can react to the urging to avoid “Hottentots” and “Bushmen” by simply saying, “I’ll call them whatever I want to call them!”  As the saying goes, stereotypes are there to save us the trouble of learning.

 

 

Trying To Understand Mini-Me

2 Feb

170739265KI00117_The_World_(Image by Ricky Brigante used under Creative Commons license via)

 

This month actor Verne Troyer (above) is featured in a National Geographic documentary series, Incredibly Small World, about the experience of living with dwarfism.  (Incredibly creative title, by the way.) Examining everything from the average-sized family of Amish origin he grew up in to his burgeoning career, Troyer hopes to spread awareness about dwarfs.  “Don’t look at us like we’re circus people!” he recently told The Daily Mail. Right on. 

But wait.  If you don’t want the world to see you as a circus freak, what was going on with Mini-Me?

While one of his most recent stints was in The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, Troyer is by far known best as Mini-Me in the Austin Powers films.  According to his profile in The Lives of Dwarfs, he had been in the acting business for years and was grateful to finally land a role in which he portrayed an adult human.  All of his previous work had mirrored Kenny Baker—the actor inside R2D2— moving about in robot, baby, alien, and animal costumes.  But to call Mini-Me “human” is debatable.   

While the Austin Powers plotline claims he is a clone (one-eighth the size) of Dr. Evil and therefore in training to step in for the villain at any time, Mini-Me has little to no agency.  He doesn’t even speak.  Other characters refer to him as “like a dog” or “that Chihuahua thing.”  Slapstick has its rightful place in film, and all the characters in Austin Powers are blunt stereotypes meant to parody the James Bond genre, but it’s hard to watch Mini-Me portrayed pretty much the way dwarfs were handled by the aristocracy in Early Modern Europe – like a pet.  (And when fully-grown adults are handled as nothing but pets, it’s called slavery.) 

Austin Powers could have used Mini-Me to skewer the James Bond character Nick-Nack, but instead it merely perpetuated the gag.  Most minorities can name a famous character/caricature that makes their skin crawl—Tonto, Aunt Jemima, Mrs. Danvers—and Mini-Me is certainly up there for the dwarf community.

It makes me uncomfortable, but not enough to keep me from watching the films.  A lot of the scenes are as dull as the back-pages of an eighth grader’s notebook, but the jokes satirizing the Bond films are lovely: 

 

 

And Mini-Me is a funny name.  Just not the third time, or the fourth time, or the fortieth time that any given person with dwarfism hears it hollered at them on the street.

Today Troyer remains friends with Austin Powers creator Mike Meyers.  Cynics might say that networking is networking, and what dwarf actor wouldn’t remain loyal to someone who’d lifted him into the spotlight, no matter how dehumanizing the role?  Beggars can’t be choosers or bite the hand that feeds them. The tradition of the groveling dwarf actor grateful for anything he can get is so pervasive that Peter Dinklage has spoken out about the importance of dwarf actors turning down such roles for the sake of self-respect.  But when I see photos of Troyer schmoozing with Meyers, it reminds me of something other than begging or groveling.

Back when I was in elementary school, one of my classmates liked to lay his elbow on my head because I “made a great armrest.”  He would also regularly ask me, “How’s the weather down there, shorty?” to which my response was always, “Clouds of your bad breath.”  Not exactly Abbott and Costello caliber, but then again, we were eight.  I didn’t mind being the target of his jokes.  I almost liked it.  He wasn’t a close friend who’d helped me through any of my medical ordeals, but we knew each other, he talked to me and not only to laugh at my expense.  For this reason, I took his teasing as openness. 

That year was not an easy one in the schoolyard.  To be ostracized there means that those who don’t know you at all will hurl insults at your minority status from a safe distance, while those who do know you will stay eerily silent on the subject. This is why when someone talks both to you and about your difference, they seem to be demonstrating a delightful lack of fear. 

The millions of people who have giggled at Mini-Me, whether they are his viewers or his creators, aren’t necessarily harboring nasty views of dwarfs.  The difference comes down to who can not only laugh at him but talk to him, and who’s afraid to.

 

 

“Power for Good”

28 Jul

tumblr_mqm3ypKbXg1qz5q5lo1_500(Via)

 

Tropes are ideas we construct based on observing patterns in society and wanting to understand them. Stereotypes are ideas we construct based on hearing about patterns in society and accepting them at face value. Needless to say, stereotypes based on that which we have no choice about—our sex, gender identity, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality, physical traits, or mental abilities—usually do more harm than good.

Not only do they deny minorities equal rights and opportunities, but a recent study shows that embracing racial stereotypes leads to creative stagnation. So how do we combat them? 

In the wake of the Trayvon Martin verdict and President Obama’s call for a dialogue on race in America, Harvard researchers announced a competition to find the quickest, most effective method for getting people to let go of the prejudices they have about a certain group. The results? Calls for empathy and other try-to-put-yourself-in-their-shoes methods were largely ineffective.  What worked best was showing the participants counter-stereotypical images. World leaders with severe disabilities. Parents proudly painting their son’s toenails. Construction workers nursing their babies. Sons helping out with the housework.  Seeing is believing, apparently.

It is crucial to note that celebrating diversity can feel patronizing, especially to the subjects. The goal, after all, is to drive stereotypes to extinction so that observers find absolutely nothing extraordinary about any of the above images. Because the subjects do not feel extraordinary, at least not all the time – they feel normal.  No person who can qualify as a minority or counter-stereotype should feel pressured to spotlight their everyday life if they don’t want to.  But it is encouraging—if not unsurprising—to see that altering media portrayals of society alters a good deal of the prejudices plaguing too many corners of society.

As my friend Sarah Winawer-Wetzel recently said:

For me, it validates the importance of being out as a gay person. How else are people going to believe that a nice white Jewish girl who dresses femme and doesn’t look particularly counterculture can be queer if I’m not out like a friggin’ lightbulb everywhere I go? I’m not doing it just for me – I’m doing it so that when a little kid looks at the world and thinks about being gay, that kid sees the full spectrum of possibilities, not just a cultural stereotype. Those of us who control visuals and representations of people in the media need to remember to wield our power for good.

We often forget the power we wield when we have a stereotype in our hands, thinking it’s bigger than anything we can do about it. But it is not.  And that is wonderful.

 

 

Happy St. Patrick’s Day

17 Mar

 

The great Dara Ó Briain in a clip from QI that is well worth the poor visuals.  Happy holiday greetings from Berlin!

 

 

The People You Meet When You Talk About Human Suffering

17 Feb

 plastic crowd

(Image by Boinink used under CC license via)

 

Not all disabled people are innocents.  I would hope this comes as no surprise.  But in the wake of Oscar Pistorius’s alleged murder of his girlfriend, some are going to the other extreme.  In a bizarre article titled “The Disability Pedestal,” Slate writer William Saletan lists various disabled people who have allegedly committed similarly heinous crimes.  He cites anger over their disability as a frequent motive.  Which evokes the stereotype of the evil freak who kills in order to compensate.  That stereotype is at least as old as wicked witches, and as modern as the albino villain of The DaVinci Code.  Do we really need to feed it? 

And if there is truth to the commonly held belief that disability renders people more likely to lash out at others, then shouldn’t we be investing in a solution?  Saletan doesn’t offer any statistics on how many disabled people commit crimes out of self-pity, but if it’s really so endemic, then we should do something about it.

But I don’t think that’s what he meant.  While never going so far as to declare disabled killers a social problem, Saletan does argue that some see their disability as “just another card they can play,” and that both they and we need to realize that it all comes down to individual responsibility:

Equality isn’t about being special.  It’s about being ordinary.  People with disabilities aren’t above sin or crime.  They’re just like the rest of us…  You run your own race.  You make your own decisions.  Most people with prosthetic legs don’t shoot their lovers.  Most guys who survive testicular cancer don’t run doping rings in the Tour de France.  Something about beating cancer or overcoming a birth defect tugs at our hearts. It paralyzes our judgment.  We don’t want to believe that people who have accomplished such things can do evil.  Most don’t.  But some do.

I know plenty of disabled people who are jerks and nothing about the Pistorius case compels me to think of him as anything but one.  The stereotype of the poor, innocent, helpless, asexual, naïve invalid needs to go.  Yet I’m not comfortable with Saletan’s rather Ayn Randian assertion that compassion impairs judgment.  What impairs judgment is an inability to see someone as more than just a disability.  We should all be smart enough, deep enough, big enough to be humbled by the extraordinary difficulties someone has endured and to simultaneously call out their faults—or crimes—for what they are. 

Having a disability does not automatically make you a brave person or a good person or someone who deserves to be liked.  But disabilities almost invariably cause pain, and equality should not aim to rid us of our impulses toward compassion.  Was my judgment “paralyzed” when I met a girl in the hospital whose body was hot-pink with third-degree burns and immediately thought, “Man, I shouldn’t whine so much”?  Lots of my fellow patients at the hospital turned out to be the sort of people I couldn’t stand.  But almost every one of them had had experiences I could only try to imagine.  Refusing to excuse a disabled person should not preclude trying to understand the privileges we enjoy that they do not.    

To be fair to Saletan, I must admit it’s strange to find myself arguing this way because I am often fed up with discussions of disability and psychiatric disorders that devolve into self-pity and melodrama.  (See Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook… )  But firing off judgment can lead to snap judgments, and focusing our political energy on ranting about the whiners can lead to a cynical, soulless view of humanity.    

It just goes to show that we still have a hard time as a society figuring out what exactly to do with human suffering.  In my experience, four personality types exacerbate this problem.  (I’ve assigned gender randomly):

Mr. Comfort Zone – “I’ve Suffered, But You Don’t See Me Complaining!”  That guy who only sees society through his own lens.  He refuses to recognize any privileges he may enjoy, insists that everything balances out in the end and/or that the system is really rigged against people like him thanks to our oppressive PC culture.  He has a point that self-pity is counterproductive, but his refusal to acknowledge that anyone could have it harder than he does is the epitome of selfishness.  His refusal to explore the possibility of institutionalized chauvinism is intellectually lazy.  And his campaign for self-reliance loses all credibility the moment he blames minorities for his hardships. 

Ms. No Time For It – “It’s Sad Others Suffer, But I Don’t Like to Think About It…”  That lady who avoids political or social issues like the plague.  She wants to “stay positive” and “talk about cheerful things,” like the weather and her favorite TV shows and recent purchases.  She has a point that complaining too much about the world’s problems can wear you down, but she often contradicts this by complaining about mundane problems, like those trashy people who live around the corner and that snobby celebrity who had affairs with three different men, all of them friends of her husband, can you imagine how nasty you’d have to be in order to do such a thing?  In refusing to discuss politics, she ignores how much of her world view is determined by politics; i.e., what is considered “beautiful,” what it is considered “normal,” what is “controversial.”  She doesn’t realize that her ability to avoid certain “political” issues is a privilege

Mr. Oppression Olympics – “My People Have Suffered the Most!”  The activist who thinks the only rights worth fighting for are his own.  He may have a point about the unique nature of the discrimination he’s faced, but he ludicrously believes the more you’ve suffered, the more justice you deserve.  He secretly harbors prejudices about other minorities and this might be revealed when he thinks one of them might be taking time, funding, or attention away from “his” group.  He also refuses to acknowledge any privileges he may have.

Ms. Cry Wolf – “Can I Get Attention for My Suffering?”  The whimpering waif who takes the phrase “Talk about your feelings” to the extreme, turning almost every political discussion into a personal therapy session.  She secretly, or perhaps subconsciously, thinks belonging to a minority is enviable because it grants you sympathy and excuses for why you can’t do something.  She has a point that repression can be dangerous, but she goes overboard by crying, “OPPRESSION!” at any call for modesty or good manners.  She lists her problems in order to attain solace and praise, rather than revelation. 

We’re all prone to feel like these people in certain situations.  As a teen, I often slipped into Ms. Cry Wolf around boys I liked, hoping my saying, “I’m having such a hard day I could just cry!” would get them to be exactly as kind to me as I desired.  During my limb-lengthening procedures, when girlfriends would moan about not being thin enough while I was struggling against my painkillers to keep food down, I felt like Mr. Comfort Zone, wanting to tell them to shut up and be grateful.  In college, I felt like Mr. Oppression Olympics when students would raise their fists for feminism and LGBT rights but squirm and change the subject if I brought up disability rights.  And when it comes to certain matters of injustice—like what’s been going on in the Congo for the past five, ten, fifteen years?—I continue to be Ms. No Time For It, clicking past the headlines to the latest news about Stephen Fry or Jack White. 

Most people I know have had these feelings at certain points.  But we should be wary of acting on any of them, especially in the political sphere, because they’re all counter-productive.  There’s no progress in self-pity.  There’s no progress without empathy.  As I blog about disability and disenfranchisement, I agree with Saletan that I should never, ever be comfortable with the idea of myself as a victim.  But I also never want to be so hardened that I can’t be moved by human suffering.  Because that’s not really the point of trying to get along with the rest of the world, is it?

 

 

Note: This post was inspired by Crommunist’s The People You Meet When You Write About Race

 

“Richard III Was Dwarf, Doctor Says”

10 Feb

KING RICHARD III (Image by Leo Reynolds used under CC license via)

 

From an article appearing 20 years ago in The Seattle Times on August 23, 1991:

King Richard III was a dwarf, according to a medical diagnosis that has outraged defenders of the monarch.

“The combination of slow growth and short stature, preceded by a difficult breech birth… and intimations of physical weakness and sexual impotence… suggest idiopathic pituitary dwarfism,” Dr. Jacob Van der Werff ten Bosch said in an editorial published today in the medical journal Lancet.

Balderdash, say Richard’s partisans.  “Everyone knows Shakespeare’s Richard III, but not everyone knows the historical evidence,” said Jack Leslau, a biographer of the king. “There are various medical theories that all work on the assumption that he was some sort of monster with a physical deformity.”

The Lancet editorial was timed for the anniversary of Richard’s death in battle Aug. 22, 1485, at Bosworth Field – where, as Shakespeare had it, the monarch offered “my kingdom for a horse!”

Van der Werff ten Bosch, a former professor of medicine, says there is no reason to take offense. “As a doctor I would not think it’s ridiculing a king to call him a dwarf. It’s simply a medical diagnosis,” he said.

Since the excavation and analysis of the royal bones announced this past Monday, the BBC now reports, “Richard III was portrayed by Shakespeare as having a hunched back and the skeleton has a striking curvature to its spine. This was caused by scoliosis, a condition which experts say in this case developed in adolescence. Rather than giving him a stoop, it would have made one shoulder higher than the other.” 

So what Dr. Van der Werff ten Bosch said all those years ago was wrong.  At least half of it, anyway.

 

 

“If He Was a Wee Bit Closer, I Could Lob a Caber at Him, Ye Ken”

3 Feb

 

 

Time for another break from the tough stuff.  I want to talk about Disney.  (In earnest, mind you.  As always.)  I just saw Pixar’s Brave and no, I’m not going to write about her feminism—or the ludicrous musings about her lesbianism—or the radical imperfectness of her eyebrows.  What pleased me most about this film was its break from the Broadway tradition that has been dominating—dare I say strangling—animated cinema for decades.  Throughout my childhood, Disney and their competitors would take you around the world with Alan Menken and his endless supply of wide-mouthed Middle American show tunes as your guide.  The main characters’ accents ranged from Beverly Hills to Burbank.    

Like The Princess and the Frog, Brave has the guts to feature songs, accents, and expressions native to the story’s setting.  And it’s about time.  The Broadway model has its merits, but it can start to feel like overkill when it forbids any trace of historical or foreign flavor.  When it comes to their family films, Hollywood has traditionally handled their American audiences like cultural infants.  There conventional wisdom asserts that any voice that doesn’t immediately evoke baseball and apple pie risks obliterating our ability to empathize.  Only “artsy” films for grown-ups like Brokeback Mountain or Capote dare to let the dialect match the backdrop.  Hence our heroes Aladdin and Belle and Ariel and Simba and Esmeralda, who all sound like they went to school with the cast of Saved by the Bell.  As The New York Times observed in 1997, the closest the actors in Anastasia ever came to St. Petersburg was Pasadena.  A character speaking the Queen’s English has been permitted with some regularity, but if they’re not Julie Andrews, they’re probably the villain or the butler.         

Paradoxically, these animated family films set in far off lands usually feature one odd character who does speak with a local accent.  So is this proof we can catch words pronounced differently, or does it not matter what Token Foreigner says because his character is inconsequential?  Beauty and the Beast lets one or two sidekicks babble, “Ooo la la!” and “Sacre bleu !” but pretty much leaves the plot exposition up to everyone else.  In Aladdin, the Arabic accent belongs only to the characters with the fewest lines, such as the merchant—who sings the racist song that was later edited—and Gazeem the thief, who dies before the end of Scene One.  And by the way, I haven’t been able to find anyone in The Little Mermaid who sounds Danish, under the sea or above.

Not only does Brave inject its lines with a kick-ass charisma brought on by Scottish brogue, but most of its voice actors—with the exception of Emma Thompson and Julie Walters—are actually, truly, veritably from Scotland.  Traditionally, the Token Foreigner in a children’s film has been provided by an American actor putting on a stereotypical accent.  (Kelsey Grammer as a Russian aristocrat, Jerry Orbach as a French candlestick… )  The ability to imitate an accent is a great skill for both an actor and an interpreter, but it can easily go horribly wrong without anyone in charge of the film noticing.  The fact that Dick van Dyke got away with his impression of Cockney in Mary Poppins suggests that U.S. film critics of the time had pretty low standards.  Meryl Streep has been famously lauded for her ability to sound authentically Italian, Polish, and British, but almost none of those singing her praises are Italian, Polish, or British.  Her portrayals may very well be accurate, but ever since Mary Poppins, Americans have a bit of a reputation for being too easily fooled.  My Nordic partner always rolls his eyes and shakes his head at the Seinfeld episode that tried to pass off this accent as Finnish:

 

 

This is not to say that Americans are the only ones who can’t tell Finnish from gibberish.  I’ve met plenty of French people who think Japanese sounds like that pathetically generic “Ching-chong-chang!”  And Brits who have claimed—a little arrogantly—that the U.S. does not have as many dialects or accents as the U.K.  Ethnologue cites 176 living languages in the U.S. compared to the U.K.’s 12.  Great Britain and Northern Ireland may contain more dialects—though I would bet their dialects are fewer in number while boasting more speakers per dialect—but this begs the philosophical question of what separates a dialect from a language.  The joke among linguists goes, “A language has an army and a navy.” 

Every culture tends toward simplistic views of other cultures.  When you begin to type “Brave Pixar” into Google, you get the apparently popular question, “Brave Pixar Irish or Scottish?”  Anyone outside of the Celtic-speaking regions could be asking this question.               

I’m sure Brave is still rife with Scottish stereotypes that are more craved by Hollywood than are authentic.  And the ancient clans of the Highlands most likely sounded nothing like Billy Connolly or Craig Ferguson.  But it is nice to see the filmmakers trust us enough to handle protagonists who do not speak exactly like the average American moviegoer.  After all, what is the point to hearing stories from far off lands if it’s not to hear things we may not have heard before?  And the more we are exposed to different authentic accents, the more likely we are to realize that every one of us has one.  And that somewhere, someone is smiling at the way we talk.

 

 

 

What’s Censorship?

27 Jan

Banned Books Display At the Lacey Library(Image by the Timberland Regional Library used under CC via)

 

Eeeny, meeny, miny, moe, catch a tiger by the toe.  If he hollers let him go…  That’s the version I learned.  My British friends caught a fishy by the toe.  My mother’s generation caught a n***** by the toe.  Were they wrong to alter it for us? 

Last week I applauded The Observer’s decision to remove a childish, poorly argued opinion piece from its website on the grounds that it did not meet their standards for style, while others hollered, “Censorship!”  This week, the German media is abuzz with its own debate over publishing standards as Thienemann Verlag has announced its decision to replace racist terms—such as “die Neger-Prinzessin”—in certain classic children’s books.  To which some are saying, Finally, while others are saying, Censorship!  And some are saying, The N-word isn’t racist!

This debate is older than the civil rights movement.  Pull up reviews of The Five Chinese Brothers on GoodReads and you’ll find nostalgic fans shouting, “Book burners!” at anyone who criticizes the illustrations.  The problem with this debate is that it usually attracts extreme narrow-mindedness on both sides. 

Some progressive activists do mistake witch hunting for spreading diversity awareness.  A few years ago feminist author Chris Lynch drew angry reactions from some women’s rights groups who demanded he change the name of his young adult series The He-Man Women-Haters Club.  But the books pick apart the machismo boys learn from pop culture and their fathers.  The mentality adopted by Lynch’s critics was so blunt that they couldn’t tell an opponent from an ally.  If the equality debate ends at what words are okay and which aren’t, regardless of context, it has failed.  Miserably.

But too many activists opposed to censorship demonstrate none of the openness and subtlety that are the building blocks of free thought and artistic integrity, which they purport to defend.  After reading Fahrenheit 451, an unparalleled tribute to the majesty of books, I got snagged in the inanity of Ray Bradbury’s hysterical afterword.  He begins by citing an editor who asked if he could put more female characters in The Martian Chronicles:

A few years before that I got a certain amount of mail concerning the same Martian book complaining the blacks in the book were Uncle Toms and why didn’t I ‘do them over’?  …  How did I react to all of the above? …  By ticketing the assembly of idiots to the far reaches of hell.  The point is obvious.  There is more than one way to burn a book.  Every minority… feels it has the will, the reason, the right to douse the kerosene, light the fuse…  For it is a mad world and it will get madder if we allow the minorities, be they dwarf or giant, orangutan or dolphin, nuclear-head or water conversationalist, pro-computerologist or Neo-Luddite, simpleton or sage to interfere with aesthetics.  The real world is the playing ground for each and every group to make or unmake laws.  But the tip of the nose of my book or stories or poems is where their rights end and my territorial imperatives begin, run and rule.  If Mormons do not like my play, let them write their own.  If the Irish hate my Dublin stories, let them rent typewriters.

That he dared them to back off and write their own books was a productive challenge, but his arrogance in damning them all to hell did not suggest he ever intended to read what they wrote.  (If he truly believed all art should be borne out of one person’s imagination alone, unscathed by anyone’s suggestions for improvement along the way, then he was probably the only writer in human history who never once accepted advice.)  This is not dialogue.  This is not open debate.  This is accusing your opponents of oppression in order to silence them.  This is failing to discern between book-burning and social critique.

Censorship is a serious issue.  Berlin’s memorial to the Nazi book-burning of 1933 is a window into an empty library.  It bears a plaque that reads, “Those who are capable of burning books are capable of burning people.”  No one should ever call for legally prohibiting the publication, sale, or existence of any sort of text if speech is to remain truly free.  Libraries should offer the public all they can eat and more.  But every publisher of children’s books should also be free to reject or revise what they release based on their own educational theories.  No one on earth believes any child of any age should read absolutely anything.  Releasing less hurtful editions of a story—while maintaining the right to publish the original—is not always censorship.  Indeed, automatically assuming it is betrays the sort of narrow-mindedness typical of censors.    

The leave-greatness-untouched argument ignores how many well-known stories have been severely distorted over time.  In the unadulterated Cinderella, the ugly stepsisters chop off pieces of their own feet to force them into the glass slipper.  The prince is fooled until he notices the slipper overflowing with blood.  Snow White forces the Evil Queen to dance in a pair of hot-iron shoes at her wedding until she drops dead.  As for Sleeping Beauty, do you think the medieval prince only kissed her as she slept?  It makes old-fashioned Disney look like a flaming liberal.  These violent versions are still around, but a lack of demand has nudged them out of the spotlight.  I wish the same fate upon racist versions of old children’s books. 

Of course, context is everything, and certain words can have many meanings.  Mark Twain used the N-word in Huckleberry Finn to portray a complex, admirable character who discredits racism and slavery.  But the N-word as it is used by Otfried Preußler—and Astrid Lindgren, and so many other white storytellers of the early and mid-20th century—evokes the colonialist stereotype of the savage who is either happy-go-lucky or bloodthirsty.  (In the words of Cracked.com, “Lesson Learned: What’s the deal with Africans?  If they’re not trying to eat it or throw a spear at it, they’re worshiping it as some sort of tribal deity, am I right?”)  Of course it’s absurd to think that every kid will automatically turn racist from reading this, but it’s also naïve to think such caricatures have no influence.  If childhood stories had no bearing on readers’ perceptions of minorities, then no one would ever promote children’s books that celebrate diversity.    

While I don’t object to students seeing racism or sexism or ableism in books, I strongly object to their being subjected to it before they’ve had any other exposure to more realistic depictions of the people these ideas dehumanize.  Psychologist Hartmut Kasten argues in the left-leaning newspaper Die Zeit that children ages four and up can read and should “learn that there are people with different skin colors, learn what we used to call them, what we call them today, and that there is such a thing as prejudice.”  But is it necessary when first introducing a child to someone who looks different to immediately hand them all the historical baggage of racism, too?  Doesn’t that suggest to them that people with different skin colors are always controversial?  Prejudice can spring from seeing a minority constantly portrayed either as a stereotype or as a victim of stereotyping. 

Prof. Kasten argues that expunging orientalism and other exotic tropes from children’s literature “destroys the imagination.”  But must the exotic always be colonialist just because that’s our tradition?  It is traditional in the Netherlands for St. Nicholas to be accompanied by a mischievous African man named Black Pete.  Some say he is supposed to be St. Nicholas’s servant, others say he is his slave.  For decades, white performers have donned blackface to portray him.  In recent years, some have replaced the blackface with multi-colored face paints, renaming the character “Rainbow Pete.”  This approach has long been popular in Suriname, a former Dutch colony with predominantly black citizenry.  Many are appalled to see an old tradition changed, but the St. Nicholas/Santa Claus/Kris Kringle/Father Christmas/Father Frost myth has been constantly evolving over time, forever an amalgam of various cultural influences.  Our nostalgia does not like us to admit this, but as said before, nostalgia is rarely honest, often revisionist.  And could Prof. Kasten argue that rainbow people are less imaginative than black slaves?         

And if children’s creativity is nurtured by stories from long ago in far off lands, why not make more of an effort to offer tales originating from those lands?  Indeed, in my workshops about teaching diversity awareness in pre-school, I promote translated folk tales and fairy tales such as Sense Pass King and Children of the Dragon to be read alongside Cinderella and Snow White.

 

The best way to combat uncreative stereotypes is to flood children’s libraries with beautiful stories that go deeper.  My hero Judy Blume agrees.  She is the most challenged author of all time in the United States.  Her brilliant books question everything from racism to religion to budding sexuality.  Most of her loudest critics usually argue that children under the age of 18 should never read about masturbation or wet dreams, despite how many 10-year-olds are already wise to it.  Blume wants parents who object to her stories to engage their children in discussions about them, which is a stance I support.  Passionately.  But is any child of any age old enough for such discussions?  Was it censorial of me to be stunned when I found Zehn kleine Negerlein lying around in a Berlin pre-school in 2010?

 

 
Die Zeit insists that if we revise anything that is in any way offensive, then we must revise everything.  (Which will lead to a ban on any disagreeable characters who are female or black or gay or disabled… )  This could be true if we were talking about bringing the law into it, but we’re not.  As far as the law is concerned, anyone is free to adapt any artwork once granted permission by the copyright holder.  Otfried Preußler’s publisher began replacing the N-word from his texts after receiving approval from the author’s daughter.  As hard as it may be for artists to swallow, artwork in the public domain is free to be toyed with as anyone sees fit.  Almost every generation releases the classics with new illustrations, whether it’s The Jungle Book or a children’s Bible. 

But to be fair, the modern illustrations bear the name of the modern illustrator, while a redacted version of an author’s text bears his.  Which feels somewhat mendacious.  Posthumous revisions would best be noted in an afterword discussing the original language and why the publisher does not wish to replicate it.   Alternatively, the cover could indicate that the story is a retelling.  Like so many of my friends, I grew up on abridged versions of Victorian classics such as Peter Pan, The Wizard of Oz, and Alice in Wonderland Only a handful of us went on to read the original texts when we were older.  Just as we went on to discover the original versions of “Eeeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe,” “Turkey in the Straw,” and the stanzas in the German national anthem that no one sings anymore.  

We should never seek to erase our xenophobic heritage – on the contrary, it is something we must own up to and learn from.  But it is no more appropriate for a young child to learn about Little Black Sambo than it is for them to learn about the rape version of Sleeping Beauty.  (Or the most graphic Mother Goose rhymes.  Or old television cartoons like these.)  She will be ready to hear it at some point.  Unfortunately, pinpointing the right point, the right moment, the right age will always be a problem.  Because racism is a problem.