Saturday, May 3, 2014

A Serious Question

Millie.jpg (87263 bytes)I have a serious question I'd like to ask of people who read this journal.  I'm hoping several people will weigh in with an opinion because, frankly, I really don't know how I feel about it.

My problem is that I am a middle-class, more than middle aged white female and I don't know what it's like to personally be the victim of racial discrimination, so I find it difficult to know when something crosses the line into "offensive."

The case in point is the production of Thoroughly Modern Millie that we went to tonight, the first of this weekend's 3 shows to review.
Millie is a silly show with a barely believable plot and lots of singing, dancing and tomfoolery.

This was originally a movie, with Julie Andrews and Mary Tyler Moore, in 1967, then it was turned into a stage musical by a guy named Richard Scanlan, who had been obsessed with the movie.  It opened in La Jolla (California) in 2000 and went on to Broadway to open the first season after 9/11.  It became 2002's most honored show, winning six Tony awards.

Recently, Jeri made me aware of a big controversy that was swirling around a production of the show at a high school in Massachusetts.  The show triggered a backlash from Asian-Americans, who say that the show's racial stereotypes are hurtful and unacceptable.

Specifically they are referring to the characters Bun Foo and Chin Ho

BunFooChinHo.jpg (45011 bytes)

These are two basically good intentioned guys who have gotten mixed up with the evil Mrs. Meers (played by a Caucasian woman with a chopstick in her hair who speaks in a bad Japanese accent) who runs a white slavery operation, enlisting these two guys to kidnap young girls who will be sent to China and sold into slavery.  The guys do it because they are trying to earn enough money to bring their mother over from Hong Kong.

“We would never do anything anti-Jewish, or anti-African-American. Blackface is unthinkable, but yellowface is utterly fine,” said Newton resident Mia Wenjen, whose Pragmatic Mom blog brought attention to the debate, reported the Boston Globe.

I guess my question is how far we take political correctness in our more enlightened day and age.  Do we stop new productions of South Pacific, because the character of Bloody Mary, a Tonkinese woman who is willing to do whatever she can to get her daughter a white husband might offend Pacific Islanders?

Do we refuse to let children read (or see a prouction about) Tom Sawyer because the original Mark Twain painted an accurate picture of the time, including the colloquial expressions for African Americans?  Such a book would never be written today, but it is a product of its time.  For that matter, so is "Uncle Tom's Cabin," which has the same problem of stereotypical characters.  They are stories of the history of this country.

Do we stop seeing The King and I because the Siamese king has a harem and treats his wives as servants, including beating them for disciplinary purposes?

How about West Side Story and the stereotypical Puerto Ricans portrayed in that beloved classic? Or do we never watch The Producers, which might be offensive to Jewish people?

(And to take matters to the extreme, now that we know that Germany is one of our most treasured allies, do you continue to watch Sound of Music with its stereotypical Nazis, or will that offend today's German-Americans?)

The article went on to list several shows that are problematic because of racial stereotypes including, surprisingly, Flower Drum Song which has an entire Chinese cast.  How are they supposed to act, if not Chinese?

The protesting group thinks that these classic shows should be rewritten, eliminating the offensive parts.  But is that throwing out the baby with the bathwater?  Do we want to homogenize everything that we see on the stage? on television? in the movies?  Do we only allow characters that don't offend anybody to be seen by our tiny tots? Do we thus whitewash our country's history as defined by its musicals?

As I said at the outset, I am not an ethnic minority, so I can't know, on a gut level how it feels to watch these characters portrayed on the stage. But the middle-class, more than middle aged white woman feels that shows are a product of their time and performing them as they were written, shows the times in which they were written and is, in its way, a different way of teaching history.

I am genuinely curious about what people who read this journal have to say about this issue.


June Calender said...

I have never heard of a backlash to the gullible Othello, although he is nowadays played by a black actor and not by someone like Olivier in blackface. We have not burned Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn, and the Danes aren't upset that "something is rotten in Denmark" is heard on stages frequently.

Some people are super-sensitive to what they see as slurs on their ethnic group. It's okay if they complain, but reason has to stand up to irrational touchiness. Are we going to insist every production of Madame Butterfly has an Asian soprano? The criticism of "Milly" is a tempest in a teapot and will blow over.

We've become more sensitive in a good way, no more blackface minstrel shows, no more ethnic slurs of politicians and, sports team owners, TV commentators -- someone will complain LOUDLY. Literature and art are special areas, some things like musicals exist for entertainment and are usually so removed from everyday reality that they have license to be broadly satiric; some art is very serious and reflects our lingering prejudices and cause us to think about society. If one is offended, sure, complain, but don't assume you speak for everyone else in your ethnic group, neighborhood or even family.

Anonymous said...

Beats me, but I suspect I am too white to know or understand, really.

Watching some of those musicals is painful in spots. As a relative young'un, I didn't get what "My back is wet!" meant in Flower Drum Song, and I didn't get why it was an issue that Emile had kids with an Asian woman in South Pacific. But as you say, times were different then. There's a fair amount of "Seriously, you're doing this?" moments in musicals anyway, but it does seem like certain characters and stereotypical moments are pretty bad. And the Millie example does sound really noxious (slavery?!). On the other hand, the shows haven't been publicly condemned by all yet, so I guess it's still relatively "okay."

I was trying to think of what would be equivalent to offending me since I'm all white and middle class and whatnot. Well, I do have a weird religion, one that certainly is portrayed badly in a lot of films and television (thanks, American Horror Story). But I just don't take that shit seriously as something to get upset about because it's so ridiculous and it's so ingrained in our culture to make cracks about warts and toads and curses that that will never go away.

Plus witches are a minority and always will be, so we just don't have the numbers to make complaints stick in the same way that racial groups or Catholics do. Nowadays, complaints about things like this in musicals can and will be heard, at least.

The one that's shocking me right now in Davis is the "Cinco de Drinko" one where people are getting bitched out for wearing sombreros while getting drunk on that holiday. I am not a person who celebrates that holiday, but this is the first time I recall someone objecting to such a thing. I thought that was a typical thing of CdM, like people wearing green and pretending to have accents and kissing people on St. Patrick's Day. But now it's offensive.

Times change, I guess.

Mary Z said...

From a white, middle class, 78 year old female, they are definitely being hypersensitive and hypercritical. If we whitewash, change, or ignore history, we are "doomed to repeat it".

Harriet said...

I'm a white female who recognizes discrimination because I have known racists. My "difference" doesn't show, because Judaism isn't as visible as being black or Asian, and I never had a typically Jewish name.

Nevertheless, the experience has made me watchful and, occasionally, oversensitive. It doesn't make me want to burn Huckleberry Finn.

Along with the respect I taught my kids, I also tried to give them perspective -- to realize that you have to look at every unfeeling story in the context of when it was written. I'm not crazy about "The Merchant of Venice," but it has values I would not want to destroy.

I will fight back at someone who speaks disrespectfully of any minority. At the same time, I will not join those who use racism as an excuse: "I didn't get the job because I'm...."