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.
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
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.