Commentary: 'Fashionable Bigotry' Creeps into Twin Cities Theatre Scene
By Rob Callahan
So, yeah. Pretty racist, but the company and their communication team adamantly denied that allegation and the local critics were divided on the issue, so I had to see for myself. Was this all in harmless fun, was it completely racist, or was it what the kids these days refer to as "fashionable bigotry?" That raised even more questions, not the least of which was ...
Can racism be done ironically?
Fashionable bigotry (also called "hipster racism" or "ironic racism") is this strange, newish phenomenon that's been popping up all over the arts and entertainment industry. You've got the Flaming Lips, Macklemore, Fallin, Ullman and Silverman to name a few. Count Tarantino in, too, as he's basically the modern godfather of the stuff. You pretty much see it all over.
Here in the Twin Cities, we like to think our enlightened arts scene is immune to this sort of thing, but it looks like we're wrong. We dealt with Tomahawk Tassels and 'Miss Saigon' last year, there was that one uncomfortable portrayal in "A Very Die Hard Christmas" back in December, and now we've had "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson." For all I know, there may be others. This is just the stuff I've seen in my time as an arts writer, so my list may not be comprehensive. I've seen a lot of shows, but I don't see them all and I haven't been in the game that long.
As for what constitutes hipster racism, there are a couple of telltale signs. Sometimes it's just the intentional evocation of racism, but in a way that's supposed to come off as edgy and self-aware. It's a brand of racism that's meant solely to get attention, to get people talking about it and bring them out to see it. In this context, it's the performing arts equivalent of clickbait. The perpetrator probably doesn't actually believe in it, but if we think they do and we can't stop talking about them, then it's served its purpose.
When it gets worse is when it's employed another way, when ironic racism gets conjured up under the premise that genuine racism simply isn't real. The perpetrator believes it's no longer taken seriously, or it's simply obsolete in our modern post-racial society. In essence, the argument is that this can't be real racism, because racism like this doesn't happen anymore. By this reasoning, the perpetrator may excuse the meanest, most offensive racist nonsense imaginable while arguing that it doesn't matter because, obviously, no one's actually offended. By extension, anyone who does claim to be offended must be wrong, or perhaps they just don't get the joke. In essence, if someone's ironic racism offends you, it's because you're not smart enough.
That's one of a few de rigueur responses you'll see trotted out whenever people raise concerns over this type of material. Another is the tried and true tactic of crying wolf (or, in this case, crying censorship,) in which the perpetrator misrepresents his critics, and yet another is one in which the perpetrator misrepresents himself or his work.
It's a kind of deflection technique, arguing that a person can get away with it because someone else did, this one time, a while back in a completely different context. Seth MacFarlane, for example, is known for defending "Family Guy" on the basis that "All in the Family" was offensive, too. To him, the clueless bigotry of Peter Griffin is analogous to the clueless bigotry of Archie Bunker. If one was just fine, so must be the other.
Does the Archie Bunker defense work?
In the case of "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson," MMT artistic director Steven Meerdink took a page from MacFarlane's book and called the show "kind of a 'Family Guy' viewpoint of history." He constructed a sort of Aunt Sally defense for his interpretation of the character on the merits of someone else's entirely dissimilar character. Meerdink cites Peter Griffin as this rebooted Andrew Jackson's source material, and MacFarlane defaults to Archie Bunker. The inferred argument, that Jackson is based on a perfectly acceptable different bigot who, in turn, is based on another perfectly acceptable even more different bigot, is a bit of a stretch. It only works if you stick to the most superficial similarities.
That's because there's a reason why pop culture historians laud Archie Bunker: He was a pioneering character who turned the popular American sitcom into a mainstream venue for the discussion of some serious, heavy topics. This show wanted its audience to have hard conversations, and it used humor to soften the impact and keep those conversations going. Yes, Archie Bunker was a bigot, but he was also the butt of the joke. He was awful, but his awfulness always had consequences. That was the show's moral. In every way, he was a mirror in which mainstream America could gaze upon its own reflection, comfortably acknowledge the blemishes and hopefully deal with them.
If you've followed the follow up chatter out there, you've seen a lot of talk about the effects of privilege on that talk-back session: the privilege of ignorance of consequences, the privilege to silence your detractors, to cloak that silence under the guise of an open forum, and so on. Regardless of where you fell in the debate, you couldn't deny that privilege fueled it.
That's the thing about privilege. It shows itself in many ways. This time, it just happened to pop up as a group of authoritative white people publicly tag-teaming a lone woman of color, and being so oblivious to the prevailing power dynamic that it never occurred to them that this was a problem, or that the reporter in the room might notice.
How Are We Privileged?
The fact that "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson"'s first act couldn't make it five minutes (literally, I timed it) without a racial slur is troubling. That the critics in town can't agree over whether or not the show was racist? That's more than troubling. It's also ignorant and, as much as I hate to say it, cowardly.
Pay attention, fellow critics, because this is what people mean when they call us privileged: We have the privilege of watching ninety uninterrupted minutes of dictionary definition racism, then going back to the public and telling them we didn't see anything wrong. We ought to try and shake that privilege off. Now is as good a time as any to shed the subjectivity and pomp of the values dissonance that muddles our work.