It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: Taking Offense at Taking Offense

Dave Sikula, actually thinking there is a single person on the earth who wonders why he didn’t like CATS.

Two news stories jumped out at me this week. They’re similar in theme, but point toward a bigger issue, I think.

The first was the story that the Raleigh Little Theatre cancelled its production of the musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson because of fears that Native American groups in the area would be offended by the content. The show, for those who aren’t familiar with it, is an emo-rock musical by Michael Friedman, and Alex Timbers that tells the story of our seventh president, who came to power on a platform that was equal parts uncontrolled mob populism and Native American genocide, something the show not only presents, but revels in.

That depiction isn’t enough for the Raleigh Little Theatre, though. Apparently, the show was chosen without reading it, seeing or, or even listening to the cast album because the producers seem to be laboring under the impression that it glorifies both Jackson and his actions. I saw the show in New York and loved it, and have to say (as I said on my Facebook page) that anyone who was at all familiar with the show and didn’t come away thinking that Jackson was a genocidal yahoo either wasn’t paying attention or was too stupid to have an informed opinion. There was a bit of a debate in the thread, with some claiming that it was a responsible action by the theatre, in that it’s stupid and insensitive to deliberately offend portions of your audience. That stance reminds me of a quote from 1776, one of my favorite musicals: “This is a revolution, dammit! We’ve got to offend somebody!”

Now, two disclaimers here. One is, I’m not calling for setting out to deliberately offend people (though there’s something to be said for that – in some cases), and two, I’m an old white guy, so I’m speaking from a position of some sort of privilege; it’s easy for me to say. Okay. That’s out of the way.

The other night, I was listening to a 1967 interview with Dame Gladys Cooper. Cooper was born in 1888, and had a long and distinguished career as an actress and producer (something that I can’t imagine was easy for a woman in the 1920s and ’30s). At one point, she’s asked what she thinks of the then-current theatre; whether she likes plays that are in-your-face, more or less. She answers “no;” that she thinks the theatre should provide a nice story and not deal with social issues. Have I got a theatre for her! (Hint: It’s in North Carolina …)

Gladys Cooper in her youth.

Gladys Cooper in her youth.

While I don’t mind seeing “a nice story” myself, I also think that, if you’re not taking the chance of offending someone, you’re not doing it right. What has happened to us that we’re so terrified of – or even offended by – having our preconceptions and beliefs challenged? I read a rant on Facebook that took on the thugs who murdered the Charlie Hebdo staffers by saying that if their god was so weak that he would be offended by some stupid cartoons that he wasn’t worth worshipping – and certainly not killing for. In a much, much lesser sense, if your opinions and tenets are too weak to stand up to challenges, perhaps they, ironically, need radical rethinking and reexamination.

Quoted in the story was an op-ed by playwright Rhiana Yazzie of the New Native Theater, who wrote “The truth is that Andrew Jackson was not a rockstar and his campaign against tribal people … is not a farcical backdrop to some emotive, brooding celebrity. Can you imagine a show wherein Hitler was portrayed as a justified, sexy rockstar?”

Actually, I can. Not only theatrically (The Producers), but in real life. Hitler was despicable and deserves to rot in hell, but anyone who denies that he was charismatic isn’t worth talking to. Anyone who, in less than ten years, is able to rise from failed artist to former corporal to jailbird to absolute ruler of one of history’s most powerful military machines is a “rockstar,” or, at least, the 1920s equivalent thereof. And why shouldn’t we be exposed to that viewpoint? Is any sane person going to be converted to Nazism by seeing it? I’d much rather get angry at a show and have it spark an extreme emotional reaction to it than have it wash over me and leave me feeling “meh.” I hate hate hated Cats more than I’ve ever hated anything in the theatre, but have to admit that it provoked me into analyzing that emotion and gauging why I was so provoked.

You wonder why I hated it?

You wonder why I hated it?

Now, speaking of being provoked, the other story of the week was the Academy Award nominations. Let me state my disinterest in the Oscars. Oh, I’ll watch them and liveblog them and disparage them, but don’t really care who wins or loses. (It took me a good 15 seconds to remember what movie won last year, and I’ll be damned if I remember what won in 2013.) It’s like any list of “the best” movies or plays or books – or anything, really. They’re all well and good, and if they coincide with my current feelings, that’s fine. But there’s no way that I’ll ever agree with Sight and Sound’s naming of Vertigo as the Greatest Movie Ever, especially when I don’t even think it’s even Alfred Hitchcock’s best film. (For the record, I think that’s North by Northwest – and that’s not even my favorite; that’s Shadow of a Doubt. Or maybe Foreign Correspondent … )

But there are plenty of people who think that the lack of nominees for the World’s Most Expensive Bowling Trophy who are either female or of color is a crime equivalent to anything Hitler ever committed. Another disclaimer. I, too, think the Academy should do all it can to encourage promotion and recognition of underrepresented groups. I just don’t think that it’s worth getting upset about.

My friend Steve Stoliar (whose memoir of his years as Groucho Marx’s secretary, Raised Eyebrows, is must reading for anyone even remotely interested in the Marx Brothers) summed up his own reaction on Facebook. I reprint his post with his kind permission:

If the members of the MP Academy got together and, amongst themselves, said, “Who DON’T we want to be nominated?” and then discussed it in a big room and then decided – in unison – who to keep OUT of the nominations – especially for some petty reason – THAT is a snub. But when each member marks a ballot in secrecy, based on his/her opinion – informed, intelligent, or otherwise – of who deserves a vote – always a subjective thing; there’s no such thing as a film, actor, song, book, painting that everybody loves or everybody hates – THAT is not a snub. It is – wait for it – democracy in action, like it or not. When there are more Best Picture nominees allowed than for any other category, it is statistically impossible to have each Best Picture director also nominated in the Best Director category. The lack of inclusion does not mean that director did a shitty job or “the movie must’ve directed itself” (that tired, meaningless cliche), or that the Academy conspired to keep their names off the list. It means the others got more votes than they did, so they didn’t make the cut. You can rail about not enough women, not enough blacks, not enough black women, etc. etc. etc. and you can see it as some shameful snubbing conspiracy that must stop THIS VERY MINUTE, but that is the simple truth. Whether you choose to extrapolate something more sinister from it is your choice.

Steve’s book. Free plug!

Steve’s book. Free plug!

We all have choices about what to be offended by or where to see conspiracies. But I think it behooves us to remember that our tastes are not definitive; they work for us, and that’s that. For everything we find offensive or repulsive or delightful or mediocre, there is someone whose reaction is exactly the opposite.

Art is neither a democracy nor a dictatorship (it might be a plutocracy, but that’s another matter … ). Art is art, and we need to be exposed to all of it, the pleasant and the unpleasant, in order to grow, even in directions we might never have expected. I dislike few plays more than Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, but because I exposed myself to it. I found David Cromer’s production of it touching. I never would have thought an indie-rock approach to a section of Tolstoi’s War and Peace would be anything but intolerable, but Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 remains one of the great experiences of my theatergoing life. I hated every minute of The Lily’s Revenge, but forced myself to stay in order to make sure I was giving it a fair shake, as well as wanting to determine what it was about it that made me hate it so much. (Short answer: everything.) Similarly, I think it would benefit the protestors to actually see Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson as much as it would benefit the stodgy and self-important members of the motion picture academy to expand beyond their usual suspects. The worst that could happen would be that their artistic outlooks expand.

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2 comments on “It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: Taking Offense at Taking Offense

  1. Hi Dave,

    First of all let me preface this with saying I’m sure you’re a well-meaning, intelligent, thoughtful, sensitive and caring person. “Now that that’s out of the way”…

    Disclosing that you’re an “old white guy” and making a casual nod to your privilege in this conversation is an unfortunately empty act when that acknowledgment fails to inform your writing and thinking on the subject at hand. Privilege isn’t something you can wave around and thereby get “out of the way”. It’s like waving around an automatic weapon and saying “look what i have!” and then wondering why people are acting so jumpy when you fail to control where the weapon is pointing in a crowded room. The serious work of introspection, self-awareness, curiosity, compassion, and deeply listening to others’ perspectives is required over a long period of time to understand how your privilege might inform your thinking. And doing that work is very, very important to being a cogent and insightful contributor in conversations around the issues you chose to discuss, rather than a militant voice defending the status quo.

    I get the sense from your writing that you would rather think of yourself as something of an iconoclast, and hearing yourself described as defending the status quo might offend your sensibilities. I totally hear and understand that. But bear with me.

    I am sincerely sorry to hear that Cats was such a difficult experience for you. But taking the “extreme emotional reaction” you experienced at being exposed to agile lycra-covered felines singing heroic couplets to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hacky europop and equating it to the emotional experience of those witnessing their people’s genocide and cultural devastation made light of in a musical by white people in a medium dominated by white people in a culture dominated by white people in a history narrated by white people in a society utterly bent at the subjugation of people of color for the benefit of white people is honestly, truly absurd. And then to congratulate yourself and others like you on your equanimity, rationality, perspicacity, tolerance and superior ability to navigate disagreement is, from where I’m sitting, almost the height of parody. It is especially insulting to then, at the end, suggest that what these people need to do is become more cultured and erudite, like you, so that they can “grow”.

    You not liking “Our Town” (a play about your culture, from your culture, for your culture, which has nothing whatsoever offensive or degrading towards you in it) is really really really really really really really really really really really really really NOT the same thing as Native Americans objecting to a play which, among other things, portrays them as murdering a family they in fact did not murder and re-writes their history in a way they had no voice in. Suggesting that the people in power, i.e. the oscar committee, expose themselves to more culturally diverse art is not the same thing as suggesting that people of color watch and/or remain silent in the face of art that portrays them in offensive ways. It’s a false equivalency. I’m sorry, but it just is not the same thing. Not at all, not nearly, not ever.

    Dave, it’s perfectly natural that you think underrepresentation isn’t “worth getting that upset about”–because you are constantly represented. You are represented almost to the exclusion of everyone else. Understanding why not being represented is upsetting to other people who don’t look like you or have your privilege is a worthy place to start what I think could be an enormously fruitful and transformative process for you. Given the positive feelings you’ve expressed toward expanding outlooks, democracy, the emotional value of tolerating difficult experiences and cultivating insight– I believe you are the right white man for the job. And I mean that in all sincerity. Just, please hear me. I’m not trying to offend you. I just want you to know how this sounds and looks from another perspective.

  2. Hi: Thanks for the response, and I want to give it the full attention it deserves when I finally have a moment to digest it.

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