Commentary: 'Fashionable bigotry' creeps into Twin Cities theatre scene

ROB CALLAHAN | Updated 6/23/2014

Amid controversy, the performing arts community faces hard questions.

Steven Meerdink talks to Rhiana Yazzie and David Chang about 'Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson'
 
I went to see "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" by Minneapolis Musical Theatre, not because I wanted to give the show any ink, or because I thought I'd have anything more to add, but because the controversy surrounding its treatment of Native people was relevant to a topic I've been tracking. In short, this was a show that pitted an emo version of America's seventh president against a bunch of white people playing Indians. They were resplendent in fringed blankets, buckskin and other such Native equivalents to the trappings of blackface. The show also had performers chanting for the death of Indians, and there was a big song and dance number celebrating genocide.
 
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.
 
So, he was both a bigot and an argument against bigotry. He's redeemed for having pulled that off when no one else was willing to try, and for being television's first and probably most socially significant example of the noble bigot trope. One can only imagine the collective sigh of relief breathed by early Seventies people of conscience back in the day, when this new opportunity to advance a greater, broader discussion first flickered across their screens.
 
"Finally," one imagines them saying, "this discussion is, like, totally happening, man."
 
But does it actually work?
 
Archie Bunker set a trend back then that's still with us, but that trend's modern followers comprise a larger group and they're grasping less earnestly now at less redemption. Our modern noble bigots - fellows like Peter Griffin, Archer, Homer Simpson or Cartman - discomfit their predecessor's work by virtue of failing to accomplish anything especially new. They're not daring, their bigotry is rarely actually meaningful and the consequences are infrequent. (To his credit, Archer actually does the trope more meaningfully than his counterparts, as does Homer Simpson under the guidance of the right writers.) To their own individual extents, they're still just next-gen knock-offs of the one that actually mattered. They are to Archie Bunker as the Squier Bullet is to a Fender Strat.
 
To keep this comparison going, if Peter Griffin is the Squier Bullet then "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" is a Wii "Rock Band" controller. He's the brainchild of an over-privileged kid playing games, frantically mashing the buttons in a sugar fueled pantomime of actual artistry. The result is a sloppy, ham-fisted mimicry of a mimicry. He's a copy of a copy, as they said back in the analog days, and he's lost all of the fine detail. After all the degradation, it's no longer nuanced bigotry. It's just bigotry.
 
There's no legitimate connection leading back to Archie Bunker. Upbeat song and dance numbers celebrating genocide are not analogous to anything that happened on "All In the Family." The mere invocation of ancestral bigotry, under the auspice of homage, isn't sufficient. With a touchy topic like this, you've got to capture both the style and the spirit of the original or you might just as well be Bruce Willis in that "Die Hard 3" sandwich board.
 
Can style trump substance?
 
Doing just the style is easier, though, and that ease lends itself to the quick adaptation of ironic racism. Tomahawk Tassels certainly had this problem, being a burlesque dancer who used cartoonish canoe props and feathered headdresses in her Native-inspired acts. Naturally, this raised the ire of Native women who felt mocked and sexualized, and who didn't appreciate the association.
 
Some of her most vocal supporters used to take to social media about the importance of her style in this debate. They argued that her act was an homage, just as Meerdink and MacFarlane argue are theirs, although Tassels' fans never actually said exactly what she was paying homage to. Presumably, it wasn't Archie Bunker. That would have been just silly. (Also, gross.) It came off a bit like an homage to the stuff of Sherman Alexie's nightmares.
 
What they claimed was that her act wasn't itself racist. It wasn't real racism, at any rate. It was merely a parody of the racism Native people once endured in some distant, bygone era. What she was doing was simply an ironic interpretation of that past. If you didn't like it, that didn't mean her act was offensive. It meant that you didn't understand burlesque.
 
To be clear, this was her fans' argument. As an artist, she probably had a better grasp of the situation. I'd wager she knew that a failure to truly communicate her message to her most vocal critics was not their failing, but hers. That's something we all learn at some point. Even I know this: If I write a novel and I think it's absolutely poignant and hilarious, and absolutely no one who's read it agrees, that's not necessarily because they're all idiots. The more likely case is that I simply failed to communicate all that poignancy and hilarity with any efficacy.
 
So, in spite of her more enthusiastic fans, she did drop the Native motif. Whatever message she wanted to convey, whatever her artistic interpretation was, she wasn't communicating it well enough to lend context to the sexy buckskin and war bonnets. Without that context, it wasn't especially artistic or ironic. It was just racism, and she came to terms with the idea that racism remains racism whether it's preceded by "ironic," "blatant" or "harmless, old-fashioned," and that embracing bald racism is generally just a bad idea.  
 
Could that have been handled worse?
 
The Ordway picked up a touring production of "Miss Saigon" last year. That, along with their handling of the resulting controversy, alienated much of the Asian American performance community in town and prompted a local critic to call for a media boycott. At issue were some of the script's less-than-sensitive approaches to this story, which was an edgy re-imagining of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly."
 
Ordway president Patricia Mitchell generally dismissed her detractors early on because, as far as she could tell, the Ordway wasn't doing anything actually racist. The Ordway was presenting a classic piece of musical theater. If that piece happened to hearken back to a dark time in our past when Asian women were fetishized, the Vietnam war was romanticized and human trafficking was the stuff of romcoms, that wasn't the Ordway's fault.
 
You might say the Ordway was trying to make a point, that they were saying hit shows written around all of that prostitution and fetishization were merely a thing of the past, and that they were merely acknowledging that this used to happen. Inexplicably, they argued that point by presenting a hit show written around all of that prostitution and fetishization, in 2013.
 
The two companies handling "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" (Minneapolis Musical Theatre, who performed the show, and Hennepin Theatre Trust, who handled the publicity) were no paragons of sensitivity either. The company members who took to social media in response to the opening night protests, chastising Native American protesters, didn't escape anyone's attention. Neither did the reluctant, uncomfortable talk-back session they scheduled on the final night as a sort of response to the protests. For that, they invited protester Rhiana Yazzie and professor David Chang to join Steven Meerdink onstage, then asked the audience if they had any questions for the three of them.
 
The talk-back environment was, as delicately as can be put, unfriendly. Early on, Meerdink cut his Native guest off mid-sentence. Not long after, while she was talking again, he leaned toward the front row and mouthed, "This is what I was afraid would happen." He rolled his eyes at her a lot, too, but don't ask just how much. I lost count.
 
Two Hennepin Theatre Trust employees were in the audience. They cut her off two other times, alleging that she was threatening to somehow ban or censor their production, and a group of white men directly behind me displayed exactly zero qualms about interrupting her once more after that. To be clear, she wasn't raising her voice. She wasn't making accusations. I never once heard her so much as allude to bans or censorship. Each time she was interrupted, she was calmly responding to a direct question. (Or trying to, anyway.)
 
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.
 
Some might say (in fact, some have written,) that we're obligated to do better. We can do more than just say whether or not we liked the music. We're not limited to writing plot synopses no more informative than what's already on Wikipedia. We are certainly not beholden to any company to downplay their controversies. They don't have editorial control over our content. We do.
 
As things stand now, we're just as much the villains of this piece as anyone else who's been called out for their ironic racism. We're not alone, though. Every audience member who waved a dismissive hand toward the offended, everyone who mocked the Natives' discomfort over MMT's death chants or balked at the idea that young Asian women object to being property, everyone who did that is right here with us.
 
It's on all of us to consider this, set aside our emotional convictions and objectively entertain the notion that the other side might just have a point. If we can't consider that, then consider instead that we might not deserve the public platforms our respective privileges afford us.
 
So far, the only one to come out of this looking somewhat good is Tomahawk Tassels. She may have been begrudging about it, but at least she recognized her part in the problem and she took steps to reach for a compromise. As long as that's more than we can say, we've got work to do.
 
[Photo: Rob Callahan]