Depiction and Representation: Criticism and Stereotype

By Lindsay Woolward

I was rather shocked to
receive the recent note from the President about the “politically
incorrect” themed party. I was specifically concerned by the
following statements:
“The party theme was
‘politically incorrect,’ with the apparent request that guests
dress in costumes demonstrating offensive themes. Several of the
attendees allegedly wore costumes depicting negative stereotypes of
race, religion and gender.”
“It is important to
understand that the College condemns and will not tolerate activities
of this type. It is deeply disappointing that Macalester students
would be so insensitive and demonstrate such a lack of understanding
of the College’s values and mission.”
Although I was neither
part of nor aware of this party, and therefore know none of the
details, this note concerned me. It made me think of a theatrical
production I directed last year which, according to this note,
“demonstrate[d] . . . a lack of understanding of the College’s
values and mission.”
I directed “Sexual
Perversity in Chicago,” by David Mamet, a show which addresses
issues of sexism by depicting incredibly sexist people. My actors,
for two months of rehearsal and four performances, worked very hard
at portraying these sexist characters, and I am proud to say that
they did a very good job. The show culminates in a moment when two of
the characters, and the audience with them, see how empty their lives
are, but the moment passes and the play ends with the line “Yeah.

Blind bitch.” The characters are stereotypes of thoughtless, sexist
men. The sexism was presented unapologetically, to avoid weakening
the depiction’s impact.

My intent, and my
actors’ intent, was to show how revolting and pointless sexism is, an
intent which I felt was in line with Macalester’s values and mission
of education. However, this note from the President made me doubt
myself. The theme of the show was politically incorrect. It dealt
with issues which are difficult to discuss and depicted them in ways
which were offensive. Some audience members were offended and left.

According to the
passage quoted above, my play was “depicting negative stereotypes
ofƒ?Ý gender,” more specifically, of stereotypically sexist men.

Although I had thought that my production was using the guise and
vocabulary of political incorrectness and stereotype to achieve goals
which were in line with the values of the College, I now wonder if I
“demonstrate[d] . . . a lack of understanding of the College’s
values and mission.”
I do not believe I did,
just as I do not believe that having a “politically incorrect”
themed party is wrong. Although I have no doubt that poor judgment
was used in the situation, and context suggests that the participants
were less thoughtful than my actors and I, depictions of offensive
images are necessary tools for dealing with those images and should
not be automatically condemned.

One of the most
powerful exhibits on the hideousness of racism I have ever seen was a
collection of lynching postcards, presented simply and without
comment, only listing the victim, location and date of the lynching.

These images are far from politically correct, but the act of
displaying them is not in and of itself wrong, even if certain ways
of presenting them could be deeply and fundamentally racist. Is a
Macalester student who has a book of these images racist? What if she
puts them on her wall? At what point is hers an act which the College
“condemns and will not tolerate”? If another student voluntarily
comes into the room and is offended, not knowing the background and
purpose of the images, or the views of the student who displays them?
I write this with the
hopes that the administrators of this college will not submit to
knee-jerk judgment in this issue. I certainly do not defend people
who commit acts of harassment or displays of racism. I equally
dislike sweeping ambiguous statements such as “the College condemns
and will not tolerate activities of this type.”
What type? Things that
are politically incorrect? Depictions of negative stereotype? The
note is unclear, even to the degree of identifying which type of
ambiguous activity it condemns.

I assume that the party
was not in public, and that everyone there had been invited. That the
organizers encouraged guests to “dress in costumes demonstrating
offensive themes,” does not seem in and of itself a bad thing; it
is about self-aware depiction. Had they requested guests come
depicting African Americans, or homosexuals, or Amish, the story
would be much different. The invitation was seemingly more about
depicting and therefore bringing to light the stereotypes themselves
than about enacting stereotypes of “race, religion and gender.”
That said, I’m sure
this would not have come to administrators’ attention had the event
been about the nature of stereotyping. People who enacted the
stereotypes (black face, caricature etc.) were wrong, and they should
certainly go through the systems Macalester has in place to address
these kinds of infractions.

I sincerely hope,
however, that this is not blown out of proportion: a few students
made poor decisions in a context which does not seem to be itself a
violation of Macalester policy or principles. I hope that students
who were at the event who were making comments on the absurd nature
of stereotype will not face any kind of punishment for the despicable
actions of a few.