A talk and activity for the 4th Annual Women’s Writers Retreat at the Kirkridge Retreat Center on September 13, 2014
I am a teacher, writer, and producer as well as a spiritual person with Buddhist and Taoist leanings. I love walking meditation, hiking, and tai chi. Everything I just mentioned has influenced the talk I am about to give, though such influences may not always seem obvious.
From the start, I want you to know that I will ask and share what I consider some important human questions and thoughts. Here’s the first one: when it comes to racism, sexism, homophobia, stereotypes, and other forms of oppression, to what extent are we as everyday people and creative individuals conditioned to maintain the status quo? Despite our best efforts to overcome various forms of oppression, to what extent do we continue to perpetuate oppression and why?
In considering the answer to these questions, I am reminded of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, a novel I have been teaching my students for the past 12 years. In Huxley’s satirical novel, the Director of the Hatcheries and Conditioning Centre says that citizens of the World State are conditioned with suggestions, so much so that “at last the child’s mind is these suggestions, and the sum of the suggestions is the child’s mind. And not the child’s mind only. The adult’s mind too-all his [or her] life long. The mind that judges and desires and decides is made up of these suggestions. But all these suggestions are our suggestions… suggestions from the State.” In these lines, Aldous Huxley reveals the truth of our existence in a supposedly civilized world. Does much if not all of our thinking consist of suggestions instilled in our minds through some sort of conditioning process? Do we have the strength of mind to resist such conditioning? In the novel, some citizens of the World State do resist conditioning on some level and are exiled as a result. Most of the citizens fear being exiled, but, ironically, exile is exactly what they should want for themselves. In exile on the islands, individuals are free to experiment, create, and invent. They are free to think and behave like humans…not robots. Are we brave enough to do the same?
And how do we move beyond oppressive, conditioned robotic thinking and behaviors in our daily lives and creative endeavors? Will we be ignoring difficult history or harsh reality if we transform ourselves back from robot to human? Must we seek to transform all the time? Why is such transformation our responsibility?
While I may not provide a definitive answer to each of these questions today, I think it’s important to ponder these and other questions as much as possible.
Personal Experience at Work
I’d like to share another personal experience from the world of education. As I indicated before, I am a high school English teacher…by day and night. A number of years ago, I was relieved when my schedule changed. I did not have to teach American Literature anymore. My relief occurred because I was tired of teaching literature that unintentionally perpetuates racism, quite frankly. While teaching Huck Finn, for instance, I remember wondering how a few class discussions, an essay, or a group project could balance out or transcend the racist language and situations depicted in the novel. Years later, I realized that my concerns may have had some justification when a couple of my students in British Literature unknowingly used antiquated language for projects. They seemed to have no idea that words such as negro and colored were outdated. It’s difficult to say whether they learned to use these words while reading books for their American Lit class or from another source. Whatever the case, their misuse of certain language did come from somewhere. Was our education system contributing to their ignorance and conditioning their thoughts?
Colleagues of mine and I have discussed how children are not born racist. They internalize racism, they learn to be racist from books, movies, television shows, and other aspects of the larger culture as well as their families, friends, and experiences. The adults in their lives, including teachers and anyone who shares ideas in public, must work hard to correct misunderstandings, especially while reading and discussing complicated satire and historical situations. I am certainly not advocating that we abandon classic literature, of which I am a huge fan. On the contrary, we need to teach and discuss it carefully…and take a mental break from doing so, if necessary.
While considering how my students process depictions of race and racism as well as my own responses and those of my colleagues, I also think about the obligations of today’s writers. Are writers of today ever-more obligated to provide broader perspectives? If yes, how? Are today’s writers and other creatives doomed to repeat the past? If not, how? My overall comments and ideas may provide some answers to these questions.
Recent Pop Culture Hits
Now, let’s take a peak at pop culture, which does not often provide the broader perspective.
Have you ever taken a look at the top-performing movies of the last few years? While you might not want to write a screenplay, you might want to think more about how mass-market movies impact and condition the general public and culture. The top-grossing movies of the last few years include the following:
1. Marvel’s The Avengers (2012)
2. The Dark Night Rises (2012)
3. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)
4. Toy Story 3 (2010)
5. Iron Man 3 (2013)
6. The Hunger Games (2012)
7. Frozen (2013)
8. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 (2011)
9. Despicable Me 2 (2013)
10. Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)
11. Alice in Wonderland (2010)
12. Iron Man 2 (2010)
What do you notice about these movies? …Here’s what comes to mind for me. (Note: I loved The Hunger Games novels/movies for their significant and impactful dystopian themes. Which of the above movies did you enjoy and why?)
The top-grossing movies are geared toward the younger members of society and involve unrealistic superheroes, cartoons, and violence. Aside from providing entertainment, what are these movies doing to young minds and the minds of citizens in general? These movies include characters who are white and relatively simplistic or not human at all. Children, teens, and their parents who watch these movies are in effect being conditioned to expect certain characters and scenarios, whether they like it or not. When faced with characters who are realistic, complex, 3-dimensional, non-white, non-male, or non-straight, prone to something other than violence or revolting against violence in some way, viewers might in fact reject these characters outright. Or simply fail to understand them.
More Serious Literature
Since the failure to understand happens regularly, a friend of mine who recently directed a comedy by William Shakespeare attempted to increase understanding for her audience members. She updated the script, so that the audience would more easily understand the language. I was happy to attend the show but shocked that I was the only one laughing at times. People did not seem to know when to laugh. I heard one man say, “What’s going on? I don’t get it.” Has this man watched too many top-grossing movies or too many Jersey Shore episodes to understand modernized Shakespeare? Probably.
I can’t help but wonder if audience members and our entire culture are regressing. I have attended open-mics in New York City, for example, and have experienced horror as young rappers are using words like “bitch” and “ho” in their songs and nobody seems to protest…at least not in the moment. In response to this scenario, a range of questions comes to mind for me: Aren’t we beyond that kind of language? Then I change my thinking. Should we be beyond that type of language in art if people are still using it in life? Then I go in another direction. If people are still accepting such derogatory language in songs, will they eventually demand more violence against women or rape in movies and on television shows? Will they ignore atrocity altogether? It may sound extreme, but that’s where my head goes.
A more refined literary piece that came to mind while brainstorming ideas for this talk was Ruined, by Lynn Nottage. I heard about this play from a friend of mine who is a local actress and theater instructor. My friend’s description immediately intrigued me. Ruined is the play that won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. This piece centers on the plight of women in the civil war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. It is also a play about rape. Ben Brantley in his New York Times review wrote: “Ms. Nottage hooks her audience with promises of a conventionally structured, purposefully plotted play, stocked with sympathetic characters and informative topical detail. She delivers on those promises. . . . Ms. Nottage has endowed the frail-looking Sophie, as well as the formidable Mama, with a strength that transforms this tale of ruin into a clear-eyed celebration of endurance.” Black women enduring rape and other atrocities during a civil war. This play won the Pulitzer. Hmmmm….
The importance of identifying terrible horrors so that we can recognize the flaws of human nature and how to endure the flaws or make them stop or prevent them in the future goes without saying, but a question must also be asked: why is a play about women suffering and black people in conflict awarded the Pulitzer? I assume there are many answers to this question. I also can’t help but think about the fact that the play perpetuates two familiar and comfortable narratives that keep two groups of people in their place.
Familiar and comfortable yet disturbing and oppressive events abound throughout the world, so it makes sense that narratives inspired by them and people surmounting them do well at the box office. But should there be more to our stories? What can we do about this scenario? Will we be denying harsh reality if we transcend it by envisioning other, more promising realities in our creative writing? It’s hard to say…
What’s Going On
Speaking of harsh reality, I recently read a piece by Kara Brown about the shooting of Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager, by a Ferguson police officer in St Louis. In this piece, Kara Brown explains the obvious and not so obvious reasons why the black community is angry about Michael Brown’s death and the shooting deaths of those just like him. She notes that James Eagan Holmes, the white male who killed twelve people and injured 70 others after opening fire in a Century movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, did not get shot but was escorted into a squad car. Into a squad car. My partner Stacy and I were talking about this disturbing situation in August. Her response was this: the neural pathways of militarized police officers seem to be conditioned to make them pull the trigger in one situation but not the other. If a white officer does not suffer the full consequences of murdering a young, unarmed black man and members of the public are subconsciously or even consciously in agreement, racism and murder have been sanctioned and even rewarded.
Historically, such racism has been sanctioned since the founding of our nation. On August 16th, 2014, MSNBC commentator Melissa Harris-Perry shared an important historical connection to the Michael Brown shooting and all the others. She explained that Chief Justice Roger Taney declared in1857 that Dred Scott had no right to sue because “he was never intended to be an American.” Justice Taney also said that “black men had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” She repeated, “No rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Racist oppression was legal.
If you think about it, racism continues to be legal and is sanctioned and rewarded in today’s society through the all-too common news coverage of the murders of young black men and in less obvious ways. How many people of color have been portrayed negatively in books and on television and in movies? Are readers and viewers conditioned by these portrayals? Are the neural pathways of writers conditioned to compose racist narratives? Are these writers rewarded with publishing contracts, movie deals, and theatrical productions? I would say that the answer is a resounding YES.
The blaxpoitation film genre of the 1970s, in which stereotypes of black people were perpetuated, may happily be a thing of the past, but today’s superficial representations of people of color indicate that writers are still being rewarded for limited or negative portrayals. In a 2013 New York Times commentary entitled “Too Good, Too Bad, or Invisible,” Nelson George noted:
“In the year America gave its first black president a second term, some of Hollywood’s most celebrated films, all by white directors, dealt with black-white race relations or revolved around black characters, which is rare. For the first time in recent memory race is central to several Oscar conversations. But the black characters’ humanity is hit or miss. These films raise the age-old question of whether white filmmakers are ready to grant black characters agency in their own screen lives.”
Aside from a desire to entertain the masses and get paid for it, why did the filmmakers create these movies? Why do people create in general? Are they trying to sort out their own feelings regarding difficult events and issues? Are they trying to sensitize others to these events and issues? Even if he or she does not do a stellar job, a writer who attempts to remind people of the humanity of others is beneficial to the world, correct? Inspiring empathy and compassion is necessary, right? Motivating others to improve is an obligation on some level, is it not? People create for all kinds of just and honest reasons.
But how far do writers still need to go? How much better do writers need to be? How much will our culture benefit from writers who resist stereotypes and oppressive characterizations, transform their own thinking, and take greater risks in their creative endeavors? The answers to these questions remain to be seen.
More Personal Experiences
A while back I was feeling lonely in the world of playwriting and wanted to experience a supportive environment, so I joined a writing group. This writing group consisted mostly of men who, not exactly surprisingly, presented limited views of women in their plays. From what I remember, the plays that members shared included a whore, a couple of naive ingenues, and other tired archetypes. One member also recommended the removal of a bisexual character and scenario from a script. I left this group because I was outraged that these men would rely on such archetypes and narrow views.
This experience inspired me to start my own group, but I was shocked to learn that certain members in this new group — all of whom were women — had limited views of women as well. Homophobic or ignorant remarks about lesbian characters shocked me, for example. One member referred to a butch lesbian character as “it” and questioned if a script containing lesbian characters would be openly featured at our upcoming group show at a local arts center. Another woman questioned why a feminine character would be attracted to a butch character. I thought to myself, is this 2014 or 1950? Certain members of this group seemed to be trapped in a narrow-minded suburban writer’s group version of Possessing the Secret of Joy. They were participating in the mutilation of creativity. They were perpetuating oppression. In seemingly seeking to silence the voice of certain writers in the group, they were rendering their fellow writers powerless. They were fostering a kind of rape. When would certain members allow others to possess and celebrate the joy of writing…freely? Do these women know how to possess and celebrate creativity within themselves?
What does it mean to possess the joy of writing? Should people simply write what they enjoy writing? Yes, but writing must be filled with conscious decisions. A writer must go beyond stereotypes and other oppressive techniques without being dishonest or superficial, without being an overly academic sociologist. Satire and irony are important tools, of course. No matter how he or she accomplishes the goal, though, a writer must be an artist while maintaining authenticity.
Everything I have said today might seem like old news, a topic that most people know about, but we haven’t gone far enough. We play it safe as viewers, readers, writers, and creators of all kinds. We still maintain the status quo. Does society expect us to? Do the publishing and theater worlds want us to? What about the movie industry? Hollywood? Television? Music? Yes, yes, yes for every question because people in positions of power like making money and rely on successful formulas to do it. As we all know, money is power. People with power and money do not want to alter their positions or their formulas. Those last three sentences do not indicate a conspiracy theory. They’re true, as far as I can tell.
So, what do we do? Here is one idea: If more people experienced power on the inside, they might have more power on the outside. Not power over but power within to create a more beneficial world. Such a process is not that difficult to experience or foster. (No matter what, we can’t give up on benefitting the world, but we do need to save ourselves first.) People have been experiencing internal power for centuries through everyday moments and interactions, spiritual enlightenment, and creativity. Writers need to resist conditioning, harness their internal power, transform their thinking, and engage in less robotic, less oppressive and more fulfilling, more human creative endeavors. In doing so, I think we would make Aldous Huxley proud and future generations would likely benefit as a result of our bravery.
At last, here are some final questions to ask ourselves as individuals: what do I want to accomplish when I write or create? What must a society of writers, of creative people, of mindful people in general seek to accomplish? Regardless of your answers, please know that you will make mistakes along the way. Perfection is not the goal. Empowered honesty and authenticity are the focus, as both are essential to creativity and to a brave and extraordinary life and world.
by Jennifer DiOrio
Please list (and explain) past or current books, movies, or television shows that have characters who seem to perpetuate stereotypes or oppression.
Please list (and explain) past or current books, movies, or television shows that have characters who transcend stereotypes or oppression.
Write a character description for one of your current characters or create a brief description of a new character you might consider incorporating into a story one day. Go beyond your norm or the norm of society. Dig deeper. Allow yourself and/or your character to feel and think freely, to be more human.
Part Three: Share out.
Part Four: What are your final comments or questions?
All images (except the last one) were obtained through a Google images search.