Wednesday, January 30, 2008

"Just Because We Laugh At Stereotypes Doesn't Mean We Believe Them"

As part of my graduate assistantship, I teach a section of the "Intro to Theatre" course (for non-majors). Today we were learning about improvisation.

During one improvisation, a male student chose to play a character in a stereotypically "flaming gay" manner. The scene went to the point where I felt like it had crossed the line between being tongue-in-cheek and being potentially offensive.

So, after the improvisation was over, I felt like I had to address the idea of stereotype. I began to explain that I wanted us to be a class who didn't perform stereotypes that might be offensive, or make our classmates uncomfortable.

A student raised his hand. "But the book says that the purpose of theatre is to offend people and make them uncomfortable."

Crap. This was true. The opening chapter of their textbook did give the standard "theatre is supposed to shake up the status quo" paragraph.

He wasn't finished. "And Avenue Q is full of stereotypes, and it's got a really stereotypical gay character, and everyone loves it!"

Then another student jumped in with a very serious "Look. The reason we all laughed at this character was because what he was doing was funny. Just because we laugh at stereotypes doesn't mean we believe them."

There was a murmur of agreement with that comment, and so I didn't press any further, told my class that my "Michael Scott moment" was over, and set up the next improvisation exercise.

But something about this still doesn't feel right to me. I mean, I don't think I'll get a chance to address the issue again with my class, but I don't think I handled it as well as I could have. Despite my students' assertions, I don't really think that our Millennial generation has 100% "stopped believing in stereotypes."

Had I been able to think faster on my feet, I should have turned it towards a talk about identity, and how stereotypes affect the way we see various identities. Maybe. But I don't know how to do that without marginalizing identities; the idea that some people are stereotyped and others aren't, etc. I couldn't even say "we shouldn't make fun of gay people because someone in this class might be gay" -- I started to, but shifted gears mid-sentence because that, in itself, sounded like it was making gay seem like less -- or different -- than the rest of us. Not to mention that when you say that, people all start looking around and trying to guess who the "secret gay person" is.

Have other teacher-readers dealt with situations like these before?


The Director said...

I think the students' Avenue Q statement makes a point both against your stance and for your stance.

The point of Avenue Q is to highlight the offensive stereotypes for the purpose of showing how ridiculous they are.

It's quite a difference to portray a flaming gay character with the intent of making people laugh and quite another to portray a flaming gay person to make a point about how ridiculous it is.

I think the key to theatre is to upset the status quo (to offend) with a good reason. Avenue Q is funny, yes, but look at some of the songs: Schaudenfreude is a tongue-in-cheek song about our indifference to others (and making a side joke about Germans), 'Everyone's A Little Bit Racist' is a perfect example, because it highlights how common racism is and simultaneously how ridiculous it is.

Also, one of the key things about improvisation that most people miss is that the point is not necessarily to be funny. Shows like "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" make it look that way, but you don't have to be funny to improv.

I think you handled it just fine. I don't know that I would have handled any better. I've been in similar situations, though. A student raised her hand one day in one of my 10th grade classes and said "What's a G-spot?" and I got pissed off, sent her to the office and wrote her up. Could've been handled better, but... meh.

Good luck next class.

Bjorn said...

This is a very interesting blog post. I'm not a teacher, but I've seen many experienced teachers run into this situation. Obviously, your students are very clever to turn your own text against you! I think the point they misunderstood was what exactly the status quo is, and I would address that head on: if the book says "theatre is supposed to shake up the status quo", perhaps you could ask them what they think the status quo is with regard to gay stereotypes (forget about other plays for a moment). I think they will conclude that the gay stereotype is that of a "flamer" and that therefore theater's role should be to shake that stereotype up, not to reinforce it, which is what that student was doing.

Another angle could be to suggest adding something new to the "flamer" stereotype. For example, I played a "flamer" in a short film, but the gag was that my character was straight and always wondering why people thought he was gay. My wife read your post and suggested a "flamer" who happened to be rocket scientist. Neither of these things do anything to suggest that gays aren't "flamers", but they do suggest that there's nothing wrong with being a "flamer", and they put a positive or at least neutral spin on the roll, which is certainly shaking up the stereotype. (The director is right in his comments, of course, it doesn't have to be funny, but I do think that's a good way to engage students.)

On the issue of other plays, and in particular Avenue Q, I found this blog post because I saw Avenue Q last night with a large group of friends and they were all deeply offended. Keep in mind this is a group that thinks the Family Guy is one of the greatest TV Shows ever. (Google led me to your blog because I was wondering if anybody else was offended by Avenue Q.) Anyway, I think it's safe to say not everyone loved Avenue Q, and even if they did, I also think it's that the intent of the creators of Avenue Q was not to reinforce stereotypes but to exaggerate them to the point of showing how ridiculous the stereotypes are. In other words, to show them in a new and different light. How successful they were is certainly a matter my friends will be debating with all the Avenue Q fans out there for a long time....

Anyway, good luck to you, and thanks for the interesting read!