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photos by Lara Shipley

The Wisdom of Clowns

July 21st, 2009 · 4 Comments

Queer blogger Ariel at Feministe has an interesting post about spending several weeks at clown school. This bit in particular struck me as suggesting an illuminating exercise:

Here’s the thing about clowning: it is all about staying open to the moment and thinking on your feet. We are playing improv games and working in slapstick — big picture issues. Today I actually did a gag about peeing on the floor. When you are thinking fast, your brain goes to stereotypes. When you are thinking fast, your brain goes to racist, misogynist, classist places. We were playing with voices today and the instruction was “do the voice of a stupid person” and of course everyone instantly developed speech impediments, lisps, et cetera. If you are coming out and need to communicate something fast and without a lot of talking, it is easiest to communicate something stereotypical — not only for you, but for your audience. This means that if you are a woman, on stage, it’s going to be easy to make it about “woman things” and if you are onstage with a man, it’s probably about to be a love story.

So you’re in an improv troupe. No time to think, someone’s going to shout your part assignment and you’ve got ten seconds to convey your character to an audience of 100 American adults chosen at random. Establish that you’re supposed to be: Smart, dumb, white, black, Japanese, poor, affluent, Mexican, an Evangelical Christian, Muslim, an atheist, gay, straight, a Southerner, a Northeasterner, a West Coaster.  Humor me. Take five seconds and run through, in your head, how you might do it. Then how you’d do it in pantomime—no words.

I’m betting that for a lot of these, if you really did it quickly, you came up with something kind of crude and awkward you’d be hesitant to actually perform in public—even for your own group. This is not because we’re all evil bigots and secretly self-hating to boot. It’s because the demand “make this identity salient and broadly identifiable as such really quickly” just is, basically, a demand for a stereotype. Maybe this is not a particularly original thought, but for people who worry about racism or sexism or whateverism in film and television, it might be worth focusing on the way the formal constraints of the genre or medium, as opposed to the conscious or unconscious cultural biases of the writers, actually steers the story toward making use of these. A half-hour sitcom is not a novel. You need the reader to understand at a glance that some character is supposed to be an intimidating badass, or a provincial boor, or a smarmy selfish jerk, or a naive idealist, or an uptight bluenose, the quickest way to do this is by cuing the reader by invoking some stereotype complex that includes these traits. From that point of view, the stereotype is actually a really efficient narrative tool—like the stock characters in medieval or Renaissance plays—especially for short-form visual media. It’s just that we don’t like all the nasty social secondary effects of reinforcing these stereotypes.

One means of getting away from this is the standard strategy of encouraging film and TV writers to be more self-conscious about this stuff, which has surely been successful to some extent. But the other is to establish an alternative grammar for establishing these things that isn’t keyed to all these things. Obviously, there’s a sort of chicken-egg or first-mover problem here, since you’ve got to cement the significance of a sign before you can use it. But we’ve certainly done a lot of it in film over the past century. Contemporary movies are a hell of a lot denser than early films, which tend to seem glacially paced to modern viewers, because we all understand a series of visual shortcuts: Wavy-screen or sepiatone or super-8 tone means “flashback”; overhead view of a plane on a map means the character is traveling somewhere, etc.  We’ve done the same in comics—and with different visual tropes for American comics and Japanese manga: The former tend to show motion with lines trailing a character, the latter by blurring the background; the former will have Zs surrounding a sleeping character, the latter will use little bubbles. I’m not sure how you’d actually go about this, but if we have a narrative demand for stereotypes of one sort or another, it might be worth thinking directly about how to construct a set of socially less pernicious ones.

Update: As usual, The Onion provides important sociological insight. Once upon a time, a writer who wanted to rapidly establish that a character was an avaricious, manipulative Wall Street type would have invoked the “greedy-banker-Jew” stereotype complex. Now, we establish the same thing just as quickly with a tie-pin, a few lines of corporatespeak, and slicked-back hair. Possibly unfair to the slicked-back-hair community, but an improvement, at any rate. And a passable real-world example of a negative trait being reassigned from an ethnicity- or gender-linked stereotype complex to a less destructive one.

Tags: Sociology



4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 sidereal // Jul 21, 2009 at 2:40 pm

    the other is to establish an alternative grammar for establishing these things that isn’t keyed to all these things.

    This is probably true for stereotypes that continue to be useful and rely on personality traits without treading into race, but some stereotypes just need to go away. If someone shouts out to a clown to ‘be Japanese’, what does that even mean?

    Yes, we can all dredge up some hunched over, big-toothed, squint-eyed, chopstick-wielding garbage that we grew up with, and maybe in 5 seconds that’s what you have to come up with, but why do we even need that. At some point we need to recognize that you can’t ‘be Japanese’ in 5 seconds any more than you can ‘be the Space/Time Continuum’ or ‘be a red-head’ in 5 seconds. Just give up on it.

    A somewhat related matter is the set of old tropes that used race as a gateway to personality. For example, if you could ‘be a Jew’ in 5 seconds (with all of the requisite exaggerated stereotypical characteristics) you could communicate ‘greedy banker’ because one was a substitute for the other.

    There is no saving these.

  • 2 Julian Sanchez // Jul 21, 2009 at 2:48 pm

    That last point is what I’m interested in, and a good example of a place where we’ve largely moved away from the more pernicious stereotype. Used to be if you wanted to establish quickly that a character in a play or film was a greedy banker, you’d make him an exaggerated Shylock-style Jew, because “greedy banker” was part of that stereotype complex. Nobody would do that today, but there’s a combination of other linguistic and sartorial markers you’d use to get the same message across almost as quickly. E.G.:

  • 3 Greg N. // Jul 21, 2009 at 10:27 pm

    The entire difference between good improv and bad is found in the ability to overcome these lazy stereotypes and offer something creative instead. The funniest improv-ers I’ve seen in person just naturally (although it’s probably more due to practice) didn’t entertain these things. They always went to the things that didn’t even cross your mind after the suggestions were given.

    Incidentally, a lot of improv sucks not just because of the limitations you described, but also because of the laziness of the audience. 9/10 suggestions is sexual or stereotypical, or both (e.g., “A Jew in a threesome!”).

  • 4 Brainz // Aug 1, 2009 at 8:28 am

    In an old interview (Comics Journal? The Imp?) Chris Ware talks about getting protests over a cartoon in his college newspaper that people said was racist. His first thought was that this was outrageous, but then he looked at the strip he’d done and realized that there was a stereotype there — that stereotypes were part of the DNA of American comics.

    It strikes a lot of artists as unfair, but it’s the truth that a lot of the time avoiding reinforcing racism requires deliberate thought and careful action, not just the absence of any racist intent.