Monday, November 26, 2012

transgression, sensitivity, and art: a discussion

So the Grey Cup, the final game of the Canadian Football League, is wrapping up as I write this. I honestly don't give a damn about who won either way, but watching the Twitter feed, I did notice a few things that struck my interest regarding the half-time show. First was antipathy, given as Justin Bieber and Carly Rae Jepsen were cited as performers. Now, promoters, I get that these two are some of the biggest names in Canadian pop radio right now, but you have to realize that they aren't exactly the kind of acts you want for a championship football game. Personally, I think a rock act would be a lot better. Hell, Gordon Lightfoot, who also performed, would be a better choice, if only because he'd have more name recognition amongst an older Canadian crowd. 

And incidentally, I saw all the tweets ripping on Lightfoot and asking for Bieber to come back on stage - on the one hand, they don't know any better, but on the other hand, it's still fucking infuriating. Diversify your tastes in music, youth of Canada, and stop proving all of my suspicions about your generation correct!

But besides that point, the final act was a small step in the right direction with Marianas Trench. Now, granted, Marianas Trench are a pop rock act that probably has a fair amount of overlap with Bieber's audience, but they put on a good show and they are a pretty solid act. So when I checked out Twitter, I was expecting to see the typical fangirl squeeing.

Instead I saw a number of tweets accusing Marianas Trench of making fun of people with speech impediment by performing their song 'Stutter', a song from their 2011 album Ever After

Now, let's get some things out of the way. I've heard Ever After, and I dug the hell out of the album. Not quite as good as Masterpiece Theatre, but there are very few albums that ARE better than that. And I remember having issues with 'Stutter', mostly because I'm not a fan at all of the musical gimmick. Both Mystikal and Pink have made songs using a stuttering vocal affect, and I don't either of the songs are very good in the slightest for it. And besides the stutter, there are other issues with the song - the lyrics are overly simplistic, the bridge is lack-luster, and it really needed a key change after the bridge to seal the deal. But even despite all of that, I still liked 'Stutter' because it somehow still worked as a loud, energetic pop song about a guy pleading with his ex to get back together, using the stuttering affect to enhance the sarcasm in his question 'Did I stutter?', of his perception that the girl isn't getting the clues he's dropping. Okay, as a metaphorical device, I can get behind that.

But still, people still found it offensive and condemned Marianas Trench for the song - and now I'm stuck with the question of how the hell I can defend this song, because, being completely honest, I don't think it's entirely fair to condemn Marianas Trench here. And to explain why...

Look, I know that stepping into this debate is like walking in the proverbial minefield, particularly considering some of my own sensitivities in this area. Hell, I got pissed at Glee for its treatment of characters with disabilities, faking or otherwise. In fact, if I remember correctly, the Asian goth girl Tina made early mention of the fact that she had been faking a stutter in the first season of the show. And while I do sort of agree with Artie calling her out on the faking of the disability as offensive, I also see where she's coming from. She wasn't faking the stutter because she was deliberately trying to offend or mock, she did it when she was very young and wanted to be left alone, and it eventually developed into a coping mechanism for her at school. As a teenager, I can get that self-concerned obliviousness, or that she didn't know any better. 

Of course, it didn't seem like the writers on Glee learned that lesson, when they introduced the character of Sugar in Season 3, who was 'faking' having Asperger's Syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism best exhibited in characters like Sheldon Cooper (Big Bang Theory, decent portrayal), Abed Nadir (Community, MUCH better portrayal), and Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock, and arguably the most accurate). But here's the difference: Sugar was using Asperger's as an excuse to be a vapid, self-obsessed bitch who could say whatever she wanted and then say she 'can't help it' or some other bullshit. Now, after the fanbase of Glee screamed bloody murder at this (particularly considering Ryan Murphy spent so much of Season 2 trying to deify Kurt because he's the gay author insert character, and then proceeded to introduce a character who spat in the face of cultivating that sensitivity), the writers downplayed Sugar's early portrayal throughout the rest of Season 3, but let me tell you that it certainly contributed to my general antipathy towards the show and the fact I haven't seen a single episode of Season 4 (still debating on this one). In fact, I actually found it more infuriating that they played down that element of Sugar's character, because instead of, you know, giving her more back story or an opportunity for a character with a legitimate psychological condition to call her out (immediately I'm thinking of Becky, Sue's lead cheerleader who also has Down's Syndrome) and induce character development, they just covered it up and pretended it never happened. 

Now can you all see the difference here between her situation and Tina's? Because there is an important difference, one that I feel bears close examination. In both cases, you can make strong arguments that Tina and Sugar's behavior was insensitive towards those with speech impediments and with autism-spectrum conditions alike, and I'd be hard-pressed to disagree with that. However, the difference in intent and perception should be noted here. The writers of Glee took Tina's faked stutter and made it a part of her character. She faked it for the wrong reasons, but those bad choices added depth to her character. It was a conscious choice on part of the writers to add some badly needed heft to Tina's backstory, a girl who was cripplingly shy and used the stutter to further drive people away. Now there were some who thought Tina's portrayal here was offensive to those with actual speech impediments, but the point I'm trying to make is that the writers were intending to create that reaction. After all, there is a place for transgression in art, to push boundaries and make people uncomfortable. But what made it work was that it became part of Tina's character and backstory, and had impact between her and Artie.

Now, there are two factors that must come into play here on the part of the writer, two questions that must be answered. The first is whether or not the writer has knowledge that they are actively pushing these buttons. As a writer myself, I think authors and screenwriters have something of a responsibility to be informed about the topics that they are writing about and presenting. Without that knowledge, at the very least you display your own ignorance/laziness. At the worst, you can further cultivate stereotypes or spread precisely the wrong kind of message. Take, for instance, the second episode of Season 1 of Sherlock, 'The Blind Banker'. There is a heavy Asiatic bent to that episode, but the people was that the characters were not given the depth or additional development to expand upon them outside of typical Asian stereotypes, which was frustratingly uncomfortable. It gets even worse when you look at Michael Bay's Transformers movies, which introduce characters that aren't just the worst possible embodiments of the stereotypes, but actively dig new ground in offensive portrayals of racism, homophobia, and misogyny. But that being said, I don't actively think Michael Bay is actively racist - no, I think instead he's a lazy hack who doesn't have the desire to expand any of his characters outside of his set of badly defined stock stereotypes. It's a little more frustrating when you look at Sherlock, particularly with creators like Moffat and Gatiss who should really know better and who have a reputation for doing their research, but I'm also willing to give them a reluctant pass as having made a mistake and moving on to create better representations. 

But you can't just consider ignorance - you also need to consider a deeper intent, and the second question steps into that: if you're aware of what you're doing, why are you doing it? Take Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom, a character fraught with some unfortunate overtones in the sexism department. When confronted with these, Sorkin hastily tried to backpedal away from them under the defence that 'well, at least all of my female characters are 'smart'' - but people still take offensive (and I'd argue rightly so) because it's clear Sorkin isn't ignorant. He's writing his characters in a very specific way in order to make metaphorical and symbolic points, and that's what's so fucking infuriating about the show. He's aware of what he's doing and its impact, and he doesn't care because they're all tools in his grand statement that really never amounted to much anyway. 

Or take The Idiots by Lars von Trier, a highly controversial Dogme 95 film that relied on the premise of people pretending to be mentally handicapped to get away with bad behaviour, a film I find downright sickening to watch... but one whose existence I can still defend because Lars von Trier is actually speaking to a certain theme regarding how the human mind and condition deals with tragedy. He owns the horrible transgressions in his film, and unlike shit like his later outings (say, Antichrist, and all of its gut-churning misogyny), he has something that is poignant and resonant to say. At this point, it's not exploitation of stereotypes or being offensive just to be offensive - there's a meaning behind these transgressions that justify the project.

So coming back to Glee, it's pretty obvious that the writers of the show intended the character of Sugar to represent two things: firstly, the delusional girl who thinks she has singing talent and really doesn't; and secondly, as a strawman to lambast the 'typical internet self-diagnosed 'Aspie' critic' who have been critical of Glee over its past couple of seasons, using the anonymity of the Internet to protect themselves. And while the first character portrayal could have been quite interesting, the second is a real problem because it is the intentional stereotyping of a critic by creating a character that really has no other role besides that of a one-dimensional strawman. To be honest, I doubt the whole thing about Sugar having Asperger's, one way or the other, really came into the writers' discussion - they probably just chose to use it as an additional pejorative. In this case, they were aware of the connotations using Asperger's would present - they just didn't care.

And that is fucking disgusting, not just because it's creating a terrible and offensive stereotype, it's done with a complete disregard for the actual syndrome itself. It's a real testament to the lack of courage in their art that the writers of Glee backed away so hastily when the Internet collectively screamed at this atrocity, and it really shows something nastier and unpleasant in the writing of Glee that really bothers me, particularly when viewed in the context of the show at large. Namely, that there is no consistency and zero acknowledgement of agency. Kurt is allowed to get away with anything (up to and including stalking Finn and placing him in what he perceived as a sexually threatening environment), simply because he's the gay author avatar. More importantly, his character's homosexuality is treated with a degree of nuance and respect you don't really tend to see on prime-time television.

But outside of Kurt, let's take a look at other characters who aren't so privileged and lucky. Santana and Brittany, whose lesbian attraction was cast as a joke throughout the first season, and only after plenty of fan urging was made into an actual couple. But instead of the supportive and sensitive way Kurt was treated when he came out of the closet (through lengthy episode arcs, I might add), Santana was publicly outed by Finn and then the follow-up episode seemed to treat this major development point as a chance to teach Finn a lesson about tolerance and all that. You know, no actual focus on Santana's character outside of a momentary glimpse into her rejection by her grandmother. And while I can be understanding of creating the circumstances, it's the treatment of those circumstances, particularly considering how much the writers of Glee have stressed tolerance and compassion and support, that I find completely contradictory to the message the show is trying to present. And with Sugar, it's all made all the worse, because not only is her character treated with complete disrespect, her condition and her fakery of it are also treated with the same contempt and laziness. That, my readers, is the difference between having a message through transgression in art, and just plain exploitative trash.

And now finally coming back to Marianas Trench and the performance of 'Stutter', the two questions must be asked: the awareness, and the intent. Well, it's pretty clear from the fact they were using the stutter as a metaphorical device that they knew what they were doing and weren't acting out of ignorance. 

So let's ask the next questions: can the song be considered insensitive to people with speech impediments? From the tweets I saw tonight, it's a fair bet to say 'yes'.

Does it make the song itself 'wrong'? NO. 

Marianas Trench was not trying to offend anyone, and I bet they're as surprised as anyone that people are misinterpreting their metaphorical usage of the 'stutter' as somehow offensive. As I've said a number of times, for there to be advancement in art, sometimes there must be transgression, things that offend people. It's the argument I've used to defend acts like Eminem and genres like horrorcore and death metal, and similarly, it's what I've used to condemn exploitative trash like A Serbian Film, which attempted to justify its heinousness by claiming artistic pretension that it doesn't earn or deserve. 

Ultimately, my point boils down to this: if you're going to tread and cross boundaries in artistic expression, be aware of what you're doing, have a well-thought out purpose in mind, and fucking stick to it to give it the pay-off it deserves.

1 comment:

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