On Stereotypes and Agency

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A participant in the debate about race and repertoire I reflected on recently made one of those passing comments that don’t pass, but insist on staying in your head demanding to be thought about. It was about when Black singers perform music that portrays Black stereotypes: ‘but she is African American and it is her choice to make for whatever reason’.

Now, it is clear what the tension is here that people are trying to resolve. The portrayal of African Americans in blackface is quite transparently imposing a dominant culture’s representation on people who are afforded no agency in the cultural process. The reputational damage is direct and undisputed. But if African Americans themselves sing lyrics that might be thought to evoke such stereotypes, does this suggest that objecting to those stereotypes is being over-sensitive? Can we use the performances of Black singers as information about what kinds of lyrics are okay?

The intention behind such a move is one of respect. It says, ‘It is not the place of someone such as I who has not walked in your shoes, to assume what is and what is not offensive to you’. But at the same time, it effectively holds the singer responsible for the content of the song. And thereby makes them responsible not only for the cultural representation of their race, but also for the response of those represented.

Let’s think about this dynamic in other axes of identity.

Take the portrayal of women in movies. A depressingly large proportion of screenplays contain very few female characters, and those that do exist are all too often there as love-interest for the male characters rather than people with attributes central to the plot. Yes, there are exceptions (and come to think of it, my movie-going tends to err on the side of the exceptions), but the fact that the Bechdel Test even exists tells us that many roles for female actors are essentially interchangeable.

But, you know, we don’t blame the actors for this. We don’t say, ‘Well Rosamund Pike took a role as a Bond girl, so it must be okay to show women as sex objects’. We recognise that people make the best career choices available to them from within a limited, and limiting, range of possibilities. Female actors would love to have a greater number of more interesting roles to play.

Or - and some of you will feel this one particularly keenly - take the portrayal of barbershop quartets in popular culture. All stripey blazers, straw boaters and clichéd gestures, deployed to evoke the aesthetic category of ‘cheesy’. So many discussions within the barbershop world revolve around frustration at the persistence of this stereotype, and how it is felt not only to represent the modern genre inaccurately, but also to belittle it.

And then the BBC’s prime time Saturday evening show wants to feature a barbershop quartet and insists on this stereotype in the costuming and repertoire choices. The options available to the quartets themselves are either to turn the gig down (which one quartet did) or to take the gig and accede to the framing (the choice of the quartet that did appear). It was very clear who had the power over the portrayal of the genre here, and very little of it was in the hands of the performers themselves.

So, we need to separate out our critique of content and representation from our appreciation of the skills of the performers. It is pretty much always going to be the case that performers find themselves being more or less complicit with the cultural stereotypes; indeed, a significant part of the performer’s skill lies in nonetheless finding the humanity within the characters they are given to portray. Just like we find our humanity within the identity frameworks we live in; as actors on the world stage, we can’t escape our cultural contexts any more than the performers who mediate our understanding of them can.

And it is worth remembering that this interchange between art and life is why these stereotypes matter. Every woman who has experienced male condescension or unwelcome touching (or - ugh - both at the same time, makes my flesh creep) will know what it is like to be perceived as an interchangeable female, only of interest in relation to a man. Every barbershopper will know how it feels to have a devotee of some form of music that positions itself as relatively ‘high art’ sneer faintly down their nose at them. People treat us this way because those are the images that popular culture has filled their imagination with.

Mammy songs are likewise part of the cultural imaginary that frames African Americans as less than fully human, and thus invites those who interact with them to trust and respect them less than they would without those stereotypes. The fact that Black singers have had to engage with, and find ways to negotiate, those stereotypes in building their careers cannot be read as an endorsement of them. In this context, to ascribe absolute agency to the performer for the content they perform functions as a subtle form of victim-blaming.

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