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Artistic Allyship: Considering Social Implications of Hollywood, Broadway, and Mainstream Art

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January 17, 2013

By Sarah Bernstein, Chapter Member, Oberlin College

Last week my family went to see The Book of Mormon, the latest Broadway musical hit. Mormon is a sing-song baby born from the creators South Park. It parodies religion, sexuality, race, other musicals, comedy, capitalism, Disney— it pokes fun at everything there is to make fun of. It does so pretty successfully. Rolling Stone Magazine deemed Mormon a “new gold standard for Broadway… marching into legend,” The New York Times called it “the best musical of the century.”

While I am a big-time showtune lover, my infatuation with “the Broadway musical” started to fade-fast somewhere around my junior year of high school. Call me a cynic, but I think the shows are overbudgeted, overpriced, overproduced, and tell mediocre-at-best stories. Still. The Book of Mormon is funny. The show gets its audience cozy with the help of some mega-catchy and sometimes familiar show tunes, and then makes the audience laugh about things that they know they shouldn’t.

However some of Mormon’s jokes are misguided and poorly suited for an American musical comedy. Performative art (be it comedy or drama, theater or film) has the potential to deeply affect individuals and communities. Therefore, screenwriters and playwrights have a great responsibility. As a theater & gender studies double major, and someone who hopes to pursue a career in playwriting/screenwriting… It’s something I think about a lot. I call it “artistic allyship.”

If an artist chooses to create work that focuses on stigmatized or underrepresented  issues/communities/identities… they need to be extra careful to articulate complexity and consider how their story fits into their assumed audiences’ culture.

I am not interested in making work that tells an audience what to think politically, socially, personally, etc. I want to pose questions and more than anything I want to move people. Furthermore, I don’t expect most art to advocate for movements, groups, or justice. But when I choose to write a character who could represent an otherwise underrepresented voice, portray a stigmatized identity, or comment on a culture that I don’t have direct experience with… I am so careful. The last thing I want my work to do is to contribute to existing reductive, oppressive narratives.

So my reproductive justice flag went off somewhere in the first act of The Book of Mormon when a character casually drops into conversation that he’s “now going to go f*** a baby to get rid of [his] AIDS.” Later, the same character interrupts a song several times to alert the audience about “maggots in [his] scrotum.” It’s the big punch line that ends the first act. In fact, it’s all a punch line. The man next to me had tears streaming down his face, he was laughing so hard. Mormon’s second act introduces a villain known as “General ButtF*ckingNaked” who is on a mission to “cut off all the clitorises.” This threat generates one of the central conflicts in the second act, but the play never actually explores the realities of this practice.

I don’t think of myself as someone who is particularly “PC,” but something about a room full of people who have paid $100+ to laugh at a circumstance that has no part in their culture/ that they have never experienced/ that they will never experience, pissed me off.

I felt similarly conflicted after I saw Silver Linings Playbook. This movie succeeded on so many levels: fantastic acting, complex direction, and a promising, unique storyline. However, the script itself left me confused and disappointed. The movie seemed to suggest that mental illness can be cured by love and cuddles. It also attached female sexual freedom to emotional distress and countered Bradley Cooper’s “sanity” with a crazed, criminal fool played by Chris Tucker (one of the only people of color in the movie).

Theater and film encourage curiosity through emotional communication and storytelling. For a writer to sensationalize or misrepresent a narrative (particularly one that has been historically and systemically stigmatized) is a disservice to all other artists involved in the work and to the audience. I’m not saying we need to change the world every time we speak or write something down, but I’m suggesting that more writers think about the social implications of their work and what it means to be both an artist and an ally.

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