Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Halloween and Stereotypes

Today I thought I would go a little bit off the beaten path, and blog about the holiday. Halloween has become a marketing wonder in America, building seasonal businesses on scary and funny themes. But what else does it do? From what I can see, it perpetuates stereotypes as well. Is this a bad thing? I suppose it would depend on who you would ask, but I want to explore this claim a bit deeper.

Stereotypes are an "inversion of some positive characteristic possessed by members of a group, exaggerated to the point where it becomes repulsive or ridiculous" (wikipedia). While many use stereotypes or stereotypical behavior as a mechanism to justify discrimination, I would like to use it in a more benign way, that of expressing commonly held beliefs about social behavior. Halloween is the one holiday that I am aware of that allows society to make commentaries on stereotypical social behavior without risking a high level of offense (for the most part).

For an example, let me point you to my office party we had recently. We had the usual dress-ups you would expect (i.e., monsters), and then your pop culture icons (i.e. Lucy Ricardo, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, and a ghost from Pac-Man). But then you have your stereotypical dress-ups. We had a Green Bay Fan, a Cowgirl, a fashion photographer, and even an LDS missionary. These characters were identified by both their costume apparell, but also by the stereotypical actions or statements they made. They needed to make these statements in order to identify who they were. The key is that they identified themselves by the Stereotype, which thereby reinforced the stereotypes for the characters they were representing.

Now, is this a bad thing? I would argue not. While some stereotypes were, and still are, very degrading, incorrect, and down right insulting, these were merely harmless perpetuations of the extreme. The same can be said for monster characters that perpetuate stereotypes or common beliefs of witches, zombies, mad doctors, etc. It's all part of the fun of Halloween, and being able to laugh at yourself and others. Most people that I know of that create these characters are acting out an aspect of their own personality, and therefore do so in fun.

Of course, then the question would be at which point to we say a caricature is insulting and degrading? I, for one, would be very offended by someone dressed as a Black Slave, a Jewish Swindler, or a member of the KKK. These, I feel, are very much in poor taste, and can see no way for them to be done without a hateful message being sent out. That being said, I have no problem with people representing a "thrifty Scot (some say cheap, like my wife), a beer-drinking German, a sophisticated Frenchman, or a passionate Spainard. These are all stereotypes that we have received in one way or another, and yet they are not taken literally. Why?

Perhaps it's because the world has grown smaller within the 20th Century. We no longer need to rely on stereotypes that have been created in order to identify a particular culture. We, as a global nation, have experienced the cultures for ourselves in one way or another, and understand that not everyone conforms to what we believe define their culture.

So why do we perpetuate any level of stereotypes? Because the exaggeration of anything to the point of comical absurdity is funny. Yes, we do it because it gives us a laugh. It's that absurdity that makes the stereotype remain in the mind, even though you know better.

For instance, when I wear my kilt for any event (and pretty much every event I can think of an excuse for), the first question I get is, "What do you wear under your kilt?" This, of course, is a very personal question, and I remind everyone of that. But it also is a perpetual stereotype that scots do not wear any type of undergarments when wearing a kilt. Just as every scot in a kilt can play the bagpipes, or pinches every penny they can. This is not always so, but the ideas are so comical in one way or another, we can't forget them.

So does that mean that we can only perpetuate stereotypes when they are funny? I would say no, because what is funny to one person is not funny to another. In my youth I would get very offended if someone called my kilt a "skirt". Since then I have lightened up (you can't fight everyone you meet), but others may still be offended. It all comes down to the audience. What does it mean to the audience? How will they take it?

I'm reminded of an episode of Studio 60 (which I generally tend to avoid because of it's popularity, but my wife loves it) where a black actor wanted the white writing producer to hire a black staff writer. They had an exchange regarding affirmative action, writing to culture, etc., and then went to see the black comic for consideration. The comic then began a monologue that was played off of stereotypes so completely that the black actor was offended and disappointed. People were chuckling, but the comic just lost a good deal writing for a big syndicated show.

Also consider the speach of President Chavez to the United Nations, when President Bush was referred to as "the devil". Many of the international community present chuckled, but it seriously hindered Venesuela's chances of getting a seat on the UN Security Council. The stereotypes you choose may have a comedic impact, and yet not gain the response that you were looking for, namely respect.

So in the end, I don't think there is a right answer, or a wrong answer to which stereotypes are used in the name of comedy. But for Halloween at least, we have the chance to test the waters, make a fool of ourselves, and still fit in with everyone else.

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