If you’re Jewish, think twice about moving to Bedford, MA. That’s the message of recent anti-Semitic incidents in that west suburban town. Elementary school children play a game called “Jail the Jews.” Swastika graffiti is discovered at an elementary school, at Bedford High School and a local playground. Such anti-Semitism is not unique to Bedford, and the community seems to be taking it seriously. But other anecdotes from there, including some advancing the slander that Jews are Christ-killers, reflect dangerous attitudes that very young children usually can get only from their parents.
The pattern of such behavior implies an intention to hurt. But what about the controversy swirling about the unintentional hurt inflicted by stereotypes portrayed in the performing arts? Recently, many Newton parents were upset about the stereotyping of Asians in a Newton North High School production of Thoroughly Modern Millie. The directors of the production apologized. A focus group was held at some point. (The more outrageous portrayals of the original production had been toned down.) And community gatherings and subsequent discussions turned the situation into a teachable moment.
It’s worth noting that former Newton Alderman Greer Tan Swiston, who is Chinese-American, wrote in the Newton TAB that she found the high school version “thoroughly entertaining” and praised the behind-the-scenes efforts to foster understanding.
But should the production have been done in the first place? Freezing out all productions from a less enlightened time and place seems to be sliding down a slippery slope. Should we not do West Side Story because of its portrayal of Puerto Ricans? The King and I because the Siamese king is stuck in the ignorant past? Porgy and Bess, because of its racist portrayal of blacks in the 1920’s in Charleston? And what about Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, and its cringe-worthy, anti-Semitic stereotype of Shylock? Fiddler on the Roof, because it lampoons Yiddish-speaking shtetl dwellers? And what about Edward Albee’s WASPS? Where does it stop?
“You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear,” says the song from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific, which itself reinforced stereotype in the character of Bloody Mary. But what do people learn, and when?
Beyond their artistic merit, such productions can teach about prejudice by informing audiences about the storyline’s context and by illuminating why such attitudes are offensive today. Can’t even young children be taught that there are alternatives to hating “the people their relatives hate?” An African-American friend involved in education her whole life still remembers the pain she experienced as a school girl when she was exposed to hurtful productions. Her feelings remain raw decades later. Young children are particularly impressionable and, she says, shouldn’t be exposed to productions that further stereotyping. Performance images, she warns, stay in young children’s minds much longer than words in a book, and we have to err on the side of protecting children.
I respect her sensibility, but the potential for offending people is virtually limitless. I don’t want to see people storming schools and libraries, stopping productions, demanding that books be removed from shelves. I’m not in favor of overprotecting our kids, but materials do need to be age-appropriate and presented with an eye toward providing context and furthering understanding. Performances can be toned down to neutralize stereotyping, as has been done elsewhere even with Thoroughly Modern Millie, without seriously compromising artistic integrity. When it comes to high school dramas and musicals, sanitizing works of art shouldn’t be an either/or situation. Working through the issues is worth doing.
I welcome your comments below.