Apparently It Isn’t Woolf They’re Actually Afraid Of

I’m still reeling a bit about a recent decision by the estate of Edward Albee re: a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?:

According to sources, the estate of the late playwright, Edward Albee, demanded that a theatre company in Oregon, The Complete Works Project, who was producing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, fire the black actor playing the role of “Nick” and be replaced by a white actor or they would rescind the rights to the show.

I don’t know which wrongheaded defense to tackle first, not least of all because of the conflation of multiple arguments. So how about I break the arguments apart first, since my answers to some of them are different than my answers to others:

1) The Rights of the Albee Estate

I’m seeing defenses of this which cast this argument as one about the legal rights of the Albee estate. They assert the rights attached to production of the work, assert the law, and so completely miss the point that it’s no longer a point, but rather a round blunt object.

No one, including the theatre which complained about the decision, claims the Albee estate isn’t invested with the legal power to exert its rights.

Rather, people are following the standard trajectory of free speech: the Albee estate is fully entitled to make fucked up, racist decisions. And everyone else, likewise, is fully entitled to call out just how fucked up and racist those decisions are. You would think that anyone running the estate of a man whose work is rife with people calling each other to the mat might be able to recognize that pattern outside of a three act structure.

2) The Importance of Authorial Intent

As a writer, obviously I have a soft spot for authorial intent. When I write something, I’m attempting to evoke some range of emotions and thoughts in my audience.

However, I’m also well aware that what I want as a writer and what the audience of my work will take away from it aren’t the same thing. If it’s co-opted by a group whose ideology I find abhorrent, and if that co-opting happens in clear breach of my copyright, I have legal recourse to remove it from their use. I can’t, however, control what they think about my work, what they take away from it. The only art which isn’t a conversation is art which has no audience in the first place.

This is especially true in collaborative arts. Yes, the playwright is important. I’d go so far as to say they’re essential. They are not, however, the only aspect of their art. Again, unless a playwright is writing work which they never want to see performed, the nature of their work is to be adapted and interpreted through the lens of those other artists (actors, directors, designers) who attach themselves to it.

And unlike, say, film or television, live theatre is in constant intepretive flux. Hell, something as small as an actor’s mood on a given night can drastically shift a performance. Live theatre is at its core alive. That means it changes, it grows. If it doesn’t, it no longer serves a purpose.

Shakespeare wrote all of his work to be performed by exclusively male casts. He wouldn’t, at the time he wrote his plays, have even conceived of a performance where his female Ophelia was actually played by a woman. Nor would he, for that matter, have imagined the panoply of temporal and environmental backgrounds future theatres might use as the setting for his stories. Last I heard, however, no one’s spending much time grousing that Shakespeare’s intent has been bastardized by contemporary artists bringing new and different influences to bear.

Rather, the response by many is to praise Shakespeare for providing a template which continues to resonate and inspire, which ebbs and flows in a way that allows it to remain relevant, rather than proving itself a hidebound cultural dinosaur.

3) The Slippery Slope

Otherwise known as “Good God! Next you’ll say you want women playing men” and … probably?

Look. I am just the wrong audience for this kind of thing because I’m not seeing the problem here. Aside from my previous point re: Shakespeare, honestly, even if your show is explicitly “about” men, I still can’t think of a lot of instances where there isn’t something interesting an artist might bring to the work through variable gender casting, not least of all interrogating the notion of Man.

Also, let’s be honest, there are still painfully few acting roles for women with the same richness and variety as exist for men. Ditto actors of color and other marginalized identities. If it takes women in traditionally male roles and ethnic minorities in traditionally white roles for audiences and playwrights (or their estates) to stop making lazy, default cultural narrative choices about what constitutes a character of a given gender expression or a character of color or a character of disability or a character of a given sexuality or, or, or? Then I say re-cast the hell out of that shit.

4) “Historical Accuracy”

I’m sorry. I can’t even write that phrase without the scare quotes.

It took me a hot minute after entering “African-American professors 1962” in Google to have third party verification of what I shouldn’t have to prove to reasonably well-educated people: not only did African-American professors in the US exist in mixed race settings, but they’d been around for over a century already:

1849: Charles L. Reason is named professor of belles-lettres, Greek, Latin and French at New York Central College in McGrawville, New York. He appears to be the first African American to teach at a mixed race institution of higher education in the U.S.

That Albee couldn’t conceive of a scenario in the 1960s where such a character could exist without hopelessly straining credulity says a metric ton more about institutional erasure and the success of privileged narratives than it does about verifiable historical reality.

That those caring for Albee’s estate continue to be unable to imagine such a scenario in 2017, especially in a play where every other damn thing the characters say has two or three meanings and / or is elaborate fiction meant to stymie genuine interaction — where the primary actors go so far as to invent people who don’t actually exist but apparently it’s too difficult for the rights holder to imagine people who do — borders on intellectual failure of the sort that, come to think of it, deserves Albee-style disdain and mockery.

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If You Can’t Tell People of Color From Dogs and Martians, I Can’t Help You

I did a bit of spitting and stuttering about this interview of The Coen Brothers by Jen Yamato on social media, but the more I stewed, the more I had to rant about, so I thought I’d take it to the lengthier venue of the blog.

Ignore the title of over at The Daily Beast. This is only tangentially about The Oscars. It’s far more substantively about the Coens who, after saying diversity is important, spin on their heels and dig in when questions of diversity are leveled at them (specifically, their newest film). The most egregious response comes from Joel Coen, when asked about criticism of a lack of non-white characters in Hail, Caesar!:

You don’t sit down and write a story and say, ‘I’m going to write a story that involves four black people, three Jews, and a dog,’—right? That’s not how stories get written. If you don’t understand that, you don’t understand anything about how stories get written and you don’t realize that the question you’re asking is idiotic.

I suppose I should at least be impressed by how very many ways Coen is fundamentally wrongheaded in such a short space. I mean, efficiency of language is something.

Still:

Let’s get some of the most hateful bits out of the way right here. A white, straight man is sitting around telling his Asian-American female interviewer that she’s an idiot for questioning his choices as a creator. This is such prototypical whitemansplaining that we might as well just stop using other examples. Joel Coen wins the crown.

I’ll give him some mild kudos for thinking to include “three Jews” in his hypothetical list that Writers Don’t Make. In the end, though, whether he’s throwing an ostensibly self-deprecating bone at himself or not, he still just implied that switching out white people for ethnic minorities if there isn’t A Big Reason for it is as asinine as replacing people with dogs. Aside from the fact that you’re only half a step removed from making “mongrel” comments, there, someone who claims to know “how stories get written” should probably know the difference between people and dogs. (special exceptions for writers of werewolf and anthropomorphic fiction notwithstanding). If you don’t, I’m pretty sure no one asking you questions is the one who’s an idiot.

More specific to the film in question, though, it sounds like Hail, Caesar! is exactly the kind of story which did start with a list of character concepts: The Marquee Actor, The Water Movie Starlet, The Hollywood Fixer. It’s a “day in the life” movie, after all, predicated on the notion that there are a lot of stories to tell about different Hollywood types. That kind of story by its very nature involves sitting down and thinking about which iconic character types you want to explore, what unique elements you want to bring to them (because if this is the same story we’ve already heard, why do we give a fuck?), then finding a way to weave them together.

Which is to say, if you’re already sitting down and saying we want a story with a big name star and someone from those Busby Berkely water musicals and a fresh-eyed kid and a grizzled veteran, you’re doing exactly the thing you’re pretending is idiotic: making a character list  with types of people in the real world.

Meaning that in the actual examining, it’s not idiotic at all. It’s how you craft characters. You sit down and think about who the people in your world are. Where they’re from. What they do. You give them lives and backgrounds. Different lives and backgrounds. If you didn’t, you’d have a story filled with a dozen of the same person. Which, short of that bit in Being John Malkovich, is a boring, horrible idea.

Pretending that taking a few moments in your character-building to consider the ethnic or sexual or gender or disability backgrounds of your characters as you strive for a vital, varied world that engages your audience is — at the insanely least — disingenuous.

And on the subject of four of one, three of another, etc., it’s long past time we stop pretending there’s a quota going on here. Seriously. There’s a request for storytellers to be more thoughtful about the world around them. That’s actually pretty much your job. It doesn’t help that this all comes with the infuriating implication that a movie full of white people is one where race happened naturally. Never considering if there was maybe too much White Default going on in the story is, actually, a choice.

If someone asks you “why is this movie so white?” and you have an answer which suggests it was for reasons other than being too lazy to conceive of any other configuration, fine. Whether or not it resonates, at least it means you thought about it. But when someone asks you “why is this movie so white?” and you just get dismissive and defensive, that tells me you never thought about it before.

In the end, I’m utterly exhausted by the authorial defense which insists that taking five minutes of story planning to consider that people other than the White (mostly male) Default exist in the world is some kind of egregious impediment to creativity or artistic integrity or storytelling or whatever-the-hell other stand in for The Muse happens to be word of the day.

People of all stripes exist in the real world. If you’re a storyteller, you’re building a world, too, and it is nothing short of lazy if you do not — in the course of that worldbuilding — consider the place of diverse individuals within it.

Pay No Attention to the Man Peeping Behind the Curtain

A little preamble: I’m a big fan of the Linoleum Knife podcast. I’ve been stalking following Dave White and Alonso Duralde off and on since they were djmrswhite and moroccomole over on Livejournal, for goodness’ sake. They’re insightful and funny and an adorable couple and you should just listen to them because I’m surely doing a poor job of pimping them.

Listening was exactly what I was doing today, to this week’s episode, when Duralde and this week’s guest, Sean Abley, came to a bit of an impasse on the question of Edward Snowden and NSA domestic espionage during a review of Citizenfour.

It started as a discussion of whether Snowden is a traitor. I have opinions on that score, but I recognize I’ve not done a lot of deep reading on the subject, so I’m willing to lay that one aside and let folks present arguments in either direction.

Then the discussion turned to questions of NSA spying, specifically, at which point … Abley’s exact words were “I have nothing to lose.” If I’m skewing Abley’s position too much, I’ll apologize right here. I mention it at all because his statement acted as the catalyst for my responding to something that’s rankled me for a while, as–to my mind–it fell right in the space of the “it doesn’t affect me / I have nothing to hide” mentality on these issues. About that, I have some much more deeply held beliefs:

It is not now, nor has it ever been (all the way back to before we even had a Fourth Amendment), about whether someone has something to hide. First, of course, is the implication that the only reason someone would want to keep something private is because it’s incriminating or evil in some way. Which is so much bullshit I can’t even see straight.

By this logic, it should be perfectly all right for the police to knock on my front door whenever they like, toss my apartment until it looks like a tornado came through, then be on their way. They should be able to stop me on the way to work and rifle through my car on a whim. Hell, my nosy neighbor who’s been dying to get a look at my apartment should be able to walk on in at 2 a.m. and have a look so long as he doesn’t steal anything. I mean, I don’t have anything to hide, right?

That the side effects of the virtual rifling of one’s life aren’t as physically apparent doesn’t mean they don’t exist. How many times have we been told not to share our passwords, because then we’ve lost our ability to control our accounts? Every time my information is collated and shunted around to somewhere I didn’t ask for it to go, the net effect is the same: it’s out of my control, and since I didn’t set the controls on the new access, I have no idea what may or may not happen.

But you have nothing to hide, right? So there’s no harm!

Think about that bit of gossip back in high school, where someone got hold of some half-truth left lying in the open (or nowhere near the open) and turned it into the scandal for the day. Write it larger by using the same model for any number of gossip mongering “news” sites.

No harm? Somebody tell that to Jennifer Lawrence. Or Felicia Day. Or Anita Sarkeesian.

Information is power. Power can be abused.

But this is the government, not some reprobate!

The government is full of people. People are flawed. They do things you don’t expect. Like, you know, Snowden. That I may be sympathetic to Snowden’s actions doesn’t change the fact that he’s a perfect example of the fact that the government’s desire to keep something secret and confidential is no guarantee that it stays that way.

Even if I somehow suffer head trauma that leads me to agree that there are no negative consequences to someone taking information that isn’t incriminating, at the end of the day, I still don’t agree this should grant the government carte blanche access.

I don’t keep my address book in a drawer instead of posting it on my front windows just because who I know is proof of a criminal conspiracy. If I knew any criminals, I’d be as shocked as anybody.

I don’t oppose random drug testing because I’m a junkie. I’ve never used any illicit substances in my entire life. I’ve never even had enough alcohol to get a buzz going.

I don’t even close my blinds when I’m dressing because there’s something criminal or shameful about my naked body. I could stand to lose a few pounds, but we aren’t anywhere yet where that gets me thrown in jail.

There are plenty of reasons why a person might choose not to broadcast one or more pieces of information, and a wide swath of those reasons have absolutely nothing to do with crime or any other “bad” motive. But I don’t even have to catalog those, because the only reason I need is this:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

In other words, the relevant question isn’t “what do you have to hide?” It’s “what the hell business is it of theirs?”

How Long Until Blue Cross Becomes Blue Crucifix?

It looks like Arizona House Bill 2625 is getting some Tumblr attention, and while the sourcing that indicates this law just passed seems to be wrong (it was in fact enacted 2 years ago), the content of it remains disconcerting, perhaps not least of all because it was adopted two years ago without being caught up nationally by news agencies.

People are rightfully upset about the weird language which seems to indicate women of “religious objection” companies would have to submit proof from their doctors if they want to be covered for prescribed contraceptives being used for non-contraceptive reasons (acne and hormone control appear to be the common examples):

A health care services organization, employer or other entity offering the plan may state religious beliefs in its affidavit and may require the enrollee to first pay for the prescription and then submit a claim to the health care services organization along with evidence that the prescription is not for a purpose covered by the objection.

Things get jumbled up here, in that there’s a lot of weird language where “corporation” is being used. So far as I can tell, though, “corporation” is meant to be the insurance provider, not the company employing the women. The very next section makes it clear that an employer still doesn’t get to ask for your medical information.

Quick, knee jerk block: I still think this entire exemption on contraceptives is the stinkiest of cow dung. But before I get into the real nasty bits, I’m trying to get in a fact check on the “your employer can fire you for using contraceptives if he finds out you’re using them for birth control” stuff. So far as I can tell, this is between the employee, her doctor, and the insurance company (because the government shouldn’t interfere with a doctor and patient’s private health decisions; that’s the insurance industry’s racket). An employer insisting on medical records is still off the table, and violates all the same privacy laws it did before.

All that said, the thing I’m far more concerned about is this bit of the law:

Notwithstanding subsection Y of this section, a contract does not fail to meet the requirements of subsection Y of this section if the contract’s failure to provide coverage of specific items or services required under subsection Y of this section is because providing or paying for coverage of the specific items or services is contrary to the religious beliefs of the employer, hospital service corporation, medical service corporation, hospital, medical, dental and optometric service corporation or other entity offering the plan or is because the coverage is contrary to the religious beliefs of the purchaser of the coverage.

Emphasis mine, because folks, remember how I pointed out above that “corporation” was being used to mean the insurance companies? Given that, if I’m reading this right, two years ago, Arizona effectively declared that insurance providers themselves can claim a religious objection to providing contraceptive coverage.

Since the only requirement that needs to be met to get that exemption under this law is that “a written affidavit shall be filed with the corporation stating the objection,” all they have to do to get that objection is write a note.

To themselves.

And just in case we forgot, this law passed two years before the Hobby Lobby case. Who needs doors opened, when state legislators are willing to burn down the whole damn building for you?

Multiple Homicide Cake Is Everyone’s Right

For Valentine’s Day, Kansas lawmakers decided candy hearts weren’t enough, so they’re pushing for a whopping big anti-gay bill instead:

Any government employee is given explicit permission to discriminate against gay couples—not just county clerks and DMV employees, but literally anyone who works for the state of Kansas. If a gay couple calls the police, an officer may refuse to help them if interacting with a gay couple violates his religious principles. State hospitals can turn away gay couples at the door and deny them treatment with impunity. Gay couples can be banned from public parks, public pools, anything that operates under the aegis of the Kansas state government.

They’re protecting our sacred religious rights, you see. Helping to maintain Important Community Values. In Kansas, apparently, the most egregious threat to life itself is The Gay. I mean, I assume that, since this law does nothing to give religious folks the right to refuse services to, for example, convicted felons. Because, look, murder and rape are no reason to judge a person. They’re certainly not nearly as dangerous to society as two men kissing!

“Congratulations on your parole after serial rape” cake? Awesome sauce. “Congratulations on entering a mutually consensual, loving relationship” cake? Oh my god stop this before they assault the capital!

It’s sweet, really, the way Kansas lawmakers are working so hard to uphold solid community values and keep us all safe.

You know, I may be jumping to conclusions here, though. After all, looking at the wording in the official bill, we find it covers the “sincerely held religious beliefs of the individual or religious entity regarding sex or gender” in regards to doing any of the following:

[…]provide employment or employment benefits, related to, or related to the celebration of, any marriage, domestic partnership, civil union or similar arrangement;
(b) solemnize any marriage, domestic partnership, civil union or similar arrangement; or
(c) treat any marriage, domestic partnership, civil union or similar arrangement as valid.

Man, you know, I don’t know why I was worried. This is totally a religious freedom issue, and Kansas is ready to take a bold stand.

So, when I decide to declare myself a Shaker, I won’t have to serve anyone with a wedding ring, or whom I suspect might be in a sexual relationship. My business will have so much more money, since I also won’t have to provide spousal benefits to any employees, because my religion is against all marriages!

Oh, and if I join a fundamentalist order of some other religions, I don’t even have to provide services to women, since my strongly held religious beliefs tell me that women shouldn’t be out in public interacting with men in the first place. Damn, Kansas, when you take a stand for religion, you go hard core.

What? It says any sincere religious belief regarding “sex and gender,” doesn’t it? You don’t want to trample on my hard-won religious freedoms in those areas, do you?

You know what, I don’t care if you haters do, because Kansas has my back.

Wasn’t This Resolved in the 80’s?

Some days, media melts my brain. Like when an author does his level best to effectively say that engaging with tabletop RPG games is questionable conduct:

[Judge Clark Allen Peterson] has posted game-related messages under his own name thousands of times, accompanied by a depiction of Orcus, a character described as a bloated, 15-foot-tall demon with ram-like horns, bat wings and a long tail with a poisonous tip […].

Peterson chats casually with other game enthusiasts, punctuating many posts with smiley emoticons. He offers lengthy advice on game rules and design elements, and he has plugged products from Seattle-based Legendary Games, a publishing venture he founded.

I had the hardest time finding a representative quote for the article, since by and large it’s a long, fairly haphazard compilation of facts which are essentially this judge has a hobby we find nonstandard. Litigants who are upset with the results of their cases contend “[t]his activity shows a level of immaturity,” because “[h]ad this judge been doing his job instead of playing games, his mind somewhere else, he would probably have done the right thing along the line.”

Was he rolling dice while on the bench? Did I miss the part where judges don’t get to be human beings when they aren’t presiding over a case?

With the title “Kootenai County judge’s job, fantasy game hobby blur together,” it’s fairly clear what the angle is here. That it’s an angle which wasn’t particularly compelling 30 years ago doesn’t seem to hinder anyone. After exceptionally brief stops to note that the judge has had financial and marital problems during the same period (because, really, that kind of thing is incidental when it comes to the impact on a person, right?), the author plows right in developing a case for just how obsessively this monster game has taken over Peterson’s life:

Peterson has posted more than 2,860 times on Paizo’s forum over the past nine years. Since he joined the bench, about 370 of his Paizo comments were posted between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on days that state records show him at work

Literally thousands of posts about this game! It’s clearly taken over his entire life! Big numbers = concern!

Or, we could maybe do a little math, and realize that, over nine years, that turns into an average of 0.87 posts per day. According to the article, Peterson joined the bench in March, 2010, which turns that disturbing 370 into 0.4 posts per workday. Message board posts, mind you, which are often only a few sentences long. So, you know, about how long it takes most people to check the weather on a work break each day OH MY GOD THE NATION IS ADDICTED TO WEATHER!

Yeah, so maybe we stop waving the Demon Games Have Corrupted Justice signs, shall we? I mean, would this painfully overlong article even exist if the judge had been playing fantasy football instead?

(via EN World)

I Suppose Altar Boy Robes Constitute ‘Suggestive Clothing’?

The headline of the article is enough all on its own to push a rage button or two: Divorced parents also to blame for pedophilia, Polish Archbishop Jozef Michalik says. Imagine how super-exciting it was to discover that the content is actually even worse:

“We often hear that this inappropriate attitude (pedophilia), or abuse, manifests itself when a child is looking for love,” Archbishop Michalik said.

“It (the child) clings, it searches. It gets lost itself and then draws another person into this.”

Are you… seriously, you have to be kidding me. There must be a translation error. Please? I just … did you seriously just say that underage kids are out there dragging priests into molesting them?

When we actually get to the bit about divorce which inspired the original article’s headline? It’s part of this little gem: “Today nobody talks about divorce doing great harm to a child. It’s obvious that sex abuse does great harm, one can’t forget about it, but it’s not the only thing.”

It’s starting to fall into place, here. To rational people, suggesting that young children are luring priests into their own molestation would be the kind of thing which smells like week-old vomit. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth, and I didn’t even say it.

Then you follow up by suggesting that divorce and sexual molestation are somehow equitable in the pot of childhood negative experiences? I have to assume that your grip on reality is tenuous at best. In which case, it’s really just wrong to go picking on the mentally unstable. It’s like messing with a child, and what kind of horrible human being does that?

(via Joe.My.God.)