Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

What Is Being Engendered?

Though I did not grow up in Jamaica after my first six years, I've managed over time to spend a good amount of time there on visits. One thing that struck me early on was how, when I went to the movies or a play, the audience really got into the characters. For a play this made a sort of sense as the actors could hear and even respond if they wished. For a film, I really wondered who the audience thought was hearing other than the projectionist. "Gwan Bruce. Lik 'im wid another kick!" or during a scene in The Harder They Come, many yelled "Dont let him pass driver!" as the bus with Jimmy Cliff was heading to a bridge and a truck was coming in the other direction. Or when comedian Oliver Samuels plays a woman: "Cuh ya! A no Oliver dat inna dress? Is wha' dis?" They were not laughing pure and simple, but were posing a question about the current flowing through 'hour Holiva'. Did DC switch to AC?

Audiences also showed something that was quite different from what I had seen before: they often fell over themselves when they saw people dressed as if they were the other gender, and would laugh and holler at this sight, more so when men were in women's clothes--not least, I imagined, because no amount of panty hose or ruffles could get you past Hulk-like thighs, a bulging belly, and even a bit of bristle on the face. I saw this again recently, in Barbados, at my daughter's gym class 'gala', when one of the men gymnasts came out in a leotard, a tutu and his hair in buns, before he went into a stomach-curdling parallel bars routine. Fetching? Nah! Almost everyone hollered, and the little kids pointed and snickered. I don't know if women feel complexed by this reaction, which could be about the absurdity of women's clothes, as much as the absurdity of a man trying to seem comfortble in this form of dress.

I always had a suspicion too when I witnessed these reactions that the audience was not really looking at the actors as actors or performers as performers, but somehow thought that a real change had taken place.

I went to an all boys school in England during my teens and as most plays have roles for women in them some boys had to play those roles to stay true to the text, whether it was 'Romeo and Juliet' or The 'Taming of the Shrew' or 'Cleopatra'. But someone also had to play the Green Knight in 'Sir Gawain'--and very convincing I was with my built up shoulders and false head ready to be chopped off. It so happens that you often have a crop of teenage boys who have 'soft' features and can at least pass for a girl with a bit of make up, and before the voices break, it could be quite convincing.

Generally, despite liberal upbringings, we feel better seeing Romeo trying to woo Juliet even if she is played by a boy, rather than having to think of Romeo and Julian (if we rewrote Shakespeare to deal with the lack of female acting talent); the romantic comedy could still be there but many would not want to go there with schoolboys.

I also remember that one of the traditions at the Bank of England was that the staff Christmas party always included a sketch where several of the senior managers, including Executive Directors, would dress in drag and sing, dance, act out some scene or do a satirical take on some major political events during the year. You have to remember that Margaret Thatcher was Britain's prime minister during most of the time I worked at the Bank and she provided a lot of good material, some of which had never made the news.

I'm not sure how, but I have never seen the movie, 'Tootsie', directed by Sydney Pollack (who also acted in the film) and starring Dustin Hoffman. As I have read, the film is about an unemployed actor with a reputation for being difficult, who disguises himself as a woman to get a role in a soap opera, and becomes a star. This new found role, however, lands him in a few hot spots between a female friend/'lover', a female co-star he falls in love with, that co-star's father who falls in love with him, and a male co-star who yearns for his affection. Hoffman was nominated for the Oscar for best actor--not actress--for this role.

Eddie Murphy, one of America's funniest comedians, is famous for playing multiple roles in his films. I recently had the mixed fortune of seeing for the first time the film 'Norbit', in which Murphy plays a clumsy and not so good looking lad, Norbit Rice, and Rasputia Latimore, a grossly obese, overbearing, bullying girl who 'makes' Norbit her boyfriend. As they both grow up, they become closer and eventually get married. But Norbit really only wants to get away from Rasputia to find his true childhood sweetheart (played by a real woman, Thandie Newton). I nearly burst my rib cage when I watched the scene where Rasputia goes to the water park, breaks the scale, makes the water slide structure rumble, and then manages to empty the water from the slide pool as she 'sails' down the slide and off into a housing complex.

I saw last year John Travolta, playing the role of Edna Turnblad in 'Hairspray', the plump mother of an equally plump teenager who takes the TV world by storm with her singing and dancing and made the not-so-pretty and not-so-pencil thin very acceptable. Travolta had to wear a 15 pound body bag and got a Golden Globe nomination as best supporting actor--not actress.

I'm stunned that people confuse facts and fiction as with the Jamaican movie and theatre goers. I have never seen someone read a book, or seen or heard of someone listening to a radio broadcast who started interacting with the characters. Nor have I ever heard of people listening to a playwright reading extracts from his play and getting confused when he read the parts for the leading female character. There's no flipping gender problem. So, maybe there is something about actually seeing people in costumes that leads to the behaviour that I saw in Jamaica. I'm intrigued why I have never seen this is Britain--and I went to a lot of plays and films. I have seen the opposite, with the crowd revelling in the performance. Admittedly, this was in a pub or several when they have things like talent night, and 'George' the town's burly butcher came out dressed as 'Dolly Parton' singing 'Stand By Your Man', and seductively draped himself around the even burlier landlord, 'Graham'. "Go on, George. Show you love 'im!" some wags yelled as 'George' puckered up and 'Graham' reeled back. 'George's' wife, 'Mathilda' was doubled up with laughter, and heard to mutter, "Go with it, Graham. George is much more woman than me."

I have not been to the cinema or theatre much in other countries, but suspect that the French would be all 'C'est la vie' about it, and not lose a second to pretend to be next to Bruce Lee or wonder if Maurice Chevalier had really turned into Maureen to stop sipping their Pernod.

I did see similar interactive reactions in Africa, with people huddled around a TV watching an action video or film. That was in a rural bar and got a little out of hand as kung-fu kicks started flying around and a few people got hit and tables fell over, and beer got spilled, and a real fight broke out.

Is this a development issue, or is it an ethnic issue? I wish I could figure it out. I mean, when you see people in make up and dressed for their parts in a play or film, or a man jumping over six horses at a time with a sack of gold on his back and a damsel in his arm, you know that it's not real and that they're acting right?

I think I will dust off my copy of 'Emotional Intelligence' bu Daniel Goleman and see what guidance that can give.

No comments: