travesty

Travesty, in the sense in which it is important in this class, is dressing up or otherwise adopting the looks, mannerisms, speech patterns, etc of a person of another race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age group, etc.

Travesty tends to be a gross parody. Examples of travesty would include when men dress up as women for comic effect (e.g. Benny Hill, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, The Kids in the Hall, This Hour Has 22 Minutes. or similar British and Canadian comedians)

The main example of travesty we have discussed in this class is the form of musical comedy theatre known as Minstrel Shows.

Minstrel Shows were the first purely American form of popular entertainment, and the most popular American form of entertainment throughout most of the 1800s. They were a white (mis)interpretation (fantasy) of black music, culture, and world view.

Initially the shows were always white people in blackface; after the Civil War (1860s) increasingly black people dressed up as white people dressed up as black people. The period of the popularity of these shows covered the phases of African American history when black people could be owned as slaves in most Southern States, and later when they suffered terrible discrimination in a highly segregated society.

Travesty often reveals an ambivalent attitude toward a person from another culture or identity position (eg gender).  On the one hand, the person doing the travesty is ridiculing and belittling the other, but on another level they are enjoying the fantasy of being that other and inhabiting their cultural identity. When a member of Monty Python dresses as a woman, it is both a stereotypical critique of women and an indulgence in the stereotypical position of being a woman (being bashful or flirty, etc).

Probably there were things about African Americans that white people envied from the very beginning, and even elements of their stereotypical social roles during slavery (uneducated, “childlike,” no societal responsibilities, superstitious, earthy, etc) that white people envied. Thus they might enjoy playing out their fantasies of what it would be like to be black, but without any of the consequences of actually being black, and without real insight or empathy into the reality of being black.

Travesty is a form of cultural appropriation, in which the appropriator plays at being someone they are not. Critics consider this to be most problematic when, as in the Minstrel Shows, the appropriator is a member of a more empowered or privileged group playing at being a member of a less empowered or underprivileged group. It involves much distortion and a good deal of castigation, but typically also reveals some enjoyment in playing at being part of the subculture.

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but travesty is the most back-handed. It is morally dubious – even if it may in some cases give the travestier some partial insight into what it is like to be  the someone they are not – and it is generally now recognized as politically offensive.

Hence, criticisms of Johnny Depp playing a native person (Tonto), and many similar examples from the history of mainstream cinema in which white American actors portrayed Asians, indigenous people, Indians, Arabs, and so forth.