January 30, 2005

Contaminated identities

Bill Poser complains, reasonably enough, about the attention devoted to Prince Harry in a Nazi uniform, especially in a world in which so many vastly more serious things are going wrong:

The critics are assuming that wearing a Nazi uniform is a non-verbal indirect speech act that demonstrates support for the Nazis. Not one comment on this topic that I have seen mentions the basis for this belief. Surely it is false. People routinely wear costumes representing figures of whom they do not approve. When a couple come to a party as Bonnie and Clyde, does anyone think that they approve of bank robbery? When someone dresses as a pirate, is that taken to show approval of piracy? Of course not. Wearing a costume does not indicate approval.

But not all costumes -- or assumed identities -- are equal.

I grant that none of this is rational, none of this makes sense in purely logical terms. But there's a powerful (irrational) cultural basis for the horror here: certain identitites are highly contaminating culturally, to the extent that playing with them lays the performers open to attributions of actually having the portrayed identities. [Insert some appropriate reference to Erving Goffman on stigma here.] Nazis are over the line; pirates, bank robbers, even serial killers (like Jack the Ripper) are not.

Homosexuals are also over the line. Portraying, or appearing as, a lesbian or gay man puts the performer at risk of being assumed to be homosexual, while portraying, or appearing as, a vampire or impassive murderer or wife-beater or alcoholic or whatever carries no such career risk. The effect is famous. Being gay is a contaminating identity. (Some actors manage to escape it, but nobody denies its power.)

I didn't make this stuff up. I'm just reporting on it.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at January 30, 2005 01:23 AM