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Month: December 2019

Conversations Through Comedy

On Friday, Dec 6, Subject to Change (STC), a student-run improv comedy group, performed their bi-yearly Pier Show in Tyler Haynes Commons. Typically, STC performs very informally in different areas around campus, often involving the crowd in their games, but as their final show of the semester, performing in the Pier was much more formal than their typical shows. Nearly 100 students showed up to see the performance, which included a video and audio system (which they usually don’t use). While STC prepares the types of games that they play beforehand, they get all of the themes and topics from the audience. Regardless of the choices that the audience makes, STC still tends to bring up very controversial topics in many of their skits. Climate change, racial issues, LGBTQ activism, and Jeffery Epstein all made their anticipated appearances in last night’s show.

Despite topics that would likely spark debate in any other circumstance, comedy seamlessly flows from ideas without interruption or dissent (usually). Because of its lighthearted atmosphere, shielding sensitive topics through humor effectively allows arguments to be made and ideas to be shared without anyone getting upset (again, usually). In an environment where most people are laughing anyway, it is hard to feel threatened. In an age where people are increasingly getting much of their information from comedic news sources, comedy has not become a tool to keep people up-to-date and spread ideas. Things can be said in the name of comedy that cannot be said otherwise without likely backlash. As a student-run organization, STC brings forth a wide array of sentiments that reflect student culture at the University of Richmond, showing both the funny and the ugly sides of many different topics. Although many students go for the laugh, STC can also be used as a tool for open conversation.

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Joker Movie (Event #3)

Earlier in the semester over Fall Break I went to the movie theater to watch the new Joker movie. Having heard so much hype (and some controversy) about the movie going into it, I was really excited to see an origin story about my favorite villain to my favorite superhero. Even more so, I was excited to see the movie because of the stance it took on the mental health crisis all around the world. To quote Dr. Bezio herself, the movie was a lot like watching trauma unfold in front of your eyes. Watching Arthur Fleck’s depressed life as he goes through several traumatic experiences from being mugged, being fired from his only job, losing his medication because of budget cuts, being assaulted again (which prompted him to murder his assailants), and then finding out that his mother had lied to him his entire life about his birth, it was truly horrible to see his mental health continue to worsen. This was truly the bad day (or several bad days) that Alan Moore referenced in his graphic novel “The Killing Joke.” The movie ends with Arthur falling into complete lunacy, turning into an icon for anarchy and murdering a talk show host who disrespected him on live TV. He is incarcerated in Arkham Asylum and now goes by the pseudonym “Joker.”

To me this movie brought to light something that people have been ignoring for too long. There is a serious mental health issue both in the United States and elsewhere, and not enough people are doing anything to ease it. People, like Arthur, who have lived their whole life ostracized and bullied by society are only addressed on the news after they have committed some horrible crime. While it is a good thing that we are discussing the issues of gun control in America, you cannot address that without also addressing the mental health concerns. The fact remains that in many of the cases of mass shootings in America, the shooter had mental health issues that had been ignored for too long. This is something that needs to change everywhere as people like this need the help they deserve.

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Brown Bag Discussion on Volunteering (Event #2)

Before Thanksgiving Break I attended a Brown Bag Discussion event that was about volunteering in the city of Richmond. The event was set up with a panel discussion, with each speaker representing a volunteer organization in Richmond and advertising about their respective programs. I found it very interesting to see how the different programs varied in terms of what groups they were targeting and how. Volunteering itself has been very important to me in my life. In high school I was a part of Habitat for Humanity, an organization where we would help build houses in low-income neighborhoods in Newark, New Jersey. It was so valuable to be able to give back to the community in this way.

In college I also volunteered at Overby Sheppard Elementary School on behalf of the volunteer assignment for Justice and Civil Society. This experience was incredible because I was able to work with 2nd and 3rd graders and assist them with reading and writing. Given their situations at home, school was the best place for them to grow as individuals, and I was happy to help with this process. Overall, I feel that volunteering itself is an essential way for people to give back to their communities, and I enjoyed hearing about new opportunities to do so in the city of Richmond.

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A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Event Response #3)

Over Thanksgiving break I saw A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. It is based on a true story about a writer for Esquire who was assigned to do a piece on America’s hero, Mr. Rogers. The writer was cynical and disliked because of the negative way he wrote about people. He was assigned to write about Mr. Rogers because every other hero being featured in the magazine refused to be interviewed by him. Mr. Rogers ended up being the perfect subject for this writer because there was genuinely nothing bad to be said about him. He was overly kind and generous but his way of living still felt human and attainable. He recognized the bad qualities that he had but emphasized that he works on controlling those qualities and teaches that to kids and adults.

I wouldn’t say that there is a living hero in this county right now. Mr. Rogers was someone that anyone of any age, race, gender, etc. could connect with and look up to. He wanted to make a difference in the world not because of the ways it would benefit him but because he was just genuinely motivated to help make people better people. I think that our society is much more selfish now and people, especially celebrities, do things in order to gain more notoriety so their positive actions to do not always seem genuinely motivated. There seems to be such a competition to be the most popular and well-known, but the means to those ends do not necessarily matter.

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Disability Services Student Panel (Event Response #2)

I went to a Disability Services Student Panel early last month. There were three students each with different disabilities on the panel that were there to discuss how their lives on campus are impacted by their disability and how the school helps lessen that impact. I had never considered many of the things that the students were talking about as something that could negatively impact someone’s life on campus. For example, a student with a physical disability talked about how just walking around on campus is hard for her because there are a lot of hills. Getting around buildings is also difficult because elevators are not noticeable in each building so they can be hard to find. This student has had to work with her professors so that they will allow her to be late to class when it is difficult to get around campus. It was interesting to hear how most professors are very accommodating to students with disabilities and specific needs. I’ve often heard around campus that Disability Services does not provide adequate support to students, especially for those with mental health problems, but it was nice to hear from a first-hand account that there is support on campus for a lot of students.

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Apocalyptic Culture (Event Response #3)

About a month ago, I saw Zombieland 2 in theaters. I didn’t really think there would be much for me to write about but actually, the movie touches on an interesting topic in terms of culture. In the film, each of the characters uses their own methods to cope with the stress and terror of the zombie apocalypse. For Tallahassee, it’s things like cars, guns, Elvis, twinkies, and killing zombies. For Columbus, it’s a list of rules that he uses to feel prepared and therefore safer. In this sequel, we see Little Rock, the youngest of the bunch, become an adult and despite the zombies, she goes through the phase where she needs to escape her “parents” and feel like she has a life of her own.

This leads her to a place called Babylon (allegedly named for the song, not the ancient civilization), which is filled with a bunch of young people (probably 17-25 mostly) who have big walls to protect them from the zombies and don’t allow any firearms. In fact, they make you turn in your guns at the entrance and they melt them down to make metal peace pendants to give out. There’s a lot of music and bright clothing and it is definitely intended to imitate the hippie movement. Even though it’s presented in a bit of a silly light, I actually thought of the basis of the terror management theory, which explains the fact that we distract ourselves from the ever-present terror of death (and we learned further about how leaders present themselves as a protection/part of the distraction because of this natural tendency but that’s not as relevant here).

But it really made me think about how people use culture — even Tallahassee with his cars, guns and twinkies — to cope with certain things and to uplift themselves from tragedy. It’s why funny zombie movies (like Zombieland) are more relatable (I know, weird to call a zombie movie relatable). It kind of allows the viewer to think to themselves “oh, I might actually behave like that in a zombie apocalypse” rather than looking at Milla Jovovich in Resident Evil and thinking “well, I’d be fucked if that ever happened.” This response was a little all over the place, but I also recommend the film if you like zombie comedies! (I originally had something to say about how the women in the film represent archetypes — the dumb blonde, the rebellious teen, the woman afraid of commitment, the older debonair woman — but then the post got too long, so I’ll leave it as an additional thought if anyone wants to think about it while watching the movie.)

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Ariana Grande Concert (Event Response #1)

Last month I went to an Ariana Grande concert in Charlottesville with three of my friends. The first thing that I noticed when entering the concert was that my group of friends was on the older side compared to the rest of the concert attendees. I kind of expected that before going to the concert but when I got there I was surprised by how many groups of young girls were there dressed like Ariana Grande, wearing oversized sweatshirts and long fake ponytails. I like Ariana Grande but had never considered the kind of influence she has on young, impressionable girls. With kids now having so much access to social media, they can look at pictures of Ariana Grande everyday and become very obsessed with her look and try to copy it. When I was younger, I was not as exposed to singers or actresses that I liked so I never really looked at them as people that I wanted to be. Now girls can see photos of their role models everyday and can become very influenced by how they look and want to copy their physical appearance in real life.

Another difference I noticed with the younger crowd was how many of them recorded practically the entire concert. My group of friends was flanked by two groups of early middle schooled-aged girls, all of whom had their phones in front of their faces for the whole concert and basically watched the concert through their camera. It was unfortunate watching these kids waste an experience because they were too busy focusing on recording it for whatever reason.

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Pure Confidence (Event Response #2)

This semester, I worked on the university’s production of Pure Confidence, a play by Carlyle Brown which tells the story of Simon Cato, a slave who works as a jockey and means to ride his way to freedom. Throughout the play, we see Simon’s conviction to earn money so he can buy his freedom. At one point, after the Civil War, Simon says, “I hear many a white man talking ’bout the price of freedom and never work a day in their life. I know what my price of freedom was. It was five thousand dollars, that’s what it was. And I couldn’t even get that. What’s your price for freedom Mister Reporter man? How much are you worth?” Simon says this in response to the reporter saying “the war was the price we all paid for Simon’s freedom.” This line always made me stop and think, no matter how many times I watched the play, because really, do any of us with the privilege that we have ever think about our lives with price tags on them?

In addition to the play, there was a pre- and post-show exhibit done by the dramaturgical team which was used to honor the 400th anniversary of African slaves first arriving on Virginian shores. Prior to each performance, a libation was made to the African ancestors, asking them to guide us in our mission of equality and social justice. The audience was also asked to participate by voicing agreement to each adage and most people seemed pleased by the ability to participate and feel connected to the meaning of the play and its message. It was a really fabulous production that I’m very proud to have worked on, and I think it did a very good job of honoring the 400 years of slavery — both slaves and their descendants — that it set out to acknowledge.

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The Missing Meaning in Music

What I found most interesting about watching the stories that these two music videos tell is that there is a lot of depth and purpose to the artistic choices that gets lost in translation if you never see the music video. I think people have a tendency to even miss the meaning of lyrics in songs. It’s all too easy to get caught up in a catchy chorus or a nice beat and miss the “point” entirely. In “This is America,” I think the musical shifts and the lyrics make a good basis for the point, but it really hits a different way when you see the music video and are really aware of the imagery that was chosen. With “Formation” as well, the lyrics tell their own story — and she’s addressing a lot of stereotypes of black culture — but there are images in the music video that support it and also bring up other topics, like police brutality (which automatically links to the BLM movement).

Staples’s “Just Walk on By” is a narrative that brings to life these themes of stereotypes that we see in both music videos. He tells the story of how he has to be careful just because of how he looks. It’s his responsibility to make people feel “safe” around him by whistling Vivaldi when in reality, it should be their responsibility not to stereotype him as someone who is going to mug or attack them just because he’s black. The music videos seem to be a more consumable way to address these harmful stereotypes, because people are often put off or not willing to accept first-hand accounts like Staples’s.

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Persistant Stereotypes

In all three forms of media that we looked into for this week, it was clear that the perceptions surrounding black American’s have remained widely consistent between the mid-20th century when these stories took place and today. As I read Brent Staples’ piece on his experiences walking the streets of Chicago as a student, I couldn’t help but notice that this is a stereotype that is still present over 50 years later. The idea surrounding stereotypes is something that has interested me recently for a variety of reasons, but the fact that a person cannot walk down the street without consciously whistling or acting in ways that seem less threatening is bothersome. We see similar interactions between Ron Stallworth and David Duke over the phone in Spike Lee’s Blakkklansman. In their conversations, Duke believes Stallworth to be a close friend because of his non-threatening “white” voice, but had Duke seen Stallworth, this would not have been the case.

How can a single character trait determine a person’s essence? I would like to think that we have made progress in this area from 50 years ago, and in many ways, I believe we have, but I even notice in my life certain implicit biases that influence my views on people and ideas. This is dangerous because complacency with current progress could result in the halting of any forward movement. My parents, for example, believe that our generation are too politically correct, and in the most innocent and well-meaning way possible, don’t put as much effort into changing their own minds. And why should they? After all, they have lived a life that is entirely different than what is relevant today, but my point is that today is not really that different than the time in which my parents grew up but it seems that it is on our generation to make significant changes. If we learn from our parents, then it is on us to raise a new generation of people who can think for themselves beyond the limitations of previous modes of thought.

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