For my Critical Theory in the Community event, I went to see Plymprov’s Improv Olympics. They set the scene with a young woman named Jean walking around the audience in a child’s outfit yelling, “Mom? Dad? Have you seen my mommy? Have you seen my daddy?” Suddenly, the Plymprovers flooded the stage; half of them dressed like “mommies” and the other half dressed as dads. The girl dads had their hair back in buns and ponytails, covered with a baseball cap. The crowd roared with laughter at the boy mommies’ fake boobs and even a fake pregnant belly. As an English major, my attention went straight to the gender norms. Gender norms galore.
No one made the crowd laugh quite as much as the MILF character, who I admittedly have to assume was a male. He wore a black velvet belly shirt, a red sparkly sequined cardigan, black pants, and a black cowboy (cowgirl? cowperson?) hat. If I remember correctly, he might have worn heels for the entrance and ditched them for the rest of the performance. I did find it funny; I mean, I laughed at least. But the more I thought about it, the more interesting it became. He was dressed in traditionally feminine clothes, but everyone silently agreed it was something to laugh at rather than a serious expression of, say, gender identity.
Nonconforming gender identity is a very taboo subject in our society. If this person was out in public Plymouth, they probably would not be met with laughter and hollering. They probably would either be met with acceptance or denial and it would likely be a quiet affair (just because it’s Plymouth…I know other places are not nearly as forgiving). However, we were all in a theater at an event created specifically for laughter and play. The air seemed to be filled with the assumption and expectation that everything within that hour and a half was meant to be a joke, not to be considered with a serious sense of mind. The setting and space changed the perception of the action, therefore the dressing up was perceived to be a punchline rather than a statement.
I’m still trying to figure this out, but I believe that the setting and space changed the way that uncanniness manifests itself. From what I can recall, everything we’ve read about the uncanny describes it as more of a frightening phenomenon. We get that creepy-crawly feeling because we see something we’re simultaneously very much and not at all used to. In class, we talked about how that might relate to racism and discrimination as a whole, like, “This person looks like me, except they DON’T look like me, so now I’m scared and I hate them.” That said, because nonconforming gender identity is so taboo, much of the general public experiences uncanniness in its typical manifestation of fear and aversion. “This person looks like a _____, except they DON’T look like a ______, so now I’m scared and I hate them.”
However, Plymprov and the Improv Olympics has an unspoken rule that realism is going to be questioned and/or suspended. By going, we (the audience) silently agree to that rule; we understand that nothing is serious. We still recognize what we’re seeing as strange, but we also know that we’ve entered a space that has a different set of expectations and assumptions than our regular lives. We know that the strange thing we see isn’t meant to threaten us, but instead to entertain us.
I hope that this makes sense. I don’t know if it’s technically the uncanny if it doesn’t make you feel squirmy, but I just realized that the same thing that makes so many people uncomfortable in real life is the same thing that makes people laugh with a simple change of setting. I know that there are things like racial space and gendered space that comes with a different set of expectations and assumptions, but I didn’t know what kind of space the theater would be considered. I don’t know how to end this so I just wanna say that improv is really fun and everyone should go : )