HLS Parody Draws Ire, Discussion at Town Hall Meeting

By on March 23, 2006

A town hall meeting called to discuss allegations of racism and sexism in the annual law school Parody show drew a standing room only crowd to Langdell South Monday evening. The meeting was part of the school’s response to complaints from a number of students who where upset about the manner in which they were depicted in the Parody. Professor Charles Ogletree moderated the event. He started off by announcing that this would be the first of a number of dialogues on the topic held this year and next, and strongly stressed the importance of civility and respect while conducting this dialogue.

The meeting began with a short statement read by the director of the Parody, Justin Shanes, which laid out the process of writing the Parody. Shanes hoped, he said, to increase the transparency of the process. In particular, he stated that the script of the Parody is vetted by numerous people and objectionable material is removed throughout the process; this year, changes were made even the week of the performance. He also offered an apology to all those who were offended, saying it was nobody’s intention to hurt those parodied.

Prof. Ogletree posed a number of broad questions to the room at large, and the two-hour meeting consisted largely of attendees responding. Debate centered around the use of stereotypes, particularly racial ones in the show, and ways to improve it in the future. Two suggestions came up repeatedly: prohibiting the portrayal of actual students (and perhaps professors) altogether and implementing an opt-in/opt-out system whereby students could choose to be parodied or not.

The Parody’s portrayal of racial minorities was a major focus of discussion. One student related being hurt by the Parody’s inaccurate portrayal of her as "ghetto" based on her race. While all seemed to agree that there is a line that should not be crossed, where precisely that line is proved hard to pin down. John Bash suggested a litmus test: if the joke was about someone of a different race, gender, or socioeconomic group, would it still be funny? Others argued this is too constraining a standard, and pointed out that stereotypes could be used in such a way that actually deconstructed and disproved them.

Members of the Parody emphasized that the show had a diverse cast and crew, and that they were careful to take every cast member’s opinions into account. To a proposal to have various affinity groups on campus vet the script, a Parody cast member responded that many of their members did belong to those affinity groups.

"Race and community [are] not something you can intellectualize," said one 4th-year joint degree student, who had been distressed to hear that one woman of his acquaintance had told him she was going to "leave the Harvard community" as a result of the Parody.

Objections to the Parody went beyond racial stereotypes. Some criticized jokes about physical appearance and details about students’ romantic lives. "I talk about gender a lot and I have big breasts," stated a 1L in attendance, "does that mean I’m going to be publicly humiliated?"

Members of the Parody appeared responsive to the criticisms. While it is not yet known who will write, direct, and produce next year’s Parody, one student active in the group was writing down every suggestion made, and others responded favorably to ideas such as an opt-in/opt-out system. Shanes pointed out that the Parody had made changes in response to student concerns in the past, particularly the elimination of a clown who wandered through the crowd and extemporaneously insulted the audience.

While most of the objections to the Parody were ultimately complex and open-ended, the town hall meeting seemed to shed light on at least one misunderstanding. In one scene, a professor walked through a classroom of students asking questions, stopping to put his hand on one student’s shoulder and asking, "Did you get that?" An attendee at the meeting expressed dismay that a white man would put his hand on a black woman’s shoulder and say those words, implying that she wasn’t qualified to be in the class.

Parody members clarified that this had never been their intent. The professor character had put his hand on a different student’s shoulder each night; when the potential implications of the scene as played out above were pointed out to the Parody cast, they made sure he did not address the line to her in future performances.

Applause, seldom universal, rang out throughout the evening in support of various points. Only one speaker elicited a strong negative reaction from the crowd. A Ph.D. student expressed disgust at the concept of parodying real people, posing the question, "Why not make fun of yourselves?"

"We did," responded several members of the Parody and their supporters, and one student yelled out, "Did you see it?"

"So now I have nothing to say," she responded, "Just a black person with an IQ probably higher than yours."

Order soon returned to the room, and most students spoke in-turn.

Ultimately, many attendees expressed satisfaction with the meeting. "I was glad to see both sides represented," said Yaneris Rosa, a 2L who was unhappy with her portrayal in the Parody, "It is refreshing to see so many people concerned about this issue. I have faith that a lot of positive change will come out of this." This sentiment was echoed by other students, including Janice Corrales who told The Record "I think that at least some good has come out of this year’s Parody in that it has shed light on important issues that don’t tend to be discussed on campus in large groups. I was highly impressed by the high number of students who showed up to today’s discussion and I think that shows that people are taking the issues that arose out of this year’s Parody seriously."

Not all the students featured in the Parody were upset at their depictions. DK commented, "As someone who watched the show, and was parodied, I personally felt no animosity or ill will and felt that the overall message of the show was a positive one. If there needs to be discussion within the law school community concerning race, then that should go on distinct from any discussion about whether the Parody should be allowed to target individual students or not."

After the meeting, the Parody team issued the following statement, "To the extent that certain individuals and groups were offended, and to the extent that we failed in our mission to put on a show that is funny, satirical and enjoyable for everyone, we are sorry. … The Parody plans to take consideration of all suggestions in their re-examination of the Parody going forward, and plans to address any concerns brought up by the HLS community in the future. Many students commented on the need for greater discussions on race, gender and sexuality at HLS beyond the Parody context, and this open forum was a starting point for productive discussions to come."

Many students noted that it was rare to have discussions at Harvard about issues of race and gender, particularly ones so well attended. Prof. Ogletree ended the meeting with remarks to this effect. "We’ve scratched a very, very useful surface," he said, analogizing the process to exploratory surgery, "and now we have to figure out a cure."