The ‘C’ word, ‘F’ word and how to deal with stereotypes

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In a post about ‘The ‘C’ Word’, Chris Rowbury opens up the thorny question of cultural stereotypes as they relate to choirs. He identifies a handful of stock images that leap to mind when people hear the word ‘choir’ and talks about he finds them limiting – both because they focus on a hackneyed subset of actual choirs, and because they carry somewhat negative connotations with them. He finds himself, not unreasonably, rather wearied with the assumptions people make about him as a choral practitioner, since they are both rather inaccurate and presuppose a rather less interesting musical life than the one he experiences.

The strategies he proposes for dealing with the limiting stereotypes of the word ‘choir’ are all sensible as far as they go.

Invent more interesting names (Only Men Aloud has more pizzazz than [name of town] Male Voice Choir, for instance), and take a critical look at your stagewear. It is possible to project an unhelpfully fuddy-duddy image before you open your mouths.

So at one level, I’m right with him, and indeed have been known to promote similar strategies with groups I’ve worked with. (I have fond memories of the surprise of a man in his sixties to hear that men in their 20s might not feel comfortable in pale blue polyester pull-overs.) But at the same time, I am somewhat uncomfortable with the thought of challenging cultural stereotypes by changing your own behaviour. It’s a bit like my strategy at age 14 of trying to hide my academic success at school by bleaching my hair and wearing make-up and tight jeans evenings and weekends. It buys you a bit of an easier life, but implicitly condones the view that it’s uncool to be good at maths or French – or indeed music.

It reminds me of a passing comment in the magazine New Woman back in about 1993. It was one of those magazines that’s a bit schizophrenic, trying both to be about fashion, make-up and suchlike paraphernalia of the beauty myth, and also about independent, up-for-it women in control of their own lives - well-suited to the generation of young women reaching adulthood at the time in fact. The article was one of those lists of Things We Like and Things We Don’t, and in former category was ‘Feminism (we need a new word for it though)’. It just so perfectly encapsulated the dilemma of the time: we all knew that the feminism of our mothers’ generation had made our world so much better, but at the same time were only too aware of the cruel stereotypes awaiting for anyone brave enough actually to admit to being a feminist. And having decided in my youth to take a principled stand in my relationship with the ‘F’ word, I’m not about to wuss out of being associated with the ‘C’ word.

In one of the comments to Chris’s post, Tom Carter suggests that the best revenge on unhelpful stereotypes is simply to be very good at what you do. This is a strategy that has worked well for barbershoppers – who frankly have far more of a public image problem than choirs in general! People may not abandon their be-boatered and cheesy preconceptions when they encounter a really good performance (indeed, there may be elements of the performance that reinforce the assumptions), but they will nonetheless respond quite viscerally to sheer competence. Respect and recognition can be earned independently of liking.

And we don’t have to have everyone like what we do – which is just as well because it will never happen. In my book on barbershop, I used Church-Sect theory to understand the relationship between the passionate and charismatic specialists and the mainstream. I later discovered Kathy Sierra’s quite brilliant vision which embraces detractors as a by-product of creating passion:


(The full article can be found on Creating Passionate Users.)

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