When I first moved to New York (millions of years ago) I worked out at a neighborhood gym and got to know a lot of the guys that worked out there. Two of the guys I got to know quite well were very gay and very funny. They had a way of phrasing things that always cracked me up. One day they were talking about another guy, a very beefy, very straight guy, that used to work out there but switched to another gym in the neighborhood. The gym he switched to was called AMERICAN FITNESS. However, what came out of one of the guys’s mouths was “oh, she switched to Miss America Fitness”. I laughed for all the obvious reasons but something else went through my head at that moment.
I’ve had many gay friends through the years so I’m accustomed to the “creative” use of pronouns, coded language and the funny shit that comes out of their mouths (Jose’s superpower: “I know what people are going to wear next”), but it was that moment that I realized a larger process that was happening with their use of language. They were actively re-describing the world in terms and language that fit their experience and cultural perspective.
Cultural outsiders, of any type, are constantly exposed to stereotypes and frames of reference that are alien to them. Television, even today, is largely composed of programming that revolves around the lives of straight, white, family-oriented people. It’s not as homogeneous as it used to be but it’s still whitey-white. (Even when it’s not “whitey-white” it is still an incredibly theatricized version of reality. Compared to say, HBO’s use of language, or reality.) For the outsider there is, at the very least on the low end of the spectrum a level of translation necessary to allow for empathetic participation or viewing. At the strongest level, like the “Miss America Fitness” example, it is a recasting into a form that is “owned”. In either case it requires a more active participation than that of someone who is experiencing something that reflects their cultural fluency.
What is important about the outsiders process is that they are more aware of the mechanics of a genre and the nuances of style and codified cultural signals. The articulated re-descriptions of an outsider defamiliarize the culture at large. Hearing “Miss America Fitness” defamiliarized the name “American Fitness” and made me realize how cheap and hokey it was (by playing off of references to patriotic masculinity).
They aren’t stereotypes when they belong to someone else, they are over communicating lumps of caricature. They are the stylistic features we grab on to ape when, say imitating an accent or dialect.
We see things more clearly when they aren’t us, when they break our patterns of experience.
An important framework for understanding human need fulfillment and personality is the spectrum of certainty/variety. Some people need and value stability and regularity over variety. Others need change, sometimes constantly to the point of chaos. Artists tend to be people that are positioned more heavily in the on the side of variety. They tend to seek out experience beyond themselves. Picasso is famous for saying that as a child could paint like Raphael and spent the rest of his life trying to learn to draw like a child. He spent his life trying to get outside his training and himself.
The Beatles were poor kids from Liverpool that presented themselves as rich, clean-cut kids in suits. The Rolling Stones were affluent Brits that for all intensive purposes became poor, black kids from the American south.
This is the first verse of Brown Sugar.
Gold coast slave ship bound for cotton fields,
Sold in a market down in new orleans.
Scarred old slaver know hes doin alright.
Hear him whip the women just around midnight.
Ah brown sugar how come you taste so good
(a-ha) brown sugar, just like a young girl should
Jagger, channeling the African-American spirit and who know what else worldly or otherwise but nothing about this is British.
The Beatles and The Rolling Stones made great Rock ‘N Roll because Rock ‘N Roll isn’t British, it’s American, it’s not even America, its African. (Even today the inflection of Rock is American.) They had the advantages of it not really being a part of their cultural DNA and thus being able to see and feel it so much more powerfully, from the outside.
There is also a “rub” that comes when one has to assimilate from the outside that reactivates the core and a magic that happens when an outsider brings in their outsider “junk”. (There is also a charm and an allure of the outsider/underdog. Think: Tiger Woods and Eminem.)