Monday, October 3, 2016

Historical Story

Nixon's Teddy Bear


Our historical story centers around the missing 18 ½ minutes of audio from the Watergate tapes that implicated President Richard Nixon. As far as we know, that audio was deleted from the only tapes it was recorded on. But what if a trace of those minutes still existed? What if the FBI would have found them were it not for a secret agent? And what if that agent was, of all people, Nixon’s maid?
The 1970’s was a time of social questioning and exploration for America. Paradigms of government and war, music and fashion trends, and sexual norms and gender roles were all rapidly evolving, but it was only the beginning. Politics were, and largely still are, a man’s world. And for women who for whatever reason ventured into the workforce, there was no homelier or more traditionally feminine job than that of a maid. To a member of the FBI such as Agent Carson, a maid like Julie would already be unremarkable. So the idea that an older, unattractive maid with a naïve, servile attitude might actually be Nixon’s right-hand would sound impossible.
We drew much of our historical source material from two documentaries, Our Nixon and an episode from The Seventies called “The United States vs. Richard Nixon.” The TV broadcaster’s dialogue is taken word-for-word from an actual report given in the 70’s. Haldeman was Nixon’s Chief of Staff. The basic facts of the Watergate case of course informed the character’s actions and our central “What-if”, but the unspoken yet prevalent social structures presented in the documentaries were influential as well. It is difficult to disregard the lack of women playing influential political and legal roles in the films. Of the few women who give their opinion of Nixon, several reply much more demurely or less articulately than their male counterparts. Such observations don’t prove that women in the 70’s were unintelligent or unimportant in politics, but they do reflect gender norms of the time, and as mentioned, we played off of these norms to create Julie’s unassuming façade.
As all women know, sometimes it’s easier to play sexism to one’s advantage rather than attempt to overcome hundreds of years of gender norms. With her collection of weapons and espionage devices, we implied that Julie has been in the secret agent business for years without getting caught, so she must be pretty smart. But she uses her older age and below-average looks, playing the part of a naïve maid to fly under the radar of the FBI. Carson and his fellow agents are openly condescending throughout the script. It’s no surprise: They’re younger, they’re “highly trained” professionals, and they’re men. In other words, the male agents rest comfortably in social sphere far above Julie. Nixon of course buys into the idea that Julie is not what she appears to be when he jokes, “I certainly don’t keep her around for her looks.” But with this comment, even Nixon, who clearly trusts Julie’s intelligence and competence, readily objectifies her although a maid’s physical appearance has nothing to do with her ability to clean. Sexism was complicated in the 70’s and it still is today. Maybe someday people won’t have to (or be able to) hide behind the stereotypes of their gender, race, sexuality, or religion in order to accomplish something remarkable, but until then, this script is our tribute to the “Julies” of the world.

A quick connection to the class reading: The antagonist of our story, Agent Carson, might be a bit black-and-white, but like Persepolis, the depiction of the scenario in our script is partially a commentary on gender issues. While oversimplification can become problematic, whether in the blocking of two opposing groups on opposite sides of a cell in a comic, or in the condescending characterization of an FBI agent in a script, when done effectively, it’s useful shorthand. Hopefully Agent Carson isn’t painfully one-sided. We’re sure he has a nice family back home, and we admit that it probably isn’t easy to remain polite under the stress of his job.

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