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Analysis Of Constructed Stereotypes In Skin English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2365 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Having done extensive research on the biography of the author, Naomi Iizuka, one can conclude that the availability of written scholarly documentation about her life and work is sparse. The author is a recent voice in the world of the American playwright; she attained her MFA degree in Playwriting in 1992, at the age of 27. [1] Naomi Iizuka’s family background sheds an interesting light on the politics of a multi cultural society, which is accordingly represented in SKIN. Her mother is an American of Spanish descent and Naomi’s father a Japanese banker.

She studied Classics and Literature at Yale University and she received her MFA degree from the University of California San Diego. Naomi Iizuka is part of the legacy of American writers of the 1990’s who are primarily looking to write on experiences of a multi-ethnic, poly-sexual, multi-class and intergenerational society (Krasner 2005, p. 549).

According to Berson, Naomi Iizuka is fascinated by the subterranean worlds of renegades like the homeless kids in Polaroid Stories or by outcasts like Jones in SKIN or by vagabond characters in Tattoo Girl (Berson 1998, p.1). Theatre needs to surprises her, such as plays that are not strictly realistic and filled with mythical elements that allow to reappraise the relationship with reality. Naomi’s writing style in the Berson article is described as one that matches a furious emotional intense with a floating lyricism, vivid grunginess and acerbic humor(Berson 1998, p.1).

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Iizuka found her inspiration for SKIN in the surrounding of San Diego at the end of the twentieth century. The environment offers a mix of a desert town, a Navy town and a border town (Chambers 2002, p. 55). The play focuses on two protagonist characters, Jones and Mary. Jones is a young man who works in a factory and Mary is Jones’s disloyal lover and the mother of their child. They desperately attempt to make sense of and try to transcend the suffocating environment in which they live.

The constant opposition between the isolation of Mary and Jones and the crowded suburban sprawl, reflect a tragic setting. Being confronted with their limited opportunities and the inhibiting effects urban life and poverty, Jones and Mary find refuge in drugs, alcohol, violence and sex. Through different scenes the hopeless situation is vividly described.

The play is very strong in transferring an unspoken, not explicit but overwhelming sense that the inhabitants of the town are surrounded and controlled. They feel oppressed, living in a totalitarian social system which exerts silencing, control and alienation. SKIN is a tragic play and ends with Jones stabbing Mary to death.

SKIN focuses to a large extent on the figure of Jones who is suffering as an individual in this totalitarian society. Since Jones is of mixed descent it is possible to analyze the play based on collective racial stereotypes.

Borderlands and Stereotypes

When reading the play SKIN, the reader is bound by the existing stereotypes related to race, ethnicity and gender. The aim of this paper is to analyze the stereotypes which correlate with white American authority, with people from Chicano ethnical background and with troublesome interracial relations.

Although the play makes no clear indications of location, there are several indications that the scene is geographically set near the U.S. – Mexican border. Gloria Anzaldúa describes in her book Borderlands, La Frontera the notion of a borderland as a vague and undetermined place where los atravesados like, among other denominations, the mongrel, the mulato or the half-breed live (Anzaldúa 2007, p. 25). SKIN is a contemporary play which portrays the concept of white superiority using the stereotype, the collective image, of American political and cultural domination in a crowded suburban environment. The white American ruler is presented though the presence of Police enforcers and military Navy men and they comply with the image of the oppressor, specifically oppressing Jones.

Anzaldúa describes how the Border Patrol hide behind buildings, like a local McDonalds, and act like hunters with powerful night vision devices (Anzaldúa 2007 p.33-34). This is reflected in the second scene of the play SKIN, where the Police are described as “sly and invisible in their black and white machine” (Iizuka 2000, p. 164).

Jones is the main protagonist in the narrative, and he is most probably a half-breed. He does not have a Latino name, his full name is Sean Jones and he has a Social Security number which makes him legal U.S. resident (Iizuka 2000, p. 165). Jones most likely has a white American mother; he refers to her death in scene twenty eight “when she died […] she looked like a white, plastic doll.” (Iizuka 2000, p. 194)

Since Jones is of mixed race he is confronted with an internal strife of multiple personalities, making him insecure an indecisive (Anzaldúa 2007, p.99-100). He is not part of the dominant white American culture and he does not fully belong to the Latino society. Jones difficult position can be proved by different scenes. He is, in multiple scenes, harassed by the Police, treated aggressively by the Navy men and he is explicitly subdued in his relation with the Manager. Angel however, does not accept Jones as a full Latino member. In scene 28 Angel is very explicit, he shouts to Jones “man, shut up. you don’t know me […] you don’t see me every day. you don’t know how I live my life so shut the fuck up.” (Iizuka 2000, p. 194).

SKIN introduces stereotypes that can be linked to the theory of the Mexican philosopher José Vasconcelos. His philosophy in opposition to the racial purity policy that white America practices, his theory is about inclusivity, a mixture of races (Anzaldúa 2007, p. 99). This is hinted in the person of Mary’s girl. Whereas in every adult scene there is a fierce metaphorical use of the opposition between black and white, where black is mostly related to silence, closing of the eyes, the vastness and invisibility of the desert at night and very important the colors used to describe the Police car. It is Mary’s girl who is able to project a multi-color world. A good example is available in scene fourteen when Mary’s girl speaks: “when I close my eyes, I see red and purple an orange and yellow and blue. I see so many colors moving and sparkly like lights at night.” (Iizuka 2000, p. 183).

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Iizuka uses many images to highlight that the individual is controlled, isolated and alienated from the social environment. Although Jones and Mary are legal U.S. residents, they are not portrayed as legitimate inhabitants. They are constantly being controlled by an authority like the Police or the Navy. Whenever the Police are introduced into the scenes they are represented as if they were constantly nearby and waiting. Scene nineteen provides a good illustration: “and then the Police slide out of the dark like they have been forever there, invisible, waiting for a sign.” (Iizuka 2000, p.187).

Skin Color and the Construction of Stereotypes

The play contains several stereotypes related to racial discrimination and white supremacy. Jones is being racially fixated by the white authority. It is already in the second scene that, without any obvious reason, the police is requesting to see some form of identification from Jones. The police is very provocative towards Jones. The same approach and the more elaborated construction of the negative characteristics related to Mexican stereotyping can be experienced in scene ten. In this scene, the manager has a general image of Jones and his people which comes down to this: “[…] that’s the thing with you people, you think you can screw around, make babies […], you seem to think taxpayers like myself are going to bail you out and support you and yours forever.” (Iizuka 2000, p.179).

Referring to Bhabha’s concept of ambivalence of the stereotype of the other, otherness is at once an object of derision and at once an object of desire (Bhabha 1994, p. 67). There is only one instance in the play where this important aspect of ambivalence in stereotypical identity can be found. In scene eleven the cholo, which is a denomination for a Mexican person from mixed descent, is crystallizing the element of desire. ” […] and the skin on his back is brown […] he is a handsome young god, and the crowd moves up close to him […] hungry for something they do not know […]” (Iizuka 2000, p. 181) this elaboration portrays the beauty of the dark skin and it emphasizes Bhabha’s notion of ambivalence. More specifically, it is the dark color of the skin that at once activates fixity and fantasy, mastery and pleasure, and thus plays a contradictory role in the ideological construction of otherness (Bhabha 1994, p. 66-78).

The essay written by Bhabha, The Other Question, highlights two other important aspects of racial differentiation by skin color. The first one is related to the economic supremacy of white people and the visibility of skin as reinforcing the crucial recognition of difference (Bhabha 1994, p.79). Richness and whiteness are inversely described by the poverty of Jones. In scene nine Jones describes his inability to make lots of money: “it’s hard, mary. I don’t know how people make it. I don’t know the secret. here it’s not much of anything.” (Iizuka 2000, p. 179). The image of Jones’s low hierarchical position is strengthened by the subsequent scene ten where he performs a basic job feeding a machine and the Manager is supervising him.

It is salient in this play that the dominant, white American, group is nameless. Iizuka decided not to give names to the people in a hierarchical superior position. They are called Police Man, Navy Man, Manager, Man or Employee. The reader gets the impression that these ‘unnamed’ people can all be categorized in one dominant group with the same oppressive acts towards Jones. This singularity allows to bridge the racial discussion to the definition of ethnicity minus one as proposed in the essay who is Ethnic? by Werner Sollors. Meaning that ethnicity is universal and ethnicity minus one excludes the dominant group. In the play SKIN, the dominant group is obviously white and wealthy America. Throughout the play all the white actors behave similarly, they are oppressive and aggressive towards Jones and hence affirm their white dominant identity (Sollors 1995, p. 22).

Scene thirty two “I wanted to peel off my skin, and fold it up, and put it in a box. I wanted to disappear” (Iizuka 2000, p.198). The way Jones narrates about skin, he confirms the importance of whiteness of skin in the American society. This emphasizes that the visibility of skin reinforces the recognition of difference and hence acts as a signifier of discrimination (Bhabha 1994, p.79). Furthermore Bhabha’s essay explains that the stereotypes attributed with skin color remain a sign of cultural and political inferiority (Bhabha 1994, p.80). This reasoning is omnipresent in the play.

In SKIN, Naomi Iizuka is able to reflect the longevity or fixity aspect of stereotypes. Since government has institutionalized its Civilizing Mission during the colonial period, the racial stereotypical discourse has become prejudicial and discriminatory (Bhabha 1994, p. 83). By implementing strategies of hierarchization and marginalization, colonial societies could be managed. What Bhabha is putting forward in the essay, is that knowledge on the ethnic group and the stereotypical generalization make the consideration of discriminatory and authoritarian forms of political control appropriate. The same concept can be found in SKIN. It are the Police and the Navy Men that are always present to provide surveillance and discipline through violent and oppressive harassment, and thus wield political control over the non-white and marginal community. Additional imagery to emphasize American, and white, superiority is portrayed in scene twenty six when Jones is looking to buy a weapon in the Gun Mart store. The Employee describes the gun as follow: “[…] u.s. made. superior craftsmanship. feel. see. […]” or the description of the knife “[…] made in germany. superior craftsmanship. cuts through anything. […]” (Iizuka 2000, p.192).


SKIN, proves to be a complex and layered play in terms of prevalent stereotypes. A superficial reading at first would make the reader conclude that Jones is a Latino living in a bordertown. However, when analyzing the different hints in the play, the reader comes to the notion that Jones is a mulato. Based on Gloria Anzaldúa’s analysis and representation of the mulato living near the U.S. – Mexican international border, Jones’s is isolated between two colliding cultures which confuse his identity. SKIN emphasizes the harsh and hopeless life in the borderland.

Naomi Iizuka exposes the reader to the oppressive and dominant approach of white America towards Jones. Through a polarized version of racial stereotyping, the play allows to apply the analytical concepts of ambivalence and fixity from Bhabha’s essay The Other Question.

Naomi Iizuka confirms through the character of Jones, who is isolated and living in a controlled environment, that racial prejudices and determination by the end of the nineties remained unchangeable. Nevertheless by introducing Mary’s daughter, who is able to see a colored world instead of a purely black and white one, Naomi projects her hope that future generations can disengage from the dominant, white and racial pure American culture and create an inclusive multi-cultural society.


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