Assume the Position
Two Professors Tackle The Pseudoscience Of Making An Ass Out Of You And Me
A giant, rampaging ape adorns the front cover of Typecasting: On the Arts and Sciences of Human Inequality, and he's carrying a white woman in distress. Bug-eyed and gaping-mouthed, the beast stares directly at you while his victim shields her face and writhes in his grasp. Where he's taking her and what he plans to do with her is anyone's guess, but in looking at the cover image two things are certain: that white woman's time is up, and that ape is one ugly motherfucker.
All this focus on the book's cover isn't superfluous. Judging outward appearances is what this massive sociological study is all about. The aforementioned image, with its odd King Kong theme, is in actuality a U.S. Army propaganda poster from WWI urging Americans to enlist and save their white women from the "mad brute" of foreign military might--and it's only the tip of the frightening iceberg that professors Elizabeth and Stuart Ewen, writing here under their nom de plume of Ewen and Ewen, unearth.
"The complexity of modern existence, and the global reach of contemporary society, made it impossible for people to make sense of the world on the basis of firsthand knowledge," they explain. So what better way to document said complexity than through the elaborate pseudoscience that evolves throughout the course of the book, the kind of theory libertarian ABC News correspondent John Stossel would no doubt call "junk science?"
The first half of Ewen and Ewen's book is a veritable roll call of the founding fathers of physiognomy. Prominent among these is Johann Caspar Lavater, whose experiments focused on the incline of a forehead and the hook of a nose to weed out perverts, misers, and morons. Orson Squire Fowler's pioneering work in phrenology--on which Typecasting spends too much time--probed the shape and feel of the human head to discern intelligence and morality. Both scientists, and their ilk, contributed to a mode of superficial thought rooted in facial features and body shapes--ideas that reached their apex in the unsettlingly popular eugenics movement of the early 20th century, which championed the forced sterilization and extermination of races and classes deemed unfit for healthy society.
Most interesting about Ewen and Ewen's study is how intertwined the business of typecasting is with the business of entertainment and, by extension, the business of making an easy buck. From the early days of the curiosity cabinet, in which rare specimens of human oddity were organized like displays, up through the heyday of P.T. Barnum's freak shows, minstrelsy performances, and popular movies, stereotypes entertained the masses for just the right price. In innocent victims of spectacle like Saartjie Baartman (known as "The Hottentot Venus") and Ota Benga, a captured Congolese pygmy thrown into the Bronx Zoo for a month, we see the impact these vast sociological viewpoints have on the individual human being. As with most works of this nature, the personal stories, not the grand historical movements, are what keep you emotionally attached to such a strange cultural era.
Unfortunately, the book loses its grip when Ewen and Ewen become so intent on addressing every single issue from every possible viewpoint. The taut coherence of the opening sections is lost in the wake of exhaustive chapters devoted to poverty, criminality, sexuality, and gender--crucial issues, sure, but not when there's more to be told about the roots of this cultural obsession with images. It would be easier not to mention specific movies at all instead of providing elementary analyses of The Birth of a Nation and King Kong for the sake of completeness (after all, who doesn't think these two movies reek of racism?). And this is to say nothing of the string of editing errors that litter the book like tiny deformities.
In their defense, Ewen and Ewen treat their topic with open minds; they never point fingers at a particular invention or cast blame upon an individual sideshow baron. Then again, they don't have to--the 21st-century reader does all that for them. Hindsight being what it is, no one can read Typecasting and not mull over the sheer idiocy of the human race and the relative ease with which all these disastrous ideas became so commonplace for so long--and in many ways still are, according to the authors.
In a work often left at the rambling mercy of its unrestrained historical scope, Typecasting remains a frightening exploration of how dominant cultures (read: old white European men) have turned stereotyping into a potent art form and racism into a practical science. Ultimately, the gaggle of phrenologists, psychoanalysts, sideshow barons, curators, and filmmakers are the real freaks on display here, their xenophobic modes of thought more of a human aberration than sunken eyes, small heads, and short statures.