Influence of Experience on Interpretation

We all know that different perspectives and different life experiences can influence how we interpret things that we read, see or do. My classic example is the Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor movie Silver Streaka movie I’ve thought of at least once a week for years.

When I was a kid in Philadelphia, we had a cable channel called Prism. It was like a local HBO-type channel that showed movies, but we had it for the Phillies games. But of course, I loved the fact that it gave me access to movies, particularly on weekend when I was home with my father while my mother went out for the regular Saturday morning shopping excursion with Grandmom and Aunt Grace. Dad would give me access to the TV and largely let me watch what I wanted, from Doctor Who to old sci-fi movies, to whatever caught my eye on Prism. And I’d enjoy my TV freedom, leaping up to turn it off as soon as the car pulled up outside. Me? Watching TV? Why would you think that? I was right here with this book the whole time.

One day, little elementary-school-aged me stumbled across Silver Streak. I was a huge fan of Agatha Christie murder mysteries at an early age (doesn’t everyone get in trouble for reading Murder on the Orient Express during class in third grade?), so a murder on a train plot was right up my alley. And this Gene Wilder guy was funny.

What I remember vividly was that I was watching this movie — specifically the scene where Richard Pryor is trying to teach Gene Wilder to dance while applying blackface with shoe polish — and laughing myself stupid. I was so engrossed in it that I didn’t even notice that my mother had come home and was staring in horror.

Her perspective: Racist stereotypes! Blackface! Richard Pryor is not for children! Gene Wilder was in Blazing Saddles! This is 1,000% inappropriate!

My perspective: Two funny guys, and one is coming up with a ridiculous costume and trying to teach the other to dance! This is hilarious!

I remember much shouting at me to turn that off, and freaking out at my father for letting me watch. It wasn’t until years later that I realized why she might have had an issue with it. And that’s when I realized just how much someone’s interpretation can be influenced by their life experience.

I didn’t see blackface with its historical legacy; I saw a disguise.

I didn’t see a stereotype of all black men in Wilder’s disguised character; I saw him trying to imitate Pryor in particular.

I didn’t know the “white people can’t dance” stereotype; I thought that it was this character who couldn’t dance, and his physical comedy was really funny.

It’s been a good thing to keep in mind, both as a parent and a writer. My child is not me. My clients are not me. My clients’ customers are not me (and they’re not my clients, either). I try to put myself in the audience’s shoes and never take for granted the fact that I see things differently than someone else might.

So when in doubt, I run my text past someone else. Sometimes they’re from another department. If I’m lucky, they’re from another country. It’s a sanity check to make sure that the message they’re receiving is the same one that I think I’m sending.

And I owe it all to Gene Wilder.

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