“Hot Tamale” and Carmen Aguirre’s Blue Box

By Adrienne Wong

Toronto’s Nightswimming commissioned and developed Blue Box and produced a national tour in association with Vancouver’s Neworld. The following article was included in the July 2012 online issue of imPACT!, the newsletter of PACT, the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres.

Shortly after the run of Blue Box in Vancouver, The Cultch forwarded an email from a patron unhappy with the use of the term “hot tamale” in the marketing materials.

Below is an excerpt of the dialogue between the artist and producers as we processed the complaint. Carmen Aguirre, Nightswimming’s Rupal Shah, and Neworld’s Marcus Youssef, Adrienne Wong, and Kirsty Munro participated in the dialogue. Our conversation happened privately (via email) and also publicly (on Neworld’s Facebook page).

The platform for the conversation highlights one of the benefits and uses of social media: undoing the need to hide dialogue/disagreement within organizations and allowing for multiple points of view. It’s in this spirit of dialogue that we share our conversation with you.

Marcus: (Facebook) They’re right. Didn’t catch it. Should have… (email) i don’t agree with the branding approach – don’t think it actually lands in any way.

Kirsty: (email) [I] am not sure I agree. The term is complimentary and I don’t see the connection to stereotyping… And if it doesn’t bother Carmen herself, then who is anyone else to complain? And why criticize this and not Ali & Ali for example?

Marcus: (email) for me it’s a clichéd sexualized image that depends on a history of hyper-sexualization of the latin american female as represented by clichés like ‘hot tamale’ and it’s quoted out of context, so the only meaning it has (in this context of promo) is the stereotyped cliché it is. it’s good marketing and bad politics. a quote that was something like “carmen is smart and unbelievably sexy” would not do that in my view. For me ali and ali is a very different show – one that consciously and explicitly takes stereotypes and makes them bigger. it’s all about reversals of those stereotypes in the action of the play. blue box is a personal story of something ‘real’ that actually happened.

Carmen: (FB) Sweethearts, I’m the one who offered the hot tamale quote. From now on I will only offer hot empanada quotes, to quote the angry patron.

Rupal: (FB) Actually, Brian [Quirt] and I talked about that quote, way back but since Carmen was up for it, we included it in the literature… it’s interesting that Carmen’s the one least concerned about it.

Adrienne: (FB) As a ‘Steamy Wonton’ […] I want to point out that the show is billed everywhere as “Carmen Aguirre’s Blue Box.” The pun is intentional – ‘box’ standing in for ‘cunt’ if I need to spell it out. To me, this means that Carmen is intentionally sexualizing herself and the content; she’s using these phrases and images as entry points because they ARE stereotypes and therefore familiar and accessible. The play complicates these images and projections of self and part of the effectiveness of that complication is the simplistic starting point.

Carmen: (email to patron) First of all, thank you for writing and expressing your point of view. In the theatre world we are always happy to hear from patrons; we value the time and effort you have made to give us your opinion. I see your point when you speak of the ‘hot tamale’ reference being offensive. However, I would like to clarify that the quote came from myself, not The Cultch, and I offered it pointedly. That is to say, I did it on purpose (you may have noticed the that my e-mail address is northernspic. I did that on purpose.) You may have also noticed that the play self-consciously plays with icons, stereotypes, archetypes, and then turns them on their head. What I object to is that you seem to think that I am some kind of victim of racist stereotypes. If you saw the play, I hope that you were able to see immediately that I am the furthest thing from a victim, and that I have chosen the language in the play and in the publicity every step of the way, at times precisely for its racial overtones. In any case, thank you again for writing, and please know that the choices being made in regards to marketing the show have all come from me, and I stand behind them one hundred percent.

What’s interesting, to us, is the range of opinions about how the artist is portrayed, the artist’s agency in shaping marketing materials – which are often the audience’s first engagement with a show – and the usefulness (or not) of using cultural clichés and stereotypes when talking about a show. We still have not come to consensus about these issues, and I don’t expect we will. The ongoing dialogue underlines that decisions about cultural and racial questions in theatre are not as simple as being “politically correct.” Each incident is unique and complicated – as are the producers and artists who each bring their own perspectives and past experiences.

We give the last word to (disgruntled?) patron, writer and comedian Charles Demers, who posted on Facebook, “I was disappointed that the show was not about recycling.”