Before Sook-Yin Lee accepted a job at MuchMusic, she made sure her future boss, Moses Znaimer, the co-founder of the country’s seminal music station, knew her non-negotiable boundaries. "If you're looking for a model that's gonna read words that somebody else wrote, that is not me," she told him. A pretty, talking head was not what Znaimer was looking for, so Lee was hired, and the rest is Canadian TV history. Lee was a VJ in the '90s, a time when her brash candor was encouraged, and she could literally moon the country on air with little repercussion. “People still recognize me and tell me the weird sh-t that I was doing on TV,” she laughs as she recalls her days at MuchMusic over the phone. Now, she says that kind of unfiltered freedom is rare, and that censorship is impacting creators and artists in unprecedented ways.
In a new stage production she calls a “meta docu-performance,” Lee is tackling the big, messy, and provocative topic of censorship. Unsafe: An Investigation into the Censorship of Art and the Art of Censorship in Canada includes conversations with artists and activists about some headline-grabbing Canadian controversies like when Quebec playwright Robert LePage’s two plays last year that were denounced by members of Quebec’s Black and Indigenous communities (one play “SLAV” included a mostly white cast picking cotton and singing Black slave songs) or calls for more diversity in Canadian Stage productions (the same company putting on Lee’s show). In both of those cases, you could argue that “call-out culture” was justified. When it comes to call-outs, Lee says it isn’t black or white.
Censorship is a topic that hits close to home for Lee. In 2006, when she wanted to act in the critically-acclaimed raunchy comedy Shortbus, which would involve a nude sex scene, Lee was almost fired from her job hosting a show on CBC. She says that was the time in her career when she felt the most creatively stifled. It's partly why the actor, filmmaker, musician, artist, and activist prefers to exist in the grey spaces now, and is pushing for nuance over quick confrontation, especially on social media. Lee is hesitant to give specific examples of the call-outs discussed in her show because she’s concerned of her words being “reduced to a scintillating soundbite in an article.”
Lee is full of “scintillating soundbites” and potentially unpopular opinions but she doesn’t care. She’s still as defiant and free-spirited as she was when she was pulling her pants down on live TV.
Here, Lee shares more about Unsafe, the complexity of talking about censorship and what she says are the dangers of call-out culture.
You spoke with various artists about creativity and censorship in Canada like poet Rupi Kaur, opera tenor Jeremy Dutcher, stand-up comedian Chris Robinson, Arab-Canadian artist Laila Binbrek and more.What were some of the experiences they shared?
I talked to Rupi Kaur. She posted a taboo image of her period stain on track pants and it was taken down twice by Instagram, but it also really was the image that launched her career. She got a lot of attention from that. So, now that she’s famous, she talks about finding herself conforming to a curated self-image and she realizes that everybody's doing this. We are extremely aware of curating the perfect look. Where is the space for us to be imperfect on social media? It’s looking at that grey zone. So, it's not so cut and dry. Nothing is cut and dry here. It’s not like censorship, good, censorship, bad.
When you talk about self-censorship, social media plays a huge part in that—
We're all heightened and aware of that fact that it's a rogue world out there. Call outs happen fast and furious. So, I think it all contributes to a feeling of anxiety over how much to reveal and making sure that we never show that we're annoying, or boring, or ugly. There's a very strange half faction of a portrayal of a person.
It's interesting with call-out culture, sometimes the term is been used to categorize marginalized groups who now actually have a voice through social media, and who are now being able to react to some of the things that people say that are offensive or harmful and have gone unchecked for so long.
But then they get looped in with this negative idea of “call-out culture.”
Right. I mean, call-out culture is multi-dimensional. It involves so much stuff and it also embraces free speech. There’s this idea now that, “Hey, I can call you out and say that's bullshit.” Is that censorship, or is that just freedom of speech?
Which one is it?
Both. I think it's all fair game. That's why there is such complexity online. I think we are given the opportunity to express ourselves and if you disagree, you can express that. There's a lot of people expressing how they feel and it can be very empowering. The questions here that I ask is when is censorship generative? When is it destructive? When is it necessary? It goes beyond a binary of good versus bad. It's much more complicated. These old systems of institutional thinking are collapsing and giving way to this other rogue world of online interaction. Our fear of being called out makes us more careful of how we are being with one another.
I agree that there's not a lot of room for nuance in these online conversations, but sometimes the conversation gets so divisive because there are certain values or human rights issues where there aren't two sides to it.
I think people just need to be able to hear each other. It's great that we can express ourselves and have these bases, but it's also really important to listen.
What about racism, sexism, oppression, stuff like that? When we talk about censorship in general, some people think that, “oh, you're censoring me,” but it's hate speech. So, the other side of that is I'm not censoring you. I'm just reacting to your hate speech.
Yeah. I am free to express that I disagree with you, vehemently.
Okay. Break that down.
I do think that we have to try to reach for nuance, and unpacking some more of the complexities because even when you say, "I hate racism," where does ignorance play in? Where does upbringing play in? Where can you outgrow your madness? I hope that there are opportunities for that. That we can consider the historical point of how somebody came to think that way, in a way that we do find repugnant on certain topics. At the same time, if you do not feel like engaging with the person, you don't have to. I'm not saying try to understand your enemy entirely and become best buds with that person. You have a choice to disengage and vehemently refute or support.
You’ve said that the people you interviewed for this project were “extremely nervous.” Why do you think they were so nervous?
They're putting themselves in the line of fire. Yeah, they could be called out. They could be disagreed with. It could impact their future employment, all sorts of things.
Just as a little tease, give me an example on both sides of the pro-censorship and the anti-censorship argument that you discuss in the show.
Well, it's kind of similar to what you're saying, in terms of calling out work that artists feel are morally wrong. There are a couple of artists that are like, "Yeah, that sh-t should get censored." I bring up things like the Action Bronson North by Northeast situation, where they had hired Action Bronson to play in the public square, at Dundas square. And some people were like, "I don't want to hear his misogynist lyrics, if I'm walking outside. That should be in a nightclub, where I can choose ... I don't want to have to be assaulted by my ears." So, there is a great wave of people that protested that outdoor concert, and then they finally did change the venue. So that would be a pro-censorship argument.
And then I speak with Chris Robinson. He's a standup comedian. He's like, "Yeah, in comedy, to censor yourself is like the death of comedy." He's got to be able to speak his mind, be a free person. This is somebody whose family is Jehovah's Witness. And they were like, "Son, no, you cannot continue your comedy. If you want to keep living with us, you're going to have to quit." And he chose his comedy. The stakes were high. He's disassociated from his family and his church now. But he wants to keep doing his comedy.
Comedy is in a really interesting spot right now. Like you said, there is so much nuance there, because some of the best comedians of all time have pushed the boundaries.
Yeah. And yet we're living in call-out culture, where we see that it's dangerous. It's dangerous to be the comedian who says that stuff.
With call-out culture in comedy though, maybe that's where growth comes in. Because you have to be smarter and funnier now about these sensitive topics.
You do have to be smarter and funnier. You've got to be way better critically minded when you're assailed by the media. It's actually pushing us to have to be smarter on so many levels.
It's interesting because when you look at someone like a Louis C.K. or an Aziz Ansari, two people who supposedly have been cancelled by call-out culture. But they still have careers and they're going to be fine. So, do you think “cancel culture” really has the power that people say it does?
I do think it does. I mean, I do think to get a hit like that, for any artist, I'm sure is a destabilizing moment, whether or not they can continue on, economically, lucratively? Sure. Yes, they will be given those opportunities, but you can only know what that's like if you sit in their place. I remember running into Marilyn Manson on Queen's Street, and he was like, "I don't understand," this was at the height of his infamy, and he's like, "I just don't get why so many people think I'm dangerous or hate me." He honestly didn't know, and he seems very wounded by public opinion and so forth, so who knows what dark night of the soul this brings or if people are fine, or if they're not. I don't know.
Finally, what are your thoughts on music and censorship in Canada?
I was just making a list of censored music. I was like "oh my God, the Beach Boys, the Shirelles, what?" All these great hits that we love that seem so sweet and saccharin, they're like, "Oh, there was something about sex in it.” I try to unpack in the show what is this fear of sex, what is this fear of the body? What are we afraid of within pornography, what is it? So, it's complicated. I want people to know that it's not all doom and gloom, though. It's heady and it's demanding, but it's also very, very funny.
Unsafe runs March 12-31 at Toronto’s Berkeley Street Theatre.