My husband and I are 0 for 4 on the movies featured during our movie nights recently and I’ve been too unengaged by the badness of the first three to feel it worth any commentary on them. Our attempt last weekend to remedy such banality made me wish for boredom. And it was also too instigatingly bad in the far-worse-than-just-merely-not-entertaining-at-all way that I am, once again, prompted by horror to the old writing desk(top). We enjoyed the first Despicable Me movie enough to ignore the ever-lurking voice in the back of your mind that whispers how bad sequels usually are and how much worse they tend to be if their predecessor is a hit, though that could just be because comparison. In other words, we thought we were making at least a tolerable choice.But, to say nothing of the predictable dialogue, one-dimensional characters and wreck-your-tire-grade plot holes, it was ‘ism’ after ‘ism’ with this one. We’ve got rotting-carcass sexism up first. There is effectively the drugging of and violence against women/blatant disregard for women’s bodies – done with the help of other women! – the categorical type-casting of every female character as a ditzy, clingy and/or crazy impediment to men’s success in their world, the horrendously tired men-are-players/women-are-unstable-need-freaks “romance” plot lines and the equally uncreative but powerful reinforcement of the little girls like pink and princesses thing, which felt so sloppily and randomly stuffed into the movie that I’m suspicious they put that birthday party scene in there just so they could seem innovative by including an embarrassingly trite, stereotypical and showy cross-dressing scene. Oh, also, did anyone else notice that there are no female minions?
Next up is unashamed racism. I’m all for diversity (the real kind, not the buzzword, we-do-this-for-the-numbers kind) but making your villains blatant tropes of the most common, inaccurate and harmful prejudices constantly perpetuated by media, entertainment and status-quo institutions (for example, this inexcusably common myth that immigrants commit more crime that native-born folks when actually, the opposite is true) is not multiculturalism. It’s racism. The two villains in the story have foreign accents and are unimaginatively stereotypical (as in, what racism teaches people to think about others not from the US) of their place of origin. To be fair, the protagonist has a foreign accent, too, but at one point, his “sidekick” (the woman who drugged and then helped carry/toss/fling/drop/throw another woman back home…____in a heap on her front porch…simply because she was an unsuitable date for the protagonist) makes a comment about how “cute” his accent is and then offers to help him “fix that.”
The only thing remotely tolerable about this hey-day for subliminal hatred is the nifty idea of a sombrero made entirely of tortilla chips with a moat of guac around its rise. But the point here is that if this is the kind of putrescible, rote garbage we’re calling kids’ entertainment these days, we have no room to be shocked at exactly the kind of unequal, violent and, here’s a dirty word for you, immoral society we live in today. I know, this is exactly the easy move at least half the population makes (or used to make before starting to scapegoat the “mentally ill”) whenever there’s a mass shooting: blame the media. But here’s the worrying thing to me. While mass and gratuitous and obvious violence in movies is exponentially increasing (keeping pace with the fear of any sort of nudity, as if seeing a nipple is worse than seeing a murder), there’s also less and less need to be that dramatic about conveying the same messages.
It’s like how the definition of racism is up for debate now. I’m talking about when a sois-disant white supremacist expressly tells people he’s murdering them because they’re black and we have to, as a society, have a discussion about whether that’s actually racist or not. We’ve repackaged illogical and baseless hatred of the other as “debate,” or, even scarier, “free speech.” Or, flashy, shiny kids movies where battering and abusing an over-the-top ditzy woman after drugging her is supposed to be funny or the accent that the heavily stereotyped Spanish character is the giveaway that he’s the bad guy and really, no one means any harm because “it’s just a movie.” I don’t know if you’ve been paying attention to the news lately, but we seem to have trouble remembering that movies are just movies.
There’s a reason this shit is in our “entertainment” all the way down to that which we let our youngest minds have access to. Like the nature-nurture issue, there is no clear line between suggestion and reflection in the media. Do sex, violence, racism and pathetically overused romantic plot lines sell because we already like such things or because we’re saturated with marketing/movies/books so subtle now that people calling it for what it is are dismissed as crazy, extreme or crying wolf? And this ambiguity is both exactly why movies aren’t just movies and why we can be horrified by an event on the news but dismiss the exact same event in a movie by “it’s just a movie” without a second thought.
So this is the downside of starting to pay attention. You start to see the rampant false but powerful divisions that keep us from coming together in the strength we need in order to take on the unbearably terrifying issues we all face everywhere. And if you’re like me, you will feel compelled to do something by all that you see but you will also not know what. It will scare off your sleep and you won’t feel like your efforts matter or like anyone’s listening but even if they were, they’d epithetically call you a radical, extremist, or intense or “negative person.” So you’ll be paralyzed. Except for this tiny little movie review that you somehow managed to ultimately make about you.
Then again, maybe that’s exactly what’s missing. After all, we are the ones creating the movies, the media and the culture. Not making it personal is maybe exactly why these lethal institutions continue to stand (and grow) through the ages: we are more a part of this violence, these “just movies” are more about us than we’ll ever know as long as we keep pretending, which brightly-colored kid-friendly ones make it real easy to do, that movies play just on screens and violence is just a “them” thing. Of course, as Despicable Me 2 demonstrates, ‘isms’ are about privilege, which is the lie that those who have it believe: they can simply opt out and still remain neutral. But there is no neutral. Not when we think it’s okay to teach our kids to laugh at the physical abuse of a woman who happened to be a bad match for the (male) main character. Not when we continue to dismiss the role movies have in modeling how we should treat each other. And not when speaking up about such things is met with dismissive labels or name calling rather than solidarity and desire to reconstruct a better world. If this were just one kid’s movie, I’d be merely annoyed with all the insulting things that are happening in it. But all those insulting things are all-too-familiar replicas of life-or-death matters in the real world. If it were “just” a kid’s movie, it shouldn’t be that hard to portray gender, race, nationality or age as beautiful diversity rather than the pecking order I’m so damn tired of hearing that it is.