Monday, January 26, 2009

Where's your line?

I have a confession to make: I went to see Ben Stiller's "Tropic Thunder" at the local AMC Theater last year. And I laughed and laughed.

That's it. That's the confession.

See, I consider myself a good progressive--anti-racist, womanist, pro-equality, broad-minded, sensitive to the needs of marginalized people and all that stuff. How then, could I find humor in a movie that features a white actor in black face; an offensive portrayal of an intellectually disabled boy; stereotypically drawn evil, Asian characters; and a lame, closeted gay tough guy plotline? I don't know. I just did.

The cinema isn't the only place I sometimes put my values aside for the sake of enjoyment. In a recent post about my varied musical tastes, I wrote:

Maybe the most surprising thing, for those who read my liberal rantings here, is that I own some songs that don't quite pass the gender and racial equality smell test. But, hey, sometimes you just want to groove. I can nod my head to "In Da Club" by 50 Cent and ignore the
insipid and predatory lyrics. And I can crank "Sweet Home Alabama" and tune out that line about Birmingham loving the Governor (George Wallace).


In the comments to that post, reader AJ Plaid a.k.a. The Cruel Secretary laid down some wisdom from Racialicious' Latoya Peterson:

"Sometimes you gotta say, 'Fuck it, I love it.'"

Indeed, you do.

AJ goes on to say:

And the older I get I realize that having one thing--one song, one outfit, one book, one sexual fantasy--that flies against your political philosophy but just love for the joy that it brings to you personally keeps you interesting--and human. IMO, all-the-way-down idealogues become insufferably self-righteous and self-congratulatory, horribly irritating, and quite tedious to be around.


Wise words. That's why you should be reading The Cruel Secretary blog on the regular.

But we've covered the idea of entertainment that contradicts personal philosophy already on What Tami Said. What I want to know is : Where's your line? I mean, what separates the offensive comedy you abhor and that you tolerate and find hilarious? What criteria does a slightly sexist song have to pass to make it on to your iPod? Are your decisions about what is acceptably offensive made from "the gut," George Bush-style? Or, do you detect a pattern in what you accept and what you discard?

It's hard to parse what we like and don't like. But I have come to realize that there are some things that simply make it impossible for me to accept a piece of entertainment. For instance, I can't listen to music that includes hateful language directed toward women ("bitch," "ho"); I can't abide Mammy/Sapphire stereotypes (Tyler Perry, I am looking at you.); I cringe at "black people are... [always late...broke...triflin...insert negative, self-hating stereotype here]" humor; I hate comedies that rely on nakedly stereotypical protrayals of women ("Bride Wars"...Yuck!) These are a few of my "lines"--offenses that kill the entertainment.

What are yours?

12 comments:

AJ Plaid said...

Hey Tami--

Awwww! Thanks for the shout-out and the link-lurve!

What kills the entertainment for me is...terror. Specifically, terror as the point of a film--which is why I can't bring myself to watch slasher flicks. I won't even read horror books. Especially if either of them involves terrorizing women as the point--it rubs my woman-supportive soul the wrong way. Women are terrorized enough in reality--I don't need entertain myself with that kind of negativity.

I don't care for films that use mental or physical disabilities as a punchline. It feels like I'm making fun of someone who can't help zie's conditions.

I don't like films/tv shows/books which has its humor is based in hipster bigotry.

Those are my lines so far...

--Abrazos,
AJ

Claudia said...

I love this post, Tami! The more I live and learn, the more I seem to find myself at odds with these kinds of guilty pleasures - whether it's film, music, books, or video games.

So here's my confession: for me, that line is best exemplified by Dr. Dre's "The Chronic" album, which played at all hours when I was in college. And not just selected songs, but all of them - until me and my girlfriends knew every word.

Today I'm surprised by how much, after years, I still love the CD - with its shocking language, violence, and sexuality (misogyny, really).

I should know better, but what I've realized is that my own "smell test" is based on an amorphous mixture of 1) nostalgia and 2) innovation. I have a soft spot for old-school west coast hip hop because of its popularity when I was younger. I also have great respect for any artist that can bring a new, fresh creative flair to something familiar.

And if, amidst the cringe-inducing lyrics, they slip a little socially commentary in there - all the better. So this explains Dr. Dre, Cypress Hill, Ghetto Boys, and the rest (for me). It also explains, maybe, why I can't stomach L'il Wayne.

P.S. I enjoyed "Tropic Thunder" too (although I saw it by myself)!

Anonymous said...

Most entertainment out there is truly unlistenable and unwatchable.
I do agree with Claudia that nostalgic attachments can influence you -- however, when I was a kid I loved "The Man from U.N.C.E. Shock, the sexism in it is so awful its unwatchable today! However, The Avengers is still great!

Films or music with really awful racial stereotypes are just yuck!! I can't get through Breakfast at Tiffany's because of the awful portrayal of a Japanese man played by --- Rooney.. you know who I meant. Buck toothed ah soo, it's just unwatchable! My brother thinks I'm stupid for hating the movie for this reason.
I hate sexist anything, and am vicious in condemning a TV show in seconds: "Men wrote it!!" is the battle call, and 95% of the time, within the first two minutes of the show I know whether women or men wrote it! Got to do a piece on how to detect sexism up to microchip level.
Rap, hip hop, just forget the whole terrible woman hating mess of it all. Feel sorry for the people whose college life was ruined with that as a soundtrack!
However, I love WWII movies, and I guess I just imagine myself killing all those rapist evil men..Germans and NAZIS are hated!
I love it when people on the outside attack those on the inside. Before Chris Rock became a woman hating creep, I loved how he dissed white people, and would howl with laughter, and also I liked his insider humor : "Martin WAS ASS-ASS-inated, JFK was assassinated, Bobby was assassinated... Biggie he just was shot!" So true!

Kjen said...

I'm going to have to quote Justice Potter Stewart, "I know it when I see it."
Meaning I'm having a hard time pinning down why I'll laugh at 'entertainment' that doesn't represent my values and why I won't. But it comes down to "is it good?" was it creative, was it interesting...and second, what was the spirit of the story/joke/art. The latter is very subjective I'll admit, but I feel that I can sense a lot of times if there is true malice/bitterness behind some forms of entertainment. It's why I could laugh at Chris Rock's sexist relationship jokes at the beginning of his career and why now I find them to be tedious and galling.
Good post.

Jennifer said...

Tami,
I also sheepishly went to see Tropic Thunder and I also laughed and then felt guilty about it. So thank you for sharing.

This is a great question--I think maybe one reason I could laugh in Tropic Thunder was thinking that it was just trying to be intentionally ridiculous. Not that this excuses every person who is intetionally ridiculous--maybe the other issue is that they seemed to be deliberately trying to be offensive.

At any rate, my own threshold seems to be the film that is unintentionally promoting sexist/racist/homophobic stereotypes. Oddly enough I can watch BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY's, even though I cringe when I see Mickey Rooney in yellowface and I get a little angry inside. But what I walked out of was THE THIN RED LINE because I couldn't take the portraits of Japanese soldiers as the yellow enemy, not individualized or humanized.

But I wonder if my tolerance is higher for this in film than in print because I can't stand any racist/sexist/homophobic books--esp. sexist authors (like I never read Updike anymore--I suppose that's a bad example because the man just died, but there was just something about his depiction of the middle-aged white guy going through another crisis that just left me feeling bored and slightly angry).

Cath said...

I can stand a lot of sexism and racism as long as it's in old media. So I can see it as just quaint history. Breakfast at Tiffany's gets a pass; so do heaps of other old moveis.

Anonymous said...

The sexualization of violence - nothing makes me sicker. Which is why I'm off Tarantino.

Miwome said...

Wandered over from Feministing, my first time here. I think this is a great question.

My less-shameful lines, I think, have to do with humor and humanity. That is, I can handle sexist or racist humor even when it's not explicitly deconstructing those oppressions--one of my favorite movies of all time is Murder by Death, a pretty old movie in which practically every other line is a joke about female servitute, stinky Chinamen, the closet, whatever. ("Why do I always have to do the dirty work?" "Because your mother not here to do it. [in ridiculous "Chinese" accent]") But all of those remarks are very much meant to make the speaker, and the phenomenon, funny. Similarly, I can handle movies whose characters perpetuate stereotypes as long as those characters are also more than the stereotypes; as long as they're still human. After all, most actual human beings fulfill one stereotype or another in part and at times. By contrast, I was driven nuts by Knocked Up because I felt like the women were nothing but bitchy bags of hormones who were held much more responsible for acting like idiots than the men were.

The less defensible line is that I am not a perfect progressive and some oppressions bother me more than others. Sexism (I'm a woman), racism (though white, I grew up being made very aware of racial oppression), and homophobia (I'm from Boston, gay friends and family members, frequently mistaken for a lesbian myself) in media are more visible to me, and bother me more, than, say, ableism or ageism. That's my own failing and something I have to work on.

whatsername said...

I think for me it's what others have already said about the creators being conscious of the not-right-ness of their comedy. Although sometimes that doesn't work either, because it doesn't come off as "this is funny because it's wrong" but simply "I'm saying this is funny so I can get away with saying it". I can't stand the latter. But comedy is definitely where my lines get fuzzy.

I too laughed my ass off at Tropic Thunder. But I have to admit, there's something about RDjr getting an OSCAR NOM for the part that has me flabbergasted. I have a very difficult time believing the Academy is satirizing ITSELF by putting up a "joke" nom. And while I love Downey, and think he's very talented and all...um...no.

I also draw a hard line at "terror" as AJ called it. I can't take slasher movies either. I have a hard time with graphic pain being inflicted upon people because in the back of my head all I can think is "that's really happened to people". Graphic rape scenes are also extremely hard for me to watch, though I can sometimes get through them. And threats of very intimate, sexual, violence don't work either.

I don't deal with openly misogynistic or sexist music very well either, and that gets more pronounced the older I get.

Melanie M. Smith said...

One day I actually listened to the lyrics of Tom Jones' "She's a Lady" and I got sick to my stomach. It is absolutely one of the most misogynistic songs I've ever heard. But I love a lot of hip-hop songs that also contain questionable lyrics and would be considered just as misogynistic.

I guess my line is a fairly blurry one.

Julep said...

This is a fascinating topic that I have been thinking a lot about lately. For me, my line has to do with awareness. Although I consider myself more aware than most, "isms" are so pervasive that sometimes I miss them entirely. This happens especially when I'm listening to a song with a great beat. It also has to do with the awareness of the creators/actors/singers--as has been suggested by others here. If the "isms" are so pervasive, if they aren't meant as social commentary, as sarcasm, etc., I am more offended.

That said, I simply adore The Girls Next Door. And I am not ashamed of that fact.

Anonymous said...

This is an excellent post. It's really making me think.

I don't I have a line per se; it's just more of a feeling of what I can tolerate. I guess I feel that as long as I think critically about things, I don't mind partaking.

I agree with the others about classic movies. I feel that what racism and sexism is shown in them is a window into the past. On the whole, though, I think I feel more comfortable with the portrayal of women in cinema in the past than I do today. Actresses and female singers today are often hypersexualized, and being young and sexy seems to count more than talent sometimes.

Some things I don't mind because, in my view, they are satirical. Tropic Thunder would fall under this category for me. I feel no guilt watching it because I see it as making fun of a movie industry that gives preferences to white actors and that can be culturally insensitive in its depictions of certain people and a homophobic hip hop culture which causes its performers to try to mold themselves into chauvinistic personas in order to appeal to the masses.

I've been reading unabridged, original fairy tales. Despite the incest, rape, and other violence against women, I am reading them because I want to understand what kind of messages these stories are transmitting to the reader and what do they tell us about our culture today.

Sex and the City has been a guilty pleasure. I have mixed feelings about the portrayal of women in it, and I hate its limited and mostly negative representation of racial minorities. Despite this, I would still watch it.

My guiltiest pleasure currently is probably a song called "Sweat." I had heard it at swing dances numerous times and I loved the sound. It took months of listening to it on my mp3 player before I really heard the lyrics:
"Sadie looked from me to him, then back from him to you,
Then she passed out cold from thinking 'bout the things that he might do.
Pulled a pistol from his pants, apologized and sighed.
Shot her sixteen times, one more time and said good-bye.
Left us sitting all alone, all we could do was cry,
And the sweat that mingled with our tears was such a sweet good-bye."

I was aghast when I finally realized the violent nature of the song. Violence against women angers me so much, and I would have said that's the line but I could not bring myself to stop listening to the song.

So basically, if the enjoyment I get from the media exceed the discomfort I feel, I will tolerate it. I just put the cognitive dissonance aside until I see a question like this. I think the most important thing is not choosing whether to watch/listen/read or to abstain, but recognizing that there is something offensive about it and understanding why.

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