Friday, February 11, 2011

Cinema Notes From All Over (Heterosexual Marriage Division)

SAN FRANCISCO, Ca.--Just Go With It, in theaters today and starring Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston, is the kind of light Hollywood comedy that keeps the world safe for white heterosexuals by affirming family values and subtly marginalizing all others. 
   Oh, wait, do we sound "politically correct"? Is that opening paragraph enough to put you off already?
  If so, perhaps we should review the concept of "political correctness" before we decode the movie.  
   It is a cultural truism that s/he who names the group wields the influence; in language there is power. 
   When a dominant societal group names a marginalized one, the language often is oppressive and purposefully divisive: blacks are "niggers" and "coons," Hispanics "wetbacks" and "beaners," Asians "slants" and "gooks," women "girls," homosexuals "faggots" and "fairies," etc. 
   The counter-cultural shifts in nineteen-sixties and -seventies America emboldened marginalized groups to assert themselves. Many signaled this move to power by re-naming themselves.
   Blacks became "African-Americans," Hispanics "Latinos," Asians "Asian/Pacific Islanders," women, well, "women" rather than the reductive "girls," homosexuals "lesbians and gays." (Later, the ultra-inclusive gay communities expanded the nomenclature to "lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender," occasionally adding "queer"--a reclamation of a slur--and the somewhat baffling "questioning.") 
   The dominant power structure at the time largely was composed of conservative white males. No dominant power structure passively brooks--not for long anyway--any claim to power by the theretofore powerless. So conservative think tanks did what they often do: flipped language on its head and sent the new linguistic virus into the mainstream cultural conversation. 
   Thus was born the idea of "political correctness," a notion that re-marginalized the groups trying to claim a place at the cultural and legislative table. Conservatives shifted the conversation away from a rational consideration of what it might mean for disenfranchised people to be equal to their fellows and steered it to the “reality” that these very groups were telling others how to speak and think.
   This was, of course, an absurd claim, given that those very groups had essentially been told how to think and speak for decades, sometimes centuries, by the very same power structure then averring they were doing it to others. 
   The clearest example of this kind of linguistic jujitsu arrived, in the eighties and early nineties, in the form of conservative radio entertainer Rush Limbaugh's bloviating. Women at the time were agitating for pay equal to men's, an end to gender discrimination and the right to make decisions about their own bodies.
   Limbaugh dubbed them "feminazis." He thus equated American citizens campaigning for equal rights to psychopathic killers who had decimated roughly six million marginalized people in a country halfway around the globe four decades prior.  
   George Herbert Walker Bush, an American president who served from 1988-1992, did the same thing. Members from the protest group AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP) demonstrated outside the Bush summer home in Kennebunkport, Maine, in the late eighties. They hoped to bring national attention to the Food and Drug Administration's foot-dragging on testing and approving potentially life-saving AIDS medications.   
   Mr. Bush said the protesters were using "Nazi tactics," an odd assertion to make about a group of Americans exercising their Constitutional right to free speech and peaceable assembly. 
   But this marginalized group--AIDS protesters agitating for sick and dying friends--was attempting to assert power. Mr. Bush, a representative of the conservative power structure, therefore equated them with--do you see a theme here?--psychopathic killers who had decimated roughly six million marginalized people in a country halfway around the globe four decades prior. (Victims included gays and lesbians, who were forced to wear identifying pink triangles in the concentration camps.)
   Now, then. Were some of the re-naming efforts by marginalized groups silly and fruitless? Sure. (Hello, “differently abled” and “height challenged” people.) And were some liberals humorless and insufferably self-righteous in the process of asserting power? Absolutely.
   But that only made it easier for conservatives to mock them as “politically correct.” This undermined the groups' legitimate claims to equality by ridiculing the groups as scolds, thus trivializing their drive to enjoy equal rights by likening them to junior high school assistant principles. 
    The vacuum of the "political correctness" argument is meant to leave no breathing room for actual conversation about the way people and groups appear and function in society. So for the moment why don't we suspend that intellectually lazy notion and see if we can't realistically dissect Just Go With It, which bears all kinds of culturally stereotyped characters. 
   We’ll first note this: in one format or another, First of All has been tracking and commenting upon these sorts of character-based media misrepresentations for twenty-five years. We are as tired of doing it as you may be of hearing it. Once-disenfranchised groups have made too many advancements for this sort of thing to much stir us. 
   That said, there is an inexplicable level of white, heterosexual hegemony in Just Go With It. This is odd when, for example, in California, ethnic minorities, taken together, comprise the state's majority. Or maybe it’s not so odd: the ethnic makeup of America is shifting rapidly--indeed, we have an African-American president--and a film such as this one soothes frayed Caucasian nerves by creating a white-dominant fantasy world.
   The only black character is an effeminate and sassy hairstylist. (That's a two-fer.) The other “gay” character is an effeminate hotel staffer. Then there are the videogame addicted Latina nanny and an overweight Hawaiian babysitter who passes out after eating too much food. (You know those female people of color: great for menial work but terrible at anything requiring maternal focus.)
  Even the lead character’s  ethnicity seems to be treated questionably. Mr. Sandler plays a Jewish plastic surgeon. As a young man he has a huge and ugly nose and is considered a schlump by his wife-to-be. In voiceover he notes that he later "got rid of the schnozz" with plastic surgery; we see him as a successful surgeon who is a sexual hit with young women (to whom he lies about being married in order to get laid, the concept that sets up the comedic engine of the film). 
   Doesn’t this imply that the way for the ugly duckling Jewish kid to become the hot adult swan is to surgically alter ethnically endemic features that also happen to the one root of the stereotype about his group? 
   As to the movie itself: it’s marginally cute. It has the sitcom-requisite smart, snotty and scheming kids. Mr. Sandler's character is charming. Ms. Aniston, whose movies we normally avoid, is completely likable. Nicole Kidman, in a role not credited on the movie's posters, shines as a domineering one-time sorority sister to Ms. Aniston's character. 
   Incidentally, with her surgically altered/destroyed face, Ms. Kidman now looks like an ancillary "Ren and Stimpy" character. There is a subtextual joke about this in the movie, and one wonders if Ms. Kidman was in on it. 
   Ms. Kidman the actress has denied having any cosmetic surgery save Botox injections. In one of the film’s scenes, her character asks Mr. Sandler's--the plastic surgeon--what, if anything, he'd do to cosmetically enhance her. He says "nothing," adding that she's perfect. 
   In fact, her face looks like a late-period Picasso. That a plastic surgeon should state that he'd do "nothing" to enhance her looks implies that enough has been done already. But this is never said. Instead, Mr. Sandler's character, getting in a dig to win Ms. Aniston's character's approval, zings Ms. Kidman's character by suggesting that "they"--a reference to her plastic surgeon/s-- took too much fat out of her arms. Her face, however, save that it is "perfect," goes uncommented upon, even as it appears as expressive as a Noh mask.
   Just Go With It is a purposefully frivolous film in which man gets—and marries—woman in the end as the fantasy world’s marginalized people look on and cheer. (The black and presumably gay hairstylist makes Ms. Aniston’s character look fabulous so that she can perpetuate a ruse that unintentionally winds up with her marrying Mr. Sandler’s character. The hairstylist no doubt does it with the stark and dispiriting knowledge that in most American states he cannot legally marry his boyfriend.)
   The movie is a cultural warm bath for the dominant power structure and its aspirational admirers that passes itself off as a comedy. 
   Is it funny? 
   We laughed once.

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