Wednesday, March 4, 2009

In this life, one thing counts, in the bank, large amounts...

Vivien Leigh and Hattie McDaniel in GONE WITH THE WIND, for which McDaniel won an Oscar, the first for an African-American.

Discussion question:

What do we do about works of art that engage in harmful stereotyping, but we don't want to get rid of the art?

I have included one example below, for no other reason than it was the example that started me thinking--and because it's on Turner Classic Movies today. Whether you think this musical necessarily constitutes great art, is not where I want to go with this. I chose this for the example of stereotyping, in this case, pretty blatant antisemitism. What is pertinent is that this movie got the Oscar for Best Picture (1968) and is a staple of mass-culture; the musical OLIVER! is also performed by high-schools and small-town theater groups throughout the land.

It is also notable that the movie was based on the novel OLIVER TWIST by Charles Dickens, still widely read and circulated. Also notable is that the (Jewish) actor who plays Fagin (Ron Moody) was nominated for an Oscar as Best Actor, and won a Golden Globe award. (For all of the talk of Jews running Hollywood, can anyone explain that?)

In this discussion, we could also add such mass-culture staples as (of course) GONE WITH THE WIND and John Ford's numerous John Wayne-kicks-Indian-butt movies. I love THE SEARCHERS, but I have very mixed feelings about loving it. (I am smart enough to know that if I were Native American, I would NOT love it.)

What about old movies/plays that display severe sexism? I am terribly partial to (example) the old Doris Day movie THE THRILL OF IT ALL. Doris really shows herself to be a first-class comedienne, and brings down the house. But by the end, would-be career-mom is dutifully chastened, quits her job and goes back to being James Garner's obedient wifey, and my blood just boils. But until this happens? The movie is funny and very good.


And so, what's a mother to do? And indeed, as a movie-addict, I always wanted to show my daughter these movies, but felt like I had to conduct a freaking political seminar every time.

Okay, at the risk of offending, here are the OLIVER! clips... And to make it worse, I just love this, too. (There, I admitted it.)

But I have guilt for loving it. Does that count?

WARNING: DO NOT WATCH IF YOU WILL BE OFFENDED. FAGIN IS AN ANTISEMITIC STEREOTYPE. Even the music (by Lionel Bart, also Jewish) is designed to "sound Jewish"--as Fagin's hat is also an obvious reference to his station in life. In the novel, Dickens actually referred to Fagin as "a merry Jew"--but the movie never does, using these cultural symbols instead. (And as always, there is Fagin's obsession with money.)

Check out Ron Moody's fabulous singing and dancing in this one. (Watch how the boys salute the flag as they leave; I just love that.) Moody made no apologies for playing the role.

What is your guilty pleasure? Yes, we all have them. Don't fib to me! :P

What can we do about this situation? Any ideas? Just continue the endless political seminars?

Okay, consider this post as one.


Rachel said...

It is my personal belief that art shows the world as the artist perceives it -- that's what makes something art as opposed to advertising or decoration.

Now, Dickens, as much as I don't like him, saw a world where antisemetism was rampant (because it was) and he adapted that to make it more identifiable with stereotype. Shakespeare did the same thing in The Merchant of Venice by making Shylock the debtor into the kind of monster that a lot of antisemites perceive Jewish people to be. As a Jewish person, I'm not offended by Shylock, but even so Merchant of Venice is rarely performed because of the raw nerves involved. Shylock is an artifact rather than a stereotype to me, and most people are able to separate his villainy from his Jewishness.

Similarly, the "mammy" type characters for black women in many movies are artifacts. It may not be appropriate for someone to perpetuate that stereotype of black women today (because it's not a perception of our time, but a racist carry-over from a time gone by), but it can promote commentary and I believe should because the more we talk about the stereotypes that remain in our art despite their un-truth being revealed more and more as years go by, the more artists will be able to make commentary on them to be able to get those stereotypes out of our culture.

It's a gradual process, and not every artist is aware of it when they continue the perpetuation of them, but if we talk about it more we can eventually leave these types of things as artifacts to be thought about by future generations.

mk said...

My "guilty" pleasure? That I watch mainstream television and films at all. Homophobia, sexism and racism run so rampant it's a wonder I can enjoy anything at all. The worst offenders for me would have to be Law & Order and CSI.

Gina said...

I think the movie that crosses the line for me is Grease. What the hell is THAT teaching my daughter?

DaisyDeadhead said...

Rachel, interesting views. Fagin is an artifact as a specifically Jewish person, but I think stays current as a sort of archetypal corrupter-of-youth. For example in Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons' book, The Boy looked at Johnny they refer to Malcolm McLaren as "Fagin" to the Sex Pistols, taking the social role in a different direction. But keeping the general idea of who Fagin was.

Natalia said...

Rachel! You're supposed to be answering your interview questions!


Daisy, I find that I love a lot of movies that have Cold War stereotypes. Usually, I am able to separate my enjoyment of a film from something like that - or else, I ponder its significance in the larger framework of the film.

There are movies that really infuriate me - "Enemy At the Gates" did that, oddly enough, even though it's ultimately a well-intentioned film.

Perhaps there is nothing rational about what pisses me off and what I can skip over or even laugh about when it comes to russophobia/stereotypes specifically...?

Rachel said...

Natalia: I did answer my interview questions.

Sarah J said...

I agree with a lot of what Rachel said. I also believe in taking what's worthwhile from art without agreeing with every point of it. Because let's face it, the perfect work has yet to be created.

Rachel mentioned The Merchant of Venice, and I actually happen to love the recent film version (though Al Pacino as one of the most famous Jewish characters in literature?) I actually see a lot that's sympathetic in Shylock--particularly the "If you prick us, do we not bleed?" speech. Of course, there are plenty of awful stereotypes, too, but...

I have a lot more forgiveness for older movies having terrible stereotypes. The same character Hattie McDaniel won an Oscar for should NOT be being recycled, and yet it is. Of course, they should've known better then, but they damn well should know better now.

Sylvia/M said...

I think there's a fine line.

On one hand, we're all products of the times we live in. There are a few writers and artists who move beyond those lenses with clear, beautiful, and transcendent productions. But for the most part, we take the biases with the work as a whole. Some poignant writings rise above the misguided mechanisms surrounding them.

On the other hand, some works are saturated so much in the appropriate biases and indecencies of the time that they need preservation so we do not repeat them. We need these relics of the past to see where we can improve, to learn from the historical importance they give us to build from.

matttbastard said...

Yeah, what Rachel and Sarah said -- context is everything. But one also has to recognize that a lot of popular works from periods in history when racism/sexism/etc represented the status quo are simply irredeemable artistically. And then the stereotypes and outright hatred just stand out utterly naked. And it's somewhat painful to watch.

Amber Rhea said...

I love old movies, so this is something I've thought about a lot. Overall I agree w/ Rachel. However, there are some things that just provoke a visceral reaction - a cringe, or tightening of muscles, or looking away. And that is violence against women. When you watch movies from the 40s, 50s, even 60s, you notice how downright normal and acceptable violence against women was portrayed. It seems like every one of those old movies has at least one scene with a man slapping a woman!

In September, my mom and I went to a screening of The Three Faces of Eve in Augusta - it was the 51st anniversary of the movie, which premiered in Augusta (Eve lived in Augusta and was treated at MCG). The real Eve was at the screening and she gave a talk beforehand... very inspiring. Anyway, there were several scenes in the movie where she is slapped or pushed or otherwise abused, and for the most part it's portrayed as her own fault - something she brought on herself. Her husband, who is the perpetrator a couple of times, is portrayed as simple-minded but it's clear we're not supposed to understand him as a "bad guy."

John Powers said...

Stereotyping is something we all do. I don't think it's quite right to say that stereotyping is producing stereotypes, although it obviously is that. Like most things people do it's more complicated than that.

Sometimes stereotypes are referred to as characterization frames; i.e. how we characterize other groups. The useful thing about this name is it pairs with the construct of identity frame; i.e. how we view the social group to which we belong.

The Golden Rule makes intuitive sense to lots of people. It would seem to follow that choosing an identity frame which has as a characteristic holding negative stereotypes of others wouldn't be something we'd want. Alas, to some extent every identity frame I can think of has this characteristic to some extent.

It's a good thing to draw attention to negative stereotypes and to challenge them. But that should not in my view divert our attention from our processes of stereotyping and identity framing. In other words we need to attend to our creative acts.

Dickens in his relationship to Oliver Twist provides an interesting historical example. When he learned how obnoxious his anti-Semitic stereotypes in the book were found to be, he revisited and revised the book.

Artistic creations have a life of their own. It's arguable that the antisemitism in the characterization of Fagin makes Oliver Twist irredeemable despite the intentions and efforts of Dickens. But I also think that art if it is to be enjoyed cannot be appreciated passively.

Because everyone engages in stereotyping and identity formation, it's essential for us to gain perspective on them. Artistic creations often provide such opportunity.

It seems unreasonable to imagine that stereotypes have no place in art. Sometimes the confrontation of stereotypes found in art are far less nuanced, engaging and effective than the work itself is in confronting the stereotypes.

thene said...

I've been thinking about this a LOT lately because I am lately fangirling around after a racist videogame series. And wow, look, there isn't a way for fangirls to magically fix that via their fanworks. Whatever you write about a character who's a racial stereotype, they're still racial stereotypes. Ditto for situations in which canon is using non-white people as scenery for things white people are doing. And fumbling over these problems is not comfortable, but I hope it beats pretending they're not there.

isabel said...

Oliver! is my favorite movie, and i love the Fagin character...I think it's a gentle treatment as he's a sympathetic character, not a cardboard cutout. His concern for Oliver is genuine.I don't think a child would equate it with A shylock character, or Jews in general.
I think it's a good movie to show kids as it shows classism so clearly - the whole Who Will Buy song, all the working class people and their interactions with the rich -rare nowadays. The workhouse scenes and chimney sweep kids...I think the As Long as he Needs Me song is MUCH harder to explain...

ArrogantWorm said...


Something you might be interested in. Chris Costner Sizemore was 'Eve', and she ended up sueing Thigpen and Cleckly (although my spelling is rusty on the names) for theft of material (she won), and in her second book she portrayed all of herself and the journey, which wasn't ....quitelike Cleckly et all claimed. The movie itself drew on a previous D.I.D movie to the extent that that they were almost sued for infringement.

Costner's first husband, however, was an unmitgated asshole. Should've been shot.

Personally, I find a lot of things in television objectionable to the point of grimicing on notice, especially the 'Lefetime' station. I say keep the art. Use it to show and to point out what views shouldn't be perpetuated in it and why it's problematic. Also, it's a shame to lose such performances.

Renee said...

I love old John Wayne westerns. I think it is because I watched so many as a kid with my Dad. They remind me of simple times. I know that they are racist, and sexist however to me they are a page from my childhood.

Natalia said...

I think being aware in general is very useful - regardless as to whether or not you're watching modern-day material or a relic. I'm like that with "300" - a supremely creepy, disturbing, racist and cartoonish film - but one I nevertheless think has value.

I don't think that being aware needs to necessarily detract from one's appreciation, or enjoyment, or thoughtful criticism. I think that knowing these things can help you see the work as a whole, in a good way.

Lots of artists play off themes that they find disturbing and otherwise wrong, to craft them into their own masterpieces Like "The Penelopiad" being an echo of "The Odyssey" - you know?

Amber Rhea said...

I don't think that being aware needs to necessarily detract from one's appreciation, or enjoyment, or thoughtful criticism. I think that knowing these things can help you see the work as a whole, in a good way.

Well said, Natalia.

Jackie said...

I love historical novels and movies that are accurate to the events happening at that period. Probably why I saw Gone with the Wind +/-50 times and enjoy all Dickens books whereas I despise the Mills and Boon style historical romances with their lack of research and accuracy.

We can't move forward until we know where we have been and what errors were made. Anyway that's my opinion LOL.

JoJo said...

Well unfortunately times were so much different when those old films were made that it seemed completely normal to have those stereotypes.

My fave guilty pleasures? The old Bugs Bunny cartoons that aren't shown anymore b/c it's not "PC". You know, Speedy Gonzalez & his cousin Slowpoke Rodriguez. And they did portray Japanese people in a very caraciturey way. My other fave guilty pleasure, the 1964 Rankin Bass "Rudolph". When I bought the VHS years ago, I was surprised to see many scenes that were cut or shortened for TV. Esp. the part where they tell Rudolph's mom and Clarice to stay at home, "this is men's work". My jaw hit the floor. I never, ever remember that line from TV at all.

yellowdog granny said...

where to start..when i was a kid i loved john wayne and his movies..i grew up thought his movies were awful and hated myself for ever loving them..and then he made green berets and I knew if i ever met him i'd have to kick his ass..
i loved gone with the wind when i was a kid and loved the book..grew up and thought how could i?
same with the doris day know what happened? i grew up and got smarter and had differnt values..but i still love quarterback sue me..

ZoBabe said...

Rudyard Kipling, "Just So Stories." God I loved those as a kid, and still do despite the colonialism and racism (even though it kind of makes me cringe).

There seems to be this whole genre of Indonesian TV shows about vicious, manipulative women, and their "good girl" victims, who seem to do nothing but cry.

My daughter loves these, and watches them every chance she gets, though I do try to discourage it. I'm trying to explain to her that being "good" doesn't mean you just take whatever sh*t someone dishes out to you until you are somehow rescued.

I fear for some of the messages she's picking up.

Tom Nolan said...

For example in Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons' book, The Boy looked at Johnny they refer to Malcolm McLaren as "Fagin" to the Sex Pistols

They were clearly getting their fictional villainous Jews mixed up, then - they meant Svengali.

Aileen Wuornos said...

I just figure its best to examine the context of whatever it is you may be viewing, reading or watching. If you can understand the context and WHY and HOW people used to think that way, then you can at least reward yourself with knowing what it really represents as well as enjoying what's in front of you.

I hope that made sense. Sometimes I feel that way watching the old Doctor Who

Marshall-Stacks said...

another excellent topic from you Daisy. I landed here by guugle searching for Julie Burchill's excellent piece on Natalie Wood.
You were p2 of the results.

Your topic - can we set aside our moral view to enjoy art which provokes it? - applies to the excellent film just finished by Roman*Polanski of Robert Harris's great novel The Ghostwriter, and Woody*Allen's excellent Whatever.
If we don't set aside the external issues, we deny ourselves the enjoyment of the art.
Some people are 'into denial' of course.
best regards, M.S.