Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Possibility of Hypersensitivity

The fact that I have to begin this post with a preface in and of itself is part of the problem. But here we are, and if I don't start with this I'll get shit for it. So here we go. I am in no way in favor of the following things: (1) Racism; (2) Sexism (which includes mistreatment based on sexual preference or gender identification); (3) Bullying; (4) Human Sex Trafficking; (5) Mistreatment, in any way shape or form, of children. Now, that's only a small sample of the things that I do not support, but it will suffice for the purposes of this article. With that said, let's move on.

I recently tried to watch one of my all-time favorite movies, The Goonies (1985), with someone who had never seen it before. The movie had somehow slipped under this person's radar for their entire life. But within fifteen minutes of watching the film (they hadn't even gotten out of the house yet), they announced that they hated it and walked out of the room. Why? Because it promoted bullying and it was racist.


It promoted bullying, the person explained, because the kids were needlessly cruel to fan-favorite character Chunk (Jeff Cohen). Forcing Chunk to do the truffle-shuffle was bad behavior portrayed in a comical light and this was unacceptable. Furthermore, there was this scene featuring Mouth (Corey Feldman) translating for house cleaner Rosalita. Mouth's use of the Spanish language to taunt and frighten Rosalita was racist behavior, again portrayed in a positive and comical light. Again, unacceptable.

We hadn't even gotten to the good stuff. We missed our chance for an examination of the Fratellis (what, all Italians are criminals?) or the other fan-favorite character, Sloth (a horribly insensitive portrayal of the physically- and mentally-challenged). There I was thinking this movie was funny. How dare I enjoy it.

Billy Donnelly of Aint-it-Cool-News wrote up a review of the documentary Bully that reexamined the 1980s classic The Breakfast Club (1985). I haven't seen Bully so I'm in no position to discuss its merits. I have already made clear my stance on bullying. See paragraph one, item (3) above. In his review, Donnelly writes as follows:
"Just the other day, I happened to catch THE BREAKFAST CLUB on late at night, and, as each of them are relaying their stories about what landed them in Saturday detention, it was Andrew (Emilio Estevez) recalling his actions that really had me thinking ... Him taping Larry Lester’s buns together causes humiliation for some poor kid who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and too hairy to boot."

Is Andrew, therefore, an inappropriate character to portray in The Breakfast Club? Is it bad that he is shown as one of the protagonists? Is it insensitive of an audience member to root for him in his struggle against the Dean and against his father? Does it render the movie offensive and wrong to enjoy?

What about other staples of our childhoods, are they safe? Nope. Viewed through the lens of our modern society, all your favorite memories can be ruined. What about this gem from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) where precocious little Elliot calls his big brother a "penis-breath"? Homophobic slur portrayed as harmless name-calling. Or the scene from Back to the Future (1985) you can watch here, where the African-American band members are referred to as "spooks" and "reefer addicts"? Casually racist. Back to the Future also contains plenty of bullying and Marty McFly's brilliant plan to pretend to attempt to rape his mom. How about Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom's (1984) portrayal of dinner at an Indian palace? Racist and culturally insensitive. And my personal favorite, a scene from Goldfinger (1964) lovingly referred to as "man talk." Vintage sexism perpetrated by the hero of the film. Am I allowed to enjoy any of these things now? Apparently not.

I hesitantly propose that we are now living in a society that is so hypersensitive that it is literally looking for things to get offended by. We sit on our couches or chairs, tightly coiled, just waiting for the chance to pounce and express our boiling moral outrage. We scan each piece of media we consume, looking for the tiny nugget that might be construed as offensive to someone. It's gotten to the point where we can't enjoy anything, absolutely anything, even for a few minutes. Anything, from films to television to books to video games to statements of absolute fact, can set us off. And I think it makes us a miserable people.

And I've got more. I'm going to get a ton of shit for this one, but I have to point it out. It now appears that there is a group of people who have found it necessary to publish actual written rules for anyone who wishes to interact with them. Even better, one of the rules is that the rules are subject to sudden and unannounced change, and that it is your responsibility to constantly ask them if the rules have changed before interacting with them. I refer you back to paragraph one, item (2), as a reminder that I in no way advocate for any mistreatment or disrespect towards the people in this group. They deserve to be treated with the same dignity and respect shown any other human being. That said, I would never be so presumptuous as to publish a set of written rules for people who want or need to speak to me. That is bullshit.

As a semi-adult who goes to work every day and reads the news, I am well aware of many of the world's problems. The five horrors listed in paragraph one are unfortunately abundant on our planet and they don't even begin to describe all the terrible things that go on. The world is full of murder, rape, famine, disease, slavery, and others that I can't think to mention. But the world has always been full of these things and, more importantly, the world has always been full of very good people who do very good things in response to them. No, we shouldn't promote evils and no, we shouldn't dismiss them as trivial. But if we can't let go, even just for a few measly minutes, long enough for a single laugh, then we're going to self-destruct as a society.

You may now attack me.


Dave ( said...

Really interesting post. A lot of good points. And not the sort of thing to which one can causally respond. That said, here is my casual response.

I think the difficulty for us lies in the fact that we need to keep pace with changes that occur in our lifetimes as to what is deemed to be offensive.

Take, e.g., blackface. Blackface as a sincere art form is generally considered unacceptable now. And this is probably a good thing. It promotes all sorts of terrible race and class stereotypes. That's not to say we can't make fun of blackface or use it to mock the time it came from. But we don't sit down and enjoy the Jazz Singer the way it its original audience did. I'm not sure I feel bad about that.

What's difficult about the examples you cited is that they are from our childhood. The USED to be ok, but NOW they're not. Even though we didn't change. WE are not racists, homophobes, sexual traffickers, &c. We never were. But marriage equality wasn't on the table when we were kids either. So that's progress. And it's hard to make that progress when it's ok for kids to call each other 'penis-breath.' (Although, be fair, taking 'penis-breath' as a gay slur might be reading too much into things. Maybe it just means the kid's breath smells like dick, which btw is perfectly acceptable to suck, and it's simply time to brush the teeth! Whatever).

Anyway, I suspect that our grandkids (gods help them) will look back at some of this stuff and not so much be offended as wonder how we ever thought it was so great. The shift from funny to offensive will have been completed years before they will have been born (future perfect, my favorite of all tenses; #justsayin) so that the points of offense which you identified in your piece will be not much more than the curious relicta of a bygone era of comparative intolerance; just as blackface is for us.

In the battle of Synchrony v. Diachrony, Synchrony rarely wins...

Adam Lerman said...

Absolutely Dave, you're right. I hadn't thought of black-face. I'm sure there are a ton of equal examples.

Julianna said...

I completely agree with everything you wrote in your post. I also think it's important to point out that if we take everything that we see/hear in the media so seriously, then it is almost like nothing becomes important. Sometimes movies...are just movies.