Opinions about branding by Dr. Dannielle Blumenthal

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Sunday, December 26, 2010

How the "Little Fockers" Brand Makes Sexism, Racism, and Anti-Semitism OK

First of all, don't believe the low IMDB rating of Little Fockers - it deserves a 9.5/10, not 5.5. I don't know who these 855 people were who voted but clearly they have no sense of humor. We were laughing literally the entire time, from beginning to end. We even clapped when it was over. 

I enjoyed the movie tremendously, even though it was full of objectionable messages.

For example, while it's true that the movie is fairly anti-sexist, telling us that the equality & emotional openness of the Fockers is healthier than the old-fashioned "he's the boss, keep everything hush-hush" style of the Byrnes family, there was an essential sexist message in the movie that bothered me: "Wives are there to be seen and not heard, and don't cause trouble with their emotions." 

Let's put aside the obvious example of sexism that is the cornerstone of the plot of the movie. I don't want to give it away, but if you watch it you'll know what I'm talking about.

Going toward the more subtle stuff that runs through all three movies so far:

While the character of Roz Focker (Bernie's wife) is supposed to represent liberated femininity, she is also portrayed as emasculating, pushy (recall the stereotype of the "pushy Jew"), and even a bit crazy. The message being that "women's libbers" are all three of these things. 

In contrast, Pam Focker (Greg's wife) and Dina Byrnes (Jack's wife) are portrayed as "normal and stable," wives who know their place, don't make "trouble" (e.g. emotional demands), and support their husbands endlessly no matter how crazy and possibly even unfaithful they act. 

It is precisely Pam's endless supportiveness, as well as her stereotypical Barbie-like beauty, that leads her to be portrayed as the "one true love" of Kevin, who pursues other women, but can never forget her. The most that Pam asks of Greg is to check on the facepainter for the kids' upcoming birthday party, and when he doesn't do it, she simply sighs and leaves the room. When sultry Jessica Alba is clearly making a pass at him, she doesn't make waves, either.

Dina Byrnes is another sigher, who essentially enables Jack to build a complex labyrinth in the basement (note that she doesn't have a comparable office, studio, etc.) and seems to anticipate his every quirk with a knowing and loving smile.

Neither of these women have a job, either. Perhaps that is why they don't complain? Because they depend on their men for money?

In terms of racism, there were very few African-Americans in this movie at all, much less any in power. I saw one character playing a patient, one playing an incompetent nurse, and another on the subway train as an "extra." Do the Fockers and the Byrnes not have any African-American friends, associates, customers, and so on? Why was the movie so "White?" I'm not saying that movies have to be advertisements for diversity but the Caucasian-ness of the movie seemed extreme.

There is another example of anti-Semitism besides the writers' antipathy toward Roz (and Bernie) but I don't want to give away that part of the plot. 

Clearly though this is very much a movie poking fun at "WASP" culture and the difference between it and the movie's Jewish characters. It seems like WASPiness is "idolized," but also seen as dysfunctional, whereas Jewish culture is a kind of corrective. (Interestingly I was reading the book "Stuff White People Like" yesterday and it had a similar attitude toward WASPiness. It was also hilarious.)

When you look at all the examples of stereotyping in the movie on paper you can easily say something like, "How can you enjoy the movie or promote the brand if it is really as bad as you say?" 

I'm not promoting the brand, though I think it is a valuable one. My point here is that Hollywood, and entertainment brands in general, are given a certain amount of "permission" by the viewer to trespass boundaries that would be uncrossable in real life. They are an escape and in providing an escape they enable us to indulge in what is normally considered politically incorrect. The truly great movies, music, books, etc. actually wink an eye at these things and challenge them within the movie itself. 

At the same time, especially when kids are absorbing these messages, I think it's important to point out objectionable messages and talk about them, so that they don't absorb them uncritically. 

All of this is similar to the controversy that took place some years ago over rap music. There were a lot of issues around how women were portrayed in rap music, and some wanted to ban it. But in my view, by talking about rap the music was integrated into so many cultures all over the world, in a valuable way that enabled many messages of equality and empowerment to come through.