One gloomy Summer evening in England, in need of cheering up, boyfriend and I decided to watch Mrs Doubtfire. Neither one of us had seen it as adults. We thought it would be the perfect comforting mix of predictable plot, slapstick and happy ending.
Just ten minutes in, we were slack-jawed. Sally Fields’ working mother is made to seem like a cold bitch opposite Robin Williams’ misunderstood father who thinks it’s charming to go behind his wife’s back and cause chaos rather than help her. As adult viewers with some experience of work and being a couple, their relationship seemed surprisingly and disappointingly misogynist. She is portrayed as a prim nun-like figure (buttoned up cream silk blouses) sucking the life out of a ‘free spirited’ man (rugged flannel shirts and ‘fun’ wide ties). In fact, Miranda Hillard is an impressive example of several ubiquitous female types in popular culture crammed into one petite actress: the overbearing mother trope, the shrew and the ‘masculinised’ career woman (see Annette Bening in American Beauty, the mother in Brave, Glenn Close in Devil Wears Prada, Samantha in SATC etc…).
Her clothes, her manner, her job title (and implied salary) all suggest that she has taken over both parental roles and now she obviously needs a strong, wise man to step in and redress the balance. Lucky for her, she gets two. To set her back in her place she has both the suave Stu Dunmeyer (Brosnan and his chest hair) and her own husband in disguise. The transformed Williams manages to shame Fields with his more perfect performance as a shrew/ubermother whilst also maintaining his masculinity with flashes of leg hair and machismo involving a lobbed lime. While Brosnan’s creepily solicitous Stu inveigles her to relax, be more feminine, enjoy being his arm candy.
Half way through, to add insult to injury, Williams’ character falls over himself to explain to his son that he doesn’t ‘enjoy’ dressing as a woman. Real men don’t like girly things. And, finally, right at the end of the movie the scene that pushed us over the edge: Mrs Doubtfire, now with her own children’s show, is talking to a puppet monkey called Kovacs. Their animated discussion leads them to a joke about Pakistani immigrants in England and how they mostly work in corner shops. It’s a cheap and easy use of a racist stereotype just casually thrown in to amuse the parents.
How had we not noticed these moments when we were younger? Or had we forgotten them? Did you notice them? We couldn’t believe the film was so successful without anyone making even a passing comment.
-Do you know what language they speak in England?
-That's right. In many stores they do.
Mrs Doubtfire and Kovacs the monkey
After the Mrs Doubtfire incident, I googled ‘racism in 80s and 90s movies’ and found many lists of popular movies that feature moments of racism, sexism and and homophobia that I do not remember. Boyfriend and I aren’t the only ones to be disillusioned by our childhood cinema favourites. I’ve talked about this with friends and all of our conversations (and lots of online articles) came back to the same idea- they didn’t know any better in the 80s and 90s. We were naive, we were ignorant. We didn’t understand that we were behaving badly.
Am I the only person to think that this defence is 100% grade A bullshit?
The ‘ignorance’ defence goes that thirty years ago open discussion of gender equality, racial equality, and sexual acceptance was rare. Activist groups and charities like Equality Now, Stonewall, the ACLU and NAACP (to name just a few) were only just beginning the fight to make equality a legal and institutional reality. In the US sexual harassment only entered the legal lexicon in the late 70s. There is still no national rape law in America, leaving instead a tangled web of state statues that vary wildly. The Netherlands were the first to legalise same sex marriage in 2001; South Africa is the only African country to legalise it and Australia is still debating the issue. Danica Roem has just become the first openly transgender candidate elected to a state legislature in Virginia. I cannot deny that legally, politically and professionally we STILL have a long way to go before we can say that we live in an open and equal society.
The battles fought by activists, politicians and individuals trickled through to TV and movies that slowly broke rules and pushed boundaries in the 50s, 60s and 70s. By the 80s we had TV like Max Headroom, Twin Peaks and even Laverne and Shirley, whichchanged how people viewed small town ‘normalcy’ and female role models. Movies like She’s Gotta Have It, Purple Rain and even St Elmo’s Fire were confronting issues of prejudice and sexuality. Not to mention that the 80s was the decade of albums like Thriller, Colour by Numbers and Faith (again…to name just a few).
There’s no doubt that the more that we have discussed these issues openly, fought for them in courtrooms and debating chambers, portrayed them on screen and on stage, the more they have been integrated into society through our language and our culture. I understand that.
BUT COME ON!!?
Ethically, morally, emotionally…how can anyone possibly claim that our society didn’t know that sexism, homophobia and racism were wrong in the 1980s. LGBTQ+ literary greats like The Diaries of Anne Lister and Whitman’s Leaves of Grasswere published in the 1830s in the 1850s. The abolitionist paper TheLiberator was founded in 1831 and ran for 35 years, Oroonoko or The Royal Slave was a prominent antislavery novel published in 1688 and written by Aphra Behn, a woman.
The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies was founded in 1897 and led by Millicent Fawcett; in 1903 Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Woman’s Social and Political Union. These are only two of the more well known activists for womens’ rights, there are thousands more going back to protofeminists like Marie de France in the 12th century and Jadwiga of Poland in the 14th. You may well argue with me on the correctness of calling prominent women of the 12th century any kind of feminists and I take your point, but I stand by the idea that we have known better for centuries.
As all advocates of feminist politics know most people do not understand sexism or if they do they think it is not a problem. Masses of people think that feminism is always and only about women seeking to be equal to men. And a huge majority of these folks think feminism is anti-male. Their misunderstanding of feminist politics reflects the reality that most folks learn about feminism from patriarchal mass media.
So maybe the defence is that Hollywood and Western audiences didn’t (and still don’t) connect these stereotypes and passing quips with huge historical issues like racism and sexism. Popular culture is throwaway and superficial. These foamy artefacts are pure entertainment, they have no lasting effect on our beliefs or morals or behaviour. When you discuss your relationships or work crises its Jung, Engels and Rimbaud that you reference. As you go about your daily tasks it’s only scenes from Under the Skin, Dogville and La Règle du Jeu or Madame Bovary, The Fall and Jazz that pop into your head and that you identify with. Complex, challenging art is the only creative output that shapes our society.
You think I’m being facetious, and I am, but this seems to be how the argument plays out. If we can assume that most of the bigwigs in charge of our entertainment had some idea of what prejudice is then we can assume that the only reason they continued to produce such movies was because they didn’t think it mattered how they represented minorities in their work. A moment on the eyes and ears, a lifetime in our chasm of forgotten memories.
I can anticipate what you might say next and you’re right that there is a grey area. In fact, taken on a movie by movie basis, most of Hollywood’s production is a grey area. Some of the stereotypes of minorities are quite subtle, may not seem like stereotypes and provide confusing messages. I often connect with female characters in mainstream movies, I recognise their problems and their hopes as my own. They are written to be identifiable and likeable. I’m sure you feel the same way, otherwise why would we keep rewatching WhenHarry Met Sally.
Many of the stereotypes, particularly when it comes to ethnicity, are often brief moments in a larger plot. Their reductiveness can get lost and be easily dismissed. Tonto in the remake of The Lone Ranger didcause some raised eyebrows but caricatures in comedies like Billy Madison and AceVentura: When Nature Calls, offensive castings like the Somalis in Black Hawk Down andTom Cruise in The Last Samurai, and racist portrayals like the terrorists in True Lies and the prisoner John Coffey in TheGreen Mile are written off as harmless or barely noticed.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, we sometimes enjoy stereotypes for their brash embodiment of clichés. Hello James Bond. Stereotypes are comfort food. That’s okay, right?
Brief tangent to discuss two of my enduring teen (and adult) favourites- Dirty Dancing and Pretty Woman.
In both films, the messages for women and men are so confused and confusing. I can almost understand defending it. Almost.
‘Baby’ Houseman sashays from inhibited academic to liberated assertive woman in a story meant to convey in one summery narrative the social shifts of the late 50s early 60s (1963 to be precise). Baby is shown breaking from her parents expectations, taking risks, speaking up for what she wants, taking ownership of her body, insisting on being treated as an equal by her new friends and lover and defending her morals (the secondary plot about abortion is particularly interesting). Her intelligence and integrity even shake the leather clad confidence of Mr Castle. By the grande finale, you want to be her and cheer for her.
Yet, the catalyst for all of this change is Johnny Castle and his sexual power. Seen from another angle, she moves from one powerful man, her father, to another, her boyfriend. Are we being given an example of empowerment and romantic equality or another version of the Stepford Wife with better sex?
Pretty Woman is the complete inverse. Vivian Ward is embarrassed by her lack of education, so she uses her sexuality and pragmatism (the safety pin to hold up her boots, the knowledge of car mechanics) to survive. Edward Lewis, dripping with money and loneliness, acts as her catalyst for empowerment. Once again we witness the transformation of clothing and confidence. Once again, we’re left baffled. Vivian has spoken up and taken charge, she has declared her ambition and is ready to work hard for her independence. Edward sacrifices solitude for a loving relationship and makes a big show of it (only outdone by his big show of momentarily overcoming his fear of heights on a fire escape) leaving us to wonder if Vivian will continue with her plan to get a degree and a career or will take Edward’s small gesture as equality and stay home to keep the Penthouse neat.
I’m assuming that these films are designed to be modern takes on Cinderella. That’s what you thought too right? The plots do offer the heroines more choices. But do they actually change the power dynamic? Are you left feeling that you are a man’s equal when all the dancing is done? What about if you put those films alongside all of the other representations of women in Hollywood? Now how do you feel?
Put all of the thinly veiled Cinderella remakes and the belittling ethnic cameos into one big picture. Look at the sweep of popular culture and tell me that the people involved in making all of these movies, all of this television, all of this music don’t know that they are selling us a very specific dream. And we can’t blame the buzz of a 16oz cinema soda for swallowing it whole. We know that what we are enjoying is racist and sexist and homophobic. But we’re scared of change. And we should be ashamed.
We have always known the power of stories, particularly simple ones. The Church understood the power of narratives to capture the imagination and spread morality in the 1st century; Egyptian society long before through myths about gods like Osiris and Ra. To claim that we weren’t aware that our simple stories had power and then to further claim that we couldn’t decipher that power while replicating the same messages again and again seems insincere at best and absolutely fucking malicious at worst. Inequality has existed in human society since its inception and we have long recognised it as such.
If you’re claiming ignorance then you’re being insincere.
I’d love to think it was better now. I’ll concede that it’s marginally better now. There is more variety and more openness thanks to the internet and the rising number of unemployed cultural gatekeepers (more on that another day). I’m so excited to see some of the films, TV and music being produced now: Moonlight, Get Out, I am Cait (honestly, check it out, it’s surprising), Girls, Kendrick, Sia…to name but a few of my favourites. On the other hand, I have four words for you: A Bad Moms Christmas.
Sorry if I’ve ruined Mrs Doubtfire. And PrettyWoman. And Dirty Dancing. If it’s a comfort, I ruined all of my favourite movies for myself the day I realised that Grease is as sexist as hell.
For great articles on Anita Hill and the current discussion of sexual harassment read this piece by Jessica Bennett in The New York Times and this one by Jane Mayer in The New Yorker.
Photos from Mrs Doubtfire, Prince’s album Purple Rain, The Last Samurai and Pretty Woman.