Sociology at the Movies
55 movie reviews first appeared in various editions of
Robert J. Brym and John Lie, Sociology: Your
Compass for a New World (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth
and Toronto, ON: Nelson, 2003-2013). All material is
copyright (c) 2003-2013.
The Joy Luck
Over a period of 100 days in 1994, the Hutus of Rwanda massacred 800 000 Tutsis--more than a tenth of Rwanda's population--with guns, machetes, hammers, and spears. Bodies were scattered everywhere, and the streets literally flowed with blood. The French trained and armed the Hutus in full knowledge of what would transpire. The Belgians knew, too, and their 2000 troops could have done much to prevent it, but they withdrew their "peacekeepers" just before the massacre began. Canadian General Romeo Dallaire, who led a contingent of United Nations troops in Rwanda, reported to his bosses at the UN that he knew where the Hutu arms caches were located and requested permission to destroy them. Permission was denied. Most North Americans were busy watching the O.J. Simpson trial on TV and so barely noticed the genocide.
If Rwanda in 1994 was the site of unspeakable cruelty, it was also a place where compassion and bravery shone through. Dallaire and his small contingent of 450 soldiers from Canada, Ghana, Tunisia, and Bangladesh risked their lives to save an estimated 30 000 Rwandans in one of the twentieth century's great heroic acts. Like the Swedish World War II hero Raoul Wallenberg in Hungary, and Japanese consular official Chiune Sugihara in Lithuania, both of whom risked their lives to save thousands of Jews from the Nazis, Dallaire courageously swam against the stream of world apathy. Shake Hands with the Devil, which won the 2007 Emmy award for Best Documentary, details Dallaire's actions, the heavy toll they took on his mental health, and his recovery from the trauma of 1994.
By highlighting both the cruelty and the bravery surrounding the events in Rwanda, Shake Hands with the Devil performs a valuable documentary service. However, it falls short precisely where sociology can contribute most--in uncovering the social context that explains why cruelty and bravery occur in the first place.
Begin with the cruelty. Hutus and Tutsis had existed as somewhat distinct ethnic groups for centuries before 1994. The Hutus were mainly farmers and the Tutsis were mainly cattle herders. The Tutsis were the ruling minority, yet they spoke the same language as the Hutus, shared the same religious beliefs, lived side by side, and often intermarried. The two groups never came into serious conflict. Then the Belgians colonized Rwanda in 1916. They made ethnic divisions far more rigid. Now one had to be a Tutsi to serve in an official capacity, and the Belgians started distinguishing Tutsis from Hutus by measuring the width of their noses; Tutsi noses, they arbitrarily proclaimed, were thinner. It was a preposterous policy, not the least because half of the population of Rwanda is of mixed Hutu-Tutsi ancestry, and it served to sharply increase animosity between the two ethnic groups.
Before the Belgians decolonized Rwanda in 1962, they encouraged power sharing between the Tutsis and the Hutus, but by then the damage had been done. The Tutsis objected to any loss of power and civil war broke out. Tutsi rebels fled to Uganda, and when Rwanda proclaimed independence, the Hutu majority took power. Then, in the early 1990s, descendants of the Tutsi rebels, backed by the United States and Britain, tried to overthrow the Hutu government, which was backed by France and Belgium. (Western interest and rivalry in the region is high because it is rich in minerals.) The 1994 genocide erupted when the plane of the Hutu president was shot down, killing the president. Ethnic cruelty, we may conclude, is not an "inevitable" by-product of "human nature." It is carefully nurtured in social contexts marked by intense competition for scarce resources.
And the heroism? Heroes are typically raised in an atmosphere of high moral principles and ethical standards of conduct that encourages them to demonstrate an independence of character and a willingness to defy authority and convention long before they commit any heroic acts. Thus, while heroism sometimes requires a split-second decision, it is usually preceded by years of socialization that predisposes the future hero to act compassionately, even if doing so involves refusing to follow the herd. We thus see how the sociological perspective helps to illuminate otherwise inexplicable actions.
Understanding the social constraints and possibilities for freedom that envelop us requires an active sociological imagination. The sociological imagination urges us to connect our biography with history and social structure--to make sense of our lives against a larger historical and social background and to act in light of our understanding. Have you ever tried to put events in your own life in the context of history and social structure? Did the exercise help you make sense of your life? Did it in any way lead to a life more worth living? Is the sociological imagination a worthy goal?
Although movies are merely entertainment to many people, they often achieve by different means what the sociological imagination aims for. Therefore, in each chapter of this book, we review a movie to shed light on topics of sociological importance.
The year is 2054 and the place is Washington, D.C. John Anderton (played by Tom Cruise) is a police officer who uses the latest technologies to apprehend murderers before they commit their crimes. This remarkable feat is possible because scientists have nearly perfected the use of "Pre-Cogs"--or so it seems. The Pre-Cog system consists of three psychics whose brains are wired together and who are kept sedated so they can develop a collective vision about impending murders. Together with powerful computers, the Pre-Cogs are apparently helping to create a crime-free society.
All is well until one of the psychic's visions shows Anderton himself murdering a stranger in less than 36 hours. Suddenly, Anderton is on the run from his own men. Desperate to figure out if the Pre-Cog system is somehow mistaken, he breaks into it, unwires one of the psychics, and discovers that they do not always agree about what the future will bring. Sometimes there is a "minority report." Sometimes the minority report is correct. Sometimes people are arrested even though they would never have broken the law. The authorities have concealed this system flaw and allowed the arrest of potentially innocent people in their zeal to create a world free of crime.
And so Anderton comes to realize that not everything is predetermined--that, in his words, "it's not the future if you stop it." And stop it he does. Along the way, Steven Spielberg dazzles us with armies of spider-like robots that track down criminals, automated cars that speed up and down 10-mile-high skyscrapers at a hundred miles an hour, and miniature jets that police officers strap to their backs, allowing them to race to the scene of an expected crime.
The special effects should not, however, detract from the important sociological lesson of Minority Report. Many people believe two contradictory ideas with equal conviction. First, they believe they are perfectly free to do whatever they want. Second, they believe the "system" (or "society") is so big and powerful that they are unable to do anything to change it. Neither idea is accurate. Various aspects of society exert powerful influences on our behaviour; we are not perfectly free. Nonetheless, it is possible to change many aspects of society; we are not wholly determined either. Changing various aspects of society is possible under certain specifiable circumstances, with the aid of specialized knowledge, and often through great individual and collective effort. As John Anderton says, it's not the future if you stop it.
Understanding the social constraints and possibilities for freedom that envelop us requires an active sociological imagination. The sociological imagination urges us to connect our biography with history and social structure--to make sense of our lives against a larger historical and social background and to act in light of our understanding. Have you ever tried to put events in your own life in the context of history and social structure? Did the exercise help you make sense of your life? Did it in any way lead to a life more worth living? Is the sociological imagination a worthy goal?
Forrest Gump is a cinematic tour of the United States from the 1950s to the 1980s. The movie stars Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump, a man with an IQ of 75. Although Forrest Gump has limited intelligence and little education, he leads a remarkable life. He is a football hero in high school, wins the Congressional Medal of Honor during the Vietnam War, and manages to become a millionaire by buying stock in a start-up company called Apple Computers. In between, he teaches Elvis to swivel his hips, sits next to John Lennon in a television talk show, and meets many American presidents.
In contrast, the girl Forrest Gump falls in love with in elementary school--and whom he stays in love with for the rest of his life--becomes a hippie. She preaches flower power and peace while Forrest is fighting in Vietnam. Eventually, she becomes a drug addict, a stripper, and HIV positive.
Between these two lives, one charmed, the other damaged, Forrest Gump manages to capture many important moments in American history over a 40-year period. However, because he is so limited intellectually, Forrest can't make much sense of his life or the world around him. The sociological imagination urges us to connect our biography with history and social structure--to make sense of our lives against a larger historical and social background and to act in light of our understanding. The message of the sociological imagination is similar to that of the classical Greek philosopher, Socrates: "The unexamined life is not worth living." In contrast, Forrest just lets things happen and doesn't think much about them. Remarkable things happen to him but he never fully appreciates or understands the significance of the world he lives in.
What do you think about these two conflicting views? Would you like things to happen to you without really understanding what's going on? Or is it better to live an examined life? Had Forrest been equipped with the sociological imagination, would he have gotten more out of life?
In early twentieth century New Jersey, Alfred Kinsey's father sermonized that the telephone and the automobile are the devil's work. In his opinion, these conveniences increased interaction between young men and women, thereby promoting impure thoughts, petting, and all manner of sexual perversion.
Not surprisingly, the adolescent Alfred rejected his father's Puritanism and petty tyranny. He escaped to Harvard to study biology and zoology. He devoted twenty years to collecting and analyzing 100 000 specimens of the gall wasp, but underneath his mania for counting, classifying, and marvelling at natural diversity, his rebellion against sexual repression and imposed sexual uniformity never ended.
In the 1930s, now a full professor of zoology at Indiana University, Kinsey began to investigate human sexual behaviour with the same fervour he had formerly invested in the gall wasp. Between 1938 and 1963, he and his associates conducted 18 216 in-depth interviews, forming the basis of two best-selling volumes on human sexual behaviour that astounded the American public and put Kinsey on the cover of Time magazine. In an era when masturbation, contraception, and premarital sex were widely considered sins, Kinsey's work sparked a revolution in attitudes toward sex by showing that even far more scandalous practices--extramarital affairs, homosexuality, and so forth--were commonplace. For many Americans, his findings were liberating. For others, they were filthy lies that threatened to undermine the moral fibre of the nation. Both reactions, and the life of the man who caused them, are captured in Kinsey, starring Liam Neeson in the title role.
Kinsey's methods were primitive and biased by modern sociological standards. We single out the following four main problems:
1. Sampling. Kinsey relied on what we today call a "convenience sample" of respondents. He and his colleagues interviewed accessible volunteers rather than a randomized and representative sample of the American population. About one-third of Kinsey's respondents had a known "sexual bias." They were prostitutes, members of secretive homosexual communities, patients in mental hospitals, residents of homes for unwed mothers, and the like. Two-thirds of these people were convicted felons. Five percent were male prostitutes. But, even if we eliminate respondents with a "sexual bias," we do not have a representative sample. For example, 84 percent of the men without a "sexual bias" went to college. Most of them were from the Midwest, especially from Indiana. In Kinsey's defense, scientific sampling was in its infancy when he did his research. Still, we are obliged to conclude that it is difficult to generalize from Kinsey's work because his sample is unrepresentative.
2. Questionnaire design. Kinsey required that his interviewers memorize long questionnaires including 350 or more questions. He encouraged them to adapt the wording and ordering of the questions to suit the "level" of the respondent and the natural flow of conversation that emerged during the interview. Yet, much research now shows that even subtle changes in question wording and ordering can produce sharply different results. A question about frequency of masturbation per month yields means between 4 and 15 depending on how the question is phrased. To avoid such problems, modern researchers prefer standardized questions. They also prefer considerably shorter questionnaires than Kinsey's; asking 350 questions can take hours and often results in "respondent fatigue," a desire on the part of respondents to offer quick and easy answers (as opposed to considered, truthful responses) so they can end the interview as quickly as possible.
3. Interviewing. People are generally reluctant to discuss sex with strangers, and Kinsey and his associates have often been praised for making their respondents feel at ease talking about the most intimate details of their personal life. Yet, to establish rapport with respondents, Kinsey and his colleagues did not remain neutral. They expressed empathy with the pains and frustrations many respondents expressed, often reassuring them that their sexual histories were normal and decent. Today, researchers frown upon any departure from neutrality in the interview situation because it may influence respondents to answer questions in a less than truthful way. The reassurance and empathy expressed by Kinsey and his associates may have led some respondents to offer exaggerated reports of their behaviour.
4. Data analysis. It is unclear how Kinsey decided whether the effect of one variable on another was significant. He rarely used statistical tests for this purpose. He never introduced control variables to see if observed associations between variables were spurious. Moreover, he saw no problem in lumping together data collected over decades. Yet between 1938 when Kinsey started collecting data, and 1953 when his second book was published, the United States experienced unprecedented social change fuelled by depression and boom, war and peace. Sexual attitudes and behaviour undoubtedly changed; thus one may wonder whether it is meaningful to analyze respondents from the late 1930s and the early 1950s together.
Since Kinsey, researchers have conducted more than 1000 surveys of human sexual behaviour. Today, using modern research methods, we are able to describe and explain sexual behaviour more accurately and insightfully than did Kinsey and his pioneering colleagues. We know that many of the details of Kinsey's writings are suspect. But, we also know that despite the serious methodological problems summarized above, his basic finding is accurate. The sexual behaviour of Americans is highly diverse. As Kinsey says in the movie, "variation is the only reality."
Herein, too, lies an important lesson about the relationship between subjectivity and objectivity in research. Clearly, Kinsey's biography and his passions helped to shape his innovative scientific agenda. There is nothing unusual in that; all good scientists are passionate about their work, and their agendas are often rooted in their biographies. Like Kinsey, they try to be objective, but even if they fail, they can rely on the scientific community to uncover biases and discover the imaginative and valid core of every good theory. Without human emotions grounded in our subjectivity, there could never be a quest for truth, and without research methods that improve our objectivity, there could never be a science.
In sociology, some big surveys cost a few million dollars. They employ hundreds of people as interviewers, data analysts, project managers, and so forth. They use computers and sophisticated software to analyze data. The typical Hollywood movie costs 10 times more than even big sociology research projects. It employs many more people and uses much more sophisticated technology for special effects.
You might think there is little room for small-scale work in either sociological research or movie making, but that isn't so. The Blair Witch Project, directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, cost only US$35 000 to make. It was a surprise hit in the summer of 1999, earning US$50 million in its first week of national release. Besides raising hopes for all low-budget projects everywhere, the movie can also teach us something about research methods.
The Blair Witch Project begins as a research project. Three people trek to Burkittsville, Maryland, to find out about a local witch legend. Like good researchers, they interview local people. Some respondents dismiss the legend. Others provide tantalizing hints that the witch really exists. The results of this research are inconclusive, so the three investigators decide to hike into the woods, hoping to discover for themselves whether the witch is real. Unfortunately, they overestimate their skills as hikers and campers. They lose their way and soon get on each other's nerves. Eventually, one of the investigators disappears after a big argument with the other two. (We don't know why he disappears--either because the Blair witch got him or because he was so angry with his co-investigators that he left). The two remaining people then stumble upon an old, vacant house. Exploring the house, they hear odd noises. In the end, the camera falls to the floor. The video footage ends. Whether the two characters were attacked by the Blair witch or by their angry co-investigator is unclear.
The power of the movie--the reason that it was so frightening to so many people--derives from the fact that it lacks a sociological viewpoint. After the three investigators conduct their interviews, anything resembling sociological research stops. Subsequently, our only source of knowledge is the camera held by the investigators. We are rarely given a panoramic view or a sense of context to improve our understanding of what is happening to these people. The narrow perspectives of the three people certainly provide a sense of being there. Members of the audience feel they are seeing things just like the investigators do, facing the unknown terror of the Blair witch, who is nowhere to be seen. But if the members of the audience were able to draw on other sources of information about the Blair witch or the angry co-investigator who left in a huff, if they were able to see things from a broader perspective than is afforded by the individual viewpoints of the three investigators, if they were able to make sense of the larger context of events, some of the terror might subside. For example, if the two remaining people had better evidence that the Blair witch was real, they might not have entered the house. If they knew their travelling companion was a deeply disturbed young man with violent tendencies, they might have taken steps to protect themselves rather than leave themselves open to assault. As the old saying goes, it's better to face the devil you know than the devil you don't. Sociologically speaking, The Blair Witch Project is unsatisfying because it doesn't escape the narrow, individual points of view provided by the video camera. In contrast, sociological research tries to get beyond individual points of view. For instance, by taking random samples rather than convenience samples in opinion surveys, researchers ensure that their data accurately reflect opinion in the population from which the samples are drawn. Similarly, by comparing experimental and control groups, researchers eliminate the possibility that variables other than the independent variable of interest are responsible for observed differences between the two groups. By using these and other research methods, sociologists avoid getting lost in the woods.
Borat is a journalist from Kazakhstan who visits the United States so he can learn about American culture and return home with useful lessons. The movie's humour turns on the apparent differences between Borat's culture and that of his audience and the people he meets. His values, beliefs, and norms seem deeply offensive to us and to the Americans he encounters on his travels. Since Borat is capable of seeing the world only from his own cultural viewpoint, the movie at one level is a story of ethnocentrism gone mad.
The joke is apparent from the get-go. Many DVDs let you choose to hear the dialogue in English, French, or Spanish. The Borat DVD appears to give you the additional options of hearing the dialogue in Russian or Hebrew. However, when you select "Hebrew," you hear the repeated warning, "Jew in vocinity, Jew in vocinity," while the screen flashes the following messages: "You have been trapped Jew!" "Keep your claws where they can be seen." "Do not attempt shift your shape."
We soon discover that Kazakhs are not just anti-Semites. They are racists, homophobes, and sexists, too. At its Toronto Film Festival debut, Borat (played by Sasha Baron Cohen) sat with a horse in a cart, while four women dressed as peasants pulled the cart. As Borat explained in an interview, in Kazakhstan the highest being is God. Next comes man, followed by the horse, the snake, "the little crawly thing," and, finally, woman.
Borat directs many of our biggest laughs against Americans. At one point, he secures the agreement of a rodeo organizer in Salem, Virginia, to let him sing the national anthem before the show begins. Borat first makes a little speech: "My name Borat, I come from Kazakhstan. Can I say first, we support your war of terror. [applause and cheers] May we show our support to our boys in Iraq. [applause and cheers] May US and A kill every single terrorist! [applause and cheers] May George Bush drink the blood of every single man, woman, and child of Iraq! [applause and cheers] May you destroy their country so that for the next 1000 years, not even a single lizard will survive in their desert! [applause and cheers]" After thus demonstrating the inhumanity of his audience, Borat sings the Kazakh national anthem in English to the tune of the United States national anthem:
is the greatest country in the world.
To the suggestion that another country exceeds the United States in glory, the audience responds with jeers and boos that grow so loud, one fears for Borat's life. In this and other scenes, the movie forces us to conclude that American culture is as biased in its own way as Kazakh culture allegedly is.
Is Borat just one long prejudicial rant against Jews, Americans, Kazakhs, blacks, gays, women, and so on? Some people think so. But that opinion is not credible for two reasons. First, it is inconsistent with who Sasha Baron Cohen is. He is a well-educated liberal who completed a degree in history at Cambridge and wrote his thesis on the civil rights movement in the United States. And he is a Jew who strongly identifies with his ethnic heritage. (One of the movie's biggest and largely unappreciated jokes is that Borat speaks mostly Hebrew to his sidekick, Azamat Bagatov [Ken Davitian]).
Borat certainly is one long and very funny rant, but the real objects of its satire are the world's racists, sexists, anti-Semites, and homophobes, regardless of their race, creed, or national origin. The deeper message of Borat is universalistic, not ethnocentric: respect for human dignity is a value that rises above all cultures, and people who think otherwise deserve to be laughed at.
Does Borat help you see the prejudices of other people more clearly? Does Borat help you see your own prejudices more clearly? Borat talks and acts like a bigot from the opening title to the closing credits. Do you think that the expression of bigotry is inherently offensive and should always be avoided? Or do you believe that the satirical expression of bigotry can usefully reveal hidden prejudices?
Of all the social types who populate today's world, perhaps none is more difficult to understand than the suicide bomber. Who in their right mind would fly a plane into a building? What kind of psychopath do you have to be to blow yourself up in a bus full of ordinary people or a mosque full of worshippers? After the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, such questions weighed heavily on the minds of Americans. And the way Americans posed those questions implied an answer that was often echoed by government officials and the mass media. The consensus emerged that suicide bombers must be crazy fanatics who lack all conscience and humanity.
Paradise Now, nominated for an Oscar as Best Foreign-Language Film of 2005, demonstrates that the consensus view is ethnocentric. It sketches the social circumstances that shaped the lives of two suicide bombers, showing that they are a lot like us, and that if we found ourselves in similar circumstances, we might turn out to be a lot like them. The film is critical of suicide bombing, but it helps us understand what makes suicide bombers tick, thereby enlightening us sociologically and politically.
Said (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman) are ordinary twenty-something garage mechanics and best friends. They live in the Palestinian city of Nablus, which, like the rest of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, has been under Israeli military occupation their whole lives. As a result of the occupation, Said and Khaled have never been able to travel outside of the West Bank, they enjoy limited economic opportunities, they are bored stiff, and, most importantly, they have been robbed of their dignity. Like all Palestinians, they want the Israelis out so they can establish an independent country of their own. But their demonstrations, their rock throwing, and their armed attacks have had no effect on the powerful Israeli military. Consequently, some time before the film begins, Said and Khaled volunteered to serve as weapons of last resort: suicide bombers. A study of all 462 suicide bombers who attacked targets worldwide between 1980 and 2003 found not a single case of depression, psychosis, past suicide attempts, or other such mental problems among them. The bombers were rarely poor. Most often they came from working- or middle-class families and were better educated than the populations from which they were recruited. Many of them were religious, but most of them (57 percent) were not. What they had in common was an ardent desire to liberate territory from what they regarded as foreign occupation or control. Said and Khaled are, then, quite typical suicide bombers: they are convinced by their powerlessness and their own experience that they have no weapon other than suicide bombing to help them achieve their aim of national liberation.
As Paradise Now opens, the two friends are informed that they have been selected for a suicide attack in 48 hours. The film portrays their mundane preparations. They receive detailed instructions. They meet and are congratulated by the leader of the organization that is sending them on their mission. They are bathed and shaven in preparation for the paradise that supposedly awaits them when they die. They pose for photographs that will be posted in central locations after their martyrdom. They make videotapes that will be broadcast widely, explaining the reasons for their actions.
These routine preparations are peppered with humour, errors, and everyday trivia that make Said and Khaled seem like very ordinary people. For example, in the middle of recording his "martyrdom tape" for TV broadcast, Khaled incongruously remembers to tell his mother, whom he knows will watch the tape, that he saw a bargain on water filters at a local merchant's store. But underlying such humanizing, mundane events is a tension that gives the movie its force. Said and Khaled are ambivalent about their mission, not just because they have misgivings about dying,but because they feel guilty about their mission's inhumanity to civilians and are unsure of its ultimate political utility.
In the end, only Said manages to go through with the attack, but not before we get the full story about his ambivalence. At one level, he is an ordinary human being. On his first attempt to detonate, he approaches an Israeli bus stop but turns back when he empathizes with an Israeli child and her mother waiting for the bus. Suha (Lubna Azabal), the woman he loves, is the daughter of a famous martyr for the Palestinian cause, but she strongly opposes suicide bombing. Said listens intently when she argues that suicide bombing is contrary to the spirit of Islam, it kills innocent victims, and it accomplishes nothing because it invites retaliation in a never-ending cycle of violence.
But more compelling are the forces pushing Said to carry out the attack. Many thousands of Palestinians are paid, threatened, and blackmailed to serve as informants for the Israelis. Said's father was one of them. When he was caught, he was executed by Palestinian militants. Said has been deeply ashamed of his father's actions his whole life and angry with the Israelis for forcing his father to serve as a collaborator. His ultimate motivation for becoming a suicide bomber is retaliation against Israel for turning his father into an informant. Like most suicide bombers in the region, he is driven by the desire for revenge.
Why is it ethnocentric to believe that suicide bombers are crazy fanatics who lack all conscience and humanity? If you are not ethnocentric, are you better able to understand the social and political conditions that motivate suicide bombers? If you are not ethnocentric, must you agree with the actions of suicide bombers? Why or why not? What would you do if you were in Said's position?
All Austin Powers movies are about super-spy Austin Powers battling his arch-enemy Dr. Evil and his plan to destroy the world. For instance, in The Spy Who Shagged Me, Austin Powers and Dr. Evil--both played by Mike Myers--happen to have been frozen in the 1960s and thawed in the 1990s. Dr. Evil figures he can defeat Austin Powers if he returns to 1969 in a time machine and steals the legendary sexual energy or "mojo" from Powers's still-frozen body. However, the mojo-less Powers remains determined to save the world and, along the way, recapture the mojo that makes him "deadly to his enemies" and "irresistible to women." He is assisted in his efforts by CIA agent Felicity Shagwell (Heather Graham).
The film, like others in this series, is half satire and half tribute to the hugely popular spy movies and TV series of the 1960s and 1970s, especially the Sean Connery-era James Bond films. Austin Powers films are funny because we are well aware of the enormous cultural changes that have taken place over the past three or four decades while Austin Powers is not. We laugh at his assumption that it is still fashionable -- if not the height of sophistication -- to don a velvet jumpsuit, frilly shirt, heavy necklace, and big dark-framed glasses. We roar at his presumption that using the slang of the 1960s ("Yeah, baby!") will make him a "groovy" guy. And what of his efforts to prove himself an expert at "shagging?" We might regard his attempts at seduction as blatant sexual harassment. If he could read our minds, Austin Powers would no doubt call us "uptight."
Apart from being funny, the Austin Powers movies have sociological significance. For one thing, they forcefully remind us that no culture is static. Cultural changes that occur within even a few short decades can be profound. Many of the fashions, expressions and behaviours we take for granted and think of as "cool" today will likely seem ridiculous to us tomorrow. You might even consider putting together a scrapbook of today's fads and fashions, to be opened in just a few years. Inevitably, when the time comes to open your "time capsule," you will experience a mixture of nostalgia and amusement.
By making the contemporary world a foreign world to Austin Powers, these movies invite us to turn a critical eye on our own culture. This is no easy task. As the anthropologist Ralph Linton observed many years ago, "the last thing a fish would ever notice would be water." Much of the sociological value of the Austin Powers movies is that they make us notice the water.
In China in the 1930s and 1940s, arranged marriages were common. Often, you wouldn't meet the person with whom you were going to spend the rest of your life until the wedding ceremony. One of the women in The Joy Luck Club prays hard that her husband will be "not too old." After the ceremony, in the married couple's bedroom, she discovers that her husband is a 10-year-old boy. "Maybe I prayed too hard!" she says.
Every week, four Chinese women meet to play mah-jongg and gossip about their lives. This is the Joy Luck Club. The movie revolves around the lives of the four women and their four daughters. The narrator--June, played by Ming-NaWen--and the three other Chinese-American daughters love, but do not understand, their Chinese-born mothers. The daughters grew up in San Francisco. They assimilated into American culture. So, they find their mothers' Chinese ways strange. To be sure, their mothers find their daughters strange, too, not really understanding their American ways. Cultural differences between mothers and daughters inevitably result in conflict.
The movie begins with a farewell party for June, who is about to set off to China to meet her half-sisters. This is something that had bothered June for years; she simply cannot understand how her mother could have abandoned her infants. In the course of the movie, she comes to understand the hardships that her mother--as well as her "aunties"--had to endure in wartime China in the 1940s. June learns that her mother left her children because she was convinced she would die and thought it would be bad luck for her children to have a dead mother. In the course of the movie, we come to understand with June the hardships experienced by all four mothers. For example, one of them was the fourth wife of a rich man. When she had a son, the second wife snatched him away from her.
However, the mothers do not tell their tragic stories to their daughters. They keep silent about their past lives. As a result, their daughters don't really understand their mothers. Conversely, the older women find the choices their American daughters make, the things they do, the men they marry, equally incomprehensible. We thus see that even within one family, there may exist two cultures, each of which is ethnocentric.
The problems of the mothers and daughters in The Joy Luck Club are not peculiar to Chinese-Americans, nor are they restricted to immigrant communities. In modern and postmodern societies, parents typically grow up in a culture that differs from that of their children. Because of the universality of cultural conflict between generations, The Joy Luck Club appeals to a wide audience.
If you are like most people, your culture seems natural to you, while the culture of your parents seems somewhat alien. But, reflecting on the sociological lessons of The Joy Luck Club, why do you think your culture differs from that of your parents? How do you think you could achieve a better understanding of your parents' culture? How could they achieve a better understanding of your culture? In general, how can you avoid ethnocentrism?
John Beckwith (Owen Wilson) and Jeremy Gray (Vince Vaughn) are 30-something partners in a divorce mediation firm. Neither is married because of their belief that, as Jeremy says during one particularly heated mediation, "the real enemy here is the institution of marriage. It's not realistic. It's crazy."
So what do these handsome, single, professional men do for excitement come spring? They crash weddings, party till dawn, and bed the unsuspecting beauties who fall for their fast talk and scripted charm.
Early in the movie, John expresses misgivings:
You ever think we're being a little--I don't want to
say sleazy, because that's not the right word--but a
little irresponsible? I mean...
Indeed they're not, which is why John's reflective moment raises an important sociological issue posed by a host of recent movies. The Wedding Crashers, The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005), Failure to Launch (2006), and Clerks II (2006) all beg the question of how it came about that people old enough to be considered adults just a couple of generations ago now seem stuck between adolescence and adulthood. They aren't married. Some of them live with their parents. They may still be in school. And some of them lack steady, well-paying, full-time jobs. Sometimes called "kippers" (kids in parents' pockets, eroding retirement savings), they represent a growing category of young adults who are often a big worry to their elders.
The percentage of North Americans between the ages of 25 and 34 living with their parents doubled in the last two decades of the twentieth century. One reason for this phenomenon is economic. In the first few decades after World War II, housing and education costs were low, and the number of years one had to spend in school to get a steady, well-paying job was modest. Today, housing and education costs are high, and young people must typically spend more years in school before starting their careers. As a result, many young people continue to live in their parents' home into their 20s and 30s as a matter of economic necessity.
Such economic factors undoubtedly affect working-class and middle-class families more than upper-middle-class families. For the latter, a change in child-rearing practices seems to account in part for the reluctance of some young adults to leave home. Many well-educated and well-to-do parents seem to be raising children who are simply too dependent. They are reluctant to insist that their children get part-time jobs when they are in their mid-teens, and they neglect to teach them the importance of saving money by always giving them as much money as they want. They provide too much assistance with schoolwork (either by themselves or by hiring tutors), and they organize too many extracurricular activities for their children, thus not giving them enough space to figure out their interests for themselves.
In The Wedding Crashers, John and Jeremy finally seem able to break the mould when Jeremy marries Gloria Cleary (Isla Fisher) and John commits to her sister Claire (Rachel McAdams). But as the happy foursome drive away, they get the bright idea of posing as a folk-singing quartet from Utah and crashing a wedding for the great Japanese food that is bound to be served there. It seems their parents' worries are far from over.
Socialization is above all a developmental process. Especially in childhood, it involves the learning, mentoring, sharing, and mutual affirmation that takes place when children interact with parents, other family members, and friends. It is a fragile process, the outcome of which is vulnerable to derailment by abusive treatment or serious lapses in care. Resilient children can compensate for harsh influences to varying degrees, depending on temperament, intelligence, and sheer luck.
Some children are not resilient or the circumstances they face deprive them of anything resembling normal socialization. Monster explores what can happen when a tragic history of neglect and abuse completely overwhelms a child's capacity for resilience and there is no one to intervene until it is far too late. It is the real-life story of Aileen Wuornos (played by Charlize Theron), who was executed in 2002 for the serial killings of seven men who had picked her up as a roadside prostitute. When she was a child, Wuornos was beaten and abandoned by the adults responsible for her care. By the time she was nine years old, she had learned to sell sex. She was socialized into a life of prostitution by the repeated molestations she suffered as a child at the hands of strangers, family members, and neighbourhood "friends."
Monster begins in Florida, where, as an adult incapable of imagining a better life, Wuornos contemplates suicide. Her last john gave her $5, so she decides to spend it on a farewell drink at the closest bar. There she meets an 18-year-old woman, Selby Wall (played by Christina Ricci), who was sent to Florida by her family so an aunt could try to "cure" her of her lesbianism. The two begin a relationship that might have saved Wuornos if she had had the emotional resources to rise to it. In her love for Selby and, more importantly, because she is loved by Selby, Wuornos demonstrates a spark of resilience, a struggle to master her smoldering rage, a sincere attempt to connect with another human being despite the chronic fear and distrust of others that were beaten into her as a child. She fails. What happens instead is both tragic and twisted. Wuornos attempts to provide for the limited needs of herself and Selby by robbing the men who pick her up, stealing their cars, and killing them.
Monster does not try to justify Wuornos's crimes. Nor does it relieve her of responsibility for them. Instead, it explains her crimes sociologically. It widens responsibility for the murders Wuornos committed to the society and the social relationships that so completely failed her as a child.
Nearly everyone accepts the importance of socialization in shaping people's personalities. In casual conversation, we talk about the influence of family and friends, neighbourhood and school, and other agents of socialization in making us who we are. Affliction, starring Nick Nolte, Sissy Spacek, and James Coburn, is a powerful movie about socialization and its legacy. Based on a novel by Russell Banks, it shows that some individuals cannot overcome the impact of early socialization while others can.
James Coburn plays an alcoholic and abusive father. He thinks nothing of beating his wife and his two children. Nick Nolte plays the elder son who is afflicted by his father's curse. When he was a child, he was afraid of his father. As an adult, he tries to overcome his father's influence. Yet he cannot resist the lure of alcohol and violence. He is an unsuccessful police officer, and he has trouble maintaining the love and respect of the women around him: his ex-wife, his daughter, and his new girlfriend. Although he tries to be caring and responsible, his dependence on alcohol, his quick temper, and his inclination to violence ultimately doom his good intentions. In the end, tragedy befalls him.
The movie is not, however, fatalistic. It does not suggest that childhood socialization casts the adult personality in stone. The movie's narrator--the younger brother--managed to break away from the affliction. The younger brother does not tell the audience how this came about. However, he does give us a clue. He left his family and community to pursue higher education in the city. That is, he found another life, another set of social influences. Adult socialization in a new social context set him free.
As Affliction shows, then, socialization has a big impact on all of us. Childhood socialization is not, however, one's destiny. In making us think about the different paths taken by the two brothers, Affliction offers a good case study in the power of childhood socialization--and its limitations.
Scene: A New Jersey schoolyard in 1982. An 8-year-old schoolyard bully is picking a fight with another, smaller boy. Unexpectedly, a girl comes to the rescue, telling the bully to back off. The following dialogue ensues:
"If you weren't a girl I'd beat your face off."
Whereupon the bully takes a swing at the girl, which she neatly evades, and she proceeds to deck him. She then approaches the other boy, and says sweetly:
"Forget those guys. They're just jealous. You're
funny. You're smart. Girls like that."
Girl punches other boy in nose. End of scene.
Almost predictably, the girl grows up to become a tough-talking and tomboyish undercover agent (played by Sandra Bullock) without a boyfriend. The plot thickens when Bullock is forced to take an undercover assignment as a contestant in a beauty contest. Someone is plotting a terrorist act during the pageant and she has to find out who it is. First, however, she has to undergo a role change, something far deeper than a mere makeover. A beauty consultant (played by Michael Caine) teaches her how to walk like most women, wear makeup, and dress to kill. In her interaction with the other contestants, she begins to learn how to behave in a conventionally feminine way. She even becomes a finalist in the beauty pageant. In the end, she gets the bad guy, captures the heart of the handsome FBI agent (played by Benjamin Bratt), and wins the pageant's "Miss Congeniality" award. Her true self emerges and everyone goes home happy.
Sandra Bullock does not have a monopoly on this movie's theme, which is at least as old as Cinderella. In Hollywood, as in fairy tales, the emergence of one's "true self" is often the resolution of the conflict that animates the story. Yet life rarely comes in such neat packages. The sociological study of social interaction shows how we balance different selves in front stage and backstage performances, play many roles simultaneously, get pulled in different directions by role strain and role conflict, and distance ourselves from some of our roles. To make matters even more complex and dynamic, sociology underlines how we continuously enter new stages, roles, conflicts, strains, and distancing manoeuvres as we mature. This social complexity makes our "true self" not a thing we discover once and for all, but a work in progress. The resolution of every conflict that animates our lives is temporary. Miss Congeniality is an entertaining escape from reality's messiness, but a poor guide to life as we actually live it. For that, we need sociology.
Mounds of paperwork, cluttered office desks, long lines of complaining citizens, and indifferent clerks who quietly shuffle papers--this image of bureaucracy can be found in all modern and postmodern societies. Few people are without a story or two of frustrating struggles against one bureaucracy or another. Most movies depict bureaucracy as perpetually mired in red tape, and as an impersonal, soulless machine.
Ikiru, directed by Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, is a profound portrait of the individual versus bureaucracy. Many film critics consider it one of the top 10 films of the twentieth century.
At the beginning of the film, the main character, Kanji Watanabe, seems little more than a living corpse. As a minor clerk in a large city bureaucracy, he spends much of the day plodding through documents. He is a true bureaucratic ritualist. He doesn't see and doesn't seem to care about the people whom he is supposed to be serving. He simply shuffles paper.
One day, however, Watanabe learns he is suffering from stomach cancer and has only a year left to live. Without a word, he leaves his job of 30 years. He decides to devote his remaining time to finding meaning in life. But he is alone in the world. His wife is dead. His son is indifferent. His co-workers are strangers. So he decides to go to a bar for the first time in his life and drink himself into oblivion. He finds the experience meaningless.
Then, Watanabe spots a pretty young woman from his office. Perhaps she can divert his attention from his looming mortality? In the end, she does, although not in the way Watanabe expected. She inspires him to do something small that will make the world a better place. He hears about a struggle to create a small park for children in his neighbourhood. Soon, we find him devoting all of his energy to turning the idea of the park into a reality. Ironically, he spends much of his time battling an uncooperative bureaucracy staffed by uncaring and indifferent officials.
In the end, Watanabe dies. Initially, those who had fought with him vow to go on, to realize the dead man's dream. Soon, however, the rhythm of bureaucratic life resumes. Nearly everyone returns to his or her role as a functionary. As a charismatic leader of a small social movement, the hero briefly made an impact on his society. In the end, however, the wheels of bureaucracy grind on.
Can you think of a situation in which you or someone you know attempted to challenge and reform a bureaucracy? Can change come from within the bureaucracy or does it need to come from outside? Can individuals overcome bureaucratic inertia? Or are we doomed to have the wheels of bureaucracy roll over us?
Crime and Deviance
The homicide rate in the United States is three to ten times higher than the homicide rate in the other twenty or so rich, highly industrialized countries. In 2001, 15 980 Americans were murdered. That is over five times more than the number of people killed in the terrorist attacks on September 11th of that year. Firearms were used in nearly two-thirds of the murders committed in the United States in 2001.
In Bowling for Columbine, documentary filmmaker Michael Moore describes the magnitude of the problem and helps us figure out why Americans kill one another with such extraordinary frequency. Moore succeeds in his first, descriptive task by combining hilarity with horror. He takes us to a bank that gives away rifles instead of toasters to people who open an account. ("Don't you think it's a little dangerous to have all these guns in a bank?" he asks a teller.) We see security camera footage from the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, where two students shot and killed 13 fellow students and then committed suicide. We listen in on Moore's interview with Charlton Heston, the president of the National Rifle Association, who cannot answer when Moore asks why a man who has never been personally threatened, and who now lives behind a perimeter wall and a locked security gate in a protected neighbourhood with security patrols, feels the need to keep a loaded gun in the house. These and many other scenes, some tragic, others absurd, provide compelling evidence that guns are as American as apple pie. Not for nothing did the International Documentary Film Association name this film the best documentary ever made.
When it comes to explaining the unusually high American homicide rate, however, the film is less successful. Moore examines three main explanations and rejects them all. First, Americans may be violent because the mass media--television, video games, movies, popular music--are full of violence and influence young people in particular to engage in violent acts in the real world. Moore dismisses that argument on the grounds that Canadians are exposed to almost exactly the same mass media influences as Americans yet have a homicide rate only one-third as high. Second, Americans may have a high homicide rate because they have a violent history that has bred a violent culture. He rejects that argument, too, not because the conquest and settlement of the United States was not violent, but because other countries, including Germany and Great Britain, also have violent pasts yet boast low homicide rates today. Third is the argument that Americans have a high homicide rate because guns are so readily available in this country. Moore also finds fault with that argument. He says that Canadians, for example, have the same rate of firearm ownership as Americans but only one-third the homicide rate. Ultimately, then, we are left with a sharp description of a problem but no clear explanation of its origins or solution.
The problem is, some of Moore's figures are wrong. The rate of firearm ownership is actually more than twice as high in the United States as in Canada. About 17 percent of Canadian households versus 38 percent of American households have at least one firearm owner. In general, there is a strong correlation between firearm ownership and homicide, not just cross-nationally, but even within the United States. Thus, jurisdictions that have restricted firearm ownership in the United States have experienced an almost immediate decline in the homicide rate. For example, in 1976, the District of Columbia enacted a new gun control law that gave residents 60 days to register their firearms. Thereafter, newly acquired handguns became illegal if unregistered. Surrounding areas of Maryland and Virginia in the same metropolitan area did not enact the new gun control law. In the District of Columbia, gun-related homicides fell 25 percent between 1976 and 1985. In the surrounding areas of Maryland and Virginia, there was no significant change in the number of gun-related homicides. Available data on homicide point unmistakably to a smoking gun--and it is a smoking gun.
Traffic examines the international drug trade through three interwoven stories. In the first story, Ohio Supreme Court judge Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) is appointed the American President's new "drug czar." As he prepares to launch America's latest offensive campaign in the war on drugs, his teenage daughter, an honours student, becomes addicted to the crack cocaine that she first tries at a party. In the second story, a Mexican police officer, Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro) is recruited by a Mexican Army General to help dismantle one of Mexico's leading drug cartels. He does not suspect that the General is himself employed by a competing drug cartel. In the third story, two American federal agents are assigned to protect a drug smuggler who has been granted immunity from prosecution for testifying against his boss in court. In the background, however, his boss's wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) has embarked on a murderous strategy to secure her husband's freedom and her family's future. In its treatment of the war on drugs, Traffic, which won four Academy Awards, blurs the standard cinematic categories of "good guys" versus "bad guys", "sinners" versus "saints." We see how the incredible profitability of the drug trade leads to the corruption of some law enforcement officials and the disillusionment of others. We see the ineffectiveness of traditional punitive approaches to drug use, such as attacking drug production abroad and beefing up domestic law enforcement. We see young lives ruined, people killed. It is difficult to walk away from Traffic without concluding that the war on drugs is fundamentally flawed. Traffic suggests the main flaw is that drugs are illegal. By making drugs illegal, we keep their price high. Recognizing their profit potential, criminals are tempted to traffic in drugs. Law enforcement officials are tempted to accept bribes and look the other way. Taxpayers are tempted to spend billions of dollars on finding, prosecuting, and jailing drug criminals. This keeps the price of drugs high and ensures the perpetuation of the problem.
Several Western European countries take a different approach. They have effectively legalized marijuana and defined the use of heroin, cocaine, and other hard drugs as a medical problem, not a legal issue. They offer free medical treatment, such as methadone programs for heroin addicts. In some places, such as Liverpool, England, severe heroin addicts can even get a free drugstore prescription for low, regular doses of heroin--enough to allow them to hold steady jobs, support their families, and avoid a life of crime. In general, drug use is down, jails are empty by American standards, taxpayers save money, and criminals earn less.
Many Americans find the European approach morally reprehensible. Despite evidence to the contrary, they feel in their gut that many people would interpret a general legalization of drugs as government approval of drug use. They think it would lead to the increased use of drugs. Is this moral panic in action? If so, who benefits from it? Who suffers? Traffic encourages us to ponder these life-and-death questions.
A Civil Action is based on a true story. John Travolta plays Jan Schlichtmann, a personal-injury lawyer who hosts a radio show. In response to a call from a woman representing a group of parents in Woburn, Massachusetts, he comes face to face with a horrible case of industrial pollution. Many parents in the town have lost children to leukemia. They believe a local factory dumping waste chemicals into the city's water supply caused the disease. At first, Schlichtmann doesn't want to get involved. He tells the families that a lawsuit makes sense only if the defendant has a lot of money or a large insurance policy. However, on his way home from his meeting with the parents, he gets caught speeding on a freeway. By chance, he notices trucks and railway cars streaming by bearing the logos of W.R. Grace and Beatrice Food. He suddenly realizes that the plant is associated with two large corporations and that he and the parents can make a great deal of money in this case. White-collar crime doesn't get as much attention as other kinds of crime, but A Civil Action casts a spotlight on the problem. In addition, it shows some reasons why prosecuting large corporations is difficult. In the first place, corporations can afford to hire brilliant legal minds, such as the lawyer played by Robert Duvall in A Civil Action. Second, because of the difficulty of finding evidence--the frequent absence of a "smoking gun"--proving a case of corporate crime is often very hard to do. Third, corporations are in a financial position to offer out-of-court settlements without admitting their guilt. This is what happens in A Civil Action. Schlichtmann finally finds a W.R. Grace worker who admits dumping toxic chemicals. Although the corporation is willing to offer a modest out-of-court settlement, its executives refuse to admit responsibility and apologize for their negligence. Meanwhile, Schlichtmann's firm spends all of its resources prosecuting the case, and Schlichtmann finds himself virtually penniless. The movie ends well, however. Schlichtmann manages to get the federal government's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) interested in the Woburn case, and the EPA lawyers succeed in their appeal.
As you think about white-collar crime, you should contrast it with street crime. You should also consider the way both types of crime are portrayed in the movies. For example, in Pulp Fiction, also starring John Travolta, we get an inside view of the world of organized and street crime, including the drug trade, racketeering, and gambling. The filmmaker introduces the viewer to the character behind each criminal act. The characters are often made to seem likeable or at least interesting. Nonetheless, most viewers would insist on stiff penalties for drug trading or murder. In contrast, in A Civil Action, we never see the faces of the people responsible for the negligence that led to the deaths of the children. Many members of the public are indifferent to corporate crimes, although they may kill more people than street crimes. Why do you think white-collar and street crimes are portrayed so differently in the movies? Why do you think most members of the public think so differently about the two types of crime?
Sweet Home Alabama is a Cinderella story with a twist: the successful heroine from humble beginnings gets the handsome prince but is not sure he is truly what she wants.
In the seven years since Melanie Carmichael (Reese Witherspoon) left her small-town Alabama home, she has achieved impressive upward social mobility. Beginning as a daughter of the working class, she has become a world-famous fashion designer in New York City. As the film begins, the mayor's son is courting Melanie. Andrew (Patrick Dempsey) proposes to her in Tiffany's. She says yes, but before she can marry him, she has to clear up a not-so-minor detail: she needs a divorce from Jake (Josh Lucas), the childhood sweetheart she left behind.
Most of the story unfolds back in rural Alabama. Melanie finds herself caught between two classes and two subcultures, and the film follows her struggle to reconcile her conflicting identities. Her dilemma will require her to acknowledge and reconnect with her mother (Mary Kay Place), who lives in a trailer park, while standing up to her future mother-in-law, the mayor of New York City (Candice Bergen).
In the end, Melanie returns to Jake, while Andrew, briefly heartbroken, pleases his mother by marrying a woman of his own class. Melanie's homecoming does not, however, require that she return to life in a trailer park. She discovers that while she was in New York, Jake transformed his life. The working class "loser" built a successful business as a glass-blower. This change allows Melanie to imagine an upwardly mobile future by Jake's side.
Sweet Home Alabama sends the message that people are happiest when they marry within their own subculture. That message is comforting because it helps the audience reconcile itself to two realities. First, although many people may want to "marry up," most Americans do not in fact succeed in doing so. They tend to marry within their own class--and within their own religion and ethnic and racial group. Second, marrying outside your subculture is likely to be unsettling insofar as it involves abandoning old norms, roles, and values, and learning new ones. It is, therefore, in some sense a relief to learn you are better off marrying within your own subculture, especially because you will probably wind up doing just that anyway.
There is an ideological problem with this message, however. Staying put in your own subculture denies the American Dream of upward mobility. Sweet Home Alabama resolves the problem by holding out the promise of upward mobility without having to leave home, as it were. Melanie and Jake can enjoy the best of both worlds, moving up the social hierarchy together without forsaking the community and the subculture they cherish. Sweet Home Alabama achieves a happy ending by denying the often difficult process of adapting to a new subculture as one experiences social mobility.
When the character played by Leonardo DiCaprio goes to the dining hall for dinner in Titanic, it turns out that a first-class ticket is not the only thing he is missing. He also lacks appropriate dinner attire and the knowledge and tastes expected of someone who can afford first-class travel. He is able to borrow a dinner jacket. However, the conversation at the dinner table is foreign to him. Being a working-class youth, he has little knowledge of the arts or other matters that interest the rich and the highly educated. To make matters worse, his dinner companions look down on him as a member of a lower class. Only the character played by Kate Winslet sees something special in him. She is already falling in love. The world of the luxury ship Titanic is highly stratified. Sumptuous ballrooms and suites are reserved for the rich. They are spacious, well appointed, and well serviced. Dingy and cramped living and sleeping quarters are reserved for the poor. Their cabins even lack windows. Still worse off are the workers in the boiler room. They must shovel coal for hours on end, suffering from heat, coal dust, and exhaustion. In the movie, the characters played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet overcome class barriers and fall in love. However, their sentiments are clearly exceptional. Class differences matter even after the great ship strikes the iceberg. First-class passengers are given preference in access to the lifeboats. Lower-class ticket holders and workers on the ship are left to drown.
What does Titanic teach us about social stratification? Should we conclude that social stratification pervades all aspects of life? Or does love often overcome class differences? You can treat these questions empirically. Among the marriages and dating relationships in your circle of friends and relatives, what proportions involve partners from different classes? A high proportion suggests love often trumps class. A low proportion suggests class usually overcomes love, or doesn't even allow it to blossom.
Development and Underdevelopment
A shift of world-historic proportions is taking place in the global economy. The rich countries' share of world Gross Domestic Product is slowly shrinking while the share produced by some less developed countries, notably China and India, is rapidly increasing. In China and India, most rural residents of non-coastal areas remain poor. However, as peasants move to cities, and governments and real estate developers tear down slums and build high-rises in their place, the conditions of existence for hundreds of millions of people are being transformed. "Transformed" does not, of course, mean "improved beyond recognition," despite the theme of the winner of the 2009 Best Picture Oscar, Slumdog Millionaire.
Slumdog Millionaire is the improbable story of Jamal K. Malik (Dev Patel), a young slum dweller who becomes a contestant on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. He answers every question correctly by drawing on his harrowing experiences growing up in a Mumbai slum. Not only does he win the grand prize, but also the affection of the beautiful Latika (Freida Pinto), the girlfriend of the dangerous criminal kingpin, Javed Khan (Mahesh Manjrekar). All this takes place amid boisterous Bollywood dance numbers and India's frenzied economic growth. "That... used to be our slum. Can you believe that, huh?" asks Salim, Jamal's brother, pointing to a high-rise development. "We used to live right there, man. Now, it's all business. India is at the centre of the world now, bhai [brother]. And I, I am at the centre of the centre. This is all Javed bhai's." Jamal: "Javed Khan, the gangster from our slum? You work for him? What do you do for him?" Salim: "Anything he asks."
Slumdog Millionaire grossed more than US$250 million including DVD sales, but a scandal erupted when it was learned that the actors who had major roles playing Jamal and Latika as children received a pittance for their efforts (Nelson and Henderson, 2009). According to the children's parents, Rubina Ali and Azaharuddin Ismail, both plucked from a Mumbai slum, received, respectively, ₤500 and ₤1700 for a year's work. The exploitation of Ali and Ismail caused widespread outrage, hardly softened by the statement of a spokesperson for Fox Searchlight, the film's American distributor, that (1) these payments equal three times the adult yearly salary in the slum, (2) the children are also receiving ₤20 a month each for books and food, and (3) a fund has been established, which the children will receive when they turn 18 if they remain in school. (The spokesperson declined to disclose the size of the fund when asked.)
is not an isolated case involving exploitation of
child actors from less developed countries. The poor
Afghan child stars of The Kite Runner
embarrassed their Hollywood producers two years
earlier when they disclosed that they had been paid
just ₤9000 for their efforts. As noted
earlier, "transformed" does not mean "improved beyond
In the 1980s, the Cold War seemed to be a struggle between the "free world" led by the United States and the "evil empire" led by the Soviet Union. Back then, CIA agent Bob Barnes (George Clooney, nominated for a 2005 Oscar for Best Supporting Actor) operated with confidence. He could tell his friends from his enemies. In the twenty-first century, he is not so sure. The high-tech CIA doesn't seem to need an experienced, multilingual agent like Barnes. And the knowledge and experience Barnes acquired during the Cold War can no longer help him figure out who the good guys and the bad guys are.
That is because there are no good guys in Syriana. The CIA orders a missile strike to eliminate an Arab Prince who is pro-democracy but favours China over the United States in the competition for drilling rights. A poor Pakistani worker who loses his job when the Chinese take over the oil fields in the Prince's country eventually becomes radicalized and participates in the suicide bombing of a major oil refinery. The young son of energy analyst Brian Woodman (Matt Damon) dies in a freak accident in the Prince's swimming pool, and Woodman uses the accident as an opportunity to get a plum job with the Prince. With the American government's knowledge, a Washington law firm finesses a legally questionable merger between two Texas oil companies.
The storylines that swirl through Syriana like a sandstorm are so numerous and complex that it is almost impossible for the viewer to get the big picture. And that is precisely the aim of screenwriter and director Stephen Gaghan, whose work was nominated for best original screenplay of 2005. He wants Syriana to be as confusing as the real world of big oil. But he also wants to deliver a clear message: oil corrupts everyone. As Danny D., adviser to the head of a Texas oil firm, says in the film: "Corruption? We have laws about it precisely so we can get away with it. Corruption is our protection. Corruption is what keeps us safe and warm. Corruption is why you and I are here in the white-hot center of things instead of fighting each other for scraps of meat in the street. Corruption is how we win."
Gaghan also wrote the screenplay for Traffic (2000), a film about the war on drugs that won four Oscars, and he is on record as saying that Syriana is about addiction too--specifically, about the corrupting influence of the world's addiction to oil. President George W. Bush recently agreed that Americans are addicted to oil, although he would disagree about its corrupting influence.
Are you addicted to oil? If so, how? Does addiction to oil shape the Middle East policies of the United States and the West in general? What, if anything, should you do about your oil addiction and that of the West?
It is 1991. A few months earlier, the army of Iraq invaded Kuwait, a small country in the enviable position of possessing 10 percent of the world's oil reserves. Now, the United States and its allies have declared victory over Iraq and its brutal leader, Saddam Hussein. They have pushed Iraqi forces out of Kuwait. American soldiers celebrate the restoration of the Kuwaiti people's freedom and the destruction of the Iraqi dictator's military might. The United States glories in its role as the friend of democracy and the scourge of oppressors everywhere. Then the picture gets complicated. Some Americans discover a map on a captured Iraqi soldier. It leads to a bunker containing gold bars that Saddam Hussein looted from Kuwait. The Americans decide to do something for their families. As Major Archie Gates (played by George Clooney) says: "Saddam stole it from the [Kuwaiti] sheikhs. I have no problem stealing it from Saddam." He assembles three trusted comrades (the "three kings" of the movie's title and, ironically, the Christmas carol), a Humvee, and some arms and other supplies. They head out to the secret bunker, located in a village. What awaits the American soldiers is wholly unexpected. Remnants of Saddam's elite Revolutionary Guard protect the bunker. They are of no great danger to the Americans because a ceasefire has been declared. However, the villagers despise the Guard and Saddam. They have organized an armed resistance against the Iraqi leader and his troops. They cheer the arrival of the American soldiers. In response, the Revolutionary Guard shoots, imprisons, and tortures the rebels.
At first, the Americans ignore the plight of the freedom fighters because U.S. forces are under strict orders not to get involved. Their job as defined by the American government--securing the region's oil--is done. Suddenly, the friend of democracy and the scourge of oppressors everywhere is seen to be more self-interested than idealistic. The United States has ended the Iraqi military threat to the West's oil supply. (Saudi Arabia, with more than a quarter of the world's oil reserves, was next on Saddam's hit list.) Democracy, the movie says, is a nice ideal when it suits American interests, but when it is defined as not in American interests, the United States is prepared to scatter that ideal to the winds.
In the movie, Archie Gates and his comrades develop sympathies for the village rebels. They help them overcome the Revolutionary Guard and lead them to sanctuary in neighbouring Iran. In a tense standoff with an American General and his troops at the Iraq-Iran border, Gates trades his knowledge of where the gold bars are stored for the safe passage of the villagers across the border. We leave the movie feeling that while the American government plays the game of oil politics, some American citizens really are idealistic and sympathetic to democracy and the oppressed everywhere.
In the real word, the United States abandoned the freedom fighters of Iraq and the fight for democracy. Saddam Hussein ruthlessly suppressed the rebels in the south and the north. In retrospect, U.S. policy seems a tragic error because helping the rebels overthrow Saddam would have made a second war in Iraq unnecessary. The United States also protected the undemocratic regimes of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Kuwait allows just 10 percent of its population--adult men whose families lived in the country before 1920 or who have been Kuwaiti citizens for more than 30 year --to vote in elections. That is at least 10 percent better than Saudi Arabia, where there are no elections at all. The West's oil supply is secure, although oil wealth in the region remains concentrated in the hands of the sheikhs, their families, and their close supporters. Most of the Arab world remains impoverished as resentment seethes against regimes like that of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, fuelling Islamic militancy.
Race and Ethnicity
Winner of the 2005 Best Picture Oscar, Crash is a story about Los Angelinos colliding into one another because of their racist assumptions, and then, in some cases, learning that people who differ from them are as human as they are.
The movie mirrors the ethnic and racial complexities of Los Angeles by presenting many intersecting plot lines. Neighbours think an Iranian-American shopkeeper (Shaun Toub) is an Arab, so they apparently feel little remorse when they loot his store. The shopkeeper thinks a Chicano locksmith (Michael Pena) is a gang member who will bring his homies in to rob him blind once he finishes the repair job. The locksmith is in fact a hardworking family man and an exemplary father. A black police officer (Don Cheadle) has an affair with his Latina partner (Jennifer Esposito), but keeps insulting her by not remembering what country she was born in and stopping just one step short of saying "you people all look the same to me." Ryan, a white police officer (played by Matt Dillon, who was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actor), arbitrarily stops what he at first thinks is a white woman and a black man in an expensive car. He conducts a humiliating, overly thorough body search of the woman (who, he discovers, is actually a light-skinned African American), while her enraged husband looks on, unable to do anything because the police officer makes it clear what would happen if he tried. Later, we learn that Ryan is a compassionate man who is angry about his inability to help his dying father. Perversely, he expresses anger over his impotence by insulting blacks and making them feel powerless. Yet he partly redeems himself when he risks his life to rescue a woman from a horrible car accident--realizing part way through the rescue that the victim is the same black woman he had earlier body-searched.
Some critics have complained that Crash exaggerates the extent of racism in the United States. After all, explicit racist comments are not often heard in public. It seems, however, that these critics miss the point of the movie. The apparent intention of Crash--and in this it succeeds admirably--is to strip away all political correctness and tell us what people are thinking to themselves or saying to members of their own ethnic or racial group about members of other groups. In that sense, it may be more realistic than what is heard in public. At the same time, Crash offers a measure of hope that things can be better. Ryan risks his life to save the woman after realizing that she is black. He helps us appreciate that underlying our prejudices lies a deeper humanity.
Do you think that Americans are as racist as Crash makes them out to be? Does racism lie beneath the surface of civility and political correctness? Do you sometimes rely on ethnic or racial stereotypes to account for someone's behaviour? Do you sometimes discover that your prejudices are misconceptions? If so, under what circumstances do you make such discoveries? Do you believe that beneath racist sentiments lies a deeper humanity?
In just a few days in 1994, the Hutus of Rwanda massacred 800 000 Tutsis--more than a tenth of Rwanda's population--with guns, machetes, hammers, and spears. Most of the world watched the attempted genocide with horror but did nothing. After all, Rwanda is in Africa, and as a United Nations peacekeeper explains to the manager of the Hotel des Milles Collines in Hotel Rwanda, most of the world thinks of Africans as dung.
Hotel Rwanda is based on the true story of how the hotel manager, Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle), used cunning and bribery to save more than 1200 Tutsis and sympathetic Hutus by protecting them in his hotel. Rusesabagina, a Hutu married to a Tutsi (Sophie Okonedo) is not the only hero of the piece. The UN peacekeeper (Nick Nolte) stands in for Romeo Dallaire, a Canadian general who led a tiny 500-man force credited with saving the lives of 20 000 Rwandans. Contemplating the horror taking place outside the hotel gates, one of Rusesabagina's trusted employees asks: "Why are people so cruel?" Rusesabigina replies: "Hatred. Insanity. I don't know." Rusesabagina and Dallaire remind us that in an insane world, not everyone must succumb to madness.
Hotel Rwanda is a beautifully acted and heartbreaking movie. Because it unblinkingly shows the world its responsibility for failing to respond to genocide, it is worthwhile propaganda. But it is poor sociology because it leaves the viewer with the impression that "hatred" and "insanity" explain what the Hutus did to the Tutsis--or that one simply cannot know why people periodically kill one another in the name of ethnicity.
But we can know. Hutus and Tutsis existed as somewhat distinct ethnic groups for centuries before 1994. The Hutus were mainly farmers and the Tutsis were mainly cattle herders. The Tutsis were the ruling minority, yet they spoke the same language as the Hutus, shared the same religious beliefs, lived side by side, often intermarried, and never came into serious conflict with them.
When the Belgians took over Rwanda in 1916, they made ethnic divisions far more inflexible than they had been. Now one had to be a Tutsi to serve in an official capacity, and the Belgians started distinguishing Tutsis from Hutus by measuring the width of their noses; Tutsi noses, they arbitrarily proclaimed, are thinner. It was a preposterous policy (not the least because half of the population of Rwanda is of mixed Hutu-Tutsi ancestry), and it served to sharply increase animosity between the two ethnic groups.
Before the Belgians left Rwanda in 1962, they encouraged power sharing between the Tutsis and the Hutus, but by this time the damage had been done. The Tutsis objected to any loss of power and civil war broke out. Tutsi rebels fled to Uganda, and when Rwanda proclaimed independence, the Hutu majority took power. Then, in the early 1990s, descendants of the Tutsi rebels, backed by the United States and Britain, tried to overthrow the Hutu government, which was backed by France and Belgium. (Western interest in the region is high because it is rich in minerals.) The 1994 genocide erupted when the plane of the Hutu president was shot down in mysterious circumstances, killing the president.
Belgium, the United States, Britain, and France must, then, bear responsibility for stoking the flames of ethnic conflict in Rwanda, and not just for standing by when the conflict degenerated into genocide. While Belgium and the United States have at least apologized to Rwanda for looking the other way, most people continue to believe that the Rwandans alone are responsible for what transpired in their country in 1994. Unfortunately, Hotel Rwanda helps to reinforce that misconception.
"When I have a hard-on, I love. When I don't have a hard-on, I don't love." This famous line from Le Declin de l'empire americain (The Decline of the American Empire, 1986), serves, for film director Denys Arcand, as a Polaroid of Quebec society in the aftermath of the 1980 referendum on Quebec independence. The Decline of the American Empire won nine Genie awards (including Best Motion Picture, Best Achievement in Direction, and Best Original Screenplay) and was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. In the movie, four women and four men reflect out loud on the meaning of life. They consider the future gloomy. Quebec is mired in the sombre aftermath of the first referendum. Their dream of an independent Quebec has vanished, and so has the utopia of a world where equality and liberty would triumph over oppression and exploitation. Confronted with the defeat of the "yes" side and the severe economic recession of the early 1980s, the eight protagonists cannot help but experience dismay and disorientation. Living little bourgeois lives, they indulge in trivial and superficial pleasures. Having renounced the ideal of falling in love, they take refuge in adultery. Having abandoned the project to build a sovereign Quebec, they retreat into the private sphere.
According to The Decline of the American Empire, such attitudes breed potentially disastrous consequences. In the first scene of the movie, one of the main characters participates in a CBC interview and explains that obsession with happiness is the symptom of a sick and declining society. She gives the example of Rome, which collapsed due to the decadence of its elite. The United States is now victim of the same cycle of glory and misery, she says. After a century of growth, the American Empire is showing signs of slowing down. Its citizens are no longer concerned with the greater good; their struggles do not go far beyond what is necessary to ensure their personal comfort.
In 2004, a sequel to The Decline of the American Empire was released. The Barbarian Invasions won one Jutra for Best Movie, three Cesars for Best Movie, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay, and one Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Continuing the metaphor of the first movie, Arcand now sees the barbarians invading civilization under the guise of fundamentalist religious groups and giant multinational corporations, both trying to pillage the great legacy of the past.
Do you believe that the Americanization of Quebec is a sign of decline and cultural extinction? Should Quebecois continue to speak French if they are completely Americanized? What is the purpose of having a voice if one has nothing to say?
"Nice Greek girls are expected to do three things: marry Greek boys, make Greek babies, and feed everyone until the day we die." So says Toula Portokalos (played by NiaVardalos, who also wrote the film script). Toula is a nice Greek girl who is devoted to her big, animated family despite its quirks. Her father (Michael Constantine) sprays Windex on just about everything and believes that nearly every word has a Greek root, including the Japanese kimono. Her mother (Lainie Kazan) complains: "When I was your age, we didn't have food!" Both parents are deeply worried, for Toula is unmarried and she is already 30 years old. She is seemingly content to work in the family restaurant and spend her time with her family, smelling faintly of garlic bread. Toula's life changes one day when a handsome WASP high school teacher by the name of Ian Miller (John Corbett) comes into the restaurant for a meal. Miller dazzles her. He notices her, too. She vows to change. She invests in new clothes, contact lenses, and a trip to the beauty salon. She starts taking college courses and gets a job at her aunt's travel agency. Miller sees her there and asks her out for a date. Things progress and they soon decide to get married. A clash between cultures then ensues because, as Toula tells Ian, "No one in our family has ever gone out with a non-Greek." Ian is Protestant, Toula Greek Orthodox, and because Toula's parents feel a lot more strongly about their religion than Ian's parents feel about theirs, it is decided that Ian must undergo baptism and convert. Ian's parents are reserved, Toula's parents effusive. Ian's mother brings a bundt cake to the wedding party but none of the Greeks knows what it is or what to do with it. The Greeks hold their ouzo but Ian's mother gets smashed. The groom's family fills a few rows on one side of the church, the bride's family overflows the other side. (Toula has 27 first cousins, most of them named Nick.) In the end, notwithstanding the misunderstandings and the obstacles, love conquers all and the happy couple wed.
The key to the movie comes right at the end, when Toula's father toasts the newlyweds. He explains that in Greek, Toula's family name (Portokalos) comes from the word for oranges (portokali), while Ian's surname (Miller) derives from the Greek word for apple (milo). "In the end," he concludes, "we're all fruit." It's a funny way of saying that, despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles, it is indeed possible to mix apples and oranges in the North American melting pot.
North of the Northwest Territories, beyond Hudson Bay, in the eastern Arctic wilderness of Nunavut, lies the town of Igloolik, population 1200. Archaeological evidence suggests that people have been living continuously in Igloolik for 4000 years. Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, based on an ancient Inuit legend, shows us, without sentimentality or political correctness, what life must have been like in Igloolik before the arrival of Europeans. It also says something profound about the sources of an ethnic group's well-being and its destruction.
Atanarjuat was hailed as a "masterpiece" and an instant "classic" by The New York Times, and Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times called it an "astonishing epic." It won a raft of prestigious international film awards, including prizes at the world's two most important film festivals: the Camera d'Or at Cannes for Best First Feature Film and the Best Film Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. Atanarjuat is full of sex and violence, but it is no Hollywood blockbuster. It is a 3-hour film. The first hour slowly uncovers the routines of Inuit life on its own terms. Relying on the memories of elders and sketches from the journal of Admiral William Parry's 1922 expedition, the director, Zacharias Kunuk, faithfully recreates a world composed of women cleaning animal skins, children chasing each other across the drifts, men racing dogsleds across the barrens, couples making love, families feasting on raw walrus meat, throat singing, rituals, startling Arctic light, and endless snow.
All is balance and cooperation until an evil shaman suddenly appears. He casts a spell that divides the community and results in the murder of the camp leader. The community's new leader ridicules and beats down his chief rival.
Twenty years pass. The sons of the camp leader and his rival continue the conflict into the next generation. Atanarjuat (played by Natar Ungalaaq), the son of the rival, wins the hand of the beautiful young woman promised to the leader's son. The leader's son vows revenge. He spears Atanarjuat's elder brother through a tent, killing him. In the most exciting and visually compelling sequence in the movie, Atanarjuat runs for his life across the ice, naked, his feet bleeding.
In time, however, harmony is restored. A kindly couple takes Atanarjuat in and nurses him back to physical and spiritual health. The "fast runner" eventually returns to his community. There he faces his foes, reclaims his family name, and restores order to the community.
On one level, Atanarjuat can be appreciated as a faithful reproduction of a lost way of life and a beautiful rendering of ancient folklore. On another level, it can be interpreted as a metaphor for the destruction of Aboriginal communities and the hope for their restoration on new foundations. Before European contact, Aboriginal communities everywhere were of course "primitive" by Western standards. Perhaps their most "primitive" features were their ideals of internal cooperation and harmony with nature. European contact hit these communities in much the same way that the evil shaman disrupted Igloolik. Some people view the "backwardness" of Aboriginal cultures, their lack of fit with the requirements of modern living, as the chief reason Aboriginal communities experience so many troubles today. That, however, is like blaming victims for their own suffering. Many North Americans take a different stance. They recognize the role of European contact in destroying the harmony of Aboriginal communities. Like Atanarjuat, they are seeking ways of re-establishing that lost harmony under new social conditions. Whether they can run fast enough is an open question.
Rabbit-Proof Fence is the true story of three young girls who were part of Australia's "Stolen Generations." Between the 1930s and the 1970s, thousands of mixed race Aboriginal children were removed from their families under provision of Australia's 1905 Aborigines Act and forced to adopt European ways. Set in Western Australia in 1931, the movie begins with the forcible removal of 14-year-old Molly (Everlyn Sampi), her little sister Gracie (Laura Monaghan), and their cousin Daisy (Tianna Sansbury) from their families in Jigalong, and their involuntary relocation to the Moore River Native Settlement in Perth, 1500 miles away. All three girls are "half-castes" (i.e., children with one white and one Aboriginal parent). The official government policy of the time stipulates that half-caste and "quadroon" children (those who are one-quarter Aboriginal) are to be taken from their kin and their land in order to have their aboriginality "bred out of them." A.O. Neville (Kenneth Branagh), the Chief Protector of Aborigines and the legal guardian of every Aboriginal and part-Aboriginal child under 16 in the state of Western Australia, explains the intent of such relocations to a group of churchwomen. "In spite of himself, the native must be helped," he tells the women. Half-castes, he informs his audience, are an "unwanted" race whose existence must be eradicated, over three generations, by the "breeding out" of their aboriginality through marriage to white spouses. In the interim, he continues, efforts must be made to help them "advance to white status." Mixed-race children must for their own good be relocated to native settlement areas where they can be taught the superiority of European culture, language, and religion, and trained as domestic workers. According to Neville, "the chief hope...of doing our human duty ...is to take the children young, and bring them up in a way that will establish their self-respect, make them useful units in the community, and fit to live in it, according to its standards." In short, the children are to be resocialized and "made white." To this end, the children are forbidden to speak their native languages, treated as prisoners in the reservations, and whipped if they attempt to run away. Aboriginals who wish to visit their children are obliged to apply to the Chief Protector for permission to do so, but such requests are rarely granted. Under the law, it is an offence to enter the reservation without official permission from the Chief Protector. Although aware of the physical punishment that will follow if they are caught attempting to escape, the three girls set off for home, following the rabbit-proof fence that crosses Western Australia. The police and an Aboriginal tracker (whose own daughter lives in the Moore River Settlement) pursue them. Although Daisy is recaptured and returned to the Moore River settlement, Molly and her young sister defy all odds and successfully traverse the 1500 miles that separate them from their family.
Molly's story does not end on this happy note. In 1940, after marrying and giving birth to two daughters, Molly is once again forcibly transported, this time with her children, to Moore River. In 1942, she escapes, taking her 18-month-old daughter with her. Again, she returns home, using the same route as nine years earlier. Three years later, her daughter is recaptured. Molly never sees her daughter again.
Australia was not the only country to pursue policies that were predicated on the assumption of the racial and cultural superiority of white Europeans. Canada and the United States acted similarly. The indigenous peoples of all three countries continue to deal with the ravages incurred by policies aimed at their involuntary resocialization through the destruction and devaluation of their identity, family life, and culture.
"Dago, Wop, guinea, garlic breath, pizza-slingin' spaghetti-bender" is what Mookie, the African American pizza delivery man, calls his boss, Sal, the Italian American pizzeria owner, in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing. A European-American police officer shouts at a Puerto Rican American: "You Goya, bean-eating, fifteen-in-the-car, thirty-in-the-apartment, pointy red shoes-wearing, Puerto Rican, c___suckers." A Puerto Rican American yells at a Korean American grocer: "Little slanty-eyed, me-no-speak-American, own-every-fruit-and-vegetable-stand-in New-York, bullshit, Reverend Sun Myung Moon, Summer 88 Olympic kick-ass boxer, son of a bitch." Clearly, the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighbourhood in Brooklyn, New York, is not a scene of racial and ethnic harmony. But Do the Right Thing doesn't pull punches about ethnic and race relations in the United States. The movie depicts a poor, multiethnic but largely African American neighbourhood populated by numerous memorable characters: the friendly and outgoing "mayor," the militant black activist, the disk jockey who offers a running commentary on the movie, and Mookie, the pizza delivery man, played by Spike Lee himself. Although the residents are mainly African American, two businesses are owned by an Italian American family (Sal's Famous Pizzeria), and a Korean American family (the grocery store).
Do the Right Thing offers many interpretations of the situation. In fact, one of the great strengths of the movie is that it enables us to see the complexities of each character, understand what is likeable and repugnant in each person, and develop an appreciation for just about everyone's point of view. For example, we come to understand why some African American characters think "white" people (including Korean Americans) are oppressing blacks. We develop respect for Sal's wish to see people get along with one other. We sympathize with the Korean grocer's efforts to provide for his family despite an inhospitable racial and ethnic environment.
In addition to developing multiple points of view, the movie's second strength is that it presents a fluid view of ethnicity, race, and opinions about these politically charged issues. Thus, we see how people cross boundaries, upsetting seemingly stable ethnic and racial distinctions. For instance, the Korean American grocer at one point insists that he is oppressed and "black." Just about everyone is the object of racist insults and stereotypes. As in real life, what people say at one moment is logically inconsistent with what they say at other moments. Different social situations generate different views of race and ethnicity. Society, not logic, dictates opinion.
As should be apparent, this is not a movie that echoes the hopes and aspirations of the 1960s. Gone, it says, is the rhetoric of racial and ethnic harmony, assimilation, acculturation, and other words and phrases that describe the presumed peaceful coexistence of ethnic and racial groups in the United States. Do the Right Thing also takes a cynical view of the possibility of African American progress.
Despite its strengths, one must ask whether the movie is entirely realistic. Is its characterization of ethnic and race relations accurate for the United States as a whole, just for poor neighbourhoods in large urban areas, only for Bedford-Stuyvesant, or not at all? Are the ethnic and racial conflicts in the neighbourhood aggravated by poverty and class divisions? If so, is class rather than race or ethnicity largely to blame for the conflict in the movie and in American society? The movie doesn't answer these questions, but it does raise them in a provocative manner. What are your answers?
Gender and Sexuality
It would not be an exaggeration to say that Westerns--often called "Cowboy and Indian" movies--shaped a generation of Americans' expectations about gender and sexuality. John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart, and many others became role models for American men and their idea of masculinity: silent but strong, gentle toward the weak (women and children) but ferocious toward the evil (often American Indians), community-minded but ultimately lone, rugged individualists. Even today, it's hard not to be stirred and engrossed by such classic Westerns as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence and High Noon.
The Westerns, however, have not been a popular genre since the 1970s. The Civil Rights Movement questioned the racial ideology of many Westerns, which presumed the superiority of the white race against the native populations. The movement against the war in Vietnam challenged the vision of the world as a place that ought to be pacified and ruled by white Americans. The feminist movement criticized the patriarchal masculine viewpoint of the Westerns. The few Westerns since the 1970s have therefore deviated from the classical Westerns, often parodying them.
Brokeback Mountain (2005), nominated for the 2005 Best Picture Oscar, traces the romantic love between two cowboys. They fall in love in the early 1960s, when both are 19 years old, long before they had heard of gay culture or even the notion of homosexual identity. They lead seemingly conventional married lives. Yet they continue to love each other and carry on their affair for two decades, periodically telling their wives that they are going on fishing trips together but raising suspicions when they fail to bring home any fish. More than the passion, however, what the movie depicts is the high emotional cost of keeping one's sexual orientation and one's love a secret. Eventually, their marriages crumble, their social relationships suffer, and happiness and fulfillment prove elusive.
One of the reasons that Ennis (the late Heath Ledger, nominated for the 2005 Best Actor Oscar) cannot imagine the possibility of settling down with Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal, nominated for the 2005 Best Supporting Actor Oscar) is a childhood experience. His father took him to see two men who were beaten to death, two "tough old birds" who happened to be "shacked up together." Fear of expressing his homosexuality was thus instilled early on. (In fact, both men deny their homosexuality. After their first night together, Ennis says to Jack, "You know I ain't queer." To which Jack replies, "Me neither.") Jack and Ennis's affair ends when Jack is beaten to death by homophobic men. Three grisly murders of gay men, then, provide the tragic backdrop to Brokeback Mountain.
How much have things changed since the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s? Could the story of Brokeback Mountain take place today? Why or why not?
Boys Don't Cry is the true story of Teena Brandon, played by Hilary Swank, who won the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal. Teena is a young woman in Lincoln, Nebraska, with short hair and a sexual identity problem. She wants a sex-change operation but can't afford one. So she takes the inexpensive route. She stuffs a sock down the front of her jeans and goes to a bar to socialize with women. The women respond warmly to the soft-spoken and kindly man she appears to be.
Soon, she decides to move to Falls City, change her name to Brandon Teena, and pass as a man. In Falls City, Brandon develops a romantic relationship with a woman by the name of Lana Tisdel (Chloe Sevigny).
At first, Lana thinks Brandon is a man. She falls in love with Brandon. The men she has known until then are violent and demeaning toward women. In contrast, Brandon is gentle, romantic, and thoughtful. At some point, Lana discovers that Brandon is a woman. But by then it doesn't matter. Love conquers all.
However, when two male members of Lana's family discover the truth about Teena, they are outraged. The very idea of two women in love sickens them and violates everything they have been taught to believe about the "natural" order of things and about their own sexuality. The local police may have been sympathetic to their view of the natural order. They failed to jail the two men, suggesting a certain sympathy toward them. A few days later, the two men murder Teena. She committed no crime. Her only transgression was that she wanted to be a man.
What could be more embarrassing than your father catching you masturbating? Perhaps your father bringing you pornography and condoms, and trying to give you a mini course in sex education? American Pie portrays these incidents while trying to make sense of sexual coming of age in the United States today. American Pie focuses on the lives of four high school seniors in a middle-class Michigan suburb. They vow to lose their virginity by the time they graduate. The movie traces the sexual misadventures of the foursome. The jock with a golden heart first tries to seduce a college woman. His macho tactics fail miserably. He then joins a choir and begins to date a conservative young woman. Another one of the foursome studies a book of sexual "secrets" hoping to convince his girlfriend to have intercourse. The third character-- the "nerd"--has no prospects. The central character--the boy with the pie--falters miserably with a willing foreign exchange student. Besides providing an amusing view of four recognizable types of boys in an urban American high school, the movie probes the place of sex in American life. It portrays the attempt to lose one's virginity as an important rite of passage full of missteps, embarrassment, humour, and hypocrisy. Losing one's virginity signifies coming of age -- becoming an adult--for these four high school seniors.
We also learn through the longings and antics of these boys that sexual maturation means becoming "gendered." That is, as they develop their sexuality, they learn what it means to be masculine in this time and place. Sexuality, we come to understand, helps us define ourselves.
Regardless of whether you've seen the movie, you undoubtedly remember all the talk about sex in high school. What exactly did you talk about when you talked about sex? Was it just sex? Or was it gender, too? How did talk about sex help you define your masculinity or femininity? How do you think this process differs for girls and boys?
Based on Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood's book of the same name, A Handmaid's Tale is set in Gilead, a republic that has replaced what was once the United States. The women of Gilead are having fewer babies than are needed to maintain the country's population size. In response to this national emergency, the government has decreed fertile women state property. They are forced to act as "handmaids" for couples who cannot have children due to the wife's infertility. Handmaids are valuable only because they have healthy ovaries and can be impregnated. They are subjected to monthly examinations to ensure they remain fertile. Those who become pregnant are praised and applauded by other women in the streets of Gilead. Those who do not become pregnant face torture, banishment, or death. All handmaids are called by the first name of the couple's husband preceded by "of." So if the husband's name is Fred, the handmaid's name is Offred, signifying that she is the property of Fred.
A Handmaid's Tale is the story of one Offred, played by Natasha Richardson. She is the handmaid to the Commander (played by Robert Duvall) and his wife, Serena Joy (Faye Dunaway). The movie begins with Offred's forcible abduction by Gilead's soldiers, who murder her husband. Offred is then taken to a total institution where, along with other women, she is resocialized as a handmaid. What do the handmaids learn? That the low birth rate in Gilead is God's vengeance for the sexual excesses and "anarchy" that once ran rampant. That the civil war that turned the United States into Gilead was a holy war, fought to restore God's rule on earth. That women's quest for equal rights with men was contrary to God's will. That the most sacred and noble duty of all handmaids is to bear children.
Soon after Offred arrives at the home of the Commander, she must be impregnated. The act of intercourse between Offred and the Commander is governed by elaborate rules specifying, among other things, that Serena Joy must be present. Months pass. Offred does not become pregnant. During her monthly examination, Offred's doctor tells her that, since none of the Commander's previous handmaids became pregnant, it is likely the Commander is sterile. Startled, she asks if men in Gilead are not also subject to medical exams. She is informed they are not. The doctor reminds her of the grave consequences she will face if she does not become pregnant and volunteers his services. He tells her that he has performed this service for many other handmaids. Offred refuses his offer, pointing out that the penalty for such acts is death.
Later, however, Serena makes a similar suggestion to Offred, telling her that the family's trusted chauffeur, Nick (played by Aidan Quinn), would make a suitable candidate. Offred agrees. Offred and Nick have sex and establish an intimate relationship. She becomes pregnant with his child.
Offred, however, soon rebels against her role as a handmaid. She remembers and values the freedoms she used to enjoy. She becomes aware that the puritanical moral code imposed upon Gilead's citizens does not apply to prominent citizens like the Commander. While living in the Commander's home, Offred forms an association with another handmaid who is a member of a resistance movement. Acting on the orders of this movement, Offred kills the Commander. She escapes with Nick's help since he, it turns out, is also a member of the resistance.
This provocative movie is a cautionary tale, a reminder of what has been and what could be. Some North American feminists have criticized new reproductive technologies, especially surrogate motherhood, as a means by which men gain control over women's bodies, women's bodies are turned into commodities, and poor women are exploited by those who are well off. Some members of the religious right in North America would like to restrict women's roles in society to that of wives and mothers. We also have the recent example of the Taliban in Afghanistan, which did not even allow women to attend school so they could better serve men's needs. Is The Handmaid's Tale just science fiction or is it a mirror to the present and a warning about the future?
Hal is so shallow that when someone asks him if he would prefer a woman with one breast or half a brain, he replies: "How big is the breast?" His balding sidekick, Mauricio (who sprays on most of his hair), isn't any deeper. They are obnoxious men with below-average looks and sexist values, always on the make but with nothing to offer any woman with even half a brain. They are oblivious to their character flaws and that is what makes them so funny. Then one day, Hal (played by Jack Black) gets trapped in an elevator with self-help guru Tony Robbins and everything changes. After a brief conversation, Robbins hypnotizes Hal and tells him to see only the inner beauty of women. Suddenly, Hal's "luck" with women improves. He meets Rosemary, an ex-Peace Corps volunteer who now works in a children's hospital. When Hal looks at her, she is an intelligent and generous soul from a wealthy family, and she just happens to look like Gwyneth Paltrow. When we look at her, she is an intelligent and generous soul from a wealthy family, and she just happens to weigh 300 pounds. (Rosemary is played by Gwyneth Paltrow, alternatively wearing and not wearing a fat suit.) All is well until Mauricio (Jason Alexander) breaks the hypnotic spell. Hal then sees all of Rosemary's 300 pounds and must make the decision of his life. Should he continue with his shallow ways or go for inner beauty? He makes the right choice, and in the end we see Rosemary carrying Hal to his car as they leave for a Peace Corps assignment.
The Farrelly brothers made this movie. They also made Dumb and Dumber, a buddy movie about two guys with low IQs; There's Something About Mary, about a paraplegic suitor; and Me, Myself, and Irene, about a schizophrenic police officer. Are the lives of the Farrelly brothers just one big sick joke? Have they devoted themselves to poking fun at people with disabilities? Quite the contrary. What is striking about their movies, and particularly Shallow Hal, is that they make us see the normality of disability. Shallow Hal is densely populated by people with disabilities and oddities who turn out to be just like everyone else. There is the little girl in Rosemary's hospital with horrific facial scars from third-degree burns; the cross-dressing receptionist at the fancy restaurant where Hal first sees Rosemary's true girth; Rosemary's former boyfriend, who suffers from chronic and highly visible psoriasis; Hal's best friend, Mauricio, who has a vestigial tail at the base of his spine; and, most importantly, Walt (Rene Kirby). Walt has a curvature of the spine so severe he must walk on all fours. However, Kirby doesn't use a wheelchair. He skis, rides horses, cycles, and does acrobatics. He is a successful businessman who sells his software company to Microsoft for a fortune. He loves life and he loves women and he can laugh at himself. Consider this great pickup line, delivered at a nightclub: "Hey Sally, I've got a leash. Would you like to take me for a walk?" To which Sally, greatly amused, replies, "Come on, boy." The male viewer may be excused for wondering why he could never come up with such a clever opener.
The point of all this is not just that people with disabilities are ordinary folk with all the problems, quirks, deficiencies, and virtues of everyone else-- and a good deal more to contend with besides--but that many of us are odd for not being able to see their normality. The Farrelly brothers may be trying to tell us that the person with the biggest disability in Shallow Hal is Hal as we first meet him, and that the people with the biggest disability in real life are all the "normal" people who think like him, equating difference with inferiority. Some audience members may think Rosemary is lucky for winning Hal, but, in fact, Hal is the one who really lucks out.
Work and the Economy
Indian farmers have been cultivating the neem tree ever since its valuable medicinal properties first became known 2000 years ago. Various neem extracts kill bacteria, fungi, viruses, and insects, and reduce pain and inflammation. In 1994, W.R. Grace, a large American chemical corporation, patented a fungicide derived from the neem tree. Overnight, a common and naturally occurring life form, the beneficial properties of which had been identified and nurtured by a hundred generations of Indian farmers, became the private property of a multinational corporation. The fungicide derived from the neem tree could still be manufactured and purchased--but only by paying W.R. Grace a fee.
What is a corporation? How did corporations become so powerful that they can turn nature into private property? Overall, do they do more harm than good? Vancouver filmmakers Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott, and Joel Bakan answer these questions in The Corporation, a 2003 documentary that won 26 international film awards, including a Genie for Best Documentary and the Sundance Film Festival Audience Choice Award.
With an unsettling mixture of humour and alarm, Achbar, Abbott, and Bakan tell the story of a legal entity that started to proliferate only about 150 years ago and now dominates the world. Like individuals, corporations can enter into contracts and buy property. However, corporate ownership has a big advantage over individual ownership. It limits the legal obligations of the owners; they are not normally liable if the corporation harms consumers or goes bankrupt. Instead, the corporation itself is legally responsible for damage and debt. By thus limiting owners' risk, corporations are attractive investment vehicles. That is why they grew quickly.
Governments grant corporations the right to exist, but as corporations have grown, they have come to exercise more and more influence over governments. So, for example, corporations have for many decades impressed upon governments the importance of lowering corporate tax rates to attract business. They have also persistently reminded governments that failure to lower corporate tax rates will result in the relocation of corporations to jurisdictions where governments are more sympathetic to the interests of business. As a result, in Canada and other countries, corporations are taxed at a substantially lower rate than individuals.
From the corporate point of view, limited liability and favourable tax laws are worth the cost to society. After all, corporations provide many useful goods and services, and competition among corporations ensures that prices are kept to a minimum. But business leaders rarely discuss the downside of the corporation. That is where Achbar, Abbott, and Bakan step in.
The Corporation argues that if corporations were people, they would be labelled psychopaths according to the standard psychiatric definition. For example:
* Psychopaths are incapable of maintaining enduring relationships. Likewise, to earn high profits, corporations routinely shut down factories in high-wage, high-tax countries like Canada, throwing millions of people out of work.
* Psychopaths display callous disregard for the feelings of others. Likewise, to earn high profits, corporations set up factories in poor countries, where women and children work long hours in horrid conditions for meagre wages.
* Psychopaths display reckless disregard for the safety of others. Likewise, to earn high profits, multinational corporations routinely pollute the environment, shirk worker safety regulations, and make unsafe products.
* Psychopaths fail to conform to social norms and behave lawfully. Likewise, to earn high profits, corporations pay many tens of millions of dollars a year in fines for illegal practices, and then turn around and act similarly if they calculate that the fines are less expensive than complying with the law.
Many people think that just a few bad corporate apples are responsible for such behaviour. They need to see The Corporation, which demonstrates that such corporate behaviour is in fact routine.
The Corporation succeeds as a movie because it does not bludgeon or lecture the audience. Instead, it analyzes the history and operation of the corporation in an entertaining and easily digestible way, using cartoons, pop culture, historical footage, and captivating interviews with a wide range of interesting, highly intelligent, and amusing people, including corporate leaders and their critics. It succeeds also because it refuses to become dismal. Instead, it concludes on an optimistic note, showing how people from around the world--environmental activists, farmers' groups, consumers' associations, and so on--have succeeded in challenging and limiting the damage done by corporations, forcing them to behave in a more socially responsible way.
A case in point concerns the neem tree patent. In 2005, the Green Party in the European Parliament, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture, and the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology succeeded in having W.R. Grace's patent for the neem fungicide revoked by the European Patent Office. It was the first time anyone succeeded in having a patent rejected on the grounds of "biopiracy"--corporate theft of traditional agricultural and medical knowledge and practices. Indian farmers celebrated the decision. So should we all.
Scene 1: An auto factory in Flint, Michigan. Scene 2: General Motors' chief executive officer, Roger Smith, announces he is closing the factory. Scene 3: Newspaper headlines proclaim that GM is opening plants in Mexico. Scene 4: Michael Moore, the director of Roger and Me, tries to interview Roger Smith so he can get him to face up to the consequences of his corporate decisions for the ordinary citizens of Flint. Moore is repeatedly rebuffed. Scene 5: During a gala Christmas party, Smith talks about generosity and "the total Christmas experience." The scene is interlaced with shots of the families of fired autoworkers being evicted from their homes. In one shot, a decorated Christmas tree is thrown on top of a family's belongings. Roger and Me is an infuriating yet funny movie about deindustrialization and its impact on former GM workers in Flint. Beginning in the early 1980s, GM laid off tens of thousands of workers in the city and moved their jobs to Mexico. In 1980, Flint had 80 000 autoworkers. In 2000, it had 30 000. Flint, once prosperous, was dubbed by Money magazine as the worst place to live in the United States. In the movie, Michael Moore connects corporate decision-making to everyday life in the United States and industrial policy abroad. We see how multinational corporations can close factories in the United States, thereby exporting jobs to low-wage countries like Mexico and overturning the lives of ordinary American workers. Moore's attempts to interview Smith and discuss these issues are consistently irreverent and hilarious. Typically, when he tries to see Smith at his office, he offers the security guards his Chuck E. Cheese discount card for identification.
Roger and Me was released when many scholars and politicians were expressing fears that the United States labour force was on a downward slide due to deindustrialization. In cities like Flint, some laid-off workers moved away. Others stayed but were unable to find work and so contributed to a rising poverty rate. Flint has never recovered from deindustrialization. In 2000, the city's unemployment rate was 7.7 percent, more than 2.5 times Michigan's 2.9 percent rate. Roger and Me remains a testament to the suffering of laid-off employees when neither corporations nor governments assume any responsibility for compensating, retraining, and relocating them.
Prairie Giant is the story of Tommy Douglas, the first Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) premier of Saskatchewan, and the person most strongly identified with the introduction of Medicare in Canada.
The film begins in the early 1930s with Douglas (played by Michael Therriault) and his wife, Irma (Kristin Booth), driving to Weyburn, Saskatchewan, where Douglas is about to take up his charge as a young Baptist preacher. He becomes politicized through his involvement with the poverty and hopelessness that surrounds him and the Bienfait miners' strike of 1931 that saw several workers killed by the RCMP. Soon, Douglas gives up the ministry to enter politics, first gaining election as an MP to Ottawa, then returning to Saskatchewan a few years later to lead the still fledgling CCF to victory in 1944.
The second half of the film portrays the CCF's remarkable achievements in the nearly two decades that followed, including the first Bill of Rights anywhere (it preceded the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights by 18 months), and ending with the introduction of a provincial Medicare program in the early 1960s that was soon adopted by the federal government.
Prairie Giant is particularly good at capturing the desperation of the Depression years, especially on the Prairies. Despite being three hours long, the film moves quickly while introducing viewers to many of the notable political figures of the period, including Prime Ministers William Lyon Mackenzie King (Andy Jones) and John Diefenbaker (Paul Gross). The film's depiction of the hysteria and anger that accompanied the introduction of public health care in Saskatchewan will be an eye-opener for many young viewers.
The film is not without flaws. Critics have pointed out that its portrayal of former Saskatchewan premier James Gardner is factually inaccurate. Such mistakes caused the CBC, which produced the film, to withdraw it from circulation after its initial release, although it has since been re-released. The film also leaves out discussion of at least one important historical and social factor underlying Douglas's life, the religious Social Gospel movement of the early twentieth century that produced so many political activists, including Aberhart and Woodsworth, as well as Douglas.
Overall, however, the film captures the passion and commitment for social justice that drove Douglas throughout his life. Douglas's speech on the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the CCF is outstanding and echoes current concerns about free enterprise capitalism.
The film raises several important points of sociological interest. First, it deals with issues of power and class, and the role of organization in conflict. Second, the film reflects what C. Wright Mills (1961: 6) termed "the sociological imagination"--the ability "to grasp history and biography and the relations of the two within society." It shows that, ultimately, Douglas's life and his elevation to the role of Prairie Giant cannot be separated from his time and place.
Why do you think so many Prairie politicians have come from strong religious backgrounds? How did religion influence their political beliefs? Why do you think public health care was first introduced in a place like Saskatchewan and not in Ontario, for example? What characteristics of Saskatchewan made such a program more necessary and more politically acceptable?
Most states are imposing structures, but there was a time when little was solid, when every state lacked legitimacy in the eyes of many of its citizens, contending groups vied for dominance, violence was widely used to secure power, all was in the balance, and it was uncertain how things would turn out. Martin Scorcese's Gangs of New York recounts such a time in American history: New York between the 1840s and the Civil War.
"The forge of hell" is the way one character describes the city. Elections are rigged, city officials sell their services to the highest bidder, firefighters loot the buildings they "save," rival police forces brawl in the streets, the poor riot against the draft, Union soldiers force immigrants straight off the boat into uniform, and an audience greets an actor playing Abraham Lincoln with volleys of rotten fruit. At the centre of it all are the mobs of Irish immigrants who battle second- and third-generation "nativists" for political control--the Irish, led by Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), and the nativists, led by the vicious William Cutting, widely known as Bill the Butcher (played by Daniel Day-Lewis, who won an Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his performance). With ferocity unrivalled in the history of cinema, the gangs attack each other on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. When the dust settles, Priest Vallon's young son, Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio), swears to avenge his father's death.
At the level of its individual characters, the film is motivated by Amsterdam's quest. But because Scorcese is blessed with a deep sociological understanding of his subject matter, the individual characters become vehicles for a larger story, the chaotic origins of the American state. In the 1860s, New York was practically destroyed when the poor refused to be drafted to fight in the Civil War. They rioted and looted wealthy neighbourhoods until government ships in the harbour fired their cannons on them and troops marched in to silence them once and for all. The American state was in fact weak well into the 1870s, when it was still common for independent militias funded by wealthy local capitalists to counter labour unrest and riots by the poor.
In the final scene of Gangs of New York, an adult Amsterdam stands in a graveyard with his girlfriend, Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), remembering the victims of the Draft Riots. The scene fast forwards, and as it does, Amsterdam and Jenny disappear while the tombstones fade and vegetation grows over them. The camera pans up to focus on the familiar skyline of New York, solid and seemingly eternal. Thanks to Gangs of New York, however, we remember the frailty of all states and their conflict-ridden origins.
The President is caught having an affair with his aide. What should he do? Tell the truth? Deny having sex with the woman? Get people to change their definition of "having sex?" Hire a media consultant? Start a war to distract the public? Wag the Dog is a film about a sex scandal that embroils a fictional President. To cover up his sexual misconduct, the fictional President's advisers hire a Hollywood movie producer. The advisers and the producer create a fake crisis in a small, poor, remote country to divert attention from the President's woes. The producer films a newsreel, complete with computer-generated special effects, of a young girl fleeing a military skirmish. Television news programs air it. Seeing a young girl in distress, the public registers strong support for United States intervention in the war. Rather than reality informing political decisions, political convenience creates reality in the world of Wag the Dog. Although some people may feel that the movie is too cynical and even paranoid in its caricature of American politics, others would argue that it convincingly captures a key element of American political life.
In fact, the movie seemed to predict a real-life event. Several months after its release, President Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky became a major scandal. For about a year, few people could fail to bring up the Lewinsky affair when talk turned to politics. Politics seemed to focus on what "having sex" means. Moreover, in an eerie replication of the movie's plot, President Clinton ordered the bombing of Iraq in Operation Desert Fox soon after news of the affair broke. Regardless of the legitimacy of the military action, many concerned observers criticized Clinton's military tactic as a way of diverting the media's attention from his personal problems. Many viewers of the movie found it unsettling to see reality follow a movie script.
What does Wag the Dog tell us about American politics? Does it merely caricature our media-obsessed, cynical view of politics? Or does it capture a slice of reality? Is it even useful to insist on the distinction between media and politics?
When legendary country singer Johnny Cash was 12 years old, his older brother was killed in an accident and his father screamed, "God took the wrong son," assuming, unjustly and without evidence, that Johnny was to blame for the boy's death. Burdened by the loss of his beloved brother and his father's constant rejection, Johnny Cash became a deeply troubled adult. Fame didn't help. He drank too much, popped amphetamine pills like they were Tic Tacs, neglected his children, ruined his marriage, and did time for trying to smuggle narcotics across the border from Mexico.
Redemption arrives in the form of fellow performer June Carter (Reese Witherspoon, who won the 2005 Best Actress Oscar). Cash (played by Joaquin Phoenix, nominated for the 2005 Best Actor Oscar) pursues her relentlessly for years, eventually resorting to a proposal onstage in the middle of a performance.
She accepts, and from that moment, Cash's life changes. But it is not just June who rescues him with her love and support. It is the entire Carter family. The Carters display all the grace and generosity one would expect of a royal family, which is just about what they were in the country music scene. At a Thanksgiving dinner attended by the Carters and the Cashes at Johnny's new house, Johnny's father starts in on him with the usual put-downs. "So how do you like it?" Johnny asks his father, referring to the house. "Jack Benny's is bigger," snaps the father. But Mr. Carter springs to Johnny's defense, mildly rebuking Mr. Cash by asking rhetorically, "Oh, have you been to Jack Benny's house?" Johnny is upset enough to leave the meal but Mrs. Carter encourages June to go after him and ease his pain. Later, Johnny's supplier arrives with a fresh bag of pills, but June's parents chase him away with shotguns. They integrate Johnny into their family as the beloved son he always wanted and needed to be, and Johnny lives with June and their four girls from previous marriages happily ever after.
What is a family? A cohabiting man and woman who maintain a socially approved sexual relationship and perhaps have at least one child? By that standard definition, Mr. and Mrs. Cash and their children formed a family--but a pretty sorry one by any reasonable standard because their family failed to provide the emotional support that could have allowed Johnny to thrive and become a happy adult. The Carters were not part of Johnny's family according to the standard definition, but their generosity of spirit led them to treat him like a son anyway. Johnny eventually became part of their extended family, but only because they cared deeply for his welfare. The story of Johnny Cash suggests that the definition of a family as a cohabiting man and woman who maintain a socially approved sexual relationship and perhaps have at least one child may be too narrow. Perhaps it is appropriate to think of a family more broadly as a set of intimate social relationships that adults create to share resources so as to ensure the welfare of themselves and their dependents.
What values are implicit in the two definitions of the family offered above? Which definition of family do you prefer? Why?
His wife wants to kill him. So does his daughter. His daughter's boyfriend, who has been supplying him with marijuana, is willing to kill him on his girlfriend's behalf. The boyfriend's father, a retired Marine, is convinced his son is having a homosexual affair with him. So he wants to kill him, too. What does the character played by Kevin Spacey do to make so many people so angry in American Beauty? He gives up the pretences of a middle-class, suburban husband. He returns in spirit (and in body as well by exercising furiously) to his teenage self. He quits his job as a magazine writer and gets a new one as a cook at a fast-food franchise. He trades in his "boring" late-model sedan for an old sports car. He is no longer willing to continue his loveless marriage or to suffer his daughter's taunts. He lusts after his teenage daughter's best friend. However, giving up such important family roles--dependable breadwinner, solid citizen, loving husband, sympathetic father--has big consequences. It enrages people enough to want to kill him. American Beauty offers a depressing portrait of suburban American family life. The wife is a frustrated real estate broker. When she has an affair with a successful real estate broker, she appears more interested in advancing her career than in seeking pleasure or love. The pleasure and love she does experience seem to derive mainly from her lover's high status. The retired Marine is an angry, violent, and obsessive-compulsive man. He has drained the life out of his wife. He is also homophobic, although it turns out that he harbours homosexual longings, as homophobes sometimes do. In fact, about the only people who seem genuinely happy are the homosexual couple next door, who deviate from the suburban norm of heterosexual marriage.
Clearly, suburban America is far from being a utopia. Well-manicured lawns and beautiful gardens sometimes mask deep frustrations and pathologies. What makes the Kevin Spacey character so subversive, however, is that he spurns the comforts of middle-class, suburban life and endangers the well-established norms of the nuclear family. But how should we understand the movie's challenge to conventional suburban family life? Does the movie merely illustrate a psychological problem--a mid-life crisis? Or does it illustrate a deeper, sociological problem--the collapse of conventional gender and family roles in a rapidly changing society?
The first Harry Potter movie introduced us to Harry Potter (played by Daniel Radcliffe) who was orphaned when the evil wizard Lord Voldemort murdered Harry's parents and tried to kill Harry. The infant Harry, who bears a thunderbolt-shaped scar on his forehead as the result of Lord Voldemort's attack, is deposited by the gentle giant Hagrid on the doorstep of his unwelcoming relatives, the Dursleys. He lives a miserable, lonely existence. Shortly before his eleventh birthday, Harry's life is turned upside down. He is summoned to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. At Hogwarts, Harry learns that he is a witch. He makes friends, but danger lurks. For Voldemort stalks Harry, determined that he will yet accomplish what he earlier failed to do--kill the young wizard. Harry's battles with Voldemort continue through all the Harry Potter movies, but we see the Evil One in full for the first time only in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Together with his legion of Death Eaters, Voldemort now threatens to destroy Harry and his world. To overcome him, Harry and his friends must overcome fire-breathing dragons, rescue people trapped in a lagoon, and enter an enormous, complex maze where Voldemort hides, waiting for his prey.
Every Harry Potter movie has enjoyed enormous box office success. Children, many of them outfitted as if for Halloween, are prominent in the ticket lines. Some of the children are there on organized school field trips after studying the books at school. Although most people view the Harry Potter movies as harmless, others see things differently. They have denounced the films and the books on which they are based as "demonic." Many of the critics are conservative Protestants who claim that the book glorifies witchcraft, makes "evil look innocent," and subtly draws "children into an unhealthy interest in a darker world that is occultic and dangerous to physical, psychological and spiritual well-being" (Shaw, 2001). According to one Christian fundamentalist ministry, "the effect of [the movie] is undoubtedly to raise curiosity about magic and wizardry. And any curiosity raised on this front presents a danger that the world will satisfy it with falsehood before the church or the family can satisfy it with truth" (Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, 2002). Scenes from the Harry Potter movies have been scrutinized for possible demonic messages. A similarity has been proclaimed between the lightning bolt that appears on Harry Potter's forehead and the symbol adopted by Hitler's SS. Harry Potter books have been banned from some schools.
Do you agree with the decision to ban the Harry Potter books and condemn the movie? In general, do you think that religious organizations should be able to get schools to censor books and movies? If so, do you draw the line at some types of influence? Would it be acceptable if a white religious organization got a predominantly white school to ban the works of Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou because they say derogatory things about whites? Would it be acceptable if a Jewish religious organization got a predominantly Jewish school to ban Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice because it portrays Jews in an unflattering way? Would it be acceptable if a religious organization that was strongly influenced by feminism convinced students in an all-girls school to ban the works of Ernest Hemingway ("too sexist"), or if an anti-feminist religious organization convinced students in an all-boys school to ban the writings of Margaret Atwood ("too anti-male")? In general, should religious organizations be allowed to influence schools to censor, or should censoring by religious organizations be banned?
The Civil War (1861-65) outlawed slavery in the United States, but legal and violent resistance against black rights persisted for more than a century. In 1866, for example, an amendment to the Texas Constitution stipulated that all taxes paid by blacks had to be used to maintain black schools, and that it was the duty of the legislature to "encourage colored schools" ("Jim Crow Laws: Texas," 2008). In this segregationist atmosphere, the Methodist Church founded Wiley College in the northeast corner of Texas in 1873 "for the purpose of allowing Negro youth the opportunity to pursue higher learning in the arts, sciences and other professions" (Wiley College, 2007).
In 1923, Melvin B. Tolson was hired as a professor of speech and English at Wiley. He proceeded to build up its debating team to the point where they challenged and beat the mighty University of Southern California for the 1935 national debating championship. The victory shocked and scandalized much of the country's white population even as it instilled pride in African Americans, provided them with a shining model of academic achievement, and motivated black youth to strive to new heights. No self-fulfilling prophecy condemning black students to academic mediocrity operated at Wiley. To the contrary, Tolson worked his students hard, demanded excellence, and expected the best from them. Supported by the black community, they rose to his challenge.
The Great Debaters shows why the 1935 victory was anything but easy. Tolson (played by Denzel Washington) is harassed by the local sheriff, who brands him a troublemaker for trying to unionize local black and white sharecroppers. On one out-of-town road trip, Toslon and his debating team come across a white mob that has just lynched a black man and set his body on fire. They barely escape with their lives. The pervasive racism of the times might discourage and immobilize lesser men, but it steels Tolson and his debaters, who feel compelled to show the world what blacks are capable of achieving, even in the most inhospitable circumstances.
Historically, black colleges have played an important role in educating the black middle class in the United States, but since the 1960s, blacks have been able to enrol in integrated colleges and universities, so many black colleges have fallen on hard times. Wiley itself was in deep financial trouble until The Great Debaters sparked new enrolments and endowments (Beil, 2007).
The successes of historically black colleges raise an important policy issue that is being debated in Canada's big cities today. Can segregated black public schools benefit black youth and should they be funded out of general tax revenue? Critics of separate black public schools argue that Canadian multiculturalism seeks to teach tolerance and respect for all cultures, and that separate public schools for any minority group would therefore be a step backwards. Arguably, however, integrated public schools are still the home of self-fulfilling prophecies that make it difficult for black students to excel. Their curricula do little if anything to instill pride in the achievements of black individuals and the black community As a result, some black public school students dangerously identify academic excellence with "acting white," thus helping to condemn themselves to mediocre academic achievement and restricted social mobility. From this point of view, the achievements of historically black colleges like Wiley should be taken as a model of what is possible when black students are academically challenged and nourished in a non-threatening environment.
Garfield High School in East Los Angeles was on the verge of losing its accreditation in the early 1980s because so many of its students were failing. Because they were mostly Chicano and poor, the looming loss of accreditation was widely considered regrettable but hardly surprising. Enter Jaime Escalante, a tough and engaging idealist who quit his promising job in the computer industry to work twice the hours and earn half the money teaching at Garfield. Stand and Deliver is the true story of how Escalante, engagingly played by Edward James Olmos, inspired 18 students to study math in school, after school, on Saturdays, and during the summer so they could take the Advanced Placement Calculus Exam. Only 2 percent of high school students nationwide even attempt the exam. All 18 of the Garfield students passed, many with high grades. In two years, students with poor and failing grades--gang members, students with after-school jobs, students with onerous responsibilities taking care of their younger siblings and elder family members--registered the best performance in the Advanced Placement Calculus Exam in the southern California school system. Stand and Deliver shows how hard their struggle was. Parents discouraged them. "Boys don't like you if you're too smart," one mother told her daughter. Other students scorned them. One gang member requested three copies of his math book--one for the classroom, one for his locker, one for home--so he could avoid being seen walking around with a book in his hand. Teachers doubted them. "Our kids can't handle calculus," one teacher told Escalante at a staff meeting. The testing service even distrusted students' test results because they were so good, forcing students to take the test a second time just to prove there was no cheating and that a group of poor Chicano kids living in a barrio really could excel in advanced math. Throughout, Escalante persisted. "Students will rise to the level of expectations," he tells his fellow teachers. The principal asks: "What do you need, Mr. Escalante?" "Ganas," Escalante replied, "that's all we need is ganas." Ganas is Spanish for desire. There must have been plenty of it around Garfield. The number of Garfield students who passed the Advanced Placement Calculus Exam rose every year from 18 in 1982 to 87 in 1987, the year before the movie was made.
Stand and Deliver is an inspiring story of how students' school performances can be improved if they are encouraged to think highly of themselves, if much is expected of them, and if they are inspired by a dedicated teacher. It also raises the question of how more extraordinary teachers like Jaime Escalante can be attracted to the teaching profession. We hold teachers to high standards. We expect them to get a college education. We entrust them with the intellectual and moral development of impressionable children. We expect them to work with dedication and inspiration. We expect their behaviour to be morally impeccable and a model to their students. We maintain these high standards because we think education is so important and we love our children. Yet we pay teachers relatively poorly. How can this be explained? Why is there such a big gap between the high standards to which we hold teachers and the amount we're willing to pay them? What are the consequences for students in the public school system?
The Mass Media
The Fog of War surveys the life of Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and an architect of the Vietnam War. The film's format--a single talking head plus period film clips, photos, and audiotapes--might seem a recipe for tedium. Instead, master filmmaker Errol Morris presents us with a compelling work that won the 2003 Oscar for Best Documentary, a film that, if taken seriously by enough people, could change the world.
McNamara does what many people want to do but too few accomplish. He learns from the mistakes that he and others made or nearly made so he can clear away some of the "fog of war," the muddled thinking that accompanies all armed conflict. For example, a lesson McNamara derived from his involvement in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis is that you win most and lose least if you empathize with your enemy. He tells the story of how Tommy Thompson, former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, locked horns with President Kennedy. Kennedy believed that negotiating with the Russians to remove their missiles from Cuba was futile. He was prepared to start a nuclear war. Thompson, however, knew the Russian president personally and understood that he would back down from his belligerent position if presented with an option that would allow him to remove the missiles from Cuba and still say to his hard-line generals that he had won the confrontation with the United States. "The important thing for [him]," Thompson argued, "is to be able to say, 'I saved Cuba; I stopped the invasion.'" Thompson convinced Kennedy. Negotiations began and nuclear war was averted. "That's what I call empathy," McNamara observes "We must try to put ourselves inside [the enemy's] skin and look at us through their eyes."
Empathy, McNamara acknowledges, was absent a few years later when the United States began carpet bombing and deploying hundreds of thousands of troops in Vietnam. The U.S. administration thought the war would prevent Vietnam from falling under Chinese communist rule. It didn't appreciate that Vietnam had been a colony of China for a thousand years, and of France for nearly a century, and was now engaged in a bitter struggle for independence that the United States seemed eager to prevent. It was a costly misunderstanding. The American administration failed to appreciate the nationalist motives of the Vietnamese and underestimated their resolve. Fifty-eight thousand Americans and millions of Vietnamese died in the war.
Some analysts argue that the mass media contribute to the fog of war today by obstructing the development of empathy with the enemies of the United States. (Remember, empathy does not mean having warm and fuzzy feelings about an enemy, but rather understanding things from the enemy's perspective so that the United States can design policies that enable it to win most and lose least.) Many representatives of the mass media are aware of their failings in this regard. Thus, once it became evident in 2004 that Iraq lacked weapons of mass destruction and had few or no ties to Osama bin Laden, and that the Iraqi insurgency against the United States was determined and widespread, representatives of several major American newspapers and television networks virtually apologized to the public for not subjecting the administration's case for war with Iraq to sufficient scrutiny. Even after these admissions, media self-censorship was widespread according to some analysts. Some media outlets, notably Fox News, failed to present balanced coverage as a matter of editorial policy, while some journalists spoke in muted tones for fear of losing their assignments. Arguably, therefore, Americans have an imprecise picture of the situation on the ground in Iraq, knowing little about the true impact of the war on civilians, the extent of popular support for the insurgency, the population's attitudes toward the American military presence, and other crucial matters. In The Fog of War, Robert McNamara argues that willingness to re-examine one's reasoning is an essential element of successful warfare. Arguably, however, media-imposed limits on public knowledge made it difficult for the American public to develop an informed opinion about what to do in order to maximize gains and minimize losses in Iraq.
Whenever Truman tries to leave his island hometown, something always happens to prevent his departure. When he is about to board a boat, he grows frightened of the water. When he drives down the freeway, the police turn him back because of flood damage or on some other pretext. Although he is a middle-aged, married man, he has never stepped outside his hometown, the sterile, almost Disney-like community of Seahaven. The Truman Show presents the life of Truman, played by Jim Carrey. Truman turns out to be the main character in a television show. He doesn't know it, but since birth his life has been televised in the world's longest-running soap opera. Unlike most soap operas, however, Truman's life is on television 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. He lives in a town created by the television producers. Actresses and actors play all the people in his life--including his wife. A young woman who once had a bit part in the show becomes an activist to free Truman. She even appears on the show to tell Truman the awful truth. Eventually, Truman manages to enter a new life by walking off the vast television set that had been his world until then. The Truman Show suggests the mass media are so powerful that they have collapsed the distinction between illusion and reality. Thus, Truman's life is synonymous with his television show. Until he escapes, his reality is the creation of a compassionate but all-controlling television producer, a God-like figure appropriately named Christof (played by Ed Harris). Does The Truman Show overstate the power and influence of the mass media? Is it really the case that some people have trouble distinguishing fact from fiction, media representations from real-life events? To the degree that the mass media shape our reality, is it possible to walk off the set, like Truman did? If so, how? Do people even want to walk off the set? In 2003, there were more than 42 000 public-access cameras connected to the World Wide Web, many of them in college dorms, apartments, and frat houses. "Reality TV," spearheaded by programs like Survivor, Big Brother, and The Bachelor, was TV's hottest genre. Have the people who have connected cameras to their websites and starred on reality TV shows become so many willing Trumans?
Health and Medicine
Roughly one-sixth of Americans have no access to healthcare and another one-sixth lack adequate coverage. It would be too easy to tell horror stories about the former, so Michael Moore's Sicko does not dwell on them. Instead, his widely acclaimed documentary tells viewers how ordinary Americans who have healthcare are routinely shocked to discover just how inadequate their coverage is. Here are three cases in point:
woman faints on a sidewalk and is taken to the
hospital by ambulance, but her insurer bills her for
the trip because she didn't have
it pre-authorized. "How could I have it pre-authorized
when I was unconscious?" she asks.
This is what happens when healthcare becomes a profit-making enterprise. People are forced to visit only the doctors and hospitals designated by their health maintenance organizations (HMOs)--privately owned companies that administer medical treatment in return for a fee paid by individuals, unions, and employers. HMOs give bonuses to claims investigators and doctors for denying claims and avoiding expensive procedures. Fine print denies treatment for medical conditions that existed prior to signing up with an HMO. These mechanisms help to make HMOs profitable, but they lower life expectancy in the United States below the level of life expectancy in other rich countries.
Moore visits Canada, France, the United Kingdom, and Cuba, and makes the healthcare systems of these countries seem perfect. They are not. For example, Canadians know all too well that governments and the medical community are working hard (and with some success) to shorten waiting times for elective surgery and diagnostic procedures, increase the availability of expensive imaging equipment, and so on. But whatever the shortcomings of universal medical care, Sicko serves as a cautionary tale for those who sing the praises of privatization. As Moore says, "If you want to stay healthy in America, don't get sick."
After 32 years, Warren Schmidt (played by Jack Nicholson) is retiring from his job as an assistant vice-president of an Omaha insurance company. At his retirement dinner, Warren sits listlessly as his young replacement makes a glib speech in his honour. An old friend offers a more heartfelt toast. A job is unimportant, his friend says, and praises Warren for achieving things that are more important: a loving family and the respect of his peers. Warren, however, doesn't see his life that way. When his wife serves him a gourmet breakfast and rhapsodizes about the good times they will soon have travelling about the country in their spacious new mobile home, he responds with a sullen look. He shuffles aimlessly around his large house. He is unexcited by his daughter's upcoming wedding in Denver and maligns his future son-in-law to his wife. He visits his successor at his old workplace, but his offer to help out is politely refused. While sprawled in front of the television, channel surfing, Warren sees an ad for ChildReach, an international organization that encourages viewers to spend $22 a month and foster-parent an impoverished child in a developing country. He does so. Soon he starts corresponding with the six-year-old orphan in Tanzania. In his first letter, Warren gives vent to his dissatisfaction with post-retirement life and the physical signs of aging he witnesses in himself, and expresses feelings of revulsion toward his wife. When he returns home from mailing the letter, he finds his wife dead on the kitchen floor. He responds in a way that reveals his long-familiarity with actuarial tables and utter self-absorption: he grumbles about how, statistically, his wife's death has negatively affected his own life expectancy.
Several weeks later, he sets off in his mobile home across the country. He phones his daughter and tells her that he will arrive early for her wedding so that they can spend more time together. However, his daughter tells him that she is busy and asks him to delay his arrival.
Interspersed with visits to old neighbourhoods and museums, Warren writes to his foster child. When Warren finally returns home, a letter from Tanzania awaits him. Written by a nun who cares for his foster child, it politely thanks him for his generosity and gently reminds him that the boy is too young to read or write. The child has, however, drawn a picture, which is enclosed with the letter, a stick figure of a small child holding the hand of an adult. Schmidt looks at the drawing and bursts into tears.
About Schmidt reminds us of the importance of social relationships to life satisfaction and good health. Although women in North America are statistically more likely to face the problem of adjustment to widowhood and living alone, North American men also experience widowhood as a deeply stressful event. Their high rates of suicide, remarriage, and mortality following bereavement suggest as much. Moreover, retirement may also be experienced as stressful, especially for men, who are encouraged to define themselves almost exclusively by their work role. As life expectancy has increased in our society, retirement has become a benchmark of old age and often a time of crisis.
Patch Adams, played by Robin Williams, is suicidal. Checking into a mental hospital, he finds that the doctors, who are supposed to be helping him, are indifferent. In contrast, other patients help him overcome his suicidal urges. He resolves to become a doctor to help other patients. Patch Adams, based on a real person of the same name, breathes humour and life into the dreary world of the modern hospital. As an intern, Adams finds that patients are identified by their ID number and disease. Doctors and nurses seem more concerned about medical charts than their patients. Finally, Adams startles a nurse by asking her about a patient: "What's her name?" The very idea that a patient may be something more than his or her medical records reveals the impersonal and bureaucratic nature of the modern doctor-patient relationship. Patch Adams is intent on infusing personal care, humour, and humanity into the doctor-patient relationship. In dealing with children whose hair had fallen out because of chemotherapy, Patch plays a clown in order to bring smiles to their faces. He believes humour and laughter can be a great cure.
Not surprisingly, Adams faces resistance from medical school administrators. After all, he deviates significantly from the norm of impersonal professionalism. They attempt to expel him from the medical school. With support from his friends and patients, however, he manages to win a court battle to remain in medical school. In real life, Patch Adams goes on to become a medical doctor, who not only maintains a sense of humour, but also continues to live up to his ideals, including helping poor patients around the world.
Patch Adams is a sentimental movie, pitting the humorous individual against the grim organization. However, the movie critic Roger Ebert wrote: "To himself ... [Patch Adams is] an irrepressible bundle of joy, a zany live wire who brings laughter into the lives of the sick and dying. To me, he's a pain in the wazoo. If this guy broke into my hospital room and started tap-dancing with bedpans on his feet, I'd call the cops." Here, Ebert is saying that the norm of professionalism--grim and impersonal though it may be--may be preferable to the antics of Patch Adams. Do you agree with Ebert? Would you prefer your doctor to be a "human being," or simply to play his professional role efficiently and effectively? What are the health advantages and disadvantages of each approach to doctoring?
8 Mile Road is a depressing stretch of rundown buildings, gas stations, fast-food outlets, and strip malls that separates the rich and poor areas of Detroit, the most racially segregated city in the United States. South of 8 Mile Road, Detroit is overwhelmingly African American. The suburbs north of 8 Mile Road are overwhelmingly European American. Jimmy "Rabbit" Smith (played by Eminem) is a member of the white minority in the poor area. He and his family live in a trailer park near 8 Mile Road. Rabbit slouches and keeps a beanie pulled low over his head, as if hiding from the world or keeping it at bay. His close friends think he is a gifted rap artist, but his more numerous enemies think a white boy rapping is a travesty. They ridicule Rabbit and call him Elvis. He meets Alex (played by Brittany Murphy), a beautiful young woman who discerns his talent, but she betrays him. No wonder Rabbit is sullen and angry, reserving his rare smiles for his little sister. Two rap competitions bracket the movie. In the first session, Rabbit has 45 seconds to out-insult his opponent. Instead, he freezes and is laughed and booed off the stage. In the second session, near the end of the movie, he has 90 seconds to prove his mettle. This time, he succeeds brilliantly. The lyrics in the second rap session are worth heeding for their sociological implications. Rabbit first anticipates the attack of his African American opponent, Papa Doc, by listing his own deficiencies: I'm a white rapper, I'm a bum, I live in a trailer with my mom, my friend is so dumb he shot himself, my girlfriend betrayed me, and so forth. "Tell these people something they don't know about me," Rabbit taunts. After taking the wind out of his opponent's sails, he dissects Papa Doc with the following words:
But I know something about you: You went to Cranbrook, that's a private school. What's the matter dawg, you embarrassed? This guy's a gangsta? His real name's Clarence. And Clarence lives at home with both parents. And Clarence's parents have a real good marriage.
Cranbrook is a prep school in Bloomfield Hills, a Detroit suburb north of 8 Mile Road. Clarence, it turns out, is not quite the streetwise gang member from a single-parent family he makes himself out to be. Clarence, however, is big news. Between 1970 and 1990, the number of Americans living in high-poverty neighborhoods (where the poverty rate is 40 percent or higher) doubled. During the economic boom of the 1990s, the process of poverty concentration went into reverse. Two and a half million Americans moved out of high-poverty neighbourhoods and mostly into less impoverished, older, inner-ring suburbs around major metropolitan areas. Nowhere was the reversal more dramatic than in Detroit.
The phenomenon represented by Clarence is encouraging yet fraught with danger. On the one hand, poor people are better off if they are widely dispersed rather than spatially concentrated. Spatially concentrated poor people have to deal not only with their own poverty, but with a violent environment, low-performing schools, and a lack of positive role models. Thus, the exodus from the inner city is a positive development because it puts poor people in neighbourhoods where poverty is less concentrated. On the other hand, the exodus increases the percentage of poor people in many of the older, inner-ring suburbs around major metropolitan areas. Particularly now that the economic boom of the 1990s has ended, this may result in the migration of many of the social ills of the inner city into the inner suburbs. If Clarence's children grow up where he did, they may be less susceptible to the ridicule of an Eminem.
A dark cloud of smog hangs menacingly over a city. Magnificent skyscrapers and brilliant, hundred-foot-high billboards pierce the clouds. Rich people live in the skyscrapers. Their lives are immaculate, orderly, and enhanced by the latest technologies. At ground level are the teeming poor. They live in shacks. Their lives are dirty and disorderly. Danger and crime are everywhere. Here, then, is a tale of two cities. It is Los Angeles in 2019. The movie is Ridley Scott's classic, Blade Runner.
Blade runners are police officers who hunt runaway "replicants," or human-like robots. Replicants live and work in space colonies as virtual slaves. They look and act like humans. They live only four years. Occasionally, however, some of them escape. It is the job of blade runners to hunt them down and terminate them. In the movie, Harrison Ford plays a blade runner searching for a group of runaway replicants. They want to find their designer before their four years expire so they can force him to extend their lives. In the course of his hunt, the character played by Ford falls in love with one of the replicants, played by Sean Young. Blade Runner is science fiction, yet it mirrors aspects of urban life today. For instance, although the movie was made in the early 1980s, its depiction of Los Angeles as a tale of two cities--one rich, the other poor--is more realistic now than it was 20 years ago. Furthermore, the story of the blade runner and the replicants reminds the audience of an everyday drama that unfolds in all large American cities. Every day, immigration control officials search out and terminate the residency of people trying desperately to extend their lives by working illegally in America. As you envisage the American city in the future, do you think it will look more or less like Los Angeles in Blade Runner?
Most summers, Hollywood releases a disaster movie in which a highly implausible catastrophe serves as the backdrop for heroism and hope. Murderous aliens invade or a large meteor hurtles toward Earth, and humans face the prospect of going the way of the dinosaurs. Audiences return home momentarily frightened but ultimately safe in the knowledge that the chance of any such cataclysm is vanishingly remote.
The Day After Tomorrow follows the usual script. The movie opens with a sequence of bizarre meteorological events. A section of ice the size of Rhode Island breaks off the Antarctic ice cap. Snow falls in New Delhi. Hail the size of grapefruits pounds Tokyo. Enter Jack Hall (played by Dennis Quaid), a scientist whose research suggests an explanation: sudden climate change is a very real possibility. The idea becomes a political football when it is ridiculed by the Vice-President of the United States, but once torrential rains and a tidal wave flood New York City, Hall's theories are vindicated. In a matter of days, temperatures plummet--at one point, they fall 10 degrees a minute to 150 degrees below zero. The entire northern hemisphere is plunged into a new ice age. Almost everyone freezes to death in the northern United States, while millions of desperate southerners flee into Mexico. A human drama unfolds along with the disaster. Hall's estranged son (Jake Gylenhaal) and his girlfriend (Emily Rossum) are in New York when the storms hit. Hall makes his way from Washington, D.C. to rescue them and achieve reconciliation with his son.
Although it seems like standard fare, The Day After Tomorrow is a Hollywood disaster movie with a difference, for it is based on a three-part idea with considerable scientific support. Everyone agrees with Part 1: since the Industrial Revolution, humans have released increasing quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as we burn more and more fossil fuels to drive our cars, furnaces, and factories. The great majority of--but not all--scientists agree with Part 2: the accumulation of carbon dioxide allows more solar radiation to enter the atmosphere and less heat to escape. This contributes to global warming. As temperatures rise, more water evaporates and the polar ice caps begin to melt. This causes more rainfall, bigger storms, and more flooding. Part 3 is the most recent and controversial part of the argument. The melting of the polar ice caps may be adding enough fresh water to the oceans to disrupt the flow of the Gulf Stream, the ocean current that carries warm water up the east coast of North America and the west coast of Europe. Computer simulations suggest that decreased salinity could push the Gulf Stream southward, causing average winter temperatures to drop by 10 degrees Fahrenheit in the United States Northeast and other parts of the northern hemisphere. A recent Pentagon study suggests that such climate change could cause droughts, storms, flooding, border raids, large-scale illegal migration from poor regions, and even war between nuclear powers over scarce food, drinking water, and energy. The Day After Tomorrow greatly exaggerates the suddenness and magnitude of what scientists mean by abrupt climate change. "Abrupt" can mean centuries to climatologists, and temperature drops of 10 degrees a minute are pure fantasy. Still, at the movie's core lies an ominous and real possibility.
The Day After Tomorrow also teaches us an important sociological lesson about the framing of issues by social movements and their opponents. Environmental problems do not become social issues spontaneously. They are socially constructed in what might be called a "framing war." Just as Jack Hall and the Vice-President sparred over the credibility of Hall's prediction of sudden climate change, so do groups with different interests dispute all environmental problems, framing them in different ways so as to win over public opinion. Before environmental issues can enter the public consciousness, policy-oriented scientists, the environmental movement, the mass media, and respected organizations must discover and promote them. Members of the public also have to connect real-life events to the information learned from these groups. On the other hand, some scientists, industrial interests, and politicians inevitably dispute the existence of environmental threats. For example, the big oil-producing states, oil companies, and coal producers deny that global warming is a problem and hire scientists to help them make their case. Consequently, some members of the public have begun to question whether global warming is really an issue. Part of the environmentalists' response involved piggybacking their message on The Day After Tomorrow. In the months leading up to the release of the movie, they bombarded journalists with emails explaining global warming and offering interviews with leading scientists on the subject. Newspapers and magazines around the world subsequently carried stories on the issue. Environmentalists then distributed flyers to moviegoers leaving theatres. In this way, The Day After Tomorrow became not just another disaster movie, but part of the framing war around one of the major environmental issues of the day.
One of the greatest movies of all time is a story about frame alignment. It is the Oscar-winning account of how British Colonel T.E. Lawrence, played by Peter O'Toole, helped to turn divided Arab tribes into a united movement for national independence from Turkey. The Arabs had fallen under Turkish rule in the 1500s and subsequently endured a deep political and cultural decline. However, in World War I (1914-18), Turkey fought against Britain, and Britain recognized in the Arabs a potential ally against the Turks. In the movie, the British use Lawrence to unite the Arabs against their Turkish overlords. At first, the British military dismisses the squabbling Arab tribes as "a nation of sheep stealers." Enter Lawrence. He sees in them a real people and a potentially valuable ally against the Turks. As a result, he sets out to align the beliefs of the Arabs with his own thinking. He accomplishes this task by word and example. By force of personality, he convinces tribal leaders that disunity will only ensure Arab status as a petty people, unable to gain its freedom and recapture the scientific, architectural, and literary glories it had achieved centuries earlier. Conversely, he argues, unity will ensure political freedom and cultural flowering.
Words, however, are not enough to galvanize any more than a few tribes. Lawrence understands he can effectively align the beliefs of the Arabs with his own ambitions only by showing in practice how unity creates power. And so, in the movie, he proposes a land attack on the Turkish-controlled port of Aqaba. It is an outlandish idea because a land attack requires the nearly impossible crossing of a long stretch of barren desert known as "The Sun's Anvil." It is, however, an idea that is strategically dazzling, for the Turkish guns at Aqaba are stationary and they point out to the Red Sea, not inland. Fighting thirst, hunger, and fatigue, Lawrence leads his supporters across The Sun's Anvil. In Aqaba, the Turks, defenceless against the land attack, lose hundreds in battle and quickly capitulate. It is a turning point. The British military, now convinced that Lawrence can unite the Arabs, gives him guns and artillery to continue his campaign against the Turks. Arabs throughout the Middle East take pride in their military accomplishments. They emerge at the end of the war by no means a fully united national independence movement, but at least able to see the possibility of Arab unity.
Lawrence of Arabia is a great movie, but it is flawed because it gives too much credence to Lawrence's own self-promoting account of events and not enough to other credible historical sources that emphasize the native origins of Arab nationalism. Thus, the roots of the Arab national movement lay deeper than the movie allows. The movement first began to stir more than 60 years before Lawrence arrived in the Middle East, having sprung up among semi-Westernized Arab intellectuals in urban centers like Beirut and Damascus in the late 1840s. Similarly, Arabs alone conceived and executed the all-important raid on Aqaba. In the words of one historian, Lawrence participated merely as "a trusted friend and companion-in-arms" of Faisal, a tribal leader and later King of Iraq. Lawrence's exercise in frame alignment certainly helped stimulate the Arab national movement, but, as these examples illustrate, by overstating and romanticizing Lawrence's role, Lawrence of Arabia understates the Arabs' part in fashioning their own destiny.
The movie does, however, accurately portray the duplicity of the British, and it shows how they helped to arouse a more militant Arab nationalism. The British promised the Arabs independence after World War I in exchange for their support against the Turks. In 1916, however, they made a secret deal with France to divide up much of the region. After the war, Britain ruled part of the Middle East, and France another. Increasingly, the United States, too, exercised substantial influence over parts of the region. This fuelled anti-Western resentment on the part of the Arabs. Western support for the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 further inflamed Arab nationalism and anti-Westernism. So did subsequent Western political and military intervention to ensure access to the region's enormous oil reserves. Thus, what began as an exercise in frame alignment turned out to be the world's most intractable political problem in the early twenty-first century.
Technology and Society
"Have you ever felt that there's something not right in the world?" With these words, The Matrix introduces Thomas Anderson, played by Keanu Reeves. Respectable software programmer by day, notorious hacker by night, Anderson, who goes by the handle "Neo," is plagued by the thought that there is something wrong with the world. "You don't know what it is," he says, "but it's there, like a splinter in your mind."
Neo discovers what's wrong when he encounters two legendary hackers, Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss). They introduce him to the secret of his day world and the reality of the Matrix. It turns out that the "reality" lived by Neo and others is a form of collective imagination made possible by a gigantic computer, the Matrix. Neo and other people are nothing more than power supplies housed in liquid-filled containers. They supply the Matrix with energy. The Matrix, in turn, supplies these "batteries" with images, making them feel they are living, not merely dreaming.
Only about 250 000 humans have managed to escape the Matrix. Morpheus, Neo, Trinity, and the others live in Zion, near Earth's core. In The Matrix Reloaded, machines are rapidly drilling toward Zion, the destruction of which--and therefore the end of humanity--is just 36 hours away.
The imminent destruction of humanity by machines is also the theme of the Terminator series. The first Terminator movie begins in Los Angeles in 2029, where a battle rages between superintelligent machines that rule the world and the few surviving humans. A killing machine known as a Terminator (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) is sent back to 1984 to eliminate John Connor, the future leader of the human resistance movement, thus ensuring the victory of the machines in 2029. The Terminator does not accomplish his goal, and in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, a kinder, gentler Terminator is sent back to 1995, this time to protect John Connor from a more advanced Terminator machine, the T-1000 (Robert Patrick). About 10 years later, in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, the Terminator is once again transported to the past to protect John Connor, this time against a still more advanced Terminator, the T-X. He saves O'Connor and O'Connor's future wife, but the deadly machine complex known as Skynet manages to destroy almost every human on Earth.
The idea of people inventing machines that try to destroy their creators is not new. It first surfaced in 1580, when, according to legend, a rabbi in Prague built a creature known as a Golem to protect the Jews from their enemies. The Golem ran amok and had to be destroyed. Mary Shelley revived this theme in her 1818 novel, Frankenstein, and it has been with us ever since. The Matrix and Terminator series increase the scale of the problem and add extraordinary special effects, but beyond the glitz is the same anxiety. We continue to suspect that technology is not always a means of improving human life. Increasingly, we think it is antagonistic to human values and that, unless we are careful, it can destroy us.
These anxieties are not just the stuff of fiction. Bill Joy, formerly Chief Scientist at Sun Microsystems and co-developer of the Java programming language, predicts that within decades new genetic entities and microscopic robots ("nanobots") will be routinely programmed to make copies of themselves. For example, nanobots designed to make water from hydrogen and oxygen, or viruses engineered to kill crop-damaging insects, will be programmed to self-replicate so the job can be accomplished faster. However, a programming error or a genetic mutation could result in the copying process getting out of control. An out-of-control virus mutation could kill crops rather than harmful insects. An out-of-control water-manufacturing nanobot could flood the world and leave it without land. Another danger, Joy asserts, is that the new technologies democratize the ability of people to do evil. Unlike the construction of a nuclear bomb, the creation of a deadly virus requires relatively inexpensive equipment that is commercially available. Therefore, a single crazed or politically motivated scientist can do much damage to the world. Joy's remarks have gained credibility since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent anthrax attacks in the United States. The Matrix and Terminator series give voice to these growing concerns.
(c) Robert J. Brym (2008)
Movies as Sociological Data
collect data by conducting surveys, observational
studies, and experiments. They also scavenge existing
data, hunting for evidence of social patterns in
newspapers, diaries, and historical archives. Why not
hunt for sociological data in movies? Movies are as
much a human product as, say, newspapers are. Because
they are made by and about people in particular social
and historical contexts, movies can tell us a lot
about typical patterns of inequality, ways of raising
children, forms of deviance, and just about all other
aspects of social life. In fact, because movies are
easily accessible, relatively inexpensive, and often a
lot of fun, they are in many ways an ideal
sociological data resource for undergraduates.
Now it is your turn to try your hand at writing your own movie review from a sociological perspective. The following template outlines the steps you should take in selecting a movie to review, what to watch for and think about from a sociological angle while watching the movie, and finally, how to write your review. Good luck--and see you at the movies!
How to Watch Movies from a
The sociological perspective suggests at least five criteria for evaluating movies, any one or more of which may be highlighted in a review:
How does the movie reflect its social
context? What can we learn about social conditions in a
particular time and place from the movie? How and why
are the social conditions depicted in the movie
different from social conditions in other times and
places? For example, James Bond movies from the 1960s
and 1970s have much to say about the Cold War, the
rise of the United States and the USSR as superpowers,
the decline of the United Kingdom in world affairs,
and men's attitudes toward women. After the early
1990s, social and political change influenced the way
these themes were depicted. It would make a
fascinating sociological project to review old and
recent James Bond movies with the aim of identifying
these changes and the reasons for them. Similarly,
Tarzan, Superman, and Disney movies could be analyzed
with the aim of identifying change in underlying
social conditions as reflected in the movies.
Writing Your Review
you have selected the movie you want to review and
watched it bearing in mind the evaluative criteria
listed above, you are ready to begin writing your
* Format. Your
review should have a title page specifying the title
of the movie you are reviewing, your name, the names
of your instructor and class, your student ID number,
and the date you are submitting the review. The title
page should be followed by the body of the review,
which should be about 750 words long--about
three double-spaced pages using a 12-point font. If
you cite any sources, the full citations should appear
in a separate References section at the end. Use the
standard Chicago citation style (see http://library.osu.edu/sites/guides/chicagogd.php).