Sunday, July 06, 2008

Sometimes it's exhausting being a humorless fat feminist

I grew up in a family of college professors; specifically, philosophy professors. My parents and their friends are professional critical thinkers, and our dinner table conversations were often on the esoteric geeky side. Sometimes this was cool, sometimes it was embarrassing, but whatever: it was what it was, and every family has its own weirdnesses. This was just ours. (Well: one of ours.) But one area where the parental penchant for critical thinking really used to get on my nerves was post-movie discussions. We'd go see a flick - not necessarily anything highbrow, it could just as easily be Lethal Weapon as The Unbearable Lightness of Being - and then afterwards we'd go to Perkins for dessert or coffee and talk about the movie. Or, as I thought of it then, mercilessly disect the movie until any lingering enjoyment was completely eradicated. "Can't you just like a movie and be done with it?" I'd ask exasperatedly, only to be patiently told that they did like the movie, this was their way of showing they liked it, criticism doesn't imply dissatisfaction, blahblahblah and my thirteen-year-old eyes were rolled completely back into my skull. Parents are so WEIRD.

Fast-forward to college, and I start realizing the inescapable truth that the more you know about something, the less possible it is to have a naive enjoyment of that thing. Major in theatre, and you can no longer view a production of Cats with unalloyed, unironical pleasure. You might still get a kick out of it, but not the same kind of kick those sweet ladies from the Lutheran church group in row 3 who just cannot BELIEVE they are getting to see a REAL! BROADWAY! SHOW! are getting. My English major friends lamented that they could no longer really lose themselves in a good novel. Worse: knowledge of some topics precluded any enjoyment of certain pop-cultural tropes whatsoever. Once you've had your feminist awakening, you notice there's a lot of misogynist shit out there that just ain't funny. Things your less-awakened friends might still find hilarious, you just find ... depressing. Or angering. Or nauseating. Same goes for when you get hip to GLBT rights, or civil rights for people of color, or class issues, etc., etc., etc. Often, after that first initial shock, you get inured again and can once more watch mainstream media without wanting to kill someone or hurl, but when you're really intensely immersed in race issues, class issues, gender issues - well, let's just say I can remember a semester in grad school where I could only watch carefully selected VHS movies, because I was so hyper-attuned to sexism that any other media exposure just squicked me right the hell out. And those of you who know me will understand how sensitive I must have been to cut out TV viewing, because I loooooooooooooves me my teevee.

The shitty thing about being gender-race-class-sexuality-younameit aware is that it can feel awfully lonely and ill-tempered. More than a few times I've gone to a movie with Mr. Squab or friends and everyone else comes out saying "that was fun!" or "good movie!" and I'm the only one going "well, I liked parts of the movie, but why did they have to keep making those dumb homophobic jokes all the time?" or "but there was only one female character, and she was just a sex object!" or whatever. And then everyone gets all uncomfortable, like, well, yeah, of course homophobia/sexism/racism is bad but why can't you just like the movie and be done with it? Squab is so WEIRD. Which is a response I totally get, and I'm not trying to be Debbie Downer, but you know ... I just can't not see that stuff anymore.

All of which is an extremely long preface to saying, Mr. Squab and I saw Wall-E this evening, and I liked parts of the movie a lot, but the representation of the humans really fucking bothered me. I love Pixar films generally - their animation is amazing, they really pay attention to crafting a good story with interesting characters, and they maintain that sense of wonder and playfulness mixed with a little snark that's the hallmark of good family entertainment (like the Muppet Show or Bugs Bunny cartoons or the Animaniacs). Sure, they've got some gender problems, and that bugs me, but I usually really enjoy seeing their films. Anyway, in Wall-E, one of the central story conceits is that human beings have abandoned planet earth to live in luxurious, cruise-shipesque spaceships, where their every need is catered to by smart robots, and even the ability to walk is obviated by personal hovercraft thingies that transport them wherever they might want to go. Due to their nearly total lack of physical activity and (possibly) their unhealthy diet (though this is unclear), they have all morphed into hugely obese, puffy slug people. Helpless puffy slug people. Who apparently have atrophied brains as well as muscles, since they don't really notice their surroundings until Wall-E shows up to jolt them out of their sluggishness, in some cases literally jolting them out of their hovercrafts, at which point they flail around like upturned turtles (fat people can't move normally! Fat people's bodies are hilarious!) until their helper robots come to set them gently upright.

Now, there were a lot of things I liked about this movie: the female robot, Eve, is pretty kick-ass, and one of the most progressive/feminist female characters I've ever seen in an animated movie. The animation is as gorgeous as I'd expect a Pixar film to be, and the first 1/2 hour, which is entirely without dialogue, is an amazing example of visual storytelling. But the fat jokes, y'all: I can't get over the fat jokes. Partly because I don't buy into the notion that we'd all be the same size and shape no matter HOW inactive/unhealthy we were. Humans are too variable; some of us just don't balloon up no matter what. But more, the fat jokes weren't even necessary. Just as much - or more! - physical humor could have been derived from the humans' atrophied muscles and loss of bone density, irrespective of their size, as was got from the tired old fat=funny trope that was in this movie. The fat gags were the easy, brainless humor-shorthand option, and I've come to expect more from Pixar than taking the easy way out. Why they gotta play me like that?

More on this here, here (scroll down), here and here. The director's take, FWIW, is here.