On Values Dissonance in Art: The Changing of Perceptions With Time

“It’s me! A caricature!” (Image Credit: StarWars.com)

A few weeks ago, I rewatched the Brendan Fraser led ‘Mummy’ film.

Being a 90s’ child, I had grown up with it. I used to love it, and frankly, the interest I had in ancient Egypt probably originated here. As I watched parts of the film something kept sticking out to me: parts seemed uncomfortably racist. Actor Omid Djalili plays an Arab character who the script doesn’t even name: he’s just ‘Prison Warden’. He is the recurring butt of jokes, thoroughly unlikeable, and thoroughly sleazy and greasy looking, contrast to his clean-cut British and American travelling companions. He is greedy, selfish, annoying and, as is mentioned multiple times, he smells bad. “What is that horrid stink,” one line roughly goes before Prison Warden climbs down after the speaker. An “Oh” follows it. About ten minutes later, he will be attacked by a flesh-eating beetle and run head-first into the pyramid wall, killing himself. No one, in film or out, will miss him. In truth, many of the white Americans aren’t given names either, but none of them feel treated anywhere near as disrespectfully.

Prison Warden is essentially interchangeable with Watto from the Star Wars prequels, and if you ever wondered why that character was ‘accused’ of being a racist caricature, look at the exact same characterisation being applied to an an actual human role — it should be noted, some critics also charged Watto as being an antisemitic caricature. Both those characters were brought to life in the same year: 1999, two decades ago now.

Earlier this year, I had revisited another film I used to like as a youngling: Peter Jackson’s King Kong. What surprised me, as I contrasted it with the original ’33 version, is that somehow, despite decades of time between the two, the modern film offered up ideas just as, if not even more, racist than the original.

The original film has stereotypical ‘natives’ who kidnap Ann Darrow and use her as a sacrifice for Kong. They choose her over the black woman they were already planning to sacrifice. The implicit message is they find her ‘more beautiful’ because of her white skin. If the Jackson film thankfully loses this implicitly racist switcheroo — he frames the sacrifice as being from a perceived ‘connection’ between Ann and the ape (her scream results in the ape roaring) that the Skull Islanders take as a sign — he offers plenty of imagery to give Edward Said a headache. The Islanders attack the film crew in a scene of horror. They have wild bloodshot eyes, scream and holler, and murder freely and without mercy. The scene features a heavy beating pulse — of dread, of anxiety — accompanying the slaughter. A slow motion effect is placed on the scene giving the Islanders a distorted, eerie and inhuman movement. Following this, as Ann is sacrificed, Jackson offers up scantily-clad black women shrieking, jiggling their breasts, and rolling their eyes in some kind of hypnotic erotic dance.

The Mummy didn’t really hold up enough for me to be overly invested in trying to defend it. But there will inevitably be works that we cared for, and still deeply do, that when we look back on we love just as fiercely and still want to defend. The question arises is — can it be defended, or do we grit our teeth and accept the outdated depictions? Neither of the two films mentioned above can be defended; their displays are so blatant, so upfront, it strikes me as impossible to even try to put a positive, defensive coating on them. Rewatching those films, I genuinely felt uneasy that these displays were put on screen and the young me missed them. Following that feeling came the realisation that if I had been a non-white person those ridiculous caricatures and devilish depictions would have probably left me with a sense of discomfort back then. Now, after several years of following these discussions, do I realise and pick-up that the non-white characters are frequently sidekicks, loathsome, deadly or outright silly. For much of my life, it’d have usually just passed me by. I really didn’t take any serious heed a decade ago, as a teenager, how predominantly white and male Western media is as a default.

Sometimes I wonder if we’ve genuinely come a long way in the last two decades. And then, on the other hand, I remember the 2016 Power Rangers trailer, the black teen still seemed to be the primary comedic side character. He even had a high-pitched girlish scream as he was the only member to apparently not jump with quiet bravery into a giant crevasse. So maybe the emasculation of black men is continuing as a trend; I never saw the film, it looked bad overall. Another recollection brings to mind when pop artist Meghan Trainor released a body positivity song, ostensibly celebrating larger bodies. Instead, it took petty shots at ‘skinny bitches’ and ultimately only turned the shame towards other women; even well-intentioned attempts can stumble and reinforce the same problem they sought to challenge, it seems.

In a time when the criticisms of negative representations is more forefronted than ever, many film companies have been offering more diverse casts, more marginalized directors opportunities, more of what people who have felt left-out for too long demand. And now, too often many mistake the film industry’s offerings as genuine in place of deliberated marketing schemes. They do it because it works for them. If it didn’t, they’d stop and find something else that did. In this case, the hand that gives can easily take away again. But these offerings are the product of the changing perceptions and social mores for our time.

The last decade in particular seems to have had boon in the popularity and acceptance of social justice. ‘I’m a feminist’ is no longer a term many women fear to apply to themselves. The negative stereotypes of the ‘angry feminist women’ have been radically chipped away. It is now common to see celebrities embracing the cause where once they might have sidestepped it. Likewise, documentaries like ‘The Problem With Apu’ are being made, giving focus to how a beloved sitcom character became a means to bully Indian children. Most studios still balk at the prospect of featuring openly gay characters, and yet want a piece of the praise by shuffling a few “totally gay” minor figures in there somewhere.

The poster for the 1982 Conan the Barbarian film.

As we look back, we’ll inevitably see depictions from bygone eras that frustrate, shock, bemuse or outrage us. Then the question becomes how do we deal with it? Calls have been made to remove D.W Griffiths’ ‘Birth of a Nation’ from film curriculums. Its racist sequences and celebratory images of the Ku Klux Klan caused a boost in their popularity at the time of its release. Another post called for libraries to remove works by authors like Robert E. Howard, his Conan stories featuring racist depictions (dark-skinned savages with pointy teeth, for example) that are deemed offensive. Is this the only way, a scorched earth policy towards art that reflects the backwards and bigoted views of its time? It can seem overzealous. Some works are genuinely great and only slightly marred by their outdated textual aspects. Other works have more deeply ingrained racial issues. Should we do away with those? I don’t think total censorship is the way. Even with the outdated features of such works, much can be learned by future film-makers or writers by studying them. Removing them in totality seems almost a way to deny history, to punish those long dead rather than change the present.

Sometimes, I think, there are charges brought to a work that are overstated. I don’t think the claims that Tolkien’s dwarves are anti-semitic overly convincing. They exhibit very few, if any, actual Jewish stereotypes. They are not money-lenders, but craftsman, and they eat pork: at the unexpected party, Bombur eats pork pies and Thorin asks for bacon for breakfast. Other criticism feel invented or influenced by other works (like the Jackson adaptations) such as claiming the dwarves have ‘big noses’ — no such description is given. Some bring to light an interview from the 1950s where Tolkien speaks of them seeming ‘rather Jewish’. His references are their language being ‘of the earth’ and their loss of a homeland to the dragon Smaug; the Ereborian dwarves are scattered around Middle-Earth. It’s also important to note that between 1937 and the 50s, the entire culture and perception of dwarves in the mythos had changed: the post-Rings dwarves were heavily reworked from simply borrowing their Norse origins as in The Hobbit. And yes, the author slammed the Nazi party’s anti-semitism as immoral.

On the other hand, some of depictions in A Song of Ice and Fire’s (a series I also love) Essos setting, do make me cringe a bit. Martin’s secondary setting lacks the immersive and believable feel of the primary one. Where the people of Westeros feel like potentially real figures, those of Essos feel more two-note. And the attempts to make their culture feel ‘exotic’ falls back too often on the ridiculous (haircuts shaped like animals) or the discomfitingly Orientalist (eating locusts, dogs, and blood-sport as entertainment). I consider Essos’ world-building to be the weakest aspect of the books. Still, one can feel the effect of these elements, but also continue to enjoy the excellent aspects of the books.

In a less “forgivable” example, Temple of Doom is a much harder film to swallow in terms of its depictions. Situated between the excellent Raiders and very good Last Crusade, Spielberg and Lucas’ second instalment offers not only a significantly weaker plot, but also a barrage of ridiculous caricatures including Indians eating chilled monkey brains and snakes, as well as a man’s heart being magically removed to be offered to the Hindu goddess Kali. Throw in an annoying stereotypical Chinese boy sidekick and replacing the rough-edged but admirable Marion with Willie, a damsel so obnoxiously useless we all wish Indy would just leave her in distress somewhere.

(Image Credit: Universal Pictures)

The sheer cartoonish absurdity of it makes the piece really unworthy, and frankly impossible, of defence. The only way to defend it is simply to accuse the people most likely to be offended of ‘hyper-sensitivity’ and thereby tell Indians, Chinese people, and women to accept the dehumanizing depictions of either their culture or their sex. These depictions, though intended as comedic, reinforce archaic notions of the Eastern world as less civilised and barbaric. The peoples customs are strange, frightening, and bizarre. We’re supposed to “eww” at the scene. It, ultimately, relates to a broader problem born from the historical Western conquest and exploitation and how the Western view conceived of these new people and places.

The problem with a lot of Western works — be they set in real places or fantastical ones — is that too often as they verge away from the familiarity of their own hemisphere, the places become more simplified, vague and reliant on caricature. In the case of Temple, it honestly looks like Lucas wanted recreate the Eastern adventures of the past adventure serials, but never really thought to update their officious portrayals of those cultures. He simply had Spielberg recreate it. Jackson seemed to see the Islanders from a horror-film perspective, blithely ignoring how animalistic and violent depictions of black people has historically reinforced their oppression and dehumanization. Too often these choices feel made in ignorance of the historical, or current, contexts. It’s important for creators to question aspects of their work, moving forward, and research issues where appropriate. Things that may be deemed harmful or offensive slip by certain eyes because we do not feel the extent of their impact. White people were never made fun of because we look like Apu, basically.

A lesson the internet demanded J.K Rowling learn. Much was written about her displays of ignorance in the Illvermorny episode of her world-building and how it disrespected Native American cultures. Others have pointed out other areas of her short-sightedness, such as having one school for entire continents. This bit of world-building shows a shocking lack of concern for language, culture and histories of conflict. In other words, she should have done some research into those things. As it is, it just reads as ignorant and laughably impractical. On the other hand, Fantastic Beasts Jacob is actually the first time an overweight character as been portrayed positively in Rowling’s Potter series. Some have pointed out she often treats physical unattractiveness as a manifestation of an ugly character. Artists can be problematic in one realm, yet improve in another. It’s not a zero sum game, I think we often find.

In a contradictory sense, when one looks at the demand for greater diversity in The Witcher adaptations, it raises the question of whether or not it should retain its Polish origin and be adapted as a celebration of Polish folklore and culture, or give into the demands for American representation interests, or can a balance between the two be found?

But I suppose much of this will come down to the individual, and what ‘problematic’ aspects feel too serious to overlook (I, frankly, don’t imagine anyone outside of an actual Klansman being comfortable with D.W Griffiths’ film) and what can be accepted and acknowledged to the piece, but is ultimately not ruinous of the piece. For me, I am comfortable continuing to appreciate the artistic and intellectual qualities of many works, even if I have to shut my eyes and shake my head when certain elements come up. Even reading The Lord of the Rings, as much I like to defend Tolkien, Ghan-buri Ghan does speak in a stereotypical ‘native’ way. Ultimately, he wrote what he knew, and what he knew was influenced by the dominant perceptions of his time. It’s a slight blemish on a great book to me.

And I guess that’s where I stand.

My passions include cinema, literature, fantasy, psychology, music/guitar, photography and ancient/medieval history.

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