As other readers have said, what bothers me most isn’t this particular movie, but the unyielding loyalty to this particular format — the white person investigating an unfamiliar culture and bringing enlightenment to his/her peers, which in turn brings about social change, or the start of it.
As for “To Kill a Mockingbird,” I never said it was a bad novel. It’s lovely, and the film is lovely, too. But it has been used as a template for a lot of inferior movies and books by people who seem to think that if you have a noble and charming Atticus Finch character, it’s acceptable to keep Tom Robinson on the sidelines — that indeed, without an Atticus Finch, it is impossible to make anybody care.
There have indeed been some very good movies (and books, and plays) in this vein.
But when you see the same approach taken over and over and over again, even into the 21st century — with whites expected to become a minority themselves within a decade or two — you have to wonder what the real agenda is.
The filmmakers surely think they’re bringing wisdom into the world and shining a light on a grim corner of the past. But movies such as “The Help” and “Crash” might in fact have a cumulative, negative effect, because they invite the white audience to identify with the enlightened character and paint the racist ones in such broad strokes that it becomes impossible for the bigots to recognize themselves in them.
There is, ironically, a moment in “The Help” where one of the characters articulates this problem without even meaning to. One of the racist Junior Leaguers confronts Skeeter over carrying around a copy of the Mississippi code governing the separation of the races, and lectures her about how, “Believe it or not, there are real racists in this town” — meaning violent rednecks or perhaps Klansmen who would hurt her if they found out that she was becoming some kind of agitator. This woman thinks she’s not one of the “real” racists.
That would be an excellent, self-aware moment if the character weren’t such a horrendous cardboard shrew, hateful to everyone, impossible to like even for a second. Viewers can look at her and think, “Hah, she thinks she’s not a real racist — what an idiot, she’s obviously a huge racist,” and not recognize that they might in fact have a subtler impulse toward racism themselves. I don’t think films like “The Help” contribute in any meaningful way to that kind of self-recognition.
I also resent the self-congratulatory tone that so many of these films take toward the era they depict. They invite everyone to think, “Wow, things sure were terrible back then — it’s a good thing that era is over with!”, and never make the leap into the present and consider that racism isn’t gone. There is still overt racism, but the subtler and more insidious, coded forms, and the passive racism, are a huge force in everyday life, and they are almost never addressed by Hollywood because doing so would require real creativity. Racism in Hollywood movies is mostly cross burnings, lynchings, rednecks spitting the n-word at downtrodden African-Americans as they march down Main Street, and so forth. And Matt Dillon’s corrupt cop manhandling Thandie Newton at a traffic stop in “Crash.” And the white supremacist gun store owner in “Falling Down,” who is there to reassure us that the unhinged, smug, paranoid hero played by Michael Douglas isn’t a “real” racist, just a guy who’s having a bad day and who feels lost in his own country.
"The Help" is an entertaining movie. Parts of it are moving. But it’s not really part of the solution, it’s a manifestation of the problem.
I also disagree strongly with the idea that these sorts of stories NEED to have a white protagonist, or major character in the ensemble, to draw in white viewers.
Women manage to find ways to care about movies that are about men. Black and Latino and Asian viewers somehow manage to project themselves into films about white folks. People in other countries consume American films avidly despite often have little or no firsthand experience with American life. Sometimes they don’t even speak the language. Sometimes they’re watching the films on bootleg DVDs with bad or nonexistent subtitles! Yet they still manage to get into the film if it’s well-made.
Any movie that is sufficiently entertaining, beautiful and funny can draw any viewer into any story and make whatever points it needs to make, and it doesn’t have to be ham-handed about it, either.
The insistence on telling these types of stories over and over again through a white lens represents a pathetic abdication of the creative power of movies.
These fictitious people in the zoo had a big board supposedly showing stock market quotations and commodity prices along one wall of their habitat, and a news ticker, and a telephone that was supposedly connected to a brokerage on Earth. The creatures on Zircon-212 told their captives that they had invested a million dollars for them back on Earth, and that it was up to the captives to manage it so that they would be fabulously wealthy when they were returned to Earth.
The telephone and the big board and the ticker were all fakes, of course. They were simply stimulants to make the Earthlings perform vividly for the crowds at the zoo – to make them jump up and down and cheer, or gloat, or sulk, or tear their hair, to be scared shitless or to feel as contented as babies in their mothers’ arms.
The Earthlings did very well on paper. That was part of the rigging, of course. And religion got mixed up in it, too. The news ticker reminded them that the President of the United States had declared National Prayer Week, and that everybody should pray. The Earthlings had had a bad week on the market before that. They had lost a small fortune in olive oil futures. So they gave praying a whirl.
You don’t have to read this essay to know whether you’ll like it. Just go online and assess how provocative it is by the number of comments at the bottom of the web version. (If you’re already reading the web version, done and done.) To find out whether it has gone viral, check how many people have hit the little thumbs-up, or tweeted about it, or liked it on Facebook, or dug it on Digg. These increasingly ubiquitous mechanisms of assessment have some real advantages: In this case, you could save 10 minutes’ reading time. Unfortunately, life is also getting a little ruined in the process.
A funny thing has quietly accompanied our era’s eye-gouging proliferation of information, and by funny I mean not very funny. For every ocean of new data we generate each hour—videos, blog posts, VRBO listings, MP3s, ebooks, tweets—an attendant ocean’s worth of reviewage follows. The Internet-begotten abundance of absolutely everything has given rise to a parallel universe of stars, rankings, most-recommended lists, and other valuations designed to help us sort the wheat from all the chaff we’re drowning in. I’ve never been to Massimo’s pizzeria in Princeton, New Jersey, but thanks to the Yelpers I can already describe the personality of Big Vince, a man I’ve never met. (And why would I want to? He’s surly and drums his fingers while you order, apparently.) Everything exists to be charted and evaluated, and the charts and evaluations themselves grow more baroque by the day. Was this review helpful to you? We even review our reviews.
Technoculture critic and former Wired contributor Erik Davis is concerned about the proliferation of reviews, too. “Our culture is afflicted with knowingness,” he says. “We exalt in being able to know as much as possible. And that’s great on many levels. But we’re forgetting the pleasures of not knowing. I’m no Luddite, but we’ve started replacing actual experience with someone else’s already digested knowledge.”
Of course, Yelpification of the universe is so thorough as to be invisible. I scarcely blinked the other day when, after a Skype chat with my mother, I was asked to rate the call. (I assumed they were talking about connection quality, but if they want to hear about how Mom still pronounces it noo-cu-lar, I’m happy to share.) That same afternoon, the UPS guy delivered a guitar stand I’d ordered. Even before I could weigh in on the product, or on the seller’s expeditiousness, I was presented with a third assessment opportunity. It was emblazoned on the cardboard box: “Rate this packaging.”
Our ever more sophisticated arsenal of stars and thumbs will eventually serve to curtail serendipity, adventure, and idiotic floundering. But more immediate is the simple problem of contamination. When the voices of hundreds of strangers, or even just three shrill ones, enter our heads, a tiny but vital part of ourselves is diminished. Suddenly we’re breached, denied the pleasure of articulating our own judgment on this professor, or that meal, or this city. It’s a fundamental bit of humanness to discover, say, the Velvet Underground for the first time—to rifle through that box of records at 13 and to reach an unbiased and wholly personal verdict on those strange sounds. Is it pretty? Ugly? Why are they out of tune?
There’s an essential freedom in being alone with one’s thoughts, oblivious to and unpolluted by anyone else’s. Diminish that aloneness and we start to doubt our own perspective. Do I really think Blue Bottle coffee is that great? Or Blazing Saddles that funny? Do I really not like that pizza place because it isn’t authentic New York-style? Sure, it’s entirely possible to arrive at one’s own opinion amidst a cacophony of others. But it’s also possible to bend, unknowingly and imperceptibly, toward a position not naturally our own.
Life demands assessment. Indeed, it’s often improved by hearing from the Roger Eberts of the world (or whoever the equivalent is in the Review Your Purchases genre). But we have to watch how much outside assessment we let in. There’s something heartbreaking about surrendering to strangers the delicate moment of giving order to the world. In those instances when we bring our cognitive reasoning to bear on our surroundings, when we aim our singularly human powers of evaluation at a piece of art or a fellow person, it’s a fundamental expression of the self. There are wonderfully democratic and empowering things about an Internet full of anonymous voices. But when those opinions replace our own blundering around for truth, we’re in trouble. Too much charting becomes an unnecessary handrail, too many floodlights along the dark path. I give that only two out of five stars.
“If our young men miscarry in their first enterprises, they lose all heart. If the young merchant fails, men say he is ruined. If the finest genius studies at one of our colleges, and is not installed in an office within one year afterwards in the cities or suburbs of Boston or New York, it seems to his friends and to himself that he is right in being disheartened, and in complaining the rest of his life. A sturdy lad from New Hampshire or Vermont, who in turn tries all the professions, who teams it, farms it, peddles, keeps a school, preaches, edits a newspaper, goes to Congress, buys a township, and so forth, in successive years, and always, like a cat, falls on his feet, is worth a hundred of these city dolls. He walks abreast with his days, and feels no shame in not ‘studying a profession,’ for he does not postpone his life, but lives already. He has not one chance, but a hundred chances.”—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance (via jacecooke)
It’s cute to be the token Luddite at TechCrunch — but it’s also hugely disingenuous. I’m writing this stuff on Twitter, and on a hugely popular technology blog. You could cut the irony with a knife.
The truth is, I love technology. It’s rare that I dismiss or disparage a new gadget, app or company without trying it out at least once; and I certainly believe that – on balance – the more technologically advanced we become as a society, the better the world becomes.
And yet increasingly I wonder whether, for the sake of humanity, it might not be a bad thing if the earthquake comes and tips all of web 2.0 into the sea.
I should possibly explain.
The Internet — particularly “web 2.0″, with its communities and tagging and reuniting and friending and liking — was supposed to civilize us all. The idea was that by connecting the whole world through a variety of social networks and crowd-sourced standards of behavior (from reputation scores on eBay to Yelp reviews for dog walkers) – people would be driven to greater empathy for, and responsibility towards their fellow man. When Randi Zuckerberg sat on stage at DLD ’08 and told us the story of the Palestinian and Israeli children brought together through their joint membership of a Facebook group about soccer, we all shed a tear. Web 2.0 is working — it’s really working!
In the early days, the entrepreneurs behind these services really seemed to believe the gospel they were preaching. Anyone who has met Craig Newmark will testify that he lives and breathes customer service — turning down acquisition offers and obsessing over how his eponymous List can help connect communities in ways that enrich society. When they invented Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin really did dream about making the world’s data easier to access. Jimmy Wales, for all of his fixation with personal celebrity, really is passionate about a free and open encyclopedia, and has turned down a large amount of personal profit to realize that dream.
At first, Web 2.0 seemed like a perfect two-way street. Brilliant entrepreneurs who genuinely wanted to change the world built services that we all wanted to use. They became rich, and our lives became better connected. We were all in it together.
Fast forward just a handful of years, though, and something has gone very, very wrong with that particular social contract. We users have kept our side of the bargain — dutifully tagging our friends in artificially-aged photos, and checking in at bars, and writing reviews of restaurants. We’ve canceled our newspaper subscriptions, and instead spend our days clicking on slideshows of “celebrities who look like their cats” or obsessively tracking trending topics on Twitter. We’ve stopped buying books published by professional houses and instead reward authors who write, edit and distribute their own electronic works through self-publishing platforms. We’ve even handed the keys to our cars and our homes to strangers.
On the face of it, the entrepreneurs have continued down the same track too: inventing ever more Disruptive companies to further improve the world, and in doing so enjoying multi-billion dollar valuations and all the trappings of fame and fortune. Even richer have grown the angels, super-angels and VCs who carefully nurture young entrepreneurs, molding them into the next breed of Mark Zuckerbergs and Sean Parkers, reminding their charges that “what’s cool” is a billion dollars — and that every new user acquired is another dollar added to their eventual high score.
And yet. AND YET. You only have to look at a couple of mini-outrages that bubbled up in the past few days to realize just how misaligned the interests of some entrepreneurs have become with those of the human beings they rely on for their success.
This time last week, the musical world mourned the death of Amy Winehouse. Almost immediately, the Huffington Post approved a post by unpaid contributor, Tricia Fox, entitled “Amy Winehouse’s Untimely Death Is a Wake Up Call for Small Business Owners“. We were all shocked, of course, by the callousness and cynicism of the headline — but we weren’t really surprised. We take it for granted now that the most popular online publications rely on search engine traffic for their survival. We know that, in many cases, “content” sites don’t employ editors to monitor what appears on their pages — and that those editors who are employed are encouraged to blindly approve any headline that name-checks a trending topic or two. Arianna Huffington talks a good talk about the democratization of journalism — but every so often we are reminded of the grimy truth: making money with online content is a question of attracting millions of eyeballs, whatever the moral cost.
An even more grotesque example of this was this week’s Airbnb scandal — the so-called #ransackgate (ugh).
Having been convinced by the company’s mantra of throwing open our doors to the world for monetary reward, a user by the name of “EJ” was shocked when a stranger comprehensively trashed her home. We’ll have to await the outcome of the police investigation to understand what really happened to EJ’s apartment, but what we know for sure is that Airbnb’s immediate, and subsequent, reaction was grotesque in its inhumanity. I’m not talking about the company’s initial apparent unwillingness to pay compensation — I’m talking about the behavior of the (unnamed) co-founder who wrote to EJ and asked her to remove her blog post about the incident, lest it affect the company’s ability to raise millions more dollars. From EJ’s blog…
‘I received a personal call from one of the co-founders of Airbnb. We had a lengthy conversation, in which he indicated having knowledge of the (previously mentioned) person who had been apprehended by the police, but that he could not discuss the details or these previous cases with me, as the investigation was ongoing. He then addressed his concerns about my blog post, and the potentially negative impact it could have on his company’s growth and current round of funding. During this call and in messages thereafter, he requested that I shut down the blog altogether or limit its access, and a few weeks later, suggested that I update the blog with a “twist” of good news so as to “complete[s] the story”’.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, we also know for sure that investors in the company leaned onpublications like TechCrunch to stop reporting the story. Their ludicrous wail of protest: AIRBNB IS RUN BY NICE GUYS! IT’S NOT FAIR TO CALL THEM OUT WHEN THEY SCREW UP!
The question of whether Airbnb is run by nice guys is irrelevant. For all I know CEO Brian Chesky is a modern day Mother Theresa who had to break off his important work curing kitten cancer to deal with this growing PR nightmare. What’s relevant — and all too obvious — is that good old Brian and his co-founders stand to make millions, if not billions, of dollars from the success of Airbnb. His investors stand to make even more. That kind of wealth can easily drive the most saintly of us to behave in inhuman ways — to become so remote from reality and humanity that users like EJ become (at best) PR problems to be solved and (at worst) irrelevant pieces of data; eyeballs or clicks or room nights to be monitized in the pursuit of an ever greater exit.
And therein lies the real problem of web 2.0 — whether it takes the form of SEO-driven “news” or crowd-sourced accommodation. To make money — real money — at this game you have to attract millions, or tens of millions, of users. And when you’re dealing with those kinds of numbers, it’s literally impossible not to treat your users as pieces of data. It’s ironic, but depressingly unsurprising, that web 2.0 is using faux socialization and democratization to create a world where everyone is reduced to a number on a spreadsheet.
Sarah Lacy has written about how many of the current breed of silicon valley wunderkinds have been conditioned to behave like the movie version of Mark Zuckerberg, eschewing humanity and decency for personal profit and glory. Nothing either she nor I can write will reverse the trend — there’s simply too much money and power at stake. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t loudly call bullshit on those who use words like “disruption” and “revolution” and “democratization” as cynical marketing buzzwords simply to line their own pockets, only to retreat behind the barricades when the going gets rough. And it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t mourn a not-too-distant past where technology entrepreneurs created things to make the world a better or more interesting place, not just because they wanted to make a billion dollars.
And above all, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t remind the current breed of entrepreneurs and investors that, in the final analysis, a billion dollars isn’t actually all that cool. What’s cool is keeping your soul, whatever the financial cost.