I’ve heard the phrase “mindless, silly fun” bandied about a lot lately, most often in reference to Transformers 2, but not at all limited to it. I think that people who use this term are a little misinformed as to what “mindless, silly fun” actually is and how subversive and deceptively influential such movies and books can really be. While it is certainly possible that one audience member goes out of the theater or closes a book being no worse for wear than having wasted a few hours of time, another audience member might be influenced (perhaps subconsciously) by dissident content carelessly placed in the property.
First of all, I know there are some movies and books that don’t aspire to be greater than the sum of their parts. Such works even aspire to culminate into something far lower than even that. And that’s fine. Movies like Crank and Shoot ‘Em Up come to mind. These movies do not try to be anything above what they appear to be on the surface. There are no themes explored or characters developed, and they only have plots in the loosest sense of the word. They exist because someone wanted a 90-minute action scene periodically broken up with some meaningless, forgettable dialogue. And that’s fine because that’s all they were ever intended to be.
But that still doesn’t mean that whatever is actually included in those movies does not impact people. Once produced, any creative work takes on a new life, uncontrollable by the creator, which is solely dependent on what the audience brings to it. What some people write off as being “mindless, silly fun,” I consider to be disarming at best and sometimes downright harmful. I mean, in Crank, Jason Statham actually starts to rape Amy Smart’s character in public, and she fights him off until she realizes how “hot” it is and starts to consent. On some level, it is feasible for someone to take this scene and consider it to be acceptable, when it really is not on many different levels. Any instance of rape should be frowned upon, but when “grey area” examples like this are portrayed in a positive light, it does nothing but lessen the impact of a legitimate menace.
I have two major concerns regarding this misnomer at the moment: Transformers 2 and Twilight, the latter admittedly more than the former. One of the most used defenses for either of these properties is that I am looking too hard at something that was never intended for such intense scrutiny because they are just “mindless, silly fun.” The problem with this assertion is that neither of these properties attempts to be just that. They both try (and fail, if you ask me) to delve into deeper narrative structure and philosophical discussions. They were formed not as a diversion, but as genuine piece of art in their respective media.
And when something like that becomes a media sensation, deeper scrutiny must exist in order to determine what makes it continually draw in new audiences and to examine whether the maker succeeded at creating something worthwhile or failed and left a husk that only hints at what was intended and actually does more harm than good. There has to be more than what I see on the surface of both of these properties because their surface is nothing but generic. They both appeal to the lowest common denominator in the audience with many elements, giving audiences what they think they want solely because that is what they are used to the media giving them.
Jenn pretty much sums up all of my feelings on Transformers 2 in her review, but let me go through my reasoning behind why the elements she discusses are detrimental and have no place in a movie that is just “mindless, silly fun.” While there are many stereotypes in the movie: men are scared of commitment, women’s utility is directly proportionate to how attractive it makes them, college professors are pompous windbags only out to sleep with barely legal co-eds, the one I’ll use as an example here are the two jive-talking robots (complete with gold teeth and articulated illiteracy!) in the movie passed off as comic relief.
Their most noticeable problem is that they’re not funny, but that’s entirely subjective. But that points out what is wrong with their inclusion in the first place. They perpetuate a stereotype which should not even be considered funny. They don’t tell jokes so much as exist solely as examples of a parody of stereotypical misrepresentation of African-Americans. Their inclusion in the movie is reminiscent of blackface, which has no valid use anywhere except in self-aware irony like Robert Downy, Jr.’s character in Tropic Thunder.
In order for such stereotypes and labels to lose any power they hold over a group of people, they must first fall out of common use. I sometimes like to think that our culture is moving slowly in that direction, but movies like Transformers 2 put us back at square one. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t think this kind of inclusion was based on any form of malice. Instead, I think it made its way into the movie out of pure ignorance. The robots were put in not to hurt anyone, but to entertain, and that’s where the movie being subversive comes in.
Just because something is not intended to have an effect does not negate the fact that the effect is possible.
Even though the robots are not intended to come across as a robo-slur, that’s what they are. And because there was no malice behind their inclusion, their destructive capabilities are heightened. It’s easy to overlook characters angrily shouting racial slurs and just assume they were (poorly) put in for effect, but it is when the degradation becomes a part of the background that its real power takes hold because the negativity is absorbed peripherally and never has a chance to go through any conscious filters. Only people who are already actively aware of such stereotypes are able to see through the pretense of hilarity. By making racially offensive robots “funny” rather than “in your face,” Michael Bay perpetuates a stereotype among people (children, for example) who might have never consciously considered this kind of subversion, and in doing so, he keeps the stereotype in use, which would make it begin to lose its power, rather than letting it die the death it’s deserved for decades.
Now, Twilight. Where to begin? Where to begin? Where…to…begin?
Admittedly, I have lots of dislikes regarding Twilight as a popular culture phenomenon and why I think it is sorely lacking the substance that other franchises of its stature have, but those quibbles aren’t necessarily pertinent to this argument, so I’ll stick with the ones that are. Primarily, Edward Cullen and Bella Swan’s first-person narration which justifies his actions to the reader.
But first, let me get this out there: I think Twilight had a great deal of potential, specifically dealing the narrative, but many factors (including poor writing, characterization, and worldbuilding) limit the series to where the potential was never realized. Instead, readers are subjected to four novels of fluff (and mind you, I like fluff) that influence what many people, even those outside of its target demographic, consider a healthy relationship. Again, I’ve been told that I’m looking too much into Twilight because it’s just “mindless, silly fun” that lets (mostly) girls fantasize about the perfect man they’ll never have.
And that’s my problem. Edward Cullen is not the perfect man, and people should consider themselves lucky that they never have to deal with anything similar to his abuse. Edward is perpetuating the myth that the more moody and tortured (to steal my girlfriend’s phrase) a man is, the more likely it is that he has a heart of gold underneath that can be uncovered if he is loved enough. And that’s bull. I’m not saying that there aren’t people who change over time when given the right circumstances, but staying in an abusive situation in hopes that one day he’ll magically be better because you’re in love is unrealistic.
But that’s Bella and Edward down to a “T.” Edward is often cited as being beautiful or seraphic or majestic or some other word that’s supposed to mean he’s pretty, and because of that, he has power over Bella. I know many grown women who have told me that Edward is what they wished they could have found in a mate. I think that is repulsive. When questioned, these women say that Edward is “sweet.”
I ask them about when he grabs Bella and forces her into his car against her wishes, and their response is generally that it was for her own good. I say: who is he to determine what is good for her? That’s a sign of a typical abusive relationship, and readers need to be aware of that. Bella accepts his behavior because he “loves” her, but if there was any real connection shared between the two of them, Bella would not be stripped of her independence. And that he does it by physically maneuvering her where he wants her makes it even more despicable. Readers should be very aware that a major sign of an abusive relationship is unwanted and forceful physical contact. But it’s okay in Twilight because they’re in love. Let me think about it in that regard. …No, it’s still not.
I then ask about him breaking into her house at night, only to watch her sleep? They respond that it’s sweet and he does it because he cares about her and wants to be near her all the time. I say: That’s not love; it’s infatuation at best and obsession at worst. I’m in love with my girlfriend, but I absolutely do not want to spend every minute of my free time in her presence, nor does she want me to. We are separate individuals with separate (but overlapping) interests and lives. Edward poring over Bella while she sleeps is analogous to an abusive partner keeping tabs on the other partner’s whereabouts and activities at all times. It’s unhealthy. But because Stephenie Meyer tells readers that it’s suitable (through Bella’s first-person narration), it becomes peripherally accepted as being okay when it’s not.
And then there’s Edward stalking Bella when she goes out of town with her friends. I ask the women I know who read it about this part, and they tell me that it’s okay because he was protecting her and looking out for her own good. I say: stalking is never okay. Yes, I’ll admit, Bella was in a sticky situation with the punks who were going to mug/potentially rape her, but she only put herself in that situation because she knew that Edward was literally stalking her (and she liked it!). In New Moon, Bella continually puts herself in harm’s way because she wants to hear Edward’s voice in her head telling her not to do something stupid. She is so enamored with him that she has become addicted to the very idea of him. Let me say it again: this is unhealthy. Women who see this kind of behavior and write it off as “protection” need to take a step back and realize that relationships are more than having one person keep tabs and determine what is best for the other.
And yet, all of this could be looked over in Twilight, were it not for being presented through Bella Swan’s eyes. Because the novels are written in first-person, the reader has a front-row seat for only what Bella sees. There is no objective distance, so all events are skewed through the lens of her whiny, unsympathetic, pseudo-depressive teenage angst. Twilight falls into the same vat of problems that Transformers 2 does: it presents Edward’s behavior so that it is absorbed without passing through any objective filters. For the same reason stereotypes being billed as “funny” affects readers, so does first-person narration. There is no distance for a narrator to make it clear to the reader that “this is just how Bella sees it;” her words and thoughts are the only way that Edward’s abuse is relayed to the reader, making every action he takes become hazed by her rose-colored glasses.
If Bella doesn’t realize that her relationship is abusive, there is no way for an uninformed or easily influenced audience to either. The benefit and detriment to a first-person narrative is that the narrator is sometimes unreliable. It can make for fantastic storytelling, but it takes a master writer to develop the nuance required to pull it off. Stephenie Meyer is not a master writer. She might be like Michael Bay in that the subversion in her stories is unintended, but that makes it all the more dangerous. Without a steady hand guiding the prose to make sure that it is crafted well enough to not harm readers, chances are good that there will be someone impacted negatively because of authorial negligence.
So the next time someone tells you that a movie or a book or a game is “mindless, silly fun,” be sure to tell them that it will never be just that. There will always be someone impacted by a work, no matter how obscure or how harmless and silly it might be. The danger is even greater with works that become cultural icons because their reach becomes so wide that there is really no accounting for it. That places a great deal of responsibility on authors and filmmakers to make even the “mindless, silly fun” works actually possess content that is worthwhile instead of two and a half hours or a thousand pages of filler. I’m not calling for a revolution of politically correctness or anything like it. I just ask that creators have a little foresight and responsibility when they release something for public consumption. As Tesh, said in a comment on Jennifer’s review of Transformers 2, there is no “excuse for poor quality and offensive content. Garbage in, garbage out.”
Couldn’t have said it better myself.