Apu and Charlie Chan Syndrome

I’m long since finished with ‘The Simpsons’ outside of the occasional re-run, but I had to comment on this.

Apparently, the show has decided to drop the venerable character of Apu in the face of ‘controversy’ over his ‘blatantly racist’ portrayal. Said ‘racist portrayal’, as far as I can tell, amounts to that he has a ‘stereotypical Indian’ accent and works in a convenience store.

This is a bit of a pet peeve of mine, but why is it that a certain segment of commentators seem to regard any non-White character with an accent to be a racist caricature, regardless of how the character is actually portrayed? I remember back when I watched ‘The Nostalgia Critic’ he did this all the time; like calling Fisher Stevens’ character in the ‘Short Circuit’ movies a racist stereotype because he…had an accent, I guess? Despite the fact that he’s portrayed as a perfectly decent human being and even takes over the role of human protagonist in the sequel.

I remember back in my corporate days we were forced to watch a video on ‘diversity,’ wherein we were shown a talk by an Asian gentleman who started off speaking with a very thick accent, then abruptly dropped it for a Midwestern-style voice. The idea, apparently, was that it was racist for us to assume he would speak with an accent. I pointed out that we only assumed that because he was in fact speaking with an accent.

Really, do the people who complain about this think that no one speaks with thick accents? Or do they think that finding accents funny is somehow ‘racist’? Because it’s not like anyone laughs at British, German, French, Italian, Texan, Minnesotan, or New York accents, right?

Isn’t considering a thick accent an ‘offensive stereotype’ insulting to people who actually talk that way? Doesn’t it imply that there is something wrong with them, if the portrayal of such an accent is taken as an insult?

As for Apu, the people behind this ‘controversy’ apparently missed the fact that part of the joke of his character is that he’s ridiculously overqualified for his job, possessing a genius IQ and a prestigious degree from an Indian university. The satire is that he’s stuck working behind a check-out counter because he’s Indian despite being qualified for much higher-paid work, but he still has an obsessive work-ethic. In other words, they’re complaining about the very stereotype he’s designed to make fun of.

There’s also the fact that he’s no more ridiculous than any other character on The Simpsons and much less than some. Again, he has a genius IQ, a killer work ethic, is a crack-shot, maintains a lush roof-top garden, and is personal friends with Paul McCartney. He’s cleans up at a bachelor auction and is as respected a member of the community as anyone (which, given the community in question, isn’t saying much).

This is what I call ‘Charlie Chan Syndrome’; where a character is assumed to be a racist caricature because of superficial qualities such as having a thick accent, regardless of what the character actually does (named after the ‘Charlie Chan’ film series, which featured an intelligent,  courteous, and professionally respected Chinese-American detective traveling the world and outsmarting predominantly white opponents, yet are often described as ‘racist’ somehow). This apparently only applies if the character is non-European. Thus a wise, polite, somewhat funny Chinese detective with a thick accent is racist; a wise, polite, somewhat funny Belgian detective with a thick accent is not.

This is a point we today often miss; how a character is objectively written, what he does and says and how he interacts with the story, is what determines what the character is, not what may or may not be going on in the world when the character was written. Charlie Chan is not a racist caricature because his race is never (at least in the films I’ve seen) portrayed as making him in any way inferior to those around him. The fact that he is played by a Swede and has a thick Chinese accent is irrelevant to that point. Likewise, the fact that Apu was written and voiced by a white man is irrelevant to the question of how he is portrayed on the show (you can legitimately ask why someone was cast and not someone else, or what the motives of the writers were, and so on, but that is a separate issue from what actually is portrayed on screen).

Anyway, The Simpsons has long outstayed its welcome, and as far as I can tell has been on a downward spiral for a while, but if they’re going to start rolling over and giving in to this kind of controversy, their end cannot be far off. More concerning is simply the fact that this kind of nonsense is actually taken seriously in our society.

Smile Fun With Captain Marvel

After writing my Captain Marvel trailer rundown I listened to some more commentary on the whole ridiculous ‘don’t tell women to smile’ thing. Among other things, apparently star Brie Larson personally responded to the ‘smiling Captain Marvel’ memes by going after the fans for being ‘sexist.’

If they’re not careful, “No Smiling” will be the film’s unofficial tagline.

No smiling 2.png

A lot of a film’s success is the attitude of the people involved, and if the lead actress feels the need to get angry at fans for poking fun at the trailer, then that’s really not a good sign. She could have played along, posted smiling pictures or herself, or said something like “man, they left out all the happy bits!” That would have caused the whole thing to be a net gain for the film and probably gotten a lot people who weren’t impressed by the trailer onboard. I’m sure someone like Dwayne Johnson or the ever graceful Gal Gadot would have done that, or at the very least have shrugged the whole thing off and gotten back to promoting their film.

In any case, I couldn’t resist having just a little more fun with the topic:

Smile2.png

 

(And for the record, my money is on the pony)

New Essay Up at the Federalist

Don’t particularly care for the title they gave it, but such is life. This one is a semi-sarcastic examination of the idea of ‘The Age of Faith’ as it applies to the modern age

Sample:

We’re not taught how to reason in school: we’re just presented with “right answers” and told to put those down. Science textbooks don’t delve into the complexities of research, competing theories, the long, hard process by which accumulated facts slowly create a clearer and clearer picture of the workings of nature. They just list the facts, laws, and theories as ready made, sometimes with an understated sneer at those who initially doubted them for failing to give the right answer.

It’s like this with most aspects of our lives. When was the last time you actually heard someone lay out the reasons why, say, racism is wrong, or democracy is good? We don’t make arguments, just statements of faith based on what we’ve been taught to say.

The trouble is that this kind of faith-based approach is very fragile (which is one of the reasons the old Christians didn’t use it). It’s apt to breed resentment and rebellion, and to crumble if the observed facts don’t seem to match the received doctrine.

We’re sometimes told with horror that half the country doubts evolution. Well, why shouldn’t they? They’ve been taught it as a matter of faith, not as a scientific fact dug out of nature through observation and reason. They’ve simply been told, in essence, “This is true and you’re a bad person if you don’t believe it.”

We should only expect some people to rebelliously turn their backs on it for that reason alone. Then again, there’s the fact that anyone of basic intelligence can see where evolution, as it is usually taught, seems to contradict the observed world around us. It doesn’t make sense that the vast variety, beauty, and efficiency of the natural world came about simply by random mutations that happened to be beneficial (I am told modern evolutionists generally think the situation is much more complicated and interesting than that). So, when forced to choose between the rather patronizing faith that’s been shoved down their throats or their own good sense, they choose the latter.

Read the rest here.

A Thought on Aretha Franklin

More specifically, on some of the responses to her death.

I’m a Detroit native, and for that city the death of Aretha Franklin is as the death of a home-grown President or war hero. She was a major and beloved figure in the city’s history and culture, all the more so because, unlike many of her contemporaries, she continued to make her home there after she made it big. Personally, I don’t have much interest in her music, but that hardly matters; the woman left behind a staggering artistic legacy and brought joy and inspiration to millions, and that counts for a lot.

The trouble, and the reason I’m writing this, is that I keep hearing commenters who seem to think that isn’t enough. They keep trying to talk about how she ‘changed the world’ or ‘changed the complexion of American music and society.’ Meaning no disrespect to her (and I suspect she’d agree with me), but this is nonsense. Black female singers were not at all uncommon or unpopular before Miss Franklin. In terms of breaking down barriers, Marian Anderson, a generation before, was probably much more instrumental than Aretha Franklin.

This is a problem I notice a lot when a major entertainment star dies; people feel the need to insist that their work had a significant social or political impact. That it ‘changed the world’ somehow, rather than simply being an excellent example of the craft. I remember the same thing was done when Prince died: articles about how he ‘changed the world.’

The problem with this is not just that it’s faintly ridiculous, but that it is actually rather insulting to the field of entertainment. It seems to imply that the real purpose of entertainment, the thing that makes it worth celebrating, is the effect it has on the socio-political landscape. Not whether it brings joy or inspiration or comfort to people, but whether it moves the social needle in the preferred direction.

See, to my mind the fact that Aretha Franklin was a fantastically gifted performer whom millions of people loved to listen to is far, far more important than any supposed social impact her music had. The latter will always be dubious at best (how can you possibly say objectively what effect a certain brand of music had on people’s opinions or behavior? Individuals would be hard pressed to definitively say that of their own lives, let alone some armchair commentator speaking about thousands upon thousands of strangers), the former is undeniable. The latter is, when all is said and done, ephemeral: social issues come and go (despite the best efforts of some parties to keep them on life support for as long as possible), but art and music remains. It may not always be as popular, but if it touches hearts in one generation, it will do so for as long as it is remembered. Great entertainment and great art are immortal, or at least much longer lived than socio-political matters.

Moreover, being a singer was her profession; the celebrate the fact that someone did her life’s work so well seems far more to the point than celebrating third-party speculation about how her work may have affected some other issue.

Basically, what I am saying is that entertainment has value independent of and superior to any kind of socio-political effect it may have had. I think most people would agree with me on that, but one would hardly know it from the way we tend to honor the passing of great entertainers. This is part and parcel of our tendency to subordinate all other concerns to the political, causing us to devalue the actual virtues of a artist’s work in a desperate grasp to talk about the same tired issues once more.

In any case, Mrs. Franklin left behind a great body of work that will likely remain beloved for generations to come, which is an enviable legacy. May she rest in peace.

 

On the Oscars

Accelerating its journey to complete irrelevance, the Academy Awards announced that it plans to add a category for ‘Best Popular Film’ (there’s a fairly credible suspicion that this is mostly a way to give an award to Black Panther, which…let’s not get into that).

I’ve long since stopped caring about the Oscars, but I wanted to address this a little.

It seems like everyone has problems with this, though from different directions. According to BBC, some people are complaining that it degrades the Academy Awards into a popularity contest, which is rather funny considering what the Oscars already are, while others complain that it will be a dumping ground for worthy films that people actually watched while allowing the more prestigious Best Picture award to continue going to movies people have already forgotten.

Here’s my problem: splitting ‘Best Picture’ and ‘Best Popular Film’ creates two separate categories of cinema: the ‘important’ films and the lesser ‘popular’ films (because if you distinguish from Best Picture – a designation that includes all films – and Best Popular Film – which includes a limited subset of that, you are very clearly implying the latter is a separate and lesser category).

One of the major problems with the Oscars is that they have been growing increasingly elitist, self-congratulatory, and hyper-focused on agendas. A look at recent Best Picture nominees shows a heavy leaning towards smaller, unpopular films that push issues from a perspective favored by the political and social climate in Hollywood – race, sexuality, Left-wing politics, and so on. Examples of agenda-driven films (listing only the winners that I personally know obviously and clearly fit one of the categories) from recent years include winners The Shape of Water, Moonlight, Twelve Years a Slave, Spotlight, and The Hurt Locker, as well as nominees Call Me By Your Name, Get Out, Fences, Hidden Figures, Bridge of Spies, Imitation Game, Selma, The Wolf of Wall Street, Django Unchained, The Help, The Kids Are All Right, Avatar, Milk, and Frost/Nixon. Again, that is limiting it only to films that of my own knowledge push one of the above listed agendas, limited to Best Picture Nominees of the past ten years. I imagine that a more thorough examination than I’ve made would make the pattern far stronger. This, by the way, is not to say anything about the quality of the films themselves, nor is it to say there are no honorable exceptions, such as 2010 winner The King’s Speech. merely that this is a strong pattern in the Academy’s nominations in recent years.

They have been extremely reluctant to give nods to what are called ‘Popular’ films or films that have the approval of audiences; the fact that the Academy expanded the number of Best Picture nominees from five to ten following the controversial decision in 2009 to snub both The Dark Knight and Wall-E is only another example of this; it is an attempt at appeasement: to have space to nominate select ‘popular’ films without any chance of actually awarding them the trophy.

This new ‘Popular Film’ category is another attempt at appeasement: the Academy will give out a minor and grudging award to films people actually liked while still being able to reward the films that push the correct agendas. The fact that this seems to be largely a means to reward Black Panther is only another continuation of the trend of agenda first (let’s be honest; Infinity War far and away deserves to win that category above Black Panther. Quite a few films would be more deserving of an award than Black Panther, as a matter of fact: I’d even rank the mediocre Ready Player One as a more worthy recipient, though that’s not really the point here).

This is a trend that has been steadily growing over time. In, say, the 1960s Best Picture nominees tended to be popular films that were well-received at the box office, showed a high level of technical quality, and dealt with large subject matter or at least universal ideas. In 1965, for instance, the nominees included My Fair Lady (the winner), Beckett, Mary Poppins, Dr. Strangelove, and Zorba the Greek. Today I can only imagine maybe Dr. Strangelove being nominated. A few years before in 1963 the nominees were Lawrence of Arabia (winner), Mutiny on the Bounty, The Longest Day, The Music Man, and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Quite apart from the fact that these are all technically fantastic films (at least, I know the ones I have seen are such and the others have a reputation of being so), note that one, these are big movies dealing with big subject matter and ideas, whether or not its immediately relevant to the then-political climate (though the nice thing about films like this is that they’re always relevant: My Fair Lady is never going to be out of date as long as men and women are attracted to each other and society has different manners for different classes), and two, that there is a huge variety in the kind of film being nominated, from musicals to family films to war movies to intimate dramas. Zorba the Greek is a very different film from Mary Poppins, which is barely in the same universe as Dr. Strangelove.

The point is, these were, by and large, the popular films of their day, and they will be remembered long after most of the Best Picture nominees of the past decade have been forgotten (which, in many cases, is now. Does anyone remember The Artist, Best Picture Winer of 2012?).

If the Oscars operated as they did back in the day, there would be no need for a ‘Best Popular Film’ because ‘Popular Film’ wouldn’t be considered a lesser category and they wouldn’t be filling up the Best Picture category with nonsense that no one cared about. Avengers: Infinity War would be a shoo-in nominee for Best Picture and a strong candidate to win. That is the kind of movie old Hollywood liked: a huge crowd-pleaser that was technically very strong and which dealt with big or universal ideas.

This whole post turned out longer and more involved than I meant it to. What I mean to say is that this move by the Academy is only the latest in a string of insults against their audience and the idea that they are entertainers rather than instructors. It exacerbates rather than solves the problem of Oscar irrelevance, all the more so because it seems to be done for the sake of continuing the same agenda-based criteria they have been operating under for at least a decade if not more. Certainly if they intend this as a way to tempt viewers back to the show, I doubt this will work. Cutting out the hostile moralizing would be much more to the point.

Privilege in Action

I’m a little late on this, but it’s too good not to share. This is a textbook example of why I despise the whole concept of ‘privilege’ (be it ‘white privilege,’ ‘male privilege,’ or what have you).

To sum up, the incomparable Larry Correia, sci-fi / fantasy author extraordinaire, had been invited to Origins Game Fair as a Guest of Honor, as he’s known as a huge gaming fan and amateur RPG creator, in addition to being a best selling novelist. Shortly after he was invited, someone took to social media to protest that he was racist, sexists, etc. chiefly because he’s an outspoken Libertarian. Origins then immediately caved and disinvited him because of his personal views. 

Now, there’s a lot to be said of that, but others have said it better. For here comes the juicy part (fyi, all this comes from Mr. Correia’s blog, but I’ve found him to be pretty honest and upfront in the past, so I feel comfortable citing this as facts. And most of it I’ve verified from other sources).

It turns out that the person who attacked him is the fiancee of a man whose article Mr. Correia fisked several years ago. Here’s the article. Apparently, she considered this as meaning Mr. Correia “personally hurt [her] loved ones” and even refused to link to the article because it was “too painful.”

The really funny thing? A.A. George, who wrote the article that was fisked four years ago and who took it so personally that his fiancee launched this attack, is apparently the son of a billionaire, who went to a high school with a $37,000 yearly tuition. Mr. Correia, meanwhile, grew up poor on a dairy farm in central California, where he went to school at what he describes as a “junior gladiatorial academy.” But Mr. George’s family is from India, while Mr. Correia is of Portuguese extraction, so guess which one is considered to have ‘privilege.’

But it gets better: in the article that was the source of the quarrel (again, from four years ago), this rich son of Indian immigrants was complaining that geek and gamer culture isn’t diverse enough and doesn’t have enough characters who ‘look like him.’ Four years later, he and his fiancee successfully expel the Portuguese author of an award-winning epic fantasy novel where all the characters are…Indian (okay, it’s actually a made-up fantasy culture, but set in a world and culture based off of India).

So, to sum up, Mr. George was so upset by Mr. Correia taking apart his article complaining of lack of ‘people who look like me’ that four years later he tried to sideline and discredit the man who wrote a bestselling book where everybody ‘looked like him,’ and justifies it in part by citing the “privilege” that the son of a dairy farmer had compared to the son of a billionaire.

Social Justice, ladies and gentlemen!