Film Feministe: Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?

Guess Who's Coming To Dinner?

It's racially refreshing!

Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? (1967) . spoilers.

A plot synopsis: Old-line liberals Matt and Christina Drayton (Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn) have raised their daughter Joey (Katharine Houghton) to think for herself and not blindly conform to the conventional. Still, they aren’t prepared for the shock when she returns home from a vacation with a new fiancé: African-American doctor John Prentice (Sidney Poitier). While they come to grips with whatever prejudices they might still harbor, the younger folks must also contend with John’s parents (Roy Glenn Sr. and Beah Richards), who are dead-set against the union.

I was born in 1977, ten years after this film debuted. Interracial marriage has been legal, if not necessarily sanctioned or socially-accepted, my entire lifetime. I am white and I have lived on the West Coast my entire life, in mostly white environs (tempered a bit with Latino and Native American non-white families). I was raised by a soi disant “progressive” family and the subtle (and less subtle) internalized racist, patriarchal, heterosexist, and adultist attitudes typical in these kinds of families. While not relating entirely to the social class of the Drayton family – “self-made” upper class – I could relate to the “old-line liberal” family values they were imbued with.

Besides my family environs, I was raised in a so-called “post-racial” America. I was taught in school that racial issues were mostly a thing of the past. You could look up these troubles in a book, then shut the book and you didn’t have to think about it any more. I was taught not only a colorblind approach to solving problems, but also a colorblind way of looking at the world (I’ve written a tiny bit about that before). I was taught being called a “racist” was shockingly hurtful, hurtful enough we defensively denied any such charge rather than approaching it with openness and curiosity. Our own white privilege required that other people were “racists”. Any suggestion we might have these attitudes was met with staunch (or angry) defensiveness. I was raised in an era where people sneered at the concept of “political correctness”, a backlash that, curious enough, continues today.

It wasn’t pretty, but it’s where I came from. And for a few minutes, I want to talk about the film a little bit.

Popular film critic Roger Ebert says a lot of good things about the work, and I agree with much he said. (My advice? Stop reading, watch the film, read his review, then read mine.) Like Ebert I also didn’t find the contrived deadline all that contrived, given the framework and usual limitations of cinematic storytelling (although I could have used at least one character pointing out that, indeed, everyone involved had been given ample time to make their mind up about the issue at hand, i.e. their lifetimes leading up to this evening). I didn’t mind the “perfect” Poitier character although I think roles like this deserve some examination within our cultural context.

Along with the contrived plot “deadline” comes the contrived grouping, within the course of the evening, of several duos and trios of all the involved individuals – the domestic worker, the family’s spiritual counselor, both sets of parents, and the intended bride and groom. The movie moved through several of these conversations as each character stated his or her case – in formal language or the most familiar private talk – to one another. Again, this contrivance irritated me far less than what, as it came to pass, it left out (more in a minute).

Now unlike Ebert, I found the study scene between Jr. and Sr. Prentice not only unobjectionable, but absolutely beautiful. I grant the validity of Ebert’s points that within the film one father (the black one) is framed as “lesser” than the other (the white one). However, it is the moment between parent and child that moved me. To me this scene captured the boldness and heartbreak at the moment a child deliberately turns aside from the values of a dearly-loved parent, to make his own future. As both a grown child and a parent myself, this scene – the one my brother cited to me the other day, inspiring me to view the film – hit me in the gut. I’ll transcribe a bit of it here, where Prentice (the son) speaks in refutation to Prentice (the father’s) stated – and very real – sacrifices:

“Listen to me. You say you don’t want to tell me how to live my life? What do you think you’ve been doing?

“You tell me what rights I’ve got or haven’t got… and what I owe to you for what you’ve done for me.

“Let me tell you something.

“I owe you nothing.

“If you carried that [mail] bag a million miles, you did what you were supposed to do, because you brought me into this world, and from that day you owed me everything you could ever do for me. Like I will owe my son, if I ever have another.”

Now if only - if only – the film had managed a similarly spirited conversation where (white) daughter Joey puts her (white) father – the lynchpin in the romance – in his place.

The film generally contained a lot of incredibly human moments – and some wonderfully frank conversations. The performances were at turns subtle and lovely, then dramatic and heavy-handed. Hepburn was, of course, beautiful and glamorous, and her campy but rapier-like sendoff of a rude coworker was a bit of gooey deliciousness.

However, there was something that bothered me about the film, and that was the capital-P patriarchy, which is not challenged by the work – except in the abovementioned father and son impassioned talk, where a black father is chastized – one iota. For one thing, despite the above plot synopsis’ error, both the daughter and the two mothers are for the marriage. They are the voices of gentleness, passion, and optimism, but at the same time, the film lets us know it is not their voices that are going to count.

And along this line, every single character’s opinions, feelings, and interactions brings us to the film denoument, except one crucial interaction – the father Drayton, put in the position of deciding his daughter’s future happiness – and his daughter herself. And at the end of the film we have a speech: the Old White Dude that gets to decide everything, and gets to bless everything (or not), and sums up everyone’s feelings and dresses down every individual there (including telling his daughter to “shut up”), going on at lengths as to how he’s been insulted. Finally (and predictably) he gives his twinkly-eyed pedantic blessing, everyone sighs in happiness at this wonderful wonderful man, and he shouts at the black domestic worker to get dinner served. This is, literally, how the film ends.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed much of the film. I thought it refreshing and funny (the daughter’s early line, “He thinks you’re gonna faint because he’s a Negro” made me laugh aloud), human and sweet. But in a film meant to be socially significant, loving, and even a bit sappy, we’re still firmly reminded of who sanctions, and should sanction, our future, progressive or no: big white daddy.

So tell me. Is that how things really are?

I welcome feedback; email me your responses if you’d like them published them here. kelly AT hogaboom DOT org.

quick hit: compassion and critical thinking ≠ Big Brother

“History is written by the winners” - non-attributed

Growing up in America we are taught to believe in the Rightness and Goodness of the Meritocracy – that people who have good things and a life of comfort earned it all on their own efforts. Please note, people that have things relatively good tend to trumpet this loudest.  People who have things harder, well, sometimes they have a different perspective. We the privileged often don’t like to hear that perspective.

I believe one’s gut reaction to the “winners” quote above depends on one’s worldview.  Some people might see the quote as purely observational shorthand – that is, recorded historical accounts are told and reified by certain groups while others’ equally valid experiences are suppressed. Some believe the quote to be morally prescriptive in a Darwinian fashion: that is, a “winner” is someone who’s dominated others for their own goals, and – yay, the world is their oyster as it should be (this is sort of the sports analogy interpretation)!

Here’s what I believe: in being a “winner” one is essentially in a position of privilege (no matter how we got there); when I find I am a “winner” I must then look carefully around at how I have prevailed – and who hasn’t, and how to help them if they should want it.  It should go without saying to any who read here that I believe it is my responsibility – given I have relative privilege, good fortune, and personal success – to take steps to care for the “losers”, the down-trodden, those who are being marginalized, eclipsed, abused, oppressed. There are many, many paths of responsibility and stewardship; imagination and exposure continue to illuminate more still.

Some measures are small.  Today in a Yahoo group I made the tangential request those in the discussion pool refrain from using the words “crazy” or “lame”. Here is my clarification post (after I asked and was granted permission to post links):*

My intention wasn’t to police anyone and obviously I don’t have that power anyway (I’m not a mod). I am active in reading blogs authored by people with disabilities and the topic of abelist conversation comes up quite a bit.

For those who are interested, here are a few readings that convinced me to stop using those terms as pejoratives (“adult” language in the links):

“The Transcontinental Disability Choir: What is Ableist Language and Why Should You Care?” at bitchmagazine

“Guest Post from RMJ: Ableist Word Profile: Crazy” from Feminists With Disabilities/FWD

“Why Not to Use the Word Lame: I Think I”‘m Starting to Get It” at Alas! A Blog

I still accidentally say “lame” and “crazy” myself but am working hard to use other effective and less offensive words. Fortunately the English language has many!

This is also a fun read that comes up usually when someone calls out language as being problematic, and the resultant typical objections that often ensue: http://www.derailingfordummies.com/

The moderator immediately accused me of – guess what? Censorship. Yes – the moderator accused me of this. Very rich indeed.

Now of all the toothless arguments people knee-jerk with when their behavior is identified as being aligned with oppressive tactics, cries of “censorship”, accusations of being “the thought police”, and sneers of “PC” probably bother me the most; like an unholy Trinity of Ass they share the same roots of fear and an immediate assumption of bad faith.

I mean really, Censorship? “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” (Here is some 101: “online interaction and free speech” at finally feminism101). “Thought police” is particularly fartsy-bloated with the same tooting self-important drama-horn as the C-word; as if by maintaining a moderated blog or objecting to a word, phrase, or worldview that is offensive or incorrect or bigoted the blog author/objector is suddenly in the POSITION OF ALLTIME INTERNETTY POWER and now has CONTROL OVER ALL TEH BRAINWAYVES / ORWELLIAN TELESCREENS.

PC? Please. I teenaged through Bill Clinton’s Presidential tenancy and the attendant revival of sensitivity/PC language and I can tell you the backlash started so quickly it almost preceded it (which to me is a barometer that people loooooove their bigotries). There hasn’t been a whiff of PC that hasn’t been, like El Niño (this paragraph is very USian 90s), simultaneously and fervently blamed for Everything Bad including Ruining America and also, Now We Can’t Have Jokes.

Back to the Yahoo group response: at current count there have been five responses to my request – very familiar responses to those versed in corners of the social justice online sphere. On the positive side, the original poster who’d used the term “crazy” apologized for using it and said she understood why the word was problematic (classy! and – more later). The remaining four responses have been skeptical and/or hostile and for their brevity have still nailed a surprising number of the squares in Bingo for Derailing – including “You’re being oversensitive”, “You’re being overly-intellectual”, and “Words have power only if you give them power”/the reclamation argument (the “power” sentence is an actual quote from one of today’s Yahoo messages – this person also said, “words hold no inherant ability to hurt”). If the discussion doesn’t die quickly I predict soon I will get, “you’re nitpicking a minor/trivial issue” / “Don’t you have more important things to think about?” But hey, I hope I’m wrong.

The most commonly iterated response was the token/backup trot-out, or what I sometimes think of as the “black friend” defense meant to entirely shut down conversation: “I have a friend / brother / such-and-such in this marginalized group and they don’t find this offensive” etc etc. So therefore: I will not read the articles or listen openly to your points. Therefore: I will ignore the fact that marginalized groups sometimes internalize oppressive and damaging narratives and strategies (reading the above link re: “reclamation” helps explain the so-called “double-standard” on who is “allowed” to use what language). Therefore: I do not care how many other people/scholars/researchers/writers/bloggers have objections and have worked to elucidate others on why they do – my tokenized example puts me above any reproach. This would be a laughable defense if it wasn’t also a very typical response to anti-oppression work and therefore, a bit sobering if not frustrating.

I have no evidence whatsoever a single soul who responded on Yahoo read my provided links, and that’s a shame. I posted them precisely because they were good, well-written, and better formed than anything I could have done. I’ve been exposed many times to the defense of pejorative use of words associated with marginalized groups: “retard”, “gay” (Wanda Sykes – I love it!), “crazy”, “lame”, “pansy”, “spaz”, “moron”, “pussy”,”woman” (yes! This is often used as an insult!), “faggot”, and “idiot” (um, I really could go on and on); objecting to these words and offering up arguments against their casual use is my prerogative and is not done for fun nor whimsy. I further add nor is it my contention those who use these words are Monsters and I am A Thoroughly Enlightened One (please; I only recently got right re: “crazy”; if you search my near decade-long blog you’re sure to see my ass in many minorly humiliating ways). To those who are uncomfortable with being challenged and/or embarrassed, I feel you. I’d offer this tasty tidbit from the Shapely Prose comment policy:

If someone gets pissy at you for using the word “retarded” for instance, that doesn”‘t mean they think you”‘re an evil person who hates developmentally disabled people OR that they”‘re hysterical, overreacting thought police. It means there are people around here who find that word hurtful, and we”‘re a lot more interested in protecting their feelings than your god-given right not to think of a better word.

Believe me; I’ve made my share of comments and been called out; it stings, I know, and I fully expect it to happen again! Being allowed to say anything I want without being challenged is not an inalienable human right; in the glass-half-full analysis of this I would posit that listening openly and self-educating are some of the more breathtaking and beautiful aspects of human responsibilities if we are in the position to do so.

Speaking up is hard. It often isn’t welcome, as any of my dedicated readers will know by now. This isn’t because the world is full of assholes (or at least I refuse to believe this); it’s because many people don’t like having their worldviews challenged; they often respond with a counter-offense (no matter how respectfully, I’ve discovered, one puts forth an objection).

But there are good reasons and positive results from objecting to a harmful status quo; a few touching anecdotes came my way from a father who tweets me today in recognition of these problematic words. “The one that makes me cringe the most is ‘that’s retarded’ and this was before I had a son with a mental disability.” He continues: “Now that I do have a son with autism I hear the ‘R’word and it sounds like it’s coming out of megaphone.”

Yeah. And thank you for sharing. He sends me the link to his blog where he writes about his son; I put it in my feed reader.

And then there’s this: some people truly can pick themselves up, brush themselves off, and thank you for the assistance. The very first comment in response to the FWD ableist word profile linked above is from Sarah, who simply writes, “I”‘ve been guilty of this. How embarrassing! Thank you so much for posting.”

Now that? That gives me hope.

* Incidentally? I would appreciate it if you do not re-tweet, IM, email, or share this article unless you first read through the four links provided in my cited Yahoo message; I typically do not write using linked articles (hence “quick hit”) and these are good ones.

Mentioned/Further Reading:

Meritocracy at en.wikipedia.org

The quote, “History is written by the winners” discussed at the snopes message board.

“Teaspoons 101: I Am Not the Thought Police” at Shakesville.

“Ableist Word Profile: Why I write about ableist language” A great 101 on a way to think about abelist language and the study therein at FWD.

“Being White” by Louis C.K. (trigger warning: rape metaphor)

“Touching Strangers: Making Friends of ‘Others’” at humaneeducation.org, sponsored and authored by Zoe Weil

“What ‘So Ghetto’ Really Means” by Tami Harris at change.org; those who’ve used “ghetto” against white neighborhoods might want to zap to my comment re: growing up in then-largely-white-but-working-class Hoquiam.

Tangentially and finally, because I had nowhere else to post this – someone in rebuttal to my points in the Yahoo discussion offered up this page: “Your guide to living life in the U.S.”. I kind of don’t have words as this does not seem to be a parody.

the limitations of “color-blind and fancy-free”, an 80′s music video treatise

Get Out Of My Dreams, and Into My Car

So, Sophie, should you get into that guy's car outside the club? Absolutely! Wait! No. Uh... Do what you feel.

I love what my mom brings in assisting my husband and I in parenting our kids.  What she’s bringing mostly lately is Billy Ocean. In the last week whenever I go over to pick up my children after a playdate, she and the kids are singing to or watching the video of his hit single “Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car”.

I’m a fan of several of Billy Ocean’s songs (okay, especially “Loverboy”, and although I love belting that one out I feel compelled to point out that is a bad 80′s video decision in an era of very bad videos).  “Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car” makes me laugh a little, though, because it’s a perfect example of my now-and-then mixtapes containing deliciously and unintentionally creepy pop music*  – you know, a seemingly cheerful or romantic tune that, if you listen closely, actually features chillingly stalker-like lyrics.  Other songs of Mr. Ocean’s qualify, by the way (see below).  And tangentially: my current favorite and recently-discovered honoree in this fake genre is Dusty Springfield’s “I’ll Try Anything” (“I want you so much inside / I’m throwin’ away all my conscience and pride!“).**

Back to the aforementioned song: last night in my mother’s living room my seven year old daughter, after about the eighth consecutive listen to this catchy tune, approached my mother and asked, “Grandma? How come in this video there’s a white woman, and she gets into a black man’s car?”  My mom responded, “Well, why not?” and Sophie stalled.  Then I said, “Sophie, if I’m correct in what I hear you’ve observed, I will say it’s true that many people date within their race, but that doesn’t mean everyone does, or that you have to.” My daughter nodded, watching me. “Besides,” I added, “I don’t think that woman was a ‘white woman’, she looked like a light-skinned black woman to me.”  At this my daughter said, “Ooohhhh…” in that whole, I’m-getting-the-picture way she has.

And that was a window of opportunity, out of the blue, to talk a bit about the complexities of race in today’s America.  After our handful of sentences Sophie’s curiosity was sated while for a few additional moments my mind raced over several subjects: the differences in portrayals of light-skinned vs. dark-skinned black women in television and film, Paper Bag Parties, colorism, the Jezebel stereotype, and “brightening creams” among a handful of other less-formed thoughts. But it was 11:30 at night, we were coming off a party, and the kid had already ran into the kitchen to grab up a slice of pound cake.

Of course, discussions on race, sex, gender, homophobia, and social justice take place regularly in my household (as well as discussions on cooking, cleaning, eating, trees, fish, polygons, scotch-tape under a microscope, iPod holders built out of Legos, you get the idea); but the “big issues” discussions are mostly conversations between my husband and I.  The kids overhear most of this, if they decide to listen in, and partake when they feel they have a point to make. They sometimes look over my shoulder at what I’m reading (or writing), and not a movie viewing goes by (we don’t own a television) that Ralph and I aren’t either off-handedly or seriously discussing, say, the White Savior elements in a storyline, or the mansplaining Arrogant Scientist in our beloved old B-movies, or the tropes of mincing silly gay man and the menacing lesbian (no really, these things are still alive and well in so many films!)

So it’s not that I’m saying social subjects only come up this handful of precious times, like last night.  What I will say is, it’s a rare and lovely opportunity when the kid herself discovers something about the world – something seemingly understated and normative to our peer group even – and asks about it.  Her mind is open in that moment and she is ready for a piece of the puzzle; such a gift, considering how much else she absorbs without being fully conscious of it (and some of these socially atmospheric messages are decidedly not-so-great).  My mother’s response (“Why shouldn’t white and black people date one another?”) was a correct one; however, what I know my daughter had perceived was that the world is often not a Sesame Street-esque mix of people all getting along and mixing their crayon sets together; so I think, in that light, my response was a correct one as well – especially given previous and pending family choices deliberately seeking anti-racist goals.

I’m impressed by my seven year old daughter, who notices all sorts of things about the behavior of people in the world.  As any reader of my blog or personal friend of the family will know, she is very intuitive and perceives subtleties, which will serve her well in her life.  Because maybe a thing I fear greatly is to accidentally pass on a “colorblind” ideology – like that espoused by so many others I know and, to some extent, my own family of origin (Oh my gosh! I could talk about the liberal and “colorblind” white family so much! Like how they will repeatedly say the same little things like, “You know, these are called ‘Brazil nuts’ – people USED to call them n**-toes, but we don’t do that any more” and “So-and-so, our black friend“, with that special way they’d say the phrase that is eerily like that special way they say “homosexual”.  As in, “I am pointing out the race/sexuality of this person in a way that tells you I’m such a Special Progressive Person for being okay with their race/sexuality”).  So anyway, the “colorblind” upbringing, you know, “the world is full of people of all colors of the rainbow, and we all live together happily, wheeee!”  I find this sort of thing profoundly lacking (although well-intentioned and partially valid, blah blah), especially when raising a child who has a mind and a heart, and can see deeply – but not always interpret what she sees.

As someone she seeks for guidelines – sometimes quite directly – I don’t want to mess up, but neither do I want to worry too much about being the Perfect Parent in any of these surprise child-initiated conversations – because I have to believe I influence her every day, even when we’re not directly discussing a social issue. But if she asks, I’m not going to piss on her leg and tell her it’s raining, either.

I owe her better than that.

- KH

Mentioned / Further Reading:

“Stalkin’ Rockin’”, a compilation

Billy Ocean: “Caribbean Queencheck out the perfect descending-stairs snap/pelvic-trust at 0:58! I emulate this on a regular basis!, “Loverboy”

I’ll Try Anything” by Dusty Springfield

Paper Bag Parties, from Wikipedia

“Love Isn’t Enough”, a site for the parent considering an anti-racist household

From the above site, a nine minute film interviewing children about race and racism; the brief discussion in the L.I.E. post is also good

Not all discussions on race are productive (from Racialicious)

Tim Wise has a handful of essays on the “color-blind” mentality, if you’re up for some dry (but great!) reading

“Know Your LGBT History” at Holy Bullies and Headless Monsters (good film reviews)

The Jim Crow Museum’s essay on “The Jezebel Sterotype” – and most all of Dr. Pilgrim’s writings – are fabulous

Everywhere I look I seem to see skin “brighteners” (whiteners), here’s one example of an ad campaign that lacked subtlety

Mansplaining scientists and the Hogaboom viewing audience, at my blog