A humanities scholar's occasional ramblings on literature, science, popular culture, and the academy.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

On Impatience with "Problematic" Stories

Because I'm perpetually behind in my pop culture consumption, I only recently finished Louis CK's series Horace and Pete (2016) and Denis Villeneuve's film Sicario (2015), both on Hulu. They're both well made, with solid acting, writing, and directing, and I probably would have enjoyed them both quite a lot if I had watched them when they first came out. But, watching them in 2017, I hated them both. In the wake of the election, my tastes changed--specifically, my patience for "problematic" narratives has diminished substantially.

I've often joked about the way in which the word "problematic" gets thrown around sometimes as a euphemism for "bad," but that's not quite accurate. The way that I teach stories (be they novels or films or TV shows or whatever), and the way that I try to talk about stories outside of the classroom too, I try to lead with the assertion that it's important to acknowledge ambiguity. No story has a single interpretation that is "right" to the exclusion of all other interpretations. That's especially important to acknowledge when engaging in an evaluation of the sociopolitical implications of a story. I doubt that there is any story that is purely progressive or purely reactionary. When someone says that a story is "problematic," often what they are communicating is that they acknowledge the story's ambiguity but feel that its implications lean more towards the reactionary than the progressive. Because people so often adopt a defensive crouch when confronted with the reactionary implications of stories that they enjoy, I've always maintained that it's perfectly okay to enjoy problematic stories--we all like some problematic stories--and it's perfectly okay to draw out more progressive interpretations that exist within the story's ambiguities, so long as you don't try to shut down conversation or deny interpretations that may be less comfortable.

I still believe this, but on a purely personal level, it feels like the balance has shifted, and as I said, I just don't have as much patience for some problematic narratives. Take Sicario, a film about U.S. federal agents trying to take down a Mexican drug cartel. The film not only upholds stereotypes about Mexican criminality, but explicitly uses those stereotypes to justify the horrendous authoritarian tactics of its protagonists, including torture, extrajudicial killings, and partnerships with murderers. It's certainly possible to read the film against the grain. Our viewpoint character, an FBI agent played by Emily Blunt, is horrified by the abuses committed by her CIA counterparts, played by Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro, and in some respects the film can be seen as asking us to share in that horror and condemn these actions. But ultimately, it's hard not to see this film as aligning with Donald Trump's rhetoric, presenting a dystopian view of the Mexican border as a lawless land requiring brutal suppression. It's a stomach-turning worldview.

The problematic worldview of Horace and Pete is much more subtle, but no less troubling. Louis CK and Steve Buscemi play the titular Horace and Pete. Horace is a sad sack divorcee who is estranged from his children, and Pete is a schizophrenic recently released from a mental hospital (the show's offensive depiction of mental illness is a topic for a whole other blog post). The two run an unprofitable dive bar that has been in their family for 100 years, along with their sister Sylvia, who is suffering from cancer, played by Eddie Falco. Much of the series focuses on Sylvia's desire to sell the bar coming into conflict with Horace and Pete's rigid, self-destructive adherence to the traditions established by their physically and emotionally abusive parents and grandparents, the bar's previous owners. Their story is interspersed with conversations from the bar's regulars, mostly about politics. The series was released during the 2016 presidential primaries, so many of these conversations are built around the creation of cynical equivalences between the Republican and Democratic candidates. In a way, the show's depiction of both its title characters and the barflies offers a useful take on the "white working class" whose disaffectedness led to Trump's victory. I can see it serving as a time capsule, providing a glimpse into a very particular moment in the history of white masculinity. The problem is, the show asks us to sympathize with these broken men and their nihilistic, misanthropic patrons as they all refuse to break free from their cycles of self-destruction, taking others down with them.

But I can't offer that sympathy. Not in 2017, when I know where those self-destructive tendencies lead.

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