Monday, July 6, 2009

Robocop, Transformers, and sexism and racism in blockbuster movies

So now that I've seen Robocop I actually feel somewhat vindicated in my lack of surprise at the racism and sexism in Transformers 2. I mean, yes, it's awful, and possibly the most overt example of prejudice in a Hollywood film in recent memory, but does that make it remarkable, or unique in its offensiveness?

Take the scene in Robocop when Nancy Allen's character essentially sets the plot of the entire film in motion by being unable to stop herself from taking a peep at the penis of the black member of Kurtwood Smith's gang. She has him at gunpoint, ready to be arrested, but his penis is out, and when she looks down for a second he hits her and puts her temporarily out of commission. As a result she is unable to come to Murphy's aid, he gets gunned down, etc., becomes Robocop. The entire plot hinges on this sexist and racist joke. Of course she's unable to stop herself from looking at the black man's penis, which is, of course, gigantic and thus worth looking at.

My point is not that Robocop is overtly racist or sexist (though it is) but rather that Transformers 2 isn't the symbol of American decadence or whatever the critics are generally calling it. Rather it is the inevitable outcome of the entire culture of blockbusters that has proliferated in the years since movies like Top Gun. At a certain point some director, in this case Michael Bay, had to simply ignore basic human decency and shed the thin veil hiding the core impulses behind this kind of movie.

The /Filmcast, for example, is something I listen to almost religiously. I think that the guys on there are great, and really know what they're talking about. They, like most other intelligent critics, took issue with the racism inherent to Bay's latest film, and rightly so. At the same time, the entire reason I rented Robocop this afternoon was because of an episode I'd listened to recently where they praised it as a great action movie, discussing how well the special effects had held up over the years. That's what they remembered, the special effects, and that's largely what will be remembered about Transformers 2, the fact that the work of Industrial Light and Magic is simply beyond comparison. I've seen more than one review making that claim, and frankly I think it's irrefutable.

But that's just it, the guys on the /Filmcast didn't remember, or at least didn't immediately think of the overt racism and sexism that are absolutely central to the plot of the film they were praising. The only differences between Robocop and Transformers 2 in this respect are the general attitudes at their respective times of release and the degree to which the racism and sexism are insidious. In Robocop is is at least possible to forget about the event described above soon after it happens, and considering how early on in the film it occurs it's pretty insignificant overall. But it remains at the core of the film's plot and ideology. In Transformers 2, on the other hand, the racial stereotypes and misogynistic depictions of women are central throughout the entire film. So, in that respect, the racism in Robocop is almost worse because it's insidious. At least Bay had the gall to come out and be honest about his outlook by making it so obvious and ever present. More than that he not only embraced the basic tenets of the action blockbuster genre, one could say he almost satirized them by making them so over the top. But then one would be an idiot.

A further problem with Transformers, which might actually make it worse than Robocop (and other such films, don't think I'm just picking on this one by using it as my primary example) is in how Bay has responded to the claims of racism in the film. I'm including links here to two articles, the first of which discusses how no one seems to want to acknowledge their role in the racism of Transformers 2, implying that it was more a effect of Bay's authoritarian control and also the fact that the whole ended up equaling something altogether different than the sum of its parts. The second article, however, shows Michael Bay saying that his portrayal of "The Twins" is a response to the desires of his younger viewers.

Just in case you missed it or didn't read the second article, I want to call out the key quotation from Bay:

"I purely did it for kids, Young kids love these robots, because it makes it more accessible to them."

So what he's saying is that the racism is specifically targeted at the youngest, most impressionable demographic that the film is appealing to. That right there, ladies and gentlemen, is how the racism of the film becomes simultaneously overt, unapologetic, AND insidious. That's the true problem with the film, but I stand by my point that it's not a sign of our dwindling culture or any crap like that, but rather an inevitable outcome of the fact that we love our movies racist and misogynistic, and with lots of cool shit that explodes real good.

No one expected Transformers 2 to be The Dark Knight. Or at least no one I can think of. If you know someone who did, please have a long, slow, simply-worded talk with them about how the world works.

Maybe people expected something on par with Iron Man, or even The Rock? Bay has at least proven himself worthy of the latter.

Regardless of what they were expecting, a great many people were disappointed by Transformers 2. As Eric D. Snider put it in his review, he not only expected but deserved better.

I disagree.

Bay being honest and upfront about the racism and sexism that is inherent in this kind of movie (yes, even in Iron Man) is not "treat[ing] its audience like idiots," as Snider put it, but rather embracing their repeatedly proven tastes. Everyone who reviewed Transformers 2 negatively saw the film, and maybe even saw it twice like I did. Even if they caught a free press screening they likely would have paid for it otherwise, bad reviews be damned. We love these types of movies, we eat them up and make the people making them rich, so why shouldn't we deserve them?

At the same time, though, the way in which racial and gender issues are handled in the film begins the process of imbuing these attitudes into social consciousness for the next generation, and sterilizing them via mass acceptance and veneration. That's the real crime here, and it's not one of filmmaking so much as it is one of indulgence and passing the buck as a people in the face of manufactured injustice.

Regardless, the movie was simply the natural extension of our tastes as a public, which is what I argued initially. Watching Robocop today just confirmed it for me.

Here's hoping Aronofsky's version actually happens, and does something altogether different.

[Revised on 8/28/09]

No comments:

Post a Comment