Category Archives: Uncategorized

Life is like a Really Messy Box of Chocolates

If you were alive in 1995 (which I wasn’t) and remember that year’s Oscars (which you probably don’t), then you’ll recall that Forrest Gump won not one, not two, but six awards. As the fifth highest grossing movie of its decade and, according to a quick google search, the most quoted movie of all time, the film easily won over the hearts of many Americans. People find the characters, most notably Forrest, to be lovable and the many events of the film to be both heart-wrenching and heartwarming. But if creating a successful movie is as easy as making a charming character and throwing in a few emotional twists, then what is stopping every other film in Hollywood from winning six academy awards?

The obvious place to start is with Forrest himself. If you were to describe the movie to someone who had never seen it, Forrest’s character would likely come across as a slightly less intelligent version of a stereotypical male character; he’s an athletic guy who is in love with his childhood best friend, he’s a war hero, and he starts a business that becomes successful. Sure, he had to deal with some bullies, but what relatable male character doesn’t? Anyone who has seen the movie, though, knows that he isn’t every other male in film. In fact, his masculinity, the very thing that defines many of Hollywood’s best-known characters, is shaky at best.

His intelligence, or better said, his lack of intelligence, is one of the first places we start to see his masculinity wobble. Historically, males have been seen as more capable and more fit for intellectual discourse. And beyond that, until recently it has been the case that girls, not boys, have been denied the ability to receive an education and have struggled to obtain this opportunity. But Forrest, a boy, gets turned away from school. And his mother fights to get him enrolled. So right off the bat, we watch Forrest become feminized.

Moreover, throughout the movie, we see Forrest open up about his emotions—a characteristic associated with being feminine—rather than keeping them locked up and trying to remain stoic. When he’s on the shrimping boat with Lieutenant Dan, his superior in the Vietnam war, and the storm hits, he tells us, “now me, I was scared”. Lieutenant Dan, on the other hand is the epitome of masculinity. He’s shirtless, he’s pumping his fists, and he’s got an American Flag waving behind him. And the no legs thing? No problem. He’s positioned himself so that he’s taller than anybody within miles and miles. But who do we relate to? Not Lieutenant Dan. He’s being reckless and irresponsible. Forrest, though, who is being cautious and has been feminized? We find comfort in him.

And when Forrest finds Jenny, the said childhood friend he’s pining over, at the strip club, he tells her he loves her. Again, he’s revealing his emotions. And despite being a woman, Jenny actually takes on many of the more masculine traits that Forrest lacks. Her response to his declaration is not only to brush away his emotions, as might be expected of a stereotypical male, but to actually explain that because he doesn’t “know what love is” he is wrong. Jenny is telling Forrest that he doesn’t know enough to even merit a conversation. Sound familiar, ladies? I would put money on it that essentially every woman has been told at some point or another that she is wrong just because a man doesn’t see something the same way as her and “she doesn’t know what she is talking about”.

Jenny and Forrest’s characters are constantly crossing (and uncrossing) the gender line. Sabine Moller discusses how discusses how “Jenny symbolizes ‘drugs, sex, and rock n’ roll’, whereas Forrest’s character is oriented towards ‘Mom, God & apple pie’”. And it doesn’t require too much explaining to say that society tends to associate “drugs, sex, and rock n’ roll”, which are adventurous and bold, with men and “Mom, God & apple pie”, which immediately evoke images of domestic life, with women. The characteristics of men that are often viewed negatively are put onto Jenny, while those of women that are seen positively (the tenderness and faithfulness) are given to Forrest.

This idea of “Mom, God, & apple pie” is especially prominent at the end of the movie once Jenny has passed away. As a single parent, Forrest is left with the responsibility of being the child’s caretaker, and thus he becomes the mother figure. In fact, the film urges you to notice the parallel between Forrest having a single mother and then taking on the role of a single mother himself. At the beginning, Forrest, as a child, sits in bed with his mother reading Curious George. Fast forward to the end of the film and once again Forrest is sitting in the same room, in the same house, with the same book, and with a child who has the same name. The implication is that Forrest has taken on the role of his mother.

But don’t let this fool you into thinking Forrest is entirely feminized. Thomas B. Byers reminds us that “at the same time Forrest is, by turns, an All-American football star, a Medal-of-Honor-winning war hero, a wildly successful entrepreneur, a spiritual leader held in awe and reverence, and a fertile and wise father”. Forrest is feminized, but at the same time he embodies the idealized version of American masculinity. While he does take on the role of a motherly figure, in the scenes directly following him reading a book with little Forrest we see the two of them playing ping pong and fishing and sitting on a stump talking. Because that’s what fathers and sons do. Because we (the viewers) can’t forget that he is still a man.

Along these lines, Forrest is at once both more feminine than Jenny and the male hero to her damsel in distress. He fights the boy in the car who she was hooking up with. He fights the guy in the strip club who throws his drink on her. He fights her boyfriend who slaps her in the middle of the Black Panther Party headquarters. Forrest is, without fail, Jenny’s protector, as is the role of a true man (or so our culture says). But all the while he possesses the feminine qualities of innocence (both in the sense of being unaware of much of the bad in the world and in the sense that the first time he has sex we can assume that he is in his thirties), faithfulness (we can conclude that the only person he ever has sex with is Jenny), and compassion (he cares deeply about the people in his life and goes out of his way to help them). It is, after all, Jenny who successfully asks Forrest to marry her, and not the other way around, as gender roles would dictate. The film employs the volatile nature of gender to pick and choose the best traits of each gender and bundles them up into the lovable Forrest Gump.

It isn’t just Forrest and Jenny, though, that are subject to an unstable gender, it’s us too. We (quite obviously) experience much of the story through Forrest’s narration. He is telling us his memory of the many events. He is inviting us to see through his eyes. But those eyes, as I have established, aren’t so straightforwardly male. And if they aren’t consistently male, then neither are we. We are straddling the gender line right along with Forrest.

But it is just as important to note that we aren’t always in his point of view. In one scene, Forrest says that he thought about Jenny all the time, and then (unknown to him) we see her wiping away cocaine and standing on the ledge of a building. It is during this shot that our gaze is most voyeuristic and most masculine in that it “builds the way she is to be looked at into the spectacle itself” (Mulvey). The camera pans parts of her body and focuses on her face in a way that is distinctively male. But in this moment, we are most unhappy. We, as the viewers, are watching Jenny struggle with her cocaine addiction and potentially commit suicide. It is one of the more unsettling and dejected scenes in the movie. Certainly, the later death of Jenny and that of Forrest’s mother are both sad, but they are portrayed peacefully, and Forrest seems to come to terms with them. Here, we are thrown into an unexpected scene of drugs and danger. The purely masculine perspective is created such that viewers feel most uncomfortable in it. The scene is admitting that there are indeed issues with the traditional masculine experience.

Our perspective at the end of the movie changes again. Once Forrest goes to Jenny’s apartment where he meets their son, we are no longer listening to Forrest tell us the story. Now, while we still sometimes associate with Forrest, we are not bound to his perspective. We often find ourselves in Jenny’s point of view too. But not the “drugs, sex, and rock n’ roll” Jenny that we knew before. Oh no, this Jenny is entirely feminine. She takes on the role of a typical woman with a son and a husband, she’s a waitress (a very common job for a woman), and she dresses in the mainstream feminine way. No more hippie outfits or sequin tops with platform heels. She wears her uniform and sweaters and turtlenecks. And with her transformation comes the accepting of her love for Forrest. We watch affectionately from Jenny’s position as Forrest goes to meet his son. And after her death, Forrest is looking directly at the camera when he addresses Jenny’s grave and tells her about how things are going. In this way, he tells us how much he loves us and we are inclined to reciprocate that feeling. Now that Jenny has learned to accept her love for Forrest, we get to experience that love for him through her.

Not putting us in Jenny’s point of view until she has reached a place where she is a “normal” female and has embraced her love of Forrest is very intentional. Up until this time, we want something more for Jenny, but do not identify with her. In making Jenny more masculine, we learn to dislike women who don’t fit the normal gender roles. Then, when she does fit our desired mold, through her perspective we feel loved and content that we are back to being completely feminine. By throwing the audience around in our gender role, the movie allows us to experience the good and bad of many different perspectives. And we find that we desire to be the perfect female.

Now Forrest on the other hand, we like that he isn’t entirely masculine. By projecting some feminine traits onto him and ridding him of the unpleasant male qualities, he becomes an idealized version of a man. But he is still just that. A man. He is, though, a man that we love, especially once we are in the point of view of a feminine woman. So the movie is telling us that women should be perfectly feminine, which by definition means being inferior to men. But it makes this desire easy to swallow because it implies that if a woman becomes perfectly feminine, she won’t actually need to worry about being completely dominated by a man because he will be a feminized man—one who will still be her Prince Charming, but will also lighten the burden of the feminine role. The film admits that the most masculine of men have flaws, and in doing so gets the female to accept the better version of a man. This, I would argue, is what makes the film so impressively popular—women feel as though there is a better solution for them, while at the same time men feel comfortable that they aren’t stripped of their dominant role in society.

To make things even more complicated, Steven D. Scott argues that because of his honesty, bravery, and loyalty, “Gump, in effect, becomes America in this movie”. Thus, the idealized version of a male is also the idealized version of America. And if this is true, then being entirely feminine is equivalent to being the nation’s subject—a devoted American. The film encourages us to want to stay in line and be the perfect American because it says the country will love us back in return. All of this is not possible without the fractured nature of gender roles. It is these transgressive gender roles that tell us to accept (and thus not stand against) the problems we see in our nation. So if you are one of the millions of Americans who love this movie, then you are admitting that you love the idea of embracing every action of the government and every aspect of culture, including the racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia that comes along with it.

Whiteness is Fucking Out

Kenny Powers, former baseball phenom, favorite son of Shelby, North Carolina, returns to his hometown after flaming out of the major leagues in humiliating fashion; this is the premise of the first season of Eastbound & Down, a show that tells the story of the complex and fragile racial position of lower-class whites in the American South. Its protagonist, Powers, is a mulleted, swaggering redneck with a proclivity for dramatic monologues, a sort of Dixie Hamlet possessed of the prince’s sense of self-importance but with his ambivalence replaced by absolute certainty of his own greatness. His deeds and utterances drive the show, which may at first seem to be a collection of cheap laughs at the expense of some hicks but is actually rather nuanced – as you’re chuckling at the racist antics of Powers you’re also feeling empathy with him, forcing you to reevaluate the moral judgements you made freely only minutes before. The point is nothing in Eastbound & Down is as simple as it seems, not even whiteness in the heart of the former Confederacy, and that to fully understand it (the whiteness) requires the viewer to be seized by some uncomfortable associations. To understand the Southern racist, you must drive a mile in his pickup truck.

The show does not deceive its viewer as to Kenny’s beliefs. To the contrary, they are nearly the first things you learn about him, and they are unpleasant: prejudices against black people, jewish people, gay people, all forthrightly expressed during interviews in various pro baseball locker rooms. He’s knocked out of baseball, and is shown driving back into Shelby finishing beers and tossing them out his window. Eastbound aired on HBO, and it’s fair to say declaring proudly one’s bigotry and littering the casualties of domestic brews swallowed while operating a motor vehicle are outside the milieu of most people who subscribe to an expensive channel to see complex characters’ nihilistic ruminations on the banality of evil as well as tastefully shot sex scenes. To that audience, Kenny is an oddity to be gawked at, a confirmation of their worst fears: the U.S South is an alien land full of unreachable bigots with whom they have nothing in common.

Image result for kenny powers driving

But there is a trick here. The viewer will quickly come to identify with Kenny Powers. Not because his views are secretly less repulsive than they appear, but because empathy is possible despite them. Soon after he bumps back into town, he goes to a training session for substitute teachers, where the other attendees recognize him and chuckle about his professional downfall. On his first day of work, his boss, Terrence Cutler, the school’s principal, jokes about how the once-mighty Kenny Powers now works beneath him at a middle school; to add insult to injury, Culter is engaged to Kenny’s high school sweetheart, April, for whom Kenny still has romantic feelings. These and other sundry humiliations – having to move in with his brother Dustin, getting made fun of by his students – earn Kenny the sympathy of the viewer. It’s hard not to see a guy in an ill-fitting school polo shirt and a mullet be repeatedly embarrassed and not feel bad for him, and to remember moments where you might have been similarly disrespected; here, empathy blossoms. This identification is fostered by Kenny’s placement as the protagonist of the story, the hero who provides the “primary point of view” (Cohen 257). The camera is deployed so the viewer sees from Kenny’s perspective, and his monologues describe both the action and the feelings it engenders in him; it’s difficult to avoid seeing the story through his eyes.

This of course presents a contradiction. How can well-meaning viewers with an egalitarian racial spirit see themselves in an inveterate racist who has no qualms about sharing his beliefs? Eastbound slyly evades this question by taking aim at whiteness, trying to pull back the curtain on the idea of it as a monolithic identity and reveal its internal tensions and contradictions. One of the show’s main antagonists, Cutler, is a white person of a very different sort than Kenny. His sport is triathlon, and the show delights in showing him in form-fitting bicycle outfits and swimming gettups to reveal his thin-yet-gelatinous physique. His copulation with April involves rickety thrusting and awkward banter. He’s feckless in dealing with students, and communicates awkwardly with his staff. But, despite his weaknesses, he can embarrass Kenny. At a backyard barbeque thrown by him and April, Cutler drunkenly mocks Powers for being a baseball has-been, a failure now condemned to the humiliation of teaching gym at a middle school taking orders from people who once watched him on television. Notably, Cutler speaks sans southern accent. It’s this detail that reveals the point of Cutler’s diatribe. Cutler is strange and sad, yet he has power enough to crush a former World Series champion emotionally and marry his love to boot; in making this possible, the show argues that the most feeble northerner has the power to humiliate a successful embodiment of the rural south. The viewers’ identification with Kenny means they see this verbal attack as an injustice, and absorb the intended message: poor southerners are frequently slighted by a culture that prioritizes northern notions of white identity.

It’s not just the north that attacks Kenny’s rural whiteness. Ashley Schaeffer, Kenny’s other primary foe, owns a BMW dealership, lives in a plantation house passed down from his ancestors, has white hair, wears white suits, and speaks with an exaggerated patrician drawl; he is the very embodiment of the Southern landed gentry. Schaeffer, knowing Kenny is back in Shelby, offers him meager sums – sometimes paid out in coupons to local businesses – to put on, at Ashley Schaeffer BMW, exhibitions of a fastball he can no longer throw. It’s essentially his humiliation displayed and exchanged for cash, and Kenny loathes it so much he decides on a petty form of revenge. He returns at night and drunkenly tosses a cinder block through the window of a dealership BMW and then drives away. This act heightens rather than underscores the embarrassment the viewer feels for Powers. He cannot stand up to his tormentor to his face – he looks like a fool when he tries – so he must return to defile one car in a lot full of them; this act is captured on film and used to blackmail him later. Again, the divisions between the types of white people are stark: the wealthy, upper-class southerner can exploit his redneck counterpart to sell pre-owned vehicles and the latter has no recourse.

This sense of abuse, having been beaten down, wears on a person. Kenny decides to swallow his pride and become a glasses-wearing teacher who takes his responsibilities seriously, polo shirt tucked into zipper-sided sweatpants; he turns down an offer for a pitch-off at Ashley Schaeffer BMW between himself and his nemesis from his pro baseball days, Reg Mackworthy. He also helps his brother out with his contracting business, where the two of them are subject to further belittling, this time from a rich professional house flipper for whom they’re constructing a sunroom. She berates the two at length, a verbal bludgeoning they endure until Dustin, pushed to the brink, declares that they’re done working for the day, and that he and Kenny are headed to the BMW dealership so his pro baseball-playing brother can prove himself again in a pitch-off. It’s a moment of triumph, not only for Dustin and Kenny, but also for the lower-class white trash group to which they belong, a victory the show underscores with dialogue; as they depart, Kenny calls the house-flipper a “city bitch” while she mutters “rednecks” under her breath. In emphasizing the intra-racial conflict present in both the sunroom scene and the subsequent pitch-off, the stakes are raised – the fight is no longer about Kenny trying to prove himself to the people of Shelby, but instead of a southern white redneck identity fighting to stay respected in a world that is hostile to it.

Image result for kenny powers ashley schaeffer

And in this battle the rednecks win. April hears on the radio the announcement of the upcoming pitch-off while lubing up Cutler before a triathlon; she breaks her promise to see him at the finish line to watch Kenny try to return to former glory. Her presence spurs him on, and he delivers a blazing fastball that knocks Mackworthy’s eye out. It’s a victory over Cutler, whose fiance leaves him for Kenny, and over Schaeffer, whose promotion intended to humiliate Kenny ends with an eye on his dealership floor and Powers’s fastball velocity back in the triple digits. Kenny celebrates by smashing BMW windows with hurled baseballs, an act once done at night as proof of his cultural impotence redone in the daylight as proof of triumph. In having Kenny symbolically defeat both the condescending northerner and the wealthy southern plantation owner, the show celebrates the redneck identity of its protagonist and argues against its cultural demonization.

But Eastbound does not savor the pleasure of Kenny’s symbolic victory. It punishes the viewers for their identification with Kenny by reminding them of his racism. In no sense is he a changed man. This is evident in his confrontations with Mackworthy when he feels the need to point out his rival’s blackness as a knock against him. Even more egregious is his chat with a pro executive for Tampa who informs him that, after seeing the return of his fastball, the team is looking to sign him, that they need a “shot of personality”, and asks if the racism and homophobia that once made him famous are beliefs he still holds. Kenny cheerfully informs him that his prejudices are the same, and the pro scout reacts positively – inflammatory comments brings fans to the stadium. The audience, rooting for Kenny’s success, have been duped into supporting a racist who succeeds not despite his bigotry but because of it. In building Powers up to be a hero who represents a group of people, promoting audience identification with him, and then rewarding him for holding the stereotypical prejudices of that group, the show can be seen as a tacit endorsement of those values. Never change, and society will reward you eventually.

This analysis would hold true if Eastbound & Down concluded with a victorious Kenny returning to the major leagues. It does not. He receives a call as he’s about to leave Shelby for Tampa saying the offer has been revoked, that no team in the big leagues wants to sign him. The idea that racism would end up a benefit for him is shown to be a fiction. This reversal changes the meaning of his previous triumphs. When he knocked out Mackworthy’s eye, showed up Schaeffer, and won back April from Cutler, the expectation was for future success – that defeating his foes meant a demonstrably better life ahead for him. Instead, he is humiliated once more. The racism for which he was once rewarded is shown to be an anachronism, the remnant of a system used to suture together an alliance between whites of the upper and lower class; see Kenny facing off against Mackworthy, both of them being exploited by Schaeffer for profit, but opposed nonetheless (Mahoney 133). But that system of white alliance is fraying at the seams. The divisions between whites are sharper than ever, the conflict playing out on lines of identity: north versus south, rich versus poor, city versus country. Eastbound & Down reveals and plays out those conflicts, only to say that they do not matter. While being the most talented or favored white person might have once meant automatic success, it does not now. You, the redneck, can win, see your ideological foes bested, and be left with nothing in the end. Whiteness doesn’t mean as much as it once did. It’s this author’s opinion that this change means a better, fairer society, but realizing it is going to leave Kenny Powers and many others like him crying in the front seat of their cars. It’s a harsh reality, but one we’re going to have to acclimate ourselves to as a culture. The alternatives are too unpleasant to bear.

The Band the Band


Good luck had just stung me

To the race track I did go

She bet on one horse to win

And I bet on another to show

Odds were in my favor

I had him five to one

When that nag came around the track

Sure enough we had won

-Up on Cripple Creek, The Band

Thank god for Bob Dylan. I’m sure that’s something that is said daily, but my reasoning is probably different than most. Instead of being in awe of Dylan for the music he has brought to this world (“Mr. Tambourine Man” is one of my favorites), and the way he has changed rock music, I’m in awe because without him there’s a good chance the Band wouldn’t be a band. Yes, they would have been known for their stint as the Hawks, and as Dylan’s backup band, but we wouldn’t have songs like “The Weight” or “Acadian Driftwood” or “Up on Cripple Creek”.

Soon after leaving Ronnie Hawkins–the musician who initially brought the Band (previously known as the Hawks) together–the Canadian-American band was stung by good luck because they were sought after by Bob Dylan. The Band went on Bob Dylan’s 1965-66 world tour excluding Levon Helm who was at Dylan’s Forest Hills, New York, concert in 1965 where they got booed by the crowd: Helm was quoted saying “I wasn’t made to be booed”. In 1966, though, Helm rejoined the Band and Bob Dylan in West Saugerties, New York, after Dylan got in his famous motorcycle crash. The Band rented a house, well-known as Big Pink, to be closer to Dylan while he was out of the public eye for a little bit. The motorcycle crash ended up having a positive outcome for both Dylan and the Band as they went on to record over 100 tracks together in Big Pink. A number of those tracks went on to be known as The Basement Tapes, arguably some of the best songs written by the two parties.

The story of how and why these tapes were made is one that should be an inspiration to all musicians. They created a little studio in the basement of Big Pink, and sang/composed for themselves: not for a crowd, a studio, or for fame. Robbie Robertson reminisced, “We went in with a sense of humor. It was all a goof. We were playing with absolute freedom; we weren’t doing anything we thought anybody else would ever hear, as long as we lived. But what started in that basement, what came out of it—and the Band came out of it, anthems, people holding hands and rocking back and forth all over the world singing ‘I Shall Be Released,’ the distance that all of this went—came out of this little conspiracy, of us amusing ourselves. Killing time” (Old, Weird America). Their way of killing time led to what some critics say was a stylistic transformation for rock music: you can see this transformation in Dylan’s music as well. He went from albums like Highway 61 Revisited to songs that were more rooted in traditional American music like “I Shall be Released”.  As for the Band, well, they became the Band with their debut album Music from Big Pink. They obviously did not spend a lot of creative energy on the name of their band, or the name of their first album, but it’s okay because it’s quite obvious that they spent a lot of it on their music.

In 1968, “The Weight”, from Music from Big Pink, hit its peak at #63 in US charts-a deplorable rank as Aretha Franklin’s cover of the song hit #19 in 1969. I use the word deplorable because the Band’s version is much more pleasurable to hear. No offense to Aretha Franklin, she has a great voice, but the best part of the original version is the chorus where you can hear up to three different voices all coming together to pitch the perfect imperfect harmony.

This imperfectness is what makes the band so unique; other bands with multiple lead singers–most notably the Beatles with Lennon, McCartney and the occasional Harrison–harmonize so beautifully as though their voices become one. The Band does the exact opposite by providing a different type of harmony: ragged, throaty, asperous, and broken. Musicians harmonize because it sounds better than individually singing/playing-the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The Band does indeed do this this, but it does it in a way that both the whole and the parts are both equally as good: you’re able to hear the individual voices in the harmony as it goes in and out throughout lines, but you’re able to enjoy the voices together as well. This abnormal harmony is seen in most of their songs: “Acadian Driftwood”, “Atlantic City”, “Up on Cripple Creek”, etc.

The Band was able to create songs that were both meaningful, and meaningless, but both equally gratifying to their audience. Contrary to popular belief, “The Weight” is not meant to be taken as a serious song. Critics have spent years analyzing the song and its biblical references, but Robbie Robertson has said that this song was influenced by the director Luis Bunuel and the characters in his movies. This song was written in Big Pink when they were just fooling around and having fun with music. On the other hand, in 1970, Robertson wrote the song, “The Shape I’m In” which is about the rough spot they were all in after fame started to take its toll on the musicians, especially Richard Manuel. Manuel was an alcoholic in despair which made it hard for the band to keep going as they did before: it took them 4 more years to release a new album, Northern Lights — Southern Cross. 

Unlike Music from Big Pink, Northern Lights—Southern Cross, does having a meaningful background behind the name. It has Northern Lights because of the four Canadians in the band: Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, and Rick Danko. And Southern Cross because of the one southerner, Levon Helm. This album was especially significant because it marked the first time Robertson wrote about his home land in “Acadian Driftwood”. “Acadian Driftwood” is about the banishment of the Acadians during the French and Indian war: something that could resemble Robertson’s early life. His music career prompted him to travel  from Toronto to the south, an unknown land: even when he lived in Toronto he didn’t exactly feel like a native because he was of Jewish and Mohawk descent. The history behind this song isn’t exactly something that would amuse pop music listeners, and it didn’t as the song didn’t crack the top 100: a shame because it’s one of the more significant songs written by the Band with some of the best vocals.

In 1969, Greil Marcus, a well-respected rock critic, praised the band on sticking together: “It’s something else to found a group that lasts. It’s not a matter of “I-Was-There-When,” though that’s part of it; with so many bands falling apart or kicking out members or just calling it quits, The Band has stuck together” (Review). This was something that Marcus loved about the band, but was unfortunately something that did not last: the Band called it quits after a Thanksgiving Day concert in 1976 after 16 years of being together. Although this would have been a fine ending to their career together as most bands eventually come to an end, the aftermath of the Band was not pleasant. After part of the band regrouped in 1983, Manuel hung himself with a belt in his hotel room after a concert in Winter Park, Florida: he had traces of cocaine and alcohol in his body. Levon Helm, the one American in the group, declined an offer to go to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame after the Band was inducted into it because he was not happy with how Robertson took sole credit for songs that were written as a collaborative effort. Danko was found guilty of trying to smuggle heroin into Japan in 1996, and then later passed away at 56 in his home in Woodstock, New York. The band member whose life most closely resembles a perfect ending to a movie is Levon Helm. He returned to his house near Woodstock (where the Band’s career kicked off), after developing throat cancer. He could barely speak, but in order to pay for the mounting debts he was incurring he started hosting Midnight Rambles at his barn. His voice miraculously started to strengthen and, in 2004, he was able to belt out classics from the Band. If I were to write a movie on the Band, I would make it so that the ending to the Band was just as good as the beginning, but that just isn’t the shape they were in.

I’m gonna go down by the water

But I ain’t gonna jump in, no, no

I’ll just be looking for my maker

And I hear that that’s where she’s been? Oh!

Out of nine lives, I spent seven

Now, how in the world do you get to Heaven

Oh, you don’t know the shape I’m in

-The Shape I’m In, The Band

“We’re the Millers”: A Film of Masculinity


Perhaps one of the best, most popular comedies of 2013, We’re the Millers stars, most namely, Jason Sudeikis and Jennifer Aniston as they serve as parents in a thrown together ‘family’ that travels across the US-Mexico border to retrieve what is originally referred to in the film as “a smidge of weed”, but later turns out to be of a greater capacity. The film progresses further even, as this dysfunctional, diverse ‘family’ later discovers that they were in fact stealing this weed from a Mexican drug lord, who will be mentioned a bit later. Now I don’t know much about the director of the film, let alone his name off the top of my head. All that I remember is that he is male, in fact, but any significant details past that are merely an internet search away. The details don’t seem to matter for the sake of this essay, however, and that lone detail that I can recall (of the director being male), I have come to think, seems to be enough at this point.

Getting back to the film, the different pieces of the family, I think, are worth briefly touching upon, just to get a sense of their dynamic and our perspective on them as viewers. David, played by Jason Sudeikis, is a single-man, yet more importantly, a local drug dealer in Denver. That seems to be his main source of income, until all of his money and weed is stolen by thugs. In contrast, Rose, or who later comes to be known as Sarah, played by Jennifer Aniston, is a stripper in the Denver area in much need of cash and housing, due to the actions of her ex-boyfriend. Kenny, an uptight, nerdy teenager who lives in the same building as David and Sarah, frankly just seems to be a kid who is in seek of company, as his mother hasn’t returned to the apartment in days, even weeks. And lastly is Casey, a runaway kid, who is portrayed as living on the streets and in desperate need of money. These four join together and become the Millers, all just so David can receive a major payday from a much larger, wealthier drug lord in the area.

The humor and personalities that each and every individual brings to this film varies between them, and ultimately, helps structure the obscure dynamic that the Millers create. There’s a little more to this film, however, that is, hidden through this humor and the distraction that each and every individual in the film proposes, a strict and imposing male lens and mindset behind the camera and in the production and editing throughout the entirety of the film.

Right from the beginning we are led to see Rose as a stripper, that is part of our first impression of her. Yes, we do see her expression of her own disappointment in her occupation, yet she still continues to use her body, for male pleasure, in order to receive some degree of income; in fact, it isn’t until she is asked to have sex with the clients that she actually gives up the job. And that’s just the beginning. David, well aware of Rose and her occupation, goes to the strip club in seek of bringing Rose with him, and the others, to make this trip down to Mexico, a trip that she originally denies, until she recognizes her desperate need for finances. Suiting to the male eye, while receiving a lap dance, as if Rose is not being objectified enough, David literally says that he is asking to “rent” her for this trip, as if there is no problem with that, that it is perfectly acceptable, especially using the terminology in which he chooses. David takes her occupation as a stripper and shoves its reputation back into her face, merely acting as if it defines her own self-worth, while further reinforcing a scene that accepts male dominance and female subjugation.

Switching gears, Kenny provides us a bit of a different personality and different viewpoint than that of Rose. Kenny meets a girl on their return trip home, Melissa, whom he’s interested in; but he’s initially inhibited by his lack of experience kissing women. However, the ‘family’ helps resolve that lack of experience. The scene eventually arrives at Kenny trading off makeouts with Casey and Rose, practicing; all the while David is looking on while eating a bag of chips, as if an innocent bystander looking in on the spectacle and taking in its full effects. I mean, he even takes a picture of Kenny and Casey kissing. Aside from the fact that these two women are kissing Kenny back and forth, the fact that David looks onto the scene in the interested and encouraged way that he does makes it almost seem pornographic in a sense, as if he’s looking in on some kind of incestuous sexual scene in a voyeuristic fashion, just as Melissa sees it (not voyeuristically, of course, but rather disturbing) as she enters through the door of the RV. To make matters even more obscure, as Melissa runs out the door, David slams his chip bag down on the counter and says a frustrated “fuck”, almost as if he’s irritated by her disruption of the scene, rather than his concern for Kenny. But, we don’t initially come to see the scene (in its entirety) as improper or frankly even that crude, we just take it as justified for the improvement and betterment of a man, so that he can further intrigue another woman, which nearly serves as a reinforcement for male influence, and further normalizes a male perspective in the film.

Coming back to Rose, the pinnacle of the male lens is displayed in times of desperate measure for the Millers. Trapped by Pablo Chacon, the drug lord whom they stole the weed from, Rose offers to “show her worth” by captivating him, by stripping. Yes, she makes one final return to her prior occupation, exposing her body to the pleasure of male eyes. The scene itself, at times, attempts to even make it seem glamorous, with assistance of the sunlight, a shower, and sparks. You can nearly sense the intention of a male gaze as David looks directly into the camera and shrugs, raising his eyebrows, almost as if the mere exposure of Rose is not only invaluable to him, but acceptable as long as they are safe, not to mention the fact that it may be visually pleasurable to him, as well as Kenny, as he adjusts his pants in what looks to be a nearly unbreakable captivation. All this is displayed in the scene as if it is simply not enough that Rose is showing that she’s valuable by the use and spectacle of body. Does the film do anything to show this to us as viewers, to show that Rose is more than a stripping teaseful distraction in order for everyone to be safe, to escape? Not really. The assistance of the music, editing, and lighting further draw the viewer in to the movements and body of Rose, as the cuts and focus of the camera shift between the spectators (watching intently) and Rose’s body (in some cases, in close-up fashion).

One scholar argues that “It’s when filmmakers run out of or run from creativity that they retreat to the economic safe haven of sex, violence, car crashes, and jiggling bodies” and that is the exact case in this film. The action and sexual displays appeal to the male eye, and they don’t seem inappropriate, or even unnecessary, in the film, but pivotal to us in maintaining that gaze and level of captivation in what we are seeing (just like the men in the film during Rose’s strip scene).

Aside from these moments that either objectify women or reinforce male dominance and influence, David tends to make comments that either result in women being furtherly objectified or that would be seen as disrespectful towards women in any usual circumstance throughout the entirety of the film. But the film creates something different for us. The movie normalizes these jokes and it allows and guides us to accept them through our laughter, no matter how wrong, crooked, and disrespectful that they may be. Due to that normalization, a male perspective is built up further, as males are practically given a more dominant role, due to the subjugation of women. Also, another scholar argues that “film has become a mirror of society’s view of the female body”, but rather, that view may be inflicted upon us as individuals, just as it is inflicted upon the viewers of this film. It is not necessarily generated through the viewer, but rather through the way the viewer is led to see and interpret the film. We come to recognize the strip teases and near nudity as almost acceptable and necessary, nearly against our own will; it’s practically imposed through the lens of the camera and editing of the scenes in which we see close-ups of the female body.

In the end, David does, in fact, grow to care and respect these people, but that may be laid out to us to keep viewers on his side, to let him off and reside with him, as we begin to realize his selfishness. We easily forgive him. The somewhat crooked way of seeing the ending of this film, as the four of them move into a home together, under a witness protection program, is that David ends up actually changing the lives of those who came with him (maybe even for the better). David, the, at one time, self-concerned, money-seeking individual, comes to change the lives of Sarah (now ‘stripped’ of the name Rose), Casey, and Kenny. He gives them a home, whether it’s in the most literal sense, for Sarah, the most figurative sense, for Kenny, or in both, for Casey.

All the visual matters and jokes that support male empowerment and female objectification, are really somewhat trivial, they only support the true major source that is the problem with the whole male lens in its own right. The biggest problem is that the male lens of these films makes the objectification and subjugation of these women appear normal, it makes it appear okay and acceptable. The views of women exposing themselves normalizes that scene to us as the viewers, we come to see it, maybe even expect it. The film provides us that belief, we don’t have to work to find it, or, for that matter, feel too guilty for seeing it. The true danger is when these false beliefs can carry over into the real world, when people accidentally, or subconsciously, forget that some of these things are unacceptable, that women shouldn’t, in fact, be objectified; and that has become a problem in Hollywood today, not only in films, but in the actual tangible world.


An earlier draft of this essay was read by Cory Lund.

I have written this essay in the style of Chuck Klosterman.

Main proposition influenced by Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”

Works Cited

Durham, Meenakshi Gigi, and Douglas M Kellner (ed.). Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001.

Thurber, Rawson Marshall, director. We’re the Millers. Warner Bros, 2013.

Gossip Girl, the Male Gaze, and the Real World

When I was in fourth grade, a girl in my Hebrew School class announced to all in the room that she didn’t want her Blackberry anymore and wanted an iPhone instead, so she had dropped her Blackberry in the toilet. She proceeded to pull out an iPhone, saying “look at my new phone!” This was one of the many reasons why I disliked going to Hebrew School. However, experiences like these did make it so that, four years later, when I stumbled upon all six seasons of  Gossip Girl conveniently ready for my watching on Netflix, I already had an insight into that world. My peers and I immediately became enthralled with the series. We wanted to be Blair Waldorf, we wanted to be anyone but Serena van der Woodsen, and we wanted, more than anything, for Blair Waldorf and Chuck Bass to be together in the end. For me, the appeal was the sense of familiarity it provided me. As I watched the show, I recognized the streets the characters walked on as ones around the corner from my old building or down the block from my temple. The appeal also lay in the glimpse it gave me into this other part of life in New York City — one to which I was close enough to know it existed (my Hebrew School experiences made sure of that), but also far enough away that I did not know exactly what it consisted of.

Recently, I rewatched an episode of this show; I had some free time and I wanted to see if I could remember why I had loved it so much. While watching, I slowly came to the disappointing realization that this show was not even close to what I had built it up to be. I still loved it, but the experience I had watching it was different than the one that “middle school me” had while watching it. I could not quite put my finger on it, but the editing seemed a little off, and the derogatory jokes that had flown over my head as a middle schooler now had a bit more of a punch-in-the-gut quality to them. Nevertheless, by the end of the episode, I was again enthralled.

The problem that I could not quite put my finger on a few months ago, has now become quite clear: the show is entirely based on the concept of the male gaze, and this male gaze is perpetuated throughout the entirety of each episode in a way that is sickening once it is spotted. However, since the theory behind the male gaze is partly that it remains under the radar, actually spotting it in the first place is difficult. Thus, too many people — many of them teenagers — have become obsessed with this show without realizing its more serious implications.

Gossip Girl has extended the male gaze perhaps as far as it can go (or at least I hope that no one tries to push it any farther). The camera takes on the male’s perspective, as is typical in most popular culture, but the male perspective is also emphasized throughout the show by each of the male characters. Even the plot line, although narrated in a female’s voice, is actually narrated from the male’s point of view (in the end we find out that Dan is the one who has been running the gossip girl blog). The male’s gaze is pervasive; today, especially, the reality of the male gaze in popular culture is an even more important phenomenon than many realize, as an increasing number of victims of sexual assaults perpetrated within the Hollywood apparatus come to the surface. To focus on the male gaze in film without analyzing the potential of a connection between it and all that is currently coming to the surface would be a disservice.

I never thought about the influence of editing on a show before. It is always satisfying to point out when details of shows do not remain consistent throughout — Gossip Girl’s editors seemed to struggle a lot with this type of editing. But, Gossip Girl’s editors did not seem to struggle with using editing to successfully portray the male gaze. In the first episode (“Pilot”), there are countless instances of the camera forcing viewers to adapt a male point of view without realizing they are doing so. Within the first two minutes of the episode, the camera pans up and down an unknowing Serena as Dan looks at her from a distance. The editors are setting up the show to be portrayed from a male point of view even before viewers have become acquainted with any of the characters. In the twenty-first minute of the first episode, the camera makes a slow progression up Blair’s body and then pans over to Nate as he walks through the door. Through this cinematography,  as well as through dialogue about how Nate has a right to Blair’s body (Chuck says to Nate, “you’re also entitled to tap that ass”) the scene implies that Blair’s body belongs to Nate; it is there as something for Nate’s eyes to consume, and for him to have at his choosing. These are certainly not the only instances of the male gaze in Gossip Girl, but listing them all would be excessive since the male gaze occurs in countless similar circumstances throughout the series.

Gossip Girl pushes beyond just the camera and editing in its portrayal of the male gaze; it created a character that embodies the gaze. Dan Humphrey is one of the main male characters of the show. He is the “poor” boy from Brooklyn, an outcast who has his big break into inner society when he begins dating Serena — a beautiful, rich, popular girl.  The show is premised on an anonymous gossip blogger who receives tips and posts about the inner workings of New York City’s elite teenage society. This itself should set off alarm bells ringing as an indication of the expansion of the male gaze; this blogger is looking into others’ private lives without any permission to do so. To make matters worse, in the last episode the series reveals that it was Dan all along who was the anonymous blogger. This means that the entirety of the show is seen through, first the eyes of the tip-givers, but ultimately through Dan’s eyes. All (the tip-senders, blog-readers, and Dan himself) are watching others’ private interactions, and inserting themselves into the private lives of people whom they have no right to observe. Dan is ultimately the one who has the final say in how others’ private lives are presented to the world and the ways in which the blog’s readers will peer into the private lives of the show’s characters. In the context that “the knowledge that is gained from gazing at others’ lives may provide [the gazer] with a sense of power and control in our own lives,” Dan as the embodiment of the male gaze makes sense. Dan lacks power and control over his own life because he is the outcast. The way for him to reclaim some agency lies in the blog, subjecting the private lives of his peers and those around him to his own portrayal of them. The blog also provides an escape from his own problems into the more luxurious world of the elite who surround him, but with whom he feels he will never be equal. The male gaze has extended from just the camera allowing viewers to peer into the character’s lives. It now vindicates the concept of the male gaze and its use by viewers through the sanctioning of its extensive use by Dan, one of the show’s beloved characters — the “good guy”.

The male gaze is a type of voyeurism. The use of this word is often dreaded because it rarely says anything good about that to which it refers. Gossip Girl is full of voyeurism, which means that the audience (comprised mostly of teenage girls) accepts its use, and the actors embrace its use in a way that can only be expected to transfer into real life for impressionistic viewers. Voyeurism in popular culture is usually first associated with reality television, but Gossip Girl has made it clear that it is not limited to reality television. Voyeurism in shows like Gossip Girl is dangerous, because not only is the audience participating in its perpetuation, but so are the characters that they learn to admire. In this way, the use of voyeurism in real life is validated, and without even realizing it, all who watch are recognizing voyeurism as an admirable act. Mainly, this means that the teenage girls girls watching the show accept the objectification of women like themselves. The first episode provides yet another perfect example when it shows Nate and Serena’s sex scene in the bar through a lens that is blurred around the edges. In this moment, all viewers become voyeurs, finding enjoyment in watching a private moment that is not their own. This theory is often applied to books by saying, “unless a book directly addresses ‘you,’ then theoretically you have no place to be looking at and reading the pages.” Television shows are the same, and since they seldom directly address viewers, one generally has no right to be watching. In the same scene as above, the camera pans to Chuck watching Nate and Serena having sex from a balcony above. This is weird and should make most viewers feel uncomfortable, but instead it is presented as an intriguing plot twist that will later cause interesting drama. In viewers’ minds it is nothing more than that, and this is a problem.

This problem has presented itself recently in the form of the stream of sexual assault allegations being made public. Almost every day, my phone dings to alert me that another public figure has been accused of sexual misconduct. This should not surprise me or anyone else; the male gaze and voyeurism are phenomena that have overtaken popular culture and Hollywood. If it is acceptable on screen, it is not that far to assume that it is also acceptable in real life. Thus, actors like Ed Westwick, who portrayed characters that were beloved despite their illustrating the omnipotence of the male gaze, might find that it is not so difficult to think that they could get away with similarly grotesque actions in real life. Chuck Bass was an awful character who objectified women both through his actions and his words, and in the first episode tried to sexually assault two leading female characters. Yet he goes on to become one the shows best characters. I can vouch for that — I was rooting for him all along, no matter the bad things that he did. Actors must learn to embody their characters as if they were actually them; it is not too far of a jump for them to begin to adopt some of their actions in real life, believing that they can get away with them. This could be a reason why Hollywood is at the center of the sexual assault epidemic.

This idea that everyone learns to inhabit the male point of view is not an idea that most would like accept about themselves. In an attempt not to, many have come up with ways to claim that the male gaze does not exist or that the male gaze is not a negative phenomenon. For example, some women claim that the male gaze makes them feel empowered. Others claim that the female gaze also exists, and this existence validates the existence of the male gaze. First, there is a difference between appreciating respectful attention from men and just being looked at as an object there for anyone’s pleasing. It is sad to imagine that women feel empowered by anyone inhabiting the male gaze and looking at them through that lens. This points at a deeper problem of internalized sexism in society, and does not invalidate the existence of the male gaze. In terms of there also being a female gaze, there is not much proof that points to that fact. In using Gossip Girl as an example, there were countless examples of the male gaze, but no examples of the female gaze. Even if there is a female gaze, that does not make the male gaze something that should be accepted when presented as a sole viewpoint — two wrongs do not make a right.

Gossip Girl is much more than the superficial portrayal of New York City’s elite society that I originally thought it was. The realization that this show perpetuates such a harmful convention is upsetting because I really enjoy watching this show. At the same time, this does not mean I will stop watching or enjoying the show, which is exactly the problem with popular culture and the male gaze: Despite its presence and influence, we want to keep watching.

Written in the style of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Edited by Sarah Tully.


Bartlett, Jennifer. “Longing for the Male Gaze.” The New York Times. September 21, 2016.
Accessed December 08, 2017.

Calvert, Clay. Voyeur nation: Media, Privacy, and Peering in Modern Culture. Boulder:
Westview Press, 2004. 69.

Garcia, Antero. Critical Foundations in Young Adult Literature Challenging Genres. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 2013. 104.

“Male gaze.” Oxford Reference. April 19, 2016. Accessed December 08, 2017.

Metzl, Jonathan. “From Scopophilia to Survivor: A Brief History of Voyeurism.” Textual Practice 18, no. 3 (2004): 415-34. doi:10.1080/09502360410001732935.

Defending Satire: Fawlty Powers

Despite the massive success of Monty Python, comedy legend John Cleese decided to leave the show in the early ‘70s. Leaving behind a legacy of wildly successful  surreal comedy, he joined his fiancé Connie Booth to work on another masterpiece, Fawlty Towers, an over-the-top satire originating from observation of an extremely rude hotel-owner in Torquay, England. The show was a smash hit, voted as the best British TV show of all time by the British Film Institute in 2000. Even so, some would take that endorsement by a large media enterprise as a condemnation—that it signifies the show’s mainstream success is due only to the peddling of the TV industry, who forced it upon the British people to establish certain roles and preserve the status quo. Yet, the farcical Fawlty Towers manages to accomplish something entirely different, not giving viewers a consolation prize for their depressing lives of work, but instead allowing for the realization that the necessity to conform exists. Fawlty Towers, at times, functions by providing enlightening hilarity, pointing out societal issues and questioning deeply-ingrained practices. Of course, the way viewers understand these social criticisms depends largely on their own environments. Nonetheless, the show ages well.

For some brief background, Basil Fawlty, played by John Cleese, and his wife, Sybil own a hotel which they run with the help of a maid named Polly, a Spanish waiter called Manuel (with comically bad English). The show centers around the interactions between the owners, workers, and their guests. Fawlty Towers does humor strikingly. So, when the plot goes wrong, it gets really absurd. Often, it is in a torrent of mistakes that laughter comes. One example comes from perhaps the most famous episode of the series, “The Germans,” in which German tourists spend a couple of nights at Fawlty Towers. Besides the usual barrage of slapstick, the episode is most remembered for Mr. Fawlty’s hilarious reminder: “Don’t mention the war!” After exclaiming this, Mr. Fawlty proceeds to mention World War II to the German guests in every sentence, causing one of them to cry. In the ensuing chaos, Mr. Fawlty retorts, “Well, they started it!” and after a denial by the guests, he responds brilliantly, “Yes you did, you invaded Poland!” Satire produces similar moments all the time, and the laughter that these scenes create is revelatory. In “The Germans,” the series makes fun of the inhibitory effects of British propriety, implicitly asking why it’s necessary to focus on what should not be said, rather than doing what is natural. Surely, if Basil hadn’t thought of the war throughout the guests’ stay, he would never have offended them about the war (although he surely would have in some other way).

To expound upon the corrective ability of satire, it’s necessary to look to writing on the form. Some look to A Handbook for Literature by William Thrall, who writes that satire is “a literary manner which blends a critical attitude with humor and wit to the end that human institutions or humanity may be improved,” and that “the true satirist is conscious of the frailty of institutions of man’s devising and attempts through laughter not so much to tear them down as to inspire a remodeling” (Harris, 1990). We can see these ideas exactly in “The Germans,” which attacks the constricting British notion of propriety. Indeed, although the goal of Fawlty Towers is not to critique the society in which it was created, Cleese’s farcical approach lends itself to social satire. One can note that Thrall insistence on remodeling, rather than tearing down, is in accord with the aforementioned episode, because the ideas that beget propriety are not attacked, but the necessity to cling to a notion of those ideas is. In other words, one can understand not mentioning World War 2 to the Germans because it would naturally cause tempers to run high; yet, the necessity to repeat to oneself not to mention the war, as a result of propriety, would be unnecessary and counterproductive to civility. The show questions a basic characteristic of the British identity with laughter.

The famous incident in “The Germans”

Laughter, though, is controversial. Instead of seeing laughter as something that can bring positive social change and alert people of their unwitting conformation, some see the natural reaction to humor as a tool of subjugation in the modern era. For example, in his 1947 polemic, “The Culture Industry,” critical theorist Theodor Adorno writes, “Wrong laughter copes with fear by defecting to the agencies which inspire it. It echoes the inescapability of power… In wrong society, laughter is a sickness, drawing [happiness] into society’s worthless totality” (Adorno & Horkheimer, 2006, p. 112). Although Adorno believes that all the laughter in the 1940s (and since) United States was of the wrong variety, he does allow for an alternative: “Reconciled laughter resounds with the echo of escape from power” (Adorno & Horkheimer, 2006, p. 112). Although acknowledging the presence of a good mode of laughter, he does not capture or allow for the revelatory laughter of satire, because he believes that “laughter about something is always laughter at it” (Adorno & Horkheimer, 2006, p. 112). This type of thinking is not compatible with laughter of satire, because viewers laugh about and at the excessiveness of the necessity to conform, yet they laugh about their identification with that necessity, not at it. When Cleese jabs at British propriety, the viewer’s laughter comes not only from the awkwardness of the situation, but also from the realization that the situation was imposed unnecessarily by a superfluous necessity to conform to what one should not do. Adorno, and thinkers like him seem to have missed that this sort of revelatory laughter exists, which satire does a brilliant job of bringing about. It is important to note that although the nature of the laughter may be revolutionary, it may not necessarily spur a person to action.

A key point of a counter-argument—that all laughter is a modern tool of subjugation—would be that the viewers do identify with the characters. Perhaps, one could even look to the long history of English eccentrics for whom many felt nationalistic admiration. As one article puts it, “We laugh at Basil because we see ourselves in him, and if Cleese is Basil then we don’t have to admit any of the typically British uptightness is ours too” (Davidson, 1995). Thinking like this implies that viewers would feel comfortable keeping their uprightness because Mr. Fawlty is an admirable scape goat, who makes even the most intransigent person seem amenable. Yet, the same article also says, “[Fawlty Towers] was a fairly painful assessment of the character of the nation” (Davidson, 1995). Accordingly, there is another interpretation, a more probable one given the nature and character of satire: the identification with the characters and the absurdity of the entire show allows viewers to reflect upon their own propensities and question what are really their own ideas, and what ideas society has inculcated in them.

This is the essence of the revelatory laughter. To better get at what I mean by that, one can look at the structure of Fawlty Towers. The show is set such that the characters have no leisure time, which interestingly connects to Adorno, who wrote, “The only escape from the work process…is through adaption to it in leisure time” (Adorno & Horkheimer, 2006, p. 109). For the characters of this show, their leisure time is literally the work process; they’ve adapted completely. Adorno and similar thinkers might argue that seeing these people who have it as bad as possible would make viewers feel better about their own horrendous work-life balances. Yet once again, the nature of satire can prevent people from feeling this way, instead drawing attention to the fact that many people’s lives have become solely about work. Fawlty Towers, with its all-out expansion of work, calls into question this social construct. In a similar vein, the show, through Basil’s ludicrous attempts to climb the social hierarchy, questions a focus on social status. Despite the fact that he already owns a hotel, Basil comes off as a petty and unhappy man. In “A Touch of Class,” for example, Lord Melbury comes to the hotel, and Basil accordingly treats him better than any other guest. By the end of the episode, though, it is revealed that Melbury is a thieving imposter. The show portrays the necessity to reach the top of the hierarchy as something futile and unworthy through a comedy of obsequiousness.

The full episode of “A Touch of Class”

Additionally, Fawlty Towers exhibits carnivalesque properties that beget revelatory laughter. So far, this essay has discussed how Fawlty Towers’ outrageousness was cause for such laughter, but there is also cause for laughter in the reversal of traditional relations, some of which are not completely overdone. Mainly, Fawlty Towers has three: the reversed power dynamic of Basil and his wife, the socially unacceptable reactions to the guests by the hosts, and the fact that the most sane person seems to be an art student. Of course in the traditional household, the man asserts dominance over the woman, but in the Fawlty’s relationship, Sybil incessantly tells Basil what to do, and Basil takes his frustration out on the guests treating them like they’re unwelcome pockets of annoyance. The show clearly portrays the art student, Polly the maid, as the most sane of any of the characters, contrasting the “impotence” (Adorno & Horkheimer, 2006, p. 106) Adorno predicts for people who don’t conform to the prevailing economic system. The less pronounced reversals in the husband-wife relationship and Polly’s portrayal, especially in comparison to the complementary ridiculousness of Mr. Fawlty himself, reveal to viewers that such interactions are in fact very possible, that conforming to those traditional standards is not the only option. The show accomplishes this with a hilarious juxtaposition of moderation and ostentatiousness.

But what about the fact that Fawlty Towers was made in the ‘70s in Britain? One BBC article (“What’s the point of satire?”, 2015), which focuses on morality, says, because of the globalized nature of the modern world, satire can no longer be effective; the varying notions of morality across culture prevent satire from working as a corrective. However, the fallacy in this type of thinking comes from the following idea: “if satire aims at the moral reform of a given society it can only be effective within that particular society” (“What’s the point of satire?”, 2015). Cleese himself once said of Fawlty Towers, “The characters are in some way archetypes; they’re the types that crop up in all the different cultures” (An Interview With John Cleese – Fawlty Towers Special Features, 2014). The British idea propriety doesn’t come to an average American’s mind when an average American watches the show. Yet, the viewer can still learn from the corrective trends of the satire (which aren’t always overtly moral), and choose exactly what to take away. I hope not to make this an argument about morality, but there are some similar moral characteristics of almost all prominent cultures in the world. For example, impropriety is considered disrespectful across cultures. Yes, the definition of impropriety may change, but with satire, the area of insight remains similar, especially for those who have an idea of what is being satirized. In this specific example, of course the attack on British propriety in Fawlty Towers is pertinent to many cultures, because it makes them question their own notions of propriety. Their laughter illuminates such ideas.

The interview with Cleese about Fawlty Towers

The pinnacle of great farce, Fawlty Towers will be remembered as a hilarious English cultural product. At times, viewers were treated to hilarious displays of original slapstick. Other times, they laughed at Basil and the rest of the characters’ shortcomings. Some of that laughter was revelatory; Cleese took jabs at existing British social constructs, showing viewers their existence. Even with that focus, Brits were not the only ones to benefit from Fawlty Towers, as it became a worldwide phenomenon. Unfortunately, after the show ended, Cleese said, “I can never do better than Fawlty Towers no matter what I do. Now I very much want to teach young talent some rules of the game” (“John Cleese — minister of comedic talk”, 2006). Here’s to hoping the young talent learns.

This essay was read by Ian Pultz-Earle. It is not a first draft.

Works Cited

Adorno, T., & Horkheimer, M. (2006). Dialectic of enlightenment (pp. 94-136). Stanford, Calif: Stanford Univ. Press.

An Interview With John Cleese – Fawlty Towers Special Features. (2014). Retrieved from

Davidson, A. (1995). ARTS: TO HELL WITH BASIL. The Independent. Retrieved 13 November 2017, from

Harris, R. (1990). The Purpose and Method of Satire. VirtualSalt. Retrieved 13 November 2017, from

John Cleese — minister of comedic talk. (2006). Retrieved November 15, 2017, from

What’s the point of satire?. (2015). BBC News. Retrieved 13 November 2017, from

The Simpsons Blog Post

The 21st Century Fox logo fades to black as an Apollo spacecraft lands on the moon.  An anthropomorphic cat, Scratchy, and an anthropomorphic mouse, Itchy, emerge from the spacecraft.  Evoking another moon landing, Scratchy proclaims: “we come in peace, for cats and mice everywhere.” When the dramatic music stops playing, Itchy grabs an American flag and stabs Scratchy through the chest and beats him to near-death.  In short order, Itchy returns to earth a hero, is elected president, and, when he discovers that Scratchy survived the attack, ‘accidentally’ launches the entire nuclear arsenal.

So begins The Simpsons Movie.  Given the the traditions of Simpsons oeuvre, developed over nearly 30 years of television episodes, the choice to begin with Itchy and Scratchy is both telling and completely unsurprising.  The entire series is rife with slapstick and low humor that connects closely to a host of early cartoons.  But that first sequence also elides quickly into a scene in which Homer breaks the fourth wall, allowing Homer—and the film—to point out the ridiculousness of charging real audience members to watch a television-adapted movie, but he also points out the ridiculousness of charging audience members to watch a television-adapted movie that features a television-adapted movie:

Boring! … I can’t believe we’re paying for something we get for free on TV.  If you ask me, everybody in this theater is a giant sucker, [pointing towards us] especially you!

The gag works because of its satirical observation and because it happens while breaking the fourth wall.  And the “Itchy and Scratchy” movie, like the main series shorts, works because of its slapstick humor in the vein of Monty Python and Charlie Chapman.  Together, these comedic techniques satirize the film industry, its relationship with consumers, cartoon violence, and The Simpsons themselves—all within only a few minutes.

The  grotesquerie of the opening sequence invites the viewer to connect the Simpsons to a host of lowbrow humor and, in this way, to the “carnivalesque humor” described by Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin.  In examining the work of François Rabelais, Bakhtin draws a connection between the “grotesque and scatological” jokes of the French humorist and the antics of Medieval carnivals (Duncombe 82).  For Bakhtin, these carnivals upend social structures, placing the fool in the place of the king, and the king in the place of the fool” (88). “In this inversion and “temporary suspension … of hierarchical rank,” Bakhtin argues, participants “were considered equal during the carnival” (88).  The satisfactions of this kind of inversion, according to Bakhtin, support a kind of subversive humor, one centered around upending social dynamics and presenting “world[s] inside out” and “liberat[ed] from norms of etiquette and decency” (88).

The Simpsons clearly appears to share the sort of proclivity for subversion that Bakhtin celebrates—but the movie does not fully adopt a Bakhtinian understanding of humor.  While The Simpsons Movie does employ carnivalesque humor, it too challenges it.  In its gags, the film shows the strengths of carnivalesque humor, but the film also illustrates its limitations, particularly in relation to other comedic forms.  By looking at the ways in which carnivals and carnivalesque humor succeed and do not succeed in The Simpsons Movie, some insight can be gained on how effective Bakhtin’s argument is in its totality.

The most authentically carnivalesque moments may be those that occur in “excerpts” from the Itchy and Scratchy Show.  Consider the cold opening again.  The opening sequence only provides a few-minute segment from the “Itchy and Scratchy” movie—but those moments are memorably graphic.  In those two minutes, Itchy beats Scratchy to near death using a flag pole, leaves him to die on the moon, and—when it turns out Scratchy is still alive—launches the entire nuclear arsenal of the United States.  The “Itchy and Scratchy” shorts in The Simpsons television show are characterized by similar acts of violence.  In one short, Scratchy is fooled by a sign offering free money only to be neutered; in another, Itchy hooks up Scratchy to a cloning machine in order to kill Scratchy over and over again.  These violent, yet humorous, scenes demonstrate some of the argument made by Bakhtin.  Like Rabelais and the carnivals, The Simpsons use crass humor—in this case, through over-the-top cartoon violence—as a means of upending social dynamics and as a form of satire.

But are these moments authentically Bakhtinian?  In his chapter in Leaving Springfield: The Simpsons and the Possibility of Oppositional Culture, William Savage argues that the effectiveness of the “Itchy and Scratchy” cartoons lie in their ability to satirize [many things] in their violence.  “Itchy and Scratchy” plays off of the older Tom and Jerry, but it also critiques corporate culture, cartoon violence, in a knowing way that an informed consumer of culture would immediately recognize.  There is an obvious subversion, of course, in which mouse triumphs over cat.  But there is also a knowing confirmation in which “getting” the full joke is an affirmation of the viewer’s superior position.  Read in conjunction with Bakhtin, Savage’s argument suggests that the satirical power of the “Itchy and Scratchy” cartoons lies more with the audience member, rather than the carnivalesque elements of the gags.

Of course, pure bawdy humor and comedic violence is a cornerstone of the Simpsons history, from Dr. Nick Rivera’s disastrous medical interventions to the endless radioactive anomalies—and worker injuries—caused by the nuclear power plant.  But the most prevalent example of ‘grotesque’ humor appears in the relationship between Homer and Bart.  In an early scene from The Simpsons Movie, Homer engages Bart in a game of dare, after Bart laughs at Homer, who unintentionally hit himself with a hammer in eye while repairing their roof.  The two try to best each other by forcing the other to perform the most painful and humiliating tasks: Homer has to carry a pile of bricks on his back while Bart shoots him with a pellet gun, and Bart has to skateboard to a burger restaurant and back completely nude.  The humor of the scene rests squarely on the physical pain the two inflict on to each other—but the scene also functions by subverting the standard relationship between a father and son.  Homer and Bart are in turns overpowered by one another, in much the same way as the “Itchy and Scratchy” cartoons.  And, unlike those shorts, the funniness of the scene is not predicated upon the viewer having inside knowledge: the subverted relationship between the father and son is implicit in the scene itself.

Nonetheless, it’s clear from this scene too that grotesque and physical humor alone is unable to subvert social dynamics.  Homer remains the father figure in the film as in the television series and is responsible, ultimately, for the happy ending that keeps his family and his town intact.  He may be a fool, but he also inhabits a position of “authority” that is never seriously shaken.

A Bakhtinian reading of The Simpsons is also challenged by the film’s central narrative, which exists outside of individual gags.  In brief, the film tells the story of an averted natural disaster, one that is both caused by and ultimately resolved by everyman Homer Simpson.  After an attempt by the townspeople of Springfield to clean-up their polluted lake, Homer drops a massive silo filled with pig feces into the lake—the lake is quickly covered in a bubbling green ooze and a giant skull-and-crossbones appears in the water.  The head of EPA, Russ Cargill, decides to intervene by sealing Springfield under a glass dome.  While the scenarios and scenes surrounding the glass dome offer opportunities for exploring carnivalesque humor, it is the interactions of Cargill with other characters that more so capture a Bakhtinian argument.  Cargill gives the president—here Arnold Schwarzenegger—five sealed envelopes, asking him to choose one at random.  Later on, Cargill—after being foiled by Homer and Bart—claims that there are “two things they don’t teach you at Harvard … how to cope with defeat, and how to handle a shotgun.”  But before he can shoot Homer and Bart, Maggie pushes a boulder onto him.

In each of these instances, a government official is subverted and undermined—the president is told what to do by an EPA official; Cargill makes fun of his Harvard education; and Maggie drops a boulder onto him.  These are successfully subversive acts, surely, akin to examples that Bakhtin provides.  In “Understanding Satire with the Simpsons,” Carl-Filip Florberger specifically highlights the connection between the Simpsons subversion of officials of varying kinds across its episodes in connection with Bakhtin:

  • Bakhtin pointed out that carnivals in pre-Protestant Europe created a scenario in which “…hierarchies were temporarily suspended and even inverted, no insignificant thing in a society ruled by rigid social stratification attributed to divine will” (Bakhtin 1984b, 13). The Simpsons use this play with hierarchies to criticize the country, the government and also the company that owns them, FOX Network (Florberger and Lunborg).

There is, however, one unquestionably successful subversion in The Simpsons, executed by the character with the least power — an essentially carnivalesque moment.  It is Maggie, the speechless infant heart of the Simpsons family, who saves the day by executing the coup de grace.  It is Maggie who pushes the boulder that lands on EPA head Russ Cargill and prevents him from shooting Bart and Homer.  What this suggests is that Bakhtin was right.  While The Simpsons relies upon many kinds of humor to connect to its audience, the most powerful moments are when otherwise powerless characters—like an infant child, or a idiotic everyman—are able to do something powerful.  Or, funny.

Pokemon as Utopia

Pokémon has a certain allure to children, notably through its commercial success. In the first year alone, Pokémon merchandise accounted for one billion dollars of profit in the United States alone (Li-Vollmer 2). Today, it has expanded into one of the largest entertainment franchises in the world. Any child would be enamored by the possibility of living in a world where you could travel to your heart’s desire, befriend and control mythical creatures possessing extraordinary abilities, and live freely with few restraints barring you from your dreams. By ten years, in the Pokémon world, any child could acquire their first Pokémon and head out and explore the world and encounter new and exciting adventures. In such a world, even adults would be tempted by such an opportunity. Adults in the Pokémon world must have also set off on their own journey; it seems as if this is just a perpetuating tradition, to allow ten year olds to tour the world and figure out what they want to do with their lives. At least in the anime, a style of Japanese animation, no adults really ever seem unsatisfied with their lives. The possibilities are simply endless, as there is never any indication of a lack of ability to do whatever you want. Does this qualify Pokémon as a utopia? Everyone in the world seems to have whatever they want, so is Pokémon actually a better world with cute, supernatural creatures?

The possibilities in career and life opportunities delve into utopian aspects. Richard Dyer, author of Entertainment and Utopia, juxtaposed social tensions, inadequacies, and absences with their utopian solutions. Possibilities in the Pokémon relate to these two contrasting categories; “Energy (work and play synonymous)…Intensity (open, spontaneous, honest communications and relationships)…Transparency (open, spontaneous, honest communications…)…Community (…collective activity)” (Dyer 278). These are the utopian solutions to exhaustion, dreariness, manipulation and fragmentation respectively. In the Pokémon world, through the connection of Pokémon, everyday tasks are changed.  Work is no longer simple labor, life is no longer monotonous (especially with the always available possibility of travel), political opposition is no longer oppressive, and communities are no longer disconnected. Pokémon, as a source of entertainment, follows this analysis, which Dyer terms as, “offer[ing] some explanation of why entertainment works” (278). Although, as he also admits, and as Pokémon follows as proof, class, patriarchal, and sexual struggles are omitted and denied validity through this analysis. This is due to entertainment responding “to real needs created by society” (278). Yet, it still supports the utopian solutions that do exist for problems in today’s society.

With the freedom of choice in life paths, it would only feel obvious that the Pokémon world possessed stable economies and governments. But oddly enough, Pokémon lacks the appearance of any visible currency. Banks never appear in the television series. The economy, however it may be, cannot be determined at all; and from the knowledge given by the series, no forms of government exist either. Without such necessary constituents to a fully-functioning society, the Pokémon world has not collapsed. Instead, it has thrived into a utopic society seemingly free from major conflicts—but the truth is that the agglomeration of these utopian aspects cannot fully guarantee a perfect world.

Although major wealth gaps appear in the show, riches are minor luxuries in the world of Pokémon, where they may be easily acquirable. Affluent individuals can be distinguished from the average man. In multiple episodes of the anime, the main characters, led by Ash Ketchum, often stumble upon wealthy families with large mansions and wide plains of land owned by them. Professor Oak, a regional professor and scientist, is responsible for giving new trainers their first Pokémon. As a regional professor, he easily garners enough wealth to be considered to be one of the richest people in the region. Yet no significant social class differences appear. While some individuals remain rich and presumably powerful, never are they placed above others, which may or may not be just a consequence of utopian solutions implementing themselves to needs created by society, but defines and delimits too clearly “the legitimate needs of people in this society” (278). However, the lack of social class dynamics may also be taken as a utopian solution to social divides in society. Either way, wealth is not a determining factor in this consequence.

In the show, hard currency is never even seen. We know of the characters going out to purchase things, but never do we see a hint of a purse or credit card. The absence of currency is a statement to show that while money is present in Pokémon, it is by no means an important facet of the world. Some people may not possess as much wealth as others, but it does not diminish their own happiness and opportunities. As noted by Richard Dyer, the utopian solution to scarcity would be “abundance ([the] elimination of poverty for self and others; equal distribution of wealth)” (Dyer 277). Although wealth is not equally distributed, poverty is effectively eliminated in the show. Not a single instance occurs in the show where we can see a person stricken by poverty. By purposefully discluding any currency, Pokémon attempts to reinforce its own utopian aspects.

With the freedom granted in the Pokémon world, people have a variety of options to choose from. Close to no restrictions appear in this world, although some laws, or rules, are present throughout the regions even with the lack of a government. For example, trainers require trainer licenses in order to capture and train Pokémon. By neglecting or purposefully harming their Pokémon, these licenses may be taken away. In a perfect world, things such as these would not even need to occur. However, consequences to reckless decisions cannot be avoided. The existence of this problem does not detract from the argument that the Pokémon world is a utopia, it simply comprises another minor argument over the negative aspects in an otherwise utopian world.

Another interesting observation is the fact that healthcare is accessible to everyone without cost. Pokémon battles, the most popular sport of the Pokémon world, often end with numerous injuries to both sides as Pokémon engage in unpredictable combat although usually never ending with serious wounds. By going to the Pokémon Center, basically a Pokémon hospital, the treatment is quick, never costing any money as well.

Even though the amount of wealth an individual may possess may easily exceed another’s, not much monetary value actually exists in the show. Above all, Pokémon could be said to be more valuable than any quantity of money.

Although the Pokémon world is not home to overwhelming amounts of crime, crime is still inevitable. Pokémon poachers and crime syndicates manage to steal and cause harm to both people and Pokémon. However, there has been a lack of initiative to form larger police forces. Minor police forces exist in each town and city, but there has not been any organized force capable of stopping crime syndicates in the Pokémon world. One organization is present as a peacekeeper in the world, but its members do not engage crime unless it involves the endangerment of Legendaries, Pokémon vastly stronger than normal ones, who are also important to the natural order of the world, or the possibility of a massive loss of lives (given that they even possess the knowledge of such events). The only force who fights against these organized crime groups is Ash Ketchum, the protagonist, and his group of friends.

In every season, Ash faces off against these dangerous groups who wish to change the world through unleashing the power of Legendary Pokémon, who have the power akin to natural disasters. Although usually successful, the fate of the world rests on his shoulders time and time again. Rarely do people recognize the fact that without him, the regions would have been thrown into conflict and tragedy on multiple occasions. Arguably, the Pokémon world could be said to be a utopia for the general population. Besides having to labor to reach their goals, their lives could be said to be in paradise. However, the existence of the crime syndicates contradicts this point. These criminal groups were formed with one major goal in mind: change the world into a “better” one. Usually, this goal was just an excuse in order to mask their real purpose of taking over and becoming the ruling power. Unknowing of the difficulties in the world, the viewers are unable to figure out what major problems are present and if said goals ever had substance. Rather, only until the Unova region was the purpose clear for this specific group. At least for the other criminal groups, we could infer that the leaders possessed a strong desire for power. However, Team Plasma, the group inhabiting Unova, had a goal to “liberate” all Pokémon.

Although the relationship between people and Pokémon is harmonious for the majority of the show, the mistreatment of Pokémon is not an unfamiliar issue. In the first few episodes of the first season, we encounter a young Charmander, a reptilian-like fire Pokémon, sitting on a rock in the rain. Charmanders have flames on the tips of their tales, which signify their lives—if put out, the Charmander’s life could fade away. The Charmander that Ash and his friends found was heavily bruised and close to death because of the rain pouring on his tail. Later, after Ash rushes to the closest Pokémon Center to save its life, we find out that a trainer, those who train Pokémon to make them stronger, abandoned it because it was too weak. This reckless decision almost cost this Charmander its life. At the end, Team Plasma was corrupted and one of its leaders coveted power, thus trying to have him be the sole Pokémon master. However, its goal was not without basis. In a world where Pokémon place immense trust on their trainers, their ill-treatment is not as uncommon as it should be.

The utopia that Pokémon portrays is damaged by factors such as these. In the show, Pokémon are not just wild creatures. Some possess the ability to talk, as in speak human language, or to freely communicate with people. By terming their capture and training as enslavement, the view on this matter would be looking at it as the enslavement of an intelligent species. It is necessary, however, to look at the options of captured Pokémon as voluntary in most cases. Common knowledge in the show dictates that Pokémon acknowledge and strive for strength or companionship. Normal Pokéballs, small red-white balls used to capture Pokémon, are unable to hold a Pokémon if they truly wanted to escape. However, many choose to stay. As such, it is also necessary to acknowledge the mutual gain. The capturing and training of Pokémon actually functions as a reverse argument—both Pokémon and trainer accept this relationship in order to create a situation in which they can both benefit. This ideal can be looked upon as utopian; trainers seek to capture Pokémon to raise as strong companions to compete with others and Pokémon seek to grow stronger, a feat made possible by trainers.

Although a few occasions do occur where the idea of utopia may be challenged, for the most part, utopian aspects permeate throughout the Pokémon world. Freedom and accessibility to all paths with a general satisfaction with the state of being throughout the regions is the biggest utopian aspect of Pokémon. The reason why Pokémon was able to create such commercial success was due to the wondrous characteristics of the Pokémon world. From its release in 1996, where trading cards, manga interpretations and an anime soon followed due to the popularity of the franchise (History),  to the selling of “Diamond” and “Pearl” games in Japan reaching five million after only a few months ten years later, Pokémon has continued to be a source of entertainment offered as an immersive alternative (Bulik). Its utopian aspects have allowed it to display a world much better than our own. In this world, freedom is paramount to its citizens, health care is available to everyone, crime is not an overwhelming issue, and the general population savor their experiences as youths and later grow up to fulfill their own roles obligingly.


This essay was read by Samuel Gilman. It is not a first draft.


Beth, Snyder Bulik. “Nintendo Unleashes Full Force of Pokémon.” Advertising Age78.17 (2007): 6. ProQuest. Web. 14 Nov. 2017.

Dyer, Richard. Only Entertainment. Routledge, 1992.

“History of Pokémon.” Bulbapedia, the Community-Driven Pokémon Encyclopedia, Bulbapedia, 13 Nov. 2017, C3.A9mon.

Li-Vollmer, Meredith. “The Pokémon Phenomenon: A Case Study of Media Influence and Audience Agency in Children’s Consumer Culture.” Order No. 3053532 University of Washington, 2002. Ann Arbor: ProQuest. Web. 13 Nov. 2017.

What’s So Funny?

The Office, a mockumentary sitcom airing on NBC from 2005 to 2013, showcases and parodies the lives of normal white-collar workers in a midsize paper company. The show garnered critical praise and numerous awards, including an Emmy for best comedy series (NBC). Nearly everyone agrees that The Office is funny, but why? Why are we laughing at a show whose premise initially appears so mundane? What’s so funny?

To answer this question, let’s first consider the ideas of critical theorists—thinkers who reflect on society and culture—concerning laughter and comedy in general, and see if we can apply those theories to the show. In his essay “The Culture Industry,” Theodor Adorno, a prominent critical theorist, argues that the laughter that comes from consuming pop culture is devoid of happiness. In the context of the culture industry, he contends, we are laughing where there exists nothing to laugh about; the culture industry merely demonstrates to us how terrible our lives really are, and we laugh at our own misery. Thus, culture industry-fueled laughter for Adorno is inherently bad; it is a way of “cop[ing] with fear” by refusing to engage productively with the suffering that encompasses most of our lives and instead parodying it (Adorno, 112). According to other critical theorists and Adorno himself, however, not all laughter is “wrong;” the good laughter comes from reconciliation, from actually acknowledging our suffering and fighting it (Rada, 152). Adorno writes that this “reconciled laughter resounds with the echo of escape from power” (Adorno, 112). Laughter can actually help us escape our suffering rather than contribute to it.

Thus we have arrived at two different overarching types of laughter: the good and the bad, the wrong and the right. Where, then, does The Office fit into this spectrum? Are we laughing because The Office demonstrates to us how bad our lives really are? Or are we laughing because it helps us reconcile with and escape this suffering? Thus the question is not only why we are laughing, but also what the laughter accomplishes for us. Does it bring us more suffering or turn our suffering into happiness?

Because The Office was such a successful show, a few observers have tried to uncover where that success came from—meaning they explored the question we are now exploring. These observers mostly converged on the same one theory, though they expressed it differently. This is the theory that people like the show and find it funny because it makes them glad their lives are better than those of the characters in the show. By displaying a terrible work environment, this theory argues, the show brightened the lives of the viewers who realized their lives in comparison really weren’t that bad after all (Craft). Another phrasing of this theory is that the show is “cringe-worthy comedy,” which boils down to the same thing; people are laughing at how bad the character’s lives are because it makes them feel better about their own—they are laughing at other people’s misery (Carter). In Adornian terms, this theory exists somewhere in the middle of the spectrum of laughter; we are not laughing at our own suffering, but we are also not confronting and overcoming our own suffering. In any case, the theory, though popular, remains utterly unconvincing, given that we relate to some of the characters on the screen, which any Office fan will confirm. We cannot laugh at the relative misery of people while also relating to them, or at least not while still thinking ourselves better off than them.

So if the pervading theory explaining the humor of The Office fails to truly explain why so many people find it funny, then what is the right answer? To explore this, we must first determine which character or characters on the show viewers relate to the most. Because viewers are not laughing at the characters as in the pervading theory, they must be laughing with some of them. After all, the premise of this comedy—the modern American workspace—is far from foreign to most viewers. The most likely candidates that we as viewers would relate to are Jim and Pam, the two most normal and initially likeable of the major characters. Jim, the bored, sarcastic salesman, functions as the closest thing we have to a protagonist, with Pam, the likeable receptionist, a close second. As co-protagonists, Pam and Jim function as our stand-ins in the show as viewers. If we are laughing at how terrible their lives are, then we are just laughing about our own lives as well. So what are Jim and Pam’s lives like? Are they really terrible?

The most prominent of the other office employees—Dwight and Michael—both initially appear to be terrible coworkers, yet, despite their shortcomings, we end up becoming sympathetic to them. Dwight, Jim’s eccentric fellow salesman, bullies and belittles his fellow coworkers; at many points, he actively tries to sabotage Jim’s life by getting him in trouble or fired. Though less bluntly mean-spirited, Michael is a terrible boss, endlessly annoying his workers and making everyone thoroughly uncomfortable. To the viewers seeing through the eyes of Jim and Pam, Dwight and Michael represent their own evil coworkers and their own dumb bosses. The fact that these viewers are laughing, then, would seem to suggest—at first glance—that they are laughing at how depressing their own lives are. In this view, if we find Dwight and Michael funny—and we most certainly do—then our laughter truly is “wrong”—there is nothing to laugh about. However, there is another, more convincing view to be taken in light of more evidence. As the series progresses even just beyond the first few episodes and we as viewers—alongside Jim and Pam—learn more about Dwight and Michael, they become increasingly sympathetic characters. We do not hate them, but instead learn to love them despite their shortcomings. Yes, we laugh at those shortcomings, but only because they have become endearing, not because we are laughing at our own suffering, for we have begun to realize we aren’t only suffering. Hold on to you reservations, as I will explain this more later.

The second aspect in which this show seemingly parodies our lives—the tedious office work—also turns a negative into a positive. Jim especially struggles with the mundaneness of the work he has to do and the pointlessness of it all. When we laugh at Jim’s struggle with his dull work, in the “wrong” laughter viewpoint we are parodying ourselves by laughing at our own suffering, but in reality that’s not what we are laughing at. His need to play pranks on Dwight and his other coworkers can be taken as a depressing take on the banality of office life—that it is so boring that you must find absurd ways to amuse yourself to receive any enjoyment—and that is partially true. Yes, parts of work are terrible, but that does not mean it’s terrible in its entirety. Jim has found a way to amuse himself even in this supposedly mundane environment. By laughing along with—not at—him in his attempts to have fun, we are reminded of the things in our lives that give us pleasure, reminded of our versions of his silly pranks. Adorno in “The Culture Industry” argues that laughter is the enemy of happiness because we are laughing at our own suffering, but by laughing at The Office, we are helping to alleviate that suffering—and not by the plain act of laughing itself. By reminding ourselves that our lives are not all bad, by urging ourselves to think about the good aspects of our lives rather than dwell on the bad, we reconcile with and confront the suffering in our lives.

To further elucidate this idea, I want to examine it in the context of a classic Office scene: identity theft, one of Jim’s pranks on Dwight. Jim comes in for the workday dressed in the same manner as Dwight and then begins impersonating his speech and actions just to mess with him, and it is hilarious. Why is it so funny? Because the scene is reminding us of those small pleasures we take in life, reminding us that even in the tedious suffering of work we can have a little fun. We recognize that work is suffering, but we also recognize that overcoming that suffering is possible.

In light of this, The Office suggests that the argument that laughter is a means of cheating happiness is incorrect. We are, as that argument puts forth, still laughing at our own suffering, but in a way that recognizes that suffering and chooses to overcome it. Laughter is not a consolation prize you get for not having a life worth living, but instead helps you come to terms with the fact that, although your life is not perfect, it is worth living. Laughter in The Office helps to illuminate the good parts of your life and thus makes you a happier person.

This essay was read by Alejandro Zuleta

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Stanford University Press, 2002.

Carter, Bill. “One Last Cringe for ‘The Office’ Finale.” The New York Times, 1 May 2013, Accessed 14 Nov. 2017.

Craft, Kevin. “The Thing That Made The Office Great Is the Same Thing That Killed It.” The Atlantic, 16 May 2013, Accessed 14 Nov. 2017.

“The Office.” NBC, Accessed 14 Nov. 2017.

Rada, Michelle. “The Illusionless: Adorno and the Afterlife of Laughter in How It Is.” Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 38, no. 2, Winter 2015, pp. 149-67. Project MUSE, Accessed 14 Nov. 2017.


Lil Dicky, The (Class) Clown of Carnival

Lil Dicky, The Class Clown of Carnival

By Meghan Voss

“This display of creativity strays from convention, an immediate indication that he’s here to turn the game on its head” (Fairfax). This comes from an assessment of Lil Dicky’s most recent album, as the rapper has begun gaining legitimate respect from what began as merely jokes put to a beat.

Lil Dicky was born in an upper middle class white family in the suburbs of Pennsylvania. He graduated from the University of Richmond to pursue a career at an advertising agency. A few years ago, however, he decided to take his class clown nature professionally by attempting to make a career out of his funny raps and videos. And that’s exactly what he did. In the summer of 2015, “Lil Dicky Laugh[ed] His Way to a No. 1 Rap Album” (Billboard).

Many critics, while initially quite suspicious of his actual rapping ability, have begun to join into the Lil Dicky fandom. Praised for how he is pushing the boundaries of the rap game, Lil Dicky attempts to meld the usually un-accredited anti-rap or joke-rap subculture with some actual bars accompanied by a respectable flow, as he has worked diligently on honing his rapping skills.

Not only is Lil Dicky known for having a stronger creative side than many others rappers in the industry, but he is attempting to reinvent success within the rap game. This past year he released his first full album, Professional Rapper. However, his most notable achievement so far and where his success all started came from his music videos on YouTube. His first release, “Ex-Boyfriend,” went viral, topping one million views in just the first day. Since then, he has released several more music videos which have been similar in their ability to elicit laughter as they creatively accompany and bolster the lyrics of the song itself.

Anti-rap, a subgenre of the rap industry, is typically characterized as rap that makes frequent use of comedy and other sorts of humor, especially in self-deprecating or satirical manners. And at the forefront of this new subgenre, comes Lil Dicky. Nubi Magazine praised him for “his ability to present the mundane both satirically and factually at the same time” as what really makes him stand out, as well as the way he “presents the things people think about and do in private into the public forum via hip-hop.” While some of his subject matter is typically not included in rap songs for the matter of it just being “mundane,” a lot of his subject matter seems to not typically be discussed for reasons beyond that. While it is tough to consider rap to have too much of a barrier on what can and cannot be discussed, because, let’s face it, rappers tend to be fairly unbothered by approaching crude and offensive topics, Lil Dicky seems to take that line and play jump-rope with it. Archetypally, in rap songs, these crude topics are employed merely to allow rappers to brag about their lifestyle; subjects focus on the F.B.G.M. (fuck bitches, get money) mantra to show the rest of the world how much they’re “balling out.” However, Lil Dicky appears to discuss this subject from a different angle. While he addresses the same topics in his songs quite frequently, he comes at it from a much different angle, leaving the listener with an entirely different impression of Lil Dicky than would have another rapper from discussing a similar event due to the manner in which he presents it. While incredibly degrading to women, when most rappers discuss sex, they do so in a way to effectively make their audience wish they were in the rapper’s place, hoping to have as much “game” with women as they do. Yet when Lil Dicky discusses sex, he describes it much more realistically, and while still highlighting his “conquests,” he comes off as, well, rather soft. Interestingly enough however, Lil Dicky acknowledges this about himself, and has come to embrace it, as he attempts to follow a new path within the industry. To this point, he begins to emulate the idea of carnival, as he breaks the rules of the genre and generates an aura of humor from bad taste and his approach to exploring subjects (English 117).

        In Lil Dicky’s “Lemme Freak” music video, it takes the viewer along on his journey to try to have sex with a woman he meets at the club. Yet even from the title of the song itself, a difference between Lil Dicky’s style and the average rapper can already be acknowledged. Rappers tend to act as if women are just throwing themselves at them, as if it just comes with the lifestyle. However, already from the title of the song Lil Dicky’s desperation can be noted, as he legitimately begs this girl to have sex with him. In the video, he approaches the woman with the typical rapper swagger and confidence, but she doesn’t even know who he is. Consequently, he breaks into a spiel bragging on his accomplishments, though meanwhile manages to satirize the manner in which most rappers brag, as the achievements he brings up are far from notable. He boasts, “Look, I’m athletic, girl. I’ve gotten several rec-league MVP’s. At my crib, I’ve got some pizza plus a little bit of weed. In my room, I’ve got a TV plus I recently did sheets. Girl, I even have a fridge that has the water on the door like with the crushed ice.” Even in his attempt to show off, he comes off as fairly hopeless in his chances, a large divide between most other members of the industry.

On the basis of having bad taste, some can be found in nearly every set of bars by the rapper, as he is anything but shy when it comes to stating the truth. Whether he is going into detail about sex, or commenting on a gross habit, or simply discussing everyday activities, his lyrics are brimming with examples. Take his freestyle on Tim Westwood’s show for example. He raps, “I give no fucks, I’m farting at the urinal.” Bathroom humor accompanied by just a truly disgusting habit is truly the epitome of bad taste; there aren’t many combinations worse than that which would still be found as humorous.

Nevertheless, people still enjoy Lil Dicky’s anti-rap style, debuting at Number 7 on the Billboard 200 chart. As he attempts to break the rules of the rap industry through finding success in his bad taste and breaking the stereotypes, he appears to be changing up the game. He asserts in Professional Rapper that “ain’t nobody else doing funny type rap,” and “nah that’s my niche, don’t get offended by this, but that’s the market y’all miss, that’s the target I’ll hit, I wanna do this whole thing different.” It is carnivalesque, in a sense, as he rebels against the precedent that has been upheld for years within the industry with how successful rappers should and should not behave, as well as the tried and true topics for verse that typically are most well received by the public and have the best chances of being admired.

In the music video for the title track off his most recent album, Professional Rapper, Lil Dicky presents the story of how he ended up in the position he is in, as he performs essentially a skit through verse with one of the indisputable kings of the industry, Snoop Dogg. When Lil Dicky first enters for his interview, Snoop is even portrayed sitting behind his desk atop a throne. While Snoop’s reputation typically precedes him, this introduction really blatantly spells it out for the viewer. While Lil Dicky in real life has done his production on his own, it is interesting to find that in the song he requests for Snoop Dogg to hire him and take him under his wing, as if it is impossible to succeed without his assistance. Lil Dicky seems to go against his values in this way, as he is often found making a mockery of the methods that have made the most prominent names in the industry incredibly successful. While a true champion of the carnival would continue in this form in accordance with flipping the hierarchy, Lil Dicky backtracks in this way, as he is requesting assistance from the “king” figure in order to reach new heights as an artist.

For Lil Dicky to manage to flip the hierarchy in any way, nevertheless, it would first have to be established that he is emerging from the lower levels society. While Lil Dicky presents himself as somewhat of an underdog in the rap industry, which may be partially true from a respect standpoint as he contrasts the stereotypical rapper, with all the advantages he possesses he is realistically far from that. Much of rap focuses on people struggling from nothing to make it in the rap game, whereas Lil Dicky admits in the video that he used his own Barmitzvah money to pay for the production of his first mixtape. Furthermore, he prides himself on his lyricism and clever, well-crafted use of satire in his verses. Nevertheless, he is a college graduate which equips him with a foundation of education to aid him. This is a benefit that most other rappers do not obtain.

Evidence of this could not be any more densely provided that it is in his song, “White Dude.” He audaciously acknowledges all the privilege that he was born with, as the hook sings, “Cuz the way I’m livin life, is a muthafuckin joy. On some grown man B.I., I could have been a girl, or any ethnicity up in the world, but I’m rollin with the top back. I ain’t gotta worry where the cops at. I ain’t gotta wear a fucking bra strap. Me and the crew, are really doing everything that we like to, man it’s a damn good day to be a white dude.” Writer Sam Rosen explains this quite well, as he states that, “Lil Dicky is constantly lamenting the fact that he is not Black while simultaneously celebrating the spoils of white privilege” (Rosen). Lil Dicky acts like a carnival figure, as he explores breaking the rules and stereotypes of rap music, accompanied by a large dose of what would be considered bad taste even for rap, yet his carnival is exclusive, as he would be unable to achieve this without his privilege. Further, he excludes many other minority groups from even enjoying in his carnival videos, as while he attempts to be very relatable, he only achieves this for other white males. Even though his raps are created with the understanding that he is joking, they are based in enough truth that it would be very reasonable to say that there were likely very few minorities laughing at his pretentious flaunt that he doesn’t have to “worry where the cops at.”

Further, this privilege can also be seen through how other members of society interact with him. In the $ave Dat Money music video, Lil Dicky endeavors to create a boujee rap video with all the stereotypes (Lamborghini, mansion, club, yacht, etc.) at no cost. As they stroll through Beverly Hills, he convinces an older woman to let him borrow her mansion to shoot film in for a period of time. With the racism still present in our society, it is unlikely that a minority would be trusted the same way to just lend the house over. Once again, Lil Dicky is found using his privilege as an upper-class white male to bring him his success.

It is this distinction with the mass amounts of privilege that Lil Dicky clearly possesses that distinguishes his carnival rap subgenre from being legitimately liberating, as while it provides an escape from many stereotypes of the culture industry for some, it cannot for all, as it is still fervent with racism and sexism specifically through his privilege as a white male in society. To be truly liberating the carnival must be open to all groups of people, whereas Lil Dicky seems to only target the select group like himself. Rather than ultimately flipping the hierarchy, he reasserts it, entangling his non-stereotypical brand of rap back with the same ideologies that carnival is meant to find freedom from.


English 117, Intro to Cultural Theory.

Fairfax, Jesse. “Lil Dicky – Professional Rapper.” HipHopDX, 3 Sept. 2015.

Mendizabal, Amaya. “Lil Dicky Laughs His Way to a No. 1 Rap Album.” Billboard, 12 Aug. 2015.

Millard, Drew. “Lil Dicky Isn’t a White Supremacist, He’s Just an Asshole.” Noisey, 17 Oct. 2014.

Page, Will. “The Rise of Anti-Rap.” NUBI, 11 Aug. 2015.

Rosen, Sam. “Nothing Was the Same.” The Indy, The College Hill Independent, 4 Nov. 2013.