Recently I wrote about media's sunnier effects on people. And even though I had to dig for the happier stories, it was a relief! I mean, for once I got to peek out from under Hollywood's mantle of shame to remember what the entertainment industry is doing right for humanity. (Link to "The Sunny Side of C&E.") But, alas, my very next assignment sends me back to the underbelly—to examine how we as an audience respond to said underbelly.
Do we laugh at bad characters doing ever "badder" things, for example, simply because "that's what the character demands"? That is, do we sometimes excuse a character's appalling onscreen behavior simply because it's "realistic" or "funny" or "understandable" within the context of a film? And is that why Hollywood keeps amping up the shock values for its darkest, nastiest caricatures of our own souls?
Judging from the box office results of films such as The Hangover (both incarnations), the Sex and the City franchise, the Jacka‑‑ flicks and Bad Teacher, the immediate answer seems to be yes. Maybe it's time to try to lance the boil.
Blech Is the New Black
Jennifer Aniston's nasty, lascivious lead role in the recent film Horrible Bosses serves as a prime example of this trend. She plays a nymphomaniac dentist who specializes in root canals and sexual harassment, relentlessly assailing her assistant, Dale. Dale refuse her predatory advances, so she lashes out at him with, among other things, "You're starting to sound like a little f-ggot there!"
Not a very nice thing to say, is it? And it prompted outrage from several corners of the culture, conservative Christian reviewers like us chiming in with criticism right alongside liberal gay-rights advocates.
Nevertheless, the Horrible Bosses writers stood staunchly by their decision to include the slur—and accompanying uncivil attitude. Co-writer John Francis Daley told The Daily Beast, "[Aniston's character] is a horrible person, so I think when it is coming out of her mouth, it is understandably offensive." His writing partner, Jonathan Goldstein, said, "It's indefensible. I think part of the challenge is to, in a fairly short amount of time, get these [characters] to a place where an audience can empathize. … To shorthand that, we tried to think: What are the most offensive things they can say? Using a word like that I think is one of them. It says this woman is irredeemable."
The whole film is irredeemable, actually, but that's not really the point. The point is being made by the likes of well-respected film director Ron Howard, who, despite a bit of pushback, kept a controversial joke involving Vince Vaughn's character labeling electric cars "gay" in his film The Dilemma. In a written response to the Los Angeles Times, Howard talked about his rationale for keeping the joke: "It's true that the moment took on extra significance in light of some events [the suicides of bullied young people who identified themselves as gay] that surrounded the release of the trailer and the studio made the decision to remove it from advertising, which I think was appropriate. I believe in sensitivity but not censorship. … I don't strip my films of everything that I might personally find inappropriate. Comedy or drama, I'm always trying to make choices that stir the audience in all kinds of ways. … Anybody can complain about anything in our country. It's what I love about this place. I defend the right for some people to express offense at a joke as strongly as I do the right for that joke to be in a film. But if storytellers, comedians, actors and artists are strong-armed into making creative changes, it will endanger comedy as both entertainment and a provoker of thought."
History, specifically film history, prompts me to ask: Will it actually threaten comedy? Or will a commonsense approach merely make the movie more civil? To create comedy or provoke thought, did Katharine Hepburn, in Bringing Up Baby, have to don a pair of Daisy Dukes and a scanty, midriff-baring shirt while "supervising" a 7th-grade car wash fundraiser, spraying water over herself (in slow motion) and writhing on cars to attract customers the way Cameron Diaz does in Bad Teacher? Or, in My Man Godfry, did William Powell have to shoot a scene in which his face is coated with cocaine the way Zach Galifianakis' is in The Hangover Part II?
It's the How, Not the What
Sadly, I don't think Howard and Co. are even having to defend themselves very vigorously these days. Potshots are lobbed in from the edges of the populace, but most moviegoers, it seems, generally and quite casually accept—and celebrate—characters' bad behavior. In the case of the crude, profanity-laden film Bridesmaids, for example, audiences easily and readily sympathized with Kristen Wiig's character, Annie, who not only belligerently calls a young teenage girl the very worst (and most obscene) thing you can possibly call a woman in the Western hemisphere, but utterly ravages her best friend's wedding reception by verbally bashing the bridal party, destroying decorations and badmouthing attendees. Why does she behave so atrociously? Well, because she's sad and jealous, of course. And does Hollywood think we'll actually excuse her and say "Awww"?
Fans have turned the smallish release into a huge success, lavishing more than $165 million on it in North America and $100 million more overseas. Regarding the film, Kirsten "Kiki" Smith, producer and screenwriter for Legally Blonde and The House Bunny, said in a mass email earlier this year, "I encourage each and every one of you to see Bridesmaids this weekend, not just because it's hilarious, but because we MUST show Hollywood that woman DO want movies that are not vapid romcoms or something about shopping. … A lot is riding on this movie. So please bring your girlfriends, boyfriends, husbands, and neighbors out in droves. And please, if you feel moved, encourage others to do so, as well." Salon.com writer Rebecca Traister added that seeing Bridesmaids was a "social responsibility."
Evidently, Hollywood has taught us that bad, vulgar and even obscene behavior can be just dandy and even "hilarious." And we've learned the lesson so well we've begun calling those things a cultural rallying cry.
So. The industry ratchets up characters' over-the-top deeds every year. Why? Because increasingly desensitized audiences "need" the shock that only hard-core exclamations and antics can bring in our overloaded entertainment culture.
We've always had bad characters, of course. They're a must, actually. The black-hatted cowboy, the lonely vigilante, the violent stranger, the annoying housemate or the creepy neighbor create conflict. And conflict is essential to story. What's changed is how those bad guys are presented. And that they're now sometimes the "good" guys. Go back a few decades and we were easily able to, as a culture, understand that characters are bad or have flaws without their puerile proclivities having to assault us in explicit ways. There's a line between making characters colorful or relatable and exploiting them in the name of shock.
Or at least there should be a line. It's certainly not very clearly drawn anymore. And I shudder to think what the consequences will be for generations of people who haven't experienced unexploited characters.