Morally Obsolete Movie Characters

By  · Published on January 29th, 2015

Twentieth Century Fox

Recently, Ruth Graham at Slate took advantage of Netflix’s streaming access to Friends in order to revisit the beloved show that most TV series try to emulate. She assumed that Joey’s womanizing would feel the most obsolete and was surprised to realize that Chandler is the genuinely outdated character. He’s consistently morose, cruel to many people in his life, and – with his lack of masculinity – he’s used several times as a walking homophobia-based joke. She stops just short of suggesting Chandler would be repping GamerGate in 2015, but the characterization is there.

The essay has launched a robust discussion online, including on The Daily Dish, where readers smartly point out the mild, myopic outrage of Graham’s take. Chandler’s inferiority complex yields a lot of humor (and can be read easily as commenting against homophobia); many shows, including current ones, use mistaken-for-gay-outrage for an easy laugh (see: Big Bang Theory); and Friends not only showed a healthy, complex lesbian couple in its very first season, it also showed a lesbian wedding (mark the word) in its second season. That was nearly a full decade before gay marriage was legal in any state in the US, and they called it what it is: a wedding.

To be fair, I’m uncomfortable considering art on moral grounds because it’s a slippery slope covered in LiquiGlide. It’s not art’s job to be ethical. It’s also a bit strange to consider morally obsolete characters while loving the murderous, thieving rampage of Reservoir Dogs and the heinous asocial behavior of Young Adult. Plenty of phenomenal movies succeed specifically because they focus on immoral or amoral characters and situations. If anyone starts soap boxing about what artists must ethically do, you can find me wandering off to go watch Battle Royale.

At the same time, I can’t deny that I’ve personally felt the pang of moral obsolescence while watching movies – not necessarily for an entire film, but for specific characters and, sometimes, for large chunks of a plot. In most of these cases, there’s an of-the-time element that is cringe-worthy by our current social understanding.

For instance, I love Whoopi Goldberg’s introduction to the Looney Tunes Golden Collection that acknowledges the out-dated nature of racial depictions from years past. It enabled them to avoid bowdlerizing their own material, while opening up a dialogue opportunity for how ethnicity and gender were portrayed in dusty, yet relevant, works of art.

As for a movie that feels far out of its time, the example that sprang immediately to mind after thinking about Graham’s article was M*A*S*H.

I remember watching and loving it when I was younger, discovering it after worshiping Alan Alda’s TV incarnation on Nick at Nite and still appreciating the tonal differences (I’ve never read the novel). Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould were slacker geniuses, and Robert Altman remains a master, but I re-watched the movie with my wife recently and had to turn it off because of how unbearable everything dealing with Sally Kellerman’s “Hot Lips” O’Houlihan was.

Call it the perspective of age or the emergence of common sense, but where the entire movie was a silly escapade back in high school, when I watch it as an adult, it comes to an aggressive, disgusting dead-stop when she arrives.

It’s not that combativeness isn’t warranted – she represents an uptight authority figure, after all, and that’s where a bulk of the movies of the time ate their bread and butter – but the response to her as a threat is uncomfortably overblown, culminating in them sexually harassing her. They play a tape of her having sex, give her a nickname based on it, and then pull down the tent wall while she’s showering to let the entire camp see her naked. It all feels especially gross following an era of revenge porn that echoes the audio recording they secretly make of her grunting on Major Burns, the spectre of sexual assault numbers in the modern military, and the chanting, spectator sport element of seeing a woman in a nearly all-male environment put on display against her will.

Simply put, now that I personally know women who have been raped, I can’t watch those scenes and appreciate them within the comic light that they were offered.

To add salt to the wound, her protests are dismissed (by the authority Colonel Blake and by the audience) with a breezy wave of the hand. Blake even does it while in bed with his mistress, and it’s meant to be oh, so free wheelin’ hilarious. Hawkeye and Trapper John are the fun-loving scamps, she’s the anal retentive bitch, and she deserves every humiliation she gets. That’s the lesson. The movie later – in a eat-your-cake-and-have-it-too character reversal has her dress up as a cheerleader for the big finale football game. Her only other option, I guess, would have been to torpedo her own career. All of this is far more tonally bizarre than acoustically jamming for a guy who wants to commit suicide.

That might be unfair. Maybe if it had been Major Burns instead, it would have played as hilarious regardless of when we watch it because seeing Robert Duvall’s pale, Oscar-winning ass blowing in the wind sounds pretty funny. Perhaps there’s a double standard at play. However, it seems clear that there’s a sexual connotation (even a predatory one) present when the joke is played on O’Houlihan instead of her male counterpart, and context matters.

Warner Bros.

Maybe a less comically questionable situation is the scene in Revenge of the Nerds where the hero of the movie rapes a girl by pretending to be someone else. It’s a fun movie, but holy shit is that an insane moment – one that comes immediately after they sell photos of her naked taken without her knowledge like a small-scale Fappening. Her response to the surprise sex (sorry) is to admit that she enjoyed it, which is a pure bit of writers’ fantasy that reads like the erotic diary entry of a kid who’s sure he’d win the heart of the popular girl if she’d only fuck him once, just once.

I hate to come off like the stick in the mud villain of so many 80s movies, especially since I love a ton of films that would burn the eyebrows off of even the most casual political correctness champion. Still, there’s something inherently fascinating about the way we ethically respond to certain scenes and characters in older movies.

The key seems to be the attitude that the movies and their time periods take when dealing with potentially offensive depictions. There are some films that don’t come within a mile of acknowledging scenes as problematic, and they seem to come off as being the most ignorant years later. Stereotypes and abuses are taken for granted, played for blithe, easy laughs. As if it never even occurred to the filmmakers that anyone could find issue with what they’re making. Not like, say, Lars von Trier who knows and actively courts that he’ll produce a divided response to grotesque behavior.

It’s not the provocateurs, but the people saying, “That’s just how it was back then,” whose art can often devolve into a gross caricature of its own. There’s a sweet kind of irony there.

Overall, I don’t find it philosophically or intellectually dishonest to recognize these flaws and push for cultural awareness while at the same time leaving room to allow artists to make whatever they want. That’s the beautiful (sometimes difficult) openness of free speech. It can exist, just as we can be critical of it. We can also enjoy movies while finding some of their elements unethical. The world isn’t binary.

Yet modern storytelling is what this is all really about. Looking at these films of the past that might be called morally obsolete – from Dr. Seuss’ WWII propaganda’s depiction of “Japs” and “Krauts” to Song of the South to uncomfortable sexual comedy of the 70s and 80s – is just a reminder that a future generation will look at the films we’ve created and drop their jaws at a few of them (“Can you believe they used to cast white actors in non-white roles?!” – tweet of the future).

It’s difficult, but we have to find a balance between recognizing the need for artists to make their art as they see fit, to understand that individual characters and scenarios aren’t avatars for the filmmakers, to question why outdated tropes make us uncomfortable and to be at least a little self-aware regarding the harm we might be doing that will be appropriately derided by our grandchildren.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector [email protected] | Writing short stories at Adventitious.