Wes Anderson: Oppresor!

by Sonny Bunch on June 18, 2012

There are a number of valid criticisms of Wes Anderson. My friend Victor Morton has levied a number of them, and while I disagree with Victor and others who argue that Anderson places aesthetic showiness over human connection, I at least get what such critics are going on about.

One relatively common critique of Anderson is so incredibly offputting and wrongheaded, however, that I just can’t quite wrap my head around it. It goes something like this: “Wes Anderson is racist because he has characters of color in his films that don’t fall into line with the way I was taught to think about race in Critical Race Theory 101.”

For instance, here is Thea Lim:

Before I identified as a woman of colour and started applying anti-oppression criticism to every inch of pop culture I could get my hands on, I loved Wes Anderson. But in my grand old age, I can’t excuse the racist caricatures that populate all of his movies. …

This is what really breaks my heart: Wes’ track record with women of colour. Anderson just loves pairing women of colour up with dorky white dudes, shortly after dorky white dudes have been dumped or rejected by white ladies. Even though Rushmore’s Margaret Yang is the fullest of all of Wes’ colour characters, she is still paired up with the loveable/hateable Max after Ms Cross turns him down. It’s the same story with Inez, the lovely Latin American hotel cleaner in Bottle Rocket.

First off, your life must be goddamn exhausting if you spend all day “applying anti-oppression criticism to every inch of pop culture” you find. As I’ve said before, cataloguing so-called “injustice” is essentially the liberal version of counting up the swear words and naughty bits in all of those television shows the PTC hates. It’s the lowest form of criticism.

Secondly, this assertion—”Anderson just loves pairing women of colour up with dorky white dudes, shortly after dorky white dudes have been dumped or rejected by white ladies”—is not really true. In Rushmore Max (Jason Schwartzman) hooks up with Margaret Yang (Sara Tanaka) and in The Darjeeling Limited, Jack (Schwartzman) hooks up with Rita (Amara Karan). But reducing Yang to nothing more than an Asian prop for Max’s pleasure is dishonest and, frankly, smacks of racism in and of itself; she’s a fully realized character, a classmate and foil and eventual lover. Rita’s less fully realized, though it wouldn’t really have made much sense for Jack to rebound with a white woman in India, would it have?

Anthony wasn’t rejected by anyone before hooking up with Inez (Lumi Cavazos) in Bottle Rocket, however. And there is no such pairing in The Royal Tenenbaums or The Life Aquatic or The Fantastic Mr. Fox or Moonrise Kingdom. But hey, 1 out of 6 ain’t bad!

Another example of this blinkered criticism comes in The New Inquiry. Kartina Richardson’s piece starts promisingly—insofar as it actually, you know, deals with Anderson’s films and not just how he’s super duper racist for having minority characters in his films—before devolving into a weirdly solipsistic complaint about how Anderson just doesn’t bother trying to understand her plight, or something:

Though deliberate contradictory weirdifying had been freeing for a time, underneath the outfit, and inside the flyered room, I was still brown, and the scene was mainly white. Though people weren’t deliberately racist, they also didn’t really want to or know how to talk about race.

This realization marked for me my identity as a person of color. I had always been one of course, but I’d gone from wishing I was white in elementary school, to ignoring race in high school, to finally accepting it as an important part of my identity. Exteriorization of otherness, wrongness, smallness, badness, though helpful for a moment, also discouraged me from examining the interior. It was easier and more attractive with more immediate benefits.

Around the same time The Royal Tenenbaums came out and everyone fell in love. I was furious. It was so easy for Anderson and his characters. They could exteriorize their outsiderness in simple ways, with dollhouse-like sets, rebelliously simplified camera movements, or oversized fur coats and orange winter hats.The world would worship him and them as a new cool heroes of non-conformity. Yes, Anderson was mildly anti-authority in a way that would have excited me at 13, but he was encouraging a simplistic and precious way of thinking that reinforced what 17 year old me was beginning to fight against. When your identity is built on the exteriorization of various feelings of outsiderness, it immediately gives you a sense of control in manipulating how the world interacts with you. …

I want Wes Anderson’s films to be more expansive. He has the right idea, he just needs to take it further. Right now Anderson’s films hold valuable keys to life, but they only unlock doors for certain people. Great films touch on the universal, they hold keys for all.

Emphasis mine. As I noted on Twitter, there is no argument about film less edifying than “This is too white/black/French/Japanese, what about [my favored group], how will they relate to this?” Would it make any sense to argue “Boyz in the Hood is okay, I guess, but what’s in it for hispanic immigrants, you know?” Or “Boy, this Kurosawa fella really gets medieval Japan, but he doesn’t have much to say much about America, now does he?” Or “Antonioni understands disaffection—of the one percent. But what about meeeeee?“*

Worrying about the ways in which Wes Anderson is oppressing you or ignoring you strikes me as an incredibly superficial way to go about judging art. But then again I’m just another patriarchal imperialistic oppressor. So what do I know?

*OK, that last one might be fair. (Kidding.) (Mostly.)

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

SkinsFanPG June 18, 2012 at 10:29 am

What really bothered me about Precious was that there was no representation of ME!

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Sonny Bunch June 18, 2012 at 10:33 am

RACIST.

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Victor Morton June 18, 2012 at 11:34 am

Sonnybud … there are 5 A’s in that word. It’s raaaaacist.

And if I ever call Wes! a raaaaacist, you have my permission to put a bullet in the back of my head (or flay every inch of skin off me, one square inch at a time — your choice).

In fact, I’d go farther … I don’t want artists to make films about cultures or subcultures with which they’re unfamiliar. There are exceptions, of course — the India of Jean Renoir’s THE RIVER, and the way “America” works to other ends because it’s a figment of Lars Von Trier’s imagination. But for the most part, you’ll get clueless hackwork that the “insiders” see through anyway. Fellini said he never accepted offers to direct in Hollywood because, close as I recall, “I can’t make a film about a place where I can’t be sure how they hold their cigarettes.” “Write what you know” applies to movies (perhaps even more so than writing), and if that means Wes! (or Lena Dunham) makes movies about privileged white people — a statement that is true as far as it goes — so be it.

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Phil June 18, 2012 at 9:00 pm

“Though deliberate contradictory weirdifying had been freeing for a time, underneath the outfit, and inside the flyered room”

Sorry, could not possibly keep reading the excerpt after that.

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Sonny Bunch June 18, 2012 at 9:02 pm

Yes, it is a bit jargon-y, isn’t it?

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bustermcd June 19, 2012 at 6:01 pm

They complain about a lack of realistic portrayals of “The Other”, but when a quality movie telling a minority experience comes out, it’s all “Nobody can survive a plan crash by riding a raft down a mountain” and “Diamond mines aren’t built like roller coasters” and “Where’s Marion Ravenwood?” You just can’t win.

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Sonny Bunch June 19, 2012 at 6:03 pm

Shortround was extremely unhappy about the stereotyped village.

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