This is part of a hopefully ongoing series in which I dissect the previous decade using media as a lens. As a first installment this is old, written about a year ago, and was published elsewhere on a website now defunct. I hereby resurrect it here, warts and all. Next installment: how The National Fucked Us Over. Cheers. Shaka.
Those of a conspiratorially-minded constitution will probably already be aware of this, but a particularly bizarre one – as with all the good ones, it doesn’t have so much of an urtext but is rendered in variations the lucidity of which depends on your interlocuters sobriety or lack thereof, or how frequently they starting gumming themselves – involves the C.I.A. using what we now term “identity politics” to stifle proliferating socialist movements in 1970’s America. As with all good conspiracy theories, there’s more than a kernel of truth to it. Declassified documents reveal a sinister level of adroit manoeuvring by intelligence agencies on this front: when Black rights, Queer rights and Women’s rights movements throughout America were reaching peak agitation levels, Intelligence agencies didn’t stoke the fire exactly – but they did see a way it could be weaponised against the most unholy of Evils, Communism. It wasn’t as simple as sending a conventionally beautiful woman with a mission of collapsing socialist rhetoric to a women’s rally, although there was that. They augmented this predictable approach by bringing out the agent provocateurs. To those galvanised by the prospect of much-needed equality and equity for women and people of colour, the crusty old fogey socialist or syndicalist, who I presume looked as though he’d been dragged out and inflated from whatever cupboard of a union headquarters he lived in and who I also assume smoked roll-your-owns and expectorated a lot (this is supposition: the cia have not confirmed my imaginative leaps), who also described this idiotic talk about equal rights for women and blacks as a side-show and a distraction from full communism, such a character would be enraging but plausible based on a lifetime of disinformation campaigns. Credit where it’s due: Socialism wasn’t always, historically, as sympathetic or involved in Black and Women’s emancipation as frankly it ought to, and viewing it from the lens of “it was a different time!” is especially asinine when there are documented cases of black socialists and women socialists dating back to the 1800s who were among the minority in the belief that any culturally ingrained and sanctioned discrimination was inimical to a Social cause. To a lot of young protesters, such “get off my lawn” types, if not offensive, would have seemed a bit naff and conservative in the light of the incendiary work they were doing to further their people.
That such people were largely well-trained employments of the government playing a demarcated role went un-noticed, or that there were many branches of the first wave of feminism that insisted on a socialist platform, or that socialists were giving support to Black organisations and outlets (although; so were the CIA) didn’t matter.
There are certain places I’ll let this conspiracy theory go but not others. I do not think it was a remarkably prescient plan to usher in neoliberalism, or that the actions of people fighting for their kin’s basic human dignities were just pawns in a move to eradicate the bane on America. I don’t believe the achievements they wrested on a legal and social level were concessions by a group of people smoking cigars and doing the evil man laugh. I think the CIA got lucky in that they were playing in a culture where stark discrepancies of wealth weren’t visible and to be poor was shameful and/or ephemeral, and that right-wing think tanks and other cultural factors, including accommodating the vagaries of globalisation, ushered in a period of neoliberalism that must have seemed appealing to everyone: capitals insistence on the individual’s success had morphed into something that everyone could vaguely aspire to, regardless of the fact that is was still capital. In the end, desublimated subsumation provided everyone, in theory, with the possibility of being in the same position of Power that was previously only available to the White and Male, and somewhere in the 1970s we made a Faustian bargain: capital could stay if we had the merest glimmer of opportunity to taste its riches.
Class consciousness and identity politics have never reconciled with each other; but more than that, they are still wielded against each other by complex systems of power, forced into modes of opposition. Cries of sexism or racism are employed as knee-jerk dog-whistle to stifle class-oriented projects, and though I’m firmly on the “class” kick at the moment I’d be remiss not to mention the insistence of Leftists pointing out the economic privilege or position of someone involved in a project tackling gender inequality or the continued, never-ending hangover of black oppression manifesting itself in more insidious guises. I was reminded of this division because
Ok we’re at the good part
I went to see a cheeky wee film entitled “Sorry to Bother You” and if Office Space is King of the Hill, Sorry to Bother You starts as Futurama and finishes as one of those outre Adult Swim cartoons best watched in a hypnogogic haze at 3 in the morning. It is the first overtly socialist film I’ve seen in the mainstream in a long time and unlike, say, Mr. Robot, the groups who demand change and take action are lauded while retaining moral complexity. Like any good satire it’s scathing and, sure, sometimes a little too on-the-nose, but there’s room enough for the audience to breathe. Where most films about capitalism focus on the capital – e.g. displaying brands and logos as shorthand for critique — this one focuses on the -ism: how it functions, how it alienates and then how it uses that alienation to entice, but also on the day-to-day doldrums of working an underpaid job to pay rent in your shitty apartment or, in this case, garage. In a ballsy, literal move, it shows how it dehumanises in a way that I can’t decide is fabulous, batshit, or both.
Like any self-respecting aspiring critic, I googled it on my return home to gauge reception. Because I have a scintilla of dignity I paused only to light the ceremonial candle and cry lamentations that I wouldn’t get to read either Ebert’s or Kael’s take on it (both, I think, would have loved it) and conveyed myself to the “critical reception” part. Other people do this too. I’m not weird. Leave me alone. Anyway! There is a paragraph that begins with:
“Some critics chided the film for not passing the Bechdel test (a metric determining whether a film features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man),and compared Thompson’s character Detroit to a Manic Pixie Dream Girl.”
It’s worth noting a couple of things here, and not just the use of the word chided (“naughty Sorry to Bother You! No lamingtons 4 u”). The “some critics” don’t, from the reviews I’ve scoured, seem to be professional, the closest critique in this vein being articulated best by Andy Kaufman: “[the movie] struggles to give its central characters authentic wants and desires”. Twitter, however, is extremely keen to dissect the possible sexism of a film that is overtly, searingly about class, what it means to be Black under a capitalistic superstructure (and infrastructure), and which features a heroine in the form of Detroit (that’s her name) so layered and powerful that Boots Riley’s defence of not passing the Bechdel Test isn’t a smarmy back-peddle but a passionate, convincing exegesis of how his work functions. Allowing for the fact that it is a public statement responding to critique of his work, it probably belongs on Wikipedia; but, having seen the film it’s difficult not to be somewhat taken aback by the brashness of the placement and also: why this one? Of all the films out there that are complex, brilliant and sometimes even Feminist-leaning that don’t meet the Bechdel test criteria, why this one? It’s hard to convey how truly weird the MPDG claim is if you haven’t seen the film but again: why, of all the schlock with flimsy women characterisations that dripfeeds into our cinemas when we need to take the pain of thinking away, is it affixed to this film.
A question I was forced to ask again when I back-spaced a couple of times and saw the requisite four hyperlinks to other Wikipedia articles underneath the main page and got this:
You’ll note that of the four hyper-links, two are related to Feminist critique methodologies, one is the director and one is the main actor. Of all the other actors in the film, many famous, nothing appears. Of “Donald Trump”, who is hyperlinked, nothing appears. Neither do “Labour Union”, “Slavery” or “African-American”. This could, I figured, be tailored to me: I’m not adverse to Feminist criticism of cinema and I have no doubt my browser history would reflect that. I checked on Incognito, struggling not to open the xvideos tab, and discovered the same thing. I used the family laptop with every browser. Same four hyperlinks. I asked friends scattered around the commonwealth and beyond in a group chat to send me screencaps of their own. For some reason they capitulated and, predictably, I got the same four hyperlinks: Boots Riley. Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Jermaine Fowler. Bechdel Test. Boots Riley. Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Jermaine Fowler. Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Bechdel Test. Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Bechdel Test. Lisa needs braces! Bechdel Test. Lisa needs braces! Etc.
Looking for some kind of skulduggery on the Wikipedia user who had made the edit was ultimately unrewarding: while they didn’t have an account so had a trackable IP that on the first source I used seemed to be Tor-related, a closer look at their account quickly made it clear that despite a three-month ban from the Wikipedia brain trust they’re just someone from Australia who is really, really into film and the minutiae thereof, and the edit was almost definitely in good faith, albeit weird.
More concerning is that for someone looking up “Sorry to Bother You” blind, Google or Wikipedia or both have fashioned it in such a way that it’s associated with two insidiously, invidiously sexist tropes. I can and will argue that it’s misleading, but it’s also a peculiar kind of symbol of what seems to be an unwritten law: the more critical of capitalism the film is, the more it becomes associated with the fogeys of the past, the incurably sexist, the flamingly homophobic, the recalcitrant racist.
Claiming to know the hidden workings of Wikipedia’s search engine optimisation – or google’s, for that matter – is like putting “proficient knowledge of Microsoft Suite” on your C.V: usually a matter of abject lying and hoping like hell no-one smarter than you will call you out on it. So I have no idea how it works other than that it derives contextual information it deems to be the most important. In this instance, the context that’s given precedence isn’t to do with the film – again, the films a critique of capitalism by the way, sorry, me again, it’s about capitalism – but rather the wider cultural context and lexicon, which is foregrounding women’s rights and lens’ of critique. Not necessarily a bad thing, but in context it’s profoundly inapposite, if not gauche considering a recurring thread in the film is the way white women sexually fetishize black bodies, and how white women can be the middle-manager “we’re all part of the same team! Now I’m sorry but I’m going to have to get you to stay a bit later tonight” archetype usually reserved for milquetoast white men. I mean you could argue for paratextual relevance given the director made a public statement but that’s tenuous at best.
And here’s a weird thing: to analyse three movies from this year that have elements of being socially-driven and their relation to the Bechdel test reveals something. Black Panther passes, insofar as a woman telling a subordinate to don some armor and a pointless, shoe-horned, thoroughly en passante reference to something in the midst of a conversation about men can pass the spirit of the test. Love, Simon doesn’t come close, though there are many strong women leads. Bad Times at that Hotel doesn’t, and has a manic pixie dream girl, and also these three movies made box office killings, and there’s shit-sure no Bechdel test mention in their Wikipedia articles, let alone emblazoned in such a way as to advertise them as a certain kind of backward, parochial film. A film that doesn’t have Manic Pixie Dream Girl label on Google’s chosen relevant hyperlinks? 500 Days of Summer. Neither does Garden State. Or Elizabethtown.
Oh and also: Sorry to Bother You kind of does pass the Bechdel Test and in a brilliant way.
Bear with me.
Our plucky protagonist gets a job at a call centre, which functions in two ways: one because a call centre job is the most soul-sucking, immiserating job imaginable and the genuflective look of puppyish gratitude our protagonist gives to his soon-to-be-boss on landing it is truly harrowing. But the second is where the movie really excels and gains an intellectual heft.
So our black protagonist, on the phone, is stripped of the impositions imprinted on his body by repetitive rituals, common discursive representation, the fact of his blackness. The great running gag in this is that he uses his white voice (a pitch-perfect David Cross) to make sales he couldn’t make as a black person, but it goes deeper than that. The body – particularly the black body – has a set of assumptions, expectations and to a certain extent, inevitabilities imbued into it from birth. On the phone, working on commission at a drably decorated call centre where he isn’t important enough to use the lift, he isn’t a black man any more. He lacks blackness, yes, but he also lacks gender. He follows a script from a page as he is ordered to; in this way, well before the inevitable effects of greed, he loses his identity the first time he picks up the phone and makes a call.
When he talks to a woman who can’t afford something because of her husband’s medical bills, who’s talking? The look of sympathy in his eyes is eroded by his brief to manipulate her into buying something vaguely relevant to her situation. Does it matter that she says, “I’m sorry young man?” at the start of their call? This is the moment in the film, surprisingly early on, when he becomes dehumanised. In this context it’s not that the Bechdel test isn’t applicable, exactly, but becomes a question of categorisation: do you count it if it’s a woman talking to a cipher, anyone she wants or doesn’t want it to be? I think in that moment we see the way identities, even gender, can be devaluated and corroded by power to propagate self-surveillance and acculturation, especially when the culture is corporate. One of the hardest questions the film asks of you is what’s left when the obvious signifiers become stripped away or distorted from the norm. The answer is a continued subjugation and manipulation by class contingencies every bit as much as Blackness.
So again, why? Why the Wikipedia affixations? Why are people going after this film in particular? We forget, perhaps, that most media comes to us pre-mediated and designed to exploit topical issues for profit, and there’s no cynical profiteering to be gained in green-lighting a project from the working class unless it’s in the most pat form possible. It’s the same symptom that sees political pundits insist on centrism or maintaining a status quo and order – we have been trained (as have I – remember the paranoia evinced a couple of paragraphs ago?) to believe there are ideological enemies everywhere. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the ‘10s wasn’t sharp divisions or inept politicians, all of which had long been extent: it was the idea that the middle, the centre, wasn’t working. The schism between Hillary and Bernie supporters was perhaps the most remarkable thing about an entire decade of remarkable politics: Class, and economic disparities that affect a broader church, was put forward and people found something in it, a new hopeful way. Eking into the subconscious of upper-class white women lawyers-to-be everywhere, that obsolescence, the great plan of identity politics that I too was once in thrall to but failed to help anyone but those already nearest the top, gaining a foothold upon other minorities head, doubling down, serving not their own interests but Capitals. Sorry to Bother You should be lauded and embraced by anyone who wants drastic politic change; as long as class and identity are pitted together and we neatly cleave into two sides, well, shit. Meet the new boss same as the old boss; until class becomes the foundation, and not treated with tokenistic head-nods, expect more of the same. Sorry to bother you indeed.