Happy Stories and Ugly Reality

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

Both of my posts last week were concerned with the depictions in popular culture of important social issues. On Thursday, I discussed the negative and inaccurate depictions of vegans in movies and television, while Friday's post described the disturbing tendency of movies and TV shows to portray prostitution as a non-problematic "profession," ignoring or winking at the coercion and violence (or the threat thereof) that is almost surely the reality for prostitutes (especially the child slaves of sex traffickers) around the world.

The discussions on the comment boards for the two posts were interesting and instructive. In response to my concern about the negative depictions of vegans, Professors Dorf, Colb, and other readers argued convincingly that being ridiculed is actually a good sign, because it means that we have become influential enough to be worth singling out for ridicule. That is not a guarantee of ultimate success, but I do find their suggestion more than plausible (and, needless to say, comforting).

In response to Friday's post, a reader suggested that positive depictions of prostitute's lives are understandable efforts on the part of the creators of TV shows and movies to use material that fits with the theme of the shows/movies. We cannot expect a comedy like "The Guard" to deal with the kind of gritty reality that we saw in "The Whistleblower," and "The Guard" and "Fargo" used moments of genuine happiness in prostitute's lives to advance the story. While that explanation is very plausible, it raises a larger question that I want to explore further here, and that ties the two posts together in a somewhat unexpected way.

The sub-title of last Thursday's post, "The French, the Amish, and Vegans," captured the idea that some jokes are off-limits, whereas other jokes (and the choices of whom to make the butts of jokes) are socially acceptable. For example, I recently saw a light romantic comedy from 1936, "The Bride Walks Out," starring Barbara Stanwyck, in which there are four -- FOUR! -- separate jokes about wife beating. For good measure, one character also refers to "getting my shirts back from the Ch--ks" rather than "picking up the dry cleaning." Viewers of this year's re-release of "Breakfast at Tiffany's" saw the spectacle of Mickey Rooney in one of the most insulting depictions of an East Asian person on film. ("Breakfast at Tiffany's" is also relevant because Holly Golightly is a prostitute, but the movie goes to great lengths to downplay that fact -- so much so that many viewers think of her as simply a happy-go-lucky party girl.)

Today, of course, such depictions are either absent from TV and movies, or are handled with irony or disdain. Other topics never were, and never will be, the subject for broad comedy. The most obvious of these is the Holocaust, with even the most successful attempts at humor (Seinfeld's episode about "Schindler's List" being a prime example) ultimately not working very well, if at all. Even though people living through the Holocaust surely experienced moments of genuine happiness and even gaiety (I say "surely" because humans seem to have an uncanny knack to make the best of a bad situation, to laugh in the face of death, and to put even the worst horrors out of their minds temporarily), there is good reason that a movie like "The Guard" does not come along and show a bunch of Holocaust survivors as comic relief.

The question, then, is why it is unacceptable to, say, release a movie showing happy slaves in the South in 1855, whereas it is acceptable to treat prostitution as a source of light comedy. One possible answer, I think, lies in my comment in Friday's post about people's caricatured view of prostitution as a simple economic transaction without coercion: buyer wants service, offers price to seller of service, transaction occurs, service is provided, no problem. By imagining that the prostitutes on "Two and a Half Men" are highly-paid, treated well, and voluntarily enter into transactions for sex, viewers can enjoy the joke and not worry about the underlying reality.

Which, strangely enough, brings us back to veganism and animal rights. One of the most common experiences among vegans is being confronted by someone who wants to argue that vegans are not morally superior to non-vegans. (This generally happens not after a vegan says, "I'm morally superior to you," but when a vegan says something like, "I can't eat that, because I'm a vegan," or "Can I have that without the bacon?") The philosophical arguments about veganism have been discussed at length elsewhere (including on this blog a few years back), and it will serve no purpose to revisit them here. What is relevant, however, is the common argumentative move by which an anti-vegan describes a way to produce meat or other animal products that is arguably not cruel. "Would you eat veal from a calf that died of sudden-infant death syndrome?" "If there were a way to kill animals exactly at the point that they were going to die anyway, isn't the moral problem solved?" "It is possible to milk cows in a way that does not require that the male offspring are killed, and with the cows being treated humanely, right?"

While even these arguments are ultimately unavailing, the common theme that makes them relevant to this blog post is the replacement of reality with an alternative reality that makes the consumers of animal products somehow feel that they are not being immoral. They claim to be moral, however, by saying that since it would be possible to create an animal food product in a (supposedly) non-cruel way, then it is acceptable to eat and use all animal products, no matter how those products are actually produced. (As noted, these non-cruel alternatives are a myth, so that the "happy meat" movement is also off base, even if people limit themselves solely to non-factory farmed products.)

Similarly, the depictions of "sex workers" in movies and TV allow the viewer to imagine that the exploited people are not being exploited at all. If we can imagine a person choosing to be a prostitute without coercion, and enjoying it, then we can pretend that all prostitutes are happy and uncoerced.

But why stop at "happy hookers"? The basic logic here is that any morally problematic situation can be cleansed by telling ourselves a story about how that situation could have been the result of truly free choice. If that works so well, then how would such perverse logic not extend to rape? We can always imagine that two people (even the rapist and his victim, in a different reality) might have met under the right circumstances, fallen in love, and decided to have sex as an expression of that love. Why let reality divert us from that beautiful story?

That last example, of course, shows just how ridiculous it is to rely on the alternative-reality story to justify ugly reality -- and to justify audiences' comfort in seeing depictions of the alternative reality in place of the ugliness. Some ugliness is not allowed to be scrubbed. Imagine the women in "The Help" (a new release about African-American women in 1950's-era Mississippi, working essentially as indentured servants for middle-class white families) being depicted as absolutely happy with their lot in life. Movies made during that era, in fact, did precisely that, often showing shoe-shine men and other stereotypes shuffling their way through life as happy as could be. American audiences today would broadly reject such "artistic choices," in ways that we do not yet reject happy depictions of prostitution, animal exploitation, and other horrific realities.

I do not know how or when certain topics cross the line, becoming ineligible for cleaned-up Hollywood treatments of life's ugly realities. At some point, one hopes, we will no longer nod and wink about the ugly realities discussed here. Until then, it is at least important to notice what American society has not yet rejected.