Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Guilty Pleasures

One of our local television stations (well, more or less local. It's actually based in Orange County, as the commercials remind us with astonishing frequency) has recently started airing reruns of Get Smart in the evening, and I have enjoyed getting to revisit the exploits of Maxwell Smart, 99 and the agents of KAOS before I go to sleep at the end of the day.

I am reminded that the show is truly an element of the time in which it was created. I don't mean the fact that the spy genre itself was so popular in the 1960's (although it was), but rather I mean in the way that women are portrayed. On one hand, you have Agent 99. There's little denying that she's more intelligent and competent than Max, and she's very often responsible for making sure that he doesn't ruin everything through his bumbling. In this sense, 99 represents the trend towards gender equality. But the illusion of women's "equality" is fairly short-lived, as 99 is invariably the one asked to get someone's coffee, or write something down, or some other stereotypically "female" task. True, on some occasions, this is intentionally to make a point that these stereotypes still exist, but more often than not it passes without comment. And let's not even get started on her inexplicable attraction to the inept and none-too-intelligent Max. There can be little doubt that one of the main reasons for 99's presence on the show is to serve in the "romantic interest" role to the main character. And I haven't even mentioned the way other women are depicted....

My wife would be quick to point out that almost all of the writers, producers, and staff on Get Smart were male, and so perhaps this is even more to be expected. But I have to confess that it makes enjoyment of this show (and make no mistake, I still enjoy it) somewhat embarrassing.

Just as Get Smart has both its good and bad moments when it comes to issues of gender roles and equality, I am reminded of how complicated it can be to talk about people's positions on important issues. I have often said here on the blog that whether one is "liberal" or "conservative" depends on what aspect one is talking about, but even saying that doesn't convey reality adequately. There is a current thread on the Allspark complaining about the apparent "banning" of several Tom and Jerry cartoons on an upcoming DVD collection (said to be the last, indicating that all cartoons should be out by now). The stated reasons for the lack of inclusion of these cartoons is said to be due to racist content. Such content was not uncommon in cartoons of the era, and neither has it been unknown to have such cartoons "banned" in recent years.

But the comments of certain people on the thread remind me of how inadequate it is to speak in terms of "liberal" and "conservative." Many of the folks most upset about the loss of these cartoons speak here in what could only be described as "conservative" terms (if one was forced to choose between only those two alternatives). But I've known some of these folks long enough to know that they are far more "liberal" (again, if forced to choose one or the other) than I am on many, if not most other issues. I expect that it would be far more accurate to describe some of these people as "libertarian," but even here, such terms fail to adequately capture the complex reality of these personalities.

None of this is to say that I think the folks behind the Tom and Jerry collections are making the right choice. I'm certainly sympathetic to their concerns, but why are these two particular cartoons being left out? I'm reminded of a time a few years ago when my nephew was in the hospital with a broken arm. His mother mentioned to us over the phone that he had taken a liking to Tom and Jerry, and so I bought a DVD set for him. I was later informed that they may not have a DVD player (I have since discovered that they do), and so I decided to copy the cartoons onto VHS (legal if the ownership of the DVD and the VHS are both retained by the same person), and send them both. While watching the episodes myself, I noticed that a few of them contained such racist stereotypes as "blackface," and found that I could not, in good conscience, send this collection to my young nephew.

Perhaps my sister-in-law wouldn't have been bothered. I know that a lot of people my age can say, with some honesty, "I watched these as a kid, and I'm not a racist." However, I find myself increasingly mistrustful of such statements. Racism, as with most prejudices, is more hidden, and more pervasive, than such a statement implies. We often do not know what our prejudices are, and I know better than to take a statement such as "I'm not racist," at face value. Practically no one thinks of themselves as a racist. We know that a "racist" is a "bad person," and no one wants to think of themselves as a bad person. I know far too many people who say things like "I'm not a racist," honestly believing that they are telling the truth, yet who in the very next breath (or immediately preceding, in some cases) say some incredibly racist comments.

But I still do, in all honesty, enjoy some of those old cartoons, just as I still enjoy Get Smart. I hope that I can do so with an awareness of the things that were wrong about the eras in which they were made, and which are still wrong when perpetrated today, without throwing out the enjoyable aspects that make them such "guilty pleasures" in the first place.

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