I generally feel alienated by most mainstream media: wronged, deprived of connection to my “culture,” lost and alone in a world of sexist mediocrity, etc. This feeling is different when I rewatch movies from my childhood. It’s worse. I connected to society with these movies. I formed my identity, decided who I was and would be in relation to the world outside me. When these movies turn out to be reinforcements, either calculatedly or incidentally so, of retrogressive and misogynist patterns of thought—
“Ideology has very little to do with consciousness…it is profoundly unconscious.” —Louis Althusser
—the feeling is worse. Worse still—the bulk of my mainstream media consumption occurred between the years 1995 and 2000, accounting for probably more than I have consumed in the other 24 years of my life combined. For anyone who missed out on this era of American “culture,” count your blessings. Waterworld is probably the most endearing document of the era simply because its failures are actually entertaining, as opposed to embarrassing, cringe-inducing. I will remind you that our society bestowed its highest cinematic honor on Titanic. Again, if that means nothing to you: you’re one lucky asshole who either enjoyed a woodsy and hermitic ’90s, or one that involved nothing more than parents and eye twinkles. Don’t get me wrong: I love the ’90s, which is why I so adamantly resent its swift descent into utter bullshit. Also because I grew up watching and loving Mrs. Doubtfire and Liar, Liar, and it is suddenly clear to me that those movies are terrible and probably responsible for the arrested development of my soul for who knows how many crucial years. That’s why it’s worse to rewatch movies that I actually once liked—I find a part of myself that I resent.
Like many, I imagine, in the last couple of weeks I went to the corner Variety Shop and picked up a half a dozen 89 cent Robin Williams VHSs, and, like many of those many, included Mrs. Doubtfire in the collection. At some point, also, my life partner bought Liar, Liar. It could have been months ago—the desire to watch it was something that did not exist for me. Similarly for Mrs. Doubtfire, as every scene was already burned in my mind, and my memory of those scenes was that they were not real exciting. In fact, the movie is playing right now through my mind, scenes and snips of Euphegenia Doubtfire’s dialogue—”It was a run by fruiting!” for example—accompany the sound of my fingers on the keyboard and a quintessentially lame All Things Considered Weekends interview with Ryan Adams. Robin Williams’ voice-shifting personas are not easily shaken, especially when you watched and heard them repeatedly between the ages of nine and twelve. How many hours of mid-’90s afternoons did I spend watching Mrs. Doubtfire? A half a dozen? A dozen? Who can tell. How many clips have cycled through culture and into my eyeballs? How many adults told me that the film reinforces patriarchy and capitalism in the worst way?—none.
First we watched Mrs. Doubtfire to begin what I was yet to realize was to be a voyage into my subconscious and the erroneous assumptions bestowed upon me by my loving motherland’s ideological state apparatuses (ISAs).
By placing that image there, dear reader, I am trying to portray Robin Williams’ frosting-covered face as an ISA greeting you like a Jon Stewart Queen Elizabeth impersonation. The fact that he is playing a man pretending to be his English half-sister is what celebrants of ambiguity like myself would call the undecidability of meaning: someone who is used in the myth-making of capitalism becomes its tool, yet remains an individual and, as far one can assume, a good person. And Robin Williams was a good person and remains a meaningful symbol of the power of creativity and the infinite possibilities of identity and its free expressions. Such is the unfortunate schizophrenia of stardom, at least for those that prefer to be humans instead of warm(ish), breathing representations of capitalist ideology. To see what I mean, (re)watch FernGully: The Last Rainforest, as it is a great movie (is it?) and in it you see (rather, hear) Robin Williams as Batty, the lab-tested, bordering on psychotic bat who has seen the depths of human evil and risks it all to tell our heroes.
Mrs. Doubtfire is by certain standards an important film, responsible for breaking down societal constructions of gender, or at least introducing the idea of doing so to mainstream audiences, introducing the idea that men can be nurturing, and that they deserve to raise their kids as much as their divorced wives do. However, anyone who holds these standards is either super conservative or really excited about illusory standards for progress. That’s because, in this author’s humble opinion, Mrs. Doubtfire appropriates elements of San Francisco gay/drag culture in order to affirm—that’s right, dear reader! I bet you guessed it—the inevitable dominion of the white, straight, American, English-speaking man. Boy does it fail the Bechdel test, and, boy, do we have little meaningful information about any character other than Robin Williams. Everyone else is a cartoonish peripheral character who exists only in relation to the great white ball of charisma. Or great pink phallus. You get the idea. Those who disagree with his desires are characterized accordingly. Boy is Sally Field a (insert one of those many words!) for getting upset with RW! Pierce Brosnan is the feminine (that is, English) man giving the lady what she THINKS she wants (sensitivity, reliability, considerateness, devotion, etc.), but is ultimately disproven by the, again, hella charismatic dick holder. Why: because he is the assumed rival of our properly male white hero. The ball-bustin’ old lady social worker sure doesn’t trust RW even though he loves his children. Ladies are mean and grumpy! Even Sally Field’s lawyer is a lady. What hath feminism wrought?! Is this the Betty Friedan dystopia we were warned about. He loves his children. WHY CAN’T THEY SEE HE LOVES HIS CHILDREN?!?! IT’S TIME FOR MEN’S RIGHTS!! WHY CAN’T WE JUST BE HUMANISTS, RIGHT?!
You may have guessed that “the inevitable dominion of the white, straight, American, English-speaking man” was something subconsciously obvious to my nine-year-old self, because that was what the coded myths of my society assured me every time I wasn’t climbing a tree or swimming in the ocean—really, just constantly. And it doesn’t matter that my mom kept her last name or that my dad had a bumper sticker on his office door that said “FEMINISM: THE RADICAL BELIEF THAT WOMEN ARE PEOPLE TOO.” FernGully wasn’t about conservation: it was about blonde California bros who were, at first, the problem, yet who ultimately saved the rainforest against all odds, learned how to be a better human, in the end more assured that they’re the center of the universe. Happy ending!
I’m not really interested in dissecting all of the sexist elements of Mrs. Doubtfire, mostly because I’ve already dedicated way too much of my life to this 2-D mis-rendering of a coastal Northern California ’90s domestic situation, the “real” version of which was my childhood.
However, before I bid you adieu, fair reader, I would like to finally argue that Liar, Liar is a worse film, has less endearing qualities, and is, in most every sense, terrible.
But, you ask, with so many women in the film, it must past the Bechdel test, no? God, no. Let me introduce you to these ladies:
Maura Tierney: oh, did I love Newsradio. Whatever you to say bout the late ’90s: there was still Newsradio. And Maura Tierney was great in it. However, Liar, Liar was not made by someone who wrote for The Larry Sanders Show and went on to produce and direct for Flight of the Conchords. The writer’s previous achievement was the ’94 Little Rascals movie, following L,L up with Heartbreakers—boy, did I watch this movie on HBO at age 16. Maura Tierney’s character, as written in this movie, is the most gullible character in American media since Ernest.
Jennifer Tilly: again, the sexual politics of child custody in case of divorce, and, again—feminism has been reduced to a tool for the dispossession of white fathers by two-faced lawyers (mispronounced by Jim Carrey’s kid, who went on to play Dennis the Menace in the straight-to-video sequel to the forgettable mid-nineties movie, in the singular as “liar”). Her character is a promiscuous money-grubbing asshole who is more concerned about alimony than her children. The lie that she was an oppressed and neglected housewife driven into the arm of another man—the feminist idea that a woman should have agency in the creation of her own happiness—is used to increase her settlement from 2 odd million to dollars to 11. The lying version of the Jim Carrey character—before the can’t-lie premise hits the ground running—convinces her to go to trial with a comic perversion of the tenets of feminism w/r/t Tina Turner, belting to the rafters at the end of it, “There’s NOOOOOOOOO such thing as the weaker sex.” Jennifer Tilly is addressed as “sister” during this rant.
The boss: the boss is a false, sex-crazed domineering exaggeration of everything men hate about successful women. Don’t worry: she gets hers in the end. Does she? I don’t even remember. She does rip the phone from the receiver as Jim Carrey tells Maura Tierney that he can’t go to his son’s birthday party because “the boss is really riding [him].” They then have (a children’s movie’s approximation of) sex so that Jim Carrey has a chance of making partner. Wait: is that a powerful gender reversal: showing the man sleeping his way to power? No! The idea that we have to sacrifice our agency and our bodies to better succeed in capitalism is shitty for everyone!
The kindergarten teacher: that’s about it. She’s a kindergarten teacher. She’s probably a virgin, too. Bet she has cats.
The secretary: guess who plays the secretary—somebody’s with me, right?—Robin Williams’ social worker from Mrs. D! That’s right: Anne Haney. But this time as a matronly guardian angel who disapproves of Carrey’s constant lies, but let’s him get right away with it, because he has a soul somewhere in there. He loves his son, after all. HE LOVES HIS SON!
There are also several characters who are defined by how their appearance influences Jim Carrey. Because: movies. The male gaze reinforces everything I perceive! It’s all for me and how I’m meant to feel! Who remembers this scene?
This seems like an opportune moment to tell you JC’s vindication for the occasional lie: when a recently pregnant woman (Maura Tierney) asks you how she looks when she doesn’t look great, you tell her she looks great. QED: lying is great. Now to the last woman, who is actually a very attractive man.
Cary Elwes: like Pierce Bronsan’s, this character’s masculinity is compromised. He was, after all, tights-wearing Robin Hood, who we all know to be a Brit. And anti-capitalist, now that we’re at it. Other than that we as a society know him as the vaguely European lead in The Princess Bride, in which men are each other’s non-threatening friends! And he thinks he can replace Jim Carrey! Of course not. He can’t even do the claw right.
Here’s what it’s supposed to look like:
Really, these movies aren’t that insidious. They didn’t necessarily reinforce the idea that men are the center of the universe and deserve patient and loving women to put up with their childishness: they tell children that that’s what they deserve, because they do.
Just kidding! Can we stop showing awful movies to children and continuing to let infantile men destroy what’s left of our society? Please?