A few days ago I was watching an old comedy at my friend’s place called Blazing Saddles. The movie is dated, going back to 1974 and was directed by famous comedy legend and filmmaker, Mel Brooks. I had seen the movie multiple times before in the past and the one thing I remember about when watching it with friends is their extreme distaste for how ‘racist’ it was.
This claim was always something I didn’t really understand then. Yes, they use ‘nigger’ over several times in the movie, but the people saying it were presented as idiotic and obviously hypocritical. I mean after all, it also made use of several other stereotypes, such as Black men having big dicks, wanting to fuck White women, White women fawning for them, slave-culture’s tendency to sing soulful songs, Gay men behaving very feminine, and White peoples' lack of artistic grace and stupidity/racism.
The movie poked fun at everybody, but was not doing so to promote racism: Especially with its two protagonists being a White and Black man respectively. So what made this a racist movie? Looking at it recently gave me a slightly different perspective on that claim, and as well other politically correct issues in comedic movies.
When I saw Blazing saddles in the nineties on tv, it was a time when being pc was just starting to become a thing. By ‘pc’, I mean not saying anything that maybe construed as prejudiced in anyway, being tolerant and not being offensive and intolerant. For obvious reasons, slurs were marked among these words that may never be mentioned again, because of its oppressive history against minority groups.
At this time though, the dominant culture was still one of ‘if you don’t like it, watch something else’. There was a disdain for people calling for the banning of the use of slurs in comedic context because most people assumed that it was obvious they were not being prejudiced. People in those movies were made to look like villains and fools after all. This was not 1915’s, Birth of a Nation after all.
Also, Mel Brooks was famous for poking the pc hornets’ nest before it was even called 'pc'. His movies often did double duty for being both entertaining and subtle, social commentary. He came to prominence during the 1970’s, a time ironically also noted for its diverse choice of movies and programming. It could even be argued that it was more diverse and tolerant than we are today. During that decade, while it was clearly progressive, it also retained some of the traditional, American attitude of ‘suck it up and move on’. If it wasn’t physically getting in your way, then you can get over it. Directors were free to experiment with whatever genre they wanted and were not overly concerned about how much money it made at the box office.
This was why Brook's films are still considered classics. The director clearly is not prejudiced, but still satires cultural sensitivities and at the time, society could handle it. The Producers was a satire comedy on Adolf Hitler, And Brooks is Jewish! Spaceballs? A hilarious take on Starwars and 1980's cultural cues. Robinhood: Men in Tights? I cried laughing in my seat because of how perverted it was while still addressing the birth of a multi-cultural awareness. So what changed, and more importantly: is it a change for the better?
In The Beginning…
Well it goes without saying that if Mel Brooks or some other daring director made a movie like Blazing Saddles today, it wouldn’t even make it out of the gate. Cultural sensitivities have evolved to such an extent that just the mere mention of offensive words in any context is not acceptable…unless of course it’s by that oppressed society. Then it’s ok. This attitude birthed in the nineties out of good will and intent.
We, gen X, were raised among other races, and being around openly gay people we were just starting to get use to. Despite claims of being self-absorbed and over-sexed (no I am not referring to Millennials), we were educated enough to know about our culture’s racist past and didn’t want to repeat those mistakes. Those are worthwhile goals, and the reality then was many at that time were still struggling against those in power who maintained those prejudiced views. That power could be corporate, political, or even the bully in high school.
The more they resisted, the harder we pushed. And that push eventually gained a large sway by the 2010’s. We and the new Millennials were becoming aware of just how ignorant our society was on how pervasive its prejudice history had been. Ivy League universities being founded by slave owners. Found fathers and presidents who clearly weren’t thinking of other races, sexes, and other differences when they wrote about the freedom of men. And how there was still entrenched sexism in the work place like the entertainment industry and racism in our police departments.
The more we encountered this, the angrier we got. Mel Brooks may have not meant to promote prejudice in his films, but they were still all too reminiscent of a society that was damaging to its non-White, non-male, members. Blacks still struggle against police officers who are being racist and are not being held accountable by the good officers. Gay and transgender people even today still suffer from depression and suicide because they don’t feel accepted.
In the 1970’s and 1980’s, this was not something that was seen publically until much later on. And when it was exposed, people in the middle or of good will were genuinely surprised, but that didn’t necessarily lead to a change of behavior. So that is why a comedy like Blazing Saddles wouldn’t survive today or at least not without fierce contest.
From Bill Bouslaugh: writer Sarah Kendzior on importance of words and media resonsibility
The Price of Progressive Media
Many people argue that while understanding where the pc culture is coming from, they are now taking things too far. In the name of tolerance and acceptance, they will not tolerate anything that vaguely resembles past ignorance. “You do you” stops here. Some Republicans like to call them ‘cry babies’: People who get upset over the slightest word instead of just changing the channel and moving on and being biased anyway.
There may be some legitimacy to this. While the 1970’s were a relatively free time to experiment with new ideas and had more diversity in film, this is not the case today. Large studios are very reluctant to take risks because of the fear of the loss of millions. And there maybe no telling what group may start a protest over an aspect of that film they think is offensive, or lack there of. Tent pole movies and the same-old-same-old are safer bets.
The old Saturday morning cartoon shows that for generations had been a staple of American youth slowly disappeared in large part because many of them were considered too violent for kids to watch: even the old Bugs Bunny and Wile E Coyote cartoons. Now they don’t even exist. Some people though consider these changes worth the price.
Writer, Sarah Kendzior, while speaking on News Xchange about the rhetoric that Donald Trump used in his campaign, openly says that words even used in jest, matter and can cause more harm than good.
So there is a very vocal outcry that words we may laugh at and consider just jokes do harm other people who may feel grouped in with those expressions. This reason is why they can no longer be tolerated. In some cases this view has been carried out almost as hostilely as the people who are violently hateful, something seen increasingly since Trump’s election. So where does this leave creativity in comedies?
Becoming the Dragon
Many successful comedians, like Jerry Seinfeld, now refrain from going to college campuses because they feel the pc culture there has become too hostile. Instead of just not going to their shows, they openly harass them and/or their audience who want to see them perform. This becomes dangerous because it can hinder artistic experimentation and expression.
Originally, PC was about making society aware of the social ills it was ignoring. It was not about trying to dominate the social and media landscape, thereby becoming what it hated. It is now in danger of becoming just that. As hard as it is for me to admit, I have to agree that words in media can affect people. However, you can’t control what everyone will or will not do.
During the 1950’s, parents who were scared that Elvis Presley and Marlon Brando would turn their teenage kids into sexually active, juvenile delinquents, actively sought to shield them from such dangers. They formed groups and protested radio stations, tv studios, and any outlet where their children could be exposed to the new teenage culture to try and stop it.
Heh, and ironically we criticize this same generation for being oppressively conservative! We are now doing the same thing, but from the other way around. Both generations felt they were righteously justified in what they were doing because they were trying to protect those who needed protecting and the other side was just wrong. It wasn’t initially done with an evil snicker and the twirling of a mustache. And this doesn’t began to address the inherent hypocrisy of slurs being acceptable to some but not others, and still calling it insulting.
Comedic movies can be both a powerful and a creative tool. It makes us laugh and in making us laugh, can make us think. We are less on our guard. This is a scary thing admittedly because it’s asking either side to trust human nature. Trust that the audience is smart enough to realize when they’re being entertained and when they’re being preached to. And most of all, know when to reject something blatantly evil and when to take it “you do you”.
Without this creativity, comedy, and perhaps by extension other genres will become stale. It becomes generic and soulless, like what many artists already criticize Hollywood films of being already. Standing up for those who maybe hurt by the words in film is right and should be done. But to do so and become intolerant of anything else will cause greater harm because then members of the populace will come to resent them and the groups they try to protect. And then they will act against the greater good out of spite, like what happened when Donald Trump was elected.
Educate and strengthen those who are emotionally vulnerable to words, and keep them from harming themselves. Learn and teach how to find the line between subjective humor and outright offense. But do not become overbearing and overprotective of them. Teach them if Blazing Saddles offends you, walk away.