As we’ve said countless times on the show, you always have to mitigate to enjoy movies, especially if you’re a woman or belong to a marginalized group. But there will always be movies that we “Yes, but…” to. Yes, the movie is problematic but it has someone I love! Yes, it’s racist but look at the costumes. We’ve done and we’re woman enough to admit them here. In fact, this week marks the 40th anniversary of the King of Problematic Films: the musical, Grease. So it seems appropriate, in honor of that cad Danny Zuko, for you to cleanse your conscience and share your favorite problematic films with us in the comments below!
Ask anyone and they’ll tell you I’m the problematic queen! Nearly every movie I love has problems, and sometimes I even love a movie BECAUSE It’s a trainwreck of good taste. I can’t apologize for my choices, in fact you can probably blame a few of them for making me the way I am. All I ask is that you be kind!
The Little Mermaid (1989)
This Disney classic is the Grand Dame of questionable movies, and it’s actually gotten more disturbing as I’ve grown older. It’s a movie about a woman who gives up her voice for a pair of legs, after all. Okay, so it’s totally not feminist. But, as I’ve gotten older I actually think it might be ableist in Ariel being “different” and actively choosing a miracle cure in favor of going back to being disabled. Then again, this story has been fucked up since Hans Christian Anderson wrote the damn thing. I mean, it could have been worse. She could have actually turned into sea foam at the end like the original story called for (and like Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre did). With that being said, I am Ariel! I’m loud, outspoken, put my foot in my mouth constantly, love to swim. Hell, I’d take a flipper and swim all day, and her dad was jacked so I’m betting every merman looks like Chris Hemsworth. The point is, Little Mermaid has always been written and shaped by men, but I’m taking it back! I want to be part of that world, dammit!
On an Island With You (1948)
Esther Williams movies are always troubling, this is well-known. Esther herself even thought they were derivative takes on the same plot. That being said – and I already went on a diatribe about my love of water – I adore Esther and her movies! My personal favorite though….is probably one that needs some explanation. On an Island With You is the delightful story of a group of actors making a South Seas picture, so from the intro we get plenty of Esther and dancer Cyd Charisse in brownface so egregious it’s gray. A scene calls for someone to fly Esther’s character in a plane and war vet Lawrence Kingslee (Peter Lawford) is given the job. Unfortunately Lawrence ends up fleeing with Esther’s character, trapping her on a remote island for the day while everyone freaks out over her being kidnapped. What does Kingslee want? Well, a long time ago Esther’s character kissed him during a USO tour. He thought that meant something and he’s determined to make her love him. Yeah….reading that plot I can see how we’d have problems. (KIDDING…I actually screamed through my first viewing of this.) That being said, Peter Lawford is so damn cute! And Esther is so great! And Cyd Charisse and Ricardo Montalban dance. I actually have more of a problem with Jimmy Durante being a major figure in this movie than anything else.
I don’t know any girl growing up who didn’t have….feelings watching this Jim Henson fantasy feature. And much like On an Island With You the plot of this innocent children’s film involves abduction, possible decapitation, and extreme dehydration due to Bowie thirst. But really I mean this movie did give us all incredibly unrealistic expectations of men, specifically of the older variety. We all thought some dashing Bowie figure would come in one day offering us crystal balls and magic, when in reality we were getting the likes of Harvey Weinstein. I just realized, I have far too many “movies where a young girl gets propositioned and Kristen is totally cool with it” films. But, and that’s a big “but,” Bowie bulge, man.
Speaking of young girls being stuck around a gang of men, Gidget. I’ve documented my love of Gidget before and it’s still one of my favorite movies. Sandra Dee’s girl surfer Francie “Gidget” Lawrence isn’t just about a love of surfing. I’ve argued it’s actually a sexual coming-of-age film masked by surfboards and guys named “Moondoggie.” You don’t see the subtext unless you’re in the know! That being said, this movie also has a perfect “older man who doesn’t exist in reality,” Cliff Robertson’s gorgeous beach bum, Kahuna. Yep, that’s his character’s name. Remember those days when an unemployed man could build a hut on the beach and hang out with teenagers AND IT WASN’T WEIRD AT ALL? The third act climax – and that’s a terrible choice of words – actually involves Kahuna attempting to seduce Gidget in order to teach her that she actually doesn’t want to have sex with him. See? Teachable moment, people.
Sixteen Candles (1984)
Let’s end with another ’80s movie that’s totally questionable. (Starting to think that was a trend in the ’80s.) Sixteen Candles is John Hughes at his worst: it’s racist AF, pretty sure date rape is cast off, and a young girl gets slut-shamed for helping a geek out. But weren’t we all just a bunch of Samantha Bakers trying to catch the eye of Jack Ryan? I mean, he was a 22-year-old looking high schooler who presumably wanted a girl who had thoughts, emotions. He just wanted to talk, guys! I mean, I’m fairly confident Jake Ryan was gonna be a 10-year senior but….uh, I don’t care!
Everyone took all mine because, as usual, I’m the last one to get my 5 finished up, but, oh well, whatever. Here goes:
The Little Mermaid (1989)
I, too, wanted to be part of that world. You know, the world where you get to live in a castle with cute Prince Eric and have an amazing singing voice, and all the animals of the sea love you? Yup, that world. I KNOW a lot of people say, “She had to give up her entire existence for love.” You know what? I call BS on that. She knew who she really was and ALREADY WANTED IT before she ever laid eyes on Eric. He was simply the motivation she needed to finally become who she always knew she was meant to be. Okay, so maybe she didn’t exactly go about it the right way, and making deals with the devil tends to be problematic, but whatever. She got to be true to herself AND get the guy in the end. What’s not to love?
Love Actually (2003)
It’s like this movie’s sole reason for existing is for us to be totally fine with its problems. And you know what? I am. Because there are scenes and story lines that are super frustrating. I mean, I don’t personally consider Andrew Lincoln’s Mark to be a stalker because he tries to stay away and he didn’t ruin her wedding video because he wasn’t the videographer, so stop blaming Andrew Lincoln for everything, guys. But on that note, why is it that one of only two non-white people in the cast is relegated to a background role in a story line that directly involves him? Yeah, that’s not cool. And the other just flits into other people’s stories as a bridge. And then there’s sweet Natalie (Martine McCutcheon) constantly being called fat when she is definitely not. And let’s just talk a minute about Laura Linney’s Sarah. So it’s super annoying that she picks her brother over the hot guy she’s had a crush on for years. But you know what? That shouldn’t be annoying. That should be heartbreakingly sweet that she is willing to put her interests aside for a brother that needs her. We shouldn’t be put into a situation where we are mad at her for being unselfish! Damn it, I DO love this movie and now I just need to go watch Colin Firth try to speak various European languages. Byee.
50 First Dates (2004)
I wouldn’t have thought Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler would work together, but they have two movies that I absolutely love; one of which is 50 First Dates. Yeah, okay, when you start imagining the practicality of this poor, brain-damaged woman waking up every morning for nine months and realizing over and over again that she is pregnant with the baby of some dude she doesn’t know, that’s kinda messed up. But I don’t mind it because even from the beginning, Sandler’s Henry Roth isn’t out to take advantage of her or her situation. His friend Ula encourages him to do so, sure. But Henry really does go out and put in effort every day to make her fall in love with him. And in the process, he actually goes from being a terrible human being to a pretty awesome one. So I can forgive it. Plus I love the soundtrack.
Never Been Kissed (1999)
You’ve got all these adults crushing (crunching?) on teenagers and that’s very not good. But Michael Vartan is hot and his crush is not technically illegal since she’s only pretending to be a teenager and they never actually kiss until he knows she’s an adult and not a minor so it’s fine. Yes, I’m in the mood for run-on sentences today. Problematic movies demand problematic sentence structure.
Sixteen Candles (1984)
I’m not even going to try to defend this movie. I’ve spent my whole life searching for Jake Ryan. The end.
As women who love film, we’ve had to learn to compartmentalize, but I still find it very difficult at times to ignore ugly or problematic aspects of movies just so that I can enjoy myself. It’s easy to speak from a position of privilege – and being an able-bodied, cishet white woman, I know that I’m privileged to be able to ignore some problematic aspects more easily than others – and try to excuse films that have serious problems. But just because a film is problematic doesn’t mean it has no other value, and just because you love a film doesn’t mean it’s not problematic.
I have some very mixed feelings about James Bond in general, but Connery has always been my favorite Bond, and Goldfinger, for a long time, my favorite Bond film. If I’m totally honest, it still is. It has all the Bond tropes: badass henchman, crazy villain, ridiculous gadgets, bad one-liners, regressive sexual politics even for the 1960s…and, of course, Honor Blackman playing the best Bond girl with the least subtle name (at least until Natalia Onatop). If I just skip over the whole bit where our hero rapes the lesbian out of Ms. Galore, and the bit where he coerces another woman into bed, and all the bits where he just randomly slaps women on the ass…it’s a damn fine Bond movie.
My love for 300 is largely about when I first saw it. I was writing my college dissertation (about male monstrosity in Dracula, no less), I was exhausted and angry, and I desperately needed to get out of the house. So my roommate and I went to see 300. It was big. It was stupid. It was loud and crass and there’s an underlying racism that’s really, really hard to ignore. It has all kinds of problems, some of which I could close my eyes to because the film itself was so crude and dumb and difficult to take seriously. It also satisfied my bloodlust and sent me home with an intense desire to just murder a lot of men.
The Hateful Eight (2015)
This may surprise anyone who knows my consistent dislike of Tarantino, but I have the weirdest love for The Hateful Eight. Yes, it is exceptionally unpleasant. Yes, it has a questionable attitude toward its sole female character. Yes, there are all kinds of things wrong with it. But I love the use of language in this film, and the total lack of subtlety in its condemnation of the Civil War. I kind of love the nastiness of every single character.
True Lies (1994)
My parents were never particularly concerned about representations of sex onscreen, but they did draw the line at violence, which meant that there were only a handful of Arnold Schwarzenegger films that I was allowed to watch. Oddly enough, one of them was True Lies, a film that contains some very questionable sexual and racial politics, but is nonetheless one of those during which I can just turn off my brain. I mean, the movie features Arnold pretending to be a computer salesman, Jamie Lee Curtis cast as “dowdy,” and Bill fucking Paxton. It’s really hard not to love it, if you can just manage to ignore the multitude of issues.
OK, time to address the – ahem – elephant in the room. Disney has never had great sexual or racial politics, though they seem to be doing better in recent years. Their films are a good measure for the mainstream culture of the time period. But if you want to enjoy watching older Disney films (and even some more recent ones), you have to face the reality that the films that shaped your childhood were also all kinds of problematic. Dumbo is one such film – it’s adorable, it never fails to make me cry (“Baby Mine,” when Dumbo’s mom rocks him to sleep through the bars of her cage? Sobbing.), and it has some of Disney’s best music of the era. It’s also undeniably racist in its depiction of the group of crows – the leader is named “Jim,” you guys – that sing “An Elephant Fly.” It’s a compendium of stereotypes, and the caricatured voices are even white men. It’s disturbing to re-watch now and see just how fundamentally racist Dumbo is, while at the same time being moved by other aspects of the film.
Peter Pan (1953)
I’ve been thinking a lot about this movie, probably thanks to its recent DVD release. It is most definitely one of my favorite classic Disney movies (along with Lady and the Tramp). Perhaps it was a childhood growing up wanting to be Wendy (but ultimately sympathizing more with Tinker Bell). However, age has shown me the unforgivable problematic nature of this film, from Tiger Lilly *shudder* to “What makes a red man red?”, the anti-feminism of Wendy, to the problematic nature of the Captain Hook and Peter Pan storyline. Though despite all of this, I still have fond memories of this movie, and it is a nostalgic favorite of mine.
Ocean’s 11 (1960)
*Sigh* Where isn’t this film problematic? I’ve talked about this movie before, and I’m unashamed to admit it is one of my all-time favorites. If I were a dude in 1960 I’d want to be here. Ultimately, the movie positively smacks you in the face with it’s misogyny and there are underlying racial issues as well…while Sammy Davis Jr. is still one of the most influential members of the Rat Pack, why does he have to be the garbage man? Anyway, this problematic film in unapologetically of its time (and social climate). The atmosphere doesn’t age well, but I absolutely love it.
She’s All That (1999)
This one was a struggle to admit. It’s much easier to see the problematic elements of films from the classic era in Hollywood, but it’s something else to see problems in what you grew up with. Like most girls of middle school/high school age in the late 1990’s/early 2000’s I was absolutely head-over-heels in love with Freddie Prinze Jr. I’m not proud. This film has major issues from the cliques of the high-school to the absolutely horrendous treatment of Rachel Leigh Cook’s character Laney Boggs (well, don’t you know you can’t be a nerd to get the guy?), it is amazing how much slips under the radar disguised as teen fare. However, I’ll still watch that movie if I flip it on. Then I discovered this is also a Miramax film… (gulp!).
Love Actually (2003)
The problems inherent in this particular favorite are still sinking in for yours truly. This isn’t just a Christmas movie for me, it’s a year-round movie. I love it with every fiber of my being. That being said, the treatment of Martine McCutcheon’s character, to Andrew Lincoln’s adorable stalker type behavior, to the major problems with Kris Marshall’s character and *sigh* the Laura Linney character…it’s bad. Why can’t she end up with Rodrigo Santoro? Anyway, yes it’s problematic, but that doesn’t mean I love it any less.
Last but certainly not least, I’m jumping back in time with a good, old-fashioned problematic classic. James Bond is a go-to for misogyny in all its forms and what is the best James Bond film? Goldfinger, of course. Now, don’t get me wrong, Pussy Galore (…sigh…) is my favorite of the Bond girls. Honor Blackman is absolutely delightful in the role, and she crafts an interesting and progressive character. However, James Bond is James Bond. He’s the man who makes all other men believe that she might be saying no, but that no can easily be converted to a yes (…sigh…).