Race and gender in "Scott Pilgrim"

Race and gender in "Scott Pilgrim"

Posted by Sean Stangland on Thu, 08/19/2010 - 21:30

From Twitter tonight:
SeanStangland It occurs to me that SCOTT PILGRIM has a lot in common with JUNO, humor-wise. I wonder how many PILGRIM fans are also Diablo-haters?
ShokDiesel @SeanStangland Haven't seen the movie yet, but will. But honestly, what incentive does an urban-dwelling nonwhite movie watcher have 2 C it?

The question is an interesting one. As a white, suburban, lovelorn nerd who is fond of 8- and 16-bit video games, I am the target demographic for "Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World," the buzzworthy but little-seen comedy from Edgar Wright. While watching the film last weekend, it briefly occurred to me that perhaps it was crass for the film's only South Asian character, an evil ex-boyfriend named Matthew Patel (Satya Bhabha), to break into a pseudo-Bollywood dance number during his brawl with Scott (Michael Cera). The audacity of the scene won me over, though, and the pace of the film hardly gives one time to breathe, let alone think.

But looking back at the movie, I realize that every "good" character, for lack of a better word, is white. The other prominent Asian characters in the film are Scott's clingy, borderline crazy Chinese girlfriend, Knives Chao (Ellen Wong), and two of Matthew's fellow evil exes, Kyle and Ken Katanagi (Keita Saitou and Shota Saito). Latinos are represented by Clifton Collins Jr. as a vegan cop, and blacks are represented by ... uhh ... hmm ... no one. So perhaps the criticism that the film was made for and by white hipster douchebags carries a little more weight than I thought.

This could all be part of the film's point, of course. One could see the film as an indictment of a culture where anyone who isn't thin and pale is regarded as an exotic outsider, and where man-children in a state of arrested development wish that winning a girl's heart was as easy as winning seven boss fights. The fact that Knives is Chinese is brought up time and again in the film -- it seems to be a chief reason why Scott is dating her -- so I hesitate to say that this is all coincidence.

Not many people seem to give "Scott Pilgrim" credit for being much more than an expertly made visual-effects comedy. (You can probably put me in that group, but that doesn't mean I didn't love the film.) But others see it as insidious, intentionally or not. One of my favorite film writers, MaryAnn Johanson, ignited an Internet flame war with her review of the film, which comes thisclose to calling it misogynist. To wit: "All the style is nothing but a would-be 'sweet' metaphor for men treating women as property... and woman acquiescing to being treated that way." Predictably, many of the comments that follow are, in fact, misogynist.

Johanson's view of the film is intriguing and worth thinking about, especially since it's coming from someone who isn't a white male -- most of the prominent film writers in the world are white males, after all. (I'm dying to know what Asian-American critic Walter Chaw, who writes at Film Freak Central, thinks about the film, but he hasn't chimed in yet.) It's easy for me to join the likes of Devin Faraci and Harry Knowles in praising the film because, let's face it, it's very much about us, or at least the younger versions of us.

I suppose Edgar Wright's intention in making the movie hardly matters, since it's not as if each screening of the film comes with the director's explanation. What matters is how each of us responds to it, and I responded with overwhelming adoration.

So for my colleague Shok, the urban-dwelling nonwhite movie watcher, the film will probably offer some big laughs and a lot of knowing smirks. But I can't begin to predict how you'll react to the film's racial politics, if you can even call it that.

Damn, now I have to go see it again.

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