by Michelle Dean
Today, two women look at summer lady-blockbuster ‘Eat Pray Love’ in the context of other movies with strong female characters. After this: Maria Bustillos on ‘Life During Wartime.’
If your experience is the same as mine, and you do not garner your cultural criticism solely from the pages of O: The Oprah Magazine, you’ve heard of Eat, Pray, Love largely through negative press coverage. A veritable battalion of sudden class warriors have emerged in recent weeks to bash Eat, Pray, Love for its portrayal of cluelessness in rich white yoga-lady form, a near-universal object of derision if ever there was one in this culture.
It’s not that I don’t have a certain degree of sympathy with the pile-on, of course.
Like any young white lady of a certain age who’s hit a stumbling block in recent years, I’ve dodged countless exhortations to read the book. In my opinion, a book that contends that the way to get away from the anomie imposed by modern professional life and its empty materialism is to take a year off and spend a whole boatload of money ought only to be read in a haze of mood stabilizers and blood pressure medication. Particularly when the reader is newly unemployed, like me.
And I’ll be honest: that’s not least because if Eat, Pray, Love is right, if travel and boiled down essentialist Orientalist “Eastern” mysticism is the only true path to meaning in this world, we might as well all throw up our hands now, because most of us, and by us I mean “people on Earth,” simply can’t do that. We might as well let the Gilberts continue on their quest to write the rest of us right out of existence, push us to the margins of whatever real story it is the rich are living, because we’ll never have a piece of it.
I do want to admit that this vein of “class-based” criticism has been extremely fruitful as an inspiration of snarky Internet remarks. (A personal favorite line was by Dustin Rowles, at Pajiba’s: “Fuck you, and your Buddhist Ayn Rand bullshit philosophy.”)
But dare I say that I find some of the criticism a overwrought? Here, for example, are some things that people have recently written about Eat, Pray, Love:
1. David Edelstein at New York, always notably, uh, sensitive to marginalized women’s concerns, described the plot as “… Gilbert stumbled into a scenario that resonated with women in search of their own autonomy-specially white women with a bit of money.”
2. Peter Travers at Rolling Stone remarks that “the movie left me with the feeling of being trapped with a person of privilege who won’t stop with the whine whine whine.”
3. Andrew O’Hehir at Salon gave a nicer and more nuanced thumbs down, noting, “[Elizabeth Gilbert’s] aware that her personal and literary odyssey contains potential contradictions: The tale of a well-connected New York writer traveling the globe on somebody else’s dime and sampling an array of seemingly disconnected experiences might strike many people as a symptom of our cultural dislocation and commodity fetishism, not a cure.”
Why, I don’t know that I’ve read so many reviews using first-year intro to sociology terminology in my life. Now, people are doing real structural critique of Eat, Pray, Love and related phenomena, of course, and I am not trying to lump their work in here-but the mainstream critical narrative seems to be coopting their rhetoric.
That appropriation of leftist language in these reviews has irked me. It’s done so even though I am also the kind of person who will agree to see Eat, Pray, Love only if someone’s paying me to do so, and no one has, as of yet, so no dice. I’m going to suggest to you anyway that all this blather about the “self-indulgence” and “privilege” of this film, when delivered by these white, and largely male, film critics, is disingenuous, and, even worse, philosophically empty. I’m going to do it having not seen the film, of course, but then again, I’m not so much interested in defending the film itself. It may very well be crap. The point, I think, is that if it is crap, it’s important to describe why that’s so without lazy rhetoric.
I’d love to call this straight-out misogyny, and in fact I’d have backup, and not only from feminist blogs! A.O. Scott at the Times noted that “the kind of class consciousness that would blame Liz for feeling bad about her life and then taking a year abroad to cure what ails her strikes me as a bit disingenuous -a way of trivializing her trouble on the grounds of gender without having to come out and say so.”
But I think it might be a little more than that.
The other night I saw I Am Love. That film stars the much more filmsnob-acceptable-than-Roberts-but-also-female Tilda Swinton person! I am quite susceptible to that kind of snobbery, myself. With the exception of the Narnia movies, Swinton is the kind of actress I follow from movie to film back to movie without even needing to see so much as a trailer beforehand.
In any event: I hated I Am Love. This is not a popular opinion. Rotten Tomatoes tells me that 81% of critics loved it. Just as a contrast, if you click over to have a look at the reviews for Eat, Pray, Love you get a comparatively abysmal rating of 38%. No person with actual taste is admitting to actually going to see Eat, Pray, Love, of course, but like me, a significant snobbish subset is willing to watch I Am Love.
I find this interesting.
I Am Love is a story about rich white Italian people. Rich white Italian people, the movie informs you, live in stunning surroundings and hold lots of dinner parties with the aid of servants in matching uniforms. They have beautiful clothes and beautiful children and most importantly, they eat beautiful food. They are sensual people, these Italians. But they suffer from a certain ennui, from time to time. And thus, when their marriages become impermissibly frigid, they go and fall in love with their children’s friends, friends who are chefs, because food is sensual. (I hope you caught that totally subtle metaphor!) And the only thing that matters, you guys, is love. Lovelovelove. Love. We should all be so lucky to be in love. The End.
Sound somewhat familiar? Toss in some time in Bali and Javier Bardem and the surroundings start to look awful familiar, don’t they?
Of course, the reason why people of self-appointed taste and discernment might enjoy I Am Love but not Eat, Pray, Love, might be a matter of execution. I won’t deny that there’s beautiful cinematography in the former that I can’t imagine exists in the latter, though it’s mostly the gratuitous shots of flowers and food that provide the pretty there rather than any of the principal photography. I also won’t deny that you are going to have a hard time maintaining the same level of subtlety in your $60-million blockbuster summer Hollywood chick flick than you can in your low-budget independent European movie.
But that’s not what anyone’s actually saying, it seems to me, when Eat, Pray, Love is sneered at as a rich white lady movie. The objection underlying the sarcasm is about content-how dare this white lady write so much about such trivial self-absorbed matters-not style. And that’s where it starts to get messy, the criticism, not simply because it’s inconsistent, but because it cloaks itself in faux-leftist rhetoric that’s… well, to be blunt, kind of morally repugnant, no?
If any of the critics I listed above cared one whit about class in this country or any other, and thus hated the artistic treatment of privileged whining, they’d have to throw out what I’d imagine is more than half of Western cinema. This, they are not prepared to do, however. What Edelstein, Travers and the like do is a drive-by on class issues, for hating rich people (just as much as Sarah Palin does, I might add), without doing the hard work of interrogating actual social privilege. It’s self-congratulation for not being that kind of vulgar white (incidentally lady bits-having, not that there’s anything wrong with that except that it means “your” movies are suspect for self-indulgence) person who falls for this claptrap. It’s not structural critique.
It’s a common thing to talk a good leftist talk as a way of being socially acceptable to other liberals while being blithely unaware of just how deeply uncommitted you are to those issues. The curious thing about whiteness or richness, about social privilege of any kind, is that it’s not an attitude, not a pose, not just something you can shrug off if you like the right kind of movies and read the right kind of books and make your annual donations to the right organizations. It’s a thing you live every day, all the time, whether you choose to participate in it or not. It confers unseen advantages-advantages like the ability to reduce the experience of Bali as a place to what white Americans think and feel about it, blithely, without challenge, and be paid millions of dollars to do so. And you can’t vault yourself out of privilege rhetorically, not if you want to dismantle it. As a person who shares many of Gilbert’s privileges, you see, it’s unfair for me to try and claim I could never share her blinders. To reduce racism and classism to a matter of individual personality would let me sidestep the systemic nature of it. And whatever else is true, whatever tacit participation I have in the structure that makes this a racist and classist world, I care enough about dismantling it acknowledge it as a system, not a series of individual mistakes.
All of this is what led me, the other day, to remark to a friend that I simply couldn’t listen to another white guy turn Elizabeth Gilbert into a symbol of What’s Wrong With Rich People In America today. She might be self-indulgent-though the more I hear that term the less sure I am of what it means, other than being a sort of literary swear word writers use for each other-and she might be clueless, and indeed I have very little interest in reading her work, myself. It’s not that I really want to mount a defense of her work. But the people who are criticizing her at the shallow end on the basis of “class” strike me as just as blind. Their work exhibits no more interest in a better world for everyone than hers does.
Michelle Dean has written for Bitch and The American Prospect. She blogs at The Pursuit of Harpyness.