“But nothing’s getting through, so let me spell it out. A-B-C-D-E, FU!”. Now I thought that was a clever lyric, but my wife didn’t agree. What do you reckon? Anyway…
Although enormous predjudice, problems and disparities remain, us humans have made progress on some fundamental moral issues like ending racism and gender equality. This progress will only be further accelerated by recent movements such as “Black Lives Matter”, and “Me Too”. On my recent trip to New Zealand, I was encouraged by cross generational adoption of Maori language, and a wider public understanding of the mahi (work) that needs to be done to rectify wrongs and disparities both past and present inflicted on the first people of New Zealand.
This progress is reflected in pop culture, with mainstream outfits Disney and Hollwood making an effort to at least appear inclusive. New cartoons and blockbusters sport multicultural casts, highlight minority issues and give female characters more agency. One measure of this progress is the Bechdal test, which asks whether female characters have conversations with each other which aren’t just about men. Only twenty years ago 70% of big money blockbuster movies failed this test, now 70% of them pass. Forgive me for the flawed graph but it gets the point across.
This change has been rapid and stark. Go back and watch your favourite episodes of Friends or Seinfeld from just 20 years ago and you’ll find yourself regularly cringing or worse at the casual racism, sexism and homophobia througout the shows.
But there are many blind spots in our cultural ‘progress.’ And there’s one particular group who both society and pop-culture still seem free to abuse in both subtle and less-than-subtle ways.
Classism should be the next ism to to be binned in pop culture.
Many of you will have heard the aforementioned mega-catchy saccharine diss track “a,b,c,d,e FU” where a girl lays her ex out to dry. Be warned, listen at your own risk. It’s both truly cringe and truly stuck in my head, with the situation only getting worse while I’m writing this. Nah-nah-nah naaaaaaah, nah-nah-naah, nah naaah…
Although public abuse is a bona-fide terrible way to deal with post-relationship issues, I know this is a diss track and she may have some fair points about her ex. He did allegedly text her friends behind her back, and had a brief go at revenge dating. Also she does try to give credit where credit was due, to his dog…
But her subtle digs at poverty should not be acceptable. She says “FU” to his “broke-ass car” and his “craigslist couch” (trademe-ish for New Zealanders). This may seem harmless at first glance, but why is she using these vehicles of abuse? The implication can only be that its somehow bad to have second hand stuff. That her ex is a worse person, and perhaps has less value because he isn’t rich enough to buy new things.
We can debate the cause of major societal problems, but I shouldn’t have to convince anyone that it ain’t poor people. It’s not poor people driving up house prices. Money printed during the pandemic that was disproportionately given to rich people has contributed to the inflation and the increased cost of living which is shaking the world. If pop culture is going to diss anyone, let it be rich people.
Imagine you’re a teenager who hears Gayle’s tune. You’re sitting on a nice old couch which your single mum bought on craigslist, making ends meet on her minimum wage job. You’ve already been struggling with self esteem and then you turn on the radio and hear the diss about the ‘craigslist’ couch. Maybe you feel your mum isn’t doing so well after all. Maybe you won’t go to school tomorrow because what’s the point anyway?
Imagine you’re a 20 year old guy who just got your first full time job on a building site. You’re pretty proud of yourself because you managed to buy your first car for a thousand bucks. It’s beat up but it does the job. Well you were proud until you’re friends started giving you heaps about it “Hey Nick, you aren’t gonna have much luck with the girls in that old dinger are you!”. Then you turn on the car radio and hear Gayle diss the guy with the “broke-ass” car…
Imagine you’re 80% of the population in Uganda, who can’t afford any kind of couch or car. What does this song say about your worth as a person? The messages we send through pop culture may seem trivial at first, but they help shape the false, toxic, normative narratives of society. That rich = good and poor = bad.
As well as eradicating poor bashing like that in Gayles song, we need more pop-culture role models from poorer backgrounds too. The same way we make every effort to be body-positive, we should take every chance to build up those on the tough end of the socioeconomic spectrum. Not just rags to riches or self actualisation stories, but where a poor person is the hero. This isn’t about glorifying poverty, but about increasing self esteem and hope across the socioeconomic spectrum. Perhaps the next iron man is a genius on the unemployment benefit who invented cold fusion in his bathroom lab. The next Batwoman could be a volunteer at a food bank who uses her personal connections to transform the underworld of Gotham for good. Contrived yes, but not much more than the current superhero narratives.
“Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Some directors whose movies would pass a “poor people” version of the Bechdel test:
In the global north:
* Andrea Arnold
* Mike Leigh
* Ken Loach
* Sean Baker
* Chloe Zhao
* Lynn Ramsey
* Sarah Gavron
* Barry Jenkins
In the majority world:
* Ousmane Sembène
* Satyajit Ray
* Abbas Kiarostami
* Mati Diop
* Raoul Peck
* Rungano Nyoni
* Actually, tbh, most directors, i would imagine – with some exceptions… some movies are about rich or middle-class people even in poor countries. In general, people should watch more movies from other countries! Im trying to watch more myself and remedy the imbalance in the fact that my ‘rich countries’ list is longer.
Wow I love it, bechdal test for poor people. Is that poor people talking to each other and not just about rich people? Or should it be poor women? Love it either way 😀 and thanks so much for the list. Love watching movies from around the world. Problem is that in places like here in Uganda (and East Africa in general) the movie industry is fledgeling. Places like Nigeria and India on the other hand absolutely pump them out… And movies that are there are usually heavily targeted at the home audience which is great but can mean it’s so far out of our cultural comfort zone it’s hard even for me to watch to be honest!
Have a movie making friend here Patience Ntumwesige who is in the middle of making a documentary about the great activist Stella Nyanzi (google her you’ll love it). When that comes out will give you a bell ;).
Awesome, please do – i’m definitely keen to watch that! I’ve seen a couple of good documentaries about David Kato and other queer activists there.