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Of Pain and Privilege: Eat. Pray. Loathe.

June 4, 2010

You can leave your hat on, Lena.

I cannot even bring myself to watch the trailer for Eat. Pray. Love the Ryan Murphy helmed – it figures – adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir, of pain and privilege. I’m not even particularly interested in delving deeply into the problematic elements of a work I barely skimmed during its initial release and whose film adaptation I have not yet seen. But I do wish to address a theme emerging from questions from my readers regarding the film’s positioning and messaging.

A reader who wished to be identified as J posed this question:

Is Eat, Pray, Love considered an example of the “Ordinary Whiteness of Being” genre?

In a word – no.

The two titular films – Redford’s Ordinary People and the film adaptation of The Unbearable Lightness of Being , both of which are exceptional films – do not seek to position their stories as universal. In fact, I would argue – after close examination of the source material – the title Ordinary People as applied in this case is irony. Both works, in my opinion, walk the line between resonance and universalization. This isn’t to suggestion they are devoid of problematic elements. There are issues, to be sure, within each film. The stench of class fail permeates Ordinary People; Redford seems to have developed his class framing from mentor Sydney Pollack – who we ALL know I adore – which if you recall I equated Pollock’s cinematic understanding of class to the Skymall in terms of relevance and accessibility. Unbearable is the only way in which to describe the Madonna/whore dichotomy happening in Unbearable Lightness of Being, despite the careful attention paid to its complex exploration. If the fruit is rotten, the skill of the baker is irrelevant. However, as ever the pragmatist in a world of imperfect content, I rejoice in the moments of artistic effectiveness and carefully smack down the problematic elements.

That said, what happens to the characters in these examples – similar to the characters in The Ice Storm, Affliction and In the Bedroom – is happening exclusively to them; the audience is merely allowed a chance to engage in voyeurism. More the point, in the case of Ordinary People the event at the center of the plot could happen to any family; it is the aftermath of the situation that is unique and speaks to class and race privilege, not the event itself. This is a notable distinction as it relates to the Ordinary Whiteness of Being genre.

Eat, Pray, Love – based on my reading as much of the memoir as I could stomach – seeks to universalize the experience of self discovery and healing, while at the same time very much reinforcing the idea these are experiences limited to those of at the top of the kyriarchy. I don’t take issue with explorations of the pain of those at the top of societal’s food chain; pain and heartbreak are pretty equal opportunity conditions. I do however, take issue with its framing as it relates to Eat, Pray, Love given it seeks to ignore the way in which privilege plays out in individual lives in favor of presenting an -ism erasing version of self recovery.

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x-posted from Snarky’s Machine

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. evmaroon permalink
    June 4, 2010 1:58 am

    I mistakenly thought that the book was something akin to what Kingsolver did with her memoir about eating local for a year, so I bought the audio version to play on a cross-country drive last year. Five minutes in, I wanted to claw my eyes out and drive off a cliff. I couldn’t believe her privilege, either, so I’m relieved to know it wasn’t just me. Ugh, it was so awful, and now I hate driving through Indiana because I associate the two.

  2. raymondj permalink
    June 4, 2010 7:52 am

    Aw, Indiana has a hard enough time being redeemable, it didn’t need Elizabeth Gilbert bringing it down!

    There are many Snarky-coined terms I love and use, but I really hope the “Ordinary Whiteness of Being” gets a good strong legacy that spreads throughout pop culture analysis-land.

  3. June 4, 2010 11:15 am

    I know you’re not teaching 101 here but I want to thank you because I think I’m finally starting to understand the difference between films that take a common situation (death, divorce, disaster etc.) and depict one specific experience arising from it, and those films that position the experience as universal.

  4. tanyadiva permalink
    June 4, 2010 11:35 am

    There is another kind of movie genre, I like to call it “Miserable White People.” Mayhap this falls into the category? “Miserable White People” films tend to skew darker, but also clean up at awards time. I steer clear of them. See “American Beauty,” etc.

  5. June 4, 2010 2:22 pm

    Jesusgod, ugh.

    I read an interview with Julia Roberts once where she said she stayed “grounded” because she did her own dishes and laundry.

    My eyes rolled so hard that I had to see a doctor. You could hear the roll in Pacoima.

    Between her and Gwenyth “Look, I Make My Own Sandwiches” Paltrow, THIS is why I hardly ever go to movies anymore.

  6. June 8, 2010 2:51 am

    Aw, Indiana has a hard enough time being redeemable, it didn’t need Elizabeth Gilbert bringing it down!

    Bloomington has this hipster brunch place with food so good it redeems the entire state if being the birthplace of Vonnegut wasn’t up to the task.

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