Super 8, Part 2: In Which Fantasy Childhoods Are Made Real

And here is Part 2 of this rambling beast. Part 1 is here.

Writing for Entertainment Weekly, film-critic-whom-I-love-and-trust Lisa Schwarzbaum has this to say about Super 8:

It’s been eons since a movie has conjured up such intense, specific feelings, images, memories, and nostalgic fantasies about American summertime youth ā€” everyone’s American summertime youth, regardless of current age, nationality, sex, or climate.

Aaaaaand that right there is my problem. Because the thing is, that’s bullshit. That right thurr is pure unfiltered stars-in-her-eyes bullshit. Super 8 is set in 1979, but it’s Mayberry-1979: a small town in middle America (does it get more middle America than “Lillian, Ohio”?) populated almost entirely by white people. The kids don’t smoke, drink, and fuck behind their parents’ backs, they make movies. The main character, Joe (Joel Courtney), spends time at his best friend Charlie’s house with Charlie’s several siblings, Donna-Reed-looking mom and Mr. Regular Guy dad, whom Joe calls Mr. and Mrs. Kaznyk and to whom he is unfailingly polite. Joe’s dad is the deputy sheriff, for fuck’s sake. Lillian is the ideal American-Dream Norman-Rockwell town. Sure, it’s shoved forward a couple of decades, but I literally was not able to discern that we weren’t in the 50s until I saw a hippie, and I didn’t realize it wasn’t the 60s until I saw a bit character rocking out on his Walkman. All that said, the town of Lillian is not without its problems. The film opens with the death of Joe’s mother – appropriately, in an accident at The Factory – and Joe’s crush/their movie’s female lead, Alice (Elle Fanning), lives with her drunk, abusive father because her mother left them. Funny that both problems involve absent mothers. More on this later.

The vision of middle America being evoked in Super 8 is one that was born in post-WWII propaganda, was enshrined in 1950s television, and has been iterated countless times since in both TV and movies. (It was skewered hilariously in Little Shop of Horrors’ Somewhere That’s Green.) It’s a touchstone in our political discourse; when Sarah Palin talked about “Wall Street and Main Street,” she’s talking about the Main Street of Lillian, OH. It’s the fantasy of “a simpler time” that gets hearkened back to like gospel whenever a social conservative gets fed up with kids-these-days. It doesn’t matter very much that none of it was ever particularly true on a broad scale. What matters is that it was true for a small segment of privileged white men when they were kids, or they wish it had been, and those same privileged white men are now in positions where they can write paeans to their real or imagined childhoods that conveniently elide larger social ills while tying all the problems faced by the characters up in a pretty bow of paternal hugs – and then millions of people will watch them and wax nostalgic for the simpler time of their childhood, a la Schwarzbaum. (Of course your childhood was a simpler time. You were a child.)

Grown women in Lillian are one of two things: absent or perfect. Of the three main kids, no one has a mom except Charlie, and she might as well have stepped out of an episode of Father Knows Best. The absence of Joe’s and Alice’s moms frees us to sympathize with Joe’s father’s parenting angst, and enjoy his subsequent redemption as a hero, without having to see the domestic inequity that allowed the development of said angst-inducing situation: Joe’s mother worked full-time at a factory, came home, and acted as the primary caregiver to her son while his father swanned about playing cop. She had to, right? Joe’s dad is shown to be domestically incompetent and emotionally closed-off, and has no relationship with his kid, so logically mom was pulling one hell of a second shift. Similarly, Alice’s mom walked out on her and her father, whose alcoholism (it is implied) is a result of her departure (even when they’re absent, women ruin everything!), rendering him controlling and emotionally abusive – but of course it’s all fixed at the end when he realizes how much Alice means to him. We don’t have to deal with his likely relapses or the consequences of his abusive behavior to Alice. We just enjoy their hug. And speaking of that hug, another perk of The Absent Mother is that it allows paternal authority to reign supreme without having to grapple with ideas like shared responsibility in all areas of child-rearing and relationships of equals. The status quo is upheld, no one has to be made uncomfortable, and it’s not even real sexism, right? The mom is dead.

For the record, I don’t think Spielberg and Abrams sat in a tower and explicitly decided to eliminate women from their movie so that they didn’t have to think about gender equality. That’s not how patriarchy works. I think they used a common trope with some very unfortunate implications. Similarly, I don’t think they sat around and said, “Let’s depict middle American without black people.” What I think is that they made the movie they’d love to have made when they were 13 and playing with super 8 cameras. They just didn’t think about why making a movie you wanted to make when you’re 13 might be problematic. This is the problem with Super 8. It uncritically reifies an American-dream imagined childhood to such a degree that sanguine critics like Schwarzbaum, whose anger at films’ social thoughtlessness can be so extreme that it eclipses her opinion of the movie, describe it as evoking “everyone’s” summertime youth when it clearly does no such thing.

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About Sara

I like to talk about media, food, and gender.
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One Response to Super 8, Part 2: In Which Fantasy Childhoods Are Made Real

  1. Tomi says:

    This is great, great stuff!

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