Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 5 No. 22, July 2001



Brian Butler

Transgression: Ordinary and Otherwise




Thomas E. Wartenberg

_Unlikely Couples: Movie Romance as Social Criticism_

Boulder: Westview Press, 1999

ISBN: 0-8133-3438-1 (hb); 0-8133-3439-X (pb)

254 pp.


The genre of the 'unlikely couple film' seems so familiar as to be banal. If an unlikely couple film is described as a plot centered around 'the predicament of two individuals whose efforts to be a romantic couple transgress a social norm regulating appropriate partnering choice' (xvi) such a film would appear to represent one of only a few effective plots that could be constructed around such a romantic coupling. And the banal everydayness of such a plot seems on first viewing to carry no truly interesting implications for a critical appraisal of society. Clearly it is the most replicated and familiar type of plot one could imagine. Indeed, what other interesting type of plot revolving around a couple's romance can really be imagined? What would the *really likely couple* movie look like? And if there were such a creation who would be its audience? True, there may be situation-specific romance plots that don't implicate broad social norms so clearly. For example, the couple may have to overcome space aliens or other extraordinary or idiosyncratic circumstances. But these are presumably the exceptions. A more universal type of overcoming that is based upon experiences that are more likely shared would, presumably, have much broader appeal. Most romance-based plots would seem to be inclined to portray more universally experienced situations, and therefore must display acts that appear to be at least minor social transgressions. If the couple isn't transgressing the rules against dancing in the local community, or the parent's picture of what mate is appropriate, then what source of interest is available? If the couple is truly likely, then a plot with any tension or intrigue for the average viewer would be hard to imagine. In _Unlikely Couples: Movie Romance as Social Criticism_ Thomas E. Wartenberg sets out to show that there is legitimate cultural critique going on in such a familiar and therefore supremely unlikely place. In other words, the ever-present genre of the 'unlikely couple film' carries within itself, according to Wartenberg, unnoticed but important aspects that can enable it to be an effective critical tool with which to critique social norms. Particularly relevant in this context for Wartenberg is the ability to critique specific assumptions of class, gender, race, and sexual orientation.


An argument that the Hollywood-style movie romance could function as social criticism of social norms, if convincing, is welcome when confronted with contemporary ideas from within academic circles. That is, there is a tendency within the academy to see social criticism as legitimate only if it resides and is found within art objects or essays that wear their critical pretensions on their sleeves. Further, it has become apparent that much self-defined current cultural criticism runs upon the replication of standard moves that identify its critical nature as such to the proper *cultural criticism* consumer. When such a genre has become so codified, how can a person really hope for more than all the expected moves to be present in the offered criticism? The unlikely couple movie is just as ever present in film culture as the cultural criticism genre is in the academy. So how could such a popular movie genre do anything but reflect accepted social norms? At least cultural criticism is self-consciously critical and not just blindly replicating (or even worse pandering) to culturally entrenched norms. Wartenberg's argument here travels along the lines pioneered by Stanley Cavell and others who claim that there are valuable resources for criticism of cultural institutions as well as hope for greater understanding in the content that resides on the surface of popular media objects. The common error, according to this stance, is in not seeing that such everyday areas of cultural expression are full of potentially helpful critical perspectives. This is held to be true in spite of the fact that they are not usually looked upon as essentially critical. There is great hope in the claim that a proper appraisal of the everydayness of traditional romantic movies carry a transgressive and progressive potential. But is such hope justified here?


To see the ordinary as carrying materials that hold transgressive hope is a somewhat subtle point. It is also an exceedingly important point if correct. To show that a critical reading of the surface content of popular culture carries transgressive moves is to show that tools for progressive change are already latent within the culture's own broadest expressions. That any culture is, if allowed to develop along its own lines, essentially consistent and unanimously supported from within is one of our naive and yet cherished contemporary beliefs. It may be an important belief for people related to cultures that were victims of colonization to hold onto, but it seems patently false when projected onto cultures as broad, diverse, and multileveled as those of the modern world. The awareness that one of the dominant narrative images of modern society -- the couple's overcoming of impediments to achieve romance -- potentially carries an implicit critique of aspects of social stratification, highlights the patchwork quality of modern social norms. Given this potential, a thorough analysis of the unlikely couple plot can highlight assumptions of cultural consistency and the various ways such assumptions can help marginalize internal dissenting voices. And once the internal dissent or dissonance is recognized it can be highlighted as an internal source of cultural critique.


But in modern culture the problem might be much more insidious than that. The real problem is that the transgressive has become the ordinary. Or, to be even more to the point, the appearance of transgression is often times important for a work of pop culture to signal in order to be accepted as respectably consumable. Modern (or post-modern) Northern American culture is one that prides itself upon cultivation of the expressly transgressive. When highly successful realms of pop culture are self-defined as *alternative* the progressive nature of cultural critique becomes just another product. Even reactionary conservative groups rewrite their activities so as to see themselves as progressive civil rights underdogs fighting the status quo (one only has to bring the National Rifle Association to mind to witness the absurd lengths such attempts can go). In a context where every act of expression wraps itself in transgressive dress and such transgressive dress is necessary to satisfy social norms, what is the real hope for any truly progressive critique of social hierarchy? How and where is such transgressive content to be found that isn't just more grist for the transgression mill?


_Pretty Woman_ (Garry Marshall, 1990) is used by Wartenberg as an example of pop transgression that succeeds in replicating social norms and horizontal structuring. The ultimate result of its narrative strategies is a feeling of serious critique that signals to the viewer a progressive destruction of capitalist ideals, all the while bundling it with an underlying stance that reinforces the very same views of social stratification through capital based upon unquestioned assumptions of merit in proportion to privilege. This is, for one who hopes to find in popular film critical ideals of culture through which to critique unquestioned assumptions, the worst of all possible worlds. As Wartenberg explains, _Pretty Woman_ can clearly be read as carrying a criticism of 'the newly ascendant finance capitalists who came to prominence during the Reagan era's rash of corporate takeovers and mergers' (67). Through the vehicle of the down on her luck and warm-hearted prostitute the corporate hawk is first critiqued and then, ultimately, re-humanized. This seems to critique not only the anti-social values encouraged within corporate culture but also the anti-democratic nature of a world dominated by corporate politics. But are things on the surface of this film so simple?


No, this appearance is belied by identification of what Wartenberg calls 'strategies of containment' (71) which serve to override the potential for legitimate critique. Instead of questioning the existence of social hierarchies and the concomitant attitudes of entitlement for the rich, _Pretty Woman_ just implies that a slight adjustment needs to be made so that the truly worthy can live the privileged life and those that are not worthy can remain in their predicament. Through the parallel contrasts of good prostitute versus bad prostitute, and good corporate owner versus bad corporate owner, the message that is propagated is that hierarchy as such is natural, so all that really needed to be done was to put the proper people in the proper place. Moral entitlement to vastly unequal amounts of society's goods is signalled by such obvious moves as the beauty of the good prostitute (beauty equalling moral worth) and the ultimate reasonableness and humanity revealed within the apparently mean-spirited corporate hawk (family values overcoming corporate values equalling humanity). The feel-good movie ending replicates the Reagan era's mythology of the acquisition of wealth mirroring the intrinsic value of the person, just sounding a weak 'be humane' counterpoint to its central ideology. It does this all the while appearing to the audience to be showing the inequity of social stratification.


The important point made by Wartenberg in using this example is that it isn't the expressly transgressive content of the unlikely couple film that is most important. Somewhat ironically, it is actually the content of the unlikely couple film that is least critical in form, that is most sincerely portrayed, that gives it the critical power it has (when and if it has any). Finding the tools for legitimate criticism within the ordinary and honestly held aspects of the plot is the real key here. For all the ironizing around the main theme it is the seriousness with which this society holds the romantic couple that makes its critique of gender, class, or race assumptions so powerful. Only because one of the most cherished social norms of this society conflicts with others is there the ability to hope for genuine critique.


This is clearly shown in the strategy used within the classic _It Happened One Night_ (Frank Capra, 1934). In this movie a know-it-all masculine newspaper reporter is pitted against (and is ultimately coupled with) a strong willed, as well as spoiled, daughter of a wealthy Wall Street tycoon. Just because it is obvious to the audience that they are destined to become a romantic couple, and that this destiny should and must rightly override any other social imperatives, does the critique of other social hierarchies appear plausible. The arrogance of wealth is shown in the expectations that the tycoon's daughter has towards others; she constantly assumes they will adopt her priorities because of her wealth. The ignorance of masculine professional pride is shown in the *worldly* condescension of the newspaper reporter towards other less experienced or knowledgeable people (especially towards the privileged tycoon's daughter). When they first meet we notice that 'Each regards the other as a beneficiary of illegitimate social privilege' (51). But through their relationship with each other this understanding, while not overcome (indeed it is emphasized), is tempered with a commonality that is to be seen as more important than their differences. The plot's success depends upon this crucial reaction. The audience's privileging of the romantic aspect of the couple's existence animates the critique of these socially structured attitudes. It is only because we want the couple to come together that we allow the growing procedure between the two to develop. In other words, it is the un-ironic acceptance of romantic love that allows this unlikely couple movie to effectively critique other social norms. Therefore, the critical power derives its source from an uncritical starting point.


The unlikely couple film, portrayed as the necessary transgression of social norms in order to form a romantic couple, therefore functions effectively just because its ground in banal everydayness. It is because the transgression is expected that the unexpected critique can be effective. The critique rests upon the absolutely familiar. Wartenberg's examination of such a device shows the poverty of an idea of cultural criticism that ignores the sources of cultural criticism that are at the very least latent within the content of mass culture. His examination of strategies of containment is especially valuable because it highlights a way to criticize critical defenses used within mass culture to reify its own cherished but uncritically accepted hierarchies. That there are tools for progressive change set within popular culture also breaks down the idea of culture as a homogenous whole that needs to be critiqued from without. Finally, Wartenberg's analysis is most interesting when he avoids the cliche avant-guardism that looks at every apparent act of transgression as having progressive or even critical content. In fact it is the conflicting ideals within mass culture that can be utilized in order to further critical awareness of social structuring. Critique can be effective when resting upon a culture's most central ideals -- for instance romantic love. This is an important critical/philosophical point.


To his credit Wartenberg doesn't accept the central plot device (romantic love) uncritically either. For example, he is aware that romantic love might be seen as replicating other illegitimate hierarchies; for example it might privilege heterosexual love over homosexual love. He therefore highlights examples of film plots were homosexual romantic couples are used as a vehicle of critique as well. Further, he doesn't let the various types of solutions offered in mass culture to the felt need for romantic overcoming rest without uncritical discussion. He sees that the most effective critique rests upon *destabilization*. What he means by this term is a critique that aims to show that a hierarchic ordering is 'inadequate to the reality it attempts to conceptualize' (238). To show that the conceptual scheme cannot handle the elements it is supposed to explain in this way is superior, according to Wartenberg, than merely resting upon a single counterexample (because the audience might just suppose such an example to be an idiosyncratic exception) or to an inversion (because then all that has happened is the replacement of the illegitimate hierarchy with a *legitimate* one).


_Unlikely Couples_ is both an excellent work of cultural criticism and an effective call for a more situated and culturally relevant ideal for philosophy. In highlighting resources for cultural criticism within mass culture it provides a counterpoint to more elitist and culturally isolated ideals of criticism. Finding critiques of cultural hierarchy within the medium of popular film highlights the importance of a philosophical understanding of such an ever-present medium of communication. It also creates a critical awareness of the various ways a film can signal the legitimacy or illegitimacy of any given hierarchy. This same emphasis upon philosophical issues within the surface content of popular film helps bring home the final point that philosophy is better thought of as the practice of critique, and not just a body of knowledge. When philosophy is thought of as a practice, and not a set of self-contained sources and a priori topics, a more interested (and interesting) critique results.


University of North Carolina at Asheville, USA




Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2001


Brian Butler, Transgression: Ordinary and Otherwise', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 5 no. 22, July 2001 <>.



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