January 13, 2009

There's a big difference between Walt Kowalski and Archie Bunker — "Gran Torino" is not "All in the Family."

Moviegoers today enjoy the Walt Kowalski character in "Gran Torino," who spits epithets — and spits — at his Hmong neighbors and at some young black men. Why is this amusing us? I remember when the same questions were asked about the Archie Bunker character on the 1970s TV sitcom, "All in the Family." Back then, some people said it's terrible to make a racist lovable. It was bad to show this hateful man in a family of good people. Decent people should shun someone like that. One answer was that the storyline was always to prove Archie wrong. The black people next door were better than him: George Jefferson was an industrious entrepreneur and his son was a diligent student. The family that surrounded Archie continually modeled better values, and prodded the stubborn man along the path to a colorblind society of shared values.

Walt Kowalski, by contrast, has been shunned by his family. They minimalize their contact with him and don't have any enlightened values to push on him anyway. He lives alone in his old neighborhood, where he is the only white person left. And it's not as if everything would work out fine if he'd just wake up and quit being a racist. The nonwhite residents have actually ruined his neighborhood. There are no responsible adult males, just violent gangs. His is the only neat green lawn, and his is the only house that isn't dilapidated. His son and daughter think he should give up and move out. So his racism is of a piece with his stubborn refusal to move out, and when he takes action it is to bring his values of hard work and respect for property to the nonwhite residents.

Archie Bunker's racism was delusional, and his problems could be solved by changing his thinking. Walt Kowalski's racism is partly reality-based, and the part that is not reality-based, but Archie Bunker-like, has kept him in the place where he is able to do something about the problems that the other white people have fled.

ADDED: Please note that when I say "Walt Kowalski's racism is partly reality-based," I am referring to the reality depicted in the movie. By the same token, "Archie Bunker's racism was delusional" in the reality of the sit-com, where George Jefferson was an industrious entrepreneur and so forth. We're comparing 2 characters in 2 contexts — and all of it is fictional and the degree of distortion of reality is a separate question.

28 comments:

Henry Buck said...

That's one mighty big can of plump, tasty worms you've opened.

Richard Fagin said...

If Walt Kowalski's racism is in part "reality based" then it isn't entirely racism, is it? It is behavior that is programmed into our survival instincts and is as old as life itself, even if it can be proven to be objectively or morally wrong. Just ask the kid who got mugged twice at the Dudley St. "T" station in 1968 in the middle of race riots. It's not racism, it's rational survival response. Even Jesse Jackson agrees.

Pogo said...

He isn't racist, he just has learned to hate all assholes equally, and he knows that racial/ethnic epithets are quite useful in verbal combat.

Like Kowalski, I now live in a Hobbesian world, in which the personal and childish whims of immature, violent, and solipsistic young men are the only authority.

Increasingly in my little town, the gang bangers rule, and other people are merely an instrumental means to their selfish, brutal, and hedonistic ends. They have effected a de facto curfew on the old and frail, who stay indoors to avoid violence.

Like the droogs in Clockwork Orange, they never learned what Kowalski did: what it means to be a man.

Tibore said...

I think I need to see this film. Sounds like it deals with such a character in a much less clich├ęd way than most other lectures from Hollywood.

siyeh pass said...

I haven’t seen Gran Torino, but from what I’ve read here and what I remember, watching Archie Bunker as a child, the differences are pretty clear. Archie was manipulative. He had this prideful self-rightous act going on on the outside, but inside, didn’t really think much of himself.

Walt sounds like a guy to tell it how he sees it (also prideful and self rightous). His resentments seem justified (if resentments can be justified), but there seems to be something in him that he actually values, as seen in his willingness to contribute to the greater good. Archie just wants wants to sit in the peanut gallery and complain, probably because he feels he has nothing to contribute.

Original George said...

Whoa.

The whole Bunker family was a wreck.

Edith was a nitwit, though good-hearted.

Gloria, also addled, was a chump for marrying Meathead, the poster child for every single liberal cause under the sun. Of course, they divorced. Had a child, too, didn't they? As I recall, he freeloaded off of Archie for years while working on...what? A sociology degree?

And Maude? Let's not go there.

Larry J said...

He isn't racist, he just has learned to hate all assholes equally, and he knows that racial/ethnic epithets are quite useful in verbal combat.

Service in the military exposes you to people from more walks of life than you encounter just about anywhere else, including college. It gives you the perspective to know that no one racial or ethnic group cornered the market on assholes. Assholes come in all sexes, races, creeds and colors. So long as you dislike them for being assholes and not for their racial or ethnic group, I see no problem with it.

ricpic said...

Archie put the meat on the table. He put up with his dingbat of a wife and his truly awful meatloaf of a son-in-law. His one failing was not kowtowing to the minorities-are-noble-by-definition diktat. And for that he's "hateful?"

traditionalguy said...

"Shared Values" has a nice sound to it. When will we get some again? The baby thrown out with the bath water was our shared Scots-Irish American value system. Foreign cultures were welcomed to join, and were welcomed to add their new strengths to that value system but have always been required to respect the relationship of voluntary followers chosing a strong Leader.[ E.g., Andrew Jackson] The poison pill in the USA has always been the peculiar Enslavement Culture that says one can only be a master or a slave. The great hope for Pres. Obama is that he will not see himself, and therefore act, as a new Black master, but will see himself, and therefore act, as the Strong leader chosen by volunteer followers who follow him out of respect [as Geo. Washington established the tradition]. Whichever way Obama goes will influence racial relations Big Time.

Paul Zrimsek said...

Tell that guy at Lean Left to go stifle himself.

The Drill SGT said...

So long as you dislike them for being assholes and not for their racial or ethnic group, I see no problem with it.

I have made comments abot a$$holes in the military before, but in a different context. Something like:

"I've worked for a lot of a$$holes (e.g. over the top type A's) in the military. I don't have a problem working for the competent a$$holes, it's the incompetent A$$holes, that are scary" :)

EDH said...

I'd call Archie a bigot, not a racist; he didn't hate people.

George Jefferson next door also was a bigot. He wasn't a better person than Archie, morally or ethically, just more successful at the "white man's game" so to speak.

Haven't seen Grand Torino yet.

Mark said...

Ah, the elephant in the room is context; racists on all sides (and every race has their population of them) think context doesn't matter at all.

(For instance, "reparations" are all about sticking it to the guy who made great-great-grandpa a slave. Never mind that that man, he dead now too.)

I live on a block dominated by mostly intact West Indian and Latin American immigrant families. The next block over is dominated by gangbangers. Two blocks in the other direction gentrification is turning that street quite pale. What's happening in my neighborhood is complicated. Approaching the issues here from a black v. white context is going to make the situation worse, but it's what we're going to get, because our political class can't seem to think in color (let alone in more than two dimensions).

And this is why this father of toddlers plans to move out of a place he quite likes. I've seen the writing on the elevator wall, and it says MS-13. Sorry, this isn't a movie, and it's easier to leave than to put my kids at risk.

Sorry, sometimes reality sucks.

Ann Althouse said...

I agree that the secondary characters on "All in the Family" were not perfect. The show would have been very boring otherwise. So George Jefferson was vain and irritable, for example, but he didn't fit the racist stereotype of a black man.

Joe M. said...

Small note: Kowalski isn't the "only white person left" -- remember the old white lady whose spilled groceries Thao helps carry?

(Not that it's relevant for your argument. Just thought I'd point it out).

TosaGuy said...

So Eastwood's character is called racist because he calls deserving assholes a particular name, yet remains in his neighborhood and tries to salvage a little corner of it. Yet affluent liberals who only speak in the most PC and sophisticated manner regarding minorities and worship at the alter of diversity retreat to their homogeneous enclaves and don't lift a finger (only opening other people's wallets) to provide a positive influence to those that would most benefit. So is real racist again?

The Drill SGT said...

TosaGuy said...
So Eastwood's character is called racist because he calls deserving assholes a particular name, yet remains in his neighborhood and tries to salvage a little corner of it. Yet affluent liberals who only speak in the most PC and sophisticated manner regarding minorities and worship at the alter of diversity retreat to their homogeneous enclaves and don't lift a finger (only opening other people's wallets) to provide a positive influence to those that would most benefit. So is real racist again?


I have heard racism described in similiar terms:

- White Southerners dislike blacks in general but "like the blacks they know"

- White Northerners like blacks in general, but "dislike the blacks they know"

holdfast said...

What this all started with, as far as I can tell, is the acceptability, or perhaps, the re-legitimizing of racist language. Does Gran Torino teach us that in certain contexts, racist language is acceptable and warranted? I'll leave that to all of you.

I don't think that's it at all - instead the point is that using such language is a pretty minor sin compared to killing innocents and trashing neighborhoods, and that it is better to judge a man by his actions than be his choice of epithets. Also, part of being an adult is learning that words lose their power to hurt once you stop caring what assholes think and say.

holdfast said...

- White Southerners dislike blacks in general but "like the blacks they know"

- White Northerners like blacks in general, but "dislike the blacks they know"


I think that comes from shared experience - or lack thereof. Poor(er) whites and blacks in the south have a long, often unhappy, history together - but it is a history together, sharing a lot of the same misfortunes, difficulties and grievances. That's not to dismiss the history of racism there, but to point out that a lot of it was caused by a fight over a relatively small economic pie.

Not so with your typical white, liberal northerner, who will meet a few "token" success stories at college at work, but will mostly experience black people as either low-end workers (which make those libs mildly uncomfortable) or street toughs and potential muggers (which makes them very uncomfortable) - blacks make them feel both guilty and a bit scared, but there is not a lot of empathy or real comprehension, due to a lack of shared circumstances.

Shanna said...

- White Southerners dislike blacks in general but "like the blacks they know"

- White Northerners like blacks in general, but "dislike the blacks they know"


Indeed. And which is worse? Does it depend on who you know. And I’ve always wondered, though I know it is possible somehow, how you can be racist and hate a race, and yet have great affection for people in that race. I’m not sure how to do the math on that.

The real problem to me with using racial epithets towards people you hate for reasons other than race, is the indirect impact it has on others. If some little girl hears you, then she takes that onto herself, even if you only meant it for someone else, who is a jerk. There is no reason good enough to use them on someone that it will negate that impact on others.

The Crack Emcee said...

Fuck all that noise: I just want to be able to talk the way I talk.

As far as Archie goes, I'm with Original George and ricpic.

And just a thought: whenever I saw black people take over a corner of my high school - say, a hallway - it was just to do dirt. Accepting that, making it "cool," is a major failing of our society.

The Crack Emcee said...

"The real problem to me with using racial epithets towards people you hate for reasons other than race, is the indirect impact it has on others. If some little girl hears you, then she takes that onto herself, even if you only meant it for someone else, who is a jerk. There is no reason good enough to use them on someone that it will negate that impact on others."

Please. Maybe if we taught everyone they're an American they'd stop being so damned sensitive about what other group they (supposedly) belong to. I swear, we trip too damn hard on this shit, and it screws us up as a country.

Shanna said...

I swear, we trip too damn hard on this shit, and it screws us up as a country.

How does it screw us up to demand a certain bit of human kindness, decency and class? Nobody is hurt by not calling someone else a name.

Pogo said...

"Nobody is hurt by not calling someone else a name."

But people are hurt when one's honor and integrity are so shallow that showing 'disrespect' must be answered with violence.

And among young men and women of all races, this has taken to mean failing to show the right 'look' to them warrants the maximum response, that is, looking at some kid the wrong way means they get to kill you. Shit, being the wrong color in the wrong neighborhood can get you attacked.

All because we have made the bad name a trump card. Being able to shake off bad words as having no effect on you is essential to a tolerant society.

chickenlittle said...

That's one mighty big can of plump, tasty worms you've opened.

An entire 6-pac (or 12-pac?).

There's a big difference between Walt Kowalski and Archie Bunker — 'Gran Torino' is not 'All in the Family.'

Well put Althouse. And thanks for making the distinction, one which should be crystal clear to anyone who has actually seen the movie. Please keep serving it up until a better movie comes along.

The Crack Emcee said...

"How does it screw us up to demand a certain bit of human kindness, decency and class? Nobody is hurt by not calling someone else a name."

What was classy about those grown women on the basketball team talking about Don Imus destroyed their lives by calling them "nappy-headed hos"? They drove the guy out of a job (which he turned around nicely) when A) they had never listened to his show B) knew nothing about his charity work for minorities C) could've said "sticks and stones" D) they could've told their coach not to encourage immaturity or E) didn't have to ignite a mob mentality F) they gave All Sharpton another bogus platform to bellow from.

It's just childishness run amok. We demean ourselves with this shit.

One time I was in a car accident, driving stupid, and took it off a cliff. The first person to climb down and reach me was a big 350+ white guy who was determined to save my life. I was fine, but shaken up, and when he got there I said "Man, I've never been so glad to see a white guy in my life!" and we laughed together. I meant that shit. Episodes like that - or the way a white trucker carried me, like a baby, when I had gotten seriously hurt one time - stay with me, and demand (since we're so big on demanding shit) that I re-think everything.

I like to think I'm a better man for it.

Der Hahn said...

Archie Bunker's racism was delusional, and his problems could be solved by changing his thinking. Walt Kowalski's racism is partly reality-based, and the part that is not reality-based, but Archie Bunker-like, has kept him in the place where he is able to do something about the problems that the other white people have fled.

So close. 'Archie Bunker' was a liberal caricature of a bigot based on the delusion that bigotry is born of ignorance and feelings of inferiority. 'Walt Kowalski' is the anti-thesis of 'Archie Bunker'. He express his anger at the inhumanity he sees the only way he knows (racial epithets) but he can react to the humanity in Toad's family. If Archie had done something like that it would have destroyed the caricature.

Xmas said...

Blake,

What is that, an exercise out of "An Eternal Golden Braid"?