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adam-sandlerBy now the story is pretty well known. A number of Native Americans recently walked off the set of an Adam Sandler movie (The Ridiculous Six) citing offensive jokes as the deal-breaker triggering their decision to leave. Most had been cast as extras, but the group also includes a cultural consultant hired for the film. Other sources have detailed the story better than I could, but let’s just get a few of their objections on the table so we all know what we’re talking about:

– The Indians in the movie are supposed to be Apache, but their outfits and material culture generally represented in the film would seem better suited to Comanche (and that not too accurately there either).

– The movie used offensive names for female characters. “No Bra” and “Beaver Breath” come to mind. “Sits-On-Face” was apparently in the script at one point.

– Come to think of it, the movie gives men offensive names too, “Five hairy Moles,” and “One Eyebrow,” for example.

– In the movie a woman is supposed to squat to pee at some point while smoking a peace pipe.

– The extras found a feather arrangement on a teepee inappropriate.

– In the movie, Adam Sandler is supposed to utter the line; “Say honey: how bout after this, we go someplace and I put my pee-pee in your teepee?”

…you get the idea.

I certainly hope that I don’t have to explain why any of this would be offensive. The question is of course what to make of that offense? Someone is almost always the butt of a joke, and so it sometimes seems arbitrary when a particular set of jokes like this one draws a vehement response. Those with little or no connection to the offended group are often that much more mystified, because they simply don’t understand all the implications, and it can be damned tempting to pass the whole thing off as political correctness.

The notion that these extras (and those who support them) are just being too damned sensitive about the whole thing is rolling rather predictably out in various tweets and blog posts. A spokesman for netflicks reportedly characterized the film as ‘broad satire’. Breitbart News carried that theme even further, denying that satire could be disrespect in any context and congratulating the film crew for standing their ground in the face of an overly sensitive group of extras. Sandler’s camp appears to have adopted the stance that his movie is meant to be all in good fun, and that it’s full of low-brow humor to begin with. One of the cast, Vanilla Ice, for example assured us that Sandler is not trying to make something on par with Dances With Wolves. So, it seems we in the public are supposed to give Sandler a pass, because he is just joking.

I’m usually pretty open to raunchy humor, but I find it very hard to imagine a context in which the jokes mentioned above would be anything other than toilet humor fit for a five year old.

…and let’s be clear. there is another context to consider here. For those of us who haven’t seen the film, it’s difficult to assess the context behind the jokes, but for those of us who haven’t lived lives as Native Americans, it’s hard to say what the overall context of life is for determining how these jokes must feel.

Context is a two-way street.

No, actually, it’s more like a giant roundabout with a lot of busy traffic.

The question here is just what makes these jokes funny to begin with (at least for those that find them funny)?  It’s easy enough to say that a name like “Beaver Breath” is just a joke, but is there really any reason to suppose that joke doesn’t turn on a point of prejudice? These names don’t appear to be an in-joke, and they don’t turn any non-native prejudice on its head. They reflect little other than the sensibility of a child snickering at someone different. These jokes turn that difference into an object of brutal and straight-foreword mockery. and there is simply nothing in the accounts given so far to suggest that the target of this humor is anything other than Native American naming practices themselves. If this is satire, it is indistinguishable from racist propoganda.

That the jokes in question may be delivered with a congenial smile doesn’t change the fact that this humor is at face value quite demeaning. Some people don’t even seem to know when they are insulting others; either that or they simply assume the right to do so without being called to account for it.

This is why the claim that The Ridiculous Six is all just satire fails. Oh yes, the movie may well be a satire, but whatever it’s satirizing, there is no reason to believe these jokes aren’t actually directed at the Native American community.

There is nothing in these jokes that suggests familiarity with their own subject matter, much less appreciation for the people close to it. This is why the costumes matter, not because the movie was meant to be historically accurate, but because knowing the difference between Apache dress and Comanche dress might have communicated at the trace of a capacity to give a damn. When such things become too much to ask, the benefit of the doubt slips out the door. And when those who raise the issue, as these extras did, are told by a producer they are being overly sensitive and they should leave, well that pretty well slams the door shut altogether. If there was any chance this humor could have reflected anything other than outright prejudice, the treatment these extras received on the set would appear to have set that prospect to rest.

…which puts the claim that no offense had been intended in this script in an awkward light. It would appear to mean little other than that Native Americans themselves are not supposed to take offense at such things. Sandler and company have produced a highly offensive script, and when called on it, they have done little other than to beg others not to see the plain point of their own jokes. In effect, they have put the responsibility for the insult on those that have called attention to it (which is an awful lot like the strategy taken by Dan Snyder and the Washington football team). in effect, they blame those they insult for knowing they have been insulted. Does that rhetoric sound familiar? It should. This is of course precisely why conservative culture warriors are beginning to weigh in. It isn’t that they don’t know the movie is offensive; the folks at Breitbart for example are defending it precisely because they know that it is.

It’s easy to dismiss Sandler himself. He has often (almost always) presented himself in a rather juvenile manner. His characters are often simpletons, and the humor they produce is accordingly full of foolishness. When this fails, as it often does, Sandler leaves behind more than a trace of disappointment in the jokes. He also leaves us with that slightly creepy feeling that we’ve seen too much of someone’s personal baggage. Still, the man is capable of outstanding humor, often using this very approach. I do recall some brilliant moments in Sandler’s career; Lunch Counter Lady and The Hanakka Song come to mind. I don’t exactly pine for new examples of his work, but I can honestly say that he has brightened my day once or twice over the years. I say this, not because I feel like defending the man at the moment, but because I think it’s important to note that he is at least capable of doing something better than this.

Unfortunately, the man is also capable of turning out utter trash. Case in point, putting a peepee in a woman’s teepee. Try as I might, I cannot find any context in which that line reflects anything but the crudest sensibilities of a petulant child. Reading about this, I can’t help thinking Sandler has gotten entirely too comfortable passing the naughtiest jokes of the playground off as professional comedy. I for one hope that he will take a lesson from his extras, and try once again to produce comedy worth watching.


Postscript: I noticed an interesting pattern in this video showing the conversation, the film-makers continually insist that the movie is sympathetic to the Native American characters. Why? Because Adam Sandler’s character loves them.

Speaking of Dances With Wolves…

Suffice to say the notion that respect for Native American characters rests on little other than the values of a non-Native character would be ironic at best.

Actually ‘perverse’ is more like it.