As time passes and social norms change, some great films become…well, difficult to watch, if we’re being honest.
We’re not talking about political correctness gone mad; we’re just talking about the basic ways that some films treat their characters. Watch something like Revenge of the Nerds today, for instance, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that the heroes aren’t very heroic at all.
We’re not saying that these films shouldn’t have been made in the first place—just that without major changes, these films would never get greenlit today. Films like…
1. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
The plot: Indiana Jones and his 11-year-old Chinese sidekick, Short Round (groan), meet up with singer Willie Scott, then end up in a village in Northern India. There, they’re terrorized by the evil Thuggee cult, eventually making their way to an underground temple (of doom).
If you’ve seen one Indiana Jones movie, you know the drill: Indiana and his friends narrowly escape death dozens of times, eventually making their way to safety. Along the way, they destroy hundreds of priceless artifacts, because as we’ve noted before, Indiana Jones is an absolutely terrible archaeologist.
The sequel to the tremendous Raiders of the Lost Ark, Temple of Doom is almost as fun. It’s got plenty of memorable scenes, tremendous action sequences, and Harrison Ford using an inflatable raft as a parachute (keep that in mind the next time you hear someone complain about the refrigerator scene in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). It’s certainly one of the finest action films of the 1980s, but it hasn’t exactly aged well.
The problem: For starts, Indiana is sort of a skeezy dude. He’s romantically involved with Willie Scott, a woman much younger than him, and it’s not even the first time he’s done something like that.
If you don’t think that’s strange, check out this exchange between George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, taken from a 1978 story conference transcript for the original film, Raiders of the Lost Ark (here’s the PDF).
They’re discussing Dr. Jones’ relationship with his love interest, Marion:
Kasdan: I like it if they already had a relationship at one point. Because then you don’t have to build it.
Lucas: I was thinking that this old guy could have been his mentor. He could have known this little girl when she was just a kid. Had an affair with her when she was 11.
Kasdan: And he was 42.
Lucas: He hasn’t seen her in 12 years. Now she’s twenty-two. It’s a real strange relationship.
Spielberg: She had better be older than 22.
Lucas: He’s 35, and he knew her 10 years ago when he was 25 and she was only 12.
Lucas: It would be amusing to make her slightly young at the time.
Spielberg: And promiscuous. She came onto him.
Lucas: Fifteen is right on the edge. I know it’s an outrageous idea, but it is interesting. Once she’s 16 or 17, it’s not interesting anymore. But if she was 15, and he was 25, and they actually had an affair the last time they met. And she was madly in love with him and he…
Spielberg: She has pictures of him.
Yeah, that’s disgusting. Granted, they were just brainstorming, but it’s a good example of how the entire Indiana Jones trilogy is a product of its time.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is more problematic than Raiders of the Lost Ark. The former film has its share of awkward racism, playing with the “Evil Asian” stereotype and portraying Hindus and Indians completely inaccurately. That comes to a head at the infamous monkey brain scene (linked here; we would have embedded it, but we’re not sure if you’re about to eat lunch or something, and we don’t want a big screenshot of fake monkey brains ruining your appetite).
The characters sit uncomfortably, watching their Indian hosts eat a variety of insects, snakes, eels, and eyeballs. When the severed monkey heads come out, it’s supposed to be a disgusting moment—and it is, but not for the right reasons.
2. Saturday Night Fever
The plot: The film that launched John Travolta’s film career (before he tanked it, then revived it with Pulp Fiction, then tanked it again with Battlefield Earth), Saturday Night Fever is the disco movie to end all disco movies.
Travolta is Tony Mareno, a disco fanatic working a dead-end job in Brooklyn. His friend, Annette, longs for a romantic relationship with him, but Tony is captivated by Stephanie Mangano, partly because she’s a much better disco dancer than Annette. Man, the late ’70s were weird.
Tony’s group gets into a back-and-forth battle with a local gang, and there’s plenty of disco dancing along the way because of course there is. At one point, Tony and Stephanie win a dance competition, but when they realize that they won over a more talented Puerto Rican couple due to the judges’ racism, they give the award (and cash prize) to the real winners. Sweet, right?
Well, the last act is pretty depressing.
The problem: Saturday Night Fever is remarkably grim. Depression and crime are major themes, and if you watched the film expecting a lighthearted dance flick, you’ll probably leave disappointed.
It’s still a fine film, but one scene toward the end is deeply disturbing: Several of Tony’s friends assault Annette while she’s passed out in a car. Then…nothing really happens to them. They’re still portrayed as the film’s heroes. Tony sees them doing it, and while he weakly tries to get them to stop, he ultimately just walks away, forgetting that the whole thing even happened.
In fact, all of the women in the film serve as playthings for the boys; when they try to show confidence, they’re immediately shut down. If a filmmaker ever remakes Saturday Night Fever, they’re going to need to completely rewrite the entire script—other than the dance sequences, of course.
3. The 40-Year-Old Virgin
The plot: Judd Apatow’s 2005 breakout hit stars Steve Carell as Andy Stitzer, a salesman who’s kept his virginity into his 40s (hey, sometimes the title provides plenty of exposition).
With help from his friends David, Jay, Cal, and Mooj, he embarks on a series of dates to try to shed his V-card. Eventually, he meets Trish, with whom he starts to form a real relationship. She’s unaware of his, ahem, circumstances, which leads to some confusion that eventually causes a rift. Andy eventually tells her the truth, and they make up (and out). At the end of the film, all of the characters sing “Aquarius (Let the Sunshine In)”.
The problem: Pretty much every romantic encounter in the film is based on deception, and the male characters act like outright criminals at some points. In the #metoo era, The 40-Year-Old Virgin is an indefensible endorsement of deviant behavior, and while it’s still funny, we’re guessing that the film would have ended several careers if it had come out in 2018.
In one noteworthy scene, Andy’s friend Jay tells him to go after women who are inebriated, and therefore unable to express consent (the scene’s linked here, but we should note that it contains a great deal of not-safe-for-work language).
“All you’ve got to do is use your instincts,” Jay says. “That’s how a tiger knows he’s got to tackle a gazelle.”
When Andy tells him that it feels wrong, his response is “You need to try some wrong, dog.”
That’s pretty hilarious writing, Judd Apatow!
There’s also a transphobic scene in which Andy nearly hooks up with a trans woman, and the film’s only black characters have a racially charged confrontation that serves no real purpose, other than to elicit cheap laughs at stereotypes. Andy’s regularly mocked for enjoying his hobbies, and several scenes rely completely on homophobia (the recurring “you know how I know you’re gay” joke seems like something from the ’80s, not 2005).
In fairness, toward its conclusion, the film makes some overtures about how honesty is important in relationships. That might forgive some of its issues, but none of the characters actually act that way at any point, and the final song-and-dance number sort of falls flat when Andy leaves his newfound love to dance around with his male friends.
4. National Lampoon’s Animal House
The plot: Larry Kroger and Kent Dorfman are two college freshmen who are rejected from the Omega Theta Pi fraternity. They quickly find themselves joining the Delta house, whose members are more concerned with partying than…well, anything.
The Deltas feud with Omega Theta Fi and the college’s dean, Vernon Wormer, until they’re eventually kicked off of campus. They get revenge by ruining the annual homecoming parade. It’s not the most complex plot in the world, but it gives its stars plenty of room to show their comedy chops. Notably, it stars John Belushi at the height of his powers, and there are a few excellent Donald Sutherland scenes.
This is a legendary comedy, and while it’s now more than 40 years old, most of the humor still holds up. If you don’t laugh at the food fight scene, you might not have a pulse.
The problem: We love Animal House, and we really hate saying anything bad about it. However, even if you take it as a parody of frat life rather than a celebration of it, it’s hard to miss the casual sexism and racism.
For starts, the most sympathetic character “hooks up” with a 13-year-old girl (in a scene that’s played for laughs). Bluto Blutarsky ends the film by kidnapping one of the only female characters with a name, but that’s fine, apparently, because they get married later. The heroes spy on women, lie to them to get dates, and treat them like conquests.
We know what you’re saying: “Yeah, but it’s a comedy. Lighten up.” We can toss aside some of the dumb jokes, but when the heroes visit an African American bar during the film’s road trip sequence, it’s hard not to cringe. It plays into harmful stereotypes, and what’s arguably worse, it’s deeply unfunny.
Even moving past that scene—which is really not excusable—we can’t deny that Animal House set the stage for horribly sexist college comedies that helped teach kids that criminal behaviors are excusable as “boys being boys.” Hopefully, viewers are smart enough to realize that Dean Wormer is ultimately right: This really is no way to go through life.
5. Revenge of the Nerds
The plot: It’s pretty much right there in the name. In Revenge of the Nerds, a group of nerds is terrorized by a frat—the Alpha Betas—until they decide to form their own frat, Lambda Lambda Lambda (a national African American fraternity that takes pity on the nerds’ plight and allows them to start a chapter).
The nerds engage in a prank war with the Alpha Betas, which eventually comes to a head at the Greek Games. After the nerds win, the Alpha Betas destroy their frat house, but thanks to a rousing speech about acceptance from Tri-Lambda’s president, the college’s Greek Council rules that the nerds can live out the rest of the year in the Alpha Betas’ house. Everyone lives happily ever after (except the jocks, but hey, screw them for liking sports).
It’s all pretty dumb, but the jokes are decent, and the ragtag team of nerds is pretty endearing. It also features one of the most uncomfortable rap scenes of any ’80s movie, and that’s really saying something.
The problem: Unfortunately, the nerds aren’t really into consent. They pass out pies with risky pictures of the Pi Delta Pies—the sorority equivalent to the Alpha Betas—and don’t really face any consequences.
More disturbingly, head nerd Lewis (played by Robert Carradine) tricks one of the Alpha Beta’s girlfriends into having sex with him…and she promptly leaves her football-player boyfriend, since, you know, the loving was just so good. That’s not how things work in real life, and it sends a troubling message: Assault is okay, provided that you’re a skilled lover.
The film’s also racially insensitive (in the scene above, the black nerd raps, while the Asian nerd plays a gong…dressed as an American Indian, for some reason), but at least it portrays all of its male characters as real people. The women don’t get the same treatment.
6. The Love Guru
The plot: Guru Pitka is full of aspiration. After being orphaned at a young age, he’s taken in by Guru Tugginmypudha. Recognizing the power of gurus, he shares with his guru that he wants to become a spiritual teacher, too. Why? So girls will love him.
Fast forward: Despite being shackled by a chastity belt Tugginmypudha “installed” during his adolescence, Pitka’s become the No. 2 guru worldwide (Deepak Chopra still reigns supreme). His dream is to usurp Chopra and be earn an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Opportunities present themselves for Pitka and his star-studded following, which includes Jessica Simpson, Celine Dion, Val Kilmer, and Mariska Hargitay, to influence the fate of a lovelorn couple—and a Canadian hockey team. Ultimately Pitka sacrifices his shot at Oprah to make things right for a couple he’s “counseling” (read: meddling with in order to help ensure the Toronto Maple Leafs win the Stanley Cup) and at long last determines he should be himself rather than trying to beat Deepak Chopra at his own game.
The problem: While there is a self-acceptance message buried somewhere beneath the mess, the bottom line is Mike Myers is at it again, and if we know anything, it’s that his films are apt to involve quite a bit of questionable wordplay and innuendo.
In this case, Myers and his brood play off the average viewer’s ignorance of Sanskrit nomenclature, Hinduism, and South Asian culture to get cheap laughs. While guru can take on many meanings, it’s a word that’s derived from ancient Hindu religious texts, and the aberrations get more egregious from there.
As NPR Arts Critic Bob Mondello wrote back in 2008, “The guru’s methods involve penis jokes, lewd self-help shtick, elephant erotica and effluvia, and an endless stream of single-entendres.”
But bad comedy is perennial—it will always be with us, and some of us will always laugh. It’s The Love Guru’s appropriation of “funny sounding” words and phrases and caricatures of what it means to be spiritual and South Asian that seal its fate.
The Love Guru should really have been called Cultural Appropriation: The Motion Picture.
— Philip Ellis (@Philip_Ellis) August 15, 2014
From characters Guru Tugginmypudha to the use of Mariska Hargitay as a religious greeting—presumably a riff off of namaste (which actually means “as I acknowledge and honor the Spirit within myself, so do I acknowledge and honor the Spirit within you” and, like guru, comes from Sanskrit and is imbued with religious meaning that continues to be relevant for many people today)—The Love Guru was a culturally insensitive bust.
Hindu communities had different responses, which ranged from the Hindu American Foundation calling the film “vulgar, but not Hinduphobic,” to the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) acknowledging that some Hindu-Americans were concerned that it violated “appropriate boundaries in dealing with a religious subject.” ISKCON encouraged people to view the film as “a satire, a genre that typically replaces reality with contradictions and exaggerations,” and went on to suggest, “if however, some mistake satire for truth, then rather than be angered, we could take the opportunity to clarify misrepresentations and educate others about our authentic traditions.”
Just how unlikely is it to be remade? Well, in honor of the film’s ten-year anniversary, Entertainment TV critic Darren Franich penned a piece entitled “A salute to Mariska Hargitay, who survived The Love Guru,” that points out, among other things, that Hargitay, who we know and love as Sergeant Olivia Benson on Law & Order SVU, looks “happy to be here, honored, scared, disappointed, but above all, like someone who knows she’s got better things to do.”
And while the existence of this retrospective proves just how notorious The Love Guru is, perhaps “A Salute to Those Whose Culture was Shamelessly Mocked in The Love Guru” is also due. Better yet, how about tuning in to the voices of critical thinkers like Top Chef’s Padma Lakshmi (who’s actually a South Asian American, and not…well…Mike Myers) in order to inform our understanding of the importance of names, terms, and traditions that seem exotic, but are, as she puts it, important parts of people’s histories and larger collective identities?
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Names have meaning. They have history. They tell us who we are and where we come from. They show us we are a part of a larger collective. The first step of colonization is to erase the identity, heritage and culture of indigenous and/or oppressed people. Advising someone against giving their child a “foreign name” is deeply racist and problematic. I went through this myself and I am so glad I snapped out of it before college and started finally feeling pride in who I was. Tsk, tsk Abigail. #weareallimmigrants
Although it’s a pretty low bar, we can stand to learn a lot more from these voices than from a laughless viewing of things like The Love Guru.
7. Dangerous Minds
The plot: Discharged Marine veteran LouAnne Johnson needs work. She applies for a high school teaching job and is asked to start immediately, presumably because the school—which is full of down-and-out “minority” students—is desperate for warm bodies at the blackboards.
Initially, Johnson’s students refuse to engage. They taunt her with the nickname “White Bread,” which refers, of course, to her race and apparent lack of authority in the classroom. She responds, swiftly, with a wardrobe change (because donning a leather makes you an insta-boss, right?) and a karate lesson. The students’ receptiveness to these alpha overtures gives her a glimmer of hope that wanes quickly as their “attitudes” resurface.
Johnson’s struggle to retain her student’s attention continues, in large part because of their bleak and troubled lives outside the classroom. Many of them are involved in gangs and “trafficking of narcotics.” As she continues to innovate and becomes increasingly empathetic to her students’ situations, she makes some “crazy” decisions. A student dies. She rages against the patriarchy. She softens. Her openness about her own existential crisis ultimately bonds the class. The students rally around her and the viewer imagines a better world in which, thanks to Johnson’s passion and vulnerability, more of them will succeed.
The problem: Slate culture writer Aisha Harris sums it up when she calls Dangerous Minds out on being worse than just another inspirational teacher movie (a genre which, she points out, was already tired by the mid-’90s given earlier films like Blackboard Jungle, Up the Down Staircase, and Stand and Deliver). “[It’s] a particularly egregious example of the inspirational-teacher idiom, particularly when it comes to its feel-good oversimplifying of two of its themes, pedagogy and race,” she wrote in an August 2015 article entitled “Dangerous Tropes.”
Her evaluation goes on to say, “The drama, loosely based on the memoir My Posse Don’t Do Homework by retired-Marine-turned-teacher LouAnne Johnson, doesn’t just stick to a well-worn path; in heightening the genre’s worst tropes so effusively, it elevates the condescendence and, more embarrassingly, the white-savior narrative that so frequently rests at its core.”
So condescension and white-savior narratives are bad, but did you pick up on the part where Dangerous Minds is based on a memoir? That’s right, LouAnne Johnson ≠ Michelle Pfeiffer. She was a real, less blonde retired Marine who actually did teach kids with the same names as those in the movie. She even wrote about it in a book that was originally published in 1992 and, you guessed it, was latched onto by Hollywood execs and warped into a box-office hit.
just another movie where the white woman teacher go 2 the hood & saves the day smfh:
"Freedom Writers" pic.twitter.com/1pAc0I3HZp
— AngellicBeauty (@angellicbeauty1) May 12, 2017
What makes Dangerous Minds the movie—the book was reprinted in ’95 with the same name—even worse, then, is that Johnson was not the clueless messiah Hollywood made her out to be, nor were all her students Spanish-speaking Latinx, thugs, and cheats.
In the aftermath of Dangerous Minds, Johnson went on to write 10 more published books including the novel Muchacho and multiple educational guides. Today, according to her Goodreads author page, “she lives in rural New Mexico with her adopted canine companion, Nellie.”
In December 2015, Cracked published an expose co-authored by senior editor JF Sargent and the real Johnson that reveals just how flagrant based-on-a-true-story movies can be.
In the article, Johnson recounts this tale: “One of the writers said to me, ‘You’re going to have an affair with one of your students in this movie.’ I said, ‘No I’m not. That didn’t happen.’ They said ‘Yeah, listen, it’ll be great.’”
“I said, ‘It’s child abuse, statutory rape, and a felony offense. I would lose my license and go to jail. I do not have any money, but I will sue you if you do this. I don’t sleep with children.’ They never invited me back to the set.”
What else was untrue? Well, Johnson knew her students wouldn’t care about Mr. Tamborine Man or the wares he was peddling, and she never tried to convince them that Bob Dylan’s lyrics were poetry. Instead, she writes, “I brought in lyrics to ‘911 Is A Joke,‘ [by hip-hop group Public Enemy] printed out like poetry.”
Today, real Johnson’s choice seems obvious, but the ’90s were a different time. As Roger Ebert (apparently a true visionary) wrote in his Aug. 11, 1995 review of the film, which he gave a sad 1.5 stars, “Rap has a bad reputation in white circles, where many people believe it consists of obscene and violent anti-white and anti-female guttural. Some of it does. Most does not. Most white listeners don’t care; they hear black voices in a litany of discontent, and tune out.”
Inspired by Ebert, Sargent wonders if producers substituted wholesome Dylan for “the public enemy” because they “didn’t want to stretch white audiences’ disbelief by implying that hip-hop could be art. ‘Hip-hop? Art? That’s absurd!’”
“Yet,” as Ebert pointed out way back in ’95, “rap plays the same role today as Bob Dylan did in 1960, giving voice to the hopes and angers of a generation, and a lot of rap is powerful writing.”
And even if you don’t want to fuss over the representation of Johnson’s pedagogical choices (or would just rather not make this all about her), you’ve got to admit that in a world where real-life characters can turn to social media to broadcast the truth, Hollywood can no longer get away with portraying minorities in a negative light just for the sake of hyperbole (i.e. ticket sales).
what are y'all favorite rap groups ever? the 90s supplied so many, it's honestly a really hard choice for me.
— Dylan (@ByDylanHughes) October 23, 2018
“At one point in the movie,” Sargent writes, “Pfeiffer lends a kid named Raul $100 and makes him promise to pay her back on the day he graduates. Then, at the end of the movie, she reneges on the deal by quitting teaching.”
According to Cracked, Raul, Johnson’s actual student, was rattled when he saw the film, because—surprise!—he actually paid her back. “Overall, Johnson’s students (whose real names were used in the movie) were pretty upset, because Hollywood had made them out to be a**h***s.”
Also, just for the record, real Johnson never wore that boss leather jacket.
8. The Breakfast Club
The plot: Five high-school students spend a day together in detention. They’re told to write an essay about who they think they are; as the day progresses, they come to some profound realizations about themselves (while getting up to various hijinks, of course).
The five kids are from different social circles, and toward the end of the day, they realize that their experiences in detention won’t change their day-to-day lives. Nevertheless, they learn important lessons about treating one another with dignity.
Really, it’s a beautiful movie about learning empathy, and it’s one of writer/director John Hughes’ greatest works. Its point would be a lot stronger for modern audiences if the film’s male characters didn’t treat the girls like hot garbage.
The problem: Throughout the film, Molly Ringwald’s character, Claire Standish, suffers outright verbal abuse from the delinquent John Bender. At one point, he literally assaults her. The film treats that moment as a joke, and it’s extremely difficult to watch.
Ringwald herself pointed out The Breakfast Club’s flaws in a tremendous New Yorker piece. If you’re a John Hughes fan, it’s well worth your time.
“The bad-boy character, John Bender, ducks under the table where my character, Claire, is sitting, to hide from a teacher. While there, he takes the opportunity to peek under Claire’s skirt and, though the audience doesn’t see, it is implied that he touches her inappropriately,” Ringwald wrote, noting that Bender also treats Molly abusively throughout the movie.”
“He never apologizes for any of it, but, nevertheless, he gets the girl in the end.”
Since Ringwald was underage while making the film, Landis used an older body double for the infamous scene. Ringwald recalls finding the scene somewhat inappropriate at the time, but she didn’t realize how problematic it was until she watched the film with her daughter.
“Back then, I was only vaguely aware of how inappropriate much of John [Hughes’] writing was, given my limited experience and what was considered normal at the time,” she writes later. “I was well into my thirties before I stopped considering verbally abusive men more interesting than the nice ones.”
Ringwald notes that Hughes made bold moves in making films specifically for a teen audience. She doesn’t write poorly of her former director, but she concludes that while we shouldn’t simply cast off films with problematic concepts, neither can we celebrate them without noticing—and discussing—their flaws.
That’s a crucial concept to keep in mind when watching films like The Breakfast Club, or Animal House, or even The 40-Year-Old Virgin. When classic films have serious issues, that’s not a reason to cast them off entirely, but we don’t have to fully accept the nasty bits, either.