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Of Pain and Privilege: Eat. Pray. Love

June 3, 2010

You can leave your hat on, Lena.

I cannot even bring myself to watch the trailer for Eat. Pray. Love the Ryan Murphy helmed – it figures – adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir, of pain and privilege. I’m not even particularly interested in delving deeply into the problematic elements of a work I barely skimmed during its initial release and whose film adaptation I have not yet seen. But I do wish to address a theme emerging from questions from my readers regarding the film’s positioning and messaging.

A reader who wished to be identified as J posed this question:

Is Eat, Pray, Love considered an example of the “Ordinary Whiteness of Being” genre?

In a word – no.

The two titular films – Redford’s Ordinary People and the film adaptation of The Unbearable Lightness of Being , both of which are exceptional films – do not seek to position their stories as universal. In fact, I would argue – after close examination of the source material – the title Ordinary People as applied in this case is irony. Both works, in my opinion, walk the line between resonance and universalization. This isn’t to suggestion they are devoid of problematic elements. There are issues, to be sure, within each film. The stench of class fail permeates Ordinary People; Redford seems to have developed his class framing from mentor Sydney Pollack – who we ALL know I adore – which if you recall I equated to the Skymall in terms of relevance and accessibility. Unbearable is the only way in which to describe the Madonna/whore dichotomy happening in Unbearable Lightness of Being, despite the careful attention paid to its complex exploration. If the fruit is rotten, the skill of the baker is irrelevant. However, as ever the pragmatist in a world of imperfect content, I rejoice in the moments of artistic effectiveness and carefully smack down the problematic elements.

That said, what happens to the characters in these examples – similar to the characters in The Ice Storm, Affliction and In the Bedroom – is happening exclusively to them; the audience is merely allowed a chance to engage in voyeurism. More the point, in the case of Ordinary People the event at the center of the plot could happen to any family; it is the aftermath of the situation that is unique and speaks to class and race privilege, not the event itself. This is a notable distinction as it relates to the Ordinary Whiteness of Being genre.

Eat, Pray, Love – based on my reading as much of the memoir as I could stomach – seeks to universalize the experience of self discovery and healing, while at the same time very much reinforcing the idea these are experiences limited to those of at the top of the kyriarchy. I don’t take issue with explorations of the pain of those at the top of societal’s food chain; pain and heartbreak is a pretty equal opportunity condition. I do however, take issue with its framing as it relates to Eat, Pray, Love given it seeks to ignore the way in which privilege plays out in individual lives in favor of presenting an -ism erasing version of self recovery.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. hsofia permalink
    June 3, 2010 11:28 pm

    I saw the trailer for EPL when I went to see Sex and the City and even though I haven’t read the book, the moment I saw the little brown man holding the white lady’s hand, I just KNEW what it was. A movie adaptation of this was so inevitable it makes me hurt inside. Was it hypocritical of me to watch the trailer and think, “I can’t relate to that” while waiting for my 2.5 hour dose of SaTC fantasy?

    When Julia Roberts says, “I want to go someplace where I can marvel at something,” I thought, “PLEASE!!!!”

  2. June 4, 2010 1:20 am

    I don’t think it is hypocritical as I’ve never gotten the sense that SATC was supposed to reflect real female lives or experience, (yet much of it is written by women contrary to popular lore). Moreover, SATC is supposed to be fluff and escapism. It rarely sought to tackle any “BIG” themes nor did it position itself as an authority on anything. It’s a favorite whipping gal of feminists – particularly white ones – because its flaws are so obvious. Omg. Four privileged white chicks! It must be problematic. The irony of course, is what it says about their own privileged lives if they truly believe the appearance of four privileged white ladies means trouble’s a brewing.

    Personally, I find it far less problematic than Glee and 30 Rock’s Tina Fey both of which are things white feminists seem to adore.

  3. June 4, 2010 1:22 am

    If they stuck around long enough they’d find a show about three friends who to quote Big, “Are the true loves of Carrie’s life”.

  4. June 4, 2010 10:39 am

    “Glee” and “30 Rock” both bother me not so much for their content as for the less-critically aware thrill they seem to cause people who have issues with “SATC” and similar shows.

    On a personal note, I watched about six episodes of “Glee” before deciding that it was providing no new insights to high school, personal development, or much else. Instead, it just seemed like typically mean juvenile behavior perpetuated.

    The writers seem to appeal to that meme that says everyone was an outcast in highschool and no one perpetuated exquisite juvenile meanness.* So they make the big thrill of the show being an opportunity for viewers to be incast witnesses to the same ol-same ol bad behavior.

    Worser and worser is the skill with which ableism and sexism and sexualityism etc etc are employed in the pursuit of this Outsiders on the Inside goal. It’s not a nice thing to watch, and I am not sure making a diverse cast of characters go through teenage hell based on their isms is much of an improvement over Molly Ringwald going through hell based on her typically acceptable qualities.

    *bleah* I say. *bleah.*

    *Uh huh. Sure, world. I, having been a 14yo, can remember a couple of really not-stellar moments in my interpersonal relationships of the past. AND I can remember having people whose bad behavior made me feel awful writing me letters later APOLOGIZING for it and promising never to do it again. All of which suggests that people learn from their mistakes and sometimes it’s a surprise to find out who learns first and best all the things Glee elides in favor of the insider-outsider stereotype dynamic.**

    ** I think we should all go re-read Bridge to Terabithia instead.***

    *** Also, I have only seen the first 10 episodes or so of Glee so maybe things have improved since then.

    /off topic comment about a show that isn’t Eat. Pray. *Bleah*

    A friend of mine went through a really nasty, Thank Goodness She’s Outta There Breakup recently, and someone suggested Eat. Pray. Love. as a tonic to her troubles. So… I am looking forward (by which I mean, wary) to hearing what she thinks of the memoir when she’s read it.

  5. June 7, 2010 11:10 pm

    The writers seem to appeal to that meme that says everyone was an outcast in highschool and no one perpetuated exquisite juvenile meanness.* So they make the big thrill of the show being an opportunity for viewers to be incast witnesses to the same ol-same ol bad behavior.

    Exactly, and honestly there were definitely those folks in high school who were having a far better time than others. While it’s true they might have been from outcast type cliques (goths or burners or heshers or whatever) generally speaking their influence was largely that of class and other privileges and often their meanness was sanctioned by school officials who themselves were usually folks who always wanted to be popular in high school, thus dazzled by the “stars”.

  6. June 8, 2010 2:18 pm

    I just watched the trailer for EPL and the first part to make me really… blink… was the text-splash “Based on the incredible true story…” I’m probably missing some major plot points but the trailer by itself seems be to framing a tale of affluent tourism as an incredible story. Seems kind of “yawn” to me.

  7. jaymee permalink
    June 14, 2010 1:39 pm

    I just read this from your link at Bitch, and wanted to say that this is the simplest and best synopsis of the problems with EPL that I’ve read. I actually liked the book while struggling with all of its ickiness, which was confusing. I tend to feel kind of weird when people say “privileged white girl” so dismissively, because in a way I think our culture thinks that women who seem to have it all don’t deserve to be listened to. But still, her guru-talk made me squeamish, as did the feeling afterward that maybe I need a life-change too (no thanks, I don’t). I guess the problem I had wasn’t necessarily that she was privileged, just that she made that seem so normalized as if we all live in a vacuum where we need to do yoga. …And what’s with the token black friend in the movie??

  8. August 10, 2010 3:28 pm

    “Eat, Pray, Love” makes me want to gouge out my eyes with something sharp and pointy.

    The fact that they made a movie out of it? Awful.

    The fact that so many women are now going to try to find their OWN “life-altering adventure”? Painful.

    The fact that it’s a Julia Roberts movie? Deplorable.

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