Of Pain and Privilege: Eat. Pray. Love
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.