Dziennik Zwiazkowy features a new article by me about the brute Polak stereotype in a few film. You can read the article in Polish and English here and in English below.
In 1971, Alan Dundes, the world's premier scholar on ethnic stereotyping, explained why, in that era, America was overrun with dumb Polak jokes. The heyday of the Polak joke followed shortly after the Civil Rights Movement. It had become déclassé for elites publicly to mock their previous go-to victims, African Americans. Elites required a new target, a new Untermensch against whom they could play Ubermensch. That Untermensch would be poor whites, typified by the Dumb Polak. Dundes wrote, "Lower-class whites are not militant. With the Polak joke cycle, it is the lower class, not Negroes, which provides the outlet for aggression and means of feeling superior."
The Polak joke is emblematic of a larger historical trend. American elites juggle one relatively disadvantaged group, poor whites, typified by Dumb Polaks and rednecks, against another relatively disadvantaged group, African Americans. Speech about African Americans needs to be chosen carefully. Political Correctness stipulates what Americans can and cannot say about African Americans and remain socially acceptable. Speech about poor whites knows few boundaries. All of the following phenomena belong on the same cultural-historical shelf as 1985's Official Polish Joke Book and Bill Maher's jokes about rednecks: the choices about college admissions that have resulted in fewer poor, white Christians on elite college campuses, affirmative action hiring practices, "Reagan Democrats" in 1980, and the 2016 election, when poor whites in states like West Virginia supported Donald Trump.
The Polak joke's heyday has passed. In fact jokes as a form may be dying out. Even so, the stereotype of the dumb Polak lives on, as do elites' differing cultural, political, and economic norms regarding poor whites and African Americans. The elite's juggling of relatively disadvantaged groups, some favored, some targeted, plays out in one of America's most powerful art forms, movies.
As I show in my book Bieganski, the Brute Polak Stereotype, filmmakers choose to use stereotypically brutish, dumb Polaks in their films because they know that audiences will respond to this stereotype. In several films over the past sixty years, filmmakers have set Polak or redneck characters up as fools, villains, and slobs, in direct contrast to noble African Americans. For this juxtaposition, filmmakers earn points. "See? I am brave enough to create unlikable white characters." As long as those white characters can be defined as part of a group that does not include the filmmaker. Polak and redneck identities are one ploy filmmakers can use to distance themselves from unlikeable whites.
Widows opened on November 16, 2018 to rapturous reviews. Rottentomatoes, a review aggregation site, gives Widows a 91%, "certified fresh" score. Steve McQueen, who directed, co-wrote, and co-produced Widows, is a critical darling. McQueen is a 49-year-old black Londoner. His previous films, also highly acclaimed, include Twelve Years a Slave, which won the 2014 Best Picture Academy Award. McQueen has also won BAFTA, Black Reel, British Independent Film, Golden Globe, Independent Spirit, NAACP, Film Critic, Film Festival, and European Film awards. McQueen is firmly established as a member of the elite. He is one of the rarified few who informs audiences whom they must respect, and whom they are permitted, even encouraged, to hold in contempt.
Spoiler warning: the following summary will reveal much of the plot of the film Widows. Widows tells the story of four women who rob a corrupt Chicago politician (Colin Farrell) of five million dollars. They also shoot to death his racist, xenophobic, anti-immigrant father (Robert Duvall). Two of the women are black, Veronica (Viola Davis) and Belle (Cynthia Erivo); one is Hispanic (Linda, played by Michelle Rodriguez); and one, Alice, is Polish (Elizabeth Debicki). Veronica is the team's leader.
Viola Davis, who plays Veronica, is also a critical darling. Davis is not a glamor girl; rather she is a serious, 53-year-old actress and winner of multiple awards. Veronica, her character, is intelligent, brave, dignified, determined, and always exquisitely dressed. The film is ponderously slow-moving and aesthetically self-conscious. It is as much a social protest art film as a heist film. In one scene, for example, the camera rests, for a long time, inches away from Veronica's eyeball. In another scene, Veronica gazes soulfully out a window while jazz chanteuse Nina Simone belts out a moody take on "Wild Is the Wind."
Widows has been celebrated as a criminal version of "Me, Too" or girl power. Previously, males got to rob millions of dollars. Now it's women's turn. The team members are depicted as strong, loyal, resourceful, and deserving. Except, of course, the Polak.
In her first scene, Alice is shown with a black eye. Her lover, Florek (Jon Bernthal), is a big, scary, hairy guy. Bernthal claims to have broken his nose fourteen times. Bernthal's nose is mashed all over his face, and his pugilist appearance adds to Florek's creepy, primitive menace. Florek complains to Alice that he doesn't like looking at her black eye. He advises her to cover it with makeup. The scene makes clear that it was Florek who beat Alice and bruised her face. Of the three women, only Alice is with a man who beats her. Alice is passive as Florek bullies her. She lacks the gumption to rescue herself from domestic violence.
Florek, a professional thief, is killed in a job. Alice must find a way to support herself. Alice is casually beaten by her mother Agnieszka (Jacki Weaver), who also verbally abuses her and accuses her of being a whore. Agnieszka wears too much makeup and a dress showing too much décolletage for a woman of her advanced years. Agnieszka then encourages Alice to sell herself to make money. In fact, it is clear that Alice lacks intelligence, ambition, or enough character to earn money for herself. Alice allows Agnieszka to beat her, just as she allowed Florek to beat her.
Alice dons very revealing clothing and prostitutes herself to a wealthy businessman. Before she has sex with him, Alice orders and drinks vodka, a drink that emphasizes her Polish identity. Alice is shown nude. Alice is also shown having sex with her client. The sex act ends in humiliation when Veronica walks in on Alice and her client. Alice identifies African American Veronica as her mother. Her client rolls his eyes. Alice can't even come up with a reasonable alibi. Alice, alone of the women in this woman-centric film, is shown in sexually revealing clothing, is shown nude, and is sexually humiliated.
In her interactions with abusive and bestial Florek, her verbally and physically abusive mother, and the clearly superior Veronica, Alice assumes a wide-eyed, passive, and clueless expression. She comes across more as a form of highly sexualized rabbit than a full human woman.
The other three team members, the two African American and one Hispanic, are repeatedly shown being resourceful and determined. Belle can run very fast. Linda fakes being a white-collar professional at an architecture firm. Veronica masterminds the entire heist. Only dumb Polak Alice can't seem to get anything right. She is repeatedly called stupid by her fellow team members, and insulted as a whore. "Think!" Veronica screams at her. "Keep your legs shut!" "You stupid girl!" As when she was beaten by Florek and her mother, Alice merely gazes with the absent eyes of a rodent. A very sexy rodent.
Veronica assigns Alice the task of scoring a getaway vehicle. Alice is clueless as to how to purchase a car. She must rely on the aid of a helpful man. Later, Veronica must rescue Alice, because dumb Alice doesn't know how to drive.
Eventually, Alice comes into her own. Veronica has also assigned her the task of buying weapons. Alice arrives at a gun show and fools a naïve woman into buying weapons for her. Alice tells the woman that she needs weapons to defend herself against her man, who beats her in every room of the house. Revealingly, while working this minor con, Alice speaks Polish. If you want to be a really good con artist, always use Polish language. And always rely on a domestic violence narrative, because Polaks are always beating each other up. But Alice never really graduates beyond the confines of the dumb Polak stereotype. When the women are attempting to gain access to the safe, the numbers meant to open the safe do not work. One of the masked women – I think it was Alice – was holding the numbers upside down. She is corrected by another team member. The audience laughs at this comic relief offered by a dumb Polak joke.
At the film's end, Belle generously and anonymously rewards a friend with a big sack of money. Linda returns to her dream, a dream that demonstrates her solid business sense and her aesthetic gifts. She re-opens her dress store. She celebrates with her beloved children. Linda is a loving mother. Veronica does not use her haul to buy self-indulgent items. Rather, she underwrites a library. Alice, alone, appears to have no loved ones, no ambition, and no shape to her life whatsoever, except as a dumb Polak slut.
As the rock group The Who once sang, "Meet the new boss; same as the old boss." Political Correctness did not usher in a level playing field. Political Correctness did not promise an end to stereotyping or the dawn of dignity and compassion for all. Political Correctness did not equal elites themselves offering to humble themselves or to sacrifice their protected status. Rather, political correctness just shuffled the team positions. Elites did not surrender their place at the top. And they still get to look down on some people. They still get to stereotype some people. Those people are just different. Now elites can establish their superiority by victimizing poor whites, rednecks and Polaks.
Polish Americans did not choose this role. They did not choose to be pawns of the elite, played off against African Americans in elite Americans' hunger games for respect and resources. But we are in this role. How best to respond? As I argue in my book and on my blog, Polish Americans must take their stereotyping seriously, and they must respond to it with informed action.