A few months ago, I wrote a piece about when America was, as Donald Trump would say, great, and why it isn’t as great anymore. Perhaps I’m just gorging on South Park’s “member berries,” but I do feel as though I’ve honed in on a few legitimate reasons we should strive to return to the good old days to some degree, namely when it comes to art and humor.
I watched 1997’s Liar Liar starring Jim Carrey with my 10th graders on the last day of class a few weeks ago. I’ve seen the comedy many times, but it hit me in a very different way this most recent viewing. Several lines and situations would likely not be shown or tolerated in a film today, 20 years later.
Racial Jokes in a Pre-PC World
While there may be more, I noticed three instances of racial and cultural (or what could be perceived as racial and cultural) humor and stereotyping in Liar, Liar that would have been prone to outrage today. Two occur in the same scene. Carrey’s character, a slimeball of a lawyer named Fletcher Reede, is rendered unable to lie for 24 hours due to his son’s birthday wish for him to go one day without being able to speak anything other than the truth. The morning after an embarrassing sexual encounter with Miranda, Reede’s boss at his law firm, she accosts him in the hallway and asks what he thinks of Mr. Allen, one of the firm’s partners. Reede proceeds to describe Allen with a hilarious and relentless parade of insults. With knowledge of his inability to lie, Miranda leads Reede into a committee meeting, headed by Mr. Allen himself, and prompts Reede to tell Mr. Allen how he feels about him. Reede is forced to repeat his belligerent diatribe, but is saved when Mr. Allen mistakes the invective for a humorous roast and begins laughing hysterically. Allen asks Reede to roast the other company members, and two instances of touchy comedy (by today’s standards) occur.
First, Reede mocks one attendee’s toupee, eventually snatching it and sticking it to the wall. With the toupee resembling a Native American dream-catcher, Reede repeatedly pats his open palm over his open mouth shouting “owawawawa” in crude mimicry of a Native American rain dance.
When I was a kid, this kind of thing would have gone unnoticed. We were not close to being as hyper-sensitive as we are today, and having fun with a little stereotype was not the kind of thing that could get anyone in trouble. I imagine that had something like this taken place in a film today, SJW groups or individuals might demand an apology on behalf of Indigenous Peoples or boycott Jim Carrey movies.
As Reede continues down the line, he goes into rapid-fire mode pointing at and calling a row of committee members loser, idiot, wimp, degenerate, and slut. What I ashamedly notice via my hyper-sensitized mind is that the man called degenerate happens to be the only Black person at the table. Considering the unfortunate trope of young Black men being involved with gangs, drugs, and crime, I imagine that the joke could have brought about hashtag slack-tivism or other negative responses in contemporary times. Why does it have to be the black guy who is called a degenerate? one might say.
The last racial trope I noticed was Reede’s client’s nanny who happened to be Hispanic. Though perhaps not as likely to be noted as the prior two, this instance of stereotyping may have been sneered at today as well.
One of the central storylines in Liar Liar would not go over well with today’s Third Wave Feminists. Reede’s inability to lie sabotages his plans to win a court case as the prosecutor in a marital dispute. His client Samantha Cole is portrayed as a stereotypical, gold-digging wife of a millionaire who violates her prenuptial agreement by committing adultery (seven times). Cole seeks half of her husband’s estate as well as shared custody of their two children. She, with Reede’s help, is happy to lie about her infidelity and seems prepared to do anything to get away with a large payday, even larger than the generous settlement Mr. Cole initially offers her.
Cole’s character in and of itself is enough to ruffle the feathers of Feminists who seek to portray women as strong, moral, independent victims rather than conniving materialistic temptresses. She grows more sinister when, even after Reede manages to prove her prenuptial agreement void, she refuses to settle unless she gets full custody of her children for the sole purpose of receiving additional alimony payments. This is despite the fact that even she admits to Mr. Cole being “a good father” early on in the film.
In addition, Cole gropes Reede’s rear end after he convinces her to lie in court in order to increase her potential payday, treats her children abusively and as if they are her property, lies about her age and weight, and threatens, “I want my money. I’m not going to wind up a 31-year old divorcee on welfare,” when she and Reede begin to lose hope that they can win the case. To me, all of this strengthens the character named Samantha Cole and provides moral guidance as so many unfavorable qualities are present within one loathsome antagonist. However, I am not so sure that today’s Feminists would agree. Facing the reality that women to some extent of Samantha Cole’s caliber indeed exist might be too great a wrench in the gears of their agenda to stand for.
In one scene, Reede visits his son’s school with a birthday cake to try to convince his son to reverse the birthday wish from the night before. He explains to his son that it is sometimes necessary for adults to lie using the example of telling his ex-wife that she looked beautiful even when she was near the end of her pregnancy and looking like, in Reede’s words, a cow. His son responds by saying that his teacher tells his class that real beauty comes from the inside. Reede explains that this is just something that ugly people say. Since Reede is, due to his curse, being completely honest, would Feminists be able to handle this espousal of the truth?
Reede jokes about the appearances of several other characters in the film, including his overweight coworker. When alone in an elevator with an attractive and voluptuous new tenant in his building, Reede, via his curse, explains that everyone has been treating her so nicely because her “boobs are huge.” Body negativity? Reducing women to their physical features?
I hope from the bottom of my soul that I am wrong here, and that the average person doesn’t perceive these things. A wave of relief would hit me at full speed if I could be assured that we can all still take a joke. But with the greatest of American literature facing bans, harmless jokes resulting in job losses, and governments seeking to pass laws that limit speech and archaically prosecuting blasphemy, history does not appear to be on humor or free speech’s side.
Keep speaking and joking anyway.