What if we refused to occupy Black Friday? Or, at least stopped shopping at Wal-Mart?

One might think that Black Friday mania might be scaled-back this year, given the economic crisis and the rising awareness of socio-economic injustices evidenced by the Occupy movement. But, no, consumer capitalism will not go gentle into that good night – instead, it will bang the shopping drum in a mad frenzy, exhorting people to buy, buy, buy as if their life and happiness depended on it. Unfortunately, like children running after the Pied Piper, we heed this call, heading out to Wal-Mart ON THANSKGIVING DAY. Yes, that’s right, Black Friday, is being “rolled back” to Thursday.

I stopped shopping at Wal-Mart years ago, years before a Wal-Mart worker had been trampled to death by stampeding shoppers eager for bargains on Black Friday. But, I readily admit that I am somewhat of a shop-aholic. I grew up in a family that loved to shop, and I have not rid myself of the addictive pleasures of consumer consumption. I try to shop less though, to deny the siren call of the shoe sale or buy-one-get-one-free bonanza. And, I try to be more savvy about where I shop.

Of course, buying sweatshop free or supporting fair wages is nigh impossible in today’s world, but we can all take little steps – and giving up Wal-Mart is a great way to start. Why? Because the Waltons are the apex of the 1%, because Wal-Mart exploits is workers, relies on slave labor, and is sexist and racist in it’s hiring, promoting, and firing practices. It is also one of the most powerful and profitable mega-consumer-corporations of its kind. If we could force Wal-Mart to change, other chains would surely follow suit.

As someone who includes a directive to not buy any needed supplies at Wal-Mart on my course syllabi, I often get questions as to why I have a vendetta against this store. Many cite it is hardly the only company that relies on exploitive labor systems both here and abroad, and that, more prosaically, they rely on the cheap prices. Well, Wal-Mart is like the grand-daddy of exploitation, the icon of cheap consumerism. If we can, as socially conscious consumers, bring down this evil symbol of corporate global capitalism, other companies will surely take notice.

As for the claim that people ‘need’ to shop at Wal-Mart for economic reasons, I do not fully agree, at least not in all cases. I understand that restrictive budgets require ‘bargain shopping,’ yet, what places like Wal-Mart promote is not shopping for necessity, but shopping in mega-quantity, the happy face price slasher beckoning customers to fill, fill, fill that oversized cart.

Wal-Mart encourages people to BUY MORE and PAY LESS doing so, rather than to buy less and be willing to pay more for equitably produced products. Yet, I realize that for some non-urban dwellers, Wal-Mart is pretty much the only place to shop (as the corporation has been so successful at putting mom-and-pop stores out of business). For others, the cheap prices really are a necessity. It is not these shoppers that are treating Wal-Mart as a temple – these are the very shoppers that are consumer capitalist system FORCES to make choices that are in fact counter to their own interests. Those at the most exploited end of the labor system are the most likely to HAVE to shop at places like Wal-Mart, and also the most likely to be exploited by employers such as Wal-Mart and other corporations. This is why, of course, that in these darker economic times (I say ‘darker’ as they have been dark for MANY for a lot longer than this latest “economic meltdown”), about the only places seeing sales increase are places like Wal-Mart. What horrible irony that the very corporations that create such an exploitive, unequal society also reap the most benefits when the economic house of cards comes crashing down…

At cites like Wake Up Wal-Mart and Wal-Mart Watch make clear, Wal-Mart is a major corporate evil-doer – it is, in keeping with the faith metaphor, the devil that entices us to keep sinning, both individually and collectively. This holiday season alone, each employee will generate over $2,000 in profit for Wal-Mart, or, “from the work of 1.4 million Americans, Wal-Mart will reap billions of dollars in sales” (as cited here). Yet, these workers will not reap the benefits of the billions in profits. Rather, they will, in true Wal-Mart fashion, be denied healthcare and other benefits, be underpaid and overworked, and be prohibited from unionizing. Or, they may be, as Jdimytai Damour was on was on Black Friday 2008, trampled to death by Wal-Mart customers.

As Jeff Fecke reports in “Always Low Wages. Always,” WalMart is allowed to carry on their heinous practices with merely a light slap on the wrist once in awhile, as in the case of the latest settlement where the company has agreed to pay $54.3 million to settle a lawsuit. The suit, about their practice of requiring employees to work off-the-clock, is one of many taken against this frown-inducing corporate giant. As Fecke reflects,

“While it’s good to see the suit settled, and employees compensated after a decade of stalling, I’m a bit disappointed that it’s being settled. As noted, a jury trial could have cost the company $2 billion, and that kind of money might have motivated them to, you know, pay their workers and give them adequate breaks. Instead, Wal-Mart will pay their parking ticket and continue to screw over their workforce.”

Issues like these are only some of the reasons I target Wal-Mart as a place to BEGIN the consume-less-and-do-so-more-responsibly revolution (ok, so I need to think of a shorter name for this revolution…)

Another key reason to people-cott Wal-Mart is because it perpetuates social inequalities in the areas of race, class, gender, ability, etc. For example, the trampling of Jdimytai Damour serves as a horrible, yet telling, symbol of the racism and classism Wal-Mart propagates. An analysis of the pictures of this tragedyreveals that not only was the person killed a POC, but the majority of people waiting outside to take advantage of bargains were also POC. Is it a COINCIDECE that POC are disproportionately represented as workers and shoppers at Wal-Mart? No – it is a reflection of the race and class inequalities in our society that means CERTAIN people will be more likely to have to work the shit jobs and to shop at shit stores to make ends meet.

This is also true on a global scale – Wal-Mart could in fact be viewed as one of the prime masters of modern slavery. As with earlier historical slave practices, the masters are white (the Walton family) and the slave workers are largely POC – especially the lower down the Wal-Mart job ladder you go (although it can’t rightly be called a ladder as many will never climb anywhere in that corporation). Wal-Mart, as the documentary The High Cost of Low Price makes plain, is not one for advancing/promoting its workers, especially if they have vaginas or non-white skin…

Further, while I appreciate the fact that so many films, websites, and activist groups are focusing on Wal-Mart’s deleterious effects, I take issue with the tendency to offer “buy American” as the (under-analyzed) solution. For, while there are many merits to shopping locally, the “buy American” mantra is often framed in an us-verses-them way. As in THEY (the rest of the globe) are “stealing our jobs,” are “ruining American industry,” are “driving down wages.” What gets lost in this us-verses-them thinking is that we all live on one planet.  In fact, the otherwise wonderfulFrontline series on Wal-Mart announces this mentality right there in its title: “Is Wal-Mart Good for America?” What we should be asking instead, is: “Is Wal-Mart Good for the Globe?”

As global citizens we should be worried about fair wages and an environmentally safe planet for ALL PEOPLE, not just for Americans. Further, buying items that claim to be “American” or “Made in the USA” is no guarantee they were produced equitably, nor do “Made in USA” tags guarantee items were actually made in the US let alone made under fair labor conditions (as Ms. Magazines article “Paradise Lost” reveals). This narrative also ignores the fact that there our many sweatshops within the US – they are not all “over there” in China or Indonesia. They are right here in Los Angeles, San Diego, New York. The “made in the USA” is a false feel good tag.

While there are no easy answers to the Wal-Martization of the world, a first step would be for those of us who have the privilege of being able to afford to shop elsewhere to do so. Further, we need to make sure we are not using the “LOW PRICES!” as an excuse to buy more stuff then we really need. We need to ask ourselves is shopping at Wal-Mart REALLY a necessity due to budget, or do Wal-Mart prices encourage the buying of many non-essentials thus mitigating the “I can’t afford to shop anywhere else argument.” If you are buying things you don’t need at Wal-Mart because they are so cheap, the money saved from not buying these things could be used to shop somewhere with more equitable labor practices (and hence higher prices).

Further, rather than worship at this temple dedicated to ceremonies of conspicuous consumption, we could do like Jesus and attempt to destroy the temple. In order to bring down this money-changing temple, we must resolve to resist the false happy face promises, the artificially low prices, and the lure of bargains. For, the bargains at Wal-Mart come at a very high cost – they come at the expense of exploited workers around the globe, environmental harm, and, yes, even democracy. (See, for example, my post here for how Wal-Mart bribes politicians such as California Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger).

So, dear readers, if you haven’t already, please consider people-cotting Wal-Mart. If monetary or geographical locations don’t make this possible, you can take action by staying on top of Wal-Mart news at cites like Wake up Wal-MartWal-Mart Sucks, andWal-Mart Watch and via signing petitions, writing letters, and making your voice heard in the blogosphere and elsewhere. Wal-Mart may be only one consumerist temple among many, but it is the ‘patriarch’ of temples in so many ways – bringing down this daddy of corporate capitalism would help give our global family a better chance at living free from domination and exploitation brought to us via Wal-Mart sweat-shops, factories, and ‘super-centers.’

 

What if Those Nice Puritans You Learned about in K-12 Were Not So Nice? Or, Taking, Not Giving, and Without Thanks

(This post originally ran a few years back and was re-posed at Ms. Blog last year.)

I would like to give a nod to my anthropology professor of years ago, who, when I was a sophomore in college, was the first person to truly begin to open my eyes about Indigenous History. That semester, we read Changes in the Land. My feelings towards Thanksgiving, and US colonization, have been radically altered ever since.

For most people I know, Thanksgiving is not about celebrating Pilgrims or acknowledging the history surrounding the holiday. Rather, it is about spending time with friends and family, being thankful for loved ones, for having the day off work, and, of course, about stuffing oneself silly.

Alas, while attending a recent National Women’s Studies Association conference in Denver, I was reminded of the importance of remembering the true history behind the day when I saw someone in attendance wearing this shirt, which reads “Genocide – Poverty - Hunger / No Thanks / No Giving! /What are you Celebrating? / Give Thanks Everyday.

I would hazard a guess that probably 95 percent of Americans don’t know that there were at least two “first” Thanksgivings. The story most of us know is of the day in 1621 when Pilgrims and Native Americans supposedly shared in a harvest feast. For what really happened at this time, I defer to Dr. Tingba Apidta, who notes:

According to a single-paragraph account in the writings of one Pilgrim, a harvest feast did take place in Plymouth in 1621, probably in mid-October, but the Indians who attended were not even invited. Though it later became known as ‘Thanksgiving,’ the Pilgrims never called it that. And amidst the imagery of a picnic of interracial harmony is some of the most terrifying bloodshed in New World history.

The Pilgrims invited the Indian Sachem Massasoit to their feast, and it was Massasoit, engaging in the tribal tradition of equal sharing, who then invited ninety or more of his Indian brothers and sisters–to the annoyance of the 50 or so ungrateful Europeans. No turkey, cranberry sauce or pumpkin pie was served; they likely ate duck or geese and the venison from the five deer brought by Massasoit. In fact, most, if not all, of the food was probably brought and prepared by the Indians, whose 10,000-year familiarity with the cuisine of the region had kept the whites alive.

The Pilgrim crop had failed miserably that year, but the agricultural expertise of the Indians had produced twenty acres of corn, without which the Pilgrims would have surely perished. The Indians often brought food to the Pilgrims, who came from England ridiculously unprepared to survive and hence relied almost exclusively on handouts from the overly generous Indians–thus making the Pilgrims the western hemisphere’s first welfare recipients.

The fact that the hospitality, the sense of community and inter-humanity is what kept the whites alive is lost in the stories we learn in the U.S. education system. So, too, is the savagery of the Pilgrims. As Apitda notes, “Any Indian who came within the vicinity of the Pilgrim settlement was subject to robbery, enslavement, or even murder.”

What is also conveniently left out of our mainstream history is the fact that in the years following that unhappy meal, the majority of indigenous peoples in the area were either murdered firsthand or secondhand (via diseases of white folks). As Eric Vieth of Dangerous Intersection reminds us,

Hepatitis, smallpox, chickenpox and influenza killed between 90 percent and 96 percent of the native Americans living in coastal New England.

This brings me to another myth–that Pilgrims and Puritans were God-worshipping people who merely sought religious freedom (rather than power, land and wealth). In fact, as Mitchel Cohen points out, these “settlers” used their religion to justify the persecution, enslavement and murder of indigenous peoples.

Speaking of persecution and murder brings me to the second First Thanksgiving–the one in 1637 that occurred near the Mystic River and involved the slaughter of at least 700 Pequot Indians. This is the real First Thanksgiving–the one so-named by the leader of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

As Mitchel Cohen relates (emphasis mine):

Thanksgiving, in reality, was the beginning of the longest war in the U.S.–­ the extermination of the Indigenous peoples. Thanksgiving day was first proclaimed by the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1637, not to offer thanks for the Indians saving the Pilgrims ­ that’s yet another re-write of the actual history ­ but to commemorate the massacre of 700 indigenous men, women and children who were celebrating their annual Green Corn Dance in their own house.

Gathered at this place, they were attacked by mercenaries, English and Dutch. The Pequots were ordered from the building and as they came forth they were killed with guns, swords, cannons and torches. The rest were burned alive in the building. The very next day the governor proclaimed a holiday and feast to ‘give thanks’ for the massacre. For the next 100 years a governor would ordain a day to honor a bloody victory, thanking god the ‘battle’ had been won.

Want to read more about this? See Where White Men Fear To Tread by Russell Means and Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian Hating and Empire Building, by R. Drinnon, 1990.

There was no turkey, no happy exchange, no “sharing” between Pilgrims and Indigenous Peoples at this Thanksgiving. Rather, Indigenous Peoples gave, Pilgrims took.

It is the sweetened 1621 version that President Lincoln harkened back to when declaring a national holiday. As Glen Ford notes,

Lincoln surveyed a broken nation and attempted nation-rebuilding, based on the purest white myth. The same year that he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, he renewed the national commitment to a white manifest destiny that began at Plymouth Rock.

This “white manifest destiny” is yet another piece of the imperial puzzle that we sweep under the rug. What goes unspoken in the historical renderings of this time is race; we are talking about not merely Pilgrims or Puritans but about whites, and a white supremacist ideology that sought to enslave and/or eradicate all peoples of color.

Tune in again tomorrow for Part 2 of the real story of Thanksgiving.
For further reading, see

What if you want a film that promotes “the egg as person” meme of recently proposed pro-life laws? Then Breaking Dawn: Part 1 is the Flick for You

This review was originally posted at Ms. Blog here.
SPOILER ALERT: This review reveals major events in Breaking Dawn.

As I sat watching the vampiric ode to white weddings that dominated the opening scenes of Breaking Dawn: Part 1, I waited anxiously for the honeymoon and morning-after scenes, wondering how the latest Twilight film would present vampire Edward’s “headboard-busting” sex and his new wife Bella’s bruised body.

The highly sanitized depictions in the film, compared to the Twilight book series, removed the vast majority of Bella Swan’s “violet blotches” and her subsequent attempts to conceal them. In the book, as she gazes at herself in the mirror, she notes:

There was a faint shadow across one of my cheekbones, and my lips were a little swollen…The rest of me was decorated with patches of blue and purple. I concentrated on the bruises that would be the hardest to hide—my arms and my shoulders. … Of course, these were just developing. I’d look even worse tomorrow. [italics mine]

The movie only decorates her with a few tiny bruises on her arm and shoulder, a diminishment that can be seen as an improvement given that it does not romanticize a bruised and battered body to the same extent as the book.

But another narrative thread in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga that is problematic from a feminist perspective–the latent anti-abortion message—is heightened, not diminished, in the film. While some argue that the book is pro-choice, as Bella chooses to carry out her pregnancy, the way Bella’s pregnancy is depicted and discussed–along with the strong pro-abstinence messages of the saga, the religious underpinnings and the motherhood-is-the-natural-and-happy-ending-for-all-females tone–result in a narrative that leans far more towards the anti-abortion stance.

When Bella discovers she is pregnant, 14 days after her wedding to Edward, he is horrified, telling her that Carlisle will “get that thing out.” Bella responds “That thing?” seemingly distraught at his choice of words. This attention to language continues in further scenes when the psychic vampire Alice repeatedly uses the word “fetus” and is corrected each time by her vampire sister Rosalie, “Say the word baby!…It’s just a little baby!”

Given that the film ultimately depicts the pregnancy and resulting birth as miraculous, the word “baby” is framed as more apt than the more pro-choice-preferred “fetus.” Bella’s instant transformation into a woman who will protect her pregnancy at all costs–even her own life–also echo common anti-abortion narratives.

Edward, Jacob, Alice, Carlisle and the Quileute wolves are all against Bella’s choice to carry out the pregnancy–and understandably so, given she looks like a living skeleton. The fetus, as Carlisle tells her, “isn’t compatible with your body–it’s too strong, too fast-growing.” Yet Bella never considers not carrying out the pregnancy, even though her life is clearly at risk—something that would no doubt make those who propose “egg as person” laws and “let women die” acts quite happy. The life of the fetus is framed as more important than Bella’s, a sentiment that colors these pieces of anti-abortion legislation. And Bella is portrayed as a heroic martyr, the ultimate mother-to-be, rather than as a delusional lovestruck teen with a seeming death wish.

Bella is duly punished in pregnancy and childbirth, bringing to mind Genesis 3:16: “I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception; In pain you shall bring forth children; Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” Yet the closing birth scene is more sanitized than depicted in the the book–yes, Bella’s spine is broken, but there are no crunching bones, no sounds of the vampire-human hybrid gnawing its way out of the womb, no vomiting of blood. Instead, Bella lays prone and skeletal, looking like a very bruised, very pregnant, very dead Snow White, as Edward, Vampire Charming, bites her neck, arms and legs in hopes of turning her into a vampire before she dies. The “happy ending” is the birth of Renesmee, whom Rosalie—depicted in the books as having a ruined life because she cannot have children—happily swaddles and kisses.

If you know the saga, you know that Bella does not die–another message that her choice to carry out the pregnancy was the right one. While it’s true she makes this choice, the book and film never suggest any other choice, leaving us with an anti-abortion message seductively packaged as a true-love fairy tale. Bella is cast as a modern Snow White, whose body, shriveled and bruised like a rotting apple, is able to bloom once again thanks not only to Edward’s life-saving bites but to Renesmee’s birth.

What if those bruises are just “decorations”? Thoughts on Breaking Dawn’s Morning-After Scene featuring a bruised (and feathered!) Bella Swan

With the wide release of Breaking Dawn: Part 1 looming, what scene are you most anxious to see?

If the stars and attendees at Comic-Con are any indication, most people name the wedding or the birth scene. Not me. I am most anxious to see the morning after scene. And, I do mean ANXIOUS, not EXCITED, as I have trepidation regarding how this scene will be handled. Though Bella admittedly WANTS sex with Edward, does she also want the bruises that result?

There has been much debate regarding if the morning after scene represents sexual violence, violent consensual sex, hidden messages about women being “punished” for sexual desire and so on. As a recap, here are some details from the book:

Before Edward and Bella do the deed, when they are standing in the moonlit ocean, he says “if I hurt you, you must tell me at once.” This quote lends credence to those who argue we cannot place blame on Edward, as do other quotes where Bella notes she does not remember ever feeling pain.

As in the above parody, Edward is let of the hook for causing so many “decorations” on her body.  While Bella seems to relish her newly “decorated” body, he feels remorse, saying to the waking Bella the next morning: “How badly are you hurt, Bella? The truth—don’t downplay it.”

Bella assesses her body, noting “stiffness, and a lot of soreness” and “the odd sensation my bones all had become unhinged at the joints,” but also notes her happiness on “this most perfect of mornings.” Here, we could read this as understandable post-sex session soreness and equally understandable post-multiple-orgasm euphoria.

The problem is though, Bella is not just sore, she is covered in black and purple bruises – bruises which cause Edward to say “Stop acting like I’m not a monster for having agreed to this” and “Look at yourself, Bella. Then tell me I’m not a monster.”

To this, Bella “followed his instructions unthinkingly” (as she does all too damn often in the books!) and at first only focuses on “the fluffy white snow” that clings to her skin and hair. It is only at Edward’s insistence she looks at her arm that she has “large purplish bruises” that “blossom across the pale skin.”

Here, Edward is again presented as the kind, caring guy, and she as the oblivious, feather-covered sap. Sure, she is blissed out in post-coital mode, but must she speak of her bruises in flowery terms (“blossom”)?!? This description problematically suggests, as does the later use of the term “decorated,” that Bella’s body is beautifully and lovingly MARKED by Edward, harkening to the age-old notion of woman as man’s property to mark on as he pleases – the one that the institution of marriage they just entered into is historically based on.

As Bella looks at the bruises that “trail” up to her shoulder and across her ribs, Edward places “his hand against the bruises on my arm…matching his long fingers to the patterns.” So, indeed, he has quite literally marked her with his handprints, turning her body into a decorated object of “violet blotches.” However, Edward is not held up as the baddie here and Bella is presented as the happiest she has ever been.

Edward does not share her euphoria though, insisting “I’m… so sorry, Bella…I knew better than this. I should not have–…I am more sorry than I can tell you.” So, flipping the traditionally gendered script, he has morning after regrets, she does not.

But might we read her euphoria as more indication that she does not take sex seriously enough – that she is a “bad girl” who wants it too much and is punished for her desires? Or, are we supposed to read her as a sexually liberated, kinky vixen who likes her sex rough? While both readings are tenable, given the strong pro-abstinence messages of the saga, the religious underpinnings of the text, and the “sex is dangerous” message that permeates the books, the first reading is more apt.

Further, Bella is not really presented as sexually confident or in the know – she has to ASK if Edward enjoyed it, and says incredulously to his insistence that he most certainly did,  “Really? The best ever?” That she asks this “in a small voice” only furthers the notion that she is sexually naïve, small, and silent – or, in other words, a “good girl” gone bad – a bruised apple, so to speak.

Perhaps no other scene in the saga so crosses the lines between sex as bad, sex as enjoyable, Bella as good girl or Bella as slut. Yet, the representation of Edward and his acts are not complicated – while Bella’s sexual desires are left open to reader interpretation (we can read her as punished for her desires or read her night of headboard busting as a sexual triumph), Edward is framed as full of remorse and dutifully goes off to cook her enough eggs for two (hint hint).

After his departure, she stares in the mirror (as depicted in the above parody), thinking about how she will hide the bruises: “There was a faint shadow across one of my cheekbones, and my lips were a little swollen, but other than that, my face was fine. The rest of me was decorated with patches of blue and purple. I concentrated on the bruises that would be the hardest to hide—my arms and my shoulders. They weren’t so bad. My skin marked up easily….Of course, these were just developing. I’d look even worse tomorrow. That would not make things any easier.”

Recall that Bella is concerned with hiding the bruises not for others (they are on a deserted island!) but for Edward’s sake. So, she puts on a white cotton dress “that concealed the worst of the violet blotches” and trots off to the kitchen for her scalding hot eggs.

The chapter closes with her asking “You aren’t going to touch me again while we’re here, are you?” to which Edward answers “I will not make love to you until you’ve been changed. I will never hurt you again.”

Once again, Bella’s wants are refuted and Edward calls the shots. But, Bella’s insistence there is nothing to worry about regarding her bruised body, the bitten pillows, or the busted headboard can be read as a failure to recognize the dangers of sex with an uber-strong vampire – or, to put  it another way, for her, the danger sex poses for females like Bella but NOT males like Edward.

A sex positive message? A pro-consensual violent sex is sexy message? I don’t buy it. More like punishing silly, oblivious Bella for wanting it too much… And her punishment is only just beginning given that her pregnancy is hardly a “blessed event” but one filled with pain, broken bones, and the promise that “the creatures” like the one in her womb “use their own teeth to escape the womb.”

And how will the film present the birth? Will Bella scream in “a blood-curdling shriek of agony: and then vomit “a fountain of blood”? Will we hear the “crunching and snapping as the newborn monster” tear through her “from the inside out “ and the “shattering crack” as her spine is broken?

No doubt, we will see the gooey scenes of her loving her “little nudger” and her going ga-ga over the newborn Renesmee. But, I do wonder if the more horrific details of Bella’s pregnancy and delivery will be included, and, if so, if there will be any indication that this is her “punishment” for her sexual transgressions. I doubt it – instead, in keeping with the traditional happy ending message the saga ultimately upholds, pregnancy and motherhood will be framed as her reward…

What if In Time Wastes Time? : A Review with Occupy Musings

Originally posted here, at Ms. blog. 

Based on a very timely premise, the new film In Timeironically moves rather slowly over the course of its 109 minutes. Lacking a “time is running out” feel and failing to deliver an edge-of-your-seat “every moment counts” experience, the film instead plods along in its attempt to examine wealth disparity through the metaphor of owning time. The allegorical futuristic dystopia in which the film is set aptly echoes the 99 percent/1 percent split popularized in the Occupy movement, but the narrative itself lacks political punch.

The movie opens strongly with Will Salas (Justin Timberlake) conversing with his mother (Olivia Wilde)–yes, I know their respective ages make that seem impossible, but keep reading–about how they will manage their remaining time so that each can survive the day. As we quickly learn, “time is now the currency.” People are genetically engineered to stop aging at 25 and then given a year on their “clock”–a glowing countdown mechanism embedded in everyone’s arm. When the clock hits zero, one dies instantly, which drives the need to replenish one’s body clock.

In this world of huge wealth differentials, where time is now literally money, the “rich can live forever” and those in the “ghetto” function from minute to minute, scrounging each day to beg, barter or steal enough time to stay alive. The film is saturated with time(ly) references–there are Minutemen gangsters who steal time from others, Timekeeper law enforcers, Time Borders that one has to pay in months or years to cross, 99 Second Shops, hotels with suites that cost two months a night, and Time Missions for the needy that donate time to those starving for minutes.

[SPOILER ALERT--the rest of this review contains plot spoilers]

In a particularly effective early scene, Will’s mother can’t afford the bus fare to get back home from her garment district job–it’s been raised from one hour to two—and she only has an hour-and-a-half left on her body clock. She tries to make it back to Will before her clock runs out, and the two run towards one another, her dead body collapsing into his arms as her clock runs out. The scene evocatively captures the run-for-your-life existence of the “time poor.”

On the other side of the spectrum, the rich have thousands of days on their clocks, and hoard millions of years in the bank. Sylvia Weis (Amanda Seyfried) “comes from time,” as the film puts it, or is one of the lucky few born into immortality–the class that will never run out of time.

After his mother dies, Will crosses multiple Time Borders into New Greenwich, an uber-time-rich zone, and meets Sylvia. The two eventually become a sort of Bonnie and Clyde for the Occupy generation, stealing time from big banks and pilfering minutes from Sylvia’s father Philippe Weis (Vincent Kartheiser), who is the face of the evil 1 percent of the time-rich. Meanwhile, the lead Timekeeper, Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy), hunts down Sylvia and Will, doing the dirty work for the corporate time holders. However, as the end of the film reveals, Raymond harks from the ghetto himself, echoing the real-life tendency for law enforcement to come from the ranks of the poor and the working class, rather than from the corporate elite the justice system often protects.

Though made prior to the Occupy movement, the “police brutality” thread of the narrative echoes police violence against Occupy protestors. In accordance with these real-life acts of police violence and the repression of protest, in the film, Will has not broken any laws—at least not when he is first targeted by the Timekeepers and the Time Rich who control them. Even when he technically breaks laws by stealing from the time banks, he points out, “How can you steal what’s already been stolen?,” thus suggesting that the real criminals are the Time Rich–much like the Occupy movement is suggesting that the true crime is perpetrated from within the 1 percent.

Though based on an intriguing and very timely premise, the film unfortunately deserves the “Most Obvious and Pun-Filled Allegory” award given in CNN’s review. As it notes, the “brutally fascist world” depicted in the film ultimately “doesn’t say much, except in the simplest It’s-bad-when-rich-people-hoard-resources fashion.”

I agree that so much more could have been done with the idea, but instead of a modern-day 1984 or Brave New World—or even a V for Vendetta for the Occupy generation—what we end up with is more of a sexy robber-duo heist. Granted, the film does a nice job portraying Sylvia and Will as equal partners in crime, but any examination of how gender, race, class, (dis)ability, beauty or other markers of social difference affect one’s “time” are virtually non-existent. Further, as also noted in the CNN review, Sylvia’s  “’rich girl with a rebellious streak’ isn’t as well-developed a character as it could be”:

It’s never really clear if Sylvia’s transition from slightly rebellious rich girl to full-on criminal is due to her belief in Salas’ Robin Hood-esque cause or to her having the hots for him.

While it seems to be a bit of both, it would have been nice if the film had grounded her rebellion, as well as Will’s, in political gumption and activist intent. Instead, each character just happens into his or her rebellious role. Though the film indicates Will’s father was a rebel trying to bring down the time system, Will and Sylvia don’t seem to have a specific agenda; instead, they steal time from the rich to give it to the poor, and look damn good doing it.

Sure, Sylvia believes “The clock is good for no one. The poor die and the rich don’t live,” but the message audiences are left with is that the best way to live is not to try to radically change the system or incite mass revolution, but to strap on high heels and a weapon and steal from the time banks. The film closes with Sylvia and Will poised to achieve their biggest “time heist” yet. If only the film had instead taken the time (OK, guilty as charged) to offer a more politicized, deeper message–one that now hovers under the surface but never quite manifests. Ironically, one comes out of the movie feeling it wasted it’s own time.

Published in: on November 2, 2011 at 5:45 pm  Leave a Comment  
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