Last night I happened to catch part of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom on cable and I saw one of those things that used to be kind of commonplace in Hollywood and that I’m glad you don’t really see much anymore – a scene of overt, casual racism in order to save a cheap plot device. I’m referring, in this case, to the “Indian food” dinner scene.
As a set up, Indiana finds himself in India for reasons that are fairly contrived to begin with, and he’s having a conversation here with the Maharaja about… well, it’s not really important. The purpose of this scene is really to drive home a point which has already been driven home very thoroughly throughout the film – that Kate Capshaw’s character is prim and squeamish and everything about this adventure she finds herself on is horrifying, dirty, and awful. We get to have a cheap laugh at her expense as Short Round makes fun of her reactions to the dishes put in front of her.
You hardly know where to even start with this. In this scene, for absolutely no reason, Indians are presented as really enjoying appetizers of live snake and roasted giant scarab beetle. And not, like, poor people who have no choice but to eat this choice fare or starve – we are talking about Indian royalty, here.
And that’s when things really go off the rails. After appropriately displaying revulsion at the food offered to her by the strange aliens who have clearly decided to take up residence in the country of India and assume a human form (although they kept the alien dress), Willie asks if she might just have a bowl of soup to eat. Of course, say her gracious Indian hosts. Happy to bring something more bland. And what they bring her, which they have at the ready, is…
Eyeball soup. I mean, literally, it’s what appears to be Campbell’s tomato soup with three or four human eyeballs floating in it. And then, as the coup de grace of this particular scene, they top it all off with a dessert – a dessert, mind you – of chilled monkey brains. And not just chilled monkey brains served as part of some dish – but chilled monkey brains still located in situ inside of some sort of taxidermied monkey head – complete with hair still attached.
Now look, I’m not some sort of expert on Indian cuisine – although with the amount of money I have spent at the local suburban Indian food lunch buffet, I ought to be – but I am pretty confident that there’s not really any element of Indian culture, at any point in history, that would have served a four course meal of live snake, roasted giant scarab beetle, human eyeball soup, and a dessert of chilled monkey brains.
Here’s what happened: in the year 1984, the enlightened people of Hollywood implied that people from India are outright freaks in terms of their food choices, in a major motion picture starring the biggest Hollywood actor of all time, in the service of a few cheap, poorly executed jokes.
Granted, I was 7 years old when this movie came out, but I watched the news. And I don’t remember anyone making a peep about this particular scene. Nowadays if you made a scene like this, people would assume you were being intentionally offensive for shock value, a la Amy Schumer or Anthony Jeselnik. No way would Chris Evans or Robert Downey Jr. or whoever associate their career with such a scene. Even though, if we are being frank, cultural insensitivity to Asians lags far behind cultural insensitivity to any other group in terms of taboo, and always has. This scene, I think, would still be too much today.
And that, frankly, is a good thing. I don’t know the exact number but there are a lot of moms and dads in this country who are trying to raise kids of Indian heritage in this country and it’s probably a good thing that their peers at school don’t think that they eat human eyeball soup and chilled monkey brains at home. Moreover, eliminating this sort of overt, indifferent othering has, I think, made Hollywood better. I guess the site of Kate Capshaw pretending to faint at a bowl of pretend chilled monkey brains might have been good for a cheap and easy chuckle, but that’s how Hollywood operated back then. Subtlety and smarts in humor were not exactly a forte of the mid-80s Hollywood writer. Put whatever you think of their politics aside – the Tina Feys and John Mulaneys of today are making comedy that is objectively better and smarter than most of the schlock that preceded it.
I feel like many of the early adopters of Trump are the people who would disagree the most with this post. The thing that frustrates them the very most about the world they live in is the need to care about the feelings and experiences of people who grew up different from them. Why should they, as white Americans in good standing, have to be concerned that people from other countries and cultures think? Who cares about the cultural impact, it was funny when the blond lady fainted at the sight of monkey brains, everyone needs to chill out and let me enjoy my yuks.
There are people on both sides of this debate who are total embarrassments to their cause. On both sides, the “enforcers” completely fail to use discernment as to what constitutes a legitimate enforcement of “political correctness.” The SJW’s of the world serve a useful function in keeping people honest, but they also discredit their movement by finding racism hiding behind every rock. The “anti-PC” crowd serves a useful purpose by reminding us not to take ourselves too seriously and fighting against the outright erosion of our language and stifling of our expression that the SJW’s want. But they also discredit their movement by denying that any such thing as racism exists, even when it stares them in the face. Worse, some of them use “anti-PC” to hide overt racism they generated themselves. Some of what is called “political correctness” is quite silly; some of the rest of it is legit racism and both sides are way too eager to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
Personally, I think it’s a good thing that the SJW’s have to squint and cock their heads at a certain angle to find their complaints of racism, or sexism, or transphobism or whatever they are focusing on this week. Because it used to be that Hollywood did not engage in microaggressions, they engaged instead in slapping you across the face with racism like a wet halibut. And maybe I will lose my Right Wing Nut Job card for saying this, but I think that’s probably a good thing.