Gentleman’s Agreement

15Mar10

I had originally intended to make a post about sexism in relation to my field of work but, as is the way with me, something else came up before those thoughts took firm hold.  On the way back from the conference which had brought about the inspiration for that post, I stopped at a movie rental store that was going out of business and selling off its stock.  I snatched up just about every 40s black and white film they had left, among them several I did not recognize.  Last night I put one of these in to watch — and I’ll be honest, it’s one I can’t believe I hadn’t seen or heard of before.  It is called Gentleman’s Agreement, and addressed antisemitism at a time when it was highly controversial to do so.  If you haven’t seen it, I recommend doing so.  Its message is just as relevant now as it was then.  I will say that, though it did not hold as many cringe-worthy moments over the portrayal of women and the treatment of them by men as some films of the era, it did still hold some.  It was not enough to overpower my pleasure with the movie as a whole, though, especially due to two characters who were unquestionably strong and intelligent women (and, even better, there seemed to be no need to portray emotions in these women as weakness).  One of them, the main character’s mother, even throws out “You don’t say? Why, women will be thinking next, Phil,” which I have to say made me smile.

[Spoiler warning…if you have not yet seen the film, but intend to do so, and don’t want to know parts of the plot, go hunt it down and come back to finish reading this afterward.  If you don’t mind plot revelations, continue on.]

Gregory Peck plays a journalist who pretends to be Jewish in order to witness antisemitism firsthand for an article he is writing.  The expected prejudice and discrimination ensues, of course, but the scene that really struck me came almost at the end of the film.  Gregory Peck’s love interest is having a discussion with one of his friends about the problems the couple was running into.

I was going to download this and then piece together the relevant parts to post, but as it is not allowing me to do that…

Start at 8:00 on this video…

And continue on to this one to finish the conversation (you can stop at 1:35).

I have discussed before the decision I made to say something when I’m not comfortable with a joke or phrase.  I do this to varying degrees — it takes practice and effort, and I’m by no means perfect.  I also realize that you have to choose your battles.  An article from Shapely Prose (which gives directions on how to “harness your inner Samuel L. Jackson,” and deserves a read so you should check it out) puts it very well:

I don’t how many hours your day comes with, but mine only has 24. So at some point you really have to decide what exactly are your “Rosa Parks” moments and let the rest go. You can’t eat all the eggs or fight all the windmills.

My “Rosa Parks” moments are defined greatly by the times I think my silence encourages a behavior.  Most of the things I put in that category seem small to the majority of the people around me, and most think I’m “overly sensitive” when I express my displeasure.  I think it is important, not just because silence often implies agreement, but also because of the question “If not here, where do I draw the line?”   If I let that joke or phrase slide, what do I deem inappropriate enough to deserve action?  Is it only the belligerent bigots that deserve attention?

You see, that’s one of the major problems, one of the big ways in which prejudice spreads — people may call out those who yell their bigotry to the heavens, but the ones who don’t, the ones who slip it into their regular conversation and disguise it as a joke, usually get a free pass (because, after all, it isn’t worth making people uncomfortable over if they aren’t being too intolerant).  Then it spreads unchecked…”That’s so gay,” “You’re such a little bitch,” “That exam raped me,” “Don’t be such a slut.”  On and on and on.  It is important to call those comments what they are to the people who make them (yes, even when it’s incredibly awkward and uncomfortable to do so), because letting them slide encourages that prejudice to spread, and encourages people to think that kind of prejudice is okay.  When we cultivate “acceptable forms of prejudice,” we are cultivating prejudice, period.

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