“What brand of shaving cream did prehistoric cavemen use?”
This was the question on my mind after seeing “The Croods,” the recent animated film from Dreamworks.
The movie tells the story of a caveman family (“The Croods”) who, with the help of Guy, a clever and technologically advanced boy from another tribe, race against time to escape volcanic eruptions and earthquakes caused by continental drift. The plot revolves around the clash between Guy’s forward-looking, inventive ways and the Croods’ old-fashioned, brainless brawn. The result? The Croods comes to embrace Guy’s new methods, and Eep, the rebellious teenage daughter in the family, falls for him in the process.
The female characters’ ridiculously clean-shaven armpits aside, the movie made me uncomfortable for a host of other reasons. First of all, the Croods and Guy share the same, vague reddish-tanned skin tone purposefully designed to appear race neutral. Could you imagine if Guy had paler skin compared to the Croods? As the harbinger of fire and complex tools, Guy’s character could have easily evoked the image of the white outsider who descends upon a less-technologically advanced aboriginal people.
On the other hand, if Guy’s skin had been made darker, then that could be a sign that the makers of the movie were trying too hard to reverse the white colonist stereotype. For the sake of political correctness, it was essential that the skin tones of the characters were made exactly the same — any slight deviation could cause controversy and discomfort in the audience.
Furthermore, the character of Eep, the curious, rebellious and open-minded girl who falls in love with the outsider against the will of her father, easily calls to mind the Pocahontas foreign princess cliché. Could the genders of Guy and Eep be switched? Would the producers again be seen as deliberately attempting to reverse yet another deep-rooted stereotype?
Walking out of the movie theatre, I impatiently vented all of my concerns of political incorrectness to the friend who accompanied me. She, a senior at Mount Holyoke College, immediately understood.
As my friend and I discussed the race and gender implications of the movie, it was immediately clear that our heightened sensitivity to political correctness is a result of our experiences as college students in America. Nowhere else in the world do topics of race, gender, religion and sexual orientation make up such a important part of daily conversation, and nowhere else are people judged harsher for where they stand on each of these issues.
As a non-American in this country, when and how did I come to internalize what can roughly be categorized as the average American liberal’s interpretation of what is politically correct? I do not know, but the voices I have heard from those around me on such issues have been remarkably uniform and consistent, and I was easily convinced by their logic.
Ethnic, racial and gender equality; equal marriage and rights for people of all sexual orientations; freedom to practice all forms of religion as well as atheism — surely these are universal, self-evident truths that no one could deny? How could anyone ever think differently?
Yet behind any interpretation of political correctness is an implied set of values, and the long-standing cultural heritages that formed them. While some ideals might be seen as universal, a truly universal value system only exists on paper. Does it matter that I was not born into the values that I now pledge allegiance to? Does it matter that the vast majority of my people, including my parents, believe in values that are different, even if just slightly so?
The danger of going too far with political correctness is that to those who have fully internalized the “correct” values, different values become not only politically unacceptable, but “incorrect” in the fullest sense of the word. They become not only disagreeable in discourse, but incomprehensible, even unthinkable.
Thus when my dad tells me that despite his best intentions, he still feels homosexuality is “unnatural,” I have trouble understanding that thought. I cannot sympathize with it. Yet I should be able to – traditionally, China is a more conservative, household-based culture, and it is unsurprising that gender norms would be more entrenched.
And this feeling of alienation is precisely my worry. To adopt the values I believe in is one thing. To fail to understand that of another is something else. And if I cannot understand the values of my own people, I would feel like a caveman without armpit hair.
Xiuyi Zheng is a senior in Davenport College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.