Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Argentineans' Rignt to Swear

One of the central problems of teaching American students is that they have been brainwashed into believing that the only way of being that has a right to exist is their own. Whenever they encounter evidence that people from other cultures hold other values, believe different things, or simply act differently, the students experience a state of profound shock. As over a century of the US foreign politics has demonstrated, this rejection of other people's right to live differently eventually leads to military invasions of countries who dare to avoid following the American vision of what's right.

Since I live in the Bible Belt right now, one huge challenge for my teaching of the Hispanic culture to students with an extremely puritanical upbringing has been finding Spanish-language movies that wouldn't hurt any of the fundamentalist sensibilities of the students. This means that I need to find movies where there is no sex, kissing, homosexuality,discussions of sex, or even discussions of adultery. As you can imagine, such castrated films are hard to find. Film-makers in Spanish-speaking countries create their movies without giving a whole lot of thought to how much their art might hurt the perennially anti-sex Americans.

Finally, I discovered a movie that touches upon none of these topics. Nine Queens is a beautifully made, super funny film from Argentina. Honestly, I believe that if you don't enjoy this movie, you must be either completely bereft of a sense of humor or dead. I have watched it maybe a dozen times already and I enjoy it anew with every viewing. So it was a shock when last semester my students found something to wound their puritanical souls in this impossibly innocuous movie as well.

What upset some students about an innocent movie like Nine Queens is that people swear too much. It is true, of course, that the Argentinean people have a particularly juicy, expressive, and strong way of talking to each other. The swear-word vocabulary of an Argentinean is virtually endless. People strive always to come up with more convoluted and complex swear phrases. Hearing an Argentinean person speak is a rare joy because of the sheer linguistic creativity people exhibit in the process.

When my students started complaining about Nine Queens, I tried explaining to them that the Argentinean people who are living peacefully in their own countries and creating movies have a perfect right to do so. They have a right to speak any way they want and create any kind of art they want. I tried to explain that I cannot find any artistic manifestations from other cultures that would be in perfect compliance with the US expectations. Still, the very idea of cultural difference is so alien to my students that any glimpse of otherness unsettles them profoundly. The parents, the ministers, and the politicians who have been brainwashing these kids from the day they were born know that exposure to other cultures is likely to destroy the conservative, puritanical ideology they try to instill in these unlucky youngsters. This is why the first thing they teach these kids is to resist any approximation to other cultures.

P.S. If anybody has a practical solution to this very real problem, I welcome any suggestions. If you have seen any completely sanitized recent Spanish-speaking films that would satisfy an average American prude, please leave the titles of the movies in the comment section. I'm in the process of creating the syllabi for next semester and I seriously have no idea which films to show in class.


Brianna said...

The problem with liberals is that they tend to equate a disapproval of other cultures with a desire to reach out and murder those cultures. You may think your students are foolish for disapproving (my personal view of swearing is that if you want it to achieve its intended objective of shocking, the best way to do that is to use it sparingly), but disapproving of someone else's behavior is a far cry from the idea that we must walk in to forcibly change that person's behavior.

I don't have to respect other people's cultures. I think the idea that all cultures are equal is a load of bullshit, to put it perfectly bluntly. But so long as nobody starts making me take classes in Argentinian vulgarity or Christian theology, I don't really care what those other cultures get up to.

Argentinians have the right to create any movie they want. And your students have the right to deplore, disapprove of, and refuse to watch those movies whenever they want. That's what cultural freedom is.

Anita said...

I think the beauty of America is that we can read blogs, such as yours; that we agree with, or diagree with, or feel indifferent towards.
You're right that we were all brainwashed as children, but our parents only know to teach us what they think.
But as adults, we have the freedom to see whatever movie we want to see, vote for whatever politician, start whatever movement, and use whatever language we want.
Some children grow up and totally change from the person their parents raised them to be - sometimes that's good, sometimes that's not good.
A lot of people experiment, and then revert back to what they used to be.
There's a saying here, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
In other words, when people feel they are living a good life, they want to leave it as is - why change it.
But, everyone has the right to try to change the system, whatever the specifics may be. If enough people get on board, it'll change - if not, it won't.

Clarissa said...

No, Brianna, the students do not have the right to refuse to do the assignments that I give them. :-) Unless they are ready to get an "F" for the course.

It is true, of course, that people have a right to shut out all other cultures and only watch the stupid Hollywood concoctions. Still, when people take a course called "Latin American Film" they kind of should expect to be shown a couple of Latin American films, don't you think? I'm not forcing them to enroll in my courses (which you seem to suspect I do) but if they do, I have a right to expect that they will at least try to absorb the material.

Clarissa said...

"my personal view of swearing is that if you want it to achieve its intended objective of shocking, the best way to do that is to use it sparingly"

-You have a personal view of what the objective of swearing is for Argentineans? Know much about the Argentinean culture, do you?

Anonymous said...


Clarissa said...

The last comment comes, of course, from our resident troll who will not rest until everybody in the world realizes just how stupid they are.

Melissa said...

Oh boy. This bothers me too. I don't think any other country in the world breeds this attitude...at least not to the same extent. I'll save the long rant for another day, but...yeah. You're so right.

Pagan Topologist said...

Melissa, I am afraid that many countries breed such attitudes. The sentencing to death of a cartoonist who draws a caricature of the Prophet Muhammed is a noteworthy non-American example.

Melissa said...

I should have been more specific.

The attitude I'm talking about is the idea that no other cultures (and, to a certain extent, no other countries) even exist. That the culture you're living in is the only one that exists (or even matters) in the world.

Pagan Topologist said...

Thinking about this post further, I believe that an important part of a college/university education is to be exposed to things that make one very uncomfortable and challenge ones beliefs. I do not think it is right to try to find materials that students do not find offensive. My own wonderful, but painful, escape from Christianity began with such exposure. (And the exposure came in part from professors who were also ordained ministers. They were honest enough to acknowledge that there were powerful similarities between Christian practices and those of Mithra, for example.)

The one thing I sometimes regret about being a mathematics professor instead of a humanities professor is that I have relatively few opportunities to challenge students to examine their core beliefs in such a way.

Clarissa said...

You are right, of course, PT. It's hard, however, to push the envelope on every single issue. Sometimes, I just feel like I simply need to pick my battles. In what concerns the movies, when the students go into this prissy offended mode, their brains simply switch off. I am yet to find a way of getting through to them when they are in that state.

Anonymous said...

I have this problem also. The only film I've found that doesn't upset anyone is Buena Vista Social Club. For some reason, Gutierrez Alea's The Last Supper goes over well, too - although I don't think they get it - and people like La Historia Oficial also, and also don't really get it.

Try to sic Chicogrande on them - there's no sex and only the Americans (not the wicked Mexicans) swear.

Seriously though the only thing that has worked for me is to discuss all the offensive to Americans scenes and issues ahead of time. Heavy heavy contextualization. Otherwise they don't get it. It's not entirely their fault, as they've been very much sheltered and very carefully taught to judge before understanding.

Clarissa said...

I love showing La Historia Oficial in class. I have a whole set of activities based on it. This year, however, the students whined that it's "too depressing." I guess they would have preferred a positive, upbeat history of the Dirty War, and with a happy ending too.

But you are right, patient contextualization is key.

Anonymous said...

The reason why your students like La historia oficial soooo much is that it is a "Hollywwod movie" made in Argentina. This easy-to-digest "political" movie is not shocking to US audience. Norma Aleandro (already a well known comedian, a star) plays an individual character facing society, like in a Hollywood drama. She witnesses events from her own perspective, from her window, from her lofty middle-class distant gaze. In that sense, your US students identity (or wants to identify) with Aleandro. Somehow, even if the movie is from Argentina, they know what is going on.

This is the reason why I would never use that movie in my class:)

For that same reason, your students may also like Gutiérrez Alea's Memorias del subdesarrollo. They would identitfy with the protagonist's angst.

These two films were of course extremely popular in the US.


Clarissa said...

Ol.: What an interesting analysis! I have never thought of these films in this way. But we all know that my capacity to analyze visual artwork sucks something fierce.

Do you have something to recommend that my students might be able to digest without suffering too much from the invasion of otherness?

Anonymous said...

You capacity to analyze visual artwork is as sharp as mine. I am just obsessed with social classes when I analyze fiction.

Suggestion: El hijo de la novia! Sure, they swear a lot in that movie. But your students will identify with the characters.

But you, my friend, should watch Humberto Solas's Lucia.


Spanish prof said...

I gave my students 9 different possible topics for their final papers, and only one of them included movies. Wednesday, a student complained that she had chosen that topic, and that one of the movies she watched (Pizza, Birra, Faso) had too much swearing. Aren't they even smart enough to read a synopsis before choosing the topic, and realizing that it will probably be the case. Jeeezz..