It’s always weird when a good film suddenly lets you down – like meeting someone at a party who you think might become a proper friend, and then they turn around, bend over and fart. Like, really? I expected better of you, man.
For me this happened (almost literally) with Bridesmaids, a terrifically smart comedy about female friendship, aside from the scene in which all the women develop chronic – and public – diarrhoea. And it happened with Booksmart, which zings with subtle truths about dorky teenage girls, aside from the pointless running joke about a female teacher sleeping with a student. Dontcha love movies that celebrate women, but also gratuitously humiliate them?
Now on to Soul, the new Pixar film streaming on Disney+, and the first from the studio to feature primarily African-American characters. Third only to movies about American high schools and female friendship, I love Pixar: Toy Story, Up, The Incredibles, Inside Out – these films are the closest the modern age has to religious texts. They teach us how to live, how to feel; they reflect the best of us back to ourselves. I had especially high hopes for Soul, because people had been tweeting about how transcendent it is. So what better way to spend a lockdown Saturday than watching it with my children?
Obviously, there will be spoilers here, so look away, easily spoiled people. Soul is about a jazz musician, Joe (Jamie Foxx), who has a terrible accident just as he gets his big break. He starts to go up to “the Great Beyond” but, desperate to return to Earth, agrees to mentor a soul about to be born in the hope of sneaking back himself. Joe is assigned the notorious soul 22, whose constant negativity drove previous mentors, including Muhammad Ali and Carl Jung, to despair. Soul 22 is voiced by Tina Fey and, understandably, given she’s yet to be born, Joe asks, “Why do you sound like a middle-aged white woman?”
“I just use this voice because it annoys people,” 22 replies.
“It’s very effective,” says Joe.
Record screech! OK, this middle-aged white woman has some questions, starting with what, exactly, the directors (two men) and the writers (three men) of Soul think the little girls watching this film – who may have a middle-aged white woman for a mother, who may themselves one day be middle-aged white women – should make of the implication that this is the most annoying voice in the world? Also: does Fey actually believe that her perfectly nice voice is annoying? Mind you, a running joke on her sitcom 30 Rock was how fat and unattractive the (very slim and pretty) Fey is, so perhaps she has vocal as well as body dysmorphia. (Alternative theory: perhaps this is Fey’s atonement for all the criticism 30 Rock has received in recent years for its use of blackface.)
Soul 22 ruins everything with her whining, only finding happiness when she literally steals Joe’s life from him. Then I understood: Fey is playing Pixar’s Karen. Coined in America, “Karen” denotes a white woman who endangers minorities, such as by maliciously calling the cops on them (Amy Cooper, AKA “Central Park Karen”, who last year was charged with filing a false report on birdwatcher Chris Cooper) or erroneously accusing them of theft (Miya Ponsetto, AKA “Soho Karen”, charged last month with attacking a teenage boy in New York).
But this trope gained such momentum in 2020 that it is now commonly used to refer, simply, to middle-aged white women, just as “boomer” has long since lost its “baby boomer” associations and means “anyone older than me”. Over the summer, the alt-right blogger Paul Joseph Watson posted a video in which he called a woman a “Karen” for asking a cyclist to maintain social distancing. British school kids now laugh about whether or not someone’s mum is a Karen, meaning simply that they are boring, annoying, old. Last month, newspapers and dictionaries declared “Karen” to be the word of 2020. Any woman who complains that maybe this term has become a bit sexist is told, with impeccable witch-trial logic, that they are proving their own Karen-ness.
And this has been seen as fair enough by people who would usually abhor such stereotypes – because white women have privilege and some abuse it, like Cooper and Ponsetto. But, by and very large, the people who perpetuate racial violence and injustice are white men. Of course it feels safer to make fun of women; but this generalised sneering is just an updated version of the old mother-in-law jokes, with added self-righteousness.
The endpoint of this is a running joke like the one in Soul, in which children are taught that middle-aged women are the worst. Even their souls are bad! A few decades ago, movies like Fried Green Tomatoes and Steel Magnolias dismantled these obnoxious jibes, revelling in older women who fought back against ageism and sexism. Now Pixar, of all studios, endorses them. Sometimes progress in one direction feels a lot like going into reverse in another.