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White Girl, Goat, and the little words that shape power

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When people go to see movies about race or privilege, they expect to be hit over the head with a message. These are big, complicated issues, but we’ve been trained to expect villains, moral clarity, and right and wrong — laid out at a fifth-grade comprehension level. Too often, even good “message” movies are easy to shrug off because they don’t feel relevant to the way most of us live our daily lives. Most of us don’t see ourselves as evil, obviously.

In the recent films White Girl and Goat, there’s plenty of this kind of broad preaching. In both films, characters are literally hit over the head as the consequences of their actions. Both take on big, frequently discussed issues of privilege: white women who fetishize men of color, white men who form miniature cults for themselves in every corner of society. They both veer into melodrama with big speeches and shock-value horrors. But they both offer an uncommon level of subtlety for message-movies. There’s a message about power in the language of both scripts, and it applies to everyone. We all use language, even if we’re often unconscious of how.

The most frequently used word in Goat, Andrew Neel’s psychological thriller about rushing a frat at a mid-level liberal-arts college, is “man.” It fits into familiar contexts and menacing ones — You okay, man? Come here, man. Watch it, man. It peppers the characters’ sentences at all times, a lingual tic and constant reminder that the only way to belong to the frat is to be masculine. At times, it’s like a game of Marco Polo, or a church call-and-response. Of course the only character who chokes on it is the handsome, conflicted Brett, played by the top-billed Nick Jonas (who isn’t the movie’s main character by any stretch). Over the course of the film, Brett gradually realizes the horrors of letting groups of young white men hang out together without rules or consequences.

When Brett’s brother Brad (The Book Thief’s Ben Schnetzer), suffering from PTSD after a random act of violence, decides to join the fraternity, Brett trusts his “brothers” will be welcoming and give Brad a refuge from the world. Anyone with a passing familiarity with Greek life on college campuses would doubt this, but Brett doesn’t, because he hasn’t experienced any abuse himself.

Brett joined his frat only two years before, but the hazing then was gentler. Nobody got peed on while locked in a cage. Nobody got drilled in the back of the head with unripe lemons. Nobody was told to have sex with a goat. And the boys, somehow, were much hotter and stronger and more traditionally masculine. This newest crop of candidates is disappointing to the upperclassmen because of their shy nerdiness, their quiet affection for individual women, and their pale, soft bodies. Repulsed, the frat brothers attack their new pledges.

Elizabeth Wood builds something similar with the language in her semi-autobiographical film White Girl. The titular character, Leah (The Witch’s Morgan Saylor) is an unpaid media intern and liberal-arts undergrad who moves into Ridgewood with her best friend. Spotting a trio of Puerto Rican teenagers hanging out on a stoop across the street, she assumes she’s found her neighborhood drug hook-up. She’s right, but the assumption stings, and the group’s sad-eyed leader, Blue, lambasts her. But Leah is cute, and everyone in this movie is around 19 years old, so a romantic relationship ensues. For Leah, it’s fun and games — lightweight fetishization and a way to snub her parents and the nerdy privileged boys at her school.

But Blue falls for Leah, and he’s willing to do whatever she asks, in hopes of making their relationship permanent. It’s Leah’s idea that Blue move his operation into Manhattan, where he can sell cocaine to white club-goers at ten times the rate and three times the price. Leah’s refusal to admit that the world is more lawless for her than it is for Blue leads to dire consequences for… one of them. Obviously. And while that story might be expected, watching it play out through Wood’s script is harrowing.

When Blue is frustrated with Leah, he upbraids her in front of his friends, peppering his speech with slang she doesn’t know, or swapping her name for “shorty” (which visibly rankles). When Leah’s frustrated with Blue, she changes dialects, transitioning out of the “cool girl” lexicon she uses around her stoner university friends, and into the same highly articulate whine she uses to smooth-talk grown-ups. The way she and Blue speak to each other in these small moments is the only sign for viewers that the two protagonists realize their positions in the power structure are different.

Historically, most movies that make white people feel uncomfortable also give them ways to distance themselves. Civil-rights-era movies let us believe we would have been on the right side of history. Slavery movies can similarly suggest the worst of American racism is in the past. American History X makes white supremacy look like the province of freaks, when clearly (if 2016 has taught us anything) it simmers below the surface all around us. Goat and White Girl don’t let anybody off the hook, but they don’t hit anyone over the head with cartoonish villainy either. In these films, language shapes power the same way it does every day, for everyone.

Theorists like feminist sociologist Cheris Kramarae have asked why there are so many demeaning terms for the speech patterns of women, people of color, and other minorities: “whine,” “gossip,” “slur,” “bitch,” “yammer,” “babble,” etc. A popular theory in the communication field says language is most beneficial, natural, and powerful for the group that has the biggest hand in creating it. For English, that means white men. Others, known as “muted groups,” are quieted by default, because when they alter the language to meet their needs, their speech is viewed as an inferior bastardization of the original standards. This plays out every day when women are ridiculed for writing too expressively or emotionally, or in the supposition that there is a “proper” way to speak. The theory has been built up for decades by dozens of different anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists, but the nut of it (in Kramarae’s words) is that women and “other non-dominant groups” are “not as free or as able as men are to say what they wish, because the words and the norms for their use have been formulated by the dominant group.”

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When the men in Goat aren’t threatening, cajoling, or Morse-coding with “man,” they have one other verbal default. That’s “pussy,” and it’s a completely different dialect. “Pussy” is slurred, drawled, spit, and screamed — it’s for shoving lesser men away while promising that there’s a way they can come crawling back. Just stop being a pussy, and it’s all cool, man. Like “man,” “pussy” shapes and draws attention to the lines of power every time it’s used. (It’s never used sexually in the film; women barely exist in this movie at all.) The world of Goat is a microcosm — everyone in it is a white man at a decent college — so the words are used to shade extra dimensions into the power structure.

Language shapes our reality because language reinforces power. It’s a subtle force that goes unnoticed until you’re forced to look at it in the context of an artificial, slightly hyperbolic scenario, like a movie in which frat boys have a vocabulary of about 20 words, or a scene in which two lovers spit nonsense at each other. As Kramarae wrote in Women and Men Speaking in 1981, “words constantly ignored may eventually come to be unspoken or perhaps even unthought.” In Goat and White Girl, we’re asked to rethink which words are used, and which are ignored.

Goat isn’t a documentary exposé of the elite frat houses that pull wealthy white men closer together in a cult of violence and masculinity worship. Journalists have gone there many times before, but this is exactly the type of institution that tends to bounce back from attack. What’s vital about Goat is not who it might incriminate, but who it might terrify. That’s young men — especially young white men — who are asked with every moment of the film to temporarily become aware of their speech and behavior.

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By the same coin, White Girl doesn’t expose how white women tend to negotiate their oppressed and privileged identities in ways that hurt them and others. What’s vital about White Girl is who it makes acutely uncomfortable. For me, a white girl living in a historically Caribbean neighborhood in Brooklyn, the film picks at the little things I do to take advantage of my privilege, even when I’d like to say I shove it aside and live without it as often as I can. White Girl doesn’t make me squirm because it hits me over the head with the fairly obvious inequality plot. It’s effective because it strikes little chords of recognition and guilt, as Leah wriggles out of trouble with authority figures by summoning up tears, or commutes out of her “dangerous” neighborhood to sit behind a MacBook Air in an immaculate media startup office, or saunters into an English class and stares off into space while somewhere, Blue sits in a prison cell.

In contrast to Big Movies about race or privilege (think The Help, Gran Torino, or the shame of the Oscars, Crash), White Girl and Goat can worm their way into viewers’ brains and make them question assumptions about their own daily behavior. It’s a subtle approach, but it makes them feel more urgent, more useful, and less forgiving, even when they aren’t as loud.

White Girl is now playing in limited release. Goat is streaming on YouTube, Google Play, iTunes, Amazon Video, and Vudu.