At one point in the movie Spanglish a mother tells her daughter Deborah: "Lately your low self esteem is just good old common sense." That's a harsh thing to say to someone, especially to your own daughter... but that doesn't mean that it isn't true. In this case it certainly is, because at that point in the movie Deborah has had to take a long hard look in the mirror and admit that she has a selfish heart, that she's prone to being manipulative, and that she's been lying through her teeth to everyone she knows for months. In a way, the only good part of Deborah's personality is that she's still capable of genuine self-reflection - if she did all those bad things and then still felt like a million bucks she would be an irredeemable monster.
I think about that line all of the time. (In fact, I might even overuse it, but then again I'm a bit of a misanthrope.) For example, I thought of that line several times when I was watching Tammy, a recent-ish movie starring Melissa McCarthy as a woman named Tammy who takes a road trip with her Grandma and slowly learns to love herself... even though she isn't very loveable. Oh, sure, she's sympathetic in her own way. The movie starts off with her hitting a deer with her car, then getting fired from her work for being late, and then returning to her house earlier than normal and catching her husband as he's cheating on her.... I feel bad for her. I really do. But that doesn't mean that I'm going to root for her to find true love and become successful overnight, because while I sympathize with her situation I'm not blind to the fact that she brought a lot of her problems on herself. Sure, I wish people would stop being mean to Tammy, but I can't help but feel that people would be nicer to her if she wasn't so consistently boorish, ignorant, and egotistical to them.
Would-be feel good movies like this always involve a complicated type of moral calculus that is very hard to pull off. Anytime you have a character who is going to start the movie as a jerk and end up as a hero (or who will go from being a manchild to a man) then you have to stack the deck in the early going juuuuust right. They have to be enough of a dick so that the audience realizes that they have to change; if they aren't dickish enough the emotional beats in the second half will feel sentimental and unearned. At the same time, you can't portray them as such a dick that they become unlikeable because then the audience won't root for them to evolve. Tammy makes a mistake that is very common in comedies about abrasive loudmouths: it pushes the jerk thing a little too hard in the early going, which ended up sandbagging the whole movie. I can give Tammy a pass on her money problems - after all, she didn't vote for the middle class to get squeezed - but I'm not going to sit there and think "oh my god, why would her husband ever want to cheat on someone who is constantly swearing, making up facts so she can seem smarter than she really is, and blaming everyone else for all of her problems?"
I should have known that Tammy wasn't going to be for me. After all, I have never been a huge fan of comedies about abrasive boobs, especially if there's a wittier or a sillier movie that I could watch instead. I just find the whole enterprise to be sort of mean. After all, in Tammy we're watching a person who has nothing humiliate herself in her own home, in a bar, and at a 4th of July party. (She doesn't exactly embarrass herself in jail but she does go to jail. More than once, in fact.) And that's before you factor in the scenes where she's being mean to other people - where she's lashing out against the people who look down at her. (Those scenes make up the bulk of the movie's running time.) I've always found movies like this to be more sour than funny, but I do understand why someone could laugh at this.
After all, Melissa McCarthy is just the most recent person to embody an age old archetype, although her version of the know-it-all-who-knows-nothing-at-all is particularly modern and particularly American. The classic version of this character would be ignorant of all the ironies that were occurring all around them, and the British version of this character would pretend to be classier than they really are, but Tammy doesn't do either of those things. No, what she's doing is pretending to be tougher than she really is. She's bossing other people around because she's afraid they will see that she's insecure about her place in the food chain. That's an understandable position. After all, America is a cowboy culture - a place that's supposed to be full of go-getting capitalists and up-from-the-bootstraps-types - so it makes sense that if someone would feel self conscious if they didn't have real successes under their belt. But again, we run into the Spanglish problem. If someone was ignorant of all the plot machinations that were going on their problem would be easily fixed - they just have to have the real situation explained to them. If someone lacked manners they could learn them - for the most part manners are social affectations that are fairly superficial and which can be picked up easily. But it's almost impossible to become a better person and boost your own self esteem at the same time because those things tend to operate in a negative feedback loop; you have to learn that you are a terrible person so you want to change, but once you know you are terrible how do you believe in yourself enough to think that you can change?
As I get older I think about the idea of self-esteem more and more. (And not just when I'm using that Spanglish quote to mentally kick someone that I think is no damn good.) Proper self esteem is an incredibly tricky balancing act, one that requires a person to balance out what they know about themselves against the opinions of everyone else around them. It's very easy to lean too far in one direction (and to see your entire existence through the lens of whatever emotion you are currently feeling), or to go too far in the other direction (and to accept things that aren't necessarily true because you've been told them so often by people who don't know the real you.) But it is possible to find a middle ground between those extremes, and to slowly accept yourself and to get the world to accept you, too. However, it's a lot easier to pull that off if your self esteem matches common sense - if you're someone like Tammy who acts like they are awesome even though they are kind of an asshole, it's going to be a long road to hoe.
Winner: The Cat