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Thinking pop culture

Mockery, Mimicry and Grandpas Gone Wild

Bad Grandpa - now showing.

Taking plot cues from the dreadful Weekend at Bernie’s (1989) and the delightful Little Miss Sunshine (2006), Bad Grandpa is 92 minutes of dick and fart jokes. And those dick and fart jokes were apparently foot-stompingly appreciated in my cinema; the promise of the trailer fulfilled.

Having forgotten the film by the time I got home, I didn’t anticipate writing on it. The morning after, however, a radio interview invitation wrenched me back.

The topic was accents. About why we seem to have a tolerance for impersonations of American accents for example, but we wouldn’t dare mimic any Asian ones. About how it’s impossible to imagine - now comfortably into the twenty-first century - an impersonation of an Indigenous Australian going without furore but Irish and English ones rarely bristle.

My contribution to the conversation was a “power” answer. About how Australians think of Americans and the English as being like us, about sharing similar privilege, similar humour, similar status. To impersonate an Indian for example, or an African-American, and suddenly - intended or not - we stir in class and conflict and assumed powerlessness and impoverishment.

We apparently can’t impersonate those we deem holding less cultural capital than us; that to do so opens us up for accusations of racism, stereotyping and mockery.

So is it okay to impersonate an old man?

The protagonist of Bad Grandpa is played by the 42-year-old daredevil Johnny Knoxville. Complete with an exaggerated stoop and pendulous testicles.

Is this okay?

I’m pretty much never offended and Bad Grandpa certainly didn’t stir that in me. Nevertheless, the conversation is worth having.

Is dressing up and impersonating an old person palatable in our culture?

In his opening remarks at my book launch last week, my emcee acknowledged the traditional land owners and then noted that “an elder is here with us tonight”. That “elder” was my 84-year-old grandma and she looked as though she wanted her chair to swallow her.

I wouldn’t say that ours is a culture of rampant elder abuse - quite obviously, my family lets grandma-ma out of the cage to attend book launches every couple of years - nevertheless, equally the laughter that the comment prompted highlights that honouring our elders is not something we commonly do.

As is my sphere of interest, older people in general are largely absent from popular culture. They’re relegated to morning television’s “final expenses” insurance ads and to best-supporting-grandparents roles. It would thus, be safe to say that in Western culture elders don’t have the same cultural capital as younger people.

So, when Knoxville dons the wrinkly skin and the white wig, the film is not about him impersonating someone just like him - mimicking someone of equal social standing - but rather, mocking someone with less cultural capital.

There are lots of reasons not to see Bad Grandpa - that it’s scarcely funny is a clear example - but the film does raise some important questions about what slips under the radar in our culture. And why.

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