Hello and welcome to Is This Problematic? the ongoing thought experiment where we (Brooke and Shannon) revisit the films of the past and near-past with a feminist lens and ask ourselves the tough questions about the narratives that shaped the culture, and our younger selves.
The film: Beetlejuice
It’s the film that gave us a pre-Jack Ryan Alec Baldwin, a pre-Thelma Geena Davis, a pre-Veronica (not a Heather) Winona Ryder, and in the titular role, a pre-Batman Michael Keaton. And it’s the movie that ignited in a pre-teen Shannon a lifelong love of dark comedy. In Beetlejuice, Pollyannaish Connecticuters Barbara and Adam cross the bridge to the afterlife (literally) on the first day of their staycation, and the delightfully snobbish Deetz family moves in to their house soon after. When this Odd (Dead) Couple situation comes to a head, our ghostly heroes call on a cadaverous con man for help.
B, opening thoughts? Did Tim Burton serve us up a big plate of problematic?
B: Curiously enough, for a film with an IMDB logline that includes the word “sleazy,” Beetlejuice didn’t inspire more than a few mild blips on the good ol’ cringe-o-meter. Betelgeuse himself is absolutely repulsive, but as he’s the villain, that’s by design, and in service of the plot, which makes this whole scenario much less cut-and-dry.
Here we are on our second outing, already spoiled by the wealth of material in Pretty Woman. But, I’m glad of it, because we’re nothing if not up to the task of peeling back the layers of nuance that surround Betelgeuse like so many shrouds in Lydia’s wardrobe.
Which brings me to some critical questions. Admittedly, I didn’t get to experience Beetlejuice in the moment as it came out the year I was born, but I grew up with this movie, and I remember so many young boys loving Betelgeuse, the ghoul, specifically.
As kids, we didn’t fully grasp his thrusty, gropey quality of menace, and when you eliminate that context, it’s easy to see why this movie, for them, was all about the guy who turned into a snake and made goofy commercials and lived in a model village.
So tell me, S, what was the cultural reaction to our least favorite ghoul? Did people love the wise-cracking creep? Was this a Joker situation where people liked the baddie more than the heroes? I can’t begin to suss out how to feel about the way the movie treats him until I know how he was received.
S: Oof. You had to make me do math, didn’t you, B? I know that wasn’t your intention, but I just spent way too long calculating what grade I was in/age I was when Beetlejuice was released (March 30, 1988, FYI). Turns out, 4th grade/10. And here’s the problem with that. At age 10, I was far more focused on what the New Kids on the Block were up to than I was concerned with the cultural response to a film I probably wasn’t allowed to watch when it first came out. (I just confirmed with my mother that it was likely on the prohibited films list, and that my first viewing was probably on HBO or *GASP* VHS a year or two later.)
Here’s what I do remember, however: a follow-up Beetlejuice animated series was definitely a thing – from 1989 to 1991. I distinctly remember being into this (and also into a New Kids on the Block cartoon that ran for one season in 1990, for that matter).
Somewhere between the movie lot and the animation studio, steps were taken to create a more endearing character. The cartoon version of our scoundrelly spirit was decidedly less gropey than his live action counterpart. He and Lydia became co-adventurers who cared for each other. His defining character trait shifted from sexually agressive savage to punny prankster.
And that brings me back to your question, B. Did people like the baddie more than the heroes? I would say yes. Barbara and Adam, though the lead roles in the film, disappeared completely when the story took to the small screen. You don’t see Delia costumes on HalloweenCostumes.com (though I would argue that Catherine O’Hara’s wardrobe is MUCH more deserving of emulation than our titular villain’s). And Otho’s lines are assuredly not the most frequently quoted on all of the film quotes sites that Google serves up.
So here’s my question for you, B. Are we ok with this? We’ve acknowledged that Betelgeuse is the bad guy in this flick, and his creepy, gropey, aggressive behavior certainly backs this up. Are we ok with the fact that a character who straight up assaults women is so beloved – enough so that a G-rated version of this creeper is pronounced appropriate for kids? These are the tough questions I’m grappling with.
B: Okay. I watched the intro to the animated series and I think I fell into an actual time warp or at least that horrific tunnel from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, because those images were buried deep in my brain and they came flooding back. Admittedly, Beetlejuice the series has similar vibes to Aaahh! Real Monsters, which I frequently watched as part of the NickToons line-up, but this was certainly not the first time I witnessed the de-fanged version of Betelgeuse.
It’s also worth noting that the series description pegs Lydia as a 12-year-old, which suggests she was aged down even as the titular ghoul got a personality makeover. Because let’s be honest, however many times Barbara called Lydia “little girl,” a preteen just isn’t capable of angsty one-liners like “My entire life is a darkroom.” And I have to say, the fact that many tonal adjustments were made brings me rather a lot of comfort in Betelgeuse’s transformation from lecherous creep to court jester. The whole maneuver feels like a cash-grab reboot. Sure, it’s been made audience appropriate because that’s where the money is, but by Hollywood standards that’s almost an admission that the film Beetlejuice was ill-suited for idol worship.
And here’s the other thing, as repugnant as a find the character Betelgeuse to be, I don’t fault the picture for his ascension to icon status. Everything in the way Betelgeuse is stylized and written suggests we’re meant to be as wary of him as everyone else in the movie. He’s dirty and tattered, his teeth make the Grinch look like a dental model and you can practically see cartoon stink lines coming off of him. And for all that, I tend to think Tim Burton never meant to craft affinity for him.
The more I think about it, the more I find my feathers distinctly unruffled to see a bad guy being a bad guy. I don’t love that the culture decided he was worth quoting, but I also think the most problematic thing that’s ever happened in a Betelgeuse costume is when Robin Thicke performed his rapey “summer anthem” Blurred Lines in one at the VMAs in 2013. Did we need to have visual and aural cacophony all at once? So, all deference to Karen Kilgariff, I guess what I’m saying is “toxic masculinity ruins the party again.” A noxious character didn’t need to be lionized and a garbage song didn’t need to become a ubiquitous smash, but all of that happened anyway.
What do you think, S? Am I being too forgiving here because I want to keep a safe space for baddies like Anton Chigurh and Michael Corleone in my heart? They weren’t sexual predators, but many’s the time I’ve held them up as incredible characters precisely because they are ideal villains. If there is a line, where do we draw it?
S: So here’s the thing about Anton Chigurh and Michael Corleone…neither of them is a sexual predator (though I think we all can agree that the Godfather is a less-than-ideal husband). And yet, we STILL understand that they’re bad guys. That is the distinction that gives me pause when it comes to Beetlejuice.
In general, Tim Burton deserves a standing ovation for his treatment of women in this film. Lydia is strong and unconventional; Delia is a fierce, fearless female; and Barbara – not a man – is the character who eradicates Betelgeuse from the good guys’ collective abode astride a sand worm.
Where I begin to question the film is in its treatment of the villain, and the way in which his character is defined via his treatment of women. We know he’s a baddie because of the way he looks. We accept that he’s a villain because his actions clearly demonstrate that he’s a con man and trickster. So is it necessary, then, to further define the character’s depravity by making him a groper of women? Anton Chigurh and Michael Corleone show us that it’s possible to create a deliciously evil villain without resorting to rapiness. So why then, do so many movies lean on this crutch? (I’m looking at you, The Shape of Water.)
I don’t know the answer, but I find myself asking the question every time I watch a movie (or for that matter, a TV show) in which this is the case.
So what say you, B? Shall we kick it over to some stray observations before we determine Beetlejuice‘s fate?
B: I think our only option is to designate a super official Creeper Crutch Award and give it out any time we see this kind of evil amplification through rape-y vibes. Congrats to our least favorite character for inspiring it and earning the inaugural Creeper Crutch!
And now on to a few stray observations:
- Jane Butterfield, the nosy neighbor/realtor suggests that Barbara and Adam aren’t a family because they don’t have kids — not cool, Jane.
- Catherine O’Hara screaming anything is always the best.
- One of the dinner party guests proves that even rich, artistic Manhattan types had a long way to go to get woke in 1988, by slinging this gross barb at Otho: “‘Paranormal,’ is that what they’re calling your kind these days?”
- Present day Brooke wants to be best pals with Lydia every bit as much as young Brooke.
Whatcha got, S? Give us your thoughts and then let’s get into the verdict.
S: 1,000% yes on the Creeper Crutch Award. I fear we will award many a prize during our time here at ITP.
In the meantime, look out! Stray observations comin’ in hot!
- Speaking of Jane Butterfield, did you notice that she and her daughter wear the same outfit whenever they appear together? Nothing problematic there, just a nice touch by our friend Tim.
- My belief is that Barbara and Adam are not in limbo, but rather in some sort of hell in which Geena Davis is forced to wear pantyhose for infinity. Gah!
- Otho’s uber tone deaf retort to Beryl, one of the dinner party guests: “I hope it wasn’t yet another of your dreary suicide attempts.” Double gah!
- Can I cast Winona Ryder to play me in the fictional biopic about my life? I’m sure she has time between shooting seasons of Stranger Things.
Well, B, I’m off to continue working on my screenplay. While I hash out the denouement, why don’t you give this post a resolution if its own?
B: All that’s left is the arithmetic, let’s find out where Beetlejuice lands on our scale of 1-10 cringes.
- +5 cringes for the titular grabby ghoul
- -7 cringes for the trifecta of Winona Ryder, Geena Davis and Catherine O’Hara
- + 1 cringe for the frequent dismissal of Lydia as a little girl
- +4 cringes for the decor Delia imposes on that charming old house, I mean, all-around cement? The glass square island?
- -2 cringes for the words that got every weirdo through high school, “I myself am strange and unusual.”
That leaves us at one cringe. And even though we have some lingering questions about Betelgeuse’s pervy characterization, that feels about right. There’s very little in the course of this movie to give us pause, and what a relief! It’s fantastic to be able to enjoy an iconic piece of 80s cinema without bracing for the issues (don’t worry, we’ll get there, again and again).
Did I miss anything?
S: Excellent analysis, B. I only have two things to add.
- -1 additional cringe for Winona, Geena and Catherine. I love them so.
- +1 additional cringe (for different reasons) for the claymation special effects. This movie totally holds up…until you see a sand worm or the Betelgeuse snake – ugh.
This still leaves us at one cringe – and again, we agree. Though Beetlejuice does lean a bit too hard on the Creeper Crutch, the movie’s female characters are fully formed humans with their own agendas, it’s delightfully weird in all the right ways, and this recent rewatch introduced my new favorite gif into regular rotation.
We’re sticking with the 80s for our next selection, The Terminator. Somehow we think James Cameron is going to get due credit for more than his directorial vision.