My attorney and I went to see Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory today, and we enjoyed it immensely. Like Bill, I totally saw the Michael Jackson connection; Bill’s thoughts on the implications of Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka being “repelled by the very notion of nuclear family” are well worth a read. And like Bill, I totally loved the songs. Missi Pyle as Mrs. Beauregarde was fantastic, as was Johnny Depp, who did a fine job of displaying the misanthropic — and at times downright sadistic — tendencies evident throughout Dahl’s body of work. And the movie is simultaneously gorgeous and hallucinatory, and very, very funny.
What really interested me, though, was Dorothea Salo’s fine and productive reading of the movie as being “about labor, abuse thereof.” She’s totally, totally right, and if you don’t want to know any more about the movie, please don’t read any further: no major spoilers, but there are some minor revelations about the movie’s content.
Still, there’s nothing really original here: my points are little more than an extended riff on Dorothea’s fundamental insight about the movie’s exploitation theme, and I think the proof of Dorothea’s insight is evident from the early flashback of the literal labor lockout at the factory gates, and even more evident in the origins of the Oompa-Loompas, who, as Dorothea points out, “live on a byproduct of the factory, so they’re cheap. They’ve been rescued from (what they considered to be) squalor, so they’re infinitely loyal.”
But let me take it a little further: the Oompa-Loompas are brown-skinned and diminutive, and the reference to child labor in Pakistan, India, Indonesia, and elsewhere is unignorable. They’re happy to work for low wages, and they come from a place where they lived in what Wonka clearly considers to be wretchedness and hunger. And, as brown-skinned people, they are “mischievous” and powerful despite their exploited and subordinate position — and they can dance and sing, too. Perhaps most importantly, they’re all played by the same actor, indicative — I think — of a possible critique of the “they all look the same” attitude many white westerners take towards those who work at the call centers in Bangalore or the shoe factories in Indonesia.
So maybe you’re rolling your eyes at this point, muttering to yourself, “OK, he’s been working on the dissertation too long, and he’s just reading wayyyy too much into this.” But I really think Dorothea’s on to something here, because once you see the relations of social class and domination in the movie, they’re impossible to ignore, from the very first juxtaposition of the immense Wonka factory with the tiny, ramshackle Bucket house to its odd and troubling echo in the movie’s conclusion.
But maybe a little conventional sociological class analysis will be more convincing. Consider, in their ranks from lowest to highest class position, what the movie’s children represent.
Charlie Bucket’s father is a line worker in a factory who loses his job to a machine that screws toothpaste caps onto tubes of toothpaste, and Charlie himself is shown shining shoes at one point. Three generations of Charlie’s family share the same tiny house and scant meals of cabbage soup, and Charlie’s eventual values-based success is enabled only by the fact that he essentially bought a lottery ticket. Charlie’s background would best be described as working poor.
Augustus Gloop, whose father is a butcher and whose mother has a bit of a tacky hairdo, is the working class or lower middle class embodification of conspicuous overconsumption.
Mike Teavee, who lives in a relatively small home with wood paneling with a father who wears khakis but is rather less than fashionable, is the middle class instrumental military-industrial complex fetishization of technology.
Violet Beauregarde represents the suburban upper middle class rationalization of class inequality via the assertion that her success is due entirely to her own overachieving hard work (and, of course, the ruthless tendencies of her stage-managing mother).
And Veruca Salt and her father embody the explicit and ruthless all-consuming appropriation of surplus labor of the capitalist class.
Finally, at the movie’s end, there is a choice to be made that in some ways reinforces many stereotyped narratives about the working class and class mobility — and I’d argue that, if you think about the metaphorical consequences of who and what goes where in the ending, it’s much darker than it seems at first glance.
So, yeah, I loved the movie — and thinking about it this way, I’m starting to like it even more. Other folks who’ve seen it: am I just way out in left field with this?