Chocolate Proletariat

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?

Chocolate Proletariat

12 thoughts on “Chocolate Proletariat

  • July 24, 2005 at 7:22 am

    Fabulous analysis, Mike. No way was I rolling my eyes.

  • July 24, 2005 at 6:20 pm

    Well, yes, you are out in left field, Mike, but I’m pretty much there with you. But would you agree, with Dorothea, that the movie is *subversive* in its representation of class and labor? As much as I enjoyed the visual pleasure of the movie, I just couldn’t get comfortable with the way class and labor were represented in the movie. The Oompa Loompas bothered me most: I thought surely they would have found a way to do *something* with the Oompa Loompas so that they wouldn’t so obviously be exploited third world people. But no! They’ve made it worse–you’re point about one actor portraying all of them is well made. Or maybe Dorothea is right, and the over-the-topness can work as a way to subvert labor abuse? Hmm.

    Anyway, great analysis of the various class positions that each child/family represents.

  • July 24, 2005 at 8:23 pm

    I think — I certainly hope! — the over-the-topness was intentional precisely to make people a wee bit uncomfortable. I do think this is what was intended, because of the scrapbook pages (okay, HERE I’ll spoil it) talking about how the original opening of the factory was such a boon to local employment.

    The sad thing is, the subversion doesn’t seem to have worked. I haven’t seen a single review pick up on this, and I’ve read many. Or maybe people are too uncomfortable with it to comment?

  • July 24, 2005 at 10:20 pm

    I think it’s the discomfort thing, Dorothea, and the idea that it’s supposed to be a “children’s” movie, and in America we mustn’t talk about class issues in front of the children. I hadn’t even thought about the scrapbook pages, but — wow — yes, absolutely: newspaper articles about local employment, the tenements over which Wonka’s factory towers, the lockout, third-world cheap labor, increased consumption brings about automation brings about unemployment, and then the way in which a certain thing gets subsumed into another thing in the end — the more one looks at it, the more glaring it seems.

    And Donna, I agree with Dorothea that the glaring quality — that very over-the-topness — was likely in service of subversive critique. I mean, Burton skewered suburbia in Edward Scissorhands, fears of miscegenation in Planet of the Apes, yuppie homemakers in Beetlejuice: the guy ain’t exactly subtle. In his own way, I think he’s doing a little bit of what Freire called “problem-posing,” and — let’s be honest — if you’re not doing art-house stuff, you can’t really afford subtlety in American cinema. (And I suddenly feel like I should offer a general apology: that sentence itself constitutes a bit of Matthew Arnoldian classist snobbery.) And, again, Dorothea’s right: people still aren’t talking about it, despite the over-the-topness of the way in which Burton poses the problem.

    I wonder if there’s some sort of tendency where movie critics consider themselves to be high-art cultural critics, far above commenting on crudely material and crass concerns of labor and class. As usual, the Chicago Reader is a welcome exception with J. R. Jones’s careful review — but I wish they’d given the assignment to Jonathan Rosenbaum, who’s had fine things to say in the past about representations of class in American cinema.

  • July 25, 2005 at 9:44 am

    I wish you’d spell out what you think the implications of the ending are, Mike, with all appropriate spoiler warnings of course. I think I know more or less what you mean, but I am very possibly wrong.

  • July 25, 2005 at 2:30 pm

    Good points, Dorothea and Mike. I’m happy to be convinced of the movie’s subversive intent. I think I had been lulled to sleep by critics (including A O Scott of the NY Times) who assured me the movie had no point (just like candy!).

    So that leaves open the question, though, of the effect, doesn’t it? What does the skewering of labor abuse and class stratification do if only the three of us see it? (I realize this is a bigger question for any political art–but why not raise it?) And might the visual pleasures of the film *affectively* subvert the politically subversive intent?

  • July 25, 2005 at 5:33 pm

    Donna, I think you’re right on about people being distracted by The Pretty. (I mean, I went to see Johnny Depp. I’m sure I’m not alone. I just kept getting whacked in the face with this reading like a big wet fish.)

    I’m just boggled by all these reviewers who proudly proclaim that they looked for a point and didn’t find one, though. Dudes. Stop looking under the lamppost and c’mon over here…

  • July 25, 2005 at 8:46 pm

    I think I can manage to be sufficiently vague here, Dorothea: the implications of the ending — with the external shot in that last scene that suddenly, startlingly becomes an internal shot — seem to me to be that no matter what happens, or how much they advance, the poor can never truly leave behind the trappings of their poverty. There’s also the weird concluding notion about the poor serving as emotional or affective surrogates or proxies for the rich; an idea that I’ve seen echoed in some of the literature in my discipline that constructs the working class as somehow more emotional than the middle class or the professional class.

    I like what you said, too, Dorothea, about the rules of the zero-sum game and who plays and who doesn’t, although the notion that the losers not only lose but must be humiliated or destroyed is much more Dahl than Burton.

    And yeah, I’ll admit I was distracted by The Pretty, as well. I’m not surprised A. O. Scott missed the class stuff — I mean, look at the NYT’s pathetic past treatment of class and inequality — but aside from that, I don’t have much an answer for your question about political art, Donna. It seems like a two-stage question, though: first, how explicit should one be with one’s political intent; how much do you display or show your audience about the workings of your rhetoric? Shadi Bartsch, in her fantastic study of Neronian literature in Actors in the Audience, talks about works of art that carry multiple and sometimes diametrically opposed meanings depending upon who’s interpreting them, essentially turning Leo Strauss’s esoteric / exoteric binary to the liberatory left rather than to Strauss’s elitist and Machiavellian right. (As it happens, she’s at Chicago, too.) Then the second stage of the question is: how does this political message or rhetoric or art, encoded within artifacts of culture, become political action?

    Like I said, I don’t really have an answer. But I think it’s a good question, and I’d be curious to hear what you think.

  • July 25, 2005 at 10:02 pm

    I think I’m growing jaded and cynical in my older age. That’s what I think. Well, not entirely. But when I was young and writing poetry, I used to think art could wake people up, change the world, all that. And I still want to believe it can. Which is why, these days, I’m more interested in the affective than the deliberative. I’m just not sure people wake up just because they’re “told” things. So if there’s a message, we have to read it, yes? But there’s so much more to feel in the movie, feelings that maybe short-circuit a reading. I mean, my reading was short-circuited. So political art seems to need to make a different kind of feeling possible.

    But good conversation, all. And, Mike, I like that point about the poor/working class becoming affective surrogates. In the movie and in our field. Totally, yes.

  • July 25, 2005 at 10:37 pm

    To address Donna’s first paragraph, I’d like to add that for many people the reading is related to the book and related to their children and how they perceive it (Tristan read the book three times in the last month in preparation for this movie) because although it’s one of the many “children’s” movies that translates generational boundaries, those of us who have kids will be first and foremost concerned with their reading of it, not the critics’ determination (or lack thereof). That kaleidoscope may not render the most critical reading which Mike and Dorothea have given (or maybe I’m just making excuses for myself).

    I would like to add that I thought that that Violet and her mother and their parental-child unit, sans a father, absence of whom was unexplained and apparently unnecessary, was indicative of western society’s obsessive overachieving woman who in efforts at independence has championed single motherhood to a point where it is selfish. Of course, this is nothing new. Disney does this all the time. Most Disney films have one parent missing and often, it is the father.

  • August 6, 2005 at 8:36 am

    I just saw the movie a little while ago, so I’m coming to this late.

    Deep Roy, the actor who played all the Oompa Loompas, has a long history of playing under heavy make-up or inside boxes. While I don’t mean to distract from the analyses of the sameness and otherness of the Oompa Loompas, my wife and I were delighted that Roy got so much “face time” (even if his voice was dubbed).

    For those intersted in a racial reading of Oompa Loompas, I suggest this student paper, posted on, which describes Dahl’s revision of the book (based on pressure from the NAACP.

    The paper describes Dahl as changing the description of the Oompa Loompas from variations of African Pygmies to rosy-cheeked dwarfs (who look like white flower children).

  • August 7, 2005 at 6:42 pm

    Dennis, I’m glad you posted that link here. I read the paper earlier and thought it was quite insightful. I didn’t, for instance, even know about the second edition revising so much and the backlash from the NAACP. Very interesting.

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