Adam Sandler is in trouble lately. And it’s not just because his 90s brand of humour is the least the culturally relevant it’s ever been, but rather because all signs are pointing to his upcoming works being sexist and racist. While it may not be much of a surprise to the mainstream, who have grown accustomed to hating Sandler’s more recent films (and who groaned at news of Netflix signing Sandler for an exclusive four-movie deal), it’s hitting me, personally, like a bit of a slap in the face. And that in itself is kind of embarrassing.
I’ve been a fan of Sandler for a long time. It started with Big Daddy in 1999, when my (only slightly) older cousins introduced me to it. From then, I worked my way back to The Waterboy, Happy Gilmore and (what grew to be my favourite) Billy Madison. Of course, I’d see also see Little Nicky and Mr. Deeds when they came out, followed by I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry and (my more recent favourite) You Don’t Mess with the Zohan. His earlier 90s films were a hit and easily deemed hilarious. As time went on, his humour stayed the same while the cultural zeitgeist generally leaned toward smarter comedy. But with Grown Ups and its sequel each bringing in over $200 million, it’s clear that Sandler fans are still Sandler fans and will pay to see his movie (myself included).
But back to the issue at hand. What’s so shocking to me about the fact that his latest work is getting called out as sexist and racist is the fact that, as a feminist and film lover, I never explicitly realized this in his other films. In a way, I’d been blind to his stereotypical and sexist portrayals because I mostly glazed over those details in his films in favour of their ridiculous hilarity. (If you’re going to keep reading, just bear with me calling his movies funny, or should I say, Just Go With It.)
Looking back, it’s so easy to pick out countless stereotypical and insulting details in his films when put my mind to it, even the films that I haven’t seen in a few years. The women in many of his films are over-sexualized (Billy Madison, The Waterboy, Big Daddy), there are insensitive racial stereotypes (You Don’t Mess with the Zohan) and there are issues in the portrayal of sexuality (I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, Big Daddy). He’s been making movies this way for years and no one has called him out… until recently.
So if it’s so obvious now, why hadn’t I noticed before? I guess I wasn’t really paying attention and part of the reason for that was that I became a Sandler fan when I was but 10 years old and 10 year olds aren’t, generally, critical about their film choices. They don’t analyze the representation of women and gender in film. Instead, they look for films that make them laugh and they ignore the jokes they don’t understand. Because I grew up enjoying Sandler’s humour, those are the parts of his films that I cared about through the years. His films are also nonsensical and they’re not meant to make you think.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m absolutely not defending myself. I’ve been wrong in not maturing my viewing of his films as I got older, which is why I’m disappointed in myself for not realizing this sooner.
That said, not all of his films are so insulting and when much of the public’s attention is focussed on the shortcomings of his work, some of the better pieces get missed or forgotten. What about The Wedding Singer? Or Punch-Drunk Love? And Blended kind of had its heart in the right place, didn’t it?
He also worked on films that trespass stereotypical territory, but we can still whole-heartedly appreciate, like The House Bunny and The Longest Yard (which, by the way, had a really great representation of racial diversity). But that’s not to say that just because you can balance the good bits with the insulting bits that all is fair.
So where does all that leave a Sandler fan? Should I stop watching his movies? Should I team up with the forces against him and boycott his work? Should I lose hope that The Ridiculous Six can actually turn out to be an enjoyable movie? I honestly can’t. I’ve laughed too much over the years at his stupid jokes that I couldn’t go forward depriving myself of the Sandler style of humour. But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to change my viewing habits.
This latest commentary on Sandler means that in order for me to continue to enjoy his films, I need to be a more critical viewer. If I’m going to defend his humour, I’m also going to have to call out his shortcomings point blank. In some ways, it does make me less of an adamant fan, but justifiably so. I’m taking it in as a learning lesson and hoping that Sandler does too.