What "Neighbors" and "Chef" can teach us about white male privilege

Seth Rogen and Jon Favreau are better stand-ins for White America than Princeton Kid

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published May 10, 2014 4:30PM (EDT)

Jon Favreau in "Chef," Seth Rogen in "Neighbors"
Jon Favreau in "Chef," Seth Rogen in "Neighbors"

From my platform of white male privilege, please allow me to explain to you why white male privilege is the great issue of our time. I’m kidding, sort of. Maybe not enough. I’m not going to write a personal essay about my own reckoning with white privilege, I promise, even though I have occasionally been made aware that as a white guy with a loud voice (literally and metaphorically) I may possess advantages I don’t always notice. I have two rules for evaluating other people’s rhetoric that have worked pretty well: 1) Whenever someone congratulates himself in public for getting something right, he’s wrong. 2) Whenever someone indulges in public self-criticism, he’s got something to hide. Those rules are impossible to apply consistently to oneself, of course, but it’s still worth trying.

Instead I want to talk about Jon Favreau and Seth Rogen, a couple of lumpy, hirsute guys from Hollywood who have more or less good intentions and aren’t flaming bigots. Because if they don’t stand for the entirety of white America, who does? Their new comedies, which are almost entirely free of any overt social or political text – Favreau wrote, directed and stars in “Chef,” while Rogen stars in the bawdy hit “Neighbors” – seem like half-accidental reflections or distillations of our current fixation on the plight of the Caucasian male. Favreau’s disgraced and unemployed chef finds salvation through a form of fantasy integration with racial and ethnic otherness, in the form of a Latino best friend, back-to-basics Cuban cuisine, a food truck and the undying love of Sofía Vergara. (It’s a political program a lot of white dudes could get behind!) To reclaim his masculinity, Rogen’s neurotic, emasculated dad-husband must confront and defeat a symbol of thoughtless, overconfident and intensely sexualized white privilege, impressively embodied by Zac Efron. It’s a victory for namby-pamby liberalism! (And, as such, completely illusory.)

But wait; let’s back up. Public discourse of the 21st century keeps on circling back to the itchy question of whiteness, rather like a child picking off a scab over and over again. With one of our two supposed political parties apparently committed to a medium-term identity as the voice of white discontent, and a long national history of racial divisions being exploited to defuse class conflict, the stakes of Whitegate are enormous. On both the right and the left, it also risks becoming an exercise in racial navel-gazing, since the central issue is how white people understand their current situation, and whether their perceptions about themselves are accurate. Is the slowly declining white majority becoming a persecuted and demonized pseudo-minority, unfairly blamed by tenured radicals and MSNBC talking heads for a whole litany of social ills? Or do whites increasingly inhabit an oblivious fantasy world, where America’s ugly racial history has been erased and their own disproportionate levels of wealth, power and (yes) cultural privilege are invisible?

In context, you can probably figure out which of those hypotheses I find more convincing. But the questions about who’s right, who’s wrong and who’s delusional less interesting than the ones about how we got here and what the hell we do about it. Most of the recent discussion about this issue has focused on extremes, generalizations and stereotypes, which is – I know! – super-surprising in the age of Twitter and the overcaffeinated, meme-driven stupidity of the news cycle. In recent weeks, for example, we have learned a number of remarkable things: A right-wing, anti-government Nevada rancher born in the 1940s, who in all probability has never had a conversation with a black person, might be an unreconstructed old-school racist; a Los Angeles real-estate tycoon born in the 1930s, and widely known to be an unpleasant person, might be a bigot in private despite owning a basketball team loaded with black players; and a Princeton freshman born in the 1990s might have no idea about much of anything and believe that America haz not racism. (I call dibs on the satirical screenplay about his smoldering Mrs. Robinson-style affair with this lady, by the way.)

Those guys have launched a thousand essays about white privilege and white supremacy and the burden of racism onto the wine-dark sea of the Internet (mea culpa), but they’re all pretty much Sideshow Bob set against the bigger and more complicated issues. It’s probably true, as Katie McDonough and Paul Rosenberg have variously argued in Salon, that Princeton kid Tal Fortgang can be taken to represent a substantial Panglossian subset of white folks who believe (or want to believe) that racism was defeated long ago, we live in a colorblind meritocracy with a level playing field, and maybe all those whiners who want to talk about so-called structural issues should work on their entrepreneurial skills instead. (Or should have been born with more money.) But Fortgang is so conspicuously eager to become a right-wing celebrity for five minutes, so conspicuously arrogant and ignorant, that he’s a little too easy to make fun of.

Now, it’s entirely possible that Fortgang has had people tell him to “check his privilege” mostly as a way of shutting him up. That happens. It’s not exactly breaking news that academic debates about issues of race and power are not always temperate and judicious – and Fortgang seems like someone you might want to shut up, even if it required being mean. As Paul Rosenberg’s article discusses at length, invocations of white privilege are not meant, in principle, to silence white people’s voices or to demand some existential apology. They are, however, meant to place white people’s utterances in a social and historical context that can seem unfamiliar and uncomfortable, one in which the default setting of American life – whiteness as a neutral, “normal” and essentially nonracial perspective – is called into question.

Now, there are also legitimate reasons, rooted both in human psychology and economic reality, why many white people resent the charge of white privilege. Given the stagnant economic conditions of the last 40 years or so, white Americans of the middle class or below certainly don’t feel privileged; most of them work longer hours than their parents did with less to show for it. The fact that, on average, a white household is many times wealthier than a black household is cold comfort when you’re facing eviction or foreclosure or unemployment. Then there is the toxic confusion between race and class I mentioned earlier, one of the most persistently destructive elements of American political life. While most wealth and power is in the hands of whites, it does not follow that all whites are wealthy and powerful.

There are almost 20 million white people living in poverty in America, about half the total. (While poor whites are slightly wealthier on average than poor blacks, the difference is very small.) I spend part of the summer in a county in central New York state that is 96 percent white, where median household income is lower than in the Bronx (the poorest, and least white, borough of New York City). Unemployment and obesity are widespread, a large proportion of families receive government assistance, and local rumors suggest a thriving heroin trade. Nearly all the kids at our local elementary school qualify for the free-lunch program. It’s meaningless to speak of the people in that county as possessing white privilege, except in one sense: They have been persuaded, implicitly or explicitly, to blame liberal policies and urban people of color for their predicament, and overwhelmingly vote Republican.

I am not disputing that white privilege exists, or that it is inherently difficult for white people to observe it. As we see so hilariously in the case of Tal Fortgang, the term tends to put white people on the defensive, to make them feel that they are being viewed in the aggregate, as an undifferentiated mass of money and beach houses and made-up cocktails and incomprehensible footwear trends, instead of seen in all their wonderful diversity and complexity. There’s a marvelous irony there, perhaps, given that racism is precisely about gathering disparate individuals together into a social construction that has no clear or objective meaning. (Consider the amorphous history of the labels “white” and “black,” which have meant different things at different times.) Turnabout is fair play, and so on. Anyway, that’s where Seth Rogen and Jon Favreau come in, a pair of Hollywood celebrities playing white guys who struggle and suffer and endure and triumph, despite the overwhelming odds.

I enjoyed watching both “Chef” and “Neighbors,” in the sense that both are capably crafted entertainments with likable-shlub protagonists that arrive on schedule at their entirely obvious destinations. That didn’t stop me from observing that the first is a naked wish-fulfillment fantasy of redemption and authenticity, brought to us by one of the most successful men in Hollywood, while the second desperately attempts to cast a bespectacled, pot-smoking nerd-dad with a cubicle job as a new sort of masculine hero for our uncertain age. There’s something endearing about both these guys and their chivalric quests, although in the case of “Chef” there’s also a distinctive aroma of adolescent porn for 40-year-old guys. Favreau is a cheerful-looking fellow, but nobody’s going to take him for George Clooney; here he has the painful task of choosing between his Latina bombshell ex-wife (Vergara), still carrying a torch for him, if she can find it in her enormous Brentwood mansion, and his no-strings sex-pal relationship with the hostess at his restaurant, played by Scarlett Johansson in a Bettie Page haircut and a series of low-cut blouses.

Favreau’s character loses his gig at a hot L.A. boîte after a run-in with a food blogger and a viral video of something that would never actually go viral, and has to recover his manhood and mojo by temporarily relocating to Miami, renovating a decrepit old taco truck and selling hipsterized Cuban sandwiches alongside his semi-estranged 10-year-old kid and best-bud John Leguizamo. The sandwiches look delicious, but the analogy is confusing: Does Favreau feel that the critics were mean to him about “Iron Man 2”? Did he lose his way amid the millions of dollars and available women of his difficult life in Beverly Hills? Is this movie his own personal taco truck, his symbolic reconnection with the everyday, people-pleasing roast pork of the entertainment biz? Favreau’s obvious affection for Latin food, music and culture comes through, but it’s striking that the character is rejuvenated precisely through his contact with this cultural “otherness,” through Vergara, Leguizamo and the eateries of Little Havana. In his truck, itself a signifier of Latino identity, he is reborn as “El Jefe,” conduit of all this deliciousness to white people less hip than himself.

There’s no explicit racial text in “Neighbors” at all. In fact, it depicts a colorblind suburbia in which the cynical, Garfield-loving local cop is African-American and there’s one black kid in the fraternity that trashes the neighborhood. Those marginal characters don’t disrupt the atmosphere of genial, leafy blandness or the intra-racial nature of the drama, in which Rogen plays a bumbling liberal dad, the very embodiment of a two-time Obama voter who will forget to show up for the midterm election. He welcomes the prospect of a gay couple moving in next door, but when the frat boys show up instead, he’s torn between superego and Id, between the social mandate to keep them in line and the disruptive allure of their macho hedonism. It is Rogen’s Mac, not his wife (Rose Byrne), who overtly sexualizes Zac Efron’s frat president, comparing his enormous veined arms to gigantic penises.

But this isn’t exactly a story about homoerotic desire, or at least that ingredient is deeply buried. (For a movie in this guy-comedy genre, interestingly, very little attention is paid to female sexuality, and that’s mostly negative or farcical.) For Mac, Efron’s Teddy represents a road not taken, or more properly a road no longer available, a vision of careless, confident and consequence-free masculinity that is foreclosed to guys like Mac, doomed to brunch, strollers, mortgage payments and 9:30 bedtimes. While “Neighbors” seeks to deflate Teddy’s erotic power in the end, representing him finally as nothing more than a walking Abercrombie & Fitch ad, the better and nobler course of economic and familial drudgery that Mac has chosen – to the extent one can call it a choice – is shockingly constricted. The moralistic conclusion of the film contains its subversive antithesis, its politically unacceptable longing for the past. White privilege just isn’t what it used to be.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

MORE FROM Andrew O'Hehir