Last night $61 got me, a friend, and our five boys tickets to see Dog Days, the latest movie based on the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. My buddy and I were in survival mode — both moms were away, all evening, and the money we shelled out was gold. It bought us the undying affection of our kids, for two hours at least.
The movie surprised me. Much of it is really, really funny. For this boarding school teacher, the riffs on “Spag Union” — the menacing boys’ prep school Greg Heffley will be shipped off to if he doesn’t shape up — were priceless. And there’s an aura of sweetness and tenderness throughout the film that made it feel, in the hellish context of middle school, almost redemptive. The whole time, my boys and I leaned close together, absorbed.
One of my curses, though, as someone who teaches about ethics, race, media, and popular culture, is that I can’t turn off my critical mind at the movies. And sure enough, this morning I woke up with a Dog Days hangover. Now “Dog Days” feels dangerously conventional, dangerously nostalgic. It gives us a whitewashed version of middle America in the 21st century: a virtually all-white cast living an all-white summer fantasy, with the slim, sparkling, country-club bikini blonde as dorky Greg’s ultimate prize. In this America, non-white characters are mere accessories, adding a dash of color and spice — the undersized, heavily-accented Indian boy who pops in for comic relief, and the stunning but vapid teen country club receptionist.
Call me morbid, call me twisted, but I woke up this morning with thoughts of Wade Michael Page. Remember him? The Wisconsin shooter, the white supremacist who had raged for years in his band about what had happened to the “real” America that was so “white and free”? The guy who couldn’t stand the sight of people who didn’t look or dress like him?
“Dog Days” is powerful stuff — the stuff of dreams, the stuff of desire. But our kids need to know that it’s mere fantasy, a childish, outmoded, and ultimately distorted vision of race and gender in America. Kids of all races deserve better.
Photograph by the author. Today’s book recommendation: Searching for Whitopia, by Rich Benjamin.