Overthinking It is celebrating our nation by searching for the most American piece of pop culture with the word “American” in the title. Read the entire series
he left side of the bracket secretly holds the right side of the bracket in mild contempt. Family and Capitalism are nice civilized pursuits, but Violence and Sex are primal. The right side of the bracket is what separates us from the animals, but on the left side you’re in the jungle, baby. You’re gonna die. Click to embiggen.
An American Tail and American Gangster have traveled a long road to get this far. Tail took down prestige weeper How to Make An American Quilt, early favorite American Beauty, and even the entire American Girl franchise. Gangster massacred Brad Paisley, Harvey Pekar, and Patrick freaking Bateman. But so far these competitors have only been evaluated in the arenas of Family and Capitalism, respectively. If they want to get to the championship match, they’re going to have to play on our turf.
Today, Stokes is going to decide which of these two has the most to say about ‘Merican Sex, and Belinkie will pick the winner for ‘Merican Violence. In the event of a split decision, a special tiebreaker will determine who advances to face a shaved, buff Edward Norton. One thing is for sure: Derek Vinyard is not going to like either the African American rapper or the Jewish immigrant. He is gonna be FIRED UP either way.
Round 1: Prepare to Imagine Cartoon Mice Having Sex
Neither American Gangster nor American Tail have much to do with sex. For Tail, which is a kids’ movie, this makes sense. But it’s a little more curious that sex is basically invisible in Gangster (with three notable exceptions, the songs “Hello Brooklyn,” “Party Life,” and “I Know”), even though Jay-Z runs through a whole litany of family-unfriendly behaviors on every other song on the album. The limited role for sex in these properties tells us something about ‘Merica’s relationship with sex: most things that aren’t explicitly and primarily concerned with sex will try to pretend that sex does not exist. We want sex to be sealed up in its own little box somewhere.
But sex is too bound up with the rest of our lives — and specifically with our concepts of family, capitalism, and violence — for that sequestration to really work. And the way that sex crops up around the edges of Tail and Gangster is quintessentially American.
If we try to read American Tail through all four of the ‘Merican categories that we’ve been judging in this contest, we find that the film is basically about how things are SUPPOSED to work in America. With regards to capitalism, it seems that — through toil and struggle — the Mousekewitz family eventually manages to provide a comfortable life for their children. Violence makes a few different appearances in the film, but at the end of the day violence is used to punish those who would use violence for bad purposes. With family… well, at this point I probably don’t need to tell you anything about how American Tail relates to family. And sex is presented in a similarly rosy light.
You might be thinking: what sex? And it’s true, this is an animated cartoon for schoolchildren. Sexy it ain’t. And yet sex creeps into the movie through the instant, smoldering chemistry between the supporting characters Bridget and Tony, who meet at an anti-cat rally and nearly lose the ability to form complete sentences, much to Fievel’s confusion. As sexual relationships go, theirs is pretty idyllic. Both mice are attractive teenagers — they’re at that age where people are supposed to go out and form romantic and sexual bonds. Their courtship proceeds almost as if it’s on rails, without even the slightest hiccup. (Really, I think this is because they’re such minor characters. They don’t get enough screen time to have a comic misunderstanding or anything like that.) But here’s the most important thing: Tony and Bridget are orphans. When Fievel finds his family at the end and the Mousekowitzes are all pulling each other into a big group hug, what do the orphans do? They start making out. The little kids in the film’s target audience are probably just thinking “yuck, kissing,” but the parents who bought the tickets are probably hearing the distant sound of wedding bells (and in the sequel, sure enough, Bridget and Tony show up in the background with a baby). And that, I think, is the film’s secret message about sex: sex is a way to form new families. The only point of love, the only point of lust, is that they eventually turn you into a married couple with 2.5 children. And if you pay attention to conventional morals, that’s how sex is SUPPOSED to work in American society…
Which honestly is almost enough to hand the victory to American Gangster.
Let’s not forget that, cute as Don Bluth might be able to make them look, mice are fucking VERMIN. You know what else is out there, somewhere, beneath the pale moonlight? Hantavirus. Typhus. The god damned plague. And consider this: One. Single. Breeding. Pair. Of Mice. Can produce. ONE HUNDRED AND THIRTY THOUSAND BABY MICE IN A SINGLE YEAR. (And Tony and Bridget are Catholic mice, so they are going to be off the god damned chain.)
Now some of you may be wondering why I’ve started channeling Donald Trump here. “They breed to much and spread disease” is, yes, the hoariest, nastiest, laziest anti-immigrant trope that there is. But I’m not talking about the American Tail mice as immigrants, I’m talking about them as mice, and mice actually do all these things. (Which is why hateful people use rodents as a way to insult immigrants in the first place.) But let’s flip that coin now, and start thinking about Bridget and Tony like they’re humans with funny ears. Even then, sex has its downsides. This is the late nineteenth century, so effective birth control is not so much a thing. If she gets pregnant, which she will, she loses her job and all of her social status (unless they get married right quick in which case she only loses her job). Death in childbirth is still a big, horrendous issue — depending on exactly when and where you’re talking about, the rates could be as high as forty(!) percent. And then there’s the simple matter of feeding and housing the kid in an environment of grinding poverty. American Tail ignores all of this. That’s not a disqualification — if you look back through the sex bracket, you’ll see that ignoring sex’s uglier aspects has often been a winning strategy. But I don’t think that there’s anything particularly ‘Merican about the claim that sex is only ever pure and wonderful and good. As a nation, we might be too busy to worry about the fact that sex can kill you. But we always make time for a full-blown panic over the fact that sex feels good.
Out of the fifteen songs on Jay-Z’s American Gangster, maybe three are seriously concerned with sex. That’s not a tiny number — but it’s not huge, either. There’s no real sense that sex is something Jay-Z cares about, not the way that he cares about central themes like selling drugs, or gaining respect, or how good at rapping he is, which are woven through every song on every album he’s ever created. In fact, not even the sex songs here are really about sex. Instead, like pretty much all rap songs, they are about boasting. Sex is just another thing for Jay-Z to brag about.
If he were anything other than a rapper, this would probably be a really limiting perspective on sex. But rappers in general (and Jay-Z in particular), have elevated boasting to an honest-to-god art form, in which the fine distinctions between the particular boasts are infinitely variable and expressive. So sometimes Jay brings up sex as a way to boast that he’s rich: “Success, McLaren, women staring.” (The implication is that he’s sexy because of his finances.) Sometimes he brings up sex to tell other men that he’s better than them “She’s my little quarterback, ya dig / Because I’m all that in the sack / I spoiled her, foiled it if you fakin’ Jack / she’s used to million dollar vacations/ Fuck y’all gonna do with that?” (This about money too, obviously, but it’s also about power. He’s talking down to the less wealthy men in the room.) Sometimes he brings up sex to boast about how dangerous he is — i.e., about his capacity for violence. The most openly sexual song on the album, “I Know,” is an extended metaphor in which sex with Jay-Z is equated with the highs and lows of a heroin addiction. On the one hand, “She wants that old thing back/ She want those Heroin tracks/ She likes me/ She fiends for me nightly/ She leans for me/ Morning, she rush for my touch.” On the other hand, when she’s not with him, the girl’s “conscience is interfering, like ‘Better yourself!’ / Like you better get help / But when that medicine’s felt? / We’re back together / Don’t ever leave me / Don’t ever let ‘em tell you that you’ll never need me / My China White, ’til we D.O.A.” Ah, romance.
And then sometimes Jay-Z brings up sex to brag that he has family — not in the simple biological sense, but in the broader sense of community. “Hello Brooklyn 2.0” is another extended metaphor, but this time the borough of Brooklyn is equated with a woman (who is alternately a mother and a lover). “My bed’s in the stuy, though I’ll lie flat in your bush” is maybe Jay’s silliest couplet on the whole album, but it comes in the middle of an almost idyllic fantasia about home, togetherness, and belonging. I guess the argument is that if Brooklyn was a woman, her relationship with Jay-Z would be so solid that she’d still let him hit it even after he trotted out a line like that?
So on American Gangster, sex doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s bound up with money and power, bound up with violence, and bound up with family. And since these are all ‘Merican, that makes its treatment of sex ‘Merican indeed. But does it ever make sex seem like something to be ashamed of? (That was, after all, part of what took American Pie to the top of the sex bracket.) Well, sort of. The critical line here comes on a guest verse from Beanie Siegel, who boasts that he’s “The oh-seven Ice Cube, B. Sieg’ so rude/ Tell a trick to get these nuts, eat dick like food.” First of all, I love how determinedly un-sexy “eat dick like food” is. Like, with a knife and fork? Like, kind of vacantly on the couch at the end of a long day while watching reruns of How I Met Your Mother? But the point is this: the line comes in the middle of a whole song about being as nasty as you possibly can. Beanie Siegel isn’t boasting that he makes women do this, he’s bragging that he’s so shameless, so rude, so ignorant, that he would say this to a woman’s face. That’s not an impulse I want to celebrate — it can lead to some really awful places. But if you don’t think it’s a particularly ’Merican way to think about sex, you haven’t been paying attention.
– Jordan Stokes
Score: American Gangster: 1 An American Tail: 0
Round 2: Even Raggeder Dick
This is a battle of titans (Fievel’s size notwithstanding). Both of these competitors are modern versions of stories America has been telling about itself for 150 years. On the one hand we have America as a promised land for the persecuted, the shining city on a hill. On the other hand we have America as the land of opportunity, a place where a person can climb the ladder of success through hard work. These are our most beloved cliches… and Tail and Gangster ruthlessly expose them as empty promises. They both suggest that if you really want safety and success in America, you’re going to have to shed blood for them.
Since the very beginning of his career, Jay-Z has been mythologizing his humble origins and meteoric rise. On his breakthrough single “Hard Knock Life” from 1998, he begins, “From standing on the corners boppin’/to driving some of the hottest cars New York has ever seen.” American Gangster is an album-length expansion of that couplet. It’s a familiar and very American story: “rags to riches,” as Jay describes himself on “99 Problems.” Americans have always loved stories of social mobility, going back at least to Horatio Alger and Ragged Dick, which to my shame I cannot even type without smirking. This 1867 boys novel (the phrase “young adult” not having been invented yet) recounts how a young bootblack (the phrase “shoeshine” not having been invented yet) goes from sleeping in a crate to clerking at a counting house and renting his own apartment. How does he pull it off? Super boringly! He works hard, he’s honest, and he keeps his good humor no matter how bleak the situation. It’s a Puritan fantasy about how America is supposed to work: play by the rules and you’ll move up in the world. (It also helps if you can save a rich guy’s kid from drowning, if possible.)
But in American Gangster, playing by the rules doesn’t work.
Mama forgive me, should be thinkin’ bout Harvard
But that’s too far away, niggas are starving
Ain’t nothin’ wrong with aim, just gotta change the target
In the track “Pray,” Jay’s family struggles to put food on the table and the only visible wealth in his community is the dealer driving around in a BMW. No wonder he decides that hustling is the only way out of the poverty he was born into. “I didn’t choose this life, this life chose me,” he tells us. “Around here it’s the shit that you just do.”
So Jay’s ladder diverges from Ragged Dick’s ladder pretty significantly. For Dick, wealth and respectability are linked. When another boy tries to goad him into a fight, he talks his way out of it:
“Do you want to fight?” demanded Micky, encouraged by Dick’s quietness, fancying he was afraid to encounter him.
“No, I don’t,” said Dick. “I aint fond of fightin’. It’s a very poor amusement, and very bad for the complexion, ‘specially for the eyes and nose, which is apt to turn red, white, and blue.”
But since Jay-Z has to break the law to get ahead, it’s kill or be killed. On “Roc Boys,” he gloats:
Thanks to the lames, niggas with bad aim
Thanks to a little change I tore you out the game
Bullet wounds will stop your buffoonery
Thanks to the pastor rapping at your eulogy
Because Jay has to live in an illicit world of constant violence, his success is precarious. In “Fallin’,” he’s preyed upon by both thieves and law enforcement: “Stick-up kids is out to tax/Plus the FBI boys with the cameras in the back.” Ragged Dick also has a problem with a “stick-up kid” who swipes his bank book to try and clean him out. But Dick, being a law-abiding citizen, simply goes to the bank to explain the situation, and a policeman arrests the would-be thief. (It’s just as exciting as it sounds!)
Ragged Dick had every expectation of a smooth climb onwards and upwards (Alger’s sequel was called The Progress of Richard Hunter). But in Jay’s violent retelling of the Alger myth, a downfall is almost inevitable. “Fight and you’ll never survive/Run and you’ll never escape/So just fall from grace, damn.”
You might think that a children’s cartoon won’t be able to compete in violence with a gangster rap album. But in that case you blocked out the scene where Fievel is swallowed by a cat and has to climb out of its esophagus.
I remembered An American Tail as being very saccharine about the United States, and that’s certainly in there. When Fievel washes ashore at the Statue of Liberty, we actually hear a choir singing the words to “The New Colossus” (“Give me your tired, your poor…”) in four part harmony (!). However, the movie is surprisingly willing to show just how cruel a place America can be. The very first American Fievel meets is Warren T. Rat, a con man who promises to help him and then sells him into a Dickensian sweatshop.
But the cruelest revelation is that American mice are being hunted and killed in the streets by gangs of cats, despite the immigrants earlier singing a joyous song about how there are no cats in America (and the streets are paved with cheese). After an attack, mama mouse glares at her husband. “So Mr. There Are No Whats In America?” “Heh heh,” Papa chuckles awkwardly. “Cats.” It’s funny, but it’s also heartbreaking and infuriating. This family traveled halfway around the world and lost their son so that at least the children who survived could grow up in peace. And now they’re cowering in a bucket. What the hell is the point?
This dismaying reality is something Brendan Gleeson’s character talks about in Gangs of New York:
My father was killed in battle too. In Ireland, in the streets, fighting those who would take as their privilege what could only be got and held by the decimation of a race. That war is 1000 years old or more. We never expected it to follow us here. It didn’t. It was waiting for us when we landed.
So if you were writing a children’s film about America and you wanted a happy ending to the problem of organized violence against a minority, how would you do it? Perhaps a crusading lawyer who helps the mice stand up for their rights. Maybe the Schoolhouse Rock solution, where the mice get a new law passed or more police on the streets. Maybe even the Newsies route, where they use the power of the press to take their grievances to the court of public opinion.
This movie opts for having them attack the cats with a giant mechanical firework-shooting mouse that chases them onto a boat bound for Hong Kong.
The American Tail solution isn’t to appeal to the rule of law, it’s to fight violence with violence. This is kind of troubling; even in Gangs of New York the immigrants tried to get an Irish sheriff elected before resorting to violence. But in An American Tail there are no police to be seen and the one politician, Honest John, is a corrupt drunk. There is no authority to appeal to; the mice are on their own.
This reminded me of what might be America’s most beloved story about immigrants AND violence: The Godfather. In the movie’s opening scene, the undertaker Bonasera comes to Don Corleone to ask for justice after the rape of his daughter. “I went to the police, like a good American.” But the judge let the boys who did it walk with suspended sentences (the book explains they were from powerful families – in other words, cats). “Then I said to my wife, ‘For justice, we must go to Don Corleone.'” The Don represents an Old World, violent tradition that immigrants like Bonasera hoped they would no longer need.
In other words, Don Corleone is the Giant Mouse of Minsk.
Now to be fair, the cats are straight-up murderers who deserve everything they get. And the mice’s contraption is really more frightening than violent – it’s not like the cats are flattened under its wheels or anything. But there is a strong sense that the victory in Tail is nothing more than the mice becoming what they once hated. The opening scene depicts the Mousekewitzes suffering through a terrifying pogrom. At the end of the film, they pretty much stage a pogrom of their own, chasing their oppressors out of the country. It’s like the dark ending of the Hunger Games trilogy, in which the Districts finally rise up and conquer the Capitol and the first thing they do is stage a Hunger Games of their own.
Basically, the mice go through the following stages:
- There is no violence in America!
- Oh shit, there actually IS violence in America!
- I AM THE ONE WHO KNOCKS.
So both of these works start by discrediting their respective cliches, and then showing that the only way to correct for America’s inequalities in by embracing violence. But while Tail‘s story is specifically about immigrants, the struggles Jay-Z faces in Gangster are sadly familiar to millions of Americans mired in poverty. I think the choice is clear. Gangster has to be…
What? No. That song has absolutely nothing to do with this. It’s just a sappy pop ballad cleverly written so it could be about either a brother and sister separated in the big city or two lonely adults yearning for each other in a PG-13 sort of way. It’s completely irrelevant to the…
I mean yes, it’s heartwarming. Yes, I sang it at my Kindergarten winter concert and my mom cried. But this is ‘Merica, and we’re talking about Violence, so I’m afraid we’re going to have to…
What the hell? Jay-Z?! How did you get into these animated GIFs?
But Hov, the cycle of violence you rap about on Gangster is super important to understanding the problems that America faces today.
Alright man. If you’re sure…
– Matthew Belinkie
Score: American Gangster: 1 An American Tail: 1
And this means we’re tied! So to determine the victor, we turn to our designated tiebreaker: Richard Rosenbaum, who was born and raised in Toronto, Canada. As we know from de Tocqueville, Nabokov, and John Oliver, oftentimes a foreigner can see America more clearly than we can see ourselves.
We have agreed to abide by his decision. Fievel, Jay-Z, best of luck to you both.
Round 3: Turning Over a New Leaf
Okay look, we all know that this is a rebuilding year for the Toronto Maple Leafs. The hiring of Mike Babcock in 2015 – arguably the best coach in the National Hockey League today and indisputably the highest-paid, having signed an unprecedented $50 million, eight-year deal with the team (all figures USD) – was by all accounts the greatest coup since the Battle of Montgomery’s Tavern. Right out of the gate, Babcock led the Leafs through a deliciously disastrous season, finishing dead last in the league for the first time since 1985 (when there were only, recall, 21 teams compared to the current 30), thereby securing a 20 percent chance of winning the number-one pick overall in the 2016 Entry Draft lottery.
Which the Leafs did in fact win. I, for one, was pinching myself for a week and going around saying “Computer, end program” at random intervals to see if this would resolve itself into some cruelly wonderful dream or virtual reality simulation. But no, it was true, the Leafs had their first #1 draft pick since, again, 1985, when they picked up the glorious, era-defining Wendel Clark.
Unsurprisingly, the Leafs snapped up Auston Matthews, that year’s MVP of the International Ice Hockey Federation’s World Under-18 Championship. Matthews was the first American to be top pick in the NHL draft since Patrick Kane in 2007 – but let’s not hold his passport against him; that kid can produce. Born in San Francisco and raised in Scottsdale, Arizona, he grew up watching the Phoenix Coyotes, which pretty much justifies the whole existence of that franchise. Phoenix might have stolen the team from its rightful home in Winnipeg and bleeds more money than a hemophiliac’s billfold, but they produced Auston Matthews so let’s say all is forgiven. Besides, Winnipeg has its Jets back now, too.
But the question was, what would this kid actually mean to the team? Toronto’s hockey media is a notorious fishbowl, and the intense scrutiny has turned more than one star player sour (I’m looking at you, Phil Kessel. I’m looking at you posing for selfies in Philly with the Stanley Cup and I’m saying you’re welcome).
We didn’t have to wait long for the answer. In his first regular-season game, against the Ottawa Senators – also the first game of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Centennial NHL season – Matthews scored on his first shot, only the twelfth number-one draft pick to do that. Then he scored again, on his second shot. Then on his third shot he scored again, becoming the fifth player in NHL history to score a hat trick in his first game. He then proceeded to score again, securing his spot in hockey history as the first rookie ever to score four goals in their debut game.
The Leafs lost 5-4 in overtime.
So look, I know it’s not a race or whatever, the Leafs have waited fifty years to taste a championship again and we can wait a little bit longer (though let’s also not forget that the opprobrious, if warranted, Hillman Hex is set to expire at the end of this season). That said, it has become undeniable that goaltending is a problem. I know, what else is new. But with all due respect to goalie Frederik Andersen, and fully acknowledging Coach Babcock’s admonition that we “move on, holy shit,” in the ominous words of Carel Struycken, “It is happening again.”
Consistently blowing leads. Sitting around spectating in the defensive zone. Groping fruitlessly in shootouts.
If it’s not a discipline problem – and with Babcock at the helm I think we can assume that it’s not – then it’s a talent problem, and no matter how great he was back in Denmark, Andersen is clearly not up to the challenge and frankly neither is backup goalie Jhonas Enroth. They need some time to get their heads together, maybe, which, fine, fair enough. But meanwhile, why not recall Garrett Sparks from the Marlies? He had a rough time in the majors too, sure, but he was also the first Leafs goaltender to record a shutout in his first game – sounds like a perfect counterpoint to Matthews, no? And he has such a cool name! Garrett Sparks. I mean, come on, you’ve got to do something before this ever-so-rare burst of enthusiasm from Toronto’s long-suffering fans reverts back to its natural state of chronic, Sisyphean dread.
Oh, what? “American Madness?” Uh, I dunno. The mouse thing, I guess. Sure.
– Richard Rosenbaum
Score: American Gangster: 1 An American Tail: 2
Winner: An American Tail
And from 32 ‘Merican competitors, we’re down to our final two, and they could not be more different. Click to embiggen.
Will the Venice Beach Neo-Nazis get chased into the sea by the Giant Mouse of Minsk? Or will Fievel’s optimism get curb-stomped into oblivion? Only one can be Most ‘Merican. Stay tuned.