The first concept I want to discuss in Gran Torino is the concept of where prejudice stems from. Myers defines prejudice as “A preconceived negative judgment of a group and its individual members.” (Myers & Twenge, 2013) In order to understand why Walt Kowalski shows such massive prejudice against his Hmong neighbors, we must first understand why Walt is prejudiced in the first place. In the film, Walt is portrayed as a Korean War veteran who is haunted by his past. The majority of his prejudices are shown to be derived from his time serving in the war. As a majority of his perceptions of Asian individuals come from his experiences in Korea, Walt commonly refers to his Hmong neighbors as swamp rats, zipper heads, gooks, chinks, dog-eaters, and a smattering of other racial slurs. A number of his racial slurs come from commonly used racial slurs by American soldiers for Asian individuals, indicating that his prejudice seems to be coming from his experience in Korea. As well the idea of peer groups influencing prejudice is illustrated in the movie through the use of the barber. When Walt and Thao walk into the barber shop, they are greeted with very colorful racial slurs for both Walt and Thao. Lastly, Walt’s prejudice could also be influenced by his old age.
The reasons for Walt’s prejudice in the film match up with real-world research into where prejudice stems from. McClelland and Linnander’s 2006 study of white college students showed that the peers you surround yourself with could drastically change your attitudes on race and prejudices (McClelland & Linnander, 2013). This matches up well with the idea of having Walt’s peers influence his prejudices. As we see Walt and his friends at the bar, we hear a reinforcing racist belief through racist jokes told by Walt. As his friends laugh and egg Walt on, this group reinforces their own biases toward others. As well, the research on aging and executive control has shown that in elderly individuals, age-related declines in the frontal lobe can lead to increased levels of stereotyping and prejudice. (Hippel & Baynes, 2009). As Walt gets older, his frontal lobe is less able to keep inappropriate or racist responses from being said. Walt views these responses and more socially appropriate and, as such, are more likely to occur. Lastly, research into the development of stereotypes showed that when exposed to very limited experiences with a racial group, individuals are likely to base their judgments on those limited experiences (Sherman, 1996). This is exemplified in Walt basing his judgment of his Hmong neighbors based on his experiences with Asian people groups in Korea. Due to his limited exposure to Asian people groups, Walt has an extremely negative automatic prejudice towards individuals he believes to be of Asian descent.
The second concept I noticed the most was the idea of outgroup homogeneity. Myers defined outgroup homogeneity as the “Perception of outgroup members as more similar to one another than are ingroup members” (Myers & Twenge, 2013). In essence, individuals of a certain group are more likely to not notice the subtle or non-subtle differences in a different group due to the outgroup homogeneity effect. Examples of this are shown in Gran Torino by Walt’s continuous misidentification of the Hmong people group. From the beginning of the movie, Walt continually emphasizes the phrases “you people, your people, zipper heads, fish heads, gooks, eggrolls, dog-eaters,” etc. Walt emphasizes over and over that he believes anyone of Asian descent to be the same people group. Another example is when Walt is threatening a gangster on his lawn and says, “We used to stack fucks like you five feet high in Korea and use you for sandbags.” Walt is referring to a Hmong individual but implying that the individual is the same as other Asian people-groups. This is another example of Walt being affected by the outgroup homogeneity effect.
Research by Hewstone and others indicate that the idea of the outgroup homogeneity effect is supported by evidence. When individuals were asked to rate groups that were outside of their own race groups or even social groups, the individuals of the groups were rated as more similar. As well the researchers found that individuals who were more likely to rate the outgroup members as more similar were also more likely to rate them stereotypically (Hewstone, Crisp, & Turner, 2011). In essence, individuals who showed a higher rate of outgroup homogeneity effect were also more likely to view the outgroup members stereotypically. This is portrayed realistically through Walt’s stereotypes of the Hmong people. As he views all Asian people groups as similar, he also views them very stereotypically. Examples of this are found throughout the movie, as when he calls them egg rolls, dog eaters, gooks, etc. As well he implies a positive stereotype towards Sue when he says, “Aren’t all you Asian girls supposed to be smart.”
The third concept I want to talk about is the idea of frustration aggression. Frustration aggression is defined by Myers as “The theory that frustration triggers a readiness to aggress” (Myers & Twenge, 2013). In essence, when individuals are continually feeling frustration, they are more likely to turn to violence or aggression. In Gran Torino, this can be seen through the gangs rampant throughout the city. The city is filled with lower-income individuals who have no real chance at careers, bright futures, or second chances. When these individuals are continually filled with frustration at a system that seems to have failed them, they have no other chance than to turn to gang violence. As most of the individuals who have joined gangs have no future, they will be feeling massive amounts of frustration towards the system they believe is responsible for making them unable to attain their goals.
The research of Jody Dill and Craig Anderson leads credence to the idea of frustration-aggression. Their 1995 study of frustration and hostile aggression showed that individuals forced to have higher levels of frustration were more statistically likely to aggress (Dill & Anderson, 2006). This research relates to the film in the sense that the gangsters of the city were greatly frustrated. As the gangsters were unable to have meaningful, productive lives, they must have felt massive levels of frustration. These levels of frustration could easily lead to higher levels of aggression, as seen in the movie. Acting out, fighting, shooting, and raping could all be reactions from extremely high levels of aggression due to high levels of frustration.
The fourth concept I want to talk about is the concept of dehumanization. Dehumanization can be loosely defined as the process of viewing someone as less than human. In the movie, the best example I can put forth of dehumanization is when the Hmong gang members rape Sue in order to make an example to Thao, Walt, and the neighborhood that the gang isn’t to be messed with. In order to achieve a higher goal, the members of the gang viewed Sue as an in-human pawn to be used to set an example. The members of the gang reduced her human qualities to make it easier to rape her.
The research of Emma Alleyne and others found that individuals of gangs were able to commit violent crimes by using dehumanization, diffusion of responsibility, and moral justification. (Alleyne, Fernandes, & Pritchard, 2014). By using these methods of justification, gang members were able to justify committing violent crimes toward others. This research backs up the idea of the gang members using dehumanization in order to justify the raping of Sue. The data suggests that just as real-life gang members are able to dehumanize victims in order to justify violence, the Hmong gang members are able to do so as well. The use of dehumanization of individuals in Gran Torino is an accurate depiction of the actual dehumanization of victims of gang violence.
Lastly, I want to talk about the concept of hostile and benevolent sexism. Both of these concepts are largely represented within Gran Torino. Benevolent sexism can be loosely defined as an attitude towards women that projects women as weak or feeble. Hostile sexism can be loosely defined as an angry attitude towards women simply based on their gender. Hostile sexism can be seen in various Hmong people judging Thao for doing “women’s tasks” such as gardening or cleaning the dishes. They cast discouraging comments such as “That’s women’s work, what are you doing that for” at Thao for completing tasks that they have traditionally deemed to be women’s work. Benevolent sexism can be seen in Walt talking about how “Asian girls are supposed to be smart” when having a conversation with Sue. Further examples of hostile sexism can be seen when the Hmong gangsters attempt to get Thao to join the gang in order to “make him a man.” Since Thao is involved in traditional women’s work, the gang wants to “make him a man” by forcing him to join the gang and do “manly things,” such as stealing a car. Another example of hostile example could be when the Hmong gang rapes Sue. Since Sue is such a strong figure for emasculating the gang members, perhaps the gang members raped Sue in order to attempt to regain their dominant masculine roles over her as a woman.
Research by Julia Dahl and others shows that when masculinity is threatened by a female, the male participants showed high levels of anger and sexualization of the women in subsequent questions. (Dahl, Vescio, & Weaver, 2015) This directly relates to Gran Torino in the sense that when Sue emasculated the Hmong gang members by stating how stupid they were being, the gang members retaliated with violence and rape. One could hypothesize that the rape was due to an increased sexualization of Sue due to the apparent emasculation. In order to regain the lost masculine dominance over the woman, the Hmong gang members had to rape Sue in order to show they were the dominant force in the neighborhood. This perfectly explains why the Hmong gang members responded in the way that they did. In this instance, the film’s representation of hostile sexism matches that of current psychological research.
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