One of the narratives people are pushing in the wake of the election is the notion of the revenge of the working-class white guy. The idea is that these guys feel disenfranchised by the various forms of social progress achieved by various minorities, and are finally taking a stand on their own behalf. It’s not factually supportable, but it is a simple, easily understood story, and so it’s getting a certain amount of traction.
It’s not surprising that this narrative is popular now, though: it’s been popular before. After the 1994 election put a lot of Republicans in Congress, pundits talked about how the vote represented the “angry white male”, a narrative that also supported the rise of right-wing talk radio during that general period (the 1987 repeal of the Fairness Doctrine is, of course, a more logical culprit). And, in 1970, there was Joe.
Joe is notable for three things: First, it marks the film debut of a talented young actress named Susan Sarandon. Second, it is the first non-pornographic movie from Cannon Films (though only barely; literally the first thing that happens is Ms. Sarandon gets naked, and she’s far from the last). Third, it became very popular because it’s about conservative white guys murdering hippies, and that struck a deep chord with conservative white guys who really liked the idea of murdering hippies.
How deep a chord? We’re talking about a movie that was made for a little over $100,000, by a tiny porn studio, with no stars. It grossed a bit under $20 million. Take a minute to work out the return on investment there.
Is this a coincidence? Did this just happen to be a really good film that happened to include some hippie-murder? Nope. The film was originally titled “The Gap”, and was about how the generation gap between WWII veterans and their hippie children led to tragic, regrettable violence. In that version, Joe was a supporting character, the one whose maniacal bloodlust leads the respectable hero down the wrong path. During production, producers realized that audiences might respond differently than the writer imagined, so the Joe character was retooled to be more sympathetic, and the title was changed to make him the hero.
Odd that he’s the hero, as he doesn’t appear in the film for the first 27 minutes, and when he does, literally the first word out of his mouth is “n*ggers”. That’s not by accident, obviously. That was a deliberate signal, intended to place the character in a certain sociological set. Or, to use the current euphemisms, “He’s not PC, he tells it like it is.”
The relentless, thudding characterization of Joe as the idealized American working man gets downright creepy after a while. He’s the salt of the earth, a real straight shooter, rough around the edges but with a good heart, all those clichés and more. The climactic murders are explicitly not justifiable on any grounds other than ideological; the kids in question are helpless and begging for their lives. And an awful lot of people didn’t see any contradiction between those two things.
The reception of Joe was unexpected, especially coming on the heels of a real-life multiple murder that eerily paralleled its plot. The call of “that’s what they ought to do with all those hippies!” echoed everywhere, with people approaching actor Peter Boyle on the street to express solidarity with the murderer he’d played.
When Mad magazine parodied All In The Family over a year later, they included a joke about how bigoted patriarch Archie Bunker has been dragging his family to see Joe every week for a year, because he keeps hoping the titular character will kill the hippies slightly deader this time. It was naturally assumed that Mad readers would get and understand this joke; that’s how much of a splash Joe made. That’s how much certain people liked the idea of murdering their fellow Americans for being young and long-haired.
The strength of America has always come from our diversity. Not just of creed and color and origins, but of ideas and beliefs. We have people in our country who believe everything under the sun, whether or not it makes any sense. Sometimes those crazy ideas turn out to be right, or at least helpful; that’s what makes us strong. Unfortunately, that includes a lot of people who don’t believe diversity is our strength. Who believe that only people who look and think like them are Americans, and all the rest of us don’t really count.
Those people are Americans too. That strain has always run in our national blood; the ugliness, the fascism, the hatred. Sometimes those voices grow louder, sometimes they fade, but they’re always there. And even in 1970, which many remember as a high-water mark for the left, they were still there, waiting, fantasizing about the day when they could just kill people who weren’t like them.
Photos: Courtesy of Author