On Pitch Perfect, Mean Girls, and the limits of satire

The first time I watched Pitch Perfect, I was surrounded by twelve 14-year-old girls who comprised the 9th grade girls’ basketball team I coached. I had never heard of the movie, but I loved music and acapella, so I was on board. So with low expectations, I sat down to watch this film after weeks of being hounded by my players. Surprising myself, I ended up loving it, and to this day have seen it close to 100 times. After a while, though, the humor wears off and I’m left with some problematic “ish”.

Pitch Perfect and the sequel both aim to poke fun at stereotypes and society at large through satire. The point of satire is to critique through exposure, using humor to reveal everyday circumstances as absurd. The beauty of this method is that we, as viewers, get a spoonful of sugar with our medicine and are often left with a lot of laughs and quotes that keep on giving.

Pitch Perfect excels at some of this comedy, particularly around gender stereotypes and inequities. This is especially accomplished through the commentary provided by John and Gail, played by John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks respectively, that pokes fun at the prejudice in the acapella world. At one point in the first film, John says, “Women are as about good at acapella as they are at being doctors,” and while the sentiment of sexism is certainly not humorous, the way he says it clearly conveys how ridiculous it is that some people actually believe that women aren’t good doctors simply because they’re women. Pitch Perfect 2 continues this trend, with Gail, the woman commentator, increasingly calling John out throughout the movie. At one point, she tells him to “Crack a book,” and it’s simply delightful.

Overall, some of the best moments of Pitch Perfect 2 revolve around deconstructing gender or empowering women. The sequel is entirely about the Bellas and their journeys individually as well as collectively. Men don’t save the day; the Treblemakers are barely even present. Jesse’s role is mostly supporting Beca in her awesomeness.

When it comes to gender, there are many people successfully making fun of it. The Pitch Perfect movies are just one example of the kind of female-centric, quick-moving, reference-laden, coming-of-age comedy that has become popular in recent years and is perhaps best epitomized by Mean Girls.

Like Pitch Perfect, Mean Girls served up an addictive critique that holds up the mirror to our assumptions regarding gender and relationships, and does so rather successfully. Tina Fey deconstructed the stereotypes of high school and some of the messed up ways young people, particularly young women, interact with one another. The result was a generation of youth thinking about their own high school environments as they volleyed quotes to one another.

But one area where the humor of the youthful satirical genre too often fails is around issues of race.

Though I love Mean Girls, it is difficult to get through at this point of my life. The stereotypes of Asian women are hard to swallow, as is the characterization of the principal, the only Black character of consequence whose most memorable line is: “I did not leave the South Side for this!” And I get it…it’s a joke, but it’s a bad joke with little point and the potential for devastating consequences. The Pitch Perfect films fall into similar pitfalls. Whether it is the awkward Jewish jokes, the treatment of Kimmy Jin, Beca’s first roommate who is Korean, the characterization of Lily, the beatboxer, through a “silent Asian” stereotype, or the Latinx jokes played off as true life, most of these jokes simply aren’t funny, and honestly, are pretty fucked up.

The point of satire is to critique, not merely to say absurd things that play on existing biases to get a laugh. There were moments of racial comedy as satire in Pitch Perfect 2 that were spot on. John makes a joke about border hopping concerning Flo and her being a “Mexican,” and Gail immediately calls him out for it, noting that she is from Guatemala. Flo also has a couple of bright spots of the #FirstWorldProblems variety. When Chloe makes hyperbolic statements about how “we have never faced anything so difficult” and “this day is so hard,” Flo is quick to point out that she has faced much tougher things, such as having “diarrhea for seven years.” Other than those two moments, however, Flo’s character shares nothing that could possibly be construed as critique but continues to speak through racist comments that literally have no point.

Pointless racism passed off as comedy is dangerous. In films like Pitch Perfect, Pitch Perfect 2, and Mean Girls, the writers depend on the audience to pick up on the absurdity and laugh at social constructs. When that intent is not obvious, however, racism dangles like bait, begging us to laugh at Latinx people who cross the border and clean our homes, at Black people who we assume are all from the “South Side” and participate in hooligan activity, at people living in developing nations who may not have access clean water, or at International students who struggle to adjust to new cultural norms, instead of laughing at ourselves for creating these constructs in the first place.

Even when it is clear that the humor is meant to be absurdist, there is still a risk to comedy based off of pointing out stereotypes and/or saying absurdly racist, sexist, homophobic, bi-phobic, or transphobic things: it allows for these harmful assumptions and fears to live on. Susan Douglas discusses this in her book, The Rise of Enlightened Sexism: How Pop Culture Took Us from Girl Power to Girls Gone Wild, highlighting the ways in which pop culture perpetuates stereotypes by continuing to put them in TV and movie characters, which, she argues, is harmful no matter the context. Though I argue, for example, that Miranda Bailey is more than a “sassy Black woman,” Douglas would contend that she is still a “sassy Black woman,” and that is still damaging.

Douglas has a point, but I think that if the mirror is effectively held, comedy can do some truly good work. Amy Schumer is proving that point every week it seems. The heart of the matter, however, is that Hollywood is not good at satirizing race. Hollywood is not good at writing racial jokes. I maintain that it can be done well — it simply isn’t happening at the moment. Until it does happen, it’s time to shelve the racial satire. Let’s come back to it once we get more people of color in Hollywood.

Header image credit: Hollywire


Katie Barnes (they/them/their) is a pop-culture obsessed activist and writer. While at St. Olaf College studying History and (oddly) Russian (among other things), Katie fell in love with politics, and doing the hard work in the hard places. A retired fanfiction writer, Katie now actually enjoys writing with their name attached. Katie actually loves cornfields, and thinks there is nothing better than a summer night's drive through the Indiana countryside. They love basketball and are a huge fan of the UConn women's team. When not fighting the good fight, you can usually find Katie watching sports, writing, or reading a good book.

Katie Barnes is a pop-culture obsessed activist and writer.

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