In this essay, Annalee R. Ward explores Gran Torino’s moral order by engaging standpoint theory with Robert Wuthnow’s symbolic boundaries of moral order. In a journey of moral enlightenment, learning to communicate across boundaries anchors the story in hope. Along the way, Walt Kowalski encounters challenges to his moral structures which may affirm a redemptive read of the film, but the affirmations of his worldview suggest values counter to the kingdom of God, resulting in the need for a more nuanced read of the film. Annalee Ward, formerly Professor of Communication Arts at Trinity Christian College, is a Scholar in Residence at the University of Dubuque.
I enter into the film willing to submit to its logic wholeheartedly. I am captivated by story, manipulated by emotional pull. I laugh. I cry. I cheer when I am supposed to. Hurray for Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood). And is it not grand that there was a bit of a surprise to the ending—just enough so the critics will take it seriously as perhaps a commentary that rejects the Dirty Harry violence.Gran Torino—a mainstream movie for the masses with lessons to teach and morals to preach.1 Once out of the theater, however, I am uncomfortable with some of those lessons, yet am bombarded with positive responses from the Christian community.2 What makes this film so appealing to the faithful in particular are messages that comport with gospel truths of justice and love wrapped in a package of Walt Kowalski’s honest struggles with living out those principles and his seeming redemption. As a film that encounters many of our culture’s struggles with change, it tackles hard questions. Nevertheless, although I enjoyed it, the film bothers me, and I am unwilling to celebrate it in the same way many of my friends do. Hence, my question: why am I uncomfortable with Gran Torino?
The first place I turn for answers is an examination of the film’s obvious, but also latent, values. Because films serve, in the words of Kenneth Burke, as “equipment for living,”3 theories of how to “read” that equipment abound, but whether or not one deconstructs the film or describes it, reads for ideology, aesthetics, psychotherapy, or any other approach, an assumption is built in that a judgment is rendered on the quality, worth, or influence of the film. Wayne Booth, in The Company We Keep, argues that “ethical criticism” is valid and necessary. Defining it more broadly than morality, he suggests it contains “the entire range of effects on the ‘character’ or ‘person’ or ‘self.’” It includes judgment not only on the story but on the responses of the readers and concerns itself with virtues and “truth-value.”4 To that end, this essay explores Gran Torino’s virtues and truthfulness by engaging standpoint theory with Robert Wuthnow’s work on moral boundaries. What messages does this film communicate about how we ought to live? Are there insights that affirm a Christian worldview or that run counter to it? Simple affirmation of Gran Torino as a “good” film with Christian values can be a superficial read that misses crucial nuances which suggest values counter to the kingdom of God.
Clint Eastwood, a major contributor to the reservoir of popular film in the last sixty years, directed, starred in, and produced Gran Torino, his purported swan song as an actor.5 With over sixty films and TV shows to his credit as actor, well over fifty as director, and numerous credits as producer, composer, writer, etc., Eastwood has had a significant presence in the industry.6 Gran Torino laces potential melodrama and predictability with symbolism and moralism, humanizing the characters by allowing the audience glimpses of private struggles. The film wraps up many concerns of Clint Eastwood’s career by acknowledging and commenting on recurrent Eastwood themes—themes of the outsider, of solving problems with violence, of patriotism and honor, of ambivalence toward the church, and of the motivation of the absent woman.
Over the years, Eastwood has given many interviews, and numerous books and articles have been written about him and his work. John Gourlie and Leonard Engle argue for auteur criticism (which focuses on the director’s body of work):
It is hard to escape the conclusion that he [Eastwood] is projecting an artistic vision and, indeed, has been shaping that vision throughout his career. … [O]ne is struck by the extent to which that vision seems to be preoccupied with the theme of revenge and focused upon the sorrows of life.7
Reflecting on that work, Eastwood once told film critic that “the body of his work adds up not to a politics but to a morality.”8
The recent succession of films Eastwood has directed and produced illustrates his focus on questions of morality and mortality. From wrestling with the meaning of death and afterlife in Hereafter (2010), to Mandela’s struggles to make decisions based on forgiveness and the good of his country in Invictus (2009), to a mother’s battle against a corrupt police department in Changeling (2008), to the painful explorations of duty, honor, country, and heroism in Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) and Flags of our Fathers (2006), to questions of a woman in a man’s world and euthanasia in Million Dollar Baby (2004), to the pain-filled quest to deal with tragedy’s both unifying and divisive effects in Mystic River (2003), Eastwood engages hard questions.
This quick summary of ethical dilemmas within these films does them an injustice. A closer read of the films reveals deeper complexities. For example, Craig Detweiler argues that Million Dollar Baby “wrestles with the key question, ‘Who is my brother or sister?’”9 Detweiler further unpacks the film’s multiple moral complexities as it “focuses on the fragility of human relationships and the choices and regrets that haunt us.”10 With the same film, Robert Johnston argues that it “is not really about boxing at all; instead, it uses boxing to explore the human search for meaning, given betrayal, circumstance, and finally death.”11 Similarly, I argue that Eastwood’s Gran Torino needs a closer look to get at the subtleties of the worldview presented, the morality advocated.
Because Eastwood himself sees his work as a moral argument, what does that argument look like in Gran Torino and how might we read it? To engage a moral critique I use sociologist Robert Wuthnow who discusses morality and its boundaries within a democratic society. Building on anthropologist Mary Douglas’s work, he explores the symbolic boundaries of moral order. Boundaries are a common cultural phenomenon, argues Douglas. “The theme, well known to anthropologists, is that in all places at all times the universe is moralized and politicized.”12 To understand what the boundaries are, one looks for what is obligation and what is, in Douglas’ term, “taboo.” Cultural values emerge as one studies relationships and cultural phenomena with respect to the boundaries, the acceptable and unacceptable.
Relationships in Gran Torino both within and between cultures reveal much about the moral structure of the film. But rather than render a shallow reading of these boundaries by simply identifying acceptable and unacceptable, grounds for interpreting these categories are amplified by theoretical insights from standpoint theory. Thus, this essay examines Gran Torino’s symbolic boundaries of moral order through the lens of standpoint theory in order to explore the moral vision espoused.13To add clarity to the discussion, I will provide some background on the theoretical underpinnings for the essay.
Theoretical Perspective by Standpoint and Moral Order
Standpoint theory, attributed to feminist scholars, seeks to challenge power structures by calling for knowledge that is “socially situated,” providing perspective from the marginalized or oppressed.14 Christians, familiar with the numerous prophetic calls to “learn to do right; seek justice,” “defend the oppressed,” “take up the cause of the fatherless,” “plead the case of the widow” (Isaiah 1:17), will resonate with the inherent stance of justice that this lens calls for. On first glance, Gran Torino’s central character, Walt Kowalski played by Clint Eastwood, appears to rise to the challenge to defend. Nevertheless, a closer look reveals that this theory challenges the film’s use of a woman as a simple plot motivation for male action and raises concerns about the excessive racist language. Applied in various studies from rhetorical15 to racial critiques,16 standpoint theory challenges those in positions of dominance to recognize their own complicity in the problem. Sandra Harding argues: “Listening carefully to different voices and attending thoughtfully to others’ values and interests can enlarge our vision and begin to correct for inevitable ethnocentrisms.”17
The students passionately explained the impact the film had on them. Their essays were plenteous with reflections as individuals as well as what needs to be done on personal levels. Their privileged racial locations facilitated a focus on commonalties and identification as “human beings.”18
But they never saw their own privilege or were able to empathize with minority characters in ways that did not patronizingly generalize.
Similarly, Gran Torino engages a critique of racism, but from the privileged position. It challenges Walt Kowalski’s racism evident in his language and reactions to the Hmong by forcing him to observe and encounter the neighbors in everyday experiences. Nevertheless, the film collapses the differences of culture and race into a message that says, “see we’re all the same down deep: we value family, love to eat (and women love to feed the men), have our religious people, and fall in love.” The film’s perspective encourages identification with Walt and his journey of moral enlightenment. That may be easy if one is a white male, but if not, another standpoint may cause dissonance, especially if identifying with Walt means affirming a moral order where white males are the heroes and definers of normativity. What that normativity is emerges when moral boundaries are identified.
Thus, to understand better Walt’s journey and the possible contradictions it embodies, I will identify the symbolic boundaries of moral order within the film in terms of the implied lines drawn between the acceptable and unacceptable as seen through the eyes of the main character, Walt Kowalski. Boundary work, common in sociological circles, is also referred to by rhetoricians, but not in relationship to morality.19 That connection is central to Wuthnow’s work in sociology. He observes that structuralists analyze symbolic boundaries strictly as a “model of structure” considered in isolation.20 To make it more effective, Wuthnow argues for the need to bring social context in to the discussion. Anthropologist Douglas is an example of a poststructuralist who does that and whose ideas Wuthnow cites. Much of her work distinguishes oppositional symbols within a cultural context.21
In Risk and Blame, Douglas contends that the choice of one moral over another, one preference over another, is still a choice and reveals the structure of morality. Distinguishing between high culture as “an argument about taste” and low culture as “an argument about morals,” Douglas asserts that either argument takes place in a “structured framework”22 or what Wuthnow calls a “moral order.” As Douglas says, “something affirmed means something else denied,”23 for as Wuthnow observes, “boundaries are often revealed by opposites.” Furthermore, he argues, “symbolic boundaries are often maintained by litanies of deviant events that reveal normality by their very violations of it.”24 Uncovering the moral order then, can be accomplished by identifying the deviance and the symbolic boundaries as revealed by the binary opposites of social structure within Gran Torino. The choice to affirm certain symbols of culture, certain values, certain moral standards over against others indicates boundaries of morality. The symbolic boundaries act rhetorically to communicate a particular (Eastwood’s?) vision of morality.
Wuthnow states that moral order is constructed of “implicit categories that define proper relations among individuals and groups.”25 This latter definition is particularly helpful in looking for distinctions of proper and improper, better or worse, good or bad—distinctions which relate the moral order to ethical/unethical behavior or symbolic communication. What “implicit categories” help define the moral order in Gran Torino? The film tackles universal issues from the perspective of a conservative, patriotic, dying man. The audience learns of his perspective and moral vision for the world throughout the story; in fact, the film argues for that perspective by making Walt the central heroic character in this, at times, comedic tragedy.
In summary, Walt’s moral order is bounded by a patriotic commitment to country, family, and God—although he certainly questions his commitment to all three. Set in a depressed and ethnically changing Detroit neighborhood, the film recalls the glory days of a world where everyone knew their place: the working man, Walt, for example, took pride in his assembly-line job making American cars, his home, his family, his neighborhood and his country. “Gooks,” as Walt labels his now-neighbors, Hmongs, were lumped with the enemy he fought in Korea.
Life, as Walt sees it, should be one in which people work hard on the job and off,26 serve their country when called, and live faithfully as Americans. They should buy American cars27 and speak English, defend their family and neighborhood, and know their place by gender (even as those place markers may change). These traditional boundaries have been affirmed by many American Christians in the last century, and thus, this film resonates with them. Furthermore, the growing cultural diversity confuses people, causing a longing for simpler times. Nevertheless, I have come to understand better my own ambivalent response to Grand Torino by more fully exploring how this moral order unfolds in challenges and affirmations of Walt Kowalski’s boundaries.
Challenges to Walt Kowalski’s Moral Order
Walt’s boundaries of moral order are challenged by the people and life’s changes around him. He is being asked to transform, or at least to make some significant movement to change. While many Christians applaud those challenges as evidence of moral growth, a closer read suggests that yes, while he makes some change with regard to understanding otherness and relationships, when it comes to communication regarding race and gender, real belief in a meaningful church, and attitudes toward the role of violence, ultimately, he moves only slightly.
I first want to explore the way communication expresses Walt’s boundaries of race and gender, and the challenges he encounters. Communication emerges as a significant theme interwoven into this film of hopeful redemption. The crux of the human plight, Gran Torino argues, is our inability to cross perceived borders of age, race, culture, and gender. Wuthnow’s description of the human dilemma as construed in poststructural thought, sounds like he is describing one of the subtexts of Gran Torino:
The human dilemma is no longer the split between subject and object or the quest to transcend fragmentation and achieve wholeness, but the problem of communication. Humans are cut off from one another, but they need to communicate in order to decide on collective values.28
How we come to understand what moral order is is uncovered in part by looking at communication. “Moral orders,” argues Vernon Cronen, “emerge as aspects of communication.” He posits: “The creation of moral orders seems to be one of the few universal features of human societies. All peoples indicate what can be done, what must be done, what is prohibited, and what is beyond their responsibility.”29 The moral order is a universal phenomenon. All peoples have a sense of right and wrong within their society. What constitutes the morality, however, is not necessarily universal.
Walt Kowalski and Archie Bunker would have been friends or at least soul mates. Struggling to make sense of a changing world, they both act the crotchety curmudgeon, and speak their minds, particularly when it comes to encounters with another race or ethnicity. That Gran Torino evokes parallels with All in the Family provides a starting place for understanding the beginning moral structure of the film. But this is not the 70s and so the film must engage the realities of today’s dying automobile industry, growing globalism, and the legitimization of multiculturalism. The world, as Walt Kowalski knows it, has changed around him.
Many of Eastwood’s films focus on an outsider to the community who must find ways to communicate in order to achieve his goal.30 In Gran Torino, Eastwood echoes these themes when we see Walt’s initial attempts to communicate with the Hmong neighbors are minimal—reduced to racial slurs and assumptions of their ignorance. Once he crosses the literal border between his world and home and enters theirs, Walt recognizes that there are differing communication rules, and he seeks Sue’s help to understand. But what seemingly solves much of the communication problem for Walt is his retreat to his communicative boundaries primarily established by gender. His first success is when he speaks the language of a man appreciating the women’s cooking. And again, his ability to speak a universal human language (as he sees it) is affirmed as he assesses “YumYum’s” interest in Thao; Walt knows and speaks the language of sexual interest and lets Thao know that it is Walt who understands what is going on. Walt discovers purpose in helping the neighbor boy become a man. To do that, Walt focuses on teaching Thao “man-talk,” for that is what Walt has determined Thao needs most—“manning up.” In the process, Walt teaches him the rituals of insulting and complaining. For, he seems to suggest, Thao will be successful if he communicates appropriately in a male communicative style. Walt encountered the challenge to his understanding of appropriate communication by holding firm to his original boundary.
Sue has learned to use that style in her interactions, pushing Walt’s boundaries of acceptable communication, yet Walt appreciates her for it. From the way she insults the corner gang that was hassling her, to insulting her cousins’ Hmong gang, to insulting Walt, she is verbally aggressive. Although Walt may enjoy that style (one he clearly believes is superior), it later comes to haunt Sue when she is violently attacked. The narrative reminds us that stereotypical communication styles may still be normative and the challenge to Walt’s boundary is rejected. Sue is trapped in a world where male dominance is the norm. One significant symbolic boundary of moral order in Gran Torino, then, is an acceptance of the stereotypical boundaries of male versus female talk.
Otherness stands as a major boundary as Walt’s Hmong neighbors exist outside the norm of acceptable in his world. They represent the enemy he fought in Korea because they are Asian. They do not all speak English and their ways are different than his. For Walt, difference is wrong. “If they can’t adapt an ‘American’ life faster, then they shouldn’t be here,” is his attitude. Dragging out every racial slur he can think of, he insults them whenever he can and avoids them at all costs.
Avoidance is not possible, however, when he overhears some African-American guys hassling Sue and he feels obligated to step in. And again, when the Hmong gang tries to force Thao to leave with them, Walt is there with his gun—not necessarily to save Thao, but to chase them off of his lawn. With more encounters, and a miserable birthday where his son and daughter-in-law treat him like an aged invalid and try to persuade him to move to a senior home, Walt’s defenses are down. Dragged along by Sue, Walt begins to interact with his neighbors—finds he likes their food as it is better than eating beef jerky—and begrudgingly acknowledges some similarities such as male-female attraction rituals, values of family, of faith (even if it involves a Shaman) and of hopes for a better future. Regretfully he observes, “I’ve got more in common with these goddamned gooks than my own spoiled-rotten family.”31 The realization signals a turning point for Walt. His boundary marker of otherness, accentuated by racist and gendered communication, begins to shatter as he experiences and begins to extend acceptance.
Acceptance was something he assumed he had in his own family because family is supposed to matter. It is one of the apple-pie American values. But seeing the Hmong’s commitment to family honor, to tradition, and to each other challenges Walt’s perceptions that they were a valueless people. As they welcome him in and thank him for his help, he grows to recognize that family is less about blood relations and more about relationships. His own family demonstrated how little they knew him or had close relationships with him. Treating him like a helpless old man in need of assistance to reach things, his son and daughter-in-law demonstrated just how much they did not know him. Later, Walt doesn’t know how to talk to his son about his illness, and his son is so unused to his dad calling him to chat that he cuts the conversation short. When Walt begins to see that he had more in common with his neighbors than he does with his own children, his moral boundary markers shift. His understanding of what defines family has grown and he is freed to change, to grow, and to move toward redemption from the guilt that had so consumed him.
In addition to the communication boundaries, boundaries of otherness and family, another boundary marker is the place of the church as a significant part of community life. The film’s frame structure within the bounds of two church funerals suggests that Walt is wrestling with the meaning of life and death and the role, if any, that God plays in it. In the opening funeral for Walt’s wife, the young priest asks, “Is [death] an end or beginning and what is life?” In response, Walt growls under his breath, “Jesus.” A Christian watching the film very well might answer, “Amen” despite Walt’s decidedly anti-church attitude. The quality of Walt’s character and life is quickly established as we see the funeral reception in his home. There he grumbles at his sons, ignores his granddaughter in disgust, grabs another Pabst beer and retreats to his front porch where he sneers at the neighbors.
Eastwood’s upbringing included exposure to Protestant churches, but not commitment to them or to religion in general. This indifference toward religion is at first echoed in Walt Kowalski but is questioned by the earnest and persistent priest and challenged by his imminent death.32 At first, Walt’s association with the church and Father Janovich is driven by his dead wife’s desire. Walt seemingly abides the church as a necessary ritual for women and death, and when Father Janovich explains that he will be a presence in Walt’s life because of his wife’s desire that he attend confession, Walt growls. He calls Janovich “an overeducated, 27-year-old virgin who [holds] the hands of superstitious old women and promises them eternity.”33 But the priest’s dogged pursuit of Walt and genuine involvement in and care for the community raises questions that challenge Walt’s moral order which lacks religious commitment. Might Walt be reconsidering his ambivalence? Might there be a place for, even a need, for religion? He recognizes that even his Hmong neighbors have a place for it in their lives when he encounters their Shaman.
As the film climax approaches, Walt decides on a final course of action. He attends confession, but more out of obligation than heart change. The priest finds it difficult to believe that is all there is. But Walt never indicates that he really believes in the Catholic Church’s role of mediator, nor in the need for a church to pronounce him “okay.” Yes, he does make an honest confession, but only to Thao right after Walt locks him in the basement:
You want to know how it feels to kill a man? It feels goddamned lousy. And it feels even worse when you get a medal for bravery right after you mowed down some scared kid when he tries to give up. A dumb, scared, little gook, just about your age. I shot him with the same rifle you just held upstairs. I’ve thought about that kid for fifty years. And I promise you, boy, you want no part of it. Me, I’ve got blood on my hands. I’m soiled.34
Walt faces the gang members, knowing he is about to die. In that moment, he begins praying the rosary. As he lay dying on the ground, arms spread, he forms a symbolic cross, but with a twist—he is upside down. Eastwood may be arguing a need for a savior, but it will not be Dirty Harry dealing his own brand of justice. Justice rightly lies in the system of law. Sometimes that system needs a little help, and Walt will give it to them, but he is no Christ figure as he is crucified upside down. Yet he functions as his own savior and the neighbors’ savior; he is, down to the end of his life, the “fixer” he describes himself as to Thao. For Walt, the church is simply one possible answer, but he prefers his own choice—being his own “fixer.” This ambivalent back-and-forth with the church continues as the film returns us to the church, for one more funeral, one more reminder that the church may have some meaning for life—or at least be one means of engaging the questions.
Thus, while a Christian audience might cheer the way the church challenges Walt’s moral boundaries, it appears that Walt’s walls remain. While I believe that moral authority and direction originates in Scripture and in the church, Eastwood’s film argues that the church is a fine source of comfort for some, particularly old ladies and children. But it is not the only source—perhaps just being a steady, hardworking guy who values law and orderliness is also a good way to live. It is the rare film that presents a religious leader with authentic struggles seeking to make a place for the church in the community. Father Janovich’s willingness to enter into the community’s problems and his vulnerable admission that he does not have all the answers endear him to a Christian film audience, but it does little to stake a claim for faith that is meaningful when Walt ultimately makes his shallow confession and offers a way to get revenge on the gang. Yes, the priest’s presence challenged Walt’s moral order, but in the end, Walt chose to do things his own way. Reinforcing this American religion of self-reliance, the film simply allows for the church’s existence for those who need it.
Not only are Walt’s boundaries challenged byan engaged church, but also by the neighborhood’s common reliance on violence. In this community it seems to be perpetuated by gangs, but Walt’s tendencies to turn to a gun for strength himself show his boundaries to be no different—at first. His immediate reaction to hearing a noise in his garage is to pull out his loaded rifle. When there is a scuffle on the neighbor’s lawn, he shows up with his rifle. When his neighbor, Sue, is threatened by the corner thugs, he pulls out his gun and threatens them. Living by the gun is a normal reaction for Walt. In some respects, Walt has never left the Korean War. Burdened by his guilt of shooting a kid who was surrendering, he lives in anger. He lacks deep family connections; he has no friends in the neighborhood; he pushes away the priest, and he feels assaulted on all fronts. The best defense to it all from Walt’s perspective is the gun. But this boundary is challenged as the plot develops.
Given many of Clint Eastwood’s earlier films, critics expected violence to be the normative means of solving problems. Nevertheless, the narrative ultimately challenges that. I believe it reflects Eastwood’s own changes in attitude. His biographer, Schickel, comments on the role of violence, especially as it relates to Eastwood’s earlier work:
We’re used to movie heroes doing slaughter within the well-established morality of standard-issue war movies, westerns, and crime dramas. It’s only when a movie strays outside those lines, asks its audience to think actively about the assumptions that routine action dramas are built on, that its “violence” (or its gender implications) is deplored.35
In Gran Torino, the audience is led to expect a violent confrontation where the hero emerges victoriously. Eastwood uses that expectation to establish the tension, but then “strays outside those lines” to challenge the audience to consider the role of law in administering justice.
Eastwood’s own moral stance has evolved to a place where “violence is never beautiful.”36 He is more aware of the moral burden that entertainment violence carries. For example, in a 1992 interview with Eastwood about the film Unforgiven,he talks about the need to show the consequences of violence today—something that “takes on proportions it didn’t have in the past…”37 Similarly, when James Verniere asked Eastwood: “What’s different about Clint Eastwood at 63? Some critics have suggested that your films now address moral issues.” His response is one that shows he has thought about the connection between morality and violence:
I can’t tell you how it happens, but as you get older you tend to get more concerned about the moral values of society. … I suppose it’s just a time in my life, and maybe a time in history, when violence shouldn’t be so lighthearted or glamorous. Maybe there are consequences to violence, for both the perpetrator and the victim, that are important to address.38
Eastwood maintains that position in another interview about Unforgiven: “Now I’m certainly not doing any penance for any of the mayhem I’ve presented on the screen over the years. But at the same token, I think it’s a time in my life and a time in history where violence should not be such a humorous thing.”39
Violence was the norm for Walt Kowalski, but when it escalates to the point where it threatened and harms his new friends, he struggles over how to react, how to get revenge. Ultimately, the means were violent, but the ends implied that the administration of justice via the law was the better way. Thus, although the film rejects a Dirty Harry vigilante solution, a convenient use of violence achieves the ultimate end of justice. The convenience of Walt’s sacrifice allows the audience the gratitude of not having to watch him suffer the indignity and pain of a slow death from a terminal illness in an anonymous health system. The place of violence in Walt’s world is both challenged and affirmed. That tension continues in other boundaries that emerge, particularly with regard to Walt’s racist language.
Affirmations of Kowalski’s Moral Order
Full of racial slurs and insults, Walt’s over-the-top creative slams serve a parodic function as well as an indicator of his boundaries that exclude immigrants. While the initial reaction might be shock, the audience soon “gets” the film’s joke and laughs at the obvious ironic discourse. But when I first watched Gran Torino, at each repetition of this excessive language, I grew more tired of the joke and then concerned as the teenage boys around me waited for, celebrated, and then repeated each new slur. I began to wonder if the film was educating them into a whole new offensive vocabulary and, consequently, way of thinking. Does “knowing” better constitute grounds for dismissing the consequences of indulgence?
The mistake many Christians make when responding to films is to generalize their own experiences into universal norms. For example, many of us have laughed at inappropriate racial jokes or insults only to regret it. Learning from and repenting of that behavior allows us to move on. We have grown morally. Along comes Walt Kowalski with his excessive racist language. We watch it, laugh, and then pat ourselves on the back that we know better and can feel okay about Walt because by the end, his behavior shows he has learned and grown away from his ignorance—his language may not have changed much, but his attitude has because now he uses it in the context of a caring relationship. Thus, we appreciate the curmudgeon and ignore the language. But do all of the people watching this film truly “know better,” ignoring the exclusionary boundary of the language, or does it reinforce a worldview antithetical to Christ despite Walt’s moral growth? Does this mean we do not need to be held accountable for inappropriate comments because we somehow “know better” or actually care about the subjects of our verbal abuse? One’s response reflects how much power one holds within the cultural matrix being represented and how much power one imbues to words. I believe words carry a sacred dimension. Another response may depend on one’s standpoint. As the target of those jokes, would the Hmong and/or women be able to ignore them completely? Viewed from their standpoint, Walt’s racist jokes and disparaging comments hurt, or at the least, present a narrow understanding of all humans as image-bearers of God. Ultimately, the film’s ironic embrace of Walt’s racist language still seems to affirm Walt’s moral order and the power that he holds via those offensive words.
A less ambiguous affirmation of Kowalski’s moral order exists in the form of the Gran Torino, a key symbol. It is a car that is no longer produced, but is in mint condition, lovingly cared for, worshiped for what it represents, treasured for its very symbolism, and coveted by all. Kowalski himself installed the steering column on the factory line. As partial creator, he takes pride in his work, and values what he has by caring for it—the very values he expects the people around him to have. When his son drives by in a Toyota, he mutters, “Kill you to buy American?”40
The Gran Torino symbolizes all that is American and all that Walt values. His last act is to leave it to Thao rather than his own granddaughter, thus affirming his broadened definition of family. He continues, even in his will, to use insulting language, but the language itself has been transformed by the love with which he gives Thao the car. The Gran Torino as the icon of a way of life and a set of values is gifted to someone who had represented Otherness, but someone who is now, in Walt’s mind, worthy of upholding those values, of someone who is no longer Other, but family. Not only does the car symbolize a significant boundary representing values of tradition and hard work, another boundary marker is Thao’s transformation to American manhood.
That transformation of Thao affirms Walt’s work ethic and code of honor. It is a transformation that Walt takes on cynically at first. When he takes more interest in Thao, he discovers the lack of role models and guidance in Thao’s life, but Walt has a spark of hope when he watches Thao help a neighbor woman with her broken grocery bag. When he agrees to allow the family to save face by having Thao work off his misguided attempt to steal the car, Walt does so reluctantly. But as time goes on, by teaching Thao the value of hard work (serving the neighborhood), the value of appropriate tools, the need for repair work, the way to talk like a man, and ultimately, the value of not taking someone’s life, Walt’s own moral order is affirmed. The order he has known is still, in his mind, the right order. It simply needed a few adjustments in widening the boundaries of who was acceptable.
As Walt initiates and contributes to Thao’s transformation to manhood, he unwittingly contributes to Sue’s transformation to victim. The character of Sue both challenges and confirms Walt’s vision of culture. She is sassy and unafraid of his gruff exterior and harsh language. Witty and courageous, she faces threats from neighborhood bullies and gang members with a backbone that is enviable. Walt first tries to ignore her, then defend her, then discovers she is a worthy verbal sparring partner. She is not the retiring, shy “homemaker” of days gone by, but has aspirations for college, a career. Walt seems to be able to accept that, even though that may not have been his first perception of where a woman should be. Her very strength is a challenge he accepts.
The story, however, turns and Sue becomes the victim of a horrifically violent attack. That is where the story of Sue ends—she has served her purpose for the plot turn and we are left with the reminder that women are defenseless victims. Walt must come to the rescue of the neighborhood and extract revenge, and he does so without any input from Sue. Sue must return to her place in the world where women need protection. We are given no clues as to her future recovery or direction in life. This victimage affirms Walt’s view of the world and the man’s role in it. The man should have anticipated the violence and protected her. In any case, it is the man’s responsibility to seek revenge and/or justice. Thao and Walt conspire; she is not consulted. Someone who once had a voice has been silenced by violence, and also by the very people with whom she has relationships. The symbolic boundaries of moral order that seemed to be widening for the role of women shrinks back to the world that Walt once knew. Changes in culture not-withstanding, a woman still needs a man to protect and defend her honor.
Some years ago, Edward Gallafent observed that Clint Eastwood’s films had a unifying theme to the roles of women:
There is one persistent configuration in Eastwood’s work which can be established most clearly by means of two lists, both of women, but in neither case the female leads of the movies. The first is of women who do not appear at all on the screen and have no direct relationship to the plot. Their existence is part of the condition of the Eastwood character; they inform his view of the world and influence what he does or can imagine…Alongside this list we could place another, of women whose death or loss forms part of the events that initiate or develop the plot of the film, but who are not substantial characters in it. … I mention them to establish how widely distributed in Eastwood’s work (although of course not exclusive to it) is the idea that the deficiencies of the worlds portrayed in the films can be expressed through failures that have to do with women. These can be either the absence of proper relationships between men and women, or failure to prevent women becoming the victims of violence.41
This film is no exception. Sue serves as the plot foil for the male hero and her prior significance to the film diminishes while her brother takes on the more central role. The role of women in this film conforms to this pattern, suggesting that women are a key part of the moral order as motivation for action, but generally not as self-empowered agents. Standpoint theory facilitates a critique of female agency in Eastwood’s films and argues for a different vision of the world with wider symbolic boundaries. A nod to strong women while continuing to use them as plot foils for the heroic male continues to be problematic.
While Gran Torino challenges many of Walt Kowalski’s existing moral boundaries, it also affirms stereotypical ones such as the dominant power structures that Walt Kowalski knows and participates in. He, as the white male, does not have to take responsibility for his racism or gendered assumptions; instead, he gets to feel good about the commonalities he recognizes all humans to have. He is ultimately the hero who has grown through the challenges to the point where he is allowed to emerge triumphant.
While one film cannot be all things to all people, Gran Torino is a film that, on first viewing, presents itself as morally enlightened. It represents sacrifice as worthwhile and alludes to the sacrifice of Christ. It affirms “traditional” values of hard work, steady character, and helping one’s neighbors. I understand why it is so appealing to a Christian audience. Gran Torino takes its characters and its audience on a journey of moral enlightenment that involves learning to communicate across boundaries. We see moral growth in Walt as he comes to understand another culture and value their family structure, their food, their need and ability to learn. In the process, the film brings light to a confused situation of diverse values. How does the traditional majority live with the reality of changing neighborhoods and seemingly changing values? This film suggests that the fundamental values do not have to change and the way “things used to be” is still a valid and valued way of living. Cherishing old cars, home ownership and upkeep, taking care of things—fixing them instead of abandoning and buying new is, in many respects, an anti-consumerist message which fits well with a Gospel call to stewardship. Finally, this film also affirms a worldview that sees sin in everyone, yet offers hope of redemption. That a life of guilty self-indulgence on Walt’s part can be redeemed in giving to and for others, in sacrificing even his life, is a hopeful message.
Other lessons or “equipment for living” are not as positive. The film offers little hope of reconciliation for Walt’s own family and does not seem to value it as important. Walt adopts his new family and confirms it in giving his most treasured possession, his Gran Torino, to Thao.
In addition, while seemingly affirming the rule of law, it shows that violence is the quick and easy solution. Conveniently, we are allowed to see that Walt has a terminal illness. As he calculates what to do, he allows violence to be the solution—a more convenient death for him, and one that pushes the solution to Thao and Sue’s problems. That solution bypasses any hope from the church, which ultimately sends ambivalent lukewarm messages about the church as a place of hope and light.
That the boundaries of moral order in Walt Kowalski’s world are not perfect is no surprise—it is more like real life. Sin mixes with the best of intentions. Nevertheless, I am unwilling to conclude that Gran Torino is only a story of redemption.A more nuanced read of the film challenges assumptions that the “majority” viewpoint is the normative starting point for understanding. The film holds a white majority view of racism that embraces the need to be more accepting of difference while at the same time identifying others as Other, as different, which suggests a privileged view hinting of patronization. In hammering home a message about racism, Gran Torino celebrates excessive language which demeans and tears down people groups. It also portrays the world as one where women are ultimately victims in need of the protection of a man. The woman may be granted a measure of self-empowerment, but only to the point where the heroic male is needed; a female epistemology is secondary to a male’s.
The tension between my enjoyment of the film as entertainment and my response to it as an argument for what the world should look like remains and reminds me of the need to examine a film carefully from multiple angles. By looking at the role communication plays in establishing boundary markers and identifying challenges to and affirmations of Walt Kowalski’s moral boundaries through the lens of standpoint theory, I am better able to understand the cognitive dissonance I experienced. Gran Torino takes us for a fine ride, but driving only within the moral boundaries presented will limit those invited along and may blur our vision of the diverse kingdom of God.
Cite this article
- Dirty Harry, directed by Don Siegel (Burbank, CA: Warner Bros. Studio, 1971); Gran Torino, directed by Clint Eastwood (Burbank, CA: Warner Bros. Studio, 2008).
- For example, see Christianity Today, “The 10 Most Redeeming Films of 2008,” January 27, 2009, accessed February 9, 2009, http://www.christianitytoday.com/movies/commentaries/tenredeemingfilmsof 2008.html. Gran Torino is listed at number three.
- Kenneth Burke’s essay, “Literature as Equipment for Living” The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action 3rd ed. (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1941), and (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1973), 293-304, is frequently cited to support arguments of narrative action and influence. For examples of its extension to film, see Stephen Dine Young, “Movies as Equipment for Living: A Developmental Analysis of the Importance of Film in Everyday Life,” Critical Studies in Media Communication 17.4 (2000): 447-468; or Barry Brummet, “Electric Literature as Equipment for Living: Haunted House Films,” Critical Studies in Mass Communication 2(1985): 247-261.
- Wayne C. Booth, The Company We Keep: The Rhetoric of Fiction (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988), 8-12.
- Scott Mendelson, review of Gran Torino directed by Clint Eastwood, Huffington Post, De-cember 15, 2008, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/scott-mendelson/review-gran-torino-2008_b_151135.html (accessed September 11, 2009).
- “Clint Eastwood,” Internet Movie Database, accessed November 2, 2009, http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000142/.
- John Gourlie and Leonard Engel, introduction to Clint Eastwood, Actor and Director: New Perspectives, ed. Leonard Engel (Salt Lake City: The University of Utah Press, 2007), 20.
- Richard Schickel, Clint Eastwood: A Biography (New York: Vintage, 1996), 16.
- Craig Detweiler, Into the Dark: Seeing the Sacred in the Top Films of the 21st Century (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 159.
- Ibid., 163.
- Robert K. Johnston, Reel Spirituality: Theology and film in Dialogue, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 234.
- Mary Douglas, Risk and Blame: Essays in Cultural Theory (New York: Routledge, 1992), 5.
- In Annalee Ward, Mouse Morality: The Rhetoric of Disney Animated Film (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 2002), I examined the boundaries of moral order in Pocahontas and discovered that they often contradicted the overall message Disney said it was trying to communicate. By laying out that moral structure, I was able to uncover the worldview(s) being advocated, ultimately for the purpose of evaluation. Worldview criticism is a method of inoculation against unwanted moralisms—understanding that empowers critique. It allows for evaluative perspectivalism and room for speaking out of one’s faith-based convictions as well as the particularities of standpoint.
- See, for example, Julia T. Wood, “Gender and Moral Voice: Moving from Woman’s Nature to Standpoint Epistemology,” Women’s Studies in Communication 15.1 (1992): 1-24; Julia T. Wood, “Feminist Standpoint Theory and Muted Group Theory: Commonalities and Divergences,” Women and Language 28.2 (2005): 61-64; Sandra Harding, Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? Thinking from Women’s Lives (New York: Cornell University Press, 1991), 142.
- For examples of standpoint theory used in rhetorical studies, see Glen McClish and Jac-queline Bacon, “‘Telling the Story Her Own Way’: The Role of Feminist Standpoint Theory in Rhetorical Studies,” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 32.2 (Spring 2002): 27-54, or Kathleen J. Ryans and Elizabeth J. Natalle, “Fusing Horizons: Standpoint Hermeneutics and Invitational Rhetoric,” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 31.2 (Spring 2001): 69-90, or Antonio Aguilar, “Tattoos as Worldviews: A Journey into Tattoo Communications Using Standpoint Theory”(paper, annual meeting of the National Communication Association, Chicago, IL, November 15, 2007), accessed July 8, 2010, http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p192402_index.html.
- See Donnalyn Pompper, “The Gender-Ethnicity Construct in Public Relations Organiza-tions: Using Feminist Standpoint Theory to Discover Latinas’ Realities,” The Howard Journal of Communications 18 (2007): 291-311; Etsuko Kinefuchi and Mark P. Orbe, “Situating Oneself in a Racialized World: Understanding Student Reactions to Crash through Standpoint Theory and Context-Positionality Frames,” Journal of International and Intercultural Communication 1.1(February 2008): 70-90.
- Harding, Whose Science? Whose Knowledge?, 152.
- Kinefuchi and Orbe, “Situating Oneself,” 84.
- For example, see Charles Alan Taylor, “Defining the Scientific Community: A Rhetorical Perspective on Demarcation,” in Communication Monographs 58.4 (1991): 402-420. He argues that “science is what it is rhetorically demarcated and communally authorized to be.” An-other example is seen in Anne Holmquest, “The Rhetorical Strategy of Boundary Work,” Argumentation 4 (1990): 235-258. This is a case study involving the mental health profession’s interaction with the courts to determine dangerousness. Neither of these examples, however, uses symbolic boundaries as indicators of moral order and rhetorical devices.
- Robert Wuthnow, Meaning and Moral Order: Explorations in Cultural Analysis (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1987), 96.
- For example, see Mary Douglas, Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology (New York: Pantheon Books, 1970), in which Douglas examines bodily symbolism in the context of group social relations and ego-centered relations. While the symbolism can serve several purposes, “it can serve as a philosophy of being, by distinguishing the forces of good from the forces of evil…” (viii-ix).
- Douglas, Risk, 260.
- Wuthnow, Meaning and Moral Order, 339, 341.
- Ibid., 58.
- Many parallels exist between the character of Walt Kowalski and Clint Eastwood. For example, the value of hard work was ingrained in Eastwood in childhood. Schickel writes: As Clinton Sr. had doubtless hoped, the demands cars placed on his son’s wallet taught Clint the value of uncomplaining toil. “You get nothing for nothing,” his father would tell him. Or, “Don’t think the world owes you a living, because it doesn’t.” When Clint would apply for his after-school jobs, his father would always tell him: “Forget about the dough. Go in there and show them what you can do. Make yourself so valuable that they just gotta have you.” Many years later, discussing his moderately troubled passage through later adolescence, Clint would tell an interviewer, “although I rebelled, I never rebelled against that,” Schickel, Clint Eastwood, 35-36.
- Again, the parallels between Eastwood and the character of Walt emerge. Schickel’s inter-view with Eastwood notes, “an automobile was essential to Clint. ‘Very simply, it was your only form of independence,’ and, once he entered high school, a vital dating tool,” Ibid., 35.
- Wuthnow, Meaning and Moral Order, 51.
- Vernon E. Cronen, “Coordinated Management of Meaning Theory and Post Enlightenment Ethics,” in Conversations on Communication Ethics, ed. Karen Joy Greenberg (Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1991), 48.
- While this is not strictly an auteur discussion, Eastwood’s extensive filmic history hovers over the themes, the acting, and the filming, and thus, engaging his personal imprint may also reveal borders.
- Gran Torino, directed by Clint Eastwood (Burbank, CA: Warner Bros. Studio, 2008).
- Schickel, Clint Eastwood,35-36.
- Gran Torino, 2008.
- Gran Torino, 2008.
- Schickel, Clint Eastwood, 210.
- Henri Behar, “America on the Brink of the Void,” Le Monde (1993: 215-221), reprinted in Clint Eastwood: Interviews, eds. Robert E. Kapsis and Kathie Coblentz (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999), 219.
- Thierry Jousse and Camille Never, “Interview with Clint Eastwood,” Cahiers du Cinema(October 1992), 67-71, reprinted in Clint Eastwood: Interviews, 177.
- James Verniere, “Clint Eastwood Stepping Out,” Sight and Sound 3.9 (1993): 6-9, rept. in Clint Eastwood: Interviews, 211.
- John C. Tibbetts, “The Machinery of Violence,” in Clint Eastwood, Actor and Director: New Perspectives, ed.Leonard Engel (Salt Lake City: The University of Utah Press, 2007), 173.
- Gran Torino (2008).
- Edward Gallafent, Clint Eastwood: Filmmaker and Star (New York: Continuum, 1994), 231.