Class Exploitation: The Humiliation and Debasement of Class Oriented Criminals in Interview Scenes

*This is an essay I originally wrote for my Studies in Film: Crime Adaptions course in Fall 2017.*

In 2013, director Baz Luhmann adapted the 1925 classic American novel The Great Gatsby, written by F. Scott Fitzgerald, into a film starring Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway and Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby. There is a famous scene in the film where Tom confronts Gatsby about the affair he is having with his wife, Daisy. On a hot summer day they all drive into town and rent a room. In this room, tensions come to a head and secrets are exposed. In this famous scene, Tom begins to antagonize Gatsby with a string of accusations and questions with intent to humiliate Gatsby in front of Daisy by exposing their class differences. He pushes Gatsby to his breaking point and Gatsby explodes. Gatsby begins to yell and charges at Tom with his one fist clenched and drawn back with intent to strike, his other hand gripping Tom’s shirt collar. Before he hits Tom he gathers his composure, releases Tom, and apologizes to the group for his outburst.

Although a crime does take place, the murder of Myrtle Wilson, The Great Gatsby is not a crime film. Similarly, Gatsby is not a criminal and Tom is not an agent of law enforcement or in a position of power over him. However, the confrontation between Tom and Gatsby is a direct reflection of what is witnessed in the interview scenes of In Cold Blood (1967), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and Monster (2003). The way that Tom antagonized Gatsby to the point of overwhelming frustration is in similar fashion of the policeman to Dick Hickock (Scott Wilson) in In Cold Blood, similar to the T.V. anchorman to Sonny (Al Pacino) in Dog Day Afternoon, and similar to Aileen’s (Charlize Theron) interview at the law firm in Monster. Tom got under Gatsby’s skin in a very strategic way, by exploiting Gatsby’s disadvantages while leveraging and elevating his own privilege, which is also what we see in the three interview scenes in the aforementioned films.

These are all three different kinds of interviews, in In Cold Blood Dick Hickock is being interviewed by a policeman in a police interrogation, Dog Day Afternoon shows Sonny being interviewed by a TV anchorman, and Aileen is at a job interview in Monster. While these interviews take different forms, they share various similarities. Particularly, how the interviewers intended to humiliate their interviewees with classist undertones and coded language. In this paper, I will examine the interview scenes in In Cold Blood, Monster, and Dog Day Afternoon in order to unearth the homogeneous theme of class exploitation through manipulation, humiliation, degradation, and debasement.

In the scene where Gatsby loses his temper as a result of Tom’s antagonization, the two of them have an exchange right before the altercation transitions from verbal to physical. Gatsby, referring to Tom, exclaims, “The only thing respectable about you is your money, and I have just as much as you so that makes us equal.” In rebuttal, Tom quickly, without any hesitation or forethought, fires back, “Oh no, no. We’re different. I am, they [Nick and Jordan] are, she [Daisy] is. We’re all different, you see. We were born different, it’s in our blood. Nothing that you do, or say, or steal will change that.” Here, Tom is using a specific tactic and language to undermine and humiliate Gatsby. In “Humiliation: Assessing the Impact of Derision, Degradation, and Debasement” by Linda M. Hart and Tracy Luchetta, they define humiliation as the following, “The internal experience of humiliation is the deep dysphoric feeling associated with being, or perceiving oneself as being, unjustly degraded, ridiculed, or put down—in particular, one’s identity has been demeaned or devalued” (Hart and Luchetta 264). Based on this definition, Gatsby’s experience, as a result of Tom’s words, definitely falls within the boundaries of a humiliating experience. Specifically, Tom’s coded classist language certainly devalues and degrades Gatsby’s identity, especially because Gatsby’s identity and sense of self is intimately tied to his wealth.

This type of class-based humiliation is also very present in In Cold Blood during the interview scene between the policeman and Dick Hickock, but it differs from Tom Buchanan and Jay Gatsby because of power dynamics. Positions of power are an important, while not always necessary, element of humiliation. As Hart and Luchetta point out, “humiliation involves more emphasis on an interaction in which one is debased or forced into a degraded position by someone who is, at that moment, more powerful.” In this instance, Dick is essentially powerless being a suspect in a crime that both he and the policeman know he has committed. In the scene, the policeman wields this power through his classist undertones. He says to Dick, “Why do all you people get tattoos?” The use of “you people” is setting up a clear distinction of “us” and “them” or “the haves” and the “have nots.” The use of “you people” directly applies the presence of a hierarchical system, where the policeman is ranked higher than Dick with tattoos acting as the status symbol. The policeman, using his position of power, degrades Dick’s identity with his coded language. Aware of what the policeman is implying, Dick becomes angry, a natural reaction to experiencing humiliation (Hart and Luchetta 260) as he jumps out of his seat and goes on a rant describing how “everybody’s got a tattoo.”

“Everybody’s got a tattoo. Only you people call them clubs. Elks, Masons, Boy Scouts. Salute. High sign. Low sign. Secret this and secret that. “No trespassing. Keep off the grass.” Nice, respectable, tattoo clubs.
Poker clubs, golf clubs, tennis clubs. Clubs for gambling and clubs for drinking. Even a real club like Daddy-O’s got in that little brown bag. What you gonna do, pappy? Club it out of me?” (In Cold Blood)

The policeman’s language indirectly exploits the class difference between himself and Dick, and reinforces a system of social stratification where certain individuals are cruelly criticized and treated less significantly than others. And as a result, Dick has a violent reaction to this form of humiliation and degradation imposed on him by the policeman. A reaction that is common throughout all of films discussed in this paper, especially in the 2003 film Monster.

Similarly, in Monster, the same phenomenon takes place as Aileen goes for a job interview at a law firm. Aileen has been going on a string of job interviews with no tangible progress and no foreseeable maturation. As she travels from interview to interview on a stolen bike, the voiceover describes how when she was 13-years-old, a famous actor came to speak at her middle school assembly. During his speech, the famous actor exclaimed to the students that all one needs is love and to believe in yourself and they can do anything they want. Which is equal parts allegorical and ironic given the premise of my argument. It is only from a place of privilege that believes love and self-assurance are all one needs in order to garner success. If Aileen hadn’t come to that realization by now, it was made crystal clear at the law firm interview. As she is seated in front of her interviewer in her oversized blouse and blazer that have accompanied her on every interview thus far, she puts on her best professional smile in hopes for a good interview and a possible job offer. But to her dismay, the insults begin to fly immediately. In the most narcissistic of tones the interviewer blurts “Basically, you have no experience, no college degree, no resume, no work history whatsoever, in fact, and you would like to be a lawyer.” At this point, it is obvious that the interviewer has deemed Aileen insignificant and a waste of his time, probably because he does have a college degree, work experience, and etc., and that disdain for Aileen is manifested in his language. After Aileen reassures him that she is only interviewing for the secretary position, he goes on to list a list of skills that Aileen does not possess. He says directly that her presence in his office was “insulting.” He references her hometown, Daytona Beach, and says, “When the beach party is over, you don’t get to say you know what, I think I’d like to have what everybody has worked their entire life for, it doesn’t work that way.” The interviewer is making a lot of assumptions about Aileen with very limited information about her. Aileen’s life has been the very antithesis of a party, but based on his privileged observation of her he reduces her character and devalues her humanity in a matter of seconds, solely based how the fact she lacks work experience and is from Daytona Beach. According to Hartling and Luchetta, an alarming indicator of humiliation is someone’s ability to make the other feel small and insignificant, especially when that individual is in position of power. The interviewer intentionally makes Aileen seem insignificant, especially in comparison to him as an established lawyer, by coarsely bringing attention to her educational shortcomings, calling her presence “insulting,” and making judgements concerning her lifestyle solely based on her hometown of Daytona Beach.

After his degrading speech is over, Aileen shouts back in a fit of anger, “Fuck you!” The interviewer looks up in confusion and disbelief that she took this tone with him, she assures him with a second, “Yeah, fuck you!” She angrily gathers her things, stands up, while still aggressively cursing her interviewer out, throws a stack of his files on the ground that were originally on a bookshelf. She even screams a “Fuck you, Leslie!” to the secretary who’s an innocent bystander. Comparatively to Dick Hickock, Aileen has a violent reaction to this type of humiliation and degradation brought against her by the interviewer.

The power dynamics in this particular interview scene are two-fold in the way that the interviewer humiliates Aileen; class and gender are both at play here. The interviewer’s language not only carried classist undertones, but sexist ones as well. In their study, Hartling and Luchetta find that women experience humiliation more than men. The reasoning for this is that we live in a male dominated society where men chose and define the normalcy, which in turn, give them more of an opportunity to humiliate the “subordinate” group: women. They write, “This inferior status puts them at risk for being humiliated or being threatened with humiliation by the dominant group” (Hartling and Luchetta 271). However, regardless of gender, the same way the subordinate group (women) are seemingly more susceptible to humiliation by the dominate group (men), the same could be said for class differences. Based on the observations of these films, one could argue that those with a lower class status are more susceptible to humiliation by those with higher class standing as a result of their “inferior status” as Hartling and Luchetta put it. The same power dynamics are at play.

Class structures and inequalities were also present, and probably the most glaring, in the film Dog Day Afternoon starring Al Pacino. Although, Fredric Jameson, author of “Class and Allegory in Contemporary Mass Culture: Dog Day Afternoon as a Political Film,” argues that Dog Day Afternoon reinforces a liberal, anticommunism notion of the disappearance of class (Jameson 843). While I do agree that Dog Day Afternoon is a political film, it is not because of the erasure of class structures. That’s a very classist stance, a stance those negatively affected by class inequalities (like Sonny) do not have the privilege to hold. Dog Day Afternoon is a political film, in my opinion, because of its provocation and accentuation on anti-establishment and police brutality, i.e. – Sonny’s Attica speech. It is also a political film because of its subtle racial, gender, and sexual implications. When the sole Black character in the film, the ill and innocent security guard, was released from the bank the police treated him as the culprit. Additionally, Sonny’s queer identity and his relationship to Leon, who by today’s standards would be identified as a transgender woman and not a gay man. The way the media shaped the story around Sonny’s sexuality and how the once supportive bystanders seemingly turned on Sonny after this information was made public. All of these elements are what make Dog Day Afternoon a political film, not because of the disappearance of class. However, one of Jameson’s arguments for the disappearance of class is because of the nature and social and political climate of the 1960s. He writes,

 

“the failure of a theory of class seemed less important practically and politically during the anti-war situation of the 1960’s, in which attacks on authoritarianism, racism, and sexism had their own internal justifications and logic, and were lent urgency by the particular students, blacks, browns, and women. What is becoming clearer today is that the demands for equality and justice projected by such groups are not (unlike the politics of social class) intrinsically subversive.” (Jameson 844)

 

In the 1960s, there were a plethora of social and political movements taking place simultaneously. The was the Civil Rights Movement, The Black Panthers were gaining traction, the Stonewall riots took place, which provided the LGBTQ+ rights movement with national attention, the women’s movement was in full swing, and anti-war protests were continuous. But it is disingenuous to argue that race, gender, and sexuality are not thoroughly integrated with class. The incident with the Black security guards and the queerness of Sonny and Leon are examples of this intersectionality.

The most obvious evidence to combat Jameson’s disappearance of class claim is that the crime the film revolves around, a bank robbery, is a crime resultant of the very class inequalities that Jameson insist have disappeared in Dog Day Afternoon. The interview scene between the T.V. anchorman and Sonny make the class differences strikingly apparent. And in similar fashion to the policeman in In Cold Blood, and interviewer in Monster, the T.V. anchorman, exploits the class differences between himself and Sonny.

Superficially it may seem that the anchorman’s line of questioning is innocuous, but a more analytical approach will reveal that the line of questioning contained classist undertones and condescension, which engendered Sonny’s angry reaction. The anchorman starts by asking Sonny why he is robbing the bank. As if it isn’t obvious, Sonny looks back to his hostages in confusion, and answered, “I’m robbing the bank cause they got money here.” The anchorman continues, “Why do you feel like you have to steal for money? Couldn’t you get a job?” Whether the anchorman is ignorant to poor people’s plight, or he’s intentionally asking questions he already knows the answer to disorient and humiliate Sonny on live television, the class distinction is clear. It is evident that the anchorman is using Sonny’s class standing, whether knowingly or not, as a tool to debase Sonny. It becomes even more evident as the interview continues, particularly when the anchorman baits Sonny by asking if he expects to be paid for the interview. Sonny, aware of what the anchorman is attempting to do, is becoming increasingly more annoyed as the interview progresses. Sonny reaches his breaking point when the anchorman suggest that Sonny give up. Sonny asks the anchorman has he ever been to prison, when the anchorman responds that he hasn’t Sonny erupts sayings, “Well let’s talk about something you fucking know about! How much do you make a week?” Sonny, from what I observed and interrupted, is frustrated with someone posing questions and unsolicited advice that does not have the capacity to understand the plight of someone who has to resort to robbery for money.

In “Plot Structure in Dog Day Afternoon: How Class Inequalities Create a Comic Plot Structure” Sarah Logar also discusses how the interview between the anchorman and Sonny reinforces class differences and how the interview makes Sonny a “spectacle.” She writes,

 

“I think the conversation with the reporter shows Sonny’s working class status, and that there are circumstances and experiences that he has had that makes him feel like he got a raw deal. I think he feels that he has been taken advantage of, and that this is his opportunity to get what’s his. Based on the exchange that he has with the reporter here, it sounds like he knows that he is making a spectacle, but that he is going to use it as a way to get something that he feels is owed to him.” (Logar, 2017)

 

Logar breaks down how this interview clearly shows how disadvantaged Sonny is, especially in comparison to the anchorman. She points out that Sonny’s economic oppression is what sets him apart from the press and police. Logar writes, “I think when he asks the reporter if he is going to talk to him about his wage, he is directing that to everyone outside the bank who holds a higher social class than he does. Those people, specifically the press and police, are his oppressors in his eyes.”

I am implored to quibble with Jameson about the erasure of class structures in Dog Day Afternoon. The interview scene between the anchorman and Sonny clearly identifies the class inequalities that Jameson claims to be nonexistent in the film. Additionally, the anchorman uses these inequalities to humiliate Sonny through classist coded language. Similar to Tom and Gatsby in the example previously mentioned, albeit less aggressive, the anchorman exploits Sonny’s disadvantages while elevating his own privilege, provoking Sonny’s angry outburst.

The interview scenes in these three films, In Cold Blood, Monster, and Dog Day Afternoon, are disparate and different from each other in many ways, but they are much more connected than they seem. All three films contain interview scenes where the criminals’ class standing is exploited by their interviewers in an attempt to humiliate and degrade them. Not only that, but the violent reaction to this class based humiliation is uniform in all three films. Dick Hickock, Aileen, and Sonny all enter into a fit of rage laced with foul language and disdain for their interviewers after being humiliated. Almost in attempt to take back some of the power that their interviewers stole from them by exploiting their inferior economic status.

 

 

References:

Hartling, Linda M., and Tracy Luchetta. “Humiliation: Assessing the Impact of Derision Degradation and Debasement.” The Journal of Primary Prevention, vol. 19, no. 4, 1999, pp. 259–278.

Jameson, Fredric. “Class and Allegory in Contemporary Mass Culture: Dog Day Afternoon as a Political Film.” College English, vol. 38, no. 8, 1997, pp. 843–855.

Logar, Sarah. ““Plot Structure in Dog Day Afternoon: How Class Inequalities Create a Comic Plot Structure.” CDO Three. October 27, 2017.

 

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