I was running late but I did make it home in time to pick up my little girl for our “daddy and daughter date.” Normally we get ice cream and go to the pet store, but today was special. She was going to her first ever movie in the theater and we were seeing Cars 2. It was a wonderful experience, and not just because it was a special treat for my daughter.
Cars 2 is a decent film. It was a good sequel in that it doesn’t merely repeat the same basic story, and in fact this film highlights Mater over Lightning McQueen. It adds new characters, takes on interesting developments, and plays well on the myriads of jokes throughout the film. It reflects many of the good qualities we’ve come to expect from Pixar: good story, good character development, and fantastic animation. But from a more critical perspective there is a theme in the film that simply rubs me the wrong way: Mater’s cultural ignorance isn’t merely laughed at, but it is applauded.
The story begins with Lightning McQueen’s participation in the World Grand Prix. He, Mater and the whole Radiator Springs crew make their way across the globe. Increasingly what we see, however, is that Mater (as the resident hillbilly of the gang) is completely culturally ignorant. He congratulates a car working in a Chinese rock garden for getting all the leaves up. He downs a whole bowl of Wasabi because he thinks it is pistachio ice cream. He accuses the British for being terrible drivers because they drive on the wrong side of the road. Routinely, throughout the movie, he makes statements and creates incidents that embarrass and humiliate his friends. Mater is a stereotypical hillbilly out of his element.Eventually this frustrates McQueen who kicks him off the team, but by the end of the movie we find Lightning rethinking his decision. He concludes that Mater is who he is and shouldn’t be required to change simply because he comes from a different cultural context. If people don’t like the way Mater does things then they need to change, McQueen asserts.
At one level this is simply the same endearing, if cliche, moral lesson: be yourself. But at another level it actually approves cultural ignorance. It applauds being a fool, offending host nations, and generally demonstrating a lack of concern for the way things are done in other parts of the world. This should not be our practice. The apostle Paul stated that the became all things to all people. Even though Paul is thinking about his evangelical mission we can apply the same principle to respecting those in the international community. To remain ignorant, and to applaud this ignorance is to intentionally disrespect other cultures. Maybe you don’t need to pretend to be a Frenchman in France, but you can respect them by learning about their culture and avoiding the obvious errors. Mater may win over other cultures by the end of the movie, but odds are that our insensitivity won’t produce the same results. Mater’s cultural ignorance is not okay for you.