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‘Ghost World’ & racism: Why it means more today

‘Ghost World’ has some great commentary on today’s world.

Ghost World is one of the most underrated films of the early 21st century. A coming of age story that helped launch the career of Scarlett Johansson, it is also considered one of the best comic book adaptations of all time. The movie is a funny and touching look at the onset of adulthood.

The film deals with a number of themes. Friendship, belonging, and acceptance are all touched on. The cast is memorable and the writing is engaging. The cast does an amazing job in a story that is funny and relatable.

One of Ghost World’s subplots deals with racism. Enid finds a caricature of a black man in her new friend Seymour’s room. She is understandably upset, asking him if he is a Klansman. He isn’t and Enid decides to use the painting as an art project at school.

She understands it is racist and knows it is confrontational. However, there is no meaning behind Enid’s actions. She does not want anyone to examine America’s racist history nor does she care if anyone realizes the problems of the day. It is clear by her stammering answer that aside from knowing it is a horrible image, she has no idea what the picture represents. Enid is simply trying to impress others.

Ghost World was not trying to deal with racism. It also was not a commentary on race baiting or the depths people will sink to in order to look good to others. That particular scene touches on these topics, but overall, it is an insular story that only dealt with society at large in broad strokes. Yet, that one moment resonates more powerfully today than when the movie was first released.

Today, the struggle for diversity is more visible than ever. There are more avenues that allow underrepresented people to speak their opinions. Society strives to be more open minded while casual racism and homophobic slurs are no longer tolerated. People are trying to be more understanding of how others feel. The internet also provides more channels for people to get their message out. Social media is used by millions to spread their messages of positivity. YouTube and forums also give everyone a chance to speak out. It can be uplifting to see the amount of good the internet can accomplish.

The World Wide Web was still in Web 1.0 era when Ghost World was released. Social media was two years away from its humble beginnings on MySpace. There were chat rooms and message boards, but there was not one place where everyone could congregate. Still, it was the first signs of people using the internet to talk themselves up.

Two things became universal in the early days of the Net. Godwin’s law was typed into existence and people would start posts with, “I’m not a racist”. Godwin’s law actually made sense. Everyone knows who Hitler is and what he did. If you want to equate something to unspeakable evil, there are few better ways to do so.

Declaring to not be racist is a little stranger. It is obviously the evolution of “I have black friends” (this has since become, “Oh, and I am black”). The odd part is, why would someone have to reiterate they are not racist? There is no need to assume people would randomly think you hate an entire group of people. There have been very few times in my life when I have started a conversation with, “My name is Nathaniel. I am not racist.”

It soon became clear why people would do this. Certain groups bemoan virtue signaling and white knights as if it is a new thing. Since the earliest days of the internet, there have been those who have made it point to show off to strangers how open minded they are. It is not good enough to do nice things and be a good person. The entire world has to know about it.

Which brings us back to Ghost World. Enid is a good person. Sure, she is a young kid who thinks being weird is cool, but we all went through that stage. For all her uninformed rhetoric about not wanting to conform like everyone else, she has a strong moral compass. She can barely hide her disgust over the racist caricature and questions why anyone would do such a thing. 

Taking the drawing to school is when Enid becomes an avatar for today’s world. When questioned by her art teacher, Enid explains she is challenging the racist past of America. It is ugly, but it is also something we have to accept. She is saying all the right things. She even believes them. Sadly, that is not the motivation behind why she brought the drawing. She simply wanted more praise than another student.

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When one looks at social media today, it is hard not to think of that moment in Ghost World. Whether it is about race relations, the current administration, or inclusivity, there are plenty of loud voices out there. These people write passionately about their feelings. 

The question becomes why do they do it? More often than not, they believe what they are saying – there is a huge racial divide and there does need to be better representation. But what do constant tweets actually mean? No matter how many followers a person has, how much change can they hope to enact behind a screen? Ghost World may be a fiction, but it speaks to a very basic human trait – the allure of praise. 

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