Gremlins and (White) American Patriarchy

Gremlins at 35: The timely return of Joe Dante's controversial creatures

I’m back at it again, y’all. I’m Grinching up your (and my) favorite Christmas shows.

Last night I decided to watch the Steven Spielberg classic, Gremlins (1984). I actually own the DVD (thanks, mom!) because this is one of my favorite movies of all time. That’s right. It’s not just one of my favorite Christmas movies. It’s one of my fav-o-rite movies ever.

I’m not afraid to point out a few–ok, a lot of–things about the film that are much darker than those scheming little gremlins, and in this blog post I’m gonna do just that. Let’s talk about (smashing) the patriarchy!

Let me reiterate how much I love this movie. This criticism of white American patriarchy I am about to talk about is actually a part of the movie’s lesson–not just my feminist ranting. Let me offer some examples, most of which bear on a character who is virtually absent from the middle of the movie: Mr. Peltzer.

Pin by Crystal West on Name that, great movie! | Gremlins, Movies, Great  movies

OK, here we go. Think about all of these elements of the movie and what they represent:

  • Mr. Peltzer’s ruse (?) to be shopping for his son (of an indeterminate age) a gift for Christmas, and his imposition upon the Chinatown shop owner, Mr. Wing, in which he tries to sell him one of his crappy inventions
  • Mr. Peltzer’s ridiculous, deficient inventions (and this is shown in multple scenes in the home and in public places)
  • Mr. Peltzer’s decision to go to an invention convention at the risk of not being with his family on Christmas day
  • Mr. Peltzer’s insistence on buying the mogwai (and raising the price to get what he wants)
  • Mr. Peltzer’s underhanded purchase of the mogwai from Mr. Wing’s grandson
  • Mr. Peltzer’s decision to name the mogwai Gizmo, thus turning the creature into another one of his inventions
  • Pete’s tree-selling dad’s insistence on making his son dress as a Christmas tree and deliver the trees to people’s cars and houses. How cruel!
  • Mr. Fudderman’s rant about everything foreign being bad (including what he calls “gremlins,” thus giving the film its namesake)
  • Gerald’s prickishness (already climbed that business ladder at 23 and flaunting it in Kate and Billy’s faces; his asking her out on a date just to show her his cable TV and nice apartment)
  • Mr. Peltzer’s great idea to produce more Gizmos so that every kid in America can have one–even though he knows that there are strict rules (don’t get them wet, direct sunlight will kill them, and don’t feed them after midnight) for caring for such creatures (which don’t seem to bother him a bit–especially the last rule, of which at this time he has yet to experience the effects) [P.S. Mogwai means devil in Cantonese, and Peltzer might have known better than to multiply the little devils if he knew that.]
  • The gremlins’ uncanny ability to manipulate technology, caricature human vices, and simply be utterly selfish and destructive
  • The sheriff and deputy’s attitudes and mockery of Billy
  • Their selfishness when they see the guy dressed as Santa being attacked by gremlins (they roll up their windows and drive off)
  • Kate’s story about her dad who had to prove his Santa chops by crawling down a chimney and breaking his neck (i.e., capitalism and the performativity of Christmas)
  • Mr. Wing’s concluding statement to the Peltzers as he comes to collect Gizmo about how they (as representatives of Western society) are not ready for the responsibility of taking care of the mogwai, and–most important–how (white?) men have no respect for nature. “You didn’t listen!” Mr. Wing says. “You have done with Mogwai what your society has done with all of nature’s gifts!” As he leaves the Peltzers’ home he reminds them of the value of listening.

Check out this final scene:

There are surely many more things to discuss regarding the film’s obvious critique of American patriarchy. How about the film’s first death: the Black school teacher, Mr. Hanson? (Do with this what you will. You know what I’m thinking.) Surely I should say something about the relationship between Stripe and Gizmo, or Stripe and Billy. What would you add? Let me know what I missed.

Let me also say that the women in this film are kick ass. Mrs. Peltzer is a beast! She defends her home, almost to the death of herself, and takes those gremlins down! Kate works one job for the pay and other for free, and when the volunteer gig puts her in harm’s way–I mean she is basically trapped by a horde of gremlins who want to be fed and served booze and cigarettes, and some of which actually shoot at her with a gun–she is smart and quick on her feet. She also helps Billy take down the gremlins en masse while they are watching Snow White, and then when Billy asks her to find all the light switches in the store she shows no fear. She goes for it. I should also say a word about Mrs. Deagle. Clearly the film’s human villain and the worst representative of capitalism, you gotta appreciate that she is not falling for anyone’s shit. She’s playing her part through and through, and she’s a crazy cat lady.

To be honest, I like the character of Billy. He is genuine and kind, and it’s refreshing to find a positive model of white American masculinity in an 80s movie. At the end Mr. Peltzer doesn’t try to stop Mr. Wing from taking the mogwai back, which is a sign of improvement. I still blame him for all of the chaos and deaths that occur in Kingston Falls, though. If he had not insisted on giving his son the mogwai, none of this would have happened. His desire to give a grown man (Billy) a fuzzy pet is odd and IMHO a sign of his vanity.

Anyway, I’ll end here and say Merry Christmas. Just watch out for COVID and carolers.

11 holiday movie tropes Gremlins turns on their heads 11 holiday movie-isms  Gremlins turns on their heads

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