Monday, July 19, 2010
"Bonjour ye cheese eating surrender monkeys”. As spoken by Groundskeeper Willie in Episode 125 (“Round Springfield”) of the Simpsons when, due to budget cuts he is drafted in as a temporary French teacher. So what works well about this insult and what is it saying?
Cheese eating: Of course we all (almost) enjoy cheese, nothing bad there, however some counties may produce and eat a disproportionate amount of it, does France? No idea. The word cheese does convey other slightly unattractive meanings and there are many negative associations that could be made over cheese smells, mould, fungus etc. or simple being attracted to cheese in some unbalance way. It also downgrades the recipient possibly to some peasant or servile level - all they ever eat is cheese, a basic food.
Surrender Monkey: This is the real punch of the insult, cheese eating merely provides a context and backdrop, “surrender “ immediately conveys aspects of the historical collapse of France following German invasion , sadly without thinking at all of the brave work of the resistance and the French public who made the German’s time in France as difficult as they could. Added to that Modern France, always something of a step behind or ahead of other Western foreign policy could be seen as at the very least “opting out” if not actually surrendering. It’s another stereotype that unfortunately works and does so on a repeat basis. The old joke “why do the French plant trees along the sides of their roads?”, “So that the German army can march in the shade.” is another example of the same thinking.
“Monkeys” is peculiar, whilst it could be seen as racist it’s also childish and much more lightweight and silly, not a particularly cruel insult. Many parents will call their own children “little monkeys” in an affectionate way. Monkeys are, for most people likable, fun and interesting animals, they are also and it helps with the punch of the insult sub-human.
So why does the insult work so well?
a) It is delivered in the mock Scottish GW accent “out of the blue” by an inappropriate character who is regularly ridiculed himself..
b) It has what seem separate but clearly linked messages within the four words.
c) It confirms a stereotype but in a slightly different way than you‘d expect.
d) It has a rhythm.
e) It has been given a longer life due to other topical events i.e. the war in Iraq.
f) It has a “playground” quality that masks the depth of it.
g) It is clean - no swearing is involved.
f) It confirms what many would consider to be a popular (if unspoken) view.
h) It marginalizes a nation so “we” can all laugh together and mock a (sizable) minority so it allows a bullying or superior stance to be taken.
I) It has had a life beyond it’s original airing and use.
What is interesting is that the episodes writer’s thought that it would win awards because of the overall quality of the script and the storyline - it won nothing other than recognition for happening to contain what has become a famous and a favourite insult.
P.S. I've nothing against the French or cheese, not so keen about monkeys however.