Like most people, I was completely uninterested in the release of Couples’ Retreat earlier this year. For me, the previews oscillated between blatant rip-offs of Sarah Marshall (also starring Kristin Bell) and rehash of every character Vince Vaughn has played in the last 5 years. When the trailers weren’t serving up rewarmed left overs you should have thrown out years ago, they were trading in obvious racial stereotypes that did not even deserve mention on this blog. Not only does the film have the obligatory black couple (the only couple of color) but the gags in the advertising rely on his enormous body and its disrobing to the shock and appalled interest of the mostly uptight white women in the other couples. In short, Couples’ Retreat was a throw away from jump.
However, I find myself revisiting the shlock precisely because of the racial component of their advertising. What started out as laughably marginal racism, ie so expected it bores, has turned into full erasure as the film has begun its European distribution. Look at the film’s movie posters below and see if you can spot the issue:
American Release Poster
British Release Poster
Did you see it?
I know. I know. It might be hard to catch given how marginal the black couple was in the original poster, but there is a marked difference from placing a black couple in the far background and omitting them all together when the film is supposedly about the struggles of all four couples. And while I don’t doubt the original poster accurately reflects the significance of the black couple to the film, ie as background sight gags with little or no real story arcs, omitting them all together speaks volumes about the investment certain hard hitters in Hollywood’s comedy genre have in racially equality vs. the appearance there of, in their films.
Interestingly, British audiences agree. Several groups are currently boycotting Couples’ Retreat based on what they are calling “racist advertising.” They are also raising awareness about erasure in films in general as a result of this action.
To be honest, when this protest reached me, my first thought was: I don’t know what is worse, having the big black body trotted out repeatedly for laughs/ shock value or having black people omitted all together from advertising? Afterall, they seem to be two sides of an equally offensive coin.
Ultimately, Couples’ Retreat is no more guilty of these kinds of racially laden advertising practices than any other film of its ilk, think Ben Stiller’s or Jack Black’s films for example. As the lesser entry in the genre it will be all the more exempt from critique in the U.S., the country producing all of these films, because no one watched it anyway. And yet, it is our ongoing willingness to ignore advertising and/or to shift discussion of how that advertising plays into various forms of oppression to discussions of “intent”, “content”, oppression olympics, and “my black friend laughed” discussions that allow these heavy hitters in N. American comedy to keep on perpetuating a world view that not only imagines a mostly white, if not exclusively white world, but trades on stereotypes and erasures of people of color and other marginalized groups.
Couples’ Retreat is hardly worth this much attention on its own, but as another example of the recent trend in N. American comedy, I don’t think we can ignore it.