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What People Got Wrong About the Film Parasite
It's not about a rich family and a poor family.
During my conversation with Richard Hanania about the 2019 Academy Award-winning film Parasite, I talked about how viewers and critics were quick to assume that Parasite was about a rich family and a poor family.
It shows how little people know about class.
This is how the director of the movie, Bong Joon Ho, characterized the Kim family:
“The father has accumulated numerous business failures, the mother who trained as an athlete has never found particular success, and the son and daughter have failed the university entrance exam on multiple occasions.”
This is not the profile of a poor or working class family. The Kims are not poor, they are failed middle class.
This is why, in an early scene in the movie, they were so bad at folding those pizza boxes.
In high school, I worked at an Italian restaurant as a busboy and dishwasher.
In his terrific memoir on slum tourism, Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell uses the French term plongeur—a person employed to wash dishes and carry out other menial tasks in a restaurant or hotel—to describe his occupation as he was struggling in Paris.
Plongeur sounds much better than “bus boy.”
Anyway, my coworkers in the pizza station were, like the rest of us in the back of the restaurant, guys from fucked up families. They drove beat-up motorcycles and had long hair and tattoos, or were stoners or community college dropouts whose highlight of the week was getting paid on Friday and drinking away the weekend.
The girls mostly worked as servers, and were generally more put together. Though there was plenty of binge drinking and drug use among them as well. Many restaurants function like this, with sweaty guys in the back cooking food and scrubbing pans and the cheerful women up front, serving food and interacting with patrons.
Guys I worked with could fold a pizza box with their eyes closed while stoned out of their minds.
So the Parasite scene didn’t make sense to me at first, until I realized what I was seeing.
Working class people would figure out how to fold pizza boxes and do it fine. Bitter middle class people think they’re too good for it.
The Kims middle class origins also explains why they were able to seamlessly interact with the well-to-do Park family (more on them soon).
Skeptical viewers have questioned why the Kim son had a friend who studied in a university. And why the Kim son was able to teach English to the Park daughter so well despite his poor background.
And astute critics have wondered how it’s possible that the Kim daughter who is obviously adept at graphic design (forging her art credentials) and interacts easily with the Parks came from a poor family.
The Kim son and daughter were raised by middle class parents, that’s why.
The Kim family represents a great fear of affluent people, including film critics: Downward mobility.
The Kims are middle class people who slipped down the economic ladder. The Parks are middle class people who ascended the economic ladder.
The Park mother is easily duped by the Kim daughter’s discussions of art and its therapeutic powers. This is because the Park mother is a philistine who doesn’t actually know that much about art. She’s not from some well-bred old money family. She and her husband have only recently arrived at their current economic station.
Parasite is not about entrenched class divisions. It’s not about a poor family and a rich family. It’s about a downwardly mobile middle class family and an upwardly mobile one.
Which is why resentment builds and explodes into violence. Envy is reserved for those who are similar to ourselves.
Working class people are generally not envious of the very rich. Nobody I knew growing up hated Bill Gates or Hollywood celebrities. They mostly envied well off people in town. People who had big houses or had a boat docked at the Shasta Marina.
Who envies the actual rich? Upper middle class people.
People tend to envy and resent those close to their social strata.
In his fascinating book Envy: a theory of social behaviour, the sociologist Helmut Schoeck wrote:
“The best means of protection against the envy of a neighbor is to drive a Rolls-Royce instead of a car only slightly better than his...overwhelming and astounding inequality arouses far less envy than minimal inequality.”
There are a couple of reasons for why resentment and envy are strongest for those nearest to us.
First, there's proximity.
Working class people work for, and take orders from, upper middle class professionals. This (sort of) describes the relationship between the Kims and the Parks in Parasite.
But upper middle class professionals work for, and report to, the very rich. We never see the father of the Park family at his job, interacting with much wealthier colleagues.
The second reason people reserve scorn for those close to our social strata is that they remind them of their failings.
When people have expectations for their lives that are not met, but they see others similar to themselves achieve the same things they desire, they experience resentment and anger.
This is why people feel the most schadenfreude, joy from seeing others’ misfortune, when the person experiencing the misfortune is similar to themselves.
Other research has revealed that similarity and domain relevance are key predictors of malicious envy.
This means that a person who is similar to ourselves and who is successful in a field we also aspire to do well in is especially likely to trigger feelings of resentment and a desire to take destructive action to sabotage them.
This is why critics and the chattering classes loved Parasite. The film allowed them to identify with resentful middle class people who are down on their luck, under the guise of sympathizing with the poor.
Parasite allowed identification with resentment and envy to masquerade as compassion.