When you’re just that angry …

Everything Everywhere All at Once (EEAO) is a weird “absurdist” science-fiction in which a multiverse-hopping Michelle Yeoh attempts to deal with her family issues while saving the universe from destruction. It was released in 2022, gained plaudits at some random US film festival, and has been making a killing in its public release. It has received generally very good reviews: it got 95% at rotten tomatoes and 81% at metacritic, as well as winning a bunch of awards. It seems to have stirred a lot of passion, with most critics seeing its science fiction as clever and original, its acting as great, and the emotional component of its story as deep and genuine. Of 339 critics on Rotten Tomatoes, for example, only 18 rated it as rotten and many said it was “profound and moving” or “made you think and cry” (see below).

I swear these people are bribed

To me it was ordinary SF and trash pro-family propaganda. My review has a few light spoilers, but here instead of dwelling on its failed science fiction I want to talk a little about how much I hate pro-family propaganda in art, and how socially destructive it is.

The premise and the ordinary science fiction

The movie is about an Asian-American family, headed by migrants Evelyn Wang and Waymond Wang, who run a failing laundromat and have a college-age daughter, Joy, who is a lesbian. They have also recently had to bring Evelyn’s father over from their home country (it’s not clear if it’s Malaysia, or one of the provinces of China, but since Evelyn and Waymond speak a mixture of Cantonese and Mandarin it is probably either Guangdong/HK or Malaysia). Granddad is old and sick, and Evelyn is an incredibly stressed, hyper-active, and extremely unpleasant mother, who refuses to engage properly with either her daughter or her husband and is basically an abusive bully. She refuses to respect her daughter’s relationship, calls her girlfriend “he” and then blames this lapse on her bad English (Chinese speakers of English often mix up genders because in Chinese it’s all ta), refuses to tell her father the truth about Joy’s relationship, refuses to listen to any of either her daughter’s or her husband’s concerns, opinions or emotions, and when she appears to be about to be kind to her simply tells her “You’re fat”. She also reacts very badly to any attempts to change or improve the working of the shop, has an incredibly poor management style (for e.g. receipts) and gets angry whenever anyone tries to improve it, but is always stressed about it. She’s a classic manipulative and abusive parent.

When the show starts she is being audited by the tax office, and trying to organize a party for her father. We learn later that she was basically kicked out of home by her father for choosing to marry Waymond, and he has come back to her because his wife (her mother) died and she needs to look after him. Most reviews don’t mention that Waymond is spending the first half of the movie trying to get Evelyn to agree to divorce, but she is so dismissive of her husband that she refuses to make time to talk to him or look at the papers, and only finds out by accident. What a nice mother and wife!

So anyway it turns out that there are infinite multi-verses, and someone who looks exactly like Evelyn’s husband is racing through all of them, at the behest of a parallel-universe version of her father, looking for the specific Evelyn who is best able to fight off an evil being that is attempting to destroy all the multi-verses. This evil being, of course, is a parallel universe version of her daughter, Joy, who is building a singularity thing that will destroy all the universes. Joy’s reason for doing this is that nothing matters, a nihilistic destructive urge that ultimately looks a lot like suicidality, when we get to find out what makes her tick. Eventually the parallel-universe team realize that the Evelyn in our universe is the correct Evelyn to take on Joy, because she’s so hopelessly shit that she must be perfect for the task (this is logic). Because this is “absurdist” SF these alternative universes are full of dumb things like people with sausages for fingers (through which they have sex), a universe where Evelyn is a rock, a universe where she can fight with a pizza sign, etc. By imagining such a universe and pressing a button a special magic headset, Evelyn can go to that universe, grab the skills of the person in that universe, and then use them in this universe. Sometimes this leads to personality swapping and sometimes it doesn’t, because the movie has no rules, and the only useful person Evelyn gets is an alternative universe Evelyn who is basically actual Michelle Yeoh. So she can do some martial arts. Also to jump between universes you need to do something improbable or weird in this one, so chewing discarded gum, sticking a butt-plug up your arse, telling your enemy you love them (and meaning it).

It’s not absurdist, it’s shit. For about 30 minutes it’s funny and then it’s just boring and dumb, with escalating levels of weird as the directors try to milk this for all it’s worth (and it’s a very long movie!) Finally there’s a big, overly long showdown between Evelyn and Joy, during which we somehow learn that useless Waymond (who was trying to divorce his wife) is the hero of the movie, and if we all just be “kind” we can save the world, so Evelyn (who is a horrible person) starts trying to be kind like Waymond, who she now suddenly looks up to and admires, and fighting enemies with (martial arts based) kindness. Then there are long and supposedly moving interchanges between Evelyn and Joy about how Evelyn is a bad mother but Joy should just accept it, because Joy is Evelyn’s daughter. At this point reviewers will tell you that the movie is about how family are the people we really love, and they may not be perfect but we should stick by them and respect them because they’re there when everyone else isn’t, and this is very moving and the way Evelyn tries to draw Joy back is very deep and powerful. Actually Joy is suicidal, and this is because she was raised in a loveless and cruel family, and her belief that everything is pointless and empty is their fault, but the movie wants us to think she should accept them and forgive them anyway.

There is a brief period where Joy returns to her family and they live happily, with Joy and her girlfriend’s relationship being accepted, but Evelyn still telling Joy she is fat and lazy. Which is meant to validate all the battles or something. And Joy and her girl are overjoyed that her mother has accepted them, because this is all the validation they wanted all along.

Fuck that. This is pro-family propaganda, it’s dangerous, it’s wrong, and we should be ditching it from our culture. We can start by not over-hyping shoddy, ordinary SF movies that fail at a multiverse story in order to get us to believe that forgiving and going back to your family is the right thing to do, because it’s not, and anyone who tells you it is is a liar who means you ill.

The dangerous illusion of the “Asian Family” stereotype

Before we go on to discuss pro-family propaganda, let’s just briefly digress to discuss the stereotype of the unforgiving Asian family, the mother and father who never have any flattery or kindness for their kids but only unrelenting demands. American Born Chinese (ABC) commentators and comedians are full of stories about this idea, and would like you to believe that this is some unique trait of Asian families. But here’s the thing: it’s not. My father never had any flattery or kindness for his kids, but he also didn’t ever encourage or demand anything from us. Homer Simpson is based on a real type of Western father, who can’t stand his own kids, doesn’t care to understand them, and always encourages them not to bother being special or seeking to make themselves better. Isn’t that worse? I think some ABC wear the meanness of their family like a badge of honour (look how I suffered) and have turned normal abusive family dynamics into some kind of cultural iconography. It’s not! And to try and make it so at this time is a dangerous tactic. As anti-Asian hate has grown, a lot of ABC journalists and comedians have tried to use these narratives to get onside with white society, to try and weather the backlash. Don’t do it! And don’t laud the depiction of Evelyn in this movie as somehow an especially perfect depiction of a Chinese immigrant family or intergenerational trauma. Her behavior is just bog-standard Arsehole Parent.

For example, the story of Evelyn’s father not being able to accept his granddaughter’s lesbianism is presented by some reviewers and, I think, by Evelyn herself within the movie, as being reflective of his conservative Chinese upbringing. This serves a nice role for the audience, mostly white, to imagine that their own community hasn’t produced this kind of bullshit, but it’s misleading propaganda intended to allay white concerns about white problems. Western men the same age as the grandfather in this movie are just as fucked, don’t pretend it’s because this old dude is Chinese. This is like the classic “if you think it’s racist here, you should see how Japanese treat foreigners!” Actually, I live here, I know how they do, and the west is far worse. White people love telling themselves these little comfortable lies to enable them to pretend their own society isn’t a cesspit. Don’t do it! If there is anything in this world that is Everywhere All at Once, it’s the universal form of arseholery on display in Evelyn and her dad’s personality in this show.

What is pro-family propaganda and why is it bad?

Western movies play many propaganda roles, but two of their deepest and most powerful roles, which are related to each other, are:

  1. To show that sub-standard white men can be heroes and winners, that what goes wrong is never their fault, and that even if you are an ugly, boring, useless whining loser who is propped up by the women and foreigners around you, you are still the hero of your story. Jackson Oz in Zoo, Brandon Stark and John Snow in Game of Thrones, pretty much every male character in a Disney cartoon, and to a certain extent James Holden in The Expanse all play this role.
  2. to remind you that you have an obligation to uphold family loyalty and ties even when your family are cruel, negligent, neglectful and/or openly abusive. The absolute classic canonical example of this is Rick & Morty, in which there is an obvious, openly abusive relationship between the grandfather and the grandchild, the parents don’t care or interfere in the abuse, and the viewer is sucked in as an accomplice to an incredibly abusive relationship. Incidentally a lot of people compare R&M to EEAO, which should tell you all you need to know…

One day I will devote an entire blog post to 1), the “It’s not your fault white man” genre of social reinforcement for boring losers, but a more common theme and a much more destructive one is 2), the idea that you need to stick by your family and get their approval no matter what. Some movies cover both themes (e.g the first Guardian of the Galaxy movie with its obssessive focus on helping a callow dude find his lost mummy) and in American movies the pro-family propaganda saturates almost every production in the form of their ubiquitous daddy issues, but it’s more widespread than just this.

And let’s make no bones about it, this story is destructive. I’ve written before about how we have an obligation to hold our family to account for their misdeeds, but I’ll summarize it again here: The only reason that parents feel that they can treat their children like shit for years is that they know, without any doubt, that their children will stick around and won’t abandon them when they become adults. Most shit parents even have a pretty strong inkling that they can keep treating their adult children like shit, and their adult children will keep coming back and licking that shit up. In contrast, the reason we don’t get away with the same levels of abuse towards our friends (in general) is that we know our friends will cut us loose if we keep that shit up. Similarly, for a lot of us, with partners: people are much more likely to divorce than to cut off their parents.

And how do parents know this? Because they read books, read magazines, and watch TV shows and movies that constantly, over and over, tell us that sticking with our parents is an absolutely essential role for us as adults, that we should tolerate their crap, that it’s the kids who need to bend and adapt not the adults, and that we need to be understanding of our parents’ “shortcomings” (which are actually, generally, just abuse) and accept that they won’t change or adapt for us. Movies about kids shaking off their parents and fucking them off are much, much rarer than movies about the kids struggling to find common ground with their parents and eventually learning to deal with, tolerate, or adapt to their parents’ bullshit. Often in these movies the parents throw out a fig-leaf to the kid – accepting their choice of partner or job or moving to Paris or whatever – but they never, ever admit they were wrong and they don’t usually do anything to change the other suite of awful behaviors they have inflicted for decades on their kids.

This movie is just another example of that propaganda. Joy just has to accept, forgive, and stand by her stupid mother, she gives a wild speech about how her mother has ruined her life and then just … gives up. Evelyn changes nothing about herself and just wins.

If these movies weren’t made, or if they were properly balanced with stories about kids getting their vengeance, kids refusing to seek approval, or even – imagine this – parents seeking out and earning their children’s forgiveness through real changes and growth, then we might see people who become parents understanding that their children’s love for them is conditional on their behavior, rather than unconditional acceptance of their faults, cruelty and violence. Then they might modify their behavior accordingly. But they don’t see any reason to do this because all of society keeps telling them they don’t have to, and keeps telling their children that it’s their responsibility to do all the giving in the relationship.

This movie is just another cog in that machine, and not a very interesting one.

Conclusion

As someone who actually made the decision to cut off my parents and abandon them to wallow in their own bullshit, I get angry when I am forced to watch a movie about 親孝行, about having to respect your parents no matter what. This movie started off looking like an interesting insight into a difficult family, with Michelle Yeoh playing a very convincing unpleasant mother figure who I was waiting to be forced to adapt to her family and the outside world by the SF circumstances. Instead I was betrayed – again – by a movie that recited all the same old pro-family propaganda and gave me the same old nonsense about how parents are good no matter what, and we’ll never find anyone like them.

This propaganda is nonsense, and it’s dangerous. People need to stop making it, and reviewers need to stop pretending it’s “deep” or “profound” or “thoughtful”, and start recognizing it as valorization of abuse, cruelty and arrogance. Please stop making these movies! And if this thing bothers you, don’t waste your time on this movie.

I swear every movie should come with a sticker that tells you if it has daddy issues, pro-family propaganda, copaganda, or military-industrial complex war-porn. Fuck Tipper-stickers, I don’t care about “adult themes” and swearing, I want movies that don’t tell me cops are cool, the US is a force for good, and you should stick by your parents no matter what. We can’t build a better world if everyone believes that their wife-beating ex-marine dad is just a misunderstood guy who is traumatized by murdering foreign babies, and will get better if we just stand by him no matter what he did or what he does.

Don’t stand by that man, and don’t stand by this movie!