White as a Ghost World

Photo via United Artists/IMDb
Photo via United Artists/IMDb

Movies try any number of tricks to manipulate their viewers into relating to the characters on screen, and Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World arrived in 2001 with a particularly ingenious one up its sleeve. The film’s principal characters Enid and Rebecca view the humanity in front of them like they’re watching characters in a film, just as we watch them. They openly mock and jeer in response to the “creeps and losers and weirdos” in their line of vision. In my viewing experience, no movie has grasped the distinct joy and bonding potential of observing and talking heaping amounts of shit on strangers quite like Ghost World does. Enid and Rebecca (portrayed with preternatural compassion and depth by Thora Birch and a 15-year-old Scarlett Johansson, respectively) are at once enthralled and repulsed by their surroundings and the characters who populate them—their mop-headed waiter at the mock ‘50s diner they frequent, an old guy who doesn’t need the wheelchair he uses at the coffee shop Rebecca works at (“He’s just lazy,” says Rebecca), a couple they decide are Satanists for no reason other than their vaguely sinister collective appearance. There are worse ways than laughter to cope with a world that you wouldn’t want to fit into even if it would have you, and Ghost World is a clarion call to fellow outcasts to come be amused by the ridiculousness, grotesqueness, and fundamental hilarity in humanity.

Given how hard it is to prove a negative, the vividness of alienation in Ghost World feels miraculous. The screenplay by Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes (who also wrote the Ghost World comics on which the movie is based) wisely focuses on alienation’s manifestations, as opposed to excavating underlying pathos or whatever causes led to the specific moment in time we’re invited to share with Enid and Rebecca, the summer after their high school graduation (Enid’s motherless upbringing is basically mentioned in passing). Enid and Rebecca are refreshing, not just because they bond in ways rarely seen on screen, but because their observations seem so unfiltered, so scathing in their deadpan delivery, so true to what they feel in whatever situation they’re in.


One consequence of Enid and Rebecca’s us-against-the-world attitude and their refusal to mince words, though, is their copious othering of anyone who isn’t them. In 2001 to many members of Ghost World’s audience, the pair probably seemed just frank or, at worst, equal-opportunity offenders. (“God, what a bunch of retards,” is the first thing Enid says in the film, referring to her graduating class.) Reevaluating the film today, upon its home-video release as part of the illustrious Criterion Collection, it will strike you how much the world has changed since Enid and Rebecca roamed it aimlessly. The teenagers depicted don’t have cell phones, they aren’t particularly interested in computers (it’s way too early for them to have any social-media attachments), they watch things on VHS, and peruse actual zines made of paper. Additionally, they are allowed to be whip-smart while apathetic (if not utterly ignorant) about racial issues.

But unlike most movies by, about, and starring white people, Ghost World isn’t afraid to interrogate its characters on such matters. What it comes up with wouldn’t fit into any conception of wokeness, nor is it even necessarily enlightened at a remove, but it does expose a level of privilege and self-entitlement that is generally only assumed, at best, in almost all other media of its ilk. While it keeps its characters of color on its periphery, allowing them little more than a few seconds of screen time and, in rare cases, a sentence of dialogue, Ghost World’s plot nonetheless depends on playing out how white people negotiate and exploit race issues in our culture.

Because to Enid very little is sacred outside of her own delicate feelings, it’s somewhat logical that she’s so flippant about race. The movie opens with her mimicking a musical number called “Jaan Pechan Ho” from the 1965 Bollywood film Gumnaan. She joyfully responds to the manic dancing and emphatic singing coming from her TV—at this point in the film, we have no sense of who she is or what she’s watching, but it’s fairly easy to relate to her response to the foreign kitsch without acknowledging greater forces at hand like potential cultural insensitivity.

Shortly, we’ll see her guffawing and rolling her eyes at her high school graduation, as a paralyzed classmate delivers a speech (“She gets in one car wreck and all of a sudden she’sLittle Miss Perfect and everyone loves her”) and a multi-ethnic group of girls take the stage for a graduation rap. During the after party as Enid and Rebecca scan the room for shit to shit talk, their classmate Melora (Debra Azar) approaches to express relief and shock that their graduation is upon them. “We graduated high school. How totally amazing,” deadpans Enid. It’s a funny joke, but given the breakdown of graduation rates by race, it’s one that’s much easier to make if you’re white.

Not that Enid is necessarily considering race at that very moment—a cornerstone of white privilege is being allowed to go through the world without considering race at all. Elsewhere, we get clues regarding Enid’s prejudices. She and Rebecca encounter Melora later in a coffee shop, which Melora, raising her hands so they’re pointing out from her shoulders, dubs “funky.” After Melora exits, Enid scoffs, “What is she black now?” It’s played like a straightforward joke, though in all my years of watching this movie, I never really felt like it landed. At most charitable, it can be taken as an exposure of Enid’s rudimentary grasp on what she believes blackness entails.

We are exposed to this grasp in much greater depth as a result of Enid’s friendship with Seymour (Steve Buscemi), a man at least twice her age, whom she stalks after pranking him by answering a personal add he placed—in a message left on his answering machine, Enid claims to be a woman he had a recent missed connection with. Enid and Rebecca (along with their reluctant friend Josh, played by Brad Renfro) watch Seymour enter the restaurant he’s expecting his date, per Enid’s message. He becomes increasingly crestfallen as the minutes crawl by and it seems certain that he’s been stood up, and Enid is confronted with the humanity of a person she played as a pawn for her own amusement: “This is unbearable,” she moans. Perhaps to make herself feel better, she strikes up a conversation with Seymour later at his garage sale and learns that he’s a blues enthusiast. She purchases a record from him, listens to it at home, and falls in love with Skip James’s 1968 recording “Devil Got My Woman.”


That song is the catalyst for Enid and Seymour’s bond. Music—black Americana like the blues, ragtime, and jazz, specifically—is how Seymour bonds with many in his life. He throws a party that’s full of white men (and an Asian dude) discussing old 78 records—commodified relics of black culture that they consume voraciously. Enid and Seymour bond further when she discovers a painting of a blackface caricature in his apartment. In response, she asks casually and without apparent judgement, “What are you, a Klansman or something?” He’s not—he’s merely interested in the chain of restaurants the poster once promoted, Coon Chicken Inn. It was a company whose history he was obsessed with but “lost interest when I started working for them” (in the movie, the company he works for has since been rebranded to Cook’s Chicken). That’s to say that regardless of however sophisticated Seymour’s appreciation for or knowledge of black culture is, a company’s racist history was not a deal breaker when it came to choosing which organization he’d devote his life to when choosing a vocation. He’s like many white people that respect.


Enid then borrows the painting to bring into her summer-school art class, which is run by Roberta (Illeana Douglas), a woman whose insanity is telegraphed by the spikes of hair shooting out from her scalp at all angles. This class is populated by, in Enid’s words, “fuck-ups and retards.” Inspired by a derisively drawn goody-two-shoes classmate who earns her teacher’s praise with a found art object of a tampon in a teacup, Enid decides this poster will be her found art object and “a comment on racism and how it’s whitewashed over in our culture.” Roberta asks Enid how this painting illustrates that, and Enid replies, “Um, I’m not sure. I guess because when we see something like this, you know, it seems really shocking, and we have to wonder why it’s so shocking.”

Ambivalence and pointing in the direction of potential cultural truths is as deep as Enid’s relationship gets with this relic of minstrelsy’s vast injustices and symbol of irrational hatred. Roberta deems the piece a “remarkable achievement,” and places it in the class’s end-of-semester art show at a local gallery. There, it draws ire (we see a brief shot of distraught people, some of them black, discussing the nearby painting), and is taken off the wall during a show, which a photographer from this unspecified town’s alternative weekly happens to capture. The minor furor, and greater discussion about censorship and the arts (Enid’s own “Open Casket”), is lost on Enid, who skips the show and doesn’t find out about what happened (and her resulting failing grade) until days later. When Roberta informs her, she blinks and moves on.


The painting, which causes justifiable distress and anger in those who view it, is merely a provocation for Enid. It’s a way of acknowledging issues to which she has no emotional attachment or particular interest in. It’s a stolen likeness she latches onto for her own gain, and the racism it’s wrapped in is merely another example of human oddity in the cabinet Enid keeps in her head.

The film’s own morality regarding this development is ambiguous. When I first watched it, it seemed clear that the viewer was supposed to understand the gross unfairness of the situation and how political correctness is a scourge on free thinkers like Enid. Almost certainly, her peers’ disgust when the painting is revealed in class is meant to come off as moronic (this is especially true for a black extra whose sole line is delivered with infantile woe in her voice: “It’s not right”). You could, though, argue that Enid’s resulting punishment is poetic justice—just when it looks like she’s found something she’s actually interested in and good at, and as a result is recommended by Roberta for a scholarship at a nearby art school, it’s taken away from her. (Seymour also loses his job as a result of the local scandal.) Ultimately, it’s just another bit of supporting evidence that it’s time for Enid to leave town.


Enid’s character arc begins with her rejecting so much of what the world has to offer, then finds her softening and attempting to carve out her own place, and finally forces her to feel firsthand what it’s like to be rejected. She endures a series of disappointments that includes growing apart from an increasingly mediocre Rebecca and seeing Seymour pair off with a much more suitable mate. Enid speaks of a fantasy she has of one day leaving town to start her life afresh and by the end of Ghost World, she’s been given so many reasons to do so, it seems like her only possible course of action. So she does just that.


Enid is guided by her whiteness here, too. Unable to relate to her father (who reunites with a woman who seemed to make Enid’s childhood a living hell, Maxine), and with the tenuousness of her friend bonds exposed, Enid is, like many white people, culturally aimless and without a tribe to call her own. She is Jewish, but we never hear her claim this identity and instead learn about it through the anti-Semitic jokes of a guy she trades VHS tapes with. Like many teenage girls, she is prone to stylistic phases (Rebecca refers to her “little old lady phase” at one point) and appropriates openly in search for an identity—when her green-haired punk look is derided she cries in exasperation, “It’s not like I’m some modern punk, dickhead. It’s obviously a 1977 original punk rock look!” The closest she gets to claiming a fixed culture happens when Rebecca derides the “creeps and losers and weirdos” she encounters at her job and Enid protests, “But those are our people!” Enid is privileged and selfish enough to regard identity as such a malleable construct.

Ghost World is a movie about many things—growing up, growing apart, losing the little you have, finding less than you expected in the world and yourself. Whether intentional or not—and I’m leaning toward the latter, given that the commentary Zwigoff, Clowes, and Ghost World producer Lianne Halfon recently recorded for the Criterion Blu-ray contains no discussion of the film’s racial issues and observations—Ghost World exposes the racial attitudes of some of its characters mercilessly and invites you to judge them with the same brutality with which they judge the world around them. If Enid (and to a less crucial extent Seymour and Rebecca) emerge as sympathetic at all at the film’s end, it’s because Ghost World taps into a practice common when dealing with white people: Overlooking or even accepting a certain brutishness regarding race matters for a greater understanding of one’s character. Full-on rejection of these flawed, unafraid-to-be-unlikable characters is also an option here. Ghost World’s most humane gesture is leaving this decision up to you.

Some Pig. Terrific. Radiant. Humble.


Joseph Finn

I’d just like to add that it’s a damn shame that Thora Birch’s career, for various reasons, hit an iceberg. She’s so good in this and should have gone on to even better things.