As I was in the transition between elementary and middle school, I began to become more appealed by movies that had more adult themes, certainly nothing above PG-13, but a little more grown-up nonetheless. Monster-In-Law was one of the first movies I saw that starred Jennifer Lopez as Charlie and Jane Fonda as Viola. It seemed like the perfect comedy movie too. An awkward, bubbly Latina named Charlie meets a man named Kevin (Michael Vartan). They fall madly in love and the jealous ex gets in the way but is thwarted by a twist of fate. “So far, so good,” 11-year-old me thought to myself. Then came to the final stretch: meeting the future mother-in-law. A vivacious, but distraught woman concerned with aging who realizes she is not only being replaced by someone younger, but has a mental breakdown on national television by having a physical altercation with a 16-year-old Britney Spears doppelganger. The laughter subsides once the two women meet because the intensity of their meeting is grand and it all goes downhill because after all, no woman can get in the way of the bond of a mother and her son, right?
After years and years of watching this movie, it finally hit me one evening when I was watching this movie. This movie actually has some real-world undertones that completely went flying past our head’s. Now if this has you scratching your head, buckle up because this is where it gets interesting.
What really had my mouth agape from the first moment of the movie was the fact that the token Black woman, Ruby, played by Wanda Sykes, was working as “the help”. She was Viola’s “assistant” throughout the movie that of course, had the most sense and belittled everything Viola did. While the shade throwing and side-cracks were hilarious with the infamous “I’m sick, sick, sick of your sh*t”. “The Help” trope definitely got under my skin that as Ruby could have been a professional equal to Viola, such as a fellow anchor, businesswoman, etc., all while still being a friend. Instead, she was seen carrying Viola’s bags around, serving her drinks, doing everything under her beck and call, begrudgingly, but still doing the tasks she is supposed to do nonetheless. The racist undertones continue on as the torch is passed from Ruby to Jennifer Lopez’s character, Charlie. Some of you may remember the scene where Kevin’s grandmother, Gertrude (played by Elaine Strich) calls Charlie “an exotic La-Tina” and probably cringed like I did. However, it all began with Viola’s clear approval of Fiona (Monet Mazur), Kevin’s ex, the second time Charlie meets Viola. Think about it: Fiona is a skinny, blonde, rich white girl whereas Charlie is a darker, fuller, working class Latina.
This, of course, leads to the blatant classism of this movie. Viola clearly and strongly objects Charlie, this working class woman, into her obnoxiously wealthy and successful family. From the first moment they met where Viola asks about Charlie, you could see the disapproving look on the look on her face. If that didn’t give it away, just look at the double taking shots between Viola and Ruby, it was pretty obvious that Viola did not want this woman into her family. Her first plan of action is throwing a lavish party inviting royalty and the ex-girlfriend, Fiona to the party. Viola proceeds to humiliate Charlie in front of royalty by introducing her as a “temp”, only to prove the social class gap between the women. Of course, Viola does much, much worse as the movie progresses, such as slut shaming.
Viola’s hypocritical slut-shame is an interesting turn in the movie. This all began right around Charlie and Kevin’s engagement and Viola immediately believes that Charlie is pregnant. Now why on Earth would she assume that right off the bat? Well, by looking at the previous points between the racism and classism, of course, accusing a working-class Latina of being pregnant the moment she’s engaged is something that comes very logically to people like Viola. Of course, Viola should be the last to talk about how many people Charlie has slept with or whether or not she was pregnant. After all, Ruby mentions that Viola “screwed her way to the top” and it is highlighted continuously throughout the movie that Viola was married 4 times. Even her own ex-mother-in-law, Gertrude, throws slut-shaming insults her way. It really is a vicious cycle.
To top it all off, the ageism trope stood out very loud and very proud. While yes, Viola was the main antagonist of the story, you can’t help but feel bad for her to some extent when she gets fired for someone younger. Viola’s main struggle throughout the movie, besides the fact of being replaced, was the fact that she was getting older and how it constantly is thrown in her face. Viola suddenly is not this vivacious woman that many see her as and with her son getting married, the ageism grows as Ruby jokingly throws the fact that she’s getting old in her face (with good reason). It all starts out in the beginning in the movie, however, when she is fired from her own show and replaced by someone younger and suffers a mental breakdown by assaulting a dead-ringer for Britney Spears. At the end of the day, Viola does not address the ageism so much, but does not learn to embrace that aspect of her.
Of course, in 2005, I was only 11 and I found each of these tropes hilarious along with the rest of the audience that it was targeted to. As time went on, the more awareness that was brought on how these tropes were actually harmful than helpful, it became a clear picture as to how movies tell a certain story. In 2005, you would argue that this was the story of a woman who fell in love with a handsome doctor with a crazy, domineering mother-in-law. From a 2017 viewpoint, it is the story of a working class Latina who struggles to win the approval of her racist, condescending, domineering, and mentally-ill future mother-in-law.