The Pitch Perfect franchise is only six years old and yet the films feel dated, in more ways than one.
Pitch Perfect 3 begins where many sequels and third installments find themselves: years later, after the glory has faded, with the protagonists struggling to adjust to a less-than-spectacular life. We find out Beca (Anna Kendrick) and the crew are all equally unhappy with their unglamorous post-college jobs, and long for the golden days of being the Barden Bellas. (Shown clearly by an opening number where they watch the younger Bellas perform and make bitter and undercutting comments throughout, bemoaning their decrepit mid-twenties bodies.) As a result the girls end up joining a United States Organizations (USO) competition, where they compete against three other groups in the hope of opening for DJ Khaled at the final show for the US troops.
There’s not much more to say here about the plot, as it’s virtually a rehash of the last two films: the Bellas come in as unprepared underdogs but eventually come out on top in some form or another. Somewhere along the way Beca is faced with keeping true to her a capella sisters or going it solo with her own career, as we saw in Pitch Perfect 2 and Pitch Perfect. The third installment throws in a kidnapping plot and side stories for Amy (Rebel Wilson), Chloe (Brittany Snow), and Aubrey (Anna Camp), but they’re shallowly painted and offer little in the way of real character development. No, these films are first and foremost always about Beca: about her snark, her standoffishness that gives way to begrudging loyalty, and her burgeoning career that somehow always inexplicably revolves around her polishing off or punching-up rap tracks.
With the trilogy rounded out, it’s time we have an honest conversation about these films. Beca is marketed to us as smart street and culturally relevant because she’s a white woman who can rap, who cherry picks from black culture while still retaining her own privilege and femininity. Her first big “wow” moment in Pitch Perfect occurs when she whips out the opening verses of Blackstreet’s “No Diggity” at the riff-off, to wide open mouths and impressed stares.
In Pitch Perfect 2 we see Beca is the only intern who understands how to actually improve Snoop Dogg’s Christmas track –improve as in, adding more EDM and her own voice in. (The joke here, although played completely straight by the film, being that in a room mostly full of Black people, including Keegan-Michael Key, she is the only one with a solid idea.) And in the latest movie we see her trying to produce a rapper named, I think, Pimp-Lo. Beca is all concise words, all enunciation, as he talks “ghetto” to her; “I made your music better,” she tells him, referring to her remix of his song, less rap and more her singing, the edges blunted and pop brought in. Later Beca remixes a beat by DJ Khaled, and he’s so impressed by her work that he singles her out. This is accompanied by a sequence where DJ Khaled gives her some advice, to which the film decides his white producer needs to “translate” for Beca. Khaled gives her a bunch of truisms, sure, but what he says doesn’t actually need translating. Was that the joke? It’s hard to tell; it’s played with a straight face, and nobody in my theater laughed.
Like the musical careers of Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift, Beca and the franchise offers us a look at how white feminism plays out in media. The key to Beca’s success, to her status as our protagonist, is that she can adopt markers of black culture–rapping and often performing in braids reminiscent of or actually cornrows, for example–while still mostly appealing to a white mainstream, even conservative, audience. The Pitch Perfect trilogy is able to dabble in “liberal ideas” while still remaining, at its core, old-fashioned. They tell us there’s something markedly grungy, un-elevated about rap music, that rappers don’t speak proper English, that they aren’t even capable of finishing off their own tracks without a white producer, etc. It’s a series that’s advertised as feminist and pro kick-ass woman, and certainly there’s markers of that: the films pass the Bechdel-Wallace test, feature a black lesbian and beat-boxing Asian girl on the team, and has women who constantly best the men around them. And yet.
Pitch Perfect 3 is a film where Amy wears a bright red Make America Eat Again hat coupled with a bright red coat, and she’s centered in every shot for a prolonged riff-off sequence, meaning our eyes get repeatedly drawn to that hat, that red. Sure, it’s a reference in jest, yet there’s nothing about Amy and even characters like Chloe and Aubrey that convinces me they actually wouldn’t have voted for Trump. (The Bellas get allowed into the USO competition because Aubrey’s military dad pulls some strings, for example.) Throughout the film Amy has a running joke where she constantly mocks the intelligence of Emily, the leader of the current, younger, and seemingly more diverse Bellas, and who is played by the multiracial Hailee Steinfeld. It’s a film that is, by virtue of its location and plot, distinctly pro-US and pro-military, with the women dancing and singing in bedazzled camo and American flag-themed outfits, to whoops and hollers.
It’s a film where the riff-off sequence involves the Bellas getting upset because the other bands aren’t doing the riff-off “correctly” and are mixing it up in ways they don’t find comfortable: adding in musical instruments; signing alongside, rather than against, the other groups; and bringing in singers who are just army members stationed on the base. It’s hard to miss the significance of the imagery: a mostly white group of Bellas, complaining loudly that this just isn’t how it’s done to a stage that looks like a veritable melting pot of people and cultures. The other groups on stage are diverse, having fun, and are utilizing each other’s skill sets to create a fuller, more worthwhile sound. And yet, it’s the Bellas, their more traditional style of singing, and specifically Beca, who beats them all out. The significance of that message is hard to miss, too.
The Pitch Perfect franchise is one that joked in the second film that Justice Sonia Sotomayor sent hate mail to the girls (calling them bitches), and found fit to include an ethnocentric, mean Korean roommate who Beca had to learn to overcome in the first film. It’s a franchise that introduced a Latina character only so she could constantly bemoan how backwater South America is. And it’s a trilogy that has repeatedly centered the stories of Beca, Amy, Chloe, and Aubrey, with little to no space being given to the women of color on the team. What do we know about Cynthia Rose (Esther Dean), Flo (Chrissie Fit), and Lilly (Hana Mae Lee), really? We know that Cynthia Rose is painted as too predatory, too lascivious at times; that Flo falls easily for handsome men and is pretty traumatized by her experiences in her own country. It takes until the third film to learn that Lilly’s real name is actually Esther–why we were told it was Lilly is never explained–and that she can actually speak, normally, and at a hearable volume; she says all of two lines and then is forgotten almost entirely. What family members do these women have? Who do they interact with outside the Bellas? What did they even major in?
There are strange moments in Pitch Perfect 3 where the camera will awkwardly pan and linger on Lilly/Esther, Flo, and Cynthia Rose, without any of them speaking, like it’s unsure what these other women are doing in the frame. Male gaze is a prevalent term in film circles, but is there such a thing as a white gaze? There’s a moment where Flo mentions in passing that no, she doesn’t just work at a dinky juice cart, as we were led to believe, but actually owns the business and is starting a franchise. “Didn’t I tell you guys that?” she asks, in what feels like a self-own, the film acknowledging how little it has actually concerned itself with these women of color’s lives.
And what of the other women in the film? We meet an all-women band named Ever Moist, a joke that’s not that funny the first time and continues to get less so with every repetition. Ever Moist is fronted by Calamity (Ruby Rose), and the group is noticeably more diverse than the Barden Bellas, with half of the members being women of color. It’s this group that is seen as the most catty against Beca and her friends. When the Bellas inevitably take center stage with DJ Khaled, it’s Calamity who ends up smiling supportively. Serenity, meanwhile, played by Cameroonian-American actress Andy Allo, is shown to be clearly bitter, and refuses to smile for the Bellas, even with nudging from Calamity. In a way, Pitch Perfect exactly tells us that solidarity is for white women, but then turns that into a critique about women of color.
There’s also the fact that this film is aggressively white heteronormative, with no less than four couples having a cute get-together sequence in the end credits. Although Cynthia Rose’s sexuality is known and certainly referenced a lot in Pitch Perfect 2, we never see her form an actual relationship with another woman, and all her “romantic” scenes are relegated to her lustfully gazing and grabbing at Stacie (Alexis Knapp), who seems to want the attention only half the time. The only interracial couples we ever see, across the franchise, are always with Lilly/Esther–and it’s always played for laughs (with the films always emphasizing how weird both parties are), rather than sincerity.
We can also bring up that while Pitch Perfect 3 attempts to give Amy more of a backstory, her comedy is still entirely about her body: how she struggles with cardio, is too lazy to work, won’t share her cookies, and completely disgusts the men on the base. Her name in the film is quite literally still “Fat Amy,” a name I refused to use for this piece; sure, she calls herself that, but it’s only empowering if the vehicle she’s starring in doesn’t actively treat her as a complete joke. Amy’s side story has a moment where she embodies Melissa McCarthy’s character in Spy, but it’s relatively short reprieve from a film that lampoons her and her size at every turn.
Suffice to say Pitch Perfect 3 plays at a feminism that specifically accommodates only a white, straight, thin, able-bodied point of view while doing little to alienate the portion of America that actually voted red–and in the famous words of Flavia Dzodan, if your feminism isn’t intersectional, it’s bullshit. It’s a franchise that makes racist and misogynistic jokes that could either be taken as Saturday Night Live-levels of satire or, well, just plain racist and misogynistic. It’s a franchise that both sidelines and outright demonizes certain women of color in order to uplift it’s white female protagonists. It’s now 2018; we don’t need to this type of cutting comedy that comes at the expense of marginalized people. The Barden Bellas, and this franchise, is outdated, both too conservative in its representations and statements and too cowardly to risk making any of its white audience members uncomfortable. It’s a franchise that fits in well with Trump’s America, and that’s exactly why we don’t need it. Thank god this appears to be their final swan song.