The False Liberalism of “The Squid and the Whale”

“Mom and me versus you and Dad,” the youngest son, Frank, says at the beginning of Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale (2005), tennis racket in hand. Baumbach’s semi-autobiographical film about his parents’ divorce not only relies on Brooklyn as a setting, but uses it to critique the sexism and classism present in its richer and more liberal neighborhoods.

In 1986 Park Slope, Bernard (Jeff Daniels) and Joan Berkman (Laura Linney) are a miserably married couple who have two sons, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) who is sixteen and Frank (Owen Kline) who is twelve. Bernard, a once successful writer, now teaches due to his declining success. Joan, his adulterous wife, is on the cusp of publishing a novel and already has a story in the New Yorker. They all live in Park Slope, which according to them is the “right side of the park” and are a well to do, upper middle class, liberal, and intellectual family. The Brooklyn represented feels painfully realistic. This family, which values books above all else, turns out to be less liberal than they believe themselves to be, revealing a large hole in their identity.

Early on in the film, Bernard and Joan agree to get a divorce. Not only does the divorce stem from Joan’s affair, but Bernard seems increasingly jealous of her burgeoning career, believing his work to be undervalued in the literary world. The scene in which they tell Walt and Frank of their decision begins like many others. Bernard and Joan sit their boys down on the couch, and announce they need to have a family meeting. Bernard and the boys wait for Joan to join them. When she arrives she sits not in the chair opposite the boys, but in a similar position to that of the head of the dinner table. This represents the presence of upset gender dynamics in the film, the female taking the more successful and dominant position in the marriage. In most scenes like this one, the wife waits for the husband to join and she explains to the children what is going on. Here, Bernard starts to tell the children what their new reality will be. The two will share joint custody of the children. Bernard has found an elegant home on the “other side of the park,” which Frank responds asking, “Is that even Brooklyn?” What follows is a very New York specific system of measurements.

“It is only 5 subway stops away!” Bernard declares to calm any nerves.
“How will I get to school?” Walt asks in a panic.
“There is a subway four blocks from the house. Four or five. No more than six blocks.”

Not only is class present through their worries about getting to school instead of financial security, but the fact that six blocks seems too far to imagine shows the privilege and access the boys are used to. While many Brooklynites would be thrilled to have a subway stop only six blocks away, the boys treat this as though they are living somewhere remote. In New York, and Brooklyn specifically, the subway is crucial to getting around and being privy to multiple parts of the city. This film may not use Brooklyn as a character to its fullest potential, but it continually uses dialogue to place the viewer. Because this family seems so suburban and liberal, Baumbach must use Brooklyn specific language to assert the oddity of the situation.

The scene that follows is even more revealing of the place and time of the film. Walt follows his mother as she brushes her teeth to confront her about the divorce. He claims she is ruining a great family because of her sudden success. Joan asks,

“Don’t most of your friends already have divorced parents?”
“Yeah, but I don’t,” Walt sadly replies.

Walt clearly lives in a world where he feels superior because his parents, unlike his friends’ parents, are still together. For them to split up, is a type of defeat for Walt, who regards his father very highly and refuses to see his fault in the situation. He also lives in a world where divorce is becoming more popular. In 1986, an increase in divorce began in the United States, and among affluent families specifically. Walt hoped not to get caught up in this trend, but has to cope with the fact that his family may not be as special and unique as he hoped.

The fact of his parents divorce, leads Walt to inherit a lot of his father’s sexist behavior. Because this family is a group of Brooklyn liberals, the sexism is not as overt as in other places, but it still causes a lot of trauma, especially for Joan and Frank. Bernard used to be the successful writer and now his wife is having more luck in the publishing world. He and Walt constantly downplay her success, claiming that great work, such as Bernard’s, is never valued as much as it ought to be. Only commercially pleasing work, like Joan’s, gets attention because it plays into the desires of readers. It is also very clear that until recently, Bernard was the writer of the house and that Joan only writes because of him. As the two sons walk through Park Slope, in what looks like a wealthy neighborhood, old brownstones adorned with vines and flower boxes, Walt proclaims, “Dad is the writer,” and “Dad influenced her. She never wrote before she met him.” Walt downplays his mother’s intellectual prowess and success as being a mere product of sharing space with his brilliant father. While he never directly says that she can not be a real writer because she is a woman or that male writing is inherently more important and intellectual, Walt’s passive comments reveal the pervasive sexism that exists within academic communities and how it gets ignored because it is not as objectively dangerous as domestic violence or sexual assault.

However, for this family of writers, words reveal themselves to be the most important and telling aspect of the film. Baumbach, a writer and child of writers himself, brilliantly displays the power of language and its ability to destroy a family. Not only do Walt’s hurtful comments impact his mother, but his younger brother as well. It is hinted at that Frank, while young, is already having complicated feelings about his sexuality. The viewer assumes him to be gay and it is clear that he prefers his mother and he repeatedly stands up for her success and right to write. Walt and Bernard’s sexist comments cause him to constantly run across the park to mom’s. Walt says, “Don’t be a chick. You can get a righty desk later,” in response to his brother’s disappointment about his father getting him a lefty desk. The hint that being a female is inherently weak or bad drives Frank’s struggle with his preference for his mother. The only time he interacts with his father, they are literally playing games of ping-pong, which are always tense and result in the two cursing each other out.

This form of sexism is not limited to Frank. Bernard even uses it against Walt. As Walt becomes skeptical about his father’s respect for women and his intentions, Bernard feels his son withdraw a bit. He comments, “You used to be emotional when you were younger.” This a direct response to the fact that Walt was close to his mom when he was little. He later recounts that they would watch films simply because they loved them and not because of their academic credibility. Women are often described as being less objective and more emotional. This is why they would make bad leaders, according to some. Bernard’s assault of his son’s interiority and emotional tendencies is used to shame him and shame his mother’s influence. To be emotional is to be a woman, and to be a woman is to be weak.

Throughout the film, Walt undergoes one of the largest transitions. Going from someone who hoped to be a carbon copy of his father, taking his word at face value, he starts to see that his father possesses a dangerous concept of gender and class. When Joan begins seeing Ivan (William Baldwin), a local tennis pro who teaches Frank, Bernard scoffs, “Sounds like an ordinary guy, not an intellectual,” or what he comes to call a “philistine.” Bernard’s feelings that only academics lead meaningful and fulfilling lives becomes troubling for his son as he finds himself drawn to a girl that may not qualify. Sophie, Walt’s girlfriend, comes from a typical family and does not seem as “smart” as Walt would hope someone he is with to be. Although, Sophie reveals herself to be smart and interesting, which brings one to believe the problem is more her lack of physical perfection. He constantly says that he could do better and his father comments, “She’s not the type I go for.” Instead, Bernard is drawn to his young student Lili (Anna Paquin), a beautiful female of about twenty years of age, who adores his work and seems happy to play the role of his muse. It is through Lili that Walt starts to see who his father really is. Bernard likes to be with smart women who he feels he can mentor or teach, which is why Joan’s success was a threat to him. While he still likes smart women, he only likes them if he is somehow above them, whether in age or intellect. Again, a subtle form of sexism, comes through in Baumbach’s critique of the liberal elite that live in Park Slope. While Bernard may never hit or assault his wife, he has difficulty coping with the fact that she is his intellectual equal, or even higher.

While visually underutilized, Brooklyn is a strong character in this film. Not necessarily through place, but through the people who live there. Park Slope is famous for its community of wealthy writers, men specifically, who write and claim to uphold liberal values. This community often celebrates itself as being progressive and upstanding despite its tendency to think less of those who do not read as much or hold positions in academia. A clear indicator of a gentrified area, rich intellectuals live in Brooklyn instead of wealthier Manhattan because it has a more urban and diverse culture. Claiming this diversity, while rarely interacting with it, is at the core of Baumbach’s critique. The Squid and the Whale is not only an exploration of a population and a tale of a struggling family, but an analysis of place and who gets to claim it.

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