Last weekend I had a first encounter with the multimedia juggernaut that is Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Started online by Jeff Kinney as a web comic, with daily entries exploring the world of middle school angst and pranks, the stories moved to print starting in 2007 (there are now five books), followed in 2010 by the first wimpy kid movie. The movie sequel, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules, opened 3/25/11 to big box office.
Having only seen the recent movie, I may be surprised by things that others take for granted about the suburban life of Greg Heffley (the wimpy kid) and his family. But I am, in fact, surprised that suburbia is virtually all white in 2011, much as it was in Leave It to Beaver. I’m also surprised that the only character who is racially or ethnically different, Greg’s classmate Chirag Gupta, is the object of a special kind of contempt from Greg and his friends. When Chirag returns to school from a trip to India with his family, Greg resurrects the “Invisible Chirag” joke that apparently began in the first movie. Fearing that Chirag, stereotypically nerdy and physically puny, will drag down his social status, Greg ignores and looks through Chirag whenever he approaches with friendly overtures. Several scenes with increasingly broad humor are based on Chirag’s attempts to become visible and make Greg acknowledge him. The overt racism of this trope is breathtaking.
True, the Chirag character is annoying to someone like Greg, who avoids homework. As a commenter from Singapore at IMDb.com says, Chirag is that “talkative person that cannot wait to show off what he has accomplished with his wits” who exists in every school. But if Chirag is the ultimate foil to Greg, what does this tell us about being a “wimp”?
Greg and his older brother, Rodrick, are case studies in downwardly mobile behavior. They have a party and trash the house while their parents are away for the weekend; they conspire to re-use a paper Rodrick once handed in as homework; they manipulate their mom for good behavior points and money. How they will ever replicate their parents’ standard of living is hard to imagine — unless it will be through white privilege.
Chirag, on the other hand, represents energetic pursuit of success and social striving, doubly dictated by his culture and his racial otherness. No, Greg doesn’t want to be like Chirag. Like a lot real-life white middle-class U.S. kids, and grown-ups too, Greg doesn’t want to adopt a culture of self-discipline and self-sacrifice, or compete with such a culture. And the wimpy kid movie says that it’s ok. Racial privilege will still win out.