‘The Big Sick’ Movie Review
The Big Sick is a movie that features culturally specific material that is extremely engaging and interesting. The main character of the film is Kumail, a Pakistani immigrant that lives in Chicago with the rest of his family. This includes his brother and his wife, his father and his mother. It is very important to note that Kumail’s family are all very devoted muslims. They adhere to all of the five pillars and very much expect and believe Kumail is doing so himself. There are two plots in this film. Culturally, the plot is that Kumail does not want an arranged marriage with a Pakistani woman. His mother has been pushing the formality on him for years and years, having what seemed like 50 or more women over to attempt to bond with Kumail. What she does not understand is that he does not believe in the religion and its rules like her and his father do. Also, Kumail has met a woman that he fell in love with.
The woman is a white girl named Emily. This is alarming to Kumail as his family views interracial marriages as despicable and to have no place in their culture. When referring to an interracial child, his mother even said “That baby will never have a family.”. The second part of the plot is that Kumail messes up and does not explain culturally what is different between muslim and American dating to Emily. She ends up rummaging through his things and finding the images of all the women that Kumail’s mother tried to set him up with in a cigar box. Kumail then elaborates upon it and tells Emily that he is afraid to tell his family about her because they will disown him. Emily gets very upset, leaves, and almost right away becomes very ill. She ends up in the hospital and Kumail waits by her side until she recovers. After several failed attempts to reconcile with Emily, Kumail decides to head out to New York with some friends to bolster his career. Emily ends up surprising him in New York during one of his comedy shows, and they make up and all is well.
The Big Sick is a film that culturally provides a lot of context to muslim and American culture. This analysis will highlight a culturally incompetent scene where a character acted rather racist, an elaboration on the contextual evidence in the film of Hofstede’s six cultural dimensions of muslims, and an addressing of some of the narratives and rituals that are a part of the muslim culture in the film.
First, some more background information about the differences between the muslim and American cultures will be articulated. In traditional Islam culture, men and women are not free to date or form specialized relationships outside of a friendship. This is because a large majority of relationships are arranged by the parents or guardians. This is done to ensure the sanctity of the Islam religion is conserved. The hope for a family that practices arranged marriages, is that their children will follow suit, and their grandchildren (Abd-Allah, 2006). This is much different than American dating culture. In American dating culture, it is almost encouraged that you see people at a higher and more frequent rate so that you find the correct partner more quickly. Also, the ability to see people freely is a very valued part of American culture, so the context of arranged marriages is especially difficult for Americans to grasp without passing judgement. Since The Big Sick is based off of a true story, I will provide the demographics of the culture in the United States. According to the Pew Research Center, there are about 3.5 million muslims, and 2.2 million muslim adults in the United States. Compared to the near 200,000,000 whites that live in the States, it may seem very slim, but the story The Big Sick told is proved to be a culturally important story, as it would not be farfetched to assume that there are tens of thousands of muslims that are also encountering the same problem. To provide a little more background information, devout muslims are not accepting of those who lead astray of the five pillars or other manufactured circumstances under the religion that are specific to certain families, such as arranged marriages.
Within society, cultural differences are in abundance. Unfortunately, there is still bigotry and racism that exists, stemming to and from each group and religion. The events of September 11th, 2001 have placed a huge strain on the stereotypes and social image of muslims and persons of Middle Eastern appearance. The resentment of that tragedy resonates with a lot of the racism towards muslims in the United States. With the rise of social media shortly after the American tragedy, I have noticed a lot of this first hand. It has been very prevalent in our society. Arguably two of the most evil terrorist organizations, Al-Quada and ISIS have been given heavy American exposure, and nearly everyone in the country hates and despises them for their actions. Unfortunately, since they were Islamic terrorist organizations, muslims in the United States are very often looked down on. They are subject to jokes about horrific bombings and other terrible terrorist activity. I see it everyday on social media, and certain that there are bigots and ill-intentioned individuals who speak such racist language to people in physical space.
In The Big Sick, there is a scene where the main character, Kumail is performing stand-up with a very full crowd. He starts getting heckled by a very stereotypical college aged male who shouts loudly at him “Go back to ISIS!”. Kumail then downplays the comment by beginning a dull joke. Emily’s mother then tries to defend Kumail by retorting the heckler and saying “What, do you want ISIS to have more people?”. Emily’s mother then pushes the dialogue forward asking the heckler why he thought Kumail was in in ISIS. The heckler finally replied “Because of how he looks.”, in reference to his Pakistani physical appearnace. The heckler made many errors when drawing assumptions to make that comment. It is unfair to assume everyone who externally appears muslim is in favor of radicalized religious terrorist groups of Islam. To summarize, the heavy media exposure of Islamic terrorist groups and the patriotism towards the defeat of radical Islamic Terrorism likely fueled the racist comment he made at Kumail. While it is socially inexcusable to make hasty generalizations out loud, the stereotypes are here for many reasons. Initially, the news media surged with coverage of bombings, shootings, and other acts of destruction by radical Islamic terrorists. Now, after it is too late, the media is doing what it can to try to protect what is left of the muslim identity in the United States. It does not help that there is practically a political barrier between conservatives and liberals on this very matter. Currently the United States is attempting to mobilize illegal immigrants to sanctuary cities, which the liberals have become weary as of lately. This does not piece together a quality image for muslims in the United States.
The next part of my analysis will stem from Hofstede’s six cultural dimensions relative to Kumail and the relationship with his family and their practiced religion of Islam. Power distance refers to the distribution and acceptance of power among societal ranks. On the website for Hofstede’s dimensions it lists Pakistan, Kumail’s home country at a 55. This generally means they are understanding of the social hierarchy and expect that power is distributed unequally among social classes and different occupations (Rinne 2012). To elaborate, this means that Pakistani’s do not worry a whole lot about money and social hierarchy. I found this to be contradictory to some of the scenes that I saw in The Big Sick. There is a scene shortly after Kumail breaks the news to his parents about the non-preference for an arranged marriage where his mother mocks him for his occupation as a stand up comedian. She was very nasty and mean with her remark, and the tone that was emitted gave me the idea that she was looking down on him due to his career. The filmmakers did a poor job in showing that Pakistani’s are able to easily co-exist with people who have different ideas towards careers and economic status. That is not the only instance where I noticed this. In the beginning of the film, Kumail is sitting with his family eating dinner, when he decides to break the news that he is trying to become a lawyer. His family did not want that, as they had ambitions for him to become a doctor. Once again, this was very surprising to me as they should be accepting of whatever their son would like to do, since their power distance is nearly down the middle. As a whole in the film, it seemed as if Kumail did a better job of fitting the power distance of 55 than the rest of his family. He seemed quite respectful to everyone, except for the scene where he had a mental breakdown in the drive through of the burger joint after he had just gotten some terrible news.
The next dimension of Hofstede’s culture I will be analyzing is individualism. Pakistan received a score of 14, which is very low. This means that they have been categorized as more of a collectivist culture. I believe this is partially due to the high volume of muslims in the country. There are over 200,000,000 that live in Pakistan alone, which accounts for 10.9 percent of the religions followers (WorldAtlas 2013). Most popular religions seem to have some sort of underlying collectivism context to their culture. Islam is no different. The five pillars of Islam in all facets is a collection of tasks are often done collectively as either a family, or as a group, like a church congregation. There were a few instances that I noticed this in The Big Sick. It seemed as if every other day, he was having dinner with his family. The entirety of his immediate family was there, including his mother, father, brother, and sister-in-law. While it isn’t odd for families to have dinner together, it was culturally different the way they did in The Big Sick. They all dressed up nicely, in what appeared to be their only pair of dress clothes throughout the film. It also seemed as if they were always on a schedule as well. Such as the same way we have our class on Monday and Wednesday at 3:30 PM, I believe they scheduled their meals. I also noticed that the mother, father, brother, and sister in law seemed very in tune to each other and what was happening in each of their respective lives, with the exception of Kumail. It is very interesting that Kumail seemed to be much more individualist than any one of his family members. He could never be completely honest with his family, so it was imperative that he live a life that was independent from the collectivist nature of his family and their following of Islam. As a whole, the Pakistani Islam culture seemed to be very collectivistic. That is why Kumail’s character in The Big Sick is very cross-culturally relatable, as he strays from the norm.
Masculinity is the next dimension I analyzed in The Big Sick. According to the Hofstedes dimension website, Pakistani’s have a masculinity index of 50. Being in the middle of the index places them in a moderately masculine culture. There were several instances in the movie where I noticed that the men were masculine, but in no way over masculine, confirming the moderate index value. The first example, is when Kumail’s father comes to visit him before he heads out to New York to further his stand up comedy career. Shortly before his wishes to depart, Kumail told his family that he would not be having an arranged marriage and that he was in love with a white American woman. He was then kicked out of the family by his mother. The moderate masculinity is experienced when Kumail’s father tells Kumail that his mother is mad at him and that he is not allowed to talk to him after Kumail reaches his destination in New York. The next instances I noticed were in Kumail’s negative confrontations with Emily. In particular, every time she was upset with him, he would always leave her to figure things out and not make any aggressive attempt to fix things initially. From what I have observed about American relationships is that when a significant other is upset, the other does whatever they can to console them and lessen the emotional strain that is occurring. This is probably because Kumail had never dated an American woman before and hadn’t truly had exposure to American dating norms.
The next dimension I will analyze is uncertainty avoidance. Uncertainty avoidance deals with a societies culture towards uncertainty and ambiguity (Minkov, Hofstede 2014). To narrow the definition, it refers to the search towards understanding and truth. As a society, it extends to whether or not its members are comfortable or uncomfortable in certain situations. To elaborate, a country with a higher uncertainty avoidance prefers to go into tasks with an end goal and steps laid out. As a society, they usually have a structured government with many laws to ensure the safety of its citizens. Societies with low uncertainty avoidance tend to go with the flow of events and gel into the situation rather than go in with a strategically mapped out and rehearsed plan. In The Big Sick, I noticed several instances where both were happening. To start, I noticed a high uncertainty avoidance mainly from Kumail’s family. To put things in a general group, we will use the moderately high score of 70 from Pakistan as a benchmark. As I mentioned early, it seemed as if they had structured dinners with the entire family, and that the five pillars of Islam and other Islam and Pakistani practices were heavily engrained in their culture. His parents constantly scheduling arranged marriage set-ups is one of the main components to the adherence to a high uncertainty avoidance. They wanted both their children to stick to their plan, in turn allowing their uncertainty avoidance index to be satisfied. The most surprising thing to me was that Kumail’s actions throughout the film dictate that he is a person with an extremely low uncertainty avoidance. I first noticed this when they showed his apartment for the first time. It quite honestly was worse than a lot of the college living spaces I have seen. He seemed to have little to no physical items of value, which is odd for someone who has been working on their own. I even noticed that his bed had no bed frame and just sat on the floor, and he used an upside-down milk crate as an alarm clock stand. Kumail’s predicted personal index values seem to be opposite from the rest of his culture. The last key instance of Kumail’s low uncertainty avoidance index is evident when he decides that he wants to head out to New York. As it is commonplace for people pursuing careers in social media, film, comedy, and sports radio to make the move to one of the coastal power states, it is almost always referred to as a risky move for someone who is relatively unknown as Kumail. The reality of his decision could have meant never finding a job and becoming homeless, and it could have also meant becoming the next Jerry Seinfeld. Making that kind of life changing mood on a whim or hunch proves that Kumail does not share the same preference for uncertainty avoidance as his family or the Pakistanis collectively.
Hofstede’s fifth dimension, long term orientation is up next. Long term orientation is when you are keeping focused on the future (Hofstede 2009). Short term gratification and material and social success are not valued. For example people who value saving, perseverance, and being able to adapt are classified as having a index leaning toward long term orientation. (Harackiewicz, Barron 1997). Short-term orientation is a focus toward social obligations, and present and short term fulfillment (Grimsley 2016). I would justify Kumail as long term oriented. This was also how his native country of Pakistan was measured, as they got a 50. To elaborate, two key actions by Kumail dictate the long term orientation. When he realizes that he is love with Emily he spends all of his time watching her recover and seeing her family. He is planning to have her back when she is better so that he can fulfill that love need in his life. Instantly once he believes that he has no chance of reconciling, he constructs a new plan for the future, by going to New York.
The last of Hofstede’s six dimensions in the movie The Big Sick is indulgence versus restraint. Restraint is at zero on the index, while indulgence is at 100. Indulgence is defined as a society that allows relatively free gratification for basic and natural human activities relative to enjoying live in general and being happy. Restraint is define as a society that ignores and suppresses those needs because of strict social norms (Sun 2018). Pakistan flat zero on the indulgence index. I believe this to be because of the strict rules and regulations that are a part of the Islam religion. In The Big Sick there are instances of Kumail both indulging, and restraining. Both of them related to his girlfriend, Emily. First, Kumail indulges by sleeping with a white American woman, he then tries to convince her into seeing him exclusively several times. They eventually do so which is another example of his indulgence. Kumail’s restraint comes during their fights. As I mentioned earlier the scenarios where Kumail would restrain and leave Emily to sort out the issues she had by herself would not happen in American dating. This is one key example of Kumail’s restraint. It is very hard to let someone you care about be that upset, and in American dating culture, rarely happens. In summary, Kumail once again dictated away from the normal compared to Pakistan as a whole.
This movie did a great job of incorporating cross-cultural components. There were many times that individuals could have analyzed major takeaways of the differences, social insights, and rebellion Kumail has experiencing adulthood in the United States. The Big Sick did a great job providing cultural context to the nuances and activities associated with muslim, Pakistani, and American culture. As a whole, the movie highlighted culturally incompetent characters, Hofstede’s six culturally dimensions, and the narratives and rituals common with muslim, Pakistani, and American culture. It is a great film if you are looking to learn more about the cultural problems a Pakistani family living in Chicago faces.
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