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The Culture of Poverty in Ratatouille

“In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto: Anyone can cook. But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere. It is difficult to imagine more humble origins than those of the genius now cooking at Gusteau’s, who is, in this critic’s opinion, nothing less than the finest chef in France. I will be returning to Gusteau’s soon, hungry for more.” Anton Ego

Ratatouille has been a celebrated Pixar movie, famous for its romanticization of the city of lights, the charming accordion music, exquisite food imagery, and its depiction of the powerful idea that ‘anyone can cook’ and by extension- anyone can do anything they put their mind to. But this seemingly family-friendly film also holds a dialogue around poverty and the culture that encourages its perpetuation.

There is a wholesome and warm-hearted message pushed forward by the odd friendship between the protagonist Remy, the rat with extraordinary culinary skills, and the awkward garbage boy Linguini, who is, by the most unfortunate or fortunate of situations put into the position of a cook that he has no relevant skills for. This leads to a convenient scheme between Remy and Linguini in which Remy controls Linguini’s hand movements by pulling on his hair beneath his toque and therefore the two can successfully pull off the artistic process of cooking at a high-profile restaurant.

Credits: Pixar Animation Studios

This children’s movie as it has so been classified as is as simple as a good movie can get, but also has layers of messages threaded into its ‘bare essentials’ plotline. It develops on the tragic history of both Linguini and Remy being nobodies and suddenly acquiring the limelight through the hustle and bustle of the top-rated Parisian restaurant framed by the renowned chef by the name Gusteau, who remains pertinent as Remy’s imaginary mentor and encourages him against all odds, to cook- with no prior training, and more importantly, also even though he is, in essence, a rodent.

This overarching message has details so intricately carved into it that if one were not aware of the culture of poverty, one would probably miss it, as I first did, when I watched the movie in 2010, however, rewatching it made the message as clear as possible- Remy is a rat, and therefore is conflicted by his duties and loyalties to his rat family, and his passion for cooking for human tastebuds. This is a message that is pushed forward even in major films like Gully Boy, but what makes it so metaphorical is that Remy is not a human, and what are people who come from the lower classes of society often referred to? Maybe not rats, but some version of “people from the gutter” in a derogatory sense and this sense of shame and humiliation is embodied by Remy. He is torn between his metaphorical class status and the dream he wants to pursue. The fact that he is demotivated by his father’s continuous rebukes and harsh reminders of his identity as a rat is not dissimilar to a strong sense of feeling which prevents persons from poor families from pursuing their passions, especially in unconventional fields.

Credits: Pixar Animation Studios

The culture of poverty has been described as a “concept in social theory which asserts that the values of people experiencing poverty play a significant role in perpetuating their impoverished condition” (Culture of poverty, Wikipedia). Therefore, even as class mobility can be possible (limitedly) through purely economic factors alone, socio-cultural norms and expectations of one’s class status make it impossible to strive for better standards of living. The culture of poverty, as demonstrated excellently in Oscar Lewis’ ‘Children of Sanchez-Autobiography of a Mexican Family’ is a detailed life story and account of the choices that people who experience poverty in the urban areas are compelled to make, not because they are inherently bad or lazy people, but rather because they have internalized certain ideas of conformity to their class identity which makes it impossible for them to move on forward with their lives, and even if they choose to opt-out of the labyrinth, they will have to fight their own family to live differently.

Thus, the movie brings our attention to this in its subverting framework wherein Remy convinces his rat kin that he wants to follow his heart into cooking. His father hates the idea of servicing humans who see them as pests. This is no different from our society where the lower class may develop animosity towards their economic superiors because of generational wealth and privilege which allows the latter to suppress the former.

Moreover, getting into a specialized field often requires investment into education and the loss of a potential helping hand in informal labour that poor families are often engaged in, which is why poverty-stricken families are usually not in favour of the long-term results of proper education and may prefer short-term but economically sustaining minimum-wage labour on a day-to-day basis, and the other fields which require one to have social privilege and connections such as in the entertainment industry, business, fashion, and even in the culinary field are almost impenetrable to those from the lower classes despite the talent they may possess in the particular field.

Ultimately, the movie does see Remy triumphing by opening up a restaurant after winning the heart of a renowned and formidable food critic Anton Ego, to whom he serves a peasant dish- Ratatouille, which is also the name of the film. This dish brings back Ego to his humble beginnings and is also perhaps a tool to show how both Ego and Remy have crossed over certain barriers in order to achieve success. Therefore, there is a hint of class solidarity through the helping hand of Ego which ends the movie and leaves a sweet and lasting taste in the mouth of the audience, while also letting a bitter after taste sneak into the minds of the critical audience who know that it is not just the story of a rat fulfilling his cooking dreams, but rather the reality of many who will never get to fulfil their own.

Ashwini Gurung is a student pursuing Masters in Sociology from Jamia Millia Islamia.

Edited by: Malaika M Khan

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Written by Ashwini Gurung

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