A few weeks ago, the comedian and actress Mindy Kaling wanted to a share a dilemma she was facing with her 1.6 million Instagram followers. She posted a photo with the following: “Sour straws vs. chocolate shell. Sophie’s choice at age of ultron. I mean, THIS IS THE MOVIE.”
I get that Kaling was trying to be funny but in what world should choosing between candy and ice cream be in the same sentence as Sophie’s Choice?
The book and film “Sophie’s Choice” has been decontextualized and recontextualized over the last few years. The title has been stripped of its original meaning, gained a new association, and become both a phrase and hashtag to sum up choices individuals face. Often these are frivolous choices or what could be referred to as “first world problems.” I have long taken note and been angry about how Sophie’s Choice came to be used to explain choosing between SoulCycle or getting a manicure. Such choices are not equivalent to the choice detailed in William Styron’s 1979 book or its 1982 film adaption.
Sophie, played in the film adaptation by Meryl Streep for which she won an Academy Award for Best Actress, is a Polish Christian woman who we learn was forced when she arrived at Auschwitz was forced to choose which of her two children would live and which would die.” This is a choice that haunts Sophie, and is an absolutely gut wrenching scene to watch in the film.
While “Sophie’s Choice” is fiction, it represents an amalgam of excruciating choices and tragedies that occurred during the Holocaust. Nothing even remotely mundane should be put in the same sentence with it. Society seems to think otherwise, and people are using #sophieschoice all over Twitter and Instagram to refer to their basic, but oh so difficult choices. It raises the question: How did a film about the most unbearable, excruciating choice that no human should ever have to make, become a means to refer to a mundane, and in Kaling’s case indulgent, choice?
In an article for Mental Floss, Eric D. Snider writes about how “our language patterns are influenced by the movies we watch” and points out “Sophie’s Choice” as a prime example. “Even if you haven’t seen the film that won Meryl Streep her first Best Actress Oscar, you probably know that a ‘Sophie’s choice’ is when you must choose between two equally desirable—or undesirable—options,” he writes. His inclusion of both “desirable” and “undesirable” is a clue into how people view and use Sophie’s Choice.
Urban Dictionary has a total of four entries under Sophie’s Choice. The third and fourth are quite telling and support how society understands and uses the phrase. Take the third entry:
“It is NOT a difficult choice. It’s a choice between two options that will results in the destruction of the option not chosen. A difficult choice is just called a difficult choice, IT HAS NO NAME because it doesn’t deserve one for the dramatic effect.”
The words “difficult” and “dramatic effect” stand out. A choice that is difficult can be assigned the phrase as can a desire for a bit of drama. It is important to remember that difficult has a number of connotations depending on who you are, and what your choices may be.
The fourth entry goes even further away from the true meaning and reads:
“A hard decision ‘If I have to choose between her and Tyra, it’s not exactly sophie’s choice’”
Sophie’s Choice can be just a “hard decision,” not even a difficult one. Just as difficult has a number of connotations, so does hard. Choosing between SoulCycle and a manicure is hard for someone.
A potential theory for why Sophie’s Choice has taken on new meaning is likely rooted in Snider’s piece on films entering the lexicon. It is possible that as Sophie’s Choice became deeply rooted in the lexicon, it began to lose its context and was decontextualized. Over time, it becomes recontextualized and has a broader meaning like on Urban Dictionary. It’s possible that people who have read or seen “Sophie’s Choice” and know what it means, still decide to use it for the mundane choices. For people who have never seen the film and only know its recontextualized meaning, they may think it’s ok to say it. In their case, Sophie’s Choice is likely to just a means describe making a hard or difficult choice, or to include hyperbole to a very simple, straightforward choice that is a “first world problem.” They never actually know Sophie and her choice.
In Kaling’s case, she is a well educated member of Hollywood who has probably seen the film, or at least knows what it is about. There is no way she only met the recontextualized phrase. She knows what choice Sophie faced and still decided to equate her ice cream versus candy decision to it. Kaling is not Sophie. Kaling is not choosing between her children, and ultimately sending a little girl to her death. She merely needed to choose between two enjoyable treats. She will not face ramifications beyond possible sugar overload. After all, if she really wanted, she could eat both.
Kaling’s decision to post a Sophie’s Choice caption speaks volumes about what she as an individual thinks is funny, and more broadly, what society thinks as well. Plenty of her followers left comments with sentiments indicating they agreed and appreciated what she wrote.
Kaling is witty enough to have achieved the same effect with her followers without invoking Sophie’s Choice. In minimizing this story for a few laughs, she is participating in the continual decontextualization of not just the film, but the Holocaust. The issue of humor and the Holocaust has been ongoing. While everyone from well established comedians to lay folk have argued that it is ok to joke about the Holocaust, many including myself, do not think it is ok. I believe that the more people joke about the Holocaust, it is at risk for being decontextualized and recontextualized. The Holocaust cannot ever lose its context.
Perhaps going forward, people will think twice before using #sophieschoice. In doing so, Sophie’s Choice can be recontextualized to its proper meaning.