“Haven’t Seen It”

July 17, 2009

I have a fun little game I play when I get stuck watching a movie that bores me: I switch the genders of the characters in my head. It almost inevitably makes a bad movie more interesting, and usually teaches me something about how gender oppression works.*

Try it yourself (don’t forget the announcer or the music):

Just threw that last one in because The Wicker Man is the best movie ever made.


Anyway, sometimes the ways that movies enforce and perform gender roles are subtle (the way that sympathetic male characters engage in far more physical comedy than female characters, whose bodies are usually only used for laughs to inspire audience disgust, for example, only becomes clear after you’ve watched multiple films through this lens). Some are screamingly overt (can you imagine a helpless adult man pleading for his “mommy” to save him?). But it’s always there.

One of the things that becomes most clear if you do this enough is the prevalence of the “Smurfette syndrome,” in which a movie presents many different male characters with different characteristics, but only one female character, whose primary role is to be sexually appealing to the male protagonist, with a secondary purpose of observing him as he lives out his story arc and providing him with approval and validation.

The Smurfette syndrome is one of the primary reasons I don’t watch many movies. As much as I can identify with male characters as fellow humans, I can’t help but feel alienated when nearly every character, in every movie, is a (white, straight) guy.

It’s well documented that there are many more male characters in film than female characters, by a margin of about 3 to 1. Most movies fail the Bechdel Test. It’s also worth noting that by far the majority of producers, screenwriters and directors are men (over 90%). It’s very rare to see women presented as complex characters, and even rarer to see female characters imagined by women.

This makes a lot of movies kinda boring to me, and beyond the more subtle Smurfette syndrome/Bechdel Test failure issues, the outright sexism? (as in: entire movies about how the masculine men jockey for dominance and blow jobs from that one lady in the mob/corporation/army/navy/marines/imaginary outer space military division/sporting event/police department/law firm, entire movies about how women are annoying mommy figures who just bring the man children down, entire movies about how it’s fun to see ladies with boobies get stabbed and tortured, rape-as-plot-device-to-further-male-character-arc, fat/old/slutty/not slutty ladies are useless jokes, etc. etc. etc. for ever. and ever.) These things make me annoyed. Which is not a feeling I seek out for entertainment.

But there’s always the inevitable moment when someone asks me if I’ve seen the latest bromance or action flick. It kind of leaves me stuck. On the one hand, I don’t usually want to go into a monologue about gender representation in film, especially since most people haven’t really thought much about it and are pretty attached to their favorite movies, which sets the stage for defensiveness. On the other, that puts me in the uncomfortable position of having to hide my thoughts and feelings in order to get along. So I usually say something about how I don’t watch many movies, and try to change the subject. It’s one of those lonely with other people moments that get more and more common the more you question why things are the way they are in this world. Turns out all those platitudes about the road less traveled leave out the part where that road is often covered in horse shit.

Unfortunately, I don’t see much chance that this will change any time soon. I guess, for now, at least there’s Joss Whedon. (He starts speaking at 2:06)

*You can do the same thing with other forms of identity oppression, though mostly what you’ll notice is a complete absence of various oppressed groups… interesting in its own way. Quentin Tarantino movies are a hot and fascinating mess, if you want to examine how race and ethnicity are presented when people of color are included in a story.

Because Oprah Kicks Ass

July 11, 2009

I often end up stuck in conversations where I feel compelled to defend my choices in literature. Case in point: I once had a conversation with a hipster dude (H.D.) who got very upset when I said I didn’t really dig J.D. Salinger. H.D. asked me which of Salinger’s books I had read, no doubt expecting me to say I’d read the Catcher in the Rye, and all excited to school me on Franny and Zooey. When I said I had read all of Salinger’s work, I think his ego was a little bruised. Not only was I unimpressed by the author who represented everything H.D. identified himself with, I actually knew what I was talking about. So H.D. counterattacked. He asked me who my favorite novelists were. I told him I like Morrison, Kingsolver, and Winterson. He smirked and said, “All women. And all part of Oprah’s book of the month club. What do you think about that?”

Mostly I thought I wanted to tell him to take Nine Stories and shove it up his ass. But I decided to take the bait, and talked to H.D. a little bit about how female authors are routinely undervalued, and how I prefer to read books where female characters are treated with seriousness and respect. I love me some John Steinbeck or Ernest Hemingway, but lets be honest: the women in their stories are mothers or whores, they’re completely one-dimensional, they’re usually evil, and they’re completely boring. Toni Morrison’s heartbreakingly complex Sethe in Beloved is just so much more interesting and realistic than any female character I’ve seen in a book written by a man. Though I know Don DeLillo tries really hard.

I like to read about people I can identify with. I think this is a fairly common human trait. In fact, I find it very strange that H.D. and many other men out there refuse to acknowledge that they prefer novels by and about men, and instead pretend that their preferences are solely based on the rational, objective “merit” of the books, and their “universal” human messages (This just in!!! Art is subjective!!! Also: turns out men are not the default setting for humanity!!!).

I also defended Oprah. I love Oprah. Oprah is a woman who has survived some serious shit. And man, she has it together. She devotes her life to helping others the best way she knows how. The other day, I heard Oprah say that she has spent her life “talking to women, and any men who would listen, about how to live their best life.”

I thought that was so profound. Here is a person who wants nothing except to help people… She’s got all the money and fame and power she could want. Unlike pretty much everyone else on TV, all Oprah wants to do at this point in her life is make people’s lives better, and most men refuse to listen to what she has to say. In fact, most men ridicule her. So she talks to women. And men don’t learn about self-care, despite the fact that they probably need it more than women. I find that sad.

I also think it’s way fucked up that Oprah, who is quite obviously brilliant, is routinely dismissed as a lightweight who should not be taken seriously. I wonder if this is because she’s a black woman who discusses emotions and relationships in a culture that devalues black people, women, emotions and relationships… Actually, I don’t wonder. It’s completely obvious. I just said “I wonder” as a rhetorical device.

But I digress. Where was I? Oh yeah. Books.

There are obviously many female authors who buy into patriarchal narratives (In fact, I’m farting in Candice Bushnell’s general direction as I write this). But if I’m going to find novelists interested in presenting a non-patriarchal counternarrative, it is likely that most of those novelists will be women, since men in a patriarchy are conditioned to believe that they’re benefiting from women’s subjugation (they aren’t, but that’s a post for another day). I know it’s weird and probably a sign of hysteria of some sort, but I have this strange preference for art that does not present people like me as inherently lacking and inferior, or at best irrelevant. Which means that, given our cultural context, I tend to prefer books by women.

So yeah, I like a lot of the same books Oprah does. And? Anyone who has a problem with that can kiss my best life living ass.

I do not do well at traditional academics.

I did manage to get a pretty fancypants education, mostly on account of  freakish test-taking skills that do not translate to anything remotely useful.  However, for all that education, I don’t know much about those theorists generally accepted as brilliant, because I mostly think they’re useless to me.

Many people would argue that the fact that I know next to nothing about these theorists is evidence that I’m just a big ol’ dummy.

I say it’s evidence that I’m not interested in crushing my own soul, but, you know, you say tomato.

Dude. Freud came up with the concept of the “Oedipal complex” because he refused to believe that his patients were being sexually assaulted by their fathers. Nietzsche compared women to cows. Aristotle said that women were “naturally subordinate” to men.

This, to me, is enough to put me off their writing. I mean, there are billions of books in the world. I will never get to read all of them. Why would I spend my time reading the work of someone who compares me to livestock?

Some people would argue with me, saying that while these brilliant men had a flawed view of women, their other thoughts are so totally incredible that I should ignore the misogyny.

To such people, first I would say… Um, actually? Their thoughts aren’t so brilliant. If a bunch of powerful people hadn’t told you their thoughts were brilliant, would you really be so impressed by them? I kinda doubt it. In fact, if you were in a cultural vacuum where you had to decide for yourself what you thought of their work, without some “expert” telling you how to value it, I think you’d think that Aristotle and Nietzsche sound like narcissistic assholes and Freud sounds like he’s high on cocaine, and you’d be right.

The idea of a “canon” of the bestest works in all the world is A) totally out of touch with the incredible range of human experience and B) totally fuckin’ fascist. Art is subjective, yo. And theory? Theory is just another art form. On a basic human level we’re all individuals, which means that no one work of art can speak to or for all of us. This is especially so in a world that is utterly defined by hierarchy and oppression. My experience, as a woman, is not like the experience of a man. We’re all human, sure.  But gender oppression means that men and women live in entirely different kind of worlds—different cultures, basically. The same goes for any form of oppression.  White people live a totally different reality than people of color do. Poor people and rich people have very different lives.  To ask everyone to identify with and value the thoughts of rich, straight white men above those of other people is asking us to value the experience of someone else above our own lived experience.

I don’t know what Freud would say about that, but I’d say it’s not fuckin’ healthy.

Beyond that, I just can’t get behind the idea that someone can just compartmentalize a seething hatred of an entire group of people into a neat little spot in their theory, while retaining a useful and universal message when they are not specifically speaking about that hatred.

If you buy the paradigm of a world divided into distinct dualistic categories of “good” and “bad,” or a universal system of hierarchy for valuing human beings, you’ve got some basic issues with your worldview that go way beyond whether you specifically say you hate one group or another… Stuff that will permeate every aspect of your thoughts and interactions. What it comes down to is an essential worldview based on domination of some people by others. If you start from this point, who or what gets defined as “good” or “bad” may shift, but someone always has to be bad. Someone always has to lose. In this worldview, there is no such thing as difference without hierarchy. I do not find such a worldview useful to my spiritual and psychological growth. I do not find such a worldview useful, period.

Some people would argue that I have to read every word of these theorists before I can critique them, or that I simply must read all their work so I have the tools to respond in depth to each of their points. I don’t find these arguments to be particularly compelling. I don’t much care where fucked-up ideas originated from—I can say that the concept that women are defective/lacking men is widespread in our culture and, uh, NOT COOL, without knowing that Freud, specifically, was very clear on that point. And the idea that it’s somehow my duty to slog through the writing of anyone I disagree with because they represent the status quo and I do not? I just think that one’s kind of nonsensical. Lemme get this straight: I have to devote what little time I have to reading the work of dudes who hate me, because they happen to be seen as geniuses by the power structure in a culture so deeply flawed that it is on the verge of self-destruction? And I should do this when I could be spending my time trying to understand the many brilliant theorists who do speak to me, and whose work actually helps me live a happier, more well-adjusted life?

This does not resemble our Earth logic. Besides, I already have to spend plenty of time trying to understand dudes who hate me, regardless of whether I want to or not. Oppressed people always have to understand privileged people, and privileged people don’t have to understand oppressed people. It’s part of that whole “oppression” thing.

Truthfully, I will read theorists who have been deemed “important” when I need to. But what it comes down to is this: I haven’t got long here in this world, and there are a lot of great books to read. I’m just not going to spend a lot of time struggling through theory that doesn’t speak to me or my lived experience, especially if it compares me to a cow.