Film and Gender: A dialogue with a feminist film theorist.
with T.M. Murray
Focus on : Serial Mom, Basic Instinct, The People Vs Larry Flynt, Thelma and Louise, Pulp Fiction, and pornography.
CULTURE ON THE OFFENSIVE proudly present the following insightful, and sometimes heated discussion between two writers and film fanatics: feminist theorist T.M. Murray and COTO editor philosopher Greg Scorzo. We are unapologetically publishing the conversation in full. It’s a long but fascinating read.
In this dialogue, Murray and Scorzo argue about a number of iconic films, gender roles, Feminism, sexism, what it means to be submissive, as well as opposing perspectives on pornography, the influence of media on behaviour, and moral agency. Hence, you will see a discussion about politics and film that feminists and their critics rarely engage in, particularly in today’s climate.
Normally these encounters end up with both parties believing the other is an unusually loathsome human being, and the conversations don’t continue beyond the heated exchange.
Both Murray and Scorzo love to watch films and interpret what those films can illuminate about the world, and the impact those films have had on social norms. They do this with different ideologies informing and interrogating how they see the meaning of the films.
Murray and Scorzo can talk to each other like this, because they have a lot of time for each other, respect each other’s differences and believe it is important to understand the thinking behind each other’s lenses through which they view the films.
It’s ‘the Art of Thinking’ in practice. You may agree or disagree with any of the points made, because in the end you don’t have to think like everybody else. Engaging with your adversaries is important to understand, and be able to defend, or even change your own positions. It certainly got me thinking.
– Lizzie Soden
Greg Scorzo: What came first? Your love of cinema or love of theory?
T.M. Murray: I suppose I enjoyed cinema from my youth, long before I understood anything about theory. As a kid, going to the cinema with my friends generally cost between 1 and 4 dollars and almost every film starred Burt Reynolds or Clint Eastwood, and maybe Sally Field as a love-interest. Theatres were purpose-built spaces with beautiful interiors, gilt fittings and ornate friezes. The multiplex revolution started when I was a teen, but I’ve always preferred the vintage cinemas like the ones my Dad took me to as a child, to see films like Funny Girl and Watership Down (the animated feature). Apart from my teenage forays to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show, I don’t think it was really until I went to New York City in the eighties that I fully experienced the ideological power of cinema.
At independent theatres like Cinema Village, Angelika Film Center and Film Forum I had my first taste of the weird and wonderful variety of films in the world. I finally got exposed to more formally and ideologically subversive films, and those from other national cinemas. I remember seeing films like Stranger Than Paradise, My Dinner With Andre, Swimming to Cambodia, The Harder They Come, and Bertolucci’s 1900 at some of those indie cinemas. I was beginning to realise that cinema was as powerful as religion in terms of making or breaking the public’s dominant perceptions of reality. Once I understood its subversive powers, my love of cinema increased exponentially.
Greg Scorzo: That’s interesting. I’m curious how you see subversion. What does it mean for a film to be subversive? Is subversiveness a matter of a film exposing a norm in society that society tends to be unaware of? Or is subversion more about radically re-interpreting a certain kind of human experience?
T.M. Murray: I see it as both. Yes, cinema can certainly make us aware of the constructed nature of many of our common sense assumptions, of their artificiality. Satire does this very well. I have always loved drag, for example, because of how it deconstructs gender and exposes it to be little more than performance. Post-modern films that make very self-aware use of genre conventions or use ‘knowing’ references to other films also subvert the ‘realness’ of cinema, revealing its cliches.
I think of Serial Mom, for example, which combines a parody of the teen movie with a very tongue-in-cheek take on the wholesome American family so beloved of 1940’s and 50’s cinematic representations. John Waters is at his best there, in my opinion. His earlier work can also be seen as subverting certain kinds of human experiences, like disgust or gluttony, by almost celebrating them. This way of placing types of human experience into new contexts can change our perceptions or even ‘gut reactions’. By re-framing certain kinds of experience – repulsion, lust, depression, rage or joy – we can reflect upon them anew, perhaps seeing them as only partly visceral and partly formed by pre-conceived ideas about them.
Even the absurdity that sometimes results from this can force new interpretations of our social norms or taboos. Kubrick, Cronenberg, Von Trier and Todd Solondz have all done this with great success.
Greg Scorzo: Serial Mom is an interesting example. I remember when that film came out in 1994, critics said that there had been so many scathing parodies of the wholesome 1950s family, that Serial Mom was really a parody of those parodies. It was suggesting there was something quite cheeky within wholesome normalcy, something much more transgressive than the counter-culture of the 60s that Waters had become a symbol of. I was curious if you saw it that way.
T.M Murray: Ha ha! I didn’t have the luxury of seeing it that way. I come from that milieu of wholesome normalcy, so for me it was a kind of panacea to see it mocked. I doubt Waters would go along with such a complex reading of Serial Mom. He is also from that wholesome America after all. He grew up in that stifling 1950’s moral milieu, or something close to it. You have to remember that even though many scathing parodies of the wholesome 1950s family had been made by 1994, Hollywood was still pumping out very conventional sexist, heterosexist and morally uniform films in the 80’s and 90’s, whether it was Pretty Woman, Top Gun, or ConAir. Before you can re-invest the normative culture with some sort of new meta-meaning, you have to have the ability to stand at a very healthy distance from it. This more complex reading of Serial Mom can probably only come from a non-American perspective (or perhaps from an American born after the 80’s and from an urban milieu).
Greg Scorzo: It seems like sexism is an important concept in the way you look at films. How do you define sexism? Do you think sexism has to involve disadvantaging one sex, relative to the other? Or do you think you can have sexism where no one is disadvantaged? Is sexism simply treating the sexes as though there are non-biological differences between them? Or is sexism treating a man or woman like they aren’t individuals, instead viewing them as representatives of maleness and femaleness?
T.M Murray: I don’t have any recondite definition of sexism. I accept the common view that it is tantamount to male (or far less commonly) female chauvanism, i.e. the idea that males as a group are superior to, or more important than, females (although in theory it is possible for sexism to be the reverse). Sexism is intimately bound up with gender, because gender is all about treating the sexes (biological men or women) as two huge personality types, as though there were all kinds of standard, uniform character traits among people of the same sex, which are set in contrast to the presumably opposite personality traits of the other big sexual bloc.
All of this cancels out individuality. Gender entails the belief that there are all kinds of differences between men and women that go far beyond biological or reproductive differences. In my view, gender is the main instrument through which sexism is circulated and perpetuated in culture. Hollywood movies have played a huge role in keeping cultural gender myths in place.
Greg Scorzo: What are some of your favourite films that really deal with the subject of gender? And what is it you love about those films?
T.M. Murray: There are so many! Basic Instinct (Paul Verhoeven), Raise the Red Lantern (Zhang Yimou), Wadjda (Haifaa al- Mansour), Bandit Queen (1994, Shekhar Kapur), and Stories of Our Lives (2014), a beautiful collection of shorts by Jim Chuchu, come to mind. But one that deserves much more recognition is the little-known 1996 Indian film by Amol Palekar titled Daayra or (in English) The Square Circle. Set on the North Eastern coast of India, the film mixes Bollywood folk song with a hard-hitting look at customary Indian village society, including women’s place in the social hierarchy, cross-dressing, rape, marriage, ‘honour’ and tradition. The film takes viewers on a gender journey along with the unnamed female protagonist, a young girl who has been “ruined” by virtue of having been gang-raped by a group of men. Lost and abandoned to her fate, she takes refuge with a cross-dressing hijra who has much to teach her about the artificiality of gender. Provocative questions about gender constantly unfold along the way, with the two leads undergoing a dazzling array of gender permutations that both provoke and stimulate viewers to reassess everything they know about gender.
Another recent favourite is Céline Sciamma’s 2014 film Girlhood (French: Bande de filles, Gang of Girls). Starring Karidja Touré, Girlhood is a coming of age film that centres on the life of a teenager, Marieme, who lives in a housing project on the outskirts of Paris. There’s a lot to love about this film, starting with the opening credits sequence. We see two groups of American football players competing in a display of physical contact and athleticism. Due to the gendered associations linked with American football and its uniform/kit, the viewer just assumes that she is watching men. But at some point she realises that these are female athletes, which jars with her background beliefs or expectations. Sciamma’s opening sequence prepares us for a film about young women who will exhibit personality traits that have traditionally been constructed as ‘male’.
Mariame learns to assert herself as an agent despite many cultural obstacles to her doing so. The film also passes the Bechdel Test many times over, and deploys a ‘female gaze’ throughout the entire film, whether depicting female or male bodies. Even though director Sciamma represents male characters’ desire to turn the girls into objects, she herself never depicts them as such, but always as sexual agents.
Greg Scorzo: Those are all interesting choices. I notice how both films you’ve described are about a female doing something which isn’t gender typical. That makes me curious what you think of more gender typical woman. Do you think depicting a woman who isn’t gender typical is good because it shows that gender expressions can be diverse? Or is it good because it shows that actually, the gender typical woman is problematic in some way?
T.M. Murray: I like gender non-typical characters because representing them exposes gender as a construct, a set of stereotypes about “men” or “women” (as a group). Gender non-typical characters offer viewers representations of men or women not primarily as one of two big uniform personality types but role models who are primarily individual human persons, which in my opinion is a more realistic depiction of what male and female human beings are.
The gender-typical woman becomes a problem only in a context where gender stereotypes dominate the culture. When gender stereotypes are so widely circulated, they seem natural as opposed to cultural. In the context of patriarchal culture, all women and men are indoctrinated to imitate the ‘correct’ male or female roles. Of course, you can always argue that people have a choice whether or not to play along (i.e. to perform their expected gender roles), but there is a strong social impetus to follow the herd, especially if you have limited awareness of alternative options or when you have never seen role models who break the gender mould. If individual women choose to play along and to perform “femininity” as taught to them by their culture, as many do, then it still makes sense to ask whether this choice is influenced by a genuine personal interest in “feminine” domestic roles, or whether it is just easier to follow the herd and do what your culture expects of you. Maybe individuals do choose what is easy, as opposed to what might really interest them. But how will a person discover what he might be interested in doing unless he is given a real range of options? Gender stereotypes limit people’s awareness of their options.
Greg Scorzo: Do you think its part of the media’s job to teach people what options are available to them, regarding their lifestyle choices? What would you say to someone who says lifestyle choices are personal decisions, and we can’t have a very free (or interesting) media if we demand that media teach people about all the eccentric life choices available to them?
T.M. Murray: I certainly don’t think it is part of the remit of a huge oligopoly like the MPAA to teach people what it means to be a man or a woman. Yet they have been doing so for more than eight decades, initially under pressure from the Catholic ‘Legion of Decency’ which influenced them to adopt the PCA (Production Code Administration) or Hays Code, as it is more commonly known. This was a set of moral ‘dos’ and ‘donts’ that was applied to every Hollywood script. Nowadays the classification system performs a similar function, and the process is very secretive. As far as investigators have been able to find out, it is still influenced by the Catholic church.
Personal decisions are made against a cultural backdrop. That cultural context can either encourage independent thought and offer people a variety of options, or it can set up barriers to intellectual freedom and limit the information available to the public. It can present a whole subset of options as problematic.
When citizens are aware of the ways in which the products they are offered have been designed to play an ideological function, their choices are better informed. It is up to them to dig and find out. We don’t need a paternalistic state to tell us, for example, that smoking is harmful, when even a chimp could figure that out.
Consumers of any product should have the freedom to harm themselves, but those of us who wish to warn people of the dangers also have a right to speak out and say why we object to toxic gender stereotypes that are arguably not only harmful to those who wish to consume them, but also to society as a whole (i.e. to others).
Greg Scorzo: I could be wrong in this, and if I’m wrong, feel free to correct me. But it sounds like you’re describing a causal relationship between cinema and society’s politics that works like this:
Sequence A. Reactionary Cinema ———— > People Watch and Internalise Messages of Reactionary Cinema ————> Society Has Reactionary Politics
It seems like instead of A, you want something like B.
Sequence B. Progressive Cinema —————> People Watch and Internalise Messages of Progressive Cinema —————> Society Has Progressive Politics
But what about an alternative causal sequence that goes like this:
Sequence C. Reactionary Cinema ———————————> People watch and disagree with messages of Reactionary Cinema ———————> Society has Progressive Politics
Do you think C is impossible? Or to put it another way, do you think people need to see progressive cinema in order to have progressive politics? Are people incapable of coming up with a decent politics, if they don’t see that politics first in the movies they watch?
T.M. Murray: The ‘hypodermic’ theory of media effects (described in your ‘A’ model) has been much criticised, but I think the view that there is a relationship between culture and values is not entirely without substance. If cultural institutions were not influential then there would not be so much effort and money spent on owning them and maintaining them. No political candidate or product salesman would seriously expect to win an election or sell a product without plenty of help from the media. There is now a consensus that exposure to media violence is a risk factor for actual violent behaviour.
In 2005, the Lancet published a comprehensive review of the literature on media violence to date. The weight of evidence from dozens of studies supported the view that exposure to media violence leads to aggression, desensitization toward violence and lack of sympathy for victims of violence, particularly in children. The United States surgeon general, the National Institute of Mental Health and multiple professional organisations – incuding the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association – all consider media violence exposure a risk factor for actual violence.
The remote Himalayan nation of Bhutan makes an interesting case study. Bhutanese life, which is steeped in Himalayan Buddhism, was transformed dramatically when television was introduced for the first time to this nation in June 1999. A cable service provided 46 channels of round-the-clock entertainment.
By April 2002 Bhutan began to see for the first time a crime wave including burglaries and violence, broken families, school dropouts, and other youth crimes like shoplifting. Many Bhutanese citizens began writing in to the national newspaper, Kuensel, complaining that TV is very bad for the country and attributed the changes to television.
Much evidence supports the (not outlandish) theory that what people are taught by their cultural institutions has enormous effects on the way they see the world. When I was a child, my parents told me about Santa Claus. I had every reason to believe this myth, first because I did not regard my parents as liars, but also because it was reinforced by my friends (who also believed), my teachers, television shows, books, and even local visits by “Santa” to our town centre. When my older sister tried to disabuse me of this belief, by telling me that Santa Claus is not real, but just “Mom and Dad” I could not even entertain that she might be correct. Instead, I was genuinely worried for her, and tried to stop her uttering blasphemies against an omniscient man whom I knew would deprive her of her Christmas booty if he were to catch wind of her heretical pronouncements.
I think the world would be a better place without the industrialization of pornography with its sexualisation of women’s subordination, but I think this phenomenon should be countered by challenging the culture that underpins it, not through censorship. One of my favourite movies of all time is The People Vs Larry Flynt, but I might not have liked this film so much had it not been made before porn went on the internet and became the most prevalent form of sex education in the world.
Greg Scorzo: You raise an interesting point here.
Much of the animus against the hypodermic theory of media effects isn’t really all the empirical. It’s moral. The objection is that as long as it’s possible to disagree with (or at least not mimic) media which is reactionary, we shouldn’t stigmatise this media. The view here is that reactionary media has an important role to play in society: it starts conversations, it expresses things the public are feeling, it gives society a chance to understand why it agrees or disagrees with such messages. That’s all part of being an adult.
The worry is that by assuming individuals need to see progressive media in order to have a progressive society, we reduce people to children. If we look at the population as being like children, it’s unlikely adults will feel free enough to produce works of art that are shocking, provocative, or easily misinterpreted. So, on this view, its better we tolerate the social harms that may correlate with showing people reactionary media, then create a climate where people try and self-censor. The latter climate would engender a media that isn’t terribly diverse or daring, and that mostly functions like propaganda anyway. We wouldn’t, among other things, have movies like The People vs Larry Flynt.
What do you think of this moral critique of the hypodermic theory of media effects?
T.M Murray: Yes, I thought you might say that if I dared to mention children. None of us want to be patronised by the state.
However, arguably it is in a culture where a very large proportion of media is reactionary (I prefer “conservative”) that engenders a media that isn’t terribly diverse or daring, and that mostly functions like propaganda. I see the socially transgressive products as being “reactionary” in the sense that they “react” to, or subvert, the conservative status quo.
I agree that adults are resilient, and need to be permitted to have genuine choices, or be exposed to bad things, including the choice to view or consume things that may harm them. We learn from this more than from being over-protected. However, it is easier to be tolerant about the domination of culture by conservative material that arguably harms others when you’re not one of the ‘others’ that will be likely to be harmed.
Greg Scorzo: That’s a very good point. It’s harder not to stigmatize someone else’s speech when you feel that speech might harm you in some way. It’s much easier to want to stigmatize speech when you feel like it harms you, just like it’s easy to want to protect it if you feel like it doesn’t harm you.
In the 90s, many people would have preferred to stigmatise films like Basic Instinct and The People vs Larry Flynt. Basic Instinct was accused of being a bi-phobic male fantasy, while The People vs Larry Flynt was accused of glorifying a quite vulgar form of sexual objectification. I’m guessing you interpret both of these films in a way which goes against these reactions. So I’m curious, what do you think each of these films is doing? What’s the best way to interpret each film, viz a viz gender?
T.M. Murray: I would put it slightly differently. I’d say it is easier (or more desirable) to oppose the proliferation of culturally dominant forms of “speech” (media products) when you are among those being stigmatised by it.
As for Basic Instinct and The People vs Larry Flynt, I was quite shocked at the responses to both of those films, because the liberal left’s reading of them was astonishingly myopic and dim-witted. I know this may sound arrogant, but I genuinely think the vast majority of “left-wing” viewers did not understand those films. The responses to both films was utterly simplistic and superficial.
Upon its U.S. release in 1992, Basic Instinct was attacked by conservative groups as well as by liberal activists alike, who described the film variously as ‘misogynistic’, ‘homophobic’, and ‘indecent’. It is curious that the protests united queer activists and ‘family values’ conservatives in a common cause. Basic Instinct is a groundbreaking neo-noir masterpiece that tells the story of a femme fatale who surprisingly (and unconventionally) triumphs over the detective-hero who seeks to capture and punish her for her crimes, among which is that she behaves in ways that are “too male.”
The film’s visual pleasures are deliberately constructed against the grain of male voyeuristic pleasures and offer lesbians and feminists a rare opportunity to dissect and ridicule American-styled male sexism and machismo (represented by the cop characters). The film is narrated from the detective’s point of view and follows the typical noir storyline of a detective’s investigation of a crime and a woman. At every turn, murder suspect Catherine Tramell defies male (and audience) expectations of how a woman who is being investigated by police ought to behave.
She is never meek, submissive, or complaint but instead turns the tables on the lead detective, Nick Curran, by investigating him and subjecting him to her knowledge-power, which exceeds his, even despite his institutional support from the government. Tramell refuses to collude in the double standard that says it is healthy (indeed a positive trait) for men to have casual sex with women they desire while it is morally ‘bad’ or ‘dirty’ for women to do the same.
Tramell is unashamed about her casual relationship with murder victim Johnny Boz, confounding the detectives’ expectations about how a woman should respond to the suggestion that there is something wrong with her sexual and emotional behaviour. Instead of responding to their questioning with shame and grovelling apologies for the very lack of emotion that is ‘normal’ in her male counterparts, she says she ‘enjoyed fucking him’ [Boz]. Her nonchalance and cool lack of emotion is compared throughout the film to that of Detective Nick Curran (Michael Douglas), with a constant eye to exposing the differential attitudes towards men and women who behave in identical ways. There is so much more to say about how this film empowers women (and lesbians) but then this will turn into an essay.
The People vs Larry Flynt is Milos Forman’s biopic about the eponymous Hustler Magazine editor-turned-millionaire. The movie does, as some said, glorify a vulgar form of sexual objectification but, at the time that Larry Flynt was publishing porn, the internet was not yet available and porn had not yet become the most ubiquitous cultural product in the universe and the main source of sex ‘education’ for males of all ages.
Nor was there any awareness about human trafficking. The film is about so much more than pornography. Larry Flynt’s wife Althea (played by Courtney Love) is the main female role. As a porn star, she is represented as an empowered sexual agent equal to Flynt. She is a fully consenting collaborator who also provides key input into the magazine’s editorial direction. She is depicted as a source of strength to Larry as much as he is to her, and the two are shown spiraling downwards together into a co-dependent drug addiction that ends up impacting her worse than him.
The love story between Althea and Larry is truly one of best in the history of Hollywood film. Larry Flynt is one of the most interesting heroes ever written for the screen and Woody Harrelson was robbed of a much-deserved Oscar only because of the film’s political stance against the establishment. Besides being a pornographer who asserted the right of adults to consume material that the conservative religious establishment thought ‘obscene’, Flynt was a public figure who rattled the powerful when in mid-February, 1978, he published a full-page ad offering a million dollars for information about the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Only several weeks afterwards, on March 6, Flynt and his attorney Gene Reeves were shot in an attempted assassination that left Flynt a paraplegic permanently confined to a wheelchair. Flynt was exposing the Iran Contra players three years before the phrase existed in the mainstream press, as well as researching White House ties to global cartels. In July 1983 Flynt again made headlines when he claimed that California attorney Robert Steinberg offered to sell him videotapes featuring Ronald Reagan’s adviser Alfred Bloomingdale and his (then) recently murdered mistress Vicki Morgan, and other government officials in various sex acts.
There were also reports of other incriminating videotapes and written documents picked up by the Los Angeles Police Department at the murder site, though the LAPD would neither confirm nor deny the existence of such evidence. Eleven months after Vicki Morgan’s death, a woman named Sharon Porto testified that Vicki had been planning to write a sizzling kiss-and-tell book which would have mentioned the names of a lot of rich and powerful men, all of them presumably engaged in sordid behavior.
Marvin Mitchelson clamied Vicki told him she knew a lot of the “political and sexual secrets” of members of the Reagan administration. An old friend of Morgan from rehab, Marvin Pancoast was convicted of Morgan’s murder despite the failure of the prosecution to establish a convincing motive and the failure of the police to take fingerprints from the murder weapon. The videotapes, if they ever existed, were never found.
Greg Scorzo: Those are fascinating readings of both films. Let’s talk a bit about your Basic Instinct reading.
One of the things I’m curious about is how your view stands up to two criticisms, one of which typically gets made by feminists, and the other by men’s rights activists. The first criticism is the film isn’t empowering for women because the most masculine female is the film’s villain. She’s evil. And although we might be fascinated by her, it’s not because her qualities are admirable. It’s because we’re watching a highly sexualised version of a character who, on the inside, is a loathsome human being. On this reading, the film would be empowering for women if, say, a non-stereotypically attractive woman (perhaps Kathy Bates) played Michael Douglas’s part. But because Catherine Trammel is loathsome and beautiful, the film is basically pairing psychological masculinity in a female with evil on the one hand, and the male audience’s titillation at her, on the other.
The second criticism of the film is that, rather than being empowering to women, the film illustrates how women are privileged.
Catherine Trammel is a fascinating and charismatic villain because she’s a beautiful woman. If we put her masculinity in a man, we would just have your standard movie antagonist who the audience loves to hate. The reason the audience has a slightly more ambivalent reaction to Catherine (which night be paraphrased as, “I know I’m supposed to hate her but I kind of like her”) is because we judge women less harshly than men, particularly when women are beautiful.
And because we eroticize homicidal women more than men, there is an erotic allure in Michael Douglas having sex with a woman who might kill him. There would be less of an allure if Kathy Bates was having sex with an attractive man, if we knew he might be seconds away from stabbing her to death. On this critique, a homicidal man is more frightening to an audience than a homicidal woman, because the erotic aspects of such a man do less to nullify the audience’s perception of his fundamental nastiness.
T.M. Murray: To the first criticism, the fact that a female can be dangerous does not make her unlikable; it makes her powerful. There are a lot of dangerous and morally ambiguous male characters who are very appealing to audiences, partly because they are complex and sometimes because they are also physically attractive. I can think of many male villains who fit this description, from Tony Soprano and Don Corleone, to Sherman McCoy (Bonfire of the Vanities), Tony Montana, Walter Neff, Will Munny, Jake La Motta or Daniel Plainview. These male characters have a lot of audience appeal. Even if we accept that Catherine Tramell is a loathsome human being, if we compare her to detective Nick Curran, who is arguably even worse because he is supposed to be enforcing the law (making him a hypocrite on top of his other crimes), she comes out looking relatively better, not to mention more clever. And since Verhoeven shows how the institutional cards are stacked against women, her success in overcoming ‘the system’ makes her even more impressive.
To the second point, Tramell is fascinating not primarily because she is a sexual object but also because she exerts powerful agency, as someone who is both clever and aware of how to use the male characters’ machismo, chauvinism and objectification of women against them and for her own gain. She uses (their) sexism to turn the tables on men. Audiences, I would argue, do not judge women less harshly than men, but quite the reverse. Because audiences are so habituated to viewing all characters from a male perspective (since most protagonists are male, and most scripts are written by men, about men) viewers are given their point of view through the camerawork and narrative construction.
Both females and males learn to identify strongly with men (male characters) and to see women as “the other.” This conditioning could explain why women seldom support other women (in real life) and more often attack one another while defending men, with whom they more strongly identify. Patriarchy works wonders on womens’ brains via divide-and-rule tactics, which are embedded in the formal structure of most visual media.
Imagine, Greg, if most of the movies you had ever seen featured female protagonists, and depicted male characters (through the female characters’ point-of-view shots and through scripts written by women, about women) as obstacles to women’s progress or as ‘helpers’ or love interests (sex interests), but not as agents. You’d probably start to see men as pretty unimportant while thinking of women as the generic human beings around which the world really revolves. In short, you’d identify with women more than with men. It ain’t rocket science.
Greg Scorzo: I’m not so sure about that in my own case. I probably do identify more with female characters than male ones. I’ve never particularly liked “guy movies” with male protagonists fighting and blowing things up. Most of my favourite films have female protagonists (Dogville, The Pianist, Mulholland Drive, Persona, Juliet of the Spirits). Or they’re films where the male and female both share the role of protagonist (Before Sunset, A Streetcar Named Desire, Night and the City). And the films I love which do feature predominantly men (Los Olvidados, A Clockwork Orange, Eraserhead) are normally either about masculine pathologies, or weak and pathetic men. Not films about how lovely it is to be male. I’ve also written a lot of stories and socratic dialogues over the years, and nearly all of them have female protagonists. And I grew up in the same western culture everyone else did, where most movies feature men doing masculine things.
When I see that a female character is a helper or love interest, I don’t see her as having less agency than the male protagonist. I also don’t think it’s demeaning to be either a helper or a love interest. In fact, helpers and love interests are often the most morally praiseworthy characters in films. And in our day to day lives, most of us are a helper and a love interest to somebody else. In most films I can think of, whether they are arthouse or mainstream, you rarely see a woman portrayed as an obstacle to a man’s progress.
It’s very rare to even see a film with a happy ending for a man that consists of him leaving his wife to do a job she disapproves of, or having sex with loads of young women in a mansion.
Male sexual fantasies are normally portrayed as a pathetic joke. That’s true even in films that try and sell the audience those fantasies (like The Woman in Red, Weird Science, There’s Something about Mary, or American Pie). Films rarely if ever take seriously the gripes that men often have with women. Whenever a woman is controlling, or puts a man in a position where he can’t have sex, or even strikes his face, it’s always portrayed as the man’s fault, or something the man should get over because he’s lucky to have such a beautiful woman. Even in the most mainstream romcoms, men who prioritise their own interests over women’s interests are normally portrayed as empty and soulless (until they meet a woman who changes them). You can see that trope in everything from As Good as It Gets to The Family Man, starring Nicholas Cage. If anything, the social norm you see in movies is that straight men and women should be together, and that life as a single person is unpleasant and unfulfilling (if you are a heterosexual).
But you do raise an interesting point when you say Catherine Trammell is likeable because she is powerful, subverts sexism, and turns the tables on men. I do agree with you that these things make her likable to some of the audience. But I’m not sure this likability is related to gender equality, because it’s not a moral or political kind of likability. The audience likes Catherine Trammell (if it does like her) because she is mesmerising to watch. Not because it approves of her. She’s liked in a similar fashion to the way some people like Alex from A Clockwork Orange. But nobody thinks sexism, at any level, is so terrible that even a psychopath who kills men for fun is somehow morally praiseworthy for subverting it.
People think human decency demands that we aren’t so committed to our political values that we can overlook murder, if it represents a blow against the Patriarchy. In liberal democratic societies, there’s a social norm that says that our political projects are never so important that we can employ violence to actualize them in our day to day life.
If that norm wasn’t there, don’t you think we’d have to worry about our neighbours killing us whenever there was an election?
T.M Murray: I guess the first part of your reply is tantamount to a rejection of the influence that male-dominated media has on society, so we will have to disagree on that as a point of fact. To say that the nearly ubiquitous output of male-centric media products has no impact on culture or on individuals is pretty incredible to me. It is sort of like saying that the Judeo-Christian faith has had no influence on European culture. As for this statement, “helpers and love interests are often the most morally praiseworthy characters,” it rings a lot of bells because I come from a religious background where that was the main narrative used to keep women in their (separate but “equal”) places. Priests could always be counted upon to frame submissiveness and marginalisation as “virtuous” or some such guff, as though women were so stupid that complimenting their virtue was a fair trade-off for taking away their agency.
As for your claim that it’s very rare to even see a film with a happy ending for a man, where you then equate a “happy ending for a man” with “him leaving his wife to do a job she disapproves of”, or “having sex with loads of young women in a mansion,” this does tell us a lot about what men really want … wives beware! Being happily married at the end of a film to a woman who adores you and thinks you are a God for having just saved the world from doom is not good enough for a man. Male sexual fantasies (having sex with a bunch of women in a mansion) is normally portrayed as a pathetic joke. You may be right about this, but let us not forget that probably the vast majority of the total media output we are talking about is porn, which does virtually nothing BUT feed that male fantasy while treating females as submissive objects. This is the stuff of daily (mostly) male enjoyment all over the globe, and represents about a third of all internet traffic.
Human decency does demand that we (women) aren’t so committed to our political values that we can overlook murder, if it represents a blow against the Patriarchy. But men can overlook murder if it represents a blow against anything ‘un-American’, or ‘racist’ or ‘too feminist’ or against any other noble cause that MEN approve of. That is what most Hollywood films are about. Thelma and Louise was test-screened to a mixed audience and many male respondents said they thought that there was “too much anti-male violence”, even though it was directed against repugnant male characters – and most did not like an alternative ending where T&L drive off into the sunset instead of dying in the Grand Canyon.
The problem was not that there was too much violence against men in the film because there was comparatively little compared with Hollywood action movies, where MEN do violence to other men. The problem was not the amount of violence, which actually sells films, but that it was perpetrated by women against men. When women are violent against other women this is also perfectly OK.
The slasher horror sub-genre is almost completely about men killing promiscuous half-nude girls who are represented as dumb, slutty, etc. and there is really no moral compunction about human decency there – viewers just enjoy it as “entertainment”. I wonder if they would like it so much if monstrous women went around killing nubile half-nude young men?
Greg Scorzo: Going back to what you said earlier about media determined attitudes, my view isn’t that media has no influence on people. My view is that the influence it has is less important than the fact that people can choose to interpret that media in different ways. If you take the view that people need to see good media in order to create a good society, you can’t have a media that’s terribly free. And that means you can’t have a media which is provocative, profound, or asks difficult questions of its audience. And I don’t think media is “male dominated” because I don’t believe in patriarchies (or matriarchies). The hypothesis that one gender dominates the other seems like an oversimplification of relations that are always more complicated. I think that’s true even in societies where, compared to the west, women are treated horrendously.
With regards your point about horror films, I think it’s important to understand that in context. First, most people don’t like slasher films. That’s a sub-genre that appeals primarily to geeks and tweens. Secondly, the reason why it appeals to its fans (as cinema) is not because they enjoy the thought of killing dumb, slutty women. It’s because they think killing dumb, slutty women is WORSE than killing stupid men (who also sometimes get killed in these films too).
The whole cinematic fixation with killing women (which, at present, is probably on the wane) is an expression of how western society values women more than men.
It’s more shocking to kill a woman, because there’s more of a taboo against violence against women. That is why, after all, violence against women is called violence against women. Violence against men is just called violence.
The only time people really notice the killing of a man onscreen is when a woman is doing it. And when that happens, rather than condemn it, people normally say it’s empowering to women (if they say anything about it at all).
The reason people were probably uncomfortable with the violence in Thelma and Louise was, unlike typical movie violence against women (or men), it seemed to be celebrating gendered violence. And not celebrating it merely because the men in question were evil (there’s plenty of films where the heroine kills an evil man, made before 1991). Thelma and Louise felt like it was celebrating its violence with the attitude of, “It’s about time women started killing men in movies!” That’s quite different to, “Watch our brave heroines kill the bad guy!” And that film set a precedent for future films that don’t merely feature women killing the bad guys, but relish (in a political way) the fact that an onscreen woman is killing a man. It’s understandable people of either gender would be uncomfortable with that.
I think you misinterpreted the scope of my claim when I said, “Human decency does demand that we aren’t so committed to our political values that we can overlook murder, if it represents a blow against the Patriarchy.” In your rebuttal, you mostly talked about murders related to foreign policy. I wasn’t talking about foreign policy. If a female soldier goes into a middle eastern country and murders a man on an assignment, that may be morally justified, depending on the circumstances. If that murder happens to be of a guy who is trafficking women as sex slaves, there’s a sense in which that murder may be politically progressive. You might even call it a blow against sexism in the middle east, and I would (potentially) be ok with that, if I agreed with the particular war in question.
What I’m not ok with is a privileged western woman killing men in bed for fun, and then having her behaviour excused because its somehow a blow against patriarchal tendencies within western society. That is what’s not decent. That’s no more decent than a poor person killing rich people in bed for fun, and having the murders excused because they somehow represent a blow to classist tendencies within the west.
With regards to male happy endings, you are right that the happy endings I said don’t get made do tell us something about male desire. They tell us there are male desires regarding women that society has little to no empathy for. When a man wants to do a job his wife disapproves of, his desire isn’t something society values all that much. And when a man wants to have sex with many women (simply because he is attracted to them) society is leery of that. Society has much more empathy for women who want to do jobs their husbands disapprove of. And society not only has empathy for, but is fascinated by, carnal female desire that isn’t particularly romantic.
In 2017, western society is leery of carnal male desire, and porn is often an expression of that desire. Like horror films, porn is fantasy. And what happens in most typical porn films? Men have sex with lots of attractive women. Why is that a fantasy? Because the assumption is that men, in real life, are basically “players” and “predators” if they have the audacity think they can have lots of sex with many attractive women without emotionally hurting them. And that’s assuming they can pull it off, since men are often seen as undesirable, simply in virtue of having that aim.
When in relationships, men are encouraged to not talk about, joke about, or celebrate any aspect of their sexuality which isn’t directly about their female partners. And even then, it can only be the aspects of their sexuality which don’t in any way make their female partners feel uncomfortable. Women in the modern west have the exact opposite social norm. Modern western women are encouraged not to worry about men’s feelings when they have sex, and if any woman’s sexuality makes a man uncomfortable, that man is considered either a prude or unduly possessive. Women are encouraged to talk about their sexual fantasies, to make jokes about what they like in bed, to celebrate the male body when it pleases them (and say “ewwww…” when it doesn’t). And all of that happens without any presumption that men should have any say in it. Whereas men are actively encouraged to be especially sensitive to their female partners, and that sensitivity amounts to being tolerant of a level of jealousy that would be seen as controlling and worrisome, if coming from a man.
Once married to a woman, men’s reproductive agency isn’t particularly valued either. Men are seen as disposable if they don’t want children. If a man insists he wants to be childfree, it’s common in our culture to think a woman is well within her rights to emotionally blackmail him into giving her his consent to parental obligations. This kind of cajoling would be unthinkable the other way around. If a man divorces a woman, it’s harder for him to get custody of his own children, and he always has to take financial responsibility for his parental obligations, regardless of whether or not he was deceived by a woman. That’s why, outside of porn, western men today have more of a submissive role in their relationships with women.
Porn is not a commodity where women are primarily sold to men as attractive, in virtue of being submissive. It’s a commodity where men can imagine having a sexual relation to women where men are less submissive. If men were less submissive to women in life outside of porn, porn would probably be far less popular.
When you say, “Being happily married at the end of a film to a woman who adores you and thinks you are a God for having just saved the world from doom is not good enough for a man”…I don’t think this reflects modern movies. I don’t think even male super heroes have women who are submissive to them. Modern men in 2017 (who aren’t unusually conservative) mostly don’t like submissive women. They like strong and sexy women. And that’s partly why, even if a man is a super hero, there are aspects of his life where he will (quite happily) be submissive to a strong and sexy woman.
And here’s the important point. Men normally take on a submissive role, and only depart from it in their fantasies. Why? Because they love their female partners, and those partners love them back. Submissiveness does not imply a lack of agency, and the ways men are submissive to women, are sometimes quite loving and beautiful. I’m not against male submissiveness to women. I just think we should be more self-reflective about it, and offer people opportunities to explore alternatives.
Men and women, historically, have created complicated roles where both genders take on elements of submissiveness in relation to each other. I’m sympathetic to the political movements which fought for a more open society where people could be less gender typical. The problem is all those equality movements (what’s now called Feminism) never understood how gendered submissiveness moves in both directions. So in the modern west, all the effort was put into removing female submissiveness, while being oblivious to male submissiveness. That’s why, although both women and men have unprecedented freedoms in the west, most of our remaining gender norms disadvantage men far more than women.
T.M. Murray: There seems to be an incompatibility in saying both that media influences people (which you admit it does) and that people can choose to interpret it however they wish to. I have already given my reasons for thinking that media does have an impact and on this point I’m in good company with the majority of researchers (see above).
I think you can have a free society that does not produce overwhelmingly phallocentric/male dominated products for a presumably universal male audience. Most mainstream media (film and TV) is male-centered, produced and written predominantly by, about and for, men.
Were this androcentrism not necessarily the primary unspoken rule, there would be so much room for potential variety (media freedom) that not providing sufficient alternatives to this all-pervasive, normalised, ultra-conventional way of representing the world and everyone in it could easily be the main barrier to freedom and variety.
If you don’t believe in patriarchies, what name do you use to describe widely held traditional beliefs about the differentiated social roles of men and women which extend far behind their obvious reproductive differences? What do you call the perpetuation of cultural myths about men as a group and women as a group and how the division of labour is to be arranged to ensure that men enjoy exclusive rights to voting, inheritance and education, or why males must disproportionately occupy positions of social influence and leadership? What do you call societies based on religious beliefs in male prophets or teachers who represent God HIMself, with all-male priesthoods and caliphates and their religious laws that control women and their bodies? What name do you use to describe the belief that just as God is the head of humankind, man is the head of the household and woman should submit to his will?
What name do you use to describe a culture dominated by a film industry with global reach that employs less than 10% female writers (or other creatives) and pays female leads half of what it pays male leads for the same job? Is male chauvinism just a figment of my silly little imagination or is it systemic in cultures?
As to your response to my point about horror/slasher films, we can both speculate about the psychology of the viewer and why people continue to enjoy the killing of promiscuous, undressed women on screen with body-penetrating, phallic shafts. You say these films get made (and consumed) because of the taboo of killing slutty women. But if they are so commonplace then how can they be taboo? Are slasher films really a transgressive genre or more of a cathartic one that feeds suppressed male needs and sexual urges, as you seem to suggest? The slasher sub-genre seems pretty cliche and run-of-the-mill. I say that audiences must enjoy this trope (male killer’s knives penetrating nubile women’s bodies) if it keeps being used to draw audiences (and funding for more films of the same ilk). Much more taboo (i.e. unconventional and not normalised) in my view would be to see a sexy, undressed young male slut have his penis hoovered into a grinding hole by some female psycho monster, while female audiences gaze on in fascination and their boyfriends cuddle up to them for comfort and protection. That really would be taboo and provocative, and an expression of cinematic diversity.
But I suspect it would be regarded as “too violent” since sexual violence against men by women is apparently “really violent” whereas male sexual violence against women is routine in horror films.
We also disagree about the reading of Thelma & Louise. While you are right that people of either gender should object to some sort of political glorification of gratuitous onscreen female-on-male violence, the script of Thelma & Louise hardly celebrated female on male violence for its own sake and there was actually very little actual violence. What little real violence there was (the shooting of a an unrepentant, swaggering aspiring rapist) was depicted as unintended, serious, regrettable, and nauseating.
Yet some male respondents (to the test screening) apparently could not tolerate two women shooting this guy and getting away from the law and the death penalty. Imagine their response if the victim of the would-be rapist had been a man. Ooops we don’t need to imagine — we’ve got two films (Shawshank Redemption and Pulp Fiction) where the male-on-male rapist gets huge sadistic payback, but no complaints there about the parties who dish it out being “too violent” towards men. They deserve it because their victim was a man.
Far from celebrating gendered violence, Thelma & Louise was redressing a whole history of gendered violence and rape culture that a male (and probably many European females born after 1970) cannot fully comprehend. This is unfortunate.
I think we’re getting into some territory where we are just going to disagree on many points of fact. You say that “when a man wants to do a job his wife disapproves of, his desire isn’t something society values all that much.”
If that happens it is usually because the husband and wife are in a (dare I say) patriarchal family structure where he is the sole bread winner (by common agreement) and the job is only disapproved of because it is too risky as a means of support for the children they have both produced. An example I can think of is Walk the Line. Johnny Cash’s wife is portrayed as unsympathetic (a whining nag) and Cash is the person with whom the audience is supposed to feel sympathy, despite that he basically abandons his wife and is promiscuous with groupies while she waits at home, taking care of the kid. Even his infidelity is portrayed to make him look like its hapless victim. His wife’s dependency was what was expected of Southern women of the 1950’s and any woman who didn’t conform would face social stigma. Of course it is perfectly possible to face social stigma, but not many women could get the good jobs that pay well enough to support themselves and a child. A mother who worked would have had to also pay childcare in order to work and would at any rate (in those days) risk losing custody of the child. She could have her child or her independence, never both.
See Mad Men if you have doubts. It is accurate. (When my great aunt was promiscuous outside wedlock, her brother – my grandfather – just had her institutionalised and lobotomised. It was the 1950’s so that sort of thing was commonplace.) In Walk the Line, Johnny Cash is the person with whom audience members are encouraged to identify, and his wife be damned. Yet he pursues his personal dream of being a musician and we are with him all the way.
You claim that “society has much more empathy for women who want to do jobs their husbands disapprove of.” Even if this were so, and I am not sure it is, it would probably be that way because it is relatively rare and recent that women could do paid jobs outside the home at all, much less ones that were not severely limited by social norms about what is “appropriate” work for women to do. Even when women do get to work in traditionally male fields, they tend to get paid less and receive less recognition. In some parts of the world women still cannot do most kinds of paid work because of cultural or religious taboos, yet I don’t see anyone protesting this the way they would if the same were true of, say, black people. Cinema audiences like to see the underdog overcome obstacles, and when it comes to decent jobs and wages, women are the underdogs, and not just in movies.
But here we have been focusing our discussion on the shortfall in cultural capital, which is where the idea that women don’t really matter enough to get actual ‘hard’ capital originates. I think this cultural deficit is far more egregious in the long run than the pay gap… because it is what makes the pay gap seem perfectly acceptable.
I could agree with you that men and women are both submissive in different ways, but this would entail accepting the premise that male human beings are naturally inclined to exploit their superior physical strength and to dominate women and exploit them. If I accepted that premise, i.e. that rape culture and male dominance/female submission is natural (or the norm for human beings), then I could go along with the idea that men, in “giving in” to customs and laws that make women socially and politically equal, are suppressing their natural dominance and becoming submissive (reluctantly) to women and their desire to be treated as though they were human equals. Pffff!
However, I think the opposite. I think that there is no naturally determined way that all men, by nature, behave or wish to behave towards women. Nor do I believe there is any uniform way that all women naturally want to behave towards men. In my view, whether or not men want to rape women or subordinate them depends largely, if not entirely, upon culture and education.
Movies are one very important way that this takes place. If this were not so, then we would hear no talk of boys needing “role models” in order to understand (i.e. learn) how to “be a man”. If male domination were natural, then we would need no conventional censorship laws (like the Hays Code, mentioned above) or religious myths or offices to hold men’s “rights” in place above those of women, or to differentiate what boys and girls may or may not do. We would need no MPAA industry male ‘in club’ to ensure that women do not get hired to fill creative roles in the film industry (such as directors and writers), or to withhold funding from film projects with unconventional gender roles.
To get a glimpse of what a society untainted by monotheistic religion (i.e. male cultural myths) looked like, have a read of Bartolome de las Casa’s Historia de Las Indias (begun in 1527). This work was the Spaniard’s chronicle of the first decades of colonization of the West Indies. A Dominican friar, he focused particularly on the atrocities committed by the colonizers against the indigenous peoples and was perhaps the first abolitionist. When he describes the behaviour and relationships of women and men, he notes with surprise how equal “their women” are and how strong, independent, athletic and unencumbered by reproductive function their lives were. It makes modern-day American women look ridiculously enslaved by comparison. (Women in these 16th century communities even mixed herbs to induce abortions when they didn’t want to bear children. There was no social taboo about them doing so prior to the arrival of the Spanish missionaries.)
So, I think gender is all about culture, not about nature. Sex is biological and there are differences between male bodies and female bodies, but not between male and female minds or personalities, . . . until you start to educate people. Gender is learned.
Greg Scorzo: With regards the influence media has on people, I don’t deny that the influence is there. What I take issue with is the way researchers typically characterize that influence. I don’t believe that a media depiction of an action makes people mimic the action. And I don’t believe such a media depiction necessarily makes its viewers have a favorable view of that action. An anti-conservative film like Bob Roberts (1992) doesn’t make people liberal. It does, however, influence people insofar as it interacts with the beliefs and values they already have. Yes, it may change some minds (from conservative to liberal). But I reject the idea that its political influence by-passes the consciousness of humans. If it did that, there would be no point in having a public discourse over politics. You could show people media that would program their thoughts. You could do this, instead of persuading people to adopt particular positions.
As it happens, I don’t think modern western media is phallocentric or male dominated, even though most of its producers are men. Most men who create media don’t want to be sexist, and they don’t want media to be primarily for one gender. For the most part, they happily share space with many women who also work in the media. But the inequality between men and women is a product of the fact that for most of human history, men were expected to be breadwinners and women were expected to work at home.
Since the late 19th century, we’ve quickly transitioned out of that into to a market economy which invites both genders. But despite those changes, we don’t have an equality of outcome, regarding gender and workplace occupation. This is primarily because men and women, despite changes in the economy, still collectively prefer to make different lifestyle choices. That’s why there are various wage gaps between men and women, in many of the professions. It’s not because men collectively want to keep women out of any single profession.
With regards patriarchy, I don’t think conservative gender roles are a function of men dominating women in ways where men collectively benefit from this domination. That’s what would have to exist in order for there to be a genuine patriarchy. I don’t think conservative gender roles benefit men, because such roles place burdens and responsibilities on men that make life more miserable for the majority of males. Unusually power hungry and psychotic men may benefit from social arrangements with extremely traditional gender roles, but most normal men do not. The responsibility to be physically strong, work in an exploitative labour economy, protect women and children, go to war, and be the typical recipient of violence, doesn’t collectively benefit men.
Yet the reason such roles exist is because they seem more efficient when society is not prosperous enough to be free. When people lack the prosperity and technology of the modern west, the body becomes much more important in maintaining society. When the body is more important, it seems more efficient for social roles to be highly gendered. Because the male body (typically) has more upper body strength, that’s the body primitive societies choose to govern the sphere of labour. Its also the body that’s considered more adept at taking on burdensome and dangerous responsibilities. And in a primitive society, being a social leader makes you a target for violence. When Europe was primitive, surfs didn’t necessarily envy kings. If you were a king, there was a good chance you would be decapitated by a usurper. Its true that leadership positions give men more rights, but with those rights came unique responsibilities women did not have, and (understandably) didn’t want.
When society becomes more prosperous and free, the body matters far less. Social roles aren’t necessarily more efficient for society if they are still highly gendered. What’s more important is keeping people compliant with the production process, and having a society where resentments don’t spill out into civil war. In order for resentments to stay relatively minimal, its good to have a work environment that doesn’t arbitrarily discriminate against any demographic group when the discrimination is unnecessary. People are far more sensitive to unfairness when they are living in relatively cushy conditions. When mortality is a larger threat to society, survival itself becomes more important. In these more dangerous conditions, people are less sensitive to unfairness, and less inclined to appreciate liberty (or aesthetics, for that matter).
It seems we both agree that society has more empathy for women who do jobs their husbands disapprove of. However, I think this is because there is a perception that women taking these jobs is a relatively new thing. Nonetheless, this perception doesn’t justify the double standard.
The history behind women not having the same employment rights as men is not a history of men screwing over women for their own benefit. It’s a history of social conditions first requiring social relations to be highly gendered, and then society attaining a level of prosperity where things don’t have to be so gendered. During this change, women demanded to work alongside men, and men were mostly allies, rather than obstacles, to this demand.
If men were not such allies, the western marketplace would be quite different to what it currently is. The legal infrastructure of the west would also be totally different.
With regards slasher films, I don’t really accept theories that attribute “phallic qualities” to objects that in some way resemble penises entering vaginas. I appreciate how much Freud has influenced feminist theory, but I think comparing objects to genitals is just a case of projecting. It’s hardly a sleight against men if, in a slasher film, the monster kills people with a circle (like a Frisbee with spikes coming out of it). It wouldn’t be “vagina centric” if a slasher villain killed people with objects that looked like circles crushing vertical lines. So it’s not a sleight against women that the killer in a slasher film uses a knife. Spikey frisbees and giant ashtrays that crush people wouldn’t suddenly give men reason to take offense.
I also don’t think the slasher film, in any way, feeds suppressed “male needs and urges.” The only need the slasher film fulfills (for a relatively small portion of the total movie going public) is to watch violent death in the most unpleasant manner possible. Since that’s the aim of the slasher film, the death is far more unpleasant if the victim is female. That isn’t to say that men (and male genitals) never get pulverized in violent cinema (see the 1992 Broken film with Bob Flanagan, or the work of Takashi Miike). Here, we occasionally see women protect men who are less capable of fighting the villains (see Funny Games and Diva). But we see the latter scenarios less, because men are expected to die of violence (in real life). Men are expected to protect women. That’s why the slasher film death exudes such nastiness. It shows the audience the opposite of what it would prefer (for men to protect women and die themselves, in the service of this protection).
With regards Thelma and Louise, I wasn’t saying I think the film celebrates female on male violence (or rather, this isn’t the experience I have when watching it). However, I think the film felt this way to the movie going public, and that’s why it was celebrated, and highly influential. People were waiting for a film where they could enjoy women killing bad guys (in a way which wasn’t merely the enjoyment of watching a clever woman kill a particularly odious bad guy. That had already been done). The reason Thelma got some push back about this is because the standard “feminist” reading of the film was one that made many people dislike it. I don’t dislike the film, but I do dislike this reading. I don’t think the film was redressing any kind of history where women were treated badly, because I don’t think a story can ever redress history. That’s not how stories work.
The reason why the sadistic murders in Pulp Fiction didn’t generate a gender politics outrage was (1) the murders were not interpreted as political in any way, and (2) it’s men’s role to die in real life. What would have upset the audience is if the rapist was a woman who Bruce Willis gleefully stabbed to death with a sword. It’s ok if a male serial killer kills a nubile naked woman (because she’s innocent). But when a male hero sadistically kills a woman who is a villain, audiences are far more uncomfortable with that. When a good guy sadistically kills a bad woman, its not as cathartic as when a good guy (or good woman) sadistically kills a bad guy. Again, this is because it’s part of the male gender role to be disposable.
It’s also part of the modern male gender role to defer to women in decisions about the domestic sphere and child rearing. That’s why I said that when a man wants to do a job his wife disapproves of, society doesn’t value this. The scenario could indeed be one where the wife’s disapproval is caused by the irresponsibility of the man’s decision. But it would be undervalued by society even if the decision wasn’t irresponsible. Everyone would simply ASSUME its irresponsible, because women know better in matters of family raising.
With regards I Walk the Line, that’s actually a morally complex situation being portrayed. On the one hand, you are right. Johnny Cash is abandoning his wife while she waits at home, looking after a kid. And yes, it’s true that in mid 20th century America, women didn’t have the freedom to easily leave men who strayed from them.
Women were often punished (or stigmatized) for infidelities in ways that were ridiculous. But it was also considered sleazy for a man to leave a wife and child, and pursue a life playing music and having sex with a lot of women. It would be considered sleazy, even if the relationship was quite unhealthy, and the wife was emotionally abusive and controlling.
Putting sex and art above familial obligations didn’t become somewhat socially acceptable for men until the 60s. And even then, it was only socially acceptable (in cinema) until the counter-culture died down in the 70s. Being a sexually promiscuous male bohemian was seen as generally liberating (in cinema) for about eight years (1967-1975).
With regards the submissiveness of men and women, I don’t think the natural state of men (or women) is to dominate the other gender (either through physical strength, emotional manipulation, or anything else). However, I think many people (both male and female) enjoy being emotionally submissive to someone in a relationship. Sometimes these relationships are quite unhealthy and abusive. But sometimes, they are quite loving, mutually affirming, and appreciative. Just because you are submissive, that doesn’t mean you lack agency, or have no control over the situation in which you choose to submit. Its important to note that many people DO NOT like to be in relationships where one partner is submissive. But whether people like submission or not doesn’t give us any evidence that submission is somehow a “natural” state.
I also wouldn’t say that whether or not people like to submit or not is merely a matter of culture and education. Certain cultures may teach and promote submissiveness. But in other cultures where there are more options, you may still find people who enjoy submission anyway. Whenever people make a choice, I don’t assume that choice must either be a product of innate biology, or some sort of covert social pressure. The problem with these explanations of human behavior is they both see human agency as relatively insignificant in explaining why people do things. And I think human agency is an important part of what explains human choices. Any society which denies this will fundamentally become an authoritarian one. All the social policy will center around coercing or manipulating people.
Now, I wouldn’t deny that some ancient societies might have been ahead of their time, qua gender roles. But I wouldn’t take Bartolome de las Casa as an accurate historical record, given all the criticisms of the propagandistic quality of his work. But maybe he’s accurate in what he reported about gender roles. Maybe it’s true that 16th century Indians had an unprecedented level of universal rights for men and women. That certainly doesn’t show that it was unreasonable in pre-industrial times to assume that the safer bet was to organize social relations around the gendered body.
T.M. Murray: You win, by sheer endurance. I guess we are just going to disagree on a whole range of points of fact. I think you are in denial about the sheer volume of male-centered media output that gives men the best roles and makes them the generic “human protagonist” for the whole species. So you get the last word, because you have more tenacity, but I still think you are wrong.
- Cover Image: Still of Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone. From the film Basic Instinct, directed by Paul Verhoeven. Written by Joe Eszterhas. Tri Star Pictures. 1992.
- Promotional Still for The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). Nell Campbell, Tim Currie, and Patricia Quinn.
- Still of Sharon Stone as Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct.
- Still of Juliana Massini as Juliana Boldrini in Juliet of the Spirits. Directed by Frederico Fellini. Written by Frederico Fellini and Tullio Pinelli. Rizolli Film. 1965.
- Original Catholic Legion of Decency Certificate of Approval.
- 1940s Coca Cola Advert. “Stock up on Coca-Cola for Christmas.” Or else you won’t have anyleftby Christmas because Santa’ll be swiping it off your fridge. (Image Source: Vintage Ad Browser)
- Poster for The People vs Larry Flynt. Starring Woody Harrelson and Courtney Love. Directed by Milos Forman. Written by Scott Alexander and Karaszewski. Columbia Pictures, 1996.
- Still of Sharon Stone and Leilani Sarelle from Basic Instinct.
- Still of Timothy Carhart, Gena Davis, and Susan Sarandon in Thelma and Louise. Directed by Ridley Scott. Written by Callie Khouri. Pathe. Percy Main Productions. Star Partners III Ltd. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer 1991.
- God the Father. Painting by Francesco di Giorgio. 1470.
- Painting of Bartolome de Las Casas. Artist Unknown.
- Poster of Tim Robbins as Bob Roberts from the film Bob Roberts. Written and Directed by Tim Robbins. Paramount Pictures. 1992.
- Stills of Ving Rhames and Bruce Willis in Pulp Fiction. Directed by Quentin Tarantino. Written by Roger Avary and Quentin Tarantino. Miramax Films. 1994.
- Still of Bob Flanagan in the music video, Happiness is Slavery by Nine Inch Nails. This video is part of the Broken film, directed by Peter Christopherson. Written by Trent Reznor.
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