Quality Television and the Violence Against Women Problem

If the recent murder spree of Elliot Rodger has taught us anything, it is that there is a massive vein of murderous, violent misogyny simmering beneath the surface of American culture.  Although many men have come forward to disavow the sentiments expressed by Rodger and those like him, just as many have also, somewhat shamefacedly, admitted that they have sometimes harbored similar feelings of resentment at their lack of ability to gain a sexual partner.  Although Ann Hornaday rightly drew attention to the seemingly endless run of comedies that encourage men to relentless pursue and objectify women, I think it is also important to take note of the ways in which quality television not only unreflexively includes violence against women, but positively relies upon it as a means of establishing its “quality” designation.  For my purposes, I will focus on Game of Thrones and FX’s new series Fargo, though the problem of violence against women within quality TV is as far-ranging as the genre itself.

Two disturbing trends emerge from the violence against women perpetrated within these series.  On the one hand, as the Game of Thrones example reminds us, people are willing to go to practically any length to disavow or attempt to water down the importance of the representations they produce, but only after public outcry has practically forced their hand.  As if the infamous scene wherein Jaime rapes Cersei were not bad enough, many of those responsible for the scene, including the director, brushed aside criticisms of the rape scene by arguing that, with these two characters in particular, almost anything that occurs carries with it a sexual charge.  Of course, the brutal rape of a woman who attempts to assert agency is par for the course with HBO and other creators of quality TV drama, but that is precisely what makes this such a profoundly troubling moment in an even more troubling trend in the televisual landscape.  Perhaps things might have been somewhat better if the series had attempted to explicate the consequences of Jaime’s rape of his sister but, alas, it moved on to bigger and better things (which, of course, continued to contribute to its quality designation).*

FX’s Fargo also features the brutalizing of a woman in its first episode, as Lester Nygaard (played with supreme skill by Martin Freeman) strikes his nagging, shrewish wife with a hammer and then proceeds to bludgeon her to death.  Most troubling of all for me as a viewer was the fact that the episode went out of its way to make me loathe practically everyone on screen, including and especially Nygaard’s wife, whose incessant comparisons of Lester to his wife serves to thoroughly emasculate him.  Just as viewers are encouraged to hate (and then, perversely, encouraged to be titillated by the rape of) Cersei Lannister, so are they urged to see Kitty Nygaard’s death as deserved and Lester as the man driven to the edge by a culture that views him as a failure as a man.  Once again, we are supposed to feel sorry for a man who lashes out in violence and murders his wife, all because society’s unreasonable expectations have left him no other way to express himself other than through outbursts of deadly violence.  Sorry, but I’m not buying it.

Just so we’re clear, I actually enjoy watching these shows and that’s part of what makes them so troubling to me as a feminist film critic.  How can I still enjoy a work of fiction when it seems to go out of its way to brutalize and perpetrate violence against women?  Part of the reason, I suppose, is that the “quality” of these TV series often translates into narrative complexity, which in turn enables viewers to provide their own explanations for why this type of violence occurs, reasons that may not be spelled out in the series but are nevertheless made available.  However, such a negotiation requires a certain kind of viewer trained in reading in certain ways, and many viewers would no doubt prefer to take their entertainment at its (problematic) face value.

If we want to seriously address the horrible position that women occupy in our culture–both in representation and in reality–then we need to start thinking about and requiring our representations and our realities to seriously, thoughtfully, and reflexively engage with the status of women in our society.  While TV and film may not necessarily teach young people in a straightforward way, they do gain their intelligibility by both relying upon and emphasizing those most problematic and destructive tendencies in our culture.  It’s high time that we realized that and started to do something about it.

*Note:  It is worth pointing out that Cersei is as unlikable in the original novels as she is in its television adaptation.  The problematic status that she occupies as one of the few women in the series to actually hold a position of political power is a subject for another blog post.

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The Shame of the Male Virgin

Another compelling read.

TIME

What’s craziest about the story of the young man who killed six people and himself at UC Santa Barbara over the weekend is not that he was obsessed with sex, or even that he thought he was entitled to it. Reading his 141-page “manifesto” — and the series of YouTube videos he filmed and posted online — what was most surprising was how ordinary his complaint seemed.

Elliot Rodger had never kissed a girl. In a culture of casual sex, he was a virgin — at 22. ​He was lonely, angry, humiliated, depressed, and also likely struggling with mental illness. He couldn’t understand why others got to have what he didn’t; why girls always seemed to go after the “obnoxious jocks,” not the nice guys like him; why he had to see it all around him — from porn to campus party culture — as if taunting him…

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Reiew: “X-Men: Days of Future Past” and Radical Queerness

It probably comes as no surprise that the new film X-Men:  Days of Future Past is positively bubbling over with queer subtexts.  Directed by noted gay auteur Brian Singer,the film follows the X-Men (especially Wolverine, Professor X, and Magneto), as they struggle to change the past in order to prevent a future in which powerful robots called Sentinels annihilate mutants and any non-mutants who might carry the gene.  While Magneto and (for a time) Mystique believe in killing the inventor (played by the inimitable Peter Dinklage), Xavier and a time-traveling Wolverine believe in co-existence and cooperation, rather than killing.

In many ways, this film replays and amplifies the tension that has existed in all the films in the franchise:  between peaceful rapprochement with humanity and extreme separatism (represented by Xavier and Magneto, respectively).  Given the pretty blatant queer overtones that also exist in the films–the process of coming out, the shunning of mutants in wider society, the attempt to relegate them to the status of second-class citizens–the film also seems to take the position that assimilation of mutants within the larger society, as well as, by extension, LGBT people, is the only way to attain peace and understanding between the two groups.

At the same time, however, the film also seems to undercut this message by continuing to offer us the charismatic Magneto as a potential point of identification.  Certainly, Days of Future Past, like most of the entries before, seems to come down pretty solidly and unequivocally on Xavier’s side (in this case, by ensuring that Mystique finally breaks Magneto’s hold over her and opts for peace instead of war with humanity).  However, one can’t deny that Magneto (especially as portrayed by Ian McKellen and Michael Fassbender), is almost more compelling the the heroes whose viewpoints he adamantly opposes.  It seems as if X-Men may not be as assimilationist, after all.

X-Men:  Days of Future Past continues to engage with the ways in which we conceptualize the role of queerness in 21st Century American culture.  The debate about whether it is more politically efficacious to join with and accept the modes of behavior (monogamy, home ownership, reproduction) that characterize heteronormative America or to instead resist through “aberrant” sexual practices (barebacking, promiscuity, etc.), still simmers beneath the surface of contemporary LGBT and queer activism.  Nor, I should add, is it anywhere close to a resolution.

What this film does, however, is offer two points of view that ultimately have a great deal of credibility, even as they remain opposed to one another.  At least, I’m hoping that I wasn’t the only one who held out a little bit of hope that Magneto would be successful in his attempt to defeat his human enemies.  There is something perennially frustrating about both mainstreaming as a political process and mainstream society’s reluctance to bring LGBTQI people into the fold (or, for that matter, to even consider the possibility of a queer society).  X-Men’s compelling villain hero serves as a valuable reminder of the promise, and also the inevitable limitations, of a radical queer politics.

Why does feedback hurt sometimes?

A must-read for all of my fellow graduate students out there.

The Thesis Whisperer

This letter was written by an experienced academic at ANU to her PhD student, who had just presented his research to a review panel and was still licking her wounds.

The student sent it to me and I thought it was a great response I asked the academic in question, and the student who received it, if I could publish it. I wish all of us could have such nuanced and thoughtfu feedback during the PhD. I hope you enjoy it.

Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 7.27.05 PMA letter to…My PhD student after her upgradeWell you did it. You got your upgrade. But from the look on your face I could tell you thought it was a hollow victory. The professors did their job and put the boot in. I remember seeing that look in the mirror after my own viva. Why does a win in academia always have the sting of defeat?

Yeah, it’s a…

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Why Elliot Rodger’s misogyny matters

we hunted the mammoth

A chart posted by Elliot Rodger, giving his chilling spin on a manosphere meme depicting supposed female "hypergamy" A chart posted by Elliot Rodger, giving his chilling spin on a manosphere meme depicting supposed female “hypergamy”

When a white supremacist murders blacks or Jews, no one doubts that his murders are driven by his hateful, bigoted ideology. When homophobes attack a gay youth, we rightly label this a hate crime.

But when a man filled to overflowing with hatred of women acts upon this hatred and launches a killing spree targeting women, many people find it hard to accept that his violence has anything to do with his misogyny. They’re quick to blame it on practically anything else they can think of – guns, video games, mental illness – though none of these things in themselves would explain why a killer would target women.

In the case of Elliot Rodger, who set out on Friday night aiming, as he put it in a chilling video, to…

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The Isla Vista Massacre, Misogyny, and Discourses of Mental Illness

A lot of digital ink has been spilled (quite rightly) over the culture of misogyny that informed the recent horror that occurred at UCSB.  However, and not quite as rightly, there has also been a kneejerk reaction that attempts to either a.) Assert that Elliot Rodger was a victim of mental illness and that this has nothing to do with larger cultural forces or b) Argue, in response to an op-ed piece by Ann Hornaday in The Washington Post, that there is no connection between the work of “bro” directors like Judd Apatow and the event that occurred.  I want to argue that those two impulses are false, misleading, and ultimately part of the very problem we as a culture face when it comes to talking about issues as an interconnected skein rather than as single, discrete phenomena.

What is particularly troubling about this tendency of ours to pathologize men like Rodger is that we use it as a blanket to smother any other types of discussion about what social and cultural forces led him to these heinous acts.  In our nonstop efforts to find explanations for terrible acts of violence–what many refer to as “senseless,” though that is often just another way of stifling discussion–we often simply argue that a perpetrator was mentally ill and act as if that explains everything.  This is not to suggest that Elliot Rodger did not suffer from a mental illness, since it is patently obvious that he did.  What is necessary, however, is an understanding of how that fits in to the larger social fabric in which he was embedded.  Mental illness, for all that we try to sequester it, does not emerge out of a social vacuum.

Just as importantly, I have also been struck and rather dismayed by the vitriol that was poured upon Ann Hornaday after she published a column in The Washington Post arguing that we need to see Rodger’s action in the context of the Hollywood fare upon which he grew up.  While I would not go so far as to argue that films such as those made by Apatow necessarily caused this specific massacre, I would argue that such films are both a reflection of our contemporary society’s views on women (for all that we like to trumpet the gains that women have made), as well as a participant and an encouragement of such beliefs.  The fact that such comedies are routinely successful at the box office suggests at least a measure of participation among some segments of the audience, or at very least a lack of resistance to the ideologies such films routinely espouse.

In essence, we as a culture and a society need to start thinking about these kinds of issues as being fundamentally and inescapably interconnected.  The plethora of comments on various message boards and articles attempting to pigeon hole this event in one way or another, while clearly a response to the trauma of this incident, foreclose on the possibility of asking the really tough questions that we need to consider as we wrestle with the consequences of this massacre.  It’s high time that we as a culture stop shying away from the important questions and start asking them.  We might not like the answers, but only by seeking them can we hope to effect change in the future.

“The Normal Heart”: A Memorial and a Manifesto

If you haven’t yet seen HBO’s The Normal Heart, you should.  Immediately.

I say this for two reasons.  One, the film serves an essential function as a memorial for all of the many gay men who died in the early days of the AIDS pandemic, as well as the gay women who came to their aid when no one else would.  In an era in which many young gay people have forgotten about what happened in those bygone days (if indeed they ever knew) and in which condom use and other safe sex practices seem to be on the decline, it is increasingly important, indeed, necessary, to remember our queer past.

The Normal Heart fulfills exactly this function, drawing this generation’s attention to the struggles that gay men faced in that period, both from the institutions that persistently ignored them as well as with each other, as they struggled to conceive of what would be the most effective way to battle this health crisis.  Again, it is increasingly easy to forget these early struggles in the face of the increasing acceptance of LGBT people within the greater culture of the United States, but there was a time, and not that long ago, where we were literally treated as second-class citizens.

The powerful performances delivered by the film’s phenomenal cast imbues this memory with an intense affect that will (or should) leave few unmoved.  Whereas a film like The Dallas Buyer’s Club served to partially evacuate the queer presence from the early days of AIDS, The Normal Heart keeps that presence front and center.  Just as importantly, it serves as a rightfully scathing indictment of the unwillingness of government officials at all levels to do anything meaningful to investigate the virus or help those who became infected in those early days.

Furthermore, the film highlights the ways in which AIDS highlighted both the benefits and the limitations of gay liberation in terms of the form it took during the 1970s (namely promiscuity).  It is important to remember that gay promiscuity was (and to some extent still is) a political statement as much as it is a lifestyle.  The Normal Heart forces us to continue thinking about the role that sex can or should play in a potential gay politics, something that has been largely sidelined in an era of gay marriage, assimilation, and a new form of heteronormativity.

However, The Normal Heart also serves another important function for contemporary queer viewers, as a manifesto and a reminder of the importance of standing up and rebelling against oppression.  There is a danger in assuming that just because we have made many gains in terms of gay marriage and other rights that the battle is over.  In fact the opposite is true.  As Ned adamantly states throughout the film, assimilation and working within and with the institutions of oppression carry with them a great danger.  Ending oppression in all of its forms requires constant vigilance and resistance.  It is not easy to adopt this stance, as the film abundantly shows, but so long as we live in a world where gender and sexual oppression continue to exert a material and very real force on the lives of individuals, such a position is necessary.

Once again, as they have done time and again, HBO has shown the immense hold that the AIDS crisis continues to exert on the contemporary culture and society.  The Normal Heart also shows us the power that it held for the formation of a new kind of queer politics, one that can still have a great deal of relevance for queer activists today.  We just have to let it.

What Makes Effective Historical Fiction

I’ve been a fan of historical fiction for most of my life.  There is something enchanting about a well-written and well-researched novel that can not just transport you to another time and place, but actually make you feel the ethos and the atmosphere of the time.  Although few historical novels accomplish this feat exceedingly well, there are a few.  As an avid reader and aspiring writer of the genre, I’ve developed a few thoughts on what I believe makes for effective historical fiction.  This is not to say that historical fiction that does not necessarily do these things is ineffective; it is merely to suggest that historical fiction that employs these strategies is, in my opinion, effective at creating a particular type of relationship between the contemporary reader and the past moment being depicted.

As I have already suggested, I understand the historical past as being fundamentally and inescapably different from the present.  This is not to say that there are not points of similarity.  Instead, it is to argue that the structures of thought and means of making sense of the world were not the same as they are today, and that it is often a mistake to assume that people in ancient Greece, for example, conceived of homosexual behavior as an identity in the same way that contemporary Western culture does (this argument is more fully laid out in the groundbreaking work done by classicist and queer scholar David Halperin).  Effective historical fiction, rather than just plopping down contemporary American heroes and heroines in a past time, actually attempts to create characters that live and engage with their world in a way that is at least somewhat similar to that of how we believe people in that period might have behaved.

The historical novels of Mary Renault are an excellent case of historical fiction that manages to capture the strange, alien nature of the past.  Her prose often features a syntax that is subtly different than our own, and when I read her work I often find that there are passages that, because of her prose and the foreignness of the worldview of her characters, require some re-reading to gain a full understanding of what is actually happening.  Though this might be a turn-off for some readers, I actually find it a compelling reading experience, as it allows me to get a glimpse, however, brief of a way of speaking and a worldview that is different from my own.

Just as traditional historiography forces (or should, anyway) us to think about the role that the past has to play in the development of the present and the future, so historical fiction, if done effectively and with an eye to difference, can make us think critically and deeply about our relationship to the world that has come before.  Once we acknowledge that there are deep and sometimes insurmountable differences between the past and the present, we can begin thinking of new and more exciting ways of engaging with the world that came before us.

“Godzilla” and the Film Culture of the Anthropocene

Upon recently watching the film Godzilla, I was struck by the ways in which the film seems to articulate and refract the ethos of the anthropocene.  In an era in which it is now recognized that the human race has become a force of nature in and of itself, a film like Godzilla seems to refute and undergird such claims, a common trait of films and television series that engage with the problems posed by the advent of the anthropocene.

This film, the most recent entry in a decades-old film franchise, sees the rise of two radiation-consuming MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Objects) that wreak havoc and chaos across the Pacific and the western United States.  As several (largely forgettable) human characters feverishly attempt to destroy the creatures, the prehistoric giant Godzilla emerges to do battle with both creatures and, though he succeeds in destroying them, the city of San Francisco is also laid to waste.

Again and again, the film highlights both the futility of humankind’s attempts to overcome the creatures that it so feverishly attempts to control and the sheer enormity of the power these prehistoric creatures wield.  The sense of human futility that pervades the film appears repeatedly, taking into its scope the atomic bomb tests of the 1940s and 1950s and the practice of storing radioactive material in the deserts of Nevada.  Significantly, both instances are the result of humans believing that technology has the power to control forces exceed the bounds of humankind’s understanding and being proven completely and unequivocally wrong in their assumptions.  The fact that the cost of such presumption is the destruction of both large segments of Las Vegas as well as San Francisco underscores the film’s essential argument that, for all that humans have become a force of nature, there is still a larger series of natural processes that continue to control and exceed the actions of humanity.  Just as importantly, the film suggests that this futility, far from just being ineffective, actually makes the situation much worse (after all, who attacks creatures that feed on radiation with a radioactive bomb?)

The twinned voices of Bryan Cranston’s Joe Brody and Ken Watanabe’s Dr. Serizawa consistently articulate and underline one of the film’s many positions regarding mankind’s hubris in believing that it has the ability to control the natural world.  Brody’s anguished cry that the MUTOs will send humankind back to the Stone Age and Serizawa’s belief that Gozilla is nothing less than a god (as well as his quote, “The arrogance of men is thinking nature is in their control and not the other way around), bespeak an acknowledgement of the limitations of humankind’s understanding.  Thus, although Godzilla does ultimately come to the aid of the beleaguered human cities, the fact that so much of the city is destroyed as a result of his battles with the MUTOs and that he seems to care little for the humans he is ostensibly helping, suggest that nature (in the person of Godzilla) has its own order and its own set of behaviors that exist beyond the ability of humans to understand.

Thus, Godzilla engages with the epistemological problems and questions posed by our culture’s growing consciousness of the anthropocene.  The film suggests that human culture, for all of its vaunted power and inviolability, is as vulnerable to the vicissitudes of nature as any other component of the natural world.  In doing so, the film displaces the anxiety of humanity’s collective responsibility for the changing climate conditions on the planet onto forces beyond humanity’s control.  After all, what better way to cope with overwhelming culpability than by continuing to assert that there are indeed forces of nature that remain greater than humanity and can indeed overcome humans?  Far from being a force that is slowly destroying the world, these types of films suggest that we are instead the victims of an uncaring (or at least completely noncommittal) nature.

Nor is this phenomenon limited to the most recent iteration of the king of the monsters.  In countless apocalyptic and postapocalyptic films (including the forthcoming Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), there is something at work that humbles humankind and reminds us of how limited we are and how little power we have to truly impact/change the world around us.  It remains to be seen, however, whether films produced in the era of the anthropocene can truly engage with the vast epistemological and conceptual challenges posed by mankind’s increasing influence upon the very structures of of the world in/on which we live.