What Is the Question “What Are Women For?” For?
February 18, 2012

Creation of the Sun and Moon by Michelangelo, ...

The Dude (via Wikipedia)

Now that everyone’s gotten in their shots at James Poulos (including my friend Lisa McIntire, who I think wins the award for both aplomb and bile), I’d like to skip ahead to his follow-up column and zero in on what seems like one of the more toxic premises undergirding this whole exercise (emphasis mine):

Women are largely freer than ever to pursue their life plans without the burden of a moral obligation to center their activity and their ambitions around exercising their unique reproductive capabilities.

Yet the story doesn’t end there. We still argue and wonder about which life plans to choose in a civilization that has greatly and productively loosened the once-intense moral link between women’s fecundity and women’s lives as unique individuals. And one area in which patriarchal dominance has persisted is in privileging some kinds of human pursuits over others. Philosophers from Plato to Rousseau to Heidegger have disapprovingly warned of the apparently natural propensity of men to fill up the world with stuff — machines, weapons, ideologies, and so on — that often objectifies and instrumentalizes people, and often distracts us from its own sterility as regards fruitful human living.

Difference doesn’t presume or ordain inequality. I’m not alone in thinking that women are uniquely able to help humanity avoid becoming enthralled to the more sterile cultural creations of men. But this sort of insight is far more circumspect and modest than the central principles of virtually all social conservatives.

While I was in Israel, I heard a Hasidic rabbi — new Hasidic, mind you, with an acoustic guitar and all the affectations of a totally chillaxed SoCal beach bro — make a very similar argument. His intention was to demonstrate to us that the convention of identifying God with the male pronoun “He” wasn’t really sexist or patriarchal, because all it did was link God to the male creator energy. The universe, he argued, had a distinctly female creation energy, which was great for women, because it meant that they were intrinsically closer to their creator — God — than us guys, who don’t hold within ourselves as much of the female creation energy.

According to Rabbi Jack Johnson, the reason why men observe Shabbat — during which time Jews are forbidden from participating in any act of creation — is to become, in a sense, more female, and therefore more receptive to God’s male creation energy. Women don’t have as difficult a time doing this, because they’re already predisposed, but — unfortunately, says the good Rabbi at this point — modern women have absorbed more of the male creator energy in recent years as they’ve taken a greater participatory role in politics, business, and other profane worldly affairs.

I don’t think I’m quite doing justice to how well the Rabbi framed this fundamentally conservative argument in the liberal-values-friendly vocabulary of hippie-dippie-dom. Lucky for us, he betrayed himself by blurting out the word “unfortunately,” thereby disclosing what the real implications of this worldview were. If women want to stay close to God all week — the way men try to get close to God from Friday evening through Saturday afternoon — then they need to abstain from icky male creator acts. You leave all the politicking, horse trading, art-making and craft-working to us menfolk, sweetie. That way it won’t soil your special connection with The Ultimate Manfolkperson.

Thus we see closeness to God become a consolation prize to be awarded to that underclass which Rabbi Duderino wishes barred — either by social convention or other means — from having any direct agency in worldly affairs. Poulos, along with the philosophers he enlists in his cause, appears to be making the same argument. Difference may not presume or ordain inequality, but I’d love to hear what makes this preferred state of affairs anything but deeply unequal.

UPDATE: Elias Isquith (whose blog you should be reading, if you aren’t already) tweets:

some men think if they turn up the “Madonna” and down the “Whore” in their Madonna/Whore complex, they’re feminists

Enhanced by Zemanta

Shameless Self-Promotion
December 6, 2011

I have a new blog post over at Ms., called H&M Whittles Down Acceptable Body Types To Exactly One. The subject matter is even creepier than the title lets on.

And while we’re on the subject of sexism, Future of the Left’s new EP has the greatest, funniest, most biting song about male misogyny I’ve heard in a good long while:

Men Be All Like This, But Men Suffering From A Crisis In Masculinity Be All Like THIS
March 3, 2011

Knocked Up

Image via Wikipedia

I suppose I should probably be insulted by the recent wave of faddish books and essays about how young men aren’t really men anymore because feminism/hipsterdom/Judd Apatow has turned us all into slackers/little girls/total basket cases. Mostly, though, I don’t get it. I mean, yes, there exist young men with no direction or ambition. If you look hard, you can also find some young men who are resentful, sexist assholes. And I’d be pretty surprised to find out the majority of men haven’t, at one point or another, felt some anxiety over what they felt was insufficiently masculine behavior or impulses on their part.

But what, I’m supposed to believe that this shit didn’t exist before the 80’s? All of these challenges and failings strike me as rather mundane and irrevocable aspects of the human condition. I seem to remember life being hard before Knocked Up came out.

I suppose I could be persuaded it’s particularly bad now if someone cared to show me some statistical evidence. But so far all I’ve seen is a whole lot of anecdotal evidence and wild speculation. What statistical case has been offered up looks pretty dubious.

So maybe we’re asking the wrong question. Not: “What is the cause and nature of the modern crisis in masculinity?” But: “Why the fad in shirt-rending over a supposed crisis in masculinity?”

Allow me to engage in some wild speculation of my own and suggest a few factors: One is that being “counterintuitive” about feminism will always be lucrative for social critics, especially female social critics (who get extra points for novelty and are insulated from charges of misogyny). Even though the orientation of American culture is essentially conservative and rather atavistic, it’s still considered innovative and revolutionary to blame a lot of bad things (real or imagined) on second wave feminism. That’s especially true if the victims of said bad things are white dudes, the eternally persecuted martyrs of the modern world.

Another factor: for a number of reasons (including second-wave feminism) the definition of what is acceptable masculine behavior has relaxed to the point that men can get away with doing all sorts of things in public that their grandparents would have derided as girly or undignified. This is, on balance, a good thing, but it can be frightening and disorienting for people with a very particular vision of what it is to be a man. These frightened, disoriented people end up concluding that the whole gender has fallen on dark times.

And one more biggie: We actually do have, I think, an epidemic of hedonism and self-absorption. But it’s exceedingly easy epidemic to misdiagnose in a way that conforms to one’s preexisting prejudices and absolves one of any complicity.

That last one is an entirely different blog post. Hell, it’s probably a whole book, albeit one that would sell very few copies. Instead, I should just write one about why Seth Rogen is the face of the decline of Western Civilization.

Enhanced by Zemanta

The Drama You’ve Been Craving
August 7, 2010

Speaking of baffling Mad Men criticism, it looks like the Atlantic is trying to corner the market. Exhibit B: Sady Doyle’s new blog post, that begins, inauspiciously, by dismissing discussion of the show’s narrative and character development as “pointless” because the show is, “ famous for a look and a mood, not a story,” and doesn’t really rebound from there.

Here’s the takeaway, regarding the show’s treatment of misogyny:

To be fair, Mad Men doesn’t hesitate to show the ugly side of these attitudes; they’re not glamorized in quite the same way as, say, drinking Scotch five times a day. But the show also affords viewers an illusion of moral superiority. We’re encouraged to shake our heads at these men and their outdated attitudes, but by presenting discrimination as a shocking feature of a past era, Mad Men lets us imagine that it’s just one more of those things that We Don’t Do Any More.

(Aside #1: I’d seriously contest Doyle’s claim that the show “glamorizes” heavy drinking. Don Draper’s drunkenness this season is a big part of what’s made him so pathetic. And don’t get me started on Freddy Rumsen before he hopped on the wagon.)

And here’s some of the evidence (emphasis mine):

But something about the show’s Grand Guignol presentation of discrimination and contempt for women makes it feel unfamiliar: Our own lives, after all, are nowhere near this dramatic. And the fact that it’s all being undergone by people in funny, old-fashioned outfits makes it feel comfortably distant.

I don’t really know what to say to this. Essentially Doyle seems to be criticizing Mad Men for being a work of fiction. Which is pretty much inarguable, so, er, guilty?

I can’t comment on how accurately Mad Men captures the experience of being victimized by sexism, since I’m obviously speaking from a position of privilege. But it seems to me that the purpose of fiction is not the same as documentary; a successful drama does not capture unedited real life, but a fully realized aesthetic vision that should be judged more by its fidelity to the spark of life than to the mundane details of life itself. Otherwise, why even bother with narrative art?

As for Doyle’s larger point: Any good period piece is as much about the time in which it is made (not to mention the timeless human concerns all good fiction must address) as the time in which it is set. I have no doubt that some members of Mad Men’s audience walk away feeling smug and secure in their belief that we have virtually eliminated misogyny in the modern world. But Doyle’s going to have to show more work than she does here to convince me that this is a flaw in the show itself rather than a flaw in interpretation. The casual harassment, coercion and rape that occur on the show are certainly things that can and do happen today, or else the show would not be anywhere near as vital and relevant as a piece of social commentary.

Sure, some of the audience will undoubtedly miss the point. That’s the risk with good art. It doesn’t hold your hand and force a lesson down your throat, because good art is more concerned with questions than answers. Freezing the frame at a moment of patriarchy in action and having Jon Hamm appear onscreen, Rod Serling-style, to say, “And the same thing is going on in America TO THIS VERY DAY,” would sap those scenes of their visceral impact, let alone any of their aesthetic qualities. Besides: It wouldn’t be very realistic, would it?

(Aside #2: For those keeping score at home, yes, writers for the Atlantic have now accused Mad Men of failing to be a totally accurate representation of real life; and also of failing to turn its characters into Brechtian archetypes. Confusing!)

Crossposted at Mad Men Shrugged.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 79 other followers

%d bloggers like this: