Monday, November 3, 2008

I Hath Some Fury: Criticism and the Boy's Club

One thing you can do, if you are bored, is to read the AV Club article entitled "Hell hath no fury: 22 films about vengeful women." While you are reading it, you might want to count the implications of and synonyms for sexist dog-whistles such as "irrational," "overreaction," "crazy," and "selfish." It turns out there are quite a few!

When you've finished reading that article, you can ask yourself how often they frame male revenge in the same light (as an emotional, irrational, selfish, out of control - dare we say hysterical? - response) or whether this piece will be complemented by a list of 22 narratives about vengeful men. This, by the way, would be an easy list to compile, since huge chunks of literature and culture, from Hamlet and The Count of Monte Cristo to Memento and Star Wars, are predicated on men avenging something or other. Then again, revenge and aggression (and especially violent actions taken in the name of "defending one's honor") are assumed to be intrinsic to masculinity, whereas the same actions taken by women are assumed to be freakish, out-of-control, and frightening.

Finally, you can ask yourself why all the "vengeful women" films on the list are specifically about women revenging themselves on men - Heathers didn't even make the list, for example - and why six out of the eight writers who compiled the list were men (which is fairly reflective of the AV Club's overall gender balance). You may ask yourself what this says about how much men fear women's anger, and how they tell themselves stories about female anger which make women out to be far greater monsters than the men who anger them in the first place. Or, you may just roll your eyes.

If you really want to get depressed, you can think about this article within the context of the AV Club as a whole, including that awful recent attempt to defend the rape-exploitation flick Irreversible. (Plot summary: a woman refuses to have anal sex with her boyfriend; that same woman is anally raped by a different man in a graphic nine-minute-long scene. The rapist is a gay man - yeah, I KNOW - so the boyfriend tracks him to his gay club of choice and beats his face in with a fire extinguisher. Is there any way to read this movie as not fundamentally based in straight male sexual anxiety and corresponding hatred of women and queers? No. But that won't stop the AV Club from trying to find one!) There was also that cringe-inducing Fight Club article by the same writer (Scott Tobias) in which he proclaimed that Fight Club was "the quintessential Generation X film," just before asserting that it was "by men, for men, and about men."

Now, I agree that Fight Club is very specifically by, for, and about dudes, but let's do the math here. Women comprise roughly 51% of the population, so Fight Club is the quintessential movie of a generation - for slightly less than half of that generation. Actually, since Fight Club is entirely focused on heterosexual men, it's only "for" the straight portion of that male 49%; since it's an explicitly white movie, and "Generation X" as commonly conceptualized is a pretty white thing anyway, that makes the target group even smaller; since it's specifically about middle-class alienation, that makes the number smaller yet again. So, Fight Club is the quintessential movie of its generation, if you belong to the most privileged group within that generation, which is vastly outnumbered by all of those people who do not belong to it and are marginalized by that group's privilege.

Why are we celebrating that, again?

(Oh, and: did Scott Tobias play any role in writing that "Hell hath no fury" article? The answer will not surprise you.)

If you are someone who visits the AV Club frequently, as I am, you may be used to gritting your teeth a little when you read it - because the commenters use Amelie Gillette's anti-Joe-Francis piece to ask if there are any "hipster" equivalents to Girls Gone Wild (in response, someone else bemoans the fact that only "ugly" girls have good taste in music), or because every post concerning a moderately attractive woman elicits at least 5,000 comments about "getting a boner" or "jacking it," or because this post managed to stay up for about thirty seconds before the rape jokes started. Or, perhaps, because even Nathan Rabin - the most talented writer on the site, the guy whose work got me reading the AV Club in the first place - took the occasion, in a recent piece, to write this:
The book’s thin veneer of feminist outrage becomes even more ludicrous in light of the disquieting fact that most of the filthy whores in the book subsequently sued Dove Audio, the makers of the You’ll Never Make Love In This Town Again book-on-tape, for sexual harassment. Oh, the mixed messages!
Yes. That's right. Even Rabin, the single best writer on the staff - who might well be one of the best contemporary critics, period - will, if given the opportunity, opine that women who are openly and assertively sexual with some men must be sexually available to all men, and that they have no right to decline sexual service to anyone or to seek legal protection when their boundaries are violated in an unlawful manner. Basically, he will turn into Aaron P. Taylor right before your eyes.

This isn't misogyny; it's not that simple, or that conscious. The men who comprise the majority of the AV Club's writing staff (along with the men who have similar jobs at other publications; let's be honest, pop criticism is a male-dominated field) don't frame their work specifically in the context of white, straight, male, middle-to-upper-class experience because they hate people who do not belong to that group, or even because they consciously believe that group to be more important than others. They do it because that's how privilege works. Privilege causes ignorance of the lived realities of non-privileged individuals, and a corresponding insensitivity to them; it grants the privileged individual the luxury of assuming that his own viewpoints and experiences are "authoritative" and "universal."

That is the tragedy: that no matter how smart or talented a specific man may be, he will always be working within a system that rewards him for not taking his own privilege into account, and that therefore deprives him of the full use of his intellect or talent. I believe that Nathan Rabin is smarter than the paragraph I just quoted. (As for Scott Tobias - I'm not so sure.) I just don't think Rabin's editors or peers will call him out on that paragraph in a way that allows him to learn from his mistakes. If they do, one hopes that he'll be thankful; however, in my experience, that's not usually how those conversations go.

Then, too, there is the fact that most people do not belong to the (incredibly small) demographic of white, straight, middle-class men at which most "mainstream" media is targeted; most of us will, at least once per day, be smacked in the face with a message that tells us we are unimportant or inferior, and most of us learn to shrug those messages off, because it would simply be too taxing to deconstruct, examine, and respond to every single one. Every once in a while, however, it becomes impossible not to react. None of the attitudes that I've described here are unique to the AV Club. However, it's especially hurtful to find them at the AV Club, because, in all other respects, it's a great site. These people are professional critics - good critics, who have a keen eye for the lazy, worn-out, stupid, and trite - and yet they can't see how lazy, stupid, and antiquated it is to privilege white, straight, middle-class, male experiences and attitudes above all others, either in art or in one's critical response to it. If they're not smart enough to see through the bullshit, what are the odds for everyone else?

1 comment:

  1. Clicked over from Shakesville. Just wanted to say this is a great piece. I was nodding along with the whole thing.