Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Pillow Talk

I love old movies. On the one hand old movies unselfconsciously mirror their world. Stuff gets on film without the directors intent. We can watch an old movie and be astonished by how heavily every character smokes for example. From the here and now we can spot such curiosities as how a young female smoker never carries her own lighter. An old movie may be full of such entirely accidental comments on the smoking culture of it’s time. The director probably didn’t set out to make a film about smoking but then has in a way.

On the other hand there’s deliberation behind everything that ends up on screen. This is especially true of old movies when even outside scenes are shot in controlled indoor sets. Whatever is on set and in shot and survives editing has been carefully decided upon. If two characters in a scene do smoke they will have smoked the same four puffs in each take of the shoot. A new cigarette will replace the old one and be re-lit if necessary. Nobody is accidentally, or even incidentally, smoking in a well directed film. These are deliberate accidents.

This makes old movies a great way to view cultural attitudes about gender, race and class as well. The woman with no lighter is not only a smoking reference but a gender one. In my favourite example, Humphrey Bogart was considered too short to play alongside Lauren Bacal so they filmed him standing on a box. That wasn’t the point of Casablanca however it certainly wasn’t an accident either. The boxes height was carefully considered. This tells us something quite specific about the ideal male-female couple in this time.

Unfortunately audiences in Humphrey Bogart’s time didn’t know about the box. That’s the trouble with the movies of any time – the tricks are hidden in order to fulfill the fantasies of the paying audience. Usually it’s the casting couch rather than a box that ensures the stars look “right.” However old movies make strangely outdated choices about what looks normal so we notice them more readily. That’s why they can be much more fun to watch. The deliberate accidents of previous era’s films are far more visible to us than those of our own time.

I just re-watched Pillow Talk with my partner. This 1959 comedy features Doris Day and Rock Hudson (love the stage names) alongside Tony Randall and Thelma Ritter. It’s theme is the battle of the sexes which is itself a cultural phenomenon with a lot less conceptual currency today. In the classic battle of the sexes a woman must snare a man as a husband while he must avoid marriage and snare the woman in turn, in bed. In Pillow Talk appropriately there is no genuine friendship between man and woman. Although Tony Randall and Doris Day’s characters come close he still wants to “get” her (albeit differently to Hudson).

The man loses the battle but wins the war when he realizes that he wants to be gotten as a husband– he falls in love and wants sexual exclusivity with one woman as his wife. The woman also wins when she realizes that she wants to be bedded but that is less openly admitted in Pillow Talk. That’s the happy ending, pending matrimony between the main characters Jan Marrow (Doris Day) and Brad Allen (Rock Hudson) and it sounds quite sweet. In fact it may have been received in that way at the time.

What’s fascinating and disturbing is how open allusions to rape feature in this supposedly sweet film. This is the film the director perhaps didn’t intend and the audience in it’s time may not have noticed. For one thing Jan Marrow is physically assaulted by a character who the film portrays as just a foolish boy. She fights him off in his car but she is only able to stop him by threatening to tell his mother. Afterwards his continual refusal to take her home until he can get her drunk enough to molest her is never something she can bring a close to. She just has to wait until he passes out. Then she is “rescued” by Brad Allen whose intent is exactly the same but whose cleverness is far greater. His trick is to pretend to be a gentleman. 

Any doubt that Brad is just another rapist is dispelled when Jan flips a switch in his love nest. We already know that this simultaneously puts on a seductive record, dims the lights and locks the door. Yes that’s right, it locks the door so that it can’t even be opened from the inside (this is even tested in the film). Any woman trying to leave is forcibly prevented at the flick of a switch. What exactly is Brad up to that she might want to escape? Perhaps the record is to cover the screams for help?

The reality is that those screams probably wouldn’t be answered anyway. The reason why Jan never calls the police on the boy trying to rape her is revealed when Brad carries Jan against her will in her pyjamas past a police man. Jan asks the officer to arrest Brad but the officer merely acknowledges Brad by name and makes a joke.

So just to reiterate this. The film climaxes when our heroine ignores our hero’s rapist past, kissing his big rapist lips in his rapist arms. Because all that raping is to the director and the audience and thus to the hero and heroine just what? Dating? Normal masculinity? Something to put up with? As an accidental film about rape in the fifties and sixties, Pillow Talk is quite exceptional.

There are many other observations about gender that could be made out of this film. One female alcoholic (Jan’s maid) is told “that she needs to find a man to look after” so she doesn’t have time to get so drunk. Helped to her feet by her advisor she replies “How strong you are!” hinting at another rescuing relationship.

The maid, Alva, played by Thelma Ritter is the one who defines Jan Marrows situation as a live-alone career woman as broken. (“If there's anything worse than a woman living alone, it's a woman saying she likes it.”) Alva establishes that Jan Marrow is essentially being rescued from what she doesn’t even know she’s missing. Cheekily I don’t think the film means feminity and homemaking here at all. I think it means sex. Jan needs to be rescued from her “bedroom problems” as Brad puts it. Brad replies faux sympathetically with “too bad” when Jan defends herself with “Nothing is bothering me in my bedroom.”

There is a critical moment when Jan scoffs at the idea that a woman could properly inspect Brad for sexual deviancy.  She refers to the idea as “like sending a marshmallow to put out a bonfire.” In this way Jan actually distinguishes herself from the category woman. She’s not a woman because she can resist Brad’s charms. She’s not wanting to be raped by an attractive and sophisticated man so she must be something else.

Brad however is feminised by his character shift to the extent that at the end of the film he is comically dragged off after being mistaken as a pregnant man. This is touted as an advancement of modern science. It’s a fitting conclusion to a film that might have seemed edgy in its time but now reads as deeply stereotypical and traditional.

There are other comments about race, class and sexuality in the film. I’ll leave them to your own discovery though. I think it adds to the film that we know now that Rock Hudson was gay. I urge you to look out for the scene with Perri Lee Blackwell on piano singing “You Lied.”

Honestly although it’s a massive treatise in favour of rape I want to encourage people to watch Pillow Talk. It shows us something about relatively recent assumptions about women’s right to safety and women’s desire. It certainly helps to de-romanticise the 1950’s ideal and produces in me a gratitude for the changes since. All that and it is tightly written, well paced and expertly acted throughout with the gorgeous colour of the era. Hopefully it doesn’t trivialize the gender politics to say so but the costuming alone is enough to commend this film. Amazing work.

Lastly let’s not fool ourselves that we live in the culmination of history. Today’s films will be old films one day too. The more we can try and see the deliberate accidents of our own times’ films the more we can notice our own immediate cultures as they are produced. The hope after all is to get ahead of the game a bit – maybe even to make culture rather than be made by it.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Complementa-whatsit-ism. Just patriarchy or not?

A recent brouhaha lit up a conservative yet still mainstream American Christian web site, The Gospel Coalition. A post titled “The Polluted Waters of 50 shades of Grey” made a connection between the increasing popularity of bondage games in the bedroom and the sublimation of a hardwired inequality between men and women. Basically the post by Jared Wilson claimed that if we deny the natural hierarchy of man over woman in sexual relationships and fail to contain that in an appropriate biblical way (often called complementarianism) then we will turn to other ways of meeting our real needs – i.e. role playing a master and slave dynamic. Before you all rush into your Princess Leah on Tattooine costumes, this is supposed to be a bad thing too.

I can’t link you to the original article because although “The Polluted Waters of 50 shades of Grey” is at the top of their recently popular list (at time of writing) a click on the link says “Not Found”. This post gives some explanation from the author.

It’s a shame the original article was taken down because I would love to refer to some of the one hundred and twenty five comments which can no longer be read. Fortunately the internet has many faces. This site has a pretty good general critique of the original article and its author’s attempt to defend it. This site I think really nails what the original post didn’t say and which the author still hasn’t addressed. What exactly is complementarian sex anyway? 

Firstly complementarianism is a bit of buzz word in conservative Christian circles. Essentially it means the value of different roles in relationships. Sounds nice right? One person complements the other - what could be better?

Except complementarianism is not just one person complementing the other. It’s in fact a word for something less palatable. It’s a bit like when someone looks at a room of white male faces and says “We could do with some diversity in here.”

No, actually its not diversity you want in a room full of white men. Diversity could mean anything. It could mean another white male with a moustache. It’s actually non-white and female representation that’s lacking. When a black women enters the room she doesn’t think to herself “I’m diversity”, she thinks “Wow, I’m the only non-white woman.” (She doesn’t expect to meet up with moustache man later at the diversity table.)

So why, when the organizing committee reviews the event do they talk in terms of “diversity” of attendants? Because it’s softer, it obscures the real gender and race issues and it actually slows down any change by preventing targeted action. It certainly is less offensive to all the white men on the organizing committee too.

Complementarianism as a word achieves a similar thing. It blunts any critique of what is being discussed, it softens it, and it does this by hiding crucial details about what is and isn’t complementarianism. I can’t think of any relationship where there aren’t different roles actually. A lot of relationships have one person who’s a bit more the social ambassador than the other for example. However these situations are not what is meant by complementarianism. The real definition in conservative Christian circles is more specific.

What complimentarianism really means is a prescribed role for men (shared by all men) and a prescribed role for women (shared by all women) and that these roles complement each other. The primary way in which these roles compliment each other is hierarchically. To be absolutely specific men lead and women submit. Remember those old fashioned marriage vows where he loves and cherishes and she honours and obeys? That’s complimentarianism.

Secondly complimentarianists believe that theirs is the right way to have relationships for everyone. Sons in complimentarian families are deliberately raised to lead their future wives, daughters are deliberately raised to submit to their husbands. Complementarian parents are not just parents where Dad is more assertive than Mum but who don’t value that difference particularly and raise kids who may have acceptably different styles of relationships. This is crucial – complimentarianism is not a statement of personal preference but a prescriptive opinion for all sexuality.

Remember it is not merely that people are raised to develop complementary roles with their future partners i.e. In complementarianism, daughters who are inclined to lead shouldn’t look forward to a partner who is inclined to support their leadership but should curb their inclinations and learn to submit. Likewise “submissive” is not a quality that can be as positive in boys as it is in girls in complimentarianism. Yes, at this point complementarianism is really looking just like another word might say it better – Holy Patriarchy Batman, the women are obliged to submit to the men.

There are however two distinctions between complementarianism and patriarchy.  The first is in what relationships women are required to submit to men. I’ve never read or heard a self-identifying complimentarian suggest that sisters should submit to their brothers or that a female boss in the workplace shouldn’t be respected by male employees or that a woman shouldn’t be prime minister. Supporters of what gets called Biblical Patriarchy (as can be seen here) have no such definite limits. It’s impossible to make absolute statements about changing social movements but as far as I can tell complimentarianism consistently only applies patriarchy to sexual relationships (which are only allowed in heterosexual marriages) and church matters (i.e. ministers and celebrants).

Secondly and very importantly complimentarianism prescribes emotional roles for men in a way that patriarchy doesn’t require. Men must be loving and kind leaders. In fact most complementarian descriptions of male leadership emphasize personal sacrifice, self-lessness and attentiveness to their wives. If a man is a self-serving leader then their marriage is not complementarian but just patriarchal. I’ve had conversations with complementarian men who offer as examples of male leadership doing the lion’s share of the housework or attending to their wives’ sexual needs before their own. All of this is consistent with a biblical picture of Christ-like leadership (well maybe not the sex bit). He washes his disciple’s feet for example. In fact the only person who ever beat Jesus in an argument was a woman (Mark 7:24-30) which gives us a biblical model for complementarian men (who are only trying to be Christ) to heed their wives’ opinions.

This raises a difficult question however. If Tasha is married to Bob, a selfish bloke, is she expected to still submit to him so that at least she is being complementarian even if he is not? Or is it impossible for her to be complementarian if he isn’t living up to his part? If so is she freed from any responsibility to submit to him except when he is self-sacrificing? I think people who use complementarianism as a self-description would go with the latter conclusion in cases of abuse but be less sure in cases of less serious failures on Bob’s part; Tasha just can’t be a complementarian (and submissive for her) with Bob if he is hitting her but she can be if he is just a poor listener.

The opposite of complementarianism is supposed to be egalitarianism. Egalitarianism means that the opinion of women and men in relationships should be treated equally with no person having “the last word” or ultimate decision making power. Nobody leads and nobody follows in egalitarianism. In effect this means that people compromise, strive for consensus or take turns getting their way. However to the extent that complementarianism says that women only need to submit to men who are practicing a high standard of self-sacrifice then it’s hard to see how in practice this opposes mutual submission and egalitarianism. It seems like they both get to the same place with complementarianism just softening the rhetorical blow for men who want to feel like they are in charge.

This is why I get a little suspicious when complementarians make a huge deal out of how awesomely benevolent the proposed rule of the husband is in marriage while also claiming its hugely important to distinguish themselves from egalitarians. In the Gospel Coalition post that I referred to in my first paragraph there is only criticism leveled at egalitarianism. This seems ridiculous if their model of male leadership essentially produces egalitarianism anyway. Perhaps it really doesn’t? Or have they misunderstood egalitarianism?

We also shouldn’t commit the same error in reverse. Supporters of egalitarianism shouldn’t devote their energy to critiquing complementarianism if it’s the same outcome wrapped in a different rhetoric. I know I don’t want to. It just doesn’t seem important. There is still scope for objecting to complementarianism on the basis of its gendered universalism; it treats male and female as meaningful categories in a way I’d dispute. But then even that problem dissipates if the ultimate content of those categories aren’t meaningfully different. If real men sacrifice and real women serve who really is different in a big enough way to care.

One way to clear up the confusion in my mind is to talk about performed inequality versus fundamental inequality. If you want to say you’re the man of the house, whether you are physically the man or the woman (or with a man or a woman) I really don’t care. If you would rather present all decisions as mutual and shared I don’t care either. Underneath these performances of roles is a fundamental reality of two humans traveling alongside each other or of one human ruling the other. If one partner is being consistently ripped off or if both are happy and getting fulfilled is the crucial question regardless of what rhetoric is achieving that end.

This is where criticism of “The Polluted Waters of 50 shades of Grey” gets it wrong in my opinion. Jared Wilson would have us believe that we have created a need for sadomasochistic role plays and fantasies by failing to honour a commitment to real and substantial hierarchical power relationships between men and women. This includes what the post describes as a fundamental reality of the bedroom: “A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants. A woman receives, surrenders, accepts.” It seems like most critiques object to this description of the world. Meh, I’m not that bothered. Maybe Jared Wilson is right up to this point though it feels like a gross generalization. Maybe his sex-life is really that one-sided. It’s still just descriptive not prescriptive however.

What really makes Jared Wilson’s opinion disturbing is when he treats honouring a commitment to these unequal roles in a deep way as preferable to just playing them out or fantasizing about them superficially. Jared seems to want our revulsion at performed inequality (like where one partner ties up another with silk scarves and gets called master) to push us towards adopting fundamental inequality. In fundamental inequality there will probably be no silk scarves allowed but real spiritual bondage of women instead.

Personally I don’t get repulsed by the silk scarves scenario so Jared’s trick doesn’t work on me. Really who cares how your relationship and especially your bedroom antics look to other people? Why care what other people’s relationships merely look like? I say perform the roles that help you and your partner reach your greatest potential, the most intimacy and the loudest orgasms. Feel free to put that Princess Leiah costume on, even if you’re a bloke. So long as in the real world you’ve talked about it with your partner on the basis that your opinions matter equally.


Disclaimer: I haven't actually read 50 Shades of Grey. This was a fun review to read about it though. 

I would think Secretary  the 2002 film would be a much more enjoyable way to learn about performed inequality in BDSM.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Aint Feminism a Philosophy?

I think this is going to have to be the first of many posts exploring Feminist philosophy and theology. It’s a topic that has fascinated me for most of my life really, as a boy encouraged to take on strongly gendered roles (thanks Catholic Boys school) but never finding much joy in them.

The genesis of my return to this topic was talking to a friend of mine. They stated that they are attracted to right-wing and conservative writers because such writers seem to be more capable of connecting broader social questions to matters of personal morality. I appreciated where they were coming from because as this blog shows I am fascinated by how we can ground our moral statements and make our moral choices. I then tend to see our broader social and political challenges as built from our moralities. At the time in response to my friend I thought of G.K. Chesterton who I wouldn’t call right wing although he is fairly traditional in his Catholicism. With that as my only example I was hardly broadening his view.

To my embarrassment I had forgotten to mention environmentalism with its strong ethos of “think global but act local”. That’s a whole world of philosophy that connects the faults and strengths of human society to our core moral attitudes. However what really struck me was how I didn’t remember where the very phrase “the personal is political” originated from; Feminism. You couldn’t get a better example of something that ties together personal relationships and social problems.

Feminism routinely gets ignored in philosophy. Partly that’s because a lot of philosophers are men (such as me and my friend). Further the stereotype of the philosopher as arrogant and pompous (me and my friend again perhaps) has some reality. Any philosophy usually aimed squarely at male arrogance will therefore face a tough room.

Bertrand Russell - analytical philospher.
In addition philosophy of a particular kind - analytical philosophy is its title- dismisses feminism for the same reason as it dismisses marxism or much of the anti-racist, post colonial writers. They are viewed as nihilisitic in how they empty truth, knowledge and beauty of permanent qualities. Feminism, anti-racism and post-colonialism often view these sacred philosophical ideals as tools in the service of power (ie. The Beauty Myth) The classical and analytical philosopher has instead prepared pedestals for truth, knowledge, and beauty. When Feminism disputes the aloofness of these concepts from everyday politicking it can be seen as an attack on philosophy itself.

Lastly anti-racist, post-colonial and feminist philosophies aren’t clamouring to apply for analytical philosophies approval anyway. They want to represent peoples, to serve their subjects agendas of liberation. Philosophy proper (as analytical philosophy can see itself) wants to make universal and eternal statements about reality rather than stay close to immediate realities. This would be like saying that rather than talking about how male dominance shapes knowledge we should just talk about how any stratification of authority shapes knowledge including a hypothetical one where women dominate. Many feminists see this as a watering down of the libratory truth-telling in their philosophy; it’s not after all how things are.

Western philosophy however is not all analytical. One other grouping is called Continental because it has more currency outside of England (on the continent of Europe). In fact analytical philosophy is a bit of a bizarre phenomenon in its privelaged almost in isolation, history in England. Perhaps its latest most famous champion was Bertrand Russell. If you think of philosophy as a type of science generating logical proofs (ie. of Gods existence or non-existence) then you’re thinking only of analytical philosophy.

Continental philosophy on the other hand is usually critical of scientism. Continental philosophy often embraces a storytelling and myth making component as a way of portraying our thinking including that of science. Continental philosophy is also existential – that is it is more concerned with describing the conditions of existence rather than the conditions of reality. The difference there is that Continental philosophers will talk about how we experience the truth subjectively (ie. as competing claims) rather than objective facts. This contributes to a willingness to talk about logical systems such as mathematics or gender as a language. Languages evolve, they meet needs, they keep secrets, they entertain, they are not just copies of reality.

Feminists particularly French feminism has played a large part in continental philosophy. Certainly continental philosophy doesn’t require Feminists to choose between changing the world and philosophizing about it. The point of continental philosophy is to change our lives. Nor does it treat beauty, truth and knowledge as fixed concepts. A hallmark of continental philosophy is its rejecting of ahistorical knowledge and its acceptance that we think from within our culture, time, economy and family. Hence Feminists return to contemporary social circumstances rather than eternal principles is seen as an asset rather than anti-philosophical.

One reason any philosopher, analytical or continental, can’t give for ignoring feminism is that it teaches us nothing new because we all accept that women and men are equal now. All philosophy of any worth follows the trajectory of absurdity to ubiquity; that is, it is originally preposterous because its outside the dominant way of thinking and it ends up being difficult to even mention because everyone assumes it so completely. Even if feminism had completely persuaded everyone of its philosophy then it would be no different to a lot of philosophical ideas - such as that absolute knowledge is unattainable. It is still very much a philosophical project to uncover these assumptions.

Regardless gender and particularly the presumptions of patriarchy remain a topical battleground. These are not resolved questions at all. Gendered difference has slowly been removed from the law in Australia. Women can vote, violence against women in marriage is illegal and more effectively enforced, custody of children does not automatically go to fathers upon separation of parents, however these are surprisingly recent changes and the cultural legacy of legal patriarchy remains strong. We barely notice womens sport in a culture that makes male players into national heroes. We have only just had our first female prime minister who is copping a far worse time of it for being a woman. Most men know of the subtle, unspoken pissing contest they have to get past in order to make a new male friend in which context women are prizes rather than contestants themselves.

Then there are voices calling for a return to more explicit patriarchy – who claim that we’ve gone too far in denying mens natural leadership of their women and children. For the most part these voices want to change society through evangelism, separatism for their communities, how they raise their kids and economic decision making rather than imposing change through the law but not entirely. These voices are not timid about declaring that what they believe about men’s duty to lead (and women’s obligation to shut up) is right for all.

From another direction we have other kinds of infantilizing of women. The prepubescent shaved look is the porn star norm. Magazines in every petrol station encourage a bimbo mentality to go with a rapacious sexuality. Even if you want to believe it’s a liberation you have to choke on the “joke” that if “women didn’t have vaginas they’d be mile deep at the tip” (from People Magazine I kid you not).

The language of our gender, our sexuality and our bodies is being contested around us in ways we should want to be philosophically resilient to. We don’t however have to look only to conservative and right-wing philosophy to find people engaging in that conversation. We can begin in the most obvious place of all ; Feminism.

Some personal favourite feminist reads of mine include;

The Straight Mind and other Essays by Monique Whittig

Look Me In Ihe Eye by Barbara McDonald & Cynthia Rich

Gender Outlaw by Kate Bornstein

Teaching to Transgress – Education as the Practice of Freedom by bell hooks

Currently reading The Will To Change; Men, Masculinity, and Love by bell hooks.