You’ve Come a (Long?) Way, Baby


When I watch films, I don’t normally arrange my schedule around themes. I sometimes do auteur studies, but this division inevitably gets complicated when I hear of interesting things that jump the queue or want to catch up on a director or actor in anticipation of some writing assignment.  I am a believer in synchronicity, though, so I inevitably think about connections made between viewings that just happened to fall within a chronological window.

Lately, I’ve been bombarded with reminders about the trials and tribulations of women in patriarchal societies, which, as it turns out, is just about everywhere.  Oh, we like to congratulate ourselves in the West (and America in particular) that women have more rights than they did at some indeterminate time in the past or in some repressive culture with which we can compare.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is about a great many things: Romantic veneration of the outsider, one man’s ambivalence about his cultural and historical baggage, an artistic attempt to distinguish symbol from allegory. The thing that most struck me, though, when rereading the novel for the first time in about a decade was that it was about patriarchy. Even Hawthorne, as sympathetic as he makes Hester, seems to buy into the argument that on some level Dimmesdale’s psychological self-torment is a worse fate than that of his lover:

As a man who had once sinned, but who kept his conscience all alive and painfully sensitive by the fretting of an unhealed wound, he might have been supposed safer within the line of virtue, than if he had never sinned at all.

A man knows when he has been punished enough. A woman needs a man to tell her.

Of course, the other thing that struck me in this reading–that positively jumped out and bit me when I hadn’t much thought about it before–is that Hester really isn’t punished because of sexual misconduct. She is punished because she keeps silent about the identity of the father, and in doing so refuses to give the patriarchy what they want.

The Scarlet Letter has few scenes described in much detail, but Chapter VIII is one of them. It is in this scene that Hester is questioned as to her lover’s identity, and when she refuses to answer, she is threatened with having her child taken away. Here (and here only) Hester overtly hints to Dimmesdale that she will give up his identity if the child is taken away, and Dimmesdale interjects to argue against this form of punishment. (Here, too, is another spot where, after constructing an argument for allowing Hester to keep the child, Dimmesdale says, “Herein is the sinful mother happier than the sinful father” [99].)

Katharina Blum refuses to give the German police the name of a lover, and she, too, suffers a drearily familiar litany of punishments. Whereas Hester is made to stand on a scaffold to undergo public shaming, Katharina’s ritualistic hazing takes place through modern newspapers. Arrested because she allowed the wrong guy to pick her up at a party, Blum is subjected to a litany of police interrogations that include having to account for every cent she spent and every mile she drove five years after the fact.

Released in 1975, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum is squeamishly topical and timely in its observation that the powers that be use terrorism and the fears it engenders to justify dispensing with the rights of its citizens. Politically, it’s amazing to contemplate that this film was made twenty-six years before September 11, 2001, and it’s depressing to contemplate how similar it is in tone and structure to a host of late-Bush and post-Bush era films that wring hands over how little complaint or concern the average citizen expresses over the loss of rights in the name of safety: The Visitor, Rendition, Lions for Lambs, and the Bourne franchise all come to mind.

The point of this post, though, is that those losses are not all felt equally by all segments of society. Those who are the most vulnerable are the least able to resist, and those marginally more secure seldom complain, hoping instead that the encroachment of freedoms will stop before it reaches them. In terms of gender studies, there is is usually a man who expresses reservations at the methods used to pressure the woman into compliance. In the case of Blum, one of the lower ranking police officers makes it clear that she is probably innocent and expresses some repugnance at the methods used to destroy her reputation in the service of winning the confrontation. But being queasy and saying “no,” are two different things.

Issues of gender overlap with issues of class, of course, and in The Duchess of Duke Street, the titular character finds herself the object of desire for the crown prince of England. In a twist of grotesque Edwardian logic, her royal paramour insists she be married to a butler who is aware of the affair because the regent’s conscience will not abide spoiling the virtue of an unmarried woman who would then have no means of support when the affair inevitably ends.

Sexual coercion is always ugly, but there is something particularly hideous about it when it is performed with institutional approval and performed under the auspices of love. In Mikio Naruse’s When A Woman Ascends The Stair, Keiko’s rape is all the more horrifying for the fact that the line that separates what is expected of a geisha and what a geisha can refuse is so indistinct as to be nearly meaningless. The whole system is build upon the assumption that a paying customer is entitled to…what exactly? Well everything but and the illusion of that too. It’s not surprising, then, that when Keiko, a bit drunk, is alone with the man who is transferring to Osaka, he professes his love to her while he is raping her. It’s not that he is that obtuse. It’s that within a system that supports a way of thought–that women who participate in society at all agree to and endorse the rules by which it is run–as long as he really does love her, it isn’t rape. I can almost hear George Costanza’s famous line to Jerry Seinfeld in the back of my head: “It’s not a lie…if you believe it.”

All of these thoughts might have remained simmering had not David Stenn’s Girl 27 brought them to a boil. Speaking of systems that support violence against women and those who perpetrate it–Girl 27 tells the true story of Pat Douglas, who in 1937 was raped at an MGM party for its salesmen. This was not Germany, not Edwardian England, not pre-colonial, Puritan New England. This was 20th century California.

Stenn’s film, which was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival has been criticized on several fronts, and I did find a few of the criticisms valid. The way Stenn interjects himself into the film is self-aggrandizing, and the scenes of him in the hotel waiting to meet Douglas who has finally agreed to appear on camera are amateurish. But there is real investigative journalism at work here as well. Stenn finds Douglas’s employment file at MGM, which reveals a list of incriminating questions that Pinkerton detectives asked all of her associates in an effort to smear her. He reveals the casting call that shows definitively that she was told she was going to a movie shoot and not a sales party. He finds the children of a parking attendant witness who refuted Douglas’s story but later told his kids he lied in exchange for a lifetime job from MGM. He traces the campaign contributions made by MGM to the district attorney of Los Angeles county, showing how MGM created, in fact, a shadow government.

One thing for which Stenn is criticized but which I think worked in the film was his intersplicing of Douglas’s story with clips from films and cartoons of the time period. In film noir after film noir we see women slapped, punched, pulled, groped, kissed. If the assault is usually interrupted before the final consummation of violence can be achieved that only serves to reinforce the notion that the ever present threat of violence is no big deal. The clips are less about underscoring one, admittedly horrific, act of violence and more about descrying an environment where such acts are looked upon as anything less than or other than extraordinary.

About three years ago, I reviewed Shut Up & Sing, Barbara Kopple’s documentary about the furor created by Natalie Means of The Dixie Chicks making a glib and disparaging remark about then president George W. Bush. Natalie, too, was a woman who experienced the weight of her culture when she wouldn’t say what it wanted (in this case, “I’m sorry”). I ended that review with these thoughts about the media response to this event:

… my moment of clarity while watching the film came not from something said by Natalie, Emily, or Martie, but by Bill O’ Reilly who opines that the Dixie Chicks just need to be “slapped around.” Strange, isn’t it, how that statement didn’t seem to offend anyone, how it’s not a big controversy to this day, and how nobody is threatening to boycott Fox News if they continue to play his work? Perhaps it’s just understood that his words were not meant literally. Perhaps his words were borne of frustration and strenuous disagreement. Perhaps he simply made a poor choice of words and ought to be allowed some slack for the occasional blunder given how much time he spends in front of a microphone. Perhaps advocating violence against women really isn’t thought to be as serious an offense in this day and age as expressing disdain for the President of the United States. Perhaps Toby Keith’s “boot in your ass” is not just America’s answer to other nations that don’t bow before it but also to its own citizens who don’t toe the ruling party line. Perhaps he really just meant what he said.

All of a sudden, Natalie’s lyrics don’t seem quite so melodramatically exaggerated, do they?

That was then; this is now.

Anyone want to go see Sorority Row this weekend?

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