…that pretends that Regancy England was a great place to be female. I found this film review entertaining and insightful. I hoped you would, too.
Those of you familiar with ThatGuyWithTheGlasses.com will recognize the general format in this review of Zack Schnider’s “Sucker Punch”: two in-character reviewers ruthlessly take apart a film that probably deserves it. On occasion, the dressings-down that takes place on this sight will pause in attacking a bad film’s acting, writing and directing long enough to take a well-aimed shot at the core of its being: its ideas. In the case of “Sucker Punch,” reviewers “Film Brain” and “JesuOtaku” take pains to point out the misogynistic soul of a movie that has the nerve to call itself “Feminist”–and the indictment is more than deserved. I thought the review was pretty good, both as comedy and as analysis, and, Fenemist stuff in Pop Culture/Nerd Culture being part of what I do, I felt compelled to share.
I try to read widely, and as a result, I come across a lot of books that make me cringe, a few that make me wonder where, exactly, Western literature is going from here, and some that make me want to weep for the state of 21st century storytelling in general. This is the first time I’ve ever read a piece written in the 19th century that made me queasy about the state of woman-centered fiction in 2012.
I recently finished Marianne by George Sand, origenally published in 1875, and gave it a pretty low Goodreads rating that had nothing to do with the writing quality, or with Sand’s approach. I didn’t feel right about giving Marianne anything higher than a two-star recommendation because of its tendency to haunt me with its ideas: the tropes that I watched rise before me like specters as I read, reminding me of how far we haven’t yet come in the way that we write stories about women.
As I read I was distracted by the uncomfortable fact that this calm, elegant little story was riddled with the teeth-grindingly frustrating “romance” tropes that still plague fiction–especially fiction about women–to this day. Granted, in 1875 these things weren’t tropes; they were commonly accepted “truths” about how female lives should be lived. Even so, it still hurts my heart to see them turn up anywhere, whether it be in modern YA, a bad Rom-Com, or in otherwise lovely fiction created over a hundred years ago, and it hurts a little extra that a woman like Sands, who was determined to live out a different “life script” than the one the world had offered her, would be content to let her characters live the very script that she had rejected for herself.
This narrative opens with something really intriguing, especially for a 19th century setting: an independent young woman that is apparently content to live quietly, unmarried and childless, pursuing what she likes in an environment of her choosing. This set up left me hoping for a closer examination of Marianne’s life–perhaps a portrait of a woman living her own way, not to Make A Statement, but simply to make the most of her existence. Instead, the narrative progress of Marianne quickly devolves into a roll-call of tropes in woman-centered fiction made distrubing by thier familiarity, including:
1. A story about a man observing a woman, rather than a story about a woman ( a la Daisy Miller). Well hello, there, Male Gaze. Haven’t see you out and about this blatantly since the corset scene in the first “Sherlock Holmes” film.
2. A modern romance in the sense that we have a young woman caught between two men who: a. both want her and b. are both idiots. One of them expects her to marry him about four hours after meeting him, and the other spends a good portion of the story wondering whether or not Marianne has any real intelligence, and discouraging her desire to educate herself. How lovely. Who among us wouldn’t just fall into that man’s arms?
3. A modern romance in the sense that a woman who seems perfectly happy living independently at the beginning of the story ends up married by the end—but at least she marries because she wants a particular person, and not because “oh my goodness must have a man or I’m not complete!” That’s actually a lot more progressive than some things written less than ten years ago.
These themes and plot details would not bother me so much–would probably not even phase me–if they were relics: dim memories from a past in which women were viewed, and viewed themselves, as pretty things that needed a man’s attention and affection in order to be aware of and to embrace their own existence. No, these elements in a 140 -year -old story bother me because I’ve seen them all before–in fiction that was created during my lifetime. For example:
1. Marianne, which is basically the life of a woman told through the eyes of a man, was published in 1875. The last time I saw the Male Gaze used as blatantly as it is here was in the Sherlock Holmes film with Jude Law, released in 2010.
The way that the camera was caressing Rachel McAdams during that scene in which she was wearing only a corset was pretty obviously meant to be sensual, a move that implies two interesting assumptions on the part of the filmmakers:
Firstly, that the only people in their audience are those that would find a slow, intense pan of a woman’s body erotic: i.e. straight men. (Well, technically, that image would probably be sensual to Lesbians and Bisexual women, also, but considering how Hollywood tends to fetishize both of those groups in an attempt to titillate straightmen, I kinda doubt that the director was thinking about drawing in his Lesbian audience when he filmed that shot).
Secondly, that the female body exists in order to be admired and enjoyed by straight men, and thus it is appropriate to film this woman as though her audience were filled with male eyes viewing her solely as a thing to be looked at. In this instance, the camera was functioning essentially as a Male Eye, ignoring the fact that the movie’s audience would alsso include a large number of people who wouldn’t find the female body erotic — i.e. straight women (and, to fair, gay men). This one was pretty hard to ignore, but the Male Gaze still exists in a variety of forms in our culture, both subtle and blatant….and being reminded of how long it’s been around, as a form of storytelling, no less, honestly hit me in the gut a little.
2. Examples of single, autonomous women deciding that, no, actually, they really do need to be married by the time their stories end, abound in modern fiction. Take the protagonist of 2007’s “Eat, Pray, Love,” who makes a big deal of Embracing Her Independence after a difficult divorce…only to end up remarried by the end of the story. I’d be here all day if tried to list every example of this message to come along in the last twenty years, but I’m sure that anyone reading this that grew up in a Western culture can think of many, many more without my help. (Particularly if you happen to be female, since most fiction with a “No, really, you need to be married by the end,” plot is geared toward women).
3. A man who displays a profound disrespect for the basic competence and intelligence of the women he “loves” portrayed as a desirable partner…well, that story element has been at the center of a hugely successful franchise since about 2005. I won’t bother to name it–I think you’re picking up what I’m putting down.
So, in the end, maybe I’m being unfair to Marianne but I can’t bring myself to praise a piece with these themes in it too highly. It’s not simply the fact that those ideas existed in 1875; it’s the pang of being reminded that they are about as prevalent today as they ever were, a realization that that both baffles and sickens me.
i “The Male Gaze”: Essentially the idea that women exist for the purpose of being looked at by men, either in a contemplative or a sexual way, and should take pleasure in being observed and approved by male eyes.
I hope you’ll indulge me, everyone. My dog, Bullwinkle (we always just called him, “Bull”) was put to sleep today after thirteen years of friendship, and I think he deserves a little public acknowledgment. I know that all of the animal lovers out there will understand.
- His alien head: when Bull was a puppy, his head was a little too big for his body—scratch that, way too big. It was kind of freakish, but in a really cute way. He was just run along with that head sticking out like it didn’t even belong on his body, but it never slowed him down for a second. Dogs aren’t self-conscious about being different like people are. They just embrace life with joy and do their thing.
- That’s another thing I really love about Bull. His enthusiastic pursuit of…well…everything. I wouldn’t even throw balls for him once his legs got bad, because I was afraid he would get hurt when he chased it—and he would chase it. Even though he could hardly walk, he would chase that damn ball all the way down the yard if you threw it for him. He chased a great many balls over quite a bit of distance in his lifetime, but the task never grew old to him. He chased every single one as though it were the first—and most awesome—damn ball he’d ever seen in his life. I learned a lot from him about embracing the simple experience of living without even realizing that he was teaching me.
- His love of jackrabbits: When my family moved from San Diego to a small town in Northern California, Bull and his brother, Rocky, spent a lot of time cooped up in the mobile home (and, being big dogs, this can’t have been easy for them), so my Dad would occasionally pull over in an open area and let them get some energy out. On one such occasion, Bull spotted a couple of Jackrabbits in the brush and lit out after them before my father had a chance to tell him, “No.” I didn’t see the race, but I imagine it was a much more enjoyable challenge than a rubber ball bouncing on a driveway.
- His blanket: When Bull was a little alien-head puppy, he and Rocky used to sleep in the garage. Every night, we would take them outside and put them to bed, and they’d carry their blankets out in their mouths. Bulla was so small that the blanket dragged along behind him on the ground. One of my favorite memories of him is of a little guy happily dragging a blanket behind him without ever noticing that it’s too big, plodding along toward his goal and forgetting to complain that it isn’t easy enough to reach.
- His Bark: Now, I want to be clear about this one. Bull is one of those dogs that have a rather annoying bark, which he uses. A lot. It’s high pitched and loud, surprisingly yippy for sych a large breed, and it has a propensity to come right the hell out of nowhere. (That dog made me jump so many times that I should be sufficient trained to compete in the Olympics by now). Even so, there was something kind of joyous in his bark—it was loud and irritating, but, like everything else about him, it was also sincere and unassuming. He wasn’t barking to irritate you; he was trying to do his job and protect you, or he was excited to see a friend coming to visit you, or he was welcoming you home. He was annoying at times, but his spirit was always good.
- His faithfulness: Everyone needs a good guard dog at least once in their lives, and if there was one thing Bull could do, it was guard. Anyone or anything breached the perimeter (as defined by Bull as anywhere on the street within hearing distance of his house) and he charged the gate barking with a vengeance. He may have given us his share of trouble, but he loved us, and damn it, anyone who came anywhere near us would be duly warned: mess with my family and you deal with me. Dig?
- His Weirdness: No, I’m serious. Bull has some odd habits, most particularly an insatiable appetite for paper products of all kinds. I never quite understood it, but that didn’t stop me from making a point of giving him my napkin on several occasions. Sometimes you do weird things in order to make someone you love happy…even if you don’t exactly get why it makes them happy. (Another important life lesson from a very odd, but very good, dog).
The beautiful thing about animals is their simplicity. My friendship with Bull wasn’t always easy—I got mad at him when he ate my cat’s food or went through my trash for something non-edible to eat; I was afraid of him knocking me down accidentally when I was hurt and in an immobilizer—but even with all that, I was still his defender, because he was well worth defending. He was a good friend and a good dog. A very, very good dog.
Thank you for all the lessons and all the love, Bull. I love you, and I hope you get to chase lots of balls and Jackrabbits in Heaven.[i]
[i] Yes, I know there is Theological debate about animals in heaven, but they have horses, and God is gracious, so be quiet.