Tag Archives: women

Re-thinking rape: It’s Not That They Don’t Understand, They Just Don’t Like The Answer


Peter Paul Rubens
The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus
c. 1618
Oil on canvas
88 x 82 7/8 in (224 x 210.5 cm)
Alte Pinakothek, Munich

Very interesting post at Yes means Yes on communication patterns and how one says ‘no’, applied in regards to sexual violence. A paper by Kitzinger and Frith (1999) uses very fine-combed conversation analysis to discover that

– in English, saying ‘no’ is usually done indirectly: through use of pauses, aahs and ums, palliatives such as appreciation, and explanation. In other words, a typical refusal of an offer sounds like this: ‘Thank you, I would love to, but… uhm… I have to work all day tomorrow, so… yeah… I might not be able to.’ This is how a rejection normally sounds like, a rejection of any offer. In English, a direct ‘no’ is understood as a rude and aggressive communication tactic.
– in English, such rejections are clearly understood by both men and women; neither had any trouble hearing the implicit rejection, however politely expressed, and regardless of the fact that they did not include the word ‘no’. Continue reading “Re-thinking rape: It’s Not That They Don’t Understand, They Just Don’t Like The Answer” »

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A note on violence

13 June

As I’m writing this, the first gay pride parade in Split (second biggest city in Croatia, biggest coastal, smack-bang in the middle of the area that was heavily bombed during the war, therefore, somewhat predictably, somewhat right-leaning) resulted in a violent riot, as the parade (of 200 mainly non-gay people – activists, intellectuals, supporters) was met by a rock-hurling counter-protest (of about 10,000 by the police estimate). Croatian media are exploding with commentary, all condemning the violence in the harshest possible terms. This is great improvement since the LGBT issue was first raised, only about 12 years ago, when no one spoke about it, and the general opinion was not far from an assumption that there are no homosexuals in Croatia. But, in a very strongly masculine culture, homosexuality is, of course, destabilising for a whole series of cultural paradigms. As one journalist wrote: Continue reading “A note on violence” »

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Gail Dines: Visible or Invisible (being a young woman)

At a lecture I was giving at a large West Coast university in the spring of 2008, the female students talked extensively about how much they preferred to have a completely waxed pubic area as it made them feel “clean,” “hot,” and “well groomed.” As they excitedly insisted that they themselves chose to have a Brazilian wax, one student let slip that her boyfriend had complained when she decided to give up on waxing. Then there was silence. I asked the student to say more about her boyfriend’s preferences and how she felt about his criticism. After she spoke, other students joined in, only now the conversation took a very different turn. The excitement in the room gave way to a subdued discussion of how some boyfriends had even refused to have sex with nonwaxed girlfriends, saying they “looked gross.” One student told the group that her boyfriend bought her a waxing kit for Valentine’s Day, while yet another sent out an e-mail to his friends joking about his girlfriend’s “hairy beaver.” No, she did not break up with his; she got waxed instead. Continue reading “Gail Dines: Visible or Invisible (being a young woman)” »

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Kathy Acker interviews Spice Girls for Vogue in 1997

This is wall-to-wall unadulterated amazing.

Many, many thanks to Jessica Petrie, who first alerted me to this gem.

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On iPhones and belonging

I never quite realised that getting an iPhone would mean not so much getting a new phone, as getting an entire new life; the normal-phoned Jana has sort of handed the torched to iPhoned Jana – an entirely new person who sends emails from cafes, tweets overheard oddities, and can find out that elusive address whilst on her way (the previous strategy involved calling friends with smart phones). The new Jana is self-sufficient to an unprecedented degree. A kind of cyborg, really, in the most literal sense. I have weather reports, stock markets and international contacts at my fingertips. But that’s not all.

After ten years of having the oldest possible phones, I am suddenly up with the trends. I can participate in collective behavioural fads – play those games that people (in the sense of ‘society’) play. Then also: people (in the sense of ‘society’) make software (‘apps’) for people like me. Whatever service I have thought of so far (lyrics to songs, wardrobe organisers, on-the-go radio), it all exists. I say ‘uhm’, and they give it to me. Someone anticipates my needs.

This is actually quite interesting, because it’s very unusual for me. And it’s unusual, I think, because I’m so used to being a minority. And being a minority, I realise, it’s an experience largely defined by the frustration of seeing your needs not being taken into account. Or met, but that comes without saying. And, since even before being an immigrant of non-English-speaking background (an outsider’s outsider) in Australia, I was already female, poor and left-handed, I think being a minority really shaped my rapport with the world.

I can be literal and explain, since it so far may sound like whining. Left-handedness is pretty straight-forward: whenever an item has been designed with a modicum of thought (as opposed to just put out there, like a pole or a pinboard, exempli gratia), chances are it is not suited for a left-handed person. Typical and well-known examples: can openers, knives, male clothing (female clothing buttons up left-hand-friendly by a historical accident: it is not meant to be self-buttoned at all, but done by a maid), computer mice. Lesser-known examples: pasta makers, coffee machines, cars in most countries, entire writing systems (try doing Japanese caligraphy with a left hand!), most instruments (even supposedly balanced ones, like piano, are more difficult), every set of knitting instructions in the world. Being left-handed means constantly translating activities into something you can do.

But then take poverty – poverty not in its absolute, global sense, but in the relative sense of earning significantly less than the median income. This is poverty that registers in one’s experience as a feeling (of being poor), and that is by definition a state of minority (being relatively poor means deviating from the average, defined by the majority). In one’s experience, being poor registers as the perpetual state of not having access to the solution which has been provided to your problem, because you can’t afford it. It means not being able to get somewhere, because the only means of transport is too expensive. It means forgoing medical treatments, because you can’t afford them. It means having to do things the long way, because the short way isn’t your short way.

And then being a woman – this is a whole other story, involving, for example, the medical treatment of childbirth, maternity leave provisions, and is a long and tiresome story that plenty of literature has covered already. But there it is again – everyone’s short way isn’t your short way. This notion of the problem being one of provision, but also navigation, was repeated very nicely early this year in an interview German Labor minister, Ursula von der Leyen, gave in regards to the need to have business quotas for women:

I understand the position of young woman [sic] who say that we don’t need quotas. Many of these women have had the experience that they have no trouble in school, at the university and early in their careers. They haven’t yet learned that there are two career paths: the one for men with well-marked streets; and the one for women on unpaved roads that not even the navigation device knows. Most of the women who’ve made it into top management positions say that although they also used to be against quotas themselves, they now believe that women can’t get by without them. I was the same. I used to sing the praises of the right to choose. But I’ve now learned that you sometimes need a law as a catalyst for change. For decades, there was absolutely no change in the number of men taking paternity leave. But within two years of making men eligible to receive state funds while taking paternity leave, the figure has increased six fold.

Navigation, of course, is very easy with a smart phone. But my accidental discovery here is that one kind of empowerment negates another kind of disempowerment. Having an iPhone (which puts me, simply, into the category of ‘majority consumer’, as opposed to a sub-culture, a minority lifestyle which favours old phones) mitigates against being left-handed. Having money mitigates against being a woman. And so on.

To return to the notion of people (in the sense of ‘society’): what’s interesting is that, although one principle of exclusion (of me, from society) may be as functioning as ever, I can beat it with another principle that I do conform to. Hell, it even makes it much sweeter: I’m enjoying my iPhone like the world will end when I stop. But, of course, this is exactly the same principle that drives the poor to side with white supremacism, drives men to dispute women’s rights to things, and even, I would cautiously suggest, drives women to excel at school and then go into humanities. I reckon one gets just as great a sense of belonging to people (in the sense of ‘society’) from being one among a million players of Angry Birds, as one gets from making Shakespeare in-jokes. In a certain sense, both are diametrically opposed to hysteria.

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Swimming pools, Muslims, and the burqini in Dandenong

Very interesting opinion piece by Julie Szego in the weekend’s The Age on a women-only Ramadan event at the Dandenong pool, at which all women aged 10 or up must be covered from knees to neck if they are to attend. The comments are a predictable mix of people saying “Try and ask for a similar concession in a Muslim country”, “THIS IS A WAR”, “Why aren’t they assimilating?”, “Islam is the only religion that wants to take over the world” on the one hand, and “it’s an issue of equity”, “some of these women are isolated” and “so, according to your argument, I should be able to turn up to my daughter’s wedding in the nude” on the other. The article, however, does try to analyse the issues: women’s rights, the requirements of public pools to serve whatever community they have living around them, issues of equity, and tolerance. It’s up online, for anyone to read.

It is, however, interesting to read the discussion if, like me, you come from a slightly different angle: I have spent years trying to find a proper sauna and swimming pool in Melbourne, ie one that doesn’t require a neck-to-thigh cover for women. All the therapeutic benefits of sauna are cancelled out by sports swimwear, especially of the full-torso female type, and it is not just beyond unpleasant to sit in 90 degrees covered in lycra, it is also stressful on the body, and potentially dangerous. I could frame it as a discrimination problem: if men can get away with tiny speedos, why aren’t women allowed in topless? But I think it is more probably a prudishness problem (see, for example, the case of a Brisbane sauna-as-art). It all gets much worse when I raise the question of mixed-sex sauna: the immediate, automatic answer this seems to provoke is ‘EWW’, or ‘why would you want people other than your boyfriend to see you naked’?

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Compare and contrast.

Now, two things. First, it must be clear by now that I really cannot see Australia as the land of freedom to show one’s body as one likes. The whole argument of Western secular liberalism which celebrates the body, or even of some Aussie tradition of baring flesh, is simply not correct. There is a reasonable amount of Puritan disavowal of the body going on, or of sexualising all nudity at all times. As the Finnish artists themselves remarked, “there are cultural differences” between Finland and Australia. And, you know, it would be impossible to argue that this prudishness is not in any way connected to religion. The subject of nudity in the Australian society is so touchy that it’s ridiculously hard to even raise it in polite conversation without everyone getting red in the face and starting to crack jokes about paedophiles. (Which is, frankly, ridiculous. As is the oft-made remark about not exposing children to adult nudity. Children, especially toddlers and very young kids, could not care less.) Compare Australia to Scandinavian countries, to Germany, even France or Italy or Croatia, all places in which such scandalous behaviour as topless sunbathing (and swimming) and mixed-sex nude saunas, happens without much drama.

Second, I am always struck by the disingenuousness of packing together “liberal Western values”, “Enlightenment principles”, “feminism” and “women’s dress rules”. Call me bitter, but it is the same as coupling Capitalism with the struggle for workers’ rights; or, not very correct. Sure, there is a geo-historical link, but to say that one of the essentially Western (as opposed to Eastern, Muslim, or less-developed) projects has been equality of sexes is a gross overstatement, conveniently forgetting the fact that the universal suffrage, equal rights, and women’s lib were fights. As Tony Myers writes in the book I’m currently reading:

The [Enlightenment principle of] cogito [ergo sum] is the basis of the centred subject, or, as it is more commonly known, the ‘individual’. The consequences for this model of subjectivity are compelling. For example, until recently, it was generally accepted (by men at least) that only men were masters of themselves. Women, on the other hand, were supposed to be subject to passions and feelings which they could not properly control. That is to say, women were not centred subjects but decentred subjects. They were, therefore, not ‘proper’ individuals and were treated accordingly as second-class citizens, subject to the rule of the masterful men. In fact, the mastery of women formed part of the larger project to dominate the natural world itself (of which women were held to be a part). The results of this project, which is sometimes referred to as the Enlightenment Project, can be witnessed in the devastation wreaked upon the environment. If it seems a little harsh to rebuke a philosophical model with the destruction of the planet, it is perhaps worth remembering that only a subjectivity which thinks it answers exclusively to itself would risk the destruction of nature and not expect to be held accountable for it.

Or, as a great man of Enlightenment said:

Since dependance is a state natural to women, girls feel themselves made to obey; they have, or should have, little freedom… Destined to obey a being as imperfect as man, a woman should learn to suffer – even to suffer injustice – at an early age, and to bear the wrongs of her husband without complaint. You will never reduce boys to the same point; their inner sense of justice rises up and rebels against such injustice, which nature never intended them to tolerate.

(Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile, IV: 710-11)

But, the point to make here is that Enlightenment did mark the beginning of a quest for knowledge in which nothing was sacred, nothing was beyond questioning. In particular, tradition. If there is any way in which feminism was Rousseau’s baby, it was in the call to question everything. This is why the ultimate paradox of defending the bikini because of our “recognised tradition of secular freedom” is deeply absurd: if there is anything contrary to the spirit of secular inquiry, it is upholding or banning practices based on how well they fit in with our “tradition”.

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I am a little dispirited by the argumentation of both sides in this debate.

On the one hand, I don’t think there is anything particularly logical or reasonable in demanding that women cover from neck to knee in a swimming pool, just like I don’t think there is anything reasonable in having to wear clothes to a sauna. I agree with Szego, it seems to me important to remember that there is a principle at stake here, a principle of the female body not being automatically sexual, not being automatically shameful, and not being required to cover (or bare). Muslim misogyny is misogyny alright. David Gilmore writes, in a sweeping comparative analysis:

Muslim misogyny is really not so much an attack on women as it is a flight from woman “as the source of uncontrollable desires in the male self”. Islamic misogyny, like all others, is a flight from inner conflict over women; misogyny is the psychic consequence to male ambivalance and turmoil. The reification of this struggle that occurs in Islam is similar perhaps to what occurs in Christianity, Hinduim, and Buddhism, except perhaps for the added biographical ingredient of the Prophet’s apotheosis of sexual anxiety into lithurgy. One may say that St Paul and St Augustine played similar roles in forming Christian theology.

(David D. Gilmore, Misogyny: the Male Malady, p.217)

But this treatment of women does correspond to the same sentiments, fears and neuroses in the Australian culture, however secular it may be on paper. There is a corresponding prudishness on the Australian side, that all the talk about “Western liberal values” and “secular principles” cannot hide. In fact, what complicates the debate to such a large degree is precisely the way in which Australian commentators seem themselves unsure of whether there is or isn’t a principle at stake, or whether we are simply debating degrees of exhibitionism. Szego:

The Brimbank spokeswoman explained that [the swimming pools required that the] ”participants should be dressed appropriately, as is expected of a centre used by children and families”.

It seems to me that, until someone remembers what that principle may be, commentators can go hoarse talking about how the burqini “run[s] counter to the West’s more than 500-year struggle for individual freedom” (Szego). In practice, we are bound to get all confused about who is allowed to see how much skin on whom before we all have to blush and go “ooh”.

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RW: Thyestes

I have seen some very good theatre recently in a very short succession: not more than 3 weeks apart, I saw what I think are likely to be the best three shows in Melbourne this year. These are Tamara Saulwick’s Pin Drop, version 1.0’s This Kind of Ruckus and Hayloft Project’s Thyestes. I’ve been meaning to dedicate a great deal of time to each one of them, but life keeps getting in the way. (I’ve been badly unwell.) But let’s start with one.


Mark L Winter and Chris Ryan. Photo by Jeff Busby.

Fortunately, Thyestes sold out as it opened, and so did the short extension to the season. I have to say I was very, very pleased: not just because it is excellent theatre which deserved to sell out, but because it absolved me from the responsibility to write quick praise in order to promote the show (the silly burden which all reviewers feel, however small their readership). It’s given me time to really consider its propositions.

I’ve been tossing it left and right in my head for weeks now, Thyestes, and it only gets better as I do. It is possibly the best work that either Hayloft or Black Lung have done so far, and certainly among the best two or three we will see in Melbourne this year, local or international. It deserves a return season. Most importantly, it is both brave and bold, and highly accomplished. Last year, when I got cross with Cameron for dismissing Hayloft and Black Lung’s 3xSisters (for lack of accomplishment where there were many ideas), I did it because I thought it was important to encourage courageous formal and conceptual inquiry. I was worried Hayloft Project might, as many young theatre-makers have before them, settle for the limited set of achievements they have been praised for early on, rather than grow as artists, a path that’s always much less readily rewarded. 3xSisters was a courageous experiment in theatre-making, on a scale rarely attempted by Melbourne’s self-funded independent theatre, and even if its accomplishments were rough and probably not entirely intended, a year on it still remains fresh in my memory as a very good theatrical work. Had it been a film, I dare say it would have been amply reappraised in the years to come. Being theatre, the best I can hope is that blogs will keep it unforgotten.

Thyestes is a whole other story, a project as radical as it is rigorously put together. If with 3xSisters the beauty was in the chaos, here I am in no doubt that the creative team were in full control of the final result, that every effect was intended. It demonstrates tremendous growth for Simon Stone, Mark Winter, Thomas Henning and Anne-Louise Sarks (who have all worked on 3xSisters). Chris Ryan, whom we have encountered in Hayloft’s Platonov and The Promise, but whom I – perhaps unfairly – didn’t see as a theatre-maker prior to Thyestes, turns out to be an excellent creative collaborator in his own right. But most impressively, and as the weeks went by I kept underlying this point in my mind with a mental marker, what strikes me as significant about Thyestes is that its own aspirations are so much higher than that of its own context. It’s a theatre show by young theatre-makers, produced in Malthouse’s fringe Tower space, and it shames most mainstage theatre in the city. Yes, many eyes were eagerly awaiting the opening night, but Stone and his creative team would have gotten high praise for much less.

Hayloft’s version retells Seneca’s dramatisation of the Greek myth (or, rather, the history of the house of Atreus, since the story spans three generations of sons) through a very simple dramaturgical frame. So simple and clear, indeed, that there are exactly two moments of surprise in the entire evening. The first is the beginning, when the surtitles rattle off the summary of the scene (Thyestes and Atreus are convinced by mother Hippodamia to kill their half-brother and heir to the throne), and the screen lifts on a traverse stage to reveal three young men in contemporary clothing, listening to music and having a casual discussion about girlfriends, sex and a flight to Guatemala. The second is in the middle, when the count jumps from scene 6 to 14, the murder of Atreus. The conceit could not be simpler: the surtitles propel the narrative, but it is the in-between moments we see, mundane conversations; brotherly rivalry; games of ping-pong. So simple, indeed, that the day after I saw it I was considering dismissing Thyestes for imaginative poverty.

For, let’s be honest, there is only so much Tarantino the world needs, and Tarantino himself is productive enough to satisfy the demand. The day after I saw this production, I was wondering mainly if it was apparent to everyone else how much debt Thyestes owes to Reservoir Dogs. The ghost of 90s cinema, its casual gun-toting, pop-cultural referencing and drawn-out, banal conversations haunts the oeuvre of Black Lung (whose Thomas Henning and Mark Winter have had significant creative input on both Thyestes and 3xSisters), appearing in the most unlikely places like some terrible rash: see Mark Winter’s bit of 3xSisters (via Scorsese).

Since every generation comes of age during a particular fad, so did our generation, perhaps, internalise Tarantino the way neither the previous nor the successive have: one for being too old not to be critical, the other because Joanna Newsom and The Quirky Indie Cinema appeared. And, fifteen years since Pulp Fiction, how much does it matter? What traumas are we tackling when we deal with such subject matter as friends shooting each other in cold blood, while Roy Orbison is playing? Mainly cinematic ones, I suspect. It is a kind of violence, cool and detached, ironic, swift, that very few people have ever experienced – I, for example, never. And while I see some of the appeal, the aesthetic appeal, and while I understand that some tropes get engraved in our collective young minds at ages too young to argue – I wonder: how does the generation of the Quirky Indie Cinema understand something like Thyestes? Does it have a relevance for them, does it stand alone as a meaningful artefact, or is it simply an incomprehensible set of images, point of reference lost? And without the reference, is there a purpose for these tropes?

Another possibility is that the drawn-out banality of the conversations (brothers reminiscing about childhood, long descriptions of sex, discussions on Roy Orbison) assumes a macabre shimmer because of what we know happens before or after: that a semiotic polyphony, shall we say, appears between the text and the subtext (semiotic and not just semantic; that we see two things at once). This certainly happens. But in itself, it is insufficient as argument of quality. If this was all that Thyestes did, it would be a fine, but not a great work.

Then, however, in Richard Sennett’s writing I came across this:

The difference between the Roman past and the modern present lies in what privacy means. The Roman in private sought another principle to set against the public, a principle based on religious transcendence of the world. In private we seek out not a principle but a reflection, that of what our psyches are, what is authentic in our feelings. We have tried to make the fact of being in private, alone with ourselves and with family and intimate friends, an end in itself.

(…) Under the modern code of private meaning, the relations between impersonal and intimate experience have no clarity. We see society itself as “meaningful” only be converting it into a grand psychic system. We may understand that a politician’s job is to draft or execute legislation, but that work does not interest us until we perceive the play of personality in political struggle. A political leader running for office is spoken of as “credible” or “legitimate” in terms of what kind of man he is, rather than in terms of the actions or programs he espouses.

Because this psychological imagination of life has broad social consequences, I want to call it by a name that may at first seem inapt: this imagination is an intimate vision of society. “Intimacy” connotes warmth, trust, and open expression of feeling. But precisely because we have come to expect these psychological benefits throughout the range of our experience, and precisely because so much social life which does have a meaning cannot yield these psychological rewards, the world outside, the impersonal world, seems to fail us, seems to be stale and empty.

I want to leave these paragraphs for now.


Mark L Winter, Thomas Henning and Chris Ryan. Photo by Jeff Busby.

In the program notes, Stone writes:

These myths are real. They have repeated themselves endlessly throughout history with minor changes in name and location. They continue to repeat themselves in our time. They are not distant representations of the vagaries of a time gone by. The fascinations of the Greeks and Romans are barely different to our contemporary obsessions. The epic dimension is misleading: on closer inspection even the most absurdly epic tale of incest, murder, rape, infidelity, transmogrification or resurrection reflects something within us waiting to express itself. The Greeks had the courage to make their metaphors extreme, unsettling and almost indistinguishable from reality; the Romans had the brazenness to bring these images from off-stage to centre-stage with a terrifying realism. Artaud had nothing on the Romans.

Consider the irreconcilable difference between this proposition, which Thyestes by all means proves, that the horror of the Greek myth is extratemporal, and the shadow of datedness over Tarantino. What to do with it? On the one hand, after years of contemporising classics by, exempli gratia Thomas Ostermeier, it’s reasonable to ask why we contemporise. Is it just to give vividness to an ancient text or story, to do justice to a classic? There is a certain binging quality to Thyestes that I’ve also found in Ostermeier’s Nora and Hedda Gabler, an overabundance of things, of set, of contemporary slang, of clothing articles, of holes of incongruity sewn up. The effect is curiously akin to television – no suspension of disbelief is necessary.

But neither this is the right answer. The key piece of puzzle, instead, is in Chris Ryan’s role as the multiplicity of women in the show. His performance as the uber-realistic, Green-bag-carrying wife, or violated bride, is not just a masterly demonstration of how little acting has to do with physical attributes, and how much with illusion. (Although it is a bona fide metamorphosis, yes.) What is interesting, instead, is that there are no women on stage. Not only does this pull the mythical universe tighter together into a boyish world of rivalry and revenge; but it also shuts it from any external ontology. Or, put more simply, there is no public realm in Thyestes: it is a sealed private world.

Perhaps this will demonstrate my theatre-viewing naivete, but there are productions, usually terribly naturalistic ones, in which I can just about picture the outside world. In which the materiality of the stage does not win over the evocative descriptions of those events somewhere else. Thyestes is one of them: between the screen lifting and falling, my mind was whirling between the public and the private realm. Why?, I don’t know. Because the stage was so suffocatingly private, is my guess. Because everything happening was a kind of game with no consequences, in which all that mattered was the dynamic between two, sometimes three people, and in which rules were written by boys, the way Tarantino’s films happen in a boy-universe. If all women were played by a man, this was an aesthetic and political choice. Not only was it less gruesome to watch sexual violence inflicted on a male body playing female, but having a female body there would have, I suspect, broken the illusion. A female presence, body, voice, would not have played by the same rules, would have exposed the game for the banality that it is. (It makes more sense to me, now, while so many such films and plays and books feature no female characters whatsoever, and why, when they do, the women are caricatured into the extreme or left as vacuous enigmas – think Motoko Kusanagi, Ramona Flowers, the Bride.) It was interesting to note that Ryan played girlfriends and women that assumed caring and matey roles, rather than sensual or sexual; the nagging question being, after a while, whether this is an accurate depiction of Australian women (someone, somewhere, noted that Australian culture is hyper-masculine, posing problems for expression of femininity for both women and men), or another way to lessen the feminine quotient in the show. (The second question is whether this is a ludicrous question.)

A circular semiology opens here, with the 90s cinema, Thyestes, the Greek myth, and the reality it points to (Robert Graves refers the myth of the House of Atreus to actual sibling kings and a throne dispute) all pointing to each other, all signifying one another, all cases of a boy-universe, in which women are just colourful background, like a deck of collectable cards, the possession of which positions the players hierarchically, into relative winners and losers. The point being not that Thyestes is the male equivalent of a chick flick (dude-play?) – which it certainly is – but that Tarantino’s universe is an apt place where to translate the myth of the House of Atreus.

When Sennett writes about the fall of the public man, the ontological shift he refers to (between the Roman for whom the home was a place for reflection on the public world, and a baby boomer for whom it was a coccoon), is the shift between tragedy as Commonly Understood (as a public event, shall we generalise?), and whatever happens in Thyestes. The ugly underside of Thyestes, which I suppose is where its emotional impact hides, is a private sordidness which has become unanchored in any sort of public life. (Something similar happens to certain kinds of American indie, say Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan or Todd Solonz’s films, in which violence and suffering have lost any relationship to grand ideas, purpose, or even audience, and instead float in a landscape of outer-suburban nursing homes, endless freeways, squalid rental apartments. Such stories are that harder to bear for the complete absence of grand narrative that could underpin the enormity of the horror they depict.)

The story could go on: some critics have written about Nietzsche, some about Heidegger, some about Benjamin and Bernhardt. It is, certainly, a production that can bear the weight of all these interpretations. Like any truly interesting work of art, it only gets better on rereading.

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Scott Pilgrim; musings on misogyny

After enthusiastic recommendations of the film by at least three men very dear to me, I’ve finally given in and seen Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.

Having a mountain of work to catch up on, I don’t think I have time nor energy for an in-depth analysis, but the film did leave me with one very pointed question mark hanging above my head, and it is the question ethics and pop culture.

Abigail Nussbaum completely seconds my opinion when she writes, on her blog, that Scott Pilgrim is both a fun movie, and an indisputably misogynist movie. Giving herself more time and space to analyse how and why, and also to wrestle with a number of Pilgrim fans who loudly disagree in the comments’ section, Nussbaum gives a very rounded overview of the film, equally critical and generous: it is both a fun piece of cinematic fluff, and one more brick in the general misogyny of the American (Canadian-American?) pop culture.

To both the fans and the critics of the film, this bias may be even more tragic when considering that, by all accounts, the original graphic novel works hard to unwind precisely the cliches that the film perpetuates. What appears to have been a subtle(r) and (more) nuanced critique of a certain kind of narcissistic, young slacker male, has here turned into a largely positive portrait in which, in the end, all faults are forgiven, some personal growth detected, and the loser gets the patient, mature and beautiful girl. There is a passage, it seems, between the subculture and the pop culture that flattens nuance, as registered in the fact that the Bechdel test would pass the comic, but fail the film.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Left: the flawed but lowable protagonist. Right: the romantic lead with a bit of personality, but no character.

(What is the Bechdel test? First divulged to me by one of those same men who invited me to see this film, Bechdel test is named after Alison Bechdel, an American graphic novelist. It both demonstrates the comparative progressiveness of the American graphic novels when compared to the movies, and is a one-size-fits-all detector of misogyny in any narrative. To pass the Bechdel test, a movie:

1. has to have at least two women in it,
2. Who talk to each other,
3. About something besides a man.
Whether this detects merely misogyny, or the complete inability of our popular art to portray women as human beings is a pertinent question, but let’s leave it aside. Let’s also leave aside the fact that many, many other films, TV shows, and comics fail this test together with Scott Pilgrim, including such beacons of feminism as Sex and the City, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or Frida. The point is, Scott Pilgrim fails.)

It’s interesting, however, that a few web-commentators have remarked on the misogyny, but no one to my knowledge has mentioned racism *. Yet Scott Pilgrim is also an undeniably racist film. From the first moment the only Asian character faints, clearly too anime to do anything better, I wondered how the portrayal of gay characters has managed to shoot up from caricature to respect, leaving behind such comparatively more frequent behaviour as being of non-Anglo-Saxon ethnicity.

Yes, it is possible to give a hundred reasons for why Knives Chau behaves the way she does: she is only 17, meant to be a boy-fantasy girlfriend, the most immature character, etc. But I watched the film thinking of all the young Chinese Australians I know, all wonderfully rounded and complex people, and wondered how annoying it must be for them to never see faces like their own in any more central, more complex, more rounded role than the screaming sidekick caricature. Yes, the immature 17-year-old girlfriend swoons and says OMG. But why is only the 17-year-old girlfriend a Chinese-Canadian? Why not the romantic interest, the lead, the mature best friend?

At the same time, I’ve always found it annoying that this question is treated with such seriousness by feminists, post-colonialists, and Left-leaning liberal people in general. How serious can this issue really be? Is it really on par with slavery and Hiroshima? I don’t think so.

But today, I’m wondering if we could compare this pop-cultural treatment of women and races with smoking – not least because I’m reading That Book That Makes People Quit Smoking.

Namely: every smoker tells herself and her friends the same story. It goes like this: “I am not addicted. I just enjoy it. I could stop any time. If I’m not stopping, it’s because I like smoking/it relaxes me/it helps my concentration/I only smoke socially.” But what happens when someone asked the smoker, given the absence of serious addiction, to stop smoking for a week to demonstrate that she could quit any time? Ah, now it’s impossible. The smoker realises she is unable to, but will come up with a host of reasons for why now is not the right time to try this: “it’s a stressful period/it’s a period of socialising/I am still enjoying it too much/I’ll quit next week.” Because each cigarette is perceived as only one cigarette, not one in a long chain, not one small perpetuation of an unhealthy addiction, it is very hard to make the smoker acknowledge that the addiction is there. But, just like the cat doesn’t need to know where the hot-water pipes lie under the floor, to know that sitting in certain places is nice and warm, so the smoker doesn’t need to understand the mechanics of the nicotine addiction to enjoy the familiar relaxation of satisfying it.

The low-level, low-intensity racism and sexism of pop culture is, I think, very similar to the low-intensity nicotine addiction. It provides so little palpable pleasure that neither is perceived as a conscious act of satisfying a deep desire, either for nicotine, or to humiliate women/other races. Each act of misogyny and racism, just like a cigarette, is perceived as a single act of satisfying something else (humour, narrative cliché, shorthand, simplifying for greater clarity). But when you ask a question that would reasonably follows from such disawoval, such as: why not have a Chinese girl as the romantic interest?, or why not have multiple developed female characters who talk to each other about music, politics or cars? (the equivalent of quitting smoking for a week), it becomes obvious that these disparate actions, however unintentional and unperceived, form a long chain of habit, in this case a habit of portraying other races as inferior, or women as nothing but love interests.

Taken separately, each instance of a female character with barely a trace of interior life (like Ramona Flowers in Scott Pilgrim is a perfectly excusable artistic error – just like, taken separately, each cigarette is just one tiny little mistake in a very long life. But, cumulatively, one kills you and the other one builds a world in which all Chinese girls say OMG and swoon whenever they’re supposed to make a rational decision.

* This is actually incorrect, as I’ve discovered now. Prof. Susurro, a cinema/cultural studies academic, discusses precisely the racism of Scott Pilgrim on her extraordinary blog Like a Whisper **.
** This leads to another question: what would the Bechdel test for racism look like? Clearly, two people of colour talking to each other, but about what..?

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Review: Desire, psychoanalysis, and Sappho… in 9 fragments

First on the general qualities of this work. Sappho… in 9 fragments premiered the Stork Hotel in 2007, before getting picked up by the Malthouse, tidied up and restaged by Marion Potts, the incoming AD thereof. A monodrama, written, conceived and performed by the fierce Jane Montgomery Griffiths, a Classics scholar in her own right. It’s not so much a voicing of Sappho, nor a dissection of her work, as it is a performance with the missing poet at its centre. How much do we know with certainty about this highly esteemed poet from Lesbos? Very little, as no reliable historical accounts of her life have survived, and her work in fragments only. Sappho is a sealed safe, but Griffiths gives voice to her nonetheless: her loves, her rage and indignance at various interpretations (always by men), be they pictorial or textual. In her hands, theatre performance becomes an act of reading, thinking, imagining.

Jane Marion Griffiths. Photo credits: Jeff Busby.

Second on its high quality. Sappho… in 9 fragments is first-class theatre, and if there is a show this year that should be seen by a wide audience as a demonstration of what moneyed theatre should do, then this is the one. It is made out of good ideas, of smart solutions. Naked, skin-headed Griffiths emerges from a glass tank filled with ambrosia, which slowly leaks throughout the performance, creating a honey-coloured pond on the floor until all that remains from the glorious poet is a tray of meat. Anna Cordingley and Paul Jackson’s set and lighting design marries absolute minimalism of means with a thorough clarity of signification: it is a high achievement of a design sensibility particular to Australian theatre. Griffiths’s words – combining an original narrative, literary scholarship, historical observations and free translations of Sappho – build a text that is intelligent, witty, full-bodied and highly dramatic. Her physical presence is extraordinary, bringing to life a stage creature that is soft and hard, strong and sensitive, sometimes raging and sometimes completely paralysed.

Third on its aesthetic lineage. Sappho… is a classic work of high post-modernism. Sappho is an author singularly bereft of a voice, and Griffiths’s scholarly dramaturgy revels in weaving and slashing through approaches and interpretations, less and more facetious misreadings. There is no unified Sappho at the end of the show, but this is not a tragedy. Rather, Sappho becomes a mirror to the world. She remains a ghost (angry, desiring, doubting, polite), and despite the stage presence of one undressed woman, her presence is immaterial, her agency only in bringing forth the multiple fragments out of which she is constructed. I have not often seen works of this kind on Melbourne stages, and I suspect it’s because they require deep familiarity with a subject, which can only be attained with time. Our theatre-makers are notoriously young, and dramaturgs, the one profession usually engaged in deep research, are not a frequent presence in our theatre companies.

Fourth on its philosophical lineage, and those interested in a pure review can stop reading now. Sappho… (just like post-modernism itself) echoes many of the psychoanalytical ideas about desire, but also, interestingly, about women. Of all the twentieth-century ideas about women, this may be the most consistently expressed one: woman as a lacuna, as a set of poses to be adopted, roles to be played. The female as the second sex: made, not autochtonous. The woman as the seen, not the seer; the spoken-of, not the speaker. As the object of desire, an empty vessel, to be filled at will. The language, the symbolic order, interprets women rather than letting them speak. Hence the importance of stylisation in the definition of femininity: fashion, make-up, hair, bodily poses. Without them, what is a woman? Is there some sort of primordial femininity behind the dyes and the paints and the frills, just waiting to come out – as some feminists have claimed (the moderate ones)? Or is there no woman to speak of until one becomes one, as other feminists (Simone de Beauvoir and Judith Butler among the most well-known) have argued? As the object of desire, as the first and foremost object of desire, a woman cannot have a voice, does not exist but as an empty vessel. (This idea is very nicely expressed in Christopher Nolan’s film The Inception, in which Leonardo Di Caprio explains the logic of dreams to Ellen Page, the designer of dreams: “If you create something secure [like a bank vault] the mind automatically fills it with something it wants to protect.” Is the feeling of being loved, but not seen, not immediately recognisable to the reader? For being desired as a projection of the other person’s desires? As a safe for their most intimate thoughts and feelings, but not their own?)

At this point psychoanalysis splinters between being helpful to feminism, and being supremely unhelpful. On the one hand, it is asserted that all seeing is masculine, that all desire is male; women artists explore this status as objects of desire, knowingly. On the other, is this not a consolidation of an ontology which may be universal, but is not necessarily unavoidable? When Germaine Greer bemoans female artists as self-indulgent and even, paradoxically, auto-objectifying, what underlines her critique is the sense that not much is to be gained by insisting on the gender split between those who desire, and those who are desired; that the line is not carved in stone. The interpretative dilemma is real: on the one hand, women are still afflicted by illnesses in which the body acts out what the language (the symbolic) cannot express: hysteria once, anorexia today. On the other hand, there are more varities of female life today than when Freud was compiling his discoveries.

Sappho is a perfect woman as case study: revered, admired, analysed, voiceless. A perfect empty vessel, and precisely for that reason an excellent appearance of a secret, a hole in the centre of the symbolic order (quot Zizek). What interests me in Griffiths’s work is the way the speaking subject is primarily the object of desire, and rarely its owner. When she speaks as Sappho, she is the voice of someone whose subjectivity has undergone torturous interpretative transformation: she is a multitude of analyses, not a voice. When she speaks as Atthis, a young woman object of Sappho’s poems, in a contemporary incarnation as young admirer of a successful actress, her attraction is overwhelmingly the reflection of the actress’s attraction to her. The dramatic resolution of the quandary of Sappho in a self-conscious, awkward character of a young woman desired and then abandoned seems to me the weakest dramaturgical aspect of the work. After an exploration of the missing female subjectivity, we return exactly where we started: to the woman as object of desire. It is as if the entire twentieth century has taught us only to embrace this desire, not to master it for ourselves. In this sense, Sappho… in 9 fragments strikes me as conservative, and unsatisfactory.

I can broadly agree with Greer: there must be something beyond the acceptance of woman as the eternal object, beyond pole dancing, lipstick feminism, Sex and the City. The most striking comment on this came to me from the unlikely source: Judith Butler. Despite her reputation as the philosopher that negates femininity, she often returns to this simple idea that desire is empowering, transformative. In one interview, Butler criticised the notion of political lesbianism:

“I always hated this saying that feminism is the theory and lesbianism must be the practice. It desexualizes lesbians. I became a lesbian at the age of fourteen. And I didn’t know anything about politics. I became a lesbian as I wanted somebody very deeply. “

I remember the effect this statement had on me when I first read it: a woman speaking simply about ‘wanting someone’ was so unlike anything I had heard women say. So much of the feminist project seems to have become about fending off desire, through initiatives against sexual harassment, objectification, pornography, and so forth. Sappho… may be just that: a fending off. What a strange conclusion from a work about a poet who wrote about love herself, who wrote about desire long before women became the ‘hole at the centre of the symbolic order’. (But was it before? Here is that problem with classics: one is never sure. I may be committing just such intellectual violence.) I wished for more, or for something else. Perhaps I wanted to see 9 fragments of Judith Butler.

Sappho…in 9 fragments, written and performed by Jane Montgomery Griffiths. Staging by Marion Potts, set and costumes by Anna Cordingley, lighting design by Paul Jackson, composition and sound design Darrin Verghagen. Malthouse Theatre. Runs until August 21.

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