"It's funny how the colors of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen."

Friday, December 23, 2011

You Are What You Watch?

Some people think David Lynch films are misogynist. I agree that many of them certainly are. Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive, and Wild at Heart are especially bad. I believe they're sexist, BUT I also really love these films! In fact, on two separate occasions, I convinced friends to rent Wild at Heart to watch with me, and both times each friend was disturbed that I like the film so much. They couldn't understand how such a staunch feminist could enjoy watching a movie so full of slimy characters and scenarios. I think they started looking at me a little differently after that. In part it's just that, like many people, I'm just a contradictory being. But I'm not sure that's entirely it.

WARNING: Film details discussed and endings revealed!

To try to understand what I like, I thought it best to explore what I don't like to figure out the difference. I stormed out of A History of Violence.  First there was the creepy scene in the coffee shop before the main character starts kicking ass. That felt real. That's how it starts. But the "sex scene" on the stairs really pissed me off. The husband starts assaulting his wife as she violently fights him off, but after he gets the upper hand, she starts liking it. They make up and everyone's happy again. It's the perpetuation of the rape myth that burns my butt, that is, the idea, often portrayed in films, that if you attack a woman, and hold firm even as she fights you, eventually she'll give in and melt in your "loving" arms. Don't believe it guys! She might give up the fight to save her own skin, but don't be surprised if you get a police officer at your door the next day.

What happens in Wild at Heart is no less violent, in fact it's much creepier, but it bothers me less for a few reasons. First of all, the film, like most of Lynch's films, has a dream-like quality. We know quickly that it's not a portrayal of reality as we know it. This film in particular carries a Wizard of Oz theme throughout. Because it's not played out as if these are real events we could rationally believe are happening somewhere, it's a safe scare for me. It goes along with my love of horror films and zombie movies. They scare me momentarily, but it's a fear that doesn't stay with me, or hit me deeply, because it's clearly not real.

Beyond the surreal nature of the film, I appreciated the realistic (ironically) depiction of rape and a very brief but poignant illustration of abortion. One almost-rape scene has Laura Dern being mauled by Willem Dafoe. She starts getting into it, then cries about it as soon as he leaves. I think that really happens sometimes, and it's rarely shown in movies. The portrayal is valuable in that it can open up ideas about the reality of the scenario. The body reacts even though the mind doesn't want it to, and it leaves the victim/survivor in an emotional mess afterwards. The other rape scene in the film involves Laura as a child of about 12 with her uncle. Her mom catches him exiting her bedroom, then the uncle soon dies in a mysterious car accident. We all know mom killed him. I take a vindictive, vicarious pleasure in the fact that her mom murdered her rapist, and a family member no less. To me, that sure beats the image of the woman eventually loving the abuse and the abuser body and soul. Even though I like the types of depictions he uses, I still think Lynch is a misogynist because he exploits the image of abused woman as sexually erotic. Blue Velvet is a better example of this. Yet these films are still entertaining to me.

And nothing beats Nick Cage crooning Elvis in the middle of a mosh pit.

On to comedy. I love Family Guy, most of the time. I love South Park too, and was very conscious the first time I saw it that if I had been with a group of people instead of alone, I would have restrained my laughter. But generally, that's more about toilet humour than sexism. Family Guy is blatantly racist and sexist. There's one episode in particular that's playing in my head, "Father, Husband, Brother?". In it Peter, the dad, finds out that he had a black relative, so he further explores his black roots. It's shockingly racist. A side-plot has Stewie, a toddler of sorts, tying up the head cheerleader at the local high school in order to take over the cheerleading team. At the end, the resident sex offender, Quagmire, finds the teenager tied up and is delighted at his luck. I found the ending of that one hard to watch, yet the rest of it didn't bother me at all! It's all about safe scares and which characters I identify with.

After 9/11, comedians took a long time feeling out when it would be okay to start making some jokes about the tragedy. I value comedy that helps us laugh at dire situations as a means to cope with them. But the tragedy has to be an arm's length away before we can laugh about it. In the episode above, I laughed at the slavery jokes. Of course slavery's not a joke, but it's just far enough away in time or place (but not both) that a parody of it might make me laugh. But I didn't laugh at that last scene. I identified with the teenager, tied up in a bathroom, with a very disturbed sexual predator standing over her. That's not far enough away from me for me to enjoy it as entertainment. That kind of stuff happens today, and close to home. I shudder to think, how close.

Peter, in Family Guy, reminds me a lot of Archie Bunker, another racist, sexist family man. There was a study done decades ago on the viewers of All in the Family. Researchers found that about half the people watching were laughing at Archie's views. They recognized the problem with his thinking and found it funny that he's still following faulty logic to come to ignorant conclusions about different races, ethnicities and women. But the other half of the viewers were laughing with Archie. They really believed his view of the world. They identified with him as sexist racists. And, they learned ideas and new pejorative terms from the show.

It's likely that similar viewers could be found watching Family Guy. A feminist can laugh at many of the opinions espoused on the show recognizing the problems inherent to the views. Since the jokes are so blatantly obvious, it's unlikely to indoctrinate intelligent people to question their socially conscious values. But I'm sure there are misogynists out there that think Quagmire is a really cool guy. (He does have a really great apartment.)

So, I don't think it's necessarily a contradiction for a feminist to love sexist films and shows. Our politics may not be directly reflected by our viewing choices, but by the way we think about what we're watching.

But maybe I'm just rationalizing.

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