30 November 2011
There’s an amazing scene in Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011): the titular character (Elizabeth Olsen) has reappeared at her sister’s house after being gone for two years — and although she won’t talk about where she’s been or why she’s scared, her strange actions speak volumes. One night as Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her husband have sex in bed, Martha walks in and curls up on one side. She’s so quiet it even takes them a moment to notice her there. They explode with a sense of violation — screaming at her about privacy and such behavior being abnormal. Once they’ve calmed down, Lucy asks Martha whether she understands why they were so upset. “Because it’s private,” Martha parrots back, again with that placid look on her face. “And it’s not normal.” We know with absolute certainty that she’s learned to repeat whatever truisms she’s told, because when she does, she’s rewarded with love — or is it because when she doesn’t comply, there are scary consequences?
This isn’t just a post about two excellent films, nor is it a typical review. I want to suggest that what those films portray — two different versions of a woman having her sanity challenged by a controlling, ostensibly loving male authority — can be seen not just as specific, individual cases, but a broader cultural phenomenon. It’s similar to the way I treated Black Swan last year — film as a jumping-off point to talk about culture.
Perhaps you suspect me of having jumped the shark with such a point. Most of us are not escaping from cultlike, charismatic leaders like John Hawkes in Martha Marcy May Marlene. Neither are most of us gaslighted, describing what Lauren over at Feministe calls “a repeat, systematic series of lies that are designed to make the victim doubt her reality. It’s not one lie or two lies, it’s part of a pattern of abuse meant to make the victim more compliant to minimize the effects of abuse, accept blame, and accept the abuser’s version of events that are contrary to her own. In other words, it’s death by a thousand cuts.”
Perhaps you haven’t seen Gaslight recently (I’m talking about the 1944 US remake of the 1940 British film), but you should. It’s surprisingly creepy even now, begging you to wonder how easy it would be to be persuaded you’re crazy. He (Charles Boyer) starts with little things: he hides his wife’s (Ingrid Bergman) brooch, or a framed picture on the wall, and then persuades her that she hid them and doesn’t remember.
When she’s alone in a room he stomps around in the unused attic and fiddles with the gas lights, then laughs at her when she claims there’s something wrong with the lights or that she hears footsteps. He isolates her from other people, claiming it’s for her own sake. He starts to threaten her with institutionalization. He tells her that her madness is genetic, and that her own mother was insane.
Now let’s think about how the denials of Herman Cain’s sexual harassment prompted a surprising number of GOP mouthpieces to deny the very existence of sexual harassment charges earlier this month. It’s not just that Cain is innocent, they said. It’s that women are scheming liars. Women misunderstand jokes. Women try to move ahead by inventing stories about men. Women might believe they were harassed, but they’ve just got overactive imaginations. Women are stupid pawns, easily manipulated in men’s political games. Women who claim they’ve been raped are likewise presumed to be sluts who are lying: thus the GOP wants to redefine rape so that only evidence of the most extreme violence can be used as proof. (Be assured, friends, that effort is still underway.)
“It’s no longer just a Republican war on women. It’s a war on the idea that any woman might ever tell the truth,” as Dalia Lithwick concludes in her excellent Slate piece.
That scene I described above from Martha Marcy May Marlene is indicative of a pattern: she’s learned to repeat, and perhaps even to believe, whatever she’s told — no matter what the circumstances. When she’s subjected to a horrific act that her fellow cult members call “the cleansing,” they soothe her afterward by telling her how wonderful it is, how much they wish they could go through the process again for the first time. Soon Martha is laughing, as if her entire experience of violation has been rewritten as a mystical and transformative.
Surely we can believe that if a misogynistic, horrific idea is repeated long enough, it can start to seem normal. Let’s take the idea that has been building since 1973 into its current incarnation: that abortion is always, always bad. I was a teenager in the 80s in a small evangelical town and even I knew that if I got pregnant I’d get an abortion. If I were growing up now, would I believe what they’re saying: that abortion causes cancer, that it causes permanent emotional trauma, that abortion doctors are butchers, that even if I’d been raped or if childbirth would kill me I’d need to bring that baby to term? I don’t know — but young people today disapprove of abortion in far larger numbers than they did during the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Can we deny that this onslaught of misinformation, making women doubt their own opinions or needs, is to blame?
Actually, let’s talk about what I find even more upsetting, yet widespread: the anti-abortion message that women are incapable of making good choices, so the state needs to make choices on their behalf. I think this is a campaign designed to sidestep popular support for the notion of “choice” — no one wants to be seen as “anti-choice.” Instead, anti-abortionists have changed the terms of the debate — they’re not against choice, it’s just that women make selfish and bad choices they will regret. Women who have abortions are bad. Women who think it’s more important to feed the children they already have than add another child to the family are bad. Women who want to finish college rather than have a baby are bad. Therefore, anti-abortionists file out in front of clinics and torment the women walking inside. In its effort to criminalize abortion, the anti-abortion movement has even gone so far as to seek to make every miscarriage a potential crime scene and call into question every single aspect of a pregnant woman’s lifestyle. The Mississippi “personhood amendment,” which every single GOP presidential candidate supported, redefined life as starting with conception — potentially outlawing the Pill.
What we need are more cultlike, charismatic male authority figures to watch us. Obviously!
The effect of that shift in thinking is a scary breaking down of the notion that a woman’s body might be her own. In Martha Marcy May Marlene, she learns that in exchange for giving up all privacy, all rights to her body, she receives love and comfort from her fellow cult members. (One of the fascinating things the film shows us is how lonely, isolated, and inarticulate she becomes without the cult: it’s terrifying to sleep alone, to return to a world where even one’s sister only offers up a teensy amount of physical affection.)
But let’s return in the end to the great, amazing climactic scene from Gaslight — a climax notably lacking in Martha Marcy May Marlene, I might add. We have no idea how crazy he’s made Ingrid Bergman by this time; she doubts all her own memories. She trusts her husband implicitly. She’s so weak emotionally that she can barely understand it when an inspector finally arrests her husband for a murder many years ago — that’s the secret he sought to keep — and ties him up in a chair. The film ends with her alone in the room with her bound husband, with him trying to manipulate her one more time: to help him escape.
It’s terrifying, because she seems to be manipulable. He tells her to withdraw a knife he’s hidden from a drawer and cut him free. She moves, robotlike, to the drawer and fishes around for a while, telling him there’s nothing there.
Yet when she turns back to him, she has the knife in her hand, gripped in an odd backhanded grip (and what a great acting choice Bergman made with that grip). We realize that she has stopped listening to her husband, and that now she’s doing the talking. She denies that there is a knife — and then tosses the knife off into a corner.
“I’m always losing things and hiding things and I can never find them — I don’t know where I put them. That was a knife, wasn’t it? and I have lost it. I must look for it, mustn’t I, and if I don’t find it you will put me in the madhouse. Where could it be now? Perhaps it’s behind this picture — yes, it must be here. No — where shall I look now? Perhaps I put it over here.”
By now we’re feeling a little bit better — after all, she’s not going to let Boyer escape — but the film doesn’t let us off the hook. It takes us to another kind of terror: that she has been manipulated so terribly that she will kill him. Then we get to the most amazing series of lines:
“If I were not mad I could have helped you. Whatever you had done I could have pitied and protected you. But because I am mad I hate you. Because I am mad I have betrayed you and because I am mad I’m rejoicing in my heart without a shred of pity, without a shred of regret, watching you go with glory in my heart!”
We’re all being gaslighted, friends. How much more before we, too, are mad? How much more before we aren’t sure what’s “normal,” what’s “private,” and what isn’t?
4 March 2011
Mark Harris has a piece in GQ right now that offers a dark explanation of why Hollywood makes such a lot of garbage — you know, all those sequels and superheroes — but I’ve gotten stuck on a passage midway through. Hollywood makes movies for one group of viewers: men under 25, he explains. Moreover:
In Hollywood [if you] have a vagina, you’re pretty much out of luck, because women, in studio thinking, are considered a niche audience that, except when Sandra Bullock reads a script or Nicholas Sparks writes a novel, generally isn’t worth taking the time to figure out. And if you were born before 1985 … well, it is my sad duty to inform you that in the eyes of Hollywood, you are one of what the kids on the Internet call “the olds.” I know—you thought you were one of the kids on the Internet. Not to the studios, which have realized that the closer you get to (or the farther you get from) your thirtieth birthday, the more likely you are to develop things like taste and discernment, which render you such an exhausting proposition in terms of selling a movie that, well, you might as well have a vagina.
In short, as writer-producer Vince Gilligan explains, “Hollywood has become like Logan’s Run: You turn 30, and they kill you.”
Except hang on, that doesn’t make sense vis-à-vis the actual numbers of moviegoers. As the blogger Melissa Silverstein shows in her roundup at Women & Hollywood, women buy tickets and attend films in exactly the same numbers as men, and it’s viewers over 25 who see vastly more movies — over 60%. In short, Hollywood is still putting all its eggs into that basket made up of 23% of the moviegoers between the ages of 12 and 24. Hell, it’d make more sense to market to the whopping 15% of the moviegoing populace between the ages of 2 and 11 — and to their parents.
Nor does it make sense when you look at the trends with big-budget cable TV series. Suddenly it’s not just HBO making quality series; it’s also TNT and AMC and USA (and Showtime, natch), all of which seem to be targeting a population in its 30s & 40s. From Justified to The Closer, Saving Grace, Mad Men, and Nurse Jackie, these shows feature a surprising number of great women actors in their 40s, for gods’ sake. Hollywood could sell more tickets to me if my choices weren’t limited to the appalling The Green Hornet and Justin Bieber Never Say Never; but now that you mention it, I’d rather stay home with Edie Falco.
Oh, did I forget that Hollywood has thrown to us ladies movies like Just Go With It (the Jennifer Aniston vehicle) and No Strings Attached (Natalie Portman’s poorly-considered followup to Black Swan)? Can you feel your intelligence being insulted?
A long time ago I remember hearing a news story about the brilliance of McDonald’s, which varied its menu to suit local populations. In Hong Kong it sells fried rice; in India it sells the McAloo Tikki burger; in Turkey you can get a Kofteburger. McDONALD’S DIVERSIFIES TO SELL FOOD. Why can’t Hollywood?
28 January 2011
“I just want to be perfect,” Natalie Portman’s character Nina explains to her director Tomas (Vincent Cassel), when she defends her gifts as a dancer. Perfect, but she’s not good enough. Honestly, I think that in 100 years when historians look back at the condition of women at the turn of the 21st century, they will use “I just want to be perfect” as the most cutting, accurate articulation of our culture’s contradictions. And when I say this, don’t focus solely on the word perfect — think about the word just as well. It’s a statement that begs for approval from others, assumes an impossible standard, and modestly begs not to be seen as unattractively ambitious. Viewers of Black Swan: get ready to enter our world.
Am I exaggerating? Certainly not for young women like Nina (Portman). Back in 2003 Duke University was rocked by an anonymous letter to the editor of the campus paper that described a woman’s slow loss of confidence during her undergraduate years at Duke. She explained that women undergrads adhered to the ideal of “effortless perfection” — the notion that they should have perfect hair, clothes, weight, grades, and success — demands made all the more impossible because girls must never display the crushing effort required to achieve any of it. They exercised on treadmills for hours to be able to eat pizza later on. They just had to be perfect. The letter led to the usual results (hand-wringing by the Women’s Studies department, denials that there might be a problem) but here’s the thing: this is hardly limited to Duke. The New York Times featured a story in 2007 about high school girls who do everything — and likewise strive to be “perfect” — and still get rejected, crushingly, from colleges. We’ve been bemoaning the diseases of anorexia, bulimia, and other distorted body image issues for more than a generation now; it doesn’t take much to see that thinness is part and parcel of a broader set of demands that likewise have overwhelming psychological effects on girls. Perfect, perfect, perfect. It’s the disease of our time. Is this movie an elaborate metaphor for the experience of girls and young women?
Who’d be more susceptible to this psychic burden than a ballet dancer? The competition, the necessary precision, the need to be beautiful as well as freakishly talented, the toll on one’s body. Portman has famously discussed losing a whopping twenty-plus pounds from her tiny body for the role (“I thought I was going to die,” she explained), a statement that has elicited little sympathy on the part of journalists, who write callous headlines like, “Does Natalie Portman weight loss mean Oscar gold?” No wonder there are so many scenes of her alone, picking at a loose piece of skin or afraid to look in a bathroom mirror, all of it taking place in cold, hard rooms. Want to read a brilliant, almost prose-poem piece on this film? Take a look at Kartina Richardson’s essay at Mirror on Black Swan, women, and bathroom mirrors (I can only admire the flow of good writing). As much as I watched this film with true amazement at what Portman achieved as a dancer for this role, I have a hard time thinking of this as simply a role; it sounds as if the actress herself spiraled down into a kind of method-acting hell. Thank you, Natalie Portman, for speaking candidly about the part’s difficulties, rather than pretend her physical perfection in the part came without effort. We would do well to follow her lead rather than focus on the post-production fact that she gained back the weight and got pregnant with her fiancé, also a dancer.
With all the conflicting expectations, no wonder Portman’s character starts to split in two. Is this because she’s unhealthy or too emotionally fragile, placing too many demands on herself? No, it’s because other people do, too. She’s perfect — the perfect daughter, a perfect dancer — but she’s not sexy enough to be the Black Swan. “When I look at you, all I see is the White Swan,” her director Tomas tells her. “Yes, you’re beautiful, restrained, graceful. Perfect casting. But the Black Swan … it’s a hard fucking job to dance both.” He patronizingly advises her to masturbate — to loosen up, to seduce him and the audience as the Black Swan. Yet when she does, she falls from grace as a perfect daughter; she looks with new eyes at her little-girl bedroom, all pink and white and stuffed animals and a ballerina music box. In the process she starts to see another version of herself on the sidewalk, on the train, in the mirror. It goes without saying that the demands of heightened sexuality don’t loosen her up at all; they start to destroy her. I find it apt and poetic that if you google “perfect girls,” you get a whole list of porn sites.
For all of these reasons I find it impossible to view Black Swan as just a film, or a thriller, or a psycho-sexual melodrama, or as any of the other tidy descriptors used to characterize it. In fact, I find it impossible to view it as a critic — I can’t tell you whether this is a good film or whether Portman deserves the best-actress Oscar because it hits too many of my nerves. I can’t help seeing it as a fractured fairy tale with ingredients stirred in by Carl Jung, the modern modeling industry, and feminists given to telling cautionary tales. Did I “enjoy” watching it? Not in the least. Do I think it’s a historic visual testament to the tolls of Effortless Perfectionism? Oh my god, yes. It’s the return of the repressed, this film. Of course, I also believe that some viewers will be distracted by the lesbian sex scene, and that my views of this film as I’ve framed them here will not be typical. But just you wait: 100 years down the line, this’ll be the film that appears in all those women’s history classes — I can only hope those future female undergrads have found a way out of the psychic prison their forebears experienced.