Monday, August 9, 2010

A Scale to Help You Determine What Type of Sexist the Hip-Culture Canon Work You’re Looking at is

There is a scale of 1-10. At the left, at 1, is the honest-asshole-misogynist writer/artist/collector. He is Henry Miller, arguably Charles Bukowski. At the right is the I-pretend-I’m-sincere-but-I’m-an-asshole-misogynist-too. He is Rivers Cuomo. Every book, writer, album, movie, songwriter that hip boys have told us to like since the beginning of time has had a narrator or a protagonist who falls somewhere on this scale—though sometimes at even more extreme ends. Every Pinkerton, Catcher, Tropic of Cancer, Women, Garden State, Psychotic Reactions, (fuck, even Rushmore or Almost Famous) can basically be classified in this way.

These are, I admit, some of my favorite books and albums and movies. (Though some of them are also my least favorite books and albums and movies—I’m lookin’ at you, Braffy.) But they are all defined by 1) Their being positioned in some way as The Best 2) Their having a male male protagonist/creative director 3) Their lack of any women that really have any control over their own portrayal. The nature of these works’ relationship with women and cultural control places them somewhere on this scale.

Consider the foundation for this theory Sady Doyl’s piece in The Awl: “Rivers Cuomo Messes You Up Forever.” Everyone on Earth has read it, I know. But let me use it to define what I consider the extreme right end of this cultural spectrum:
1. Boys consider Pinkerton to be Weezer’s Best Album
2. It is Better Than The Blue Album because it is about a more Sincere experience: that is, the Experience of Males Specifically
3. Pinkerton is creepy
4. Pinkerton is about how Rivers Cuomo can’t get the ladies, because they don’t understand him, and because he is very Self Destructive and Sensitive. Pinkerton is about how Rivers Cuomo can’t control himself sometimes, because he is flawed. However, he expects you to love/be impressed with this flaw because ultimately, his lack of self-control is a loss of self-control. When Rivers Cuomo loses control of his ability to cheat on you, he does it because he is so flawed. He is also very conscious of the times when he has control and when he does not have control. This is in contrast to every woman Rivers Cuomo is in love with. Women Rivers Cuomo loves are only in control of the following things: being a Bitch, breaking his heart, and occasionally (I guess, ideally) being impressed by Rivers Cuomo. Take “Pink Triangle.” “Pink Triangle” is about how Rivers Cuomo is in a relationship with a woman who turns out to be a Lesbian. He was basically convinced that they were going to get married because he never asked her. And then he’s fucking crushed that she’s a Lesbian. We’re supposed to feel bad that his whole romantic future is over, and feel a little pissed at that bitchdyke for leading him on. We leftist Alt kids know that gayness is not a choice, so of course the Lesbian didn’t choose to not love Rivers Cuomo. This is, again, something this woman did not control. However, she totes could control breaking Rivers’ heart, rite? She broke his heart. Nevermind the fact that he never asked her if she wanted the relationship to begin with, because basically he assumed that it wasn’t her choice. Relationships, to Rivers, are not a mutual decision as much as they are defined by how girls react to his being in love with them, and usually he is not in love with them because they are People, but because they are some sort of quasi-spiritual-sexual-psychic-spaces-that-he-wants-to-live-in. (For more on quasi-spiritual-sexual-psychic-spaces that interesting boys want to live in, read: Natalie Portman’s stupid character in Garden State.) And when Rivers wants to live in your space psychically, the only thing you can do about it is Be a Bitch and Ruin Everything. That is: In Rivers Cuomo’s world, women only exist as vapours, and the only control they could ever have would be destructive. It’s also important to note that never once does Rivers say, “I know I’m just projecting my shit on you, ladies. That’s fucked up.” Instead, he says, “I’m so fucked up, I’ll never understand ladies because I don’t regard them as real people that I can actually speak to like humans. Obviously this is because I am so Sensitive and have a Social Anxiety or something. Mostly I just interact with girls by reading their diaries behind their back. For some reason this sneaking around doesn’t ignite my anxiety.”
5. The vast, vast majority of males who worship Pinkerton (especially before Sady’s piece) have no awareness of any of these dynamics and would be really really pissed at me, and Sady, for saying these things, and would probably think in their head that we don’t understand it because we are girls, we are annoying feminist bitches, and that our girlness/lack of peopleness would never allow us to understand these Sincere Deep experiences.

This is the first part of the way that we, as women who are kind of Alt and listen to the things our Alt guy friends have told us to listen to since forever, are portrayed in almost every established production of our culture. (Disclaimer: I really do love Pinkerton.)

The next defining feature of the Rivers Cuomo 10, though, is more important to what I’m trying to say. Like I said, these girls have no control over anything. What that means, though, is that they also have no control over Alt culture, and generally wouldn’t understand it. Case in point: “El Scorcho.” Basically, it’s a song about Rivers Cuomo’s crush on a half-Japanese girl that doesn’t know who he is, another classic in Weezer-Style-Gross-Orientalism. In it, he asked his Asian woman to go to a Green Day concert. She said she’d never heard of them. In 1996. And you know what? Rivers Cuomo thinks, “How cool is that?!” Girls, in his world, are totally Naive. They listen to Puccini and play the Cello because they’re girls. They wouldn’t ever know something as hip as Green Day. And he loves this. He wants to continue living in a world where girls are totally Naive about things like music and other areas of his interest. Because God forbid she be as good at his culture as he is.

So that’s it: the closer you move toward a ten on this scale, the less girls are expected to know about or participate in a goddamn thing related to Alt or Hip or Knowing or Respectable culture.

Before I explain the other end, let me share the criteria that I’ve developed to grade works. It’s based on Sady’s piece, and the Bechdel Test, and the Manic Pixie Dream Girl concept. They are all ideas that you will think about every time you watch a Wes Anderson movie or read/listen to anything on Pitchfork for the rest of your life. Contrary to the general conceptions about feminists, we still like things that kind of suck, even when we write long essays about how they are sexist. Because, you know, we’re people. (In fact, generally speaking, my favorite movies involve brutal mutilation/murder of, mostly, females. Especially the murder of sluts. But I’m still a feminist!)

Here are the criteria.
When I say “Criteria,” I’m not arguing that there is a good or bad in this spectrum. Like I said, I love Pinkerton. It’s just that, in order to love something, you have to be able to determine how much bullshit is involved in it, how much of that bullshit is sexist bullshit, and what type of sexist bullshit you’re looking at, exactly.

Ask yourself these questions of the book or movie or album or body of acceptable music:
1. Are women seen as people, and not just projections of our hip-sensitive male’s own insecurities/spiritual quests?
2. If women are, in fact, only used as literary devices or as blank space for projection, is it clear that the male is aware of this and acknowledges its flaws? (I would say even Lolita probably falls into this category)
3. Are women given voices and a certain degree of control over their own depiction and/or fate? If not, is it clear that this is the author’s intention—a la Catcher in the Rye?
4. Are women seen as valuable producers in the male’s universe—beyond filling his psychological void and/or making sammiches? Otherwise, again, is this an acknowledged flaw itself?
5. This, in many ways, is the most important: Are women seen as people that are able to fully contribute and participate in the man’s ideal culture (ie, Alt culture, hip culture, good literature, punk, record collecting, not being phony, etc.)?

The more confidently you can answer “yes” to these questions, the closer to 1 the work lies. If you know there’s a lotta “nos” up there, you got yourself a Rivers Cuomo on your hands.

I’ll talk a little more about what I consider to be a “1” after the jump.

The other side, a 1, can be a little complex. I would like to argue that Bukowski would fall over here, but I honestly don’t know him as well as I know, say, Henry Miller. Henry Miller can be considered downright abusive and objectifying towards women. Compare this to Rivers: Rivers isn’t brave enough to even approach a woman that he respects, but he is happy to cheat all over the place with girls he doesn’t respect because his body tells him to. Essentially, he views his sexuality as something so deep and mysterious but completely integral to his Id or whatever, but as something which a respectable girl would never want anything to do with. Respectable women can’t like sex! That doesn’t even make sense.

Henry abuses all kinds of women with his Cock. He sleeps with sluts and virgins and wives of his and wives of others and prostitutes and older women and barely legals and Anais Nin and French Girls and American Girls and Eastern European Girls. Sometimes they’re great and sometimes they are not, but in general: they frequently like sex, they frequently are controlling it (and not just in the heartless-seduction way, but in the “I would like to have sex with you” way), and they are all different. All women are different to Henry, and they frequently have Personalities, Interests, Hobbies, Conversations. Henry lives in a world where women can know as much as he does about literature, and he’s alright with that. He’s alright with that, and he respects them, and occasionally he wants to have sex with them, and generally they’re alright with that. This isn’t always the case, but it happens frequently enough to be able to safely say that, in general, Henry Miller thinks women are people.

Don’t get me wrong, Henry Miller is also very selfish, in many ways sexist, and full of shit. Every one of his books is essentially Henry traveling or moping, having sex. Writing about the places he finds his inner world collide with the exterior world; often resulting in him projecting his own philosophical woes onto the faces, actions and vaginas of women. However, what’s most important about Henry, and what makes him a number one on this scale, is that he knows and acknowledges when he’s projecting. I have only read Tropic of Cancer and some short works, but I will draw from Sexus to show how he does this. I’m not completely sure of the context, but:

Page 41: “You saw in me something you had never observed in another woman. You saw the mask which is your own.” And, page 42: “You will always be trying to dominate yourself; the woman you love will only be an instrument for you to practice on.” See? Henry is clearly being a dick, projecting his own issues on women, pushing women away, self-destrucing, being an annoying male writer. But he totally knows, and writes about, how he is doing and being all of these things. He shows that he and everyone he knows is aware that he’s projecting his bullshit. He doesn’t feel bad for himself. Really, he’s just fucking around and looking for something and he knows it. You know what else? Women recognized this. In Henry’s world, a woman was smart enough to notice deep things like this, and he he talks to them to get their input on philosophy and shit. Try to find that in Rivers Cuomo.

I think it’s notable that Henry is able to walk this line well because he’s a relatively reliable narrator. Sure, half of his books is him going on and on about his philosophical questions; but when he talks about people, he’s usually not writing fiction. However, nonfiction/reliability is not necessarily a criteria for achieving a 1 on this scale. In fact, I would say that Catcher in the Rye is at a pretty low number on this spectrum.

I know, I know. Salinger’s misogyny is fucking controversial and legendary. We do know that Salinger himself held a lot of beliefs about “phoniness” and “the real world” (re: his disappointments with the movie industry, insecurity in his own failures) which manifested themselves as “frequently hating women because they are shallow.” We also know that Salinger lost his fucking mind, abused girls in his family, and drank his own urine (which I guess isn’t misogynistic, but still).

However, in spite of the frequent portrayals of women as shallow/materialistic/Miss Spiritual Tramp of 1948, he also portrayed Franny Glass as one of the most spiritually sophisticated, self-determining, realistic females ever to make it into Western Canon. I would argue that the misogyny in his works isn’t flat-out hatred: it’s self-aware and pretty frequently fair to the experiences of women, it often portrays women as real people who can be smart, and generally trashes men as often as it trashes women. Disclaimer: I am biased. I have read all of his books 2-7 times, and I love them. But I still think I’m qualified to make this judgment, because I’ve called JD out for a lot of his shitty shit in my years.

There are a lot of women in Catcher that are portrayed as, well, worthless/shallow/Platonically incapable of “transcending” beyond phoniness. But I mean, it’s pretty obvious that we’re dealing with this through the eyes of a teenage boy. A teenage boy who, as is the point of the book, sees sex and everything else as a space on which his spiritual conflicts duke it out and puke and fuck and spill all kinds of blood. God, that was such a bullshit litbonery sentence but you know it’s true. It’s pretty fucking clear that that’s the purpose of every girl and woman and person in the book. And btw, haters? Pretty much every dude in the book is a plot device for Holden’s conflicts too. The point of the book is not to, necessarily, take a journey through NYC with Holden Caulfield and relate to how much women suck. The point isn’t to hear a story. The point of the book is to sit with a teenager, a person in a fucked up postwar consumerist world, a teenager who’s leaving his ‘innocent’ world basically at the exact same second that the entire world is leaving that space. (Read: this is a very fucked up Western assumption to make about the meaning of WWII, but it’s also the assumption that Salinger was building on, so it applies.) And, in that context, to see how that teenager is coping with his own spirituality and understanding of humanity. Which usually results in virgin-whore dichotomies, the portrayal of women as shallow consumerists in a soulless world, the infantalization of every woman that Holden approves of, and the idealizing of children for being “innocent.” Those are all problematic ways of dealing with the loss of your ideals in a world where people write “fuck” on the wall for kids to see it. But it’s also, to a point, pretty realistic. And the point of the book, unlike the point of Pinkerton, isn’t for you to “feel bad” for Holden because he’s so flawed, and then relate to his story, and think maaaan that hooker is a bitch. The point is to see how, you know, all of the things going in America at that instant might lead a boy to feel that way. Most importantly: Holden is an unreliable narrator. We have to make the assumption that Salinger isn’t portraying women poorly, and the book itself isn’t portraying the women poorly, but that everything in the story is just filtered through Holden’s issues anyway. One more time: It’s very clear that these are projections, unlike in the case of Pinkerton.

“A Perfect Day For Bananafish” is kind of different. I think a lot of people have a lot of issues with this story, and understandably so. But I still think it’s only maybe a 4. Ultimately, it’s heavy-handed and stupid, but I’ll still defend it as “not too bad.” One reason I think it’s a little bit more full of sexist bullshit than Catcher is because the themes of the story are basically only played out through feminized tropes and misogyny; and even though your main argument is that “post-war America was full of materialistic soulless shit” it maybe isn’t such a good idea to only use terrible women as a way to prove your point. And it’s easier to question the intent with “Bananafish.” Because the character that Seymour’s wife played is a characature of women that we’re so used to seeing, every day, it’s easy for us not to notice that she’s being used as a device. It’s much easier for us to see, God, his wife was such a shallow insufferable bitch, and she just didn’t understand the deep spiritual philosophical masculinized bullshit Seymour was going through. Bitches. Always makin’ deep guys kill themselves. It’s just the way we’re trained that makes us think this first. At the end of the day, it definitely wasn’t Salinger’s aim. I just think he did kind of a shitty job at showing people that he isn’t a sexist with this one. In short: Seymour’s wife is only a feminine bitchprop because Salinger was trying to make a point about materialism. But: It’s really hard to only use women to make a point about how the world has gone to hell and not end up with a kind of sexist story. Then again, it’s less severe if you read the story in the context of Nine Stories.

The reason I wrote this is because I saw a clip of High Fidelity, and I remembered how much cool-dude bullshit is in it, and I realized I would probably be really annoyed by it now. I’m gonna revisit it with this theory as my framework. Lucas said, “but there’s something to be said about that sensitive misogynist guy who doesn’t know he’s being sexist.” And I said: “no, no there isn’t.”

(Originally posted on Tumblr, August 8, 2010)
*Scale in fig. 1 not guaranteed accurate. Zach Braff is totally like a 35.

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