Friday, June 6, 2008

Patriarchy and criticism

An increasingly bitter dialogue about Sex and the City has developed in the past several days, on blogs and in publications. Currently, the movie stands at a mediocre 53 percent on the Tomatometer, which seems awfully high for the drumming this movie has received. I don't doubt that's it's true, though, and that critics are more split on the merits of the movie than it appears. For whatever reasons, and I'm sure there are many, Sex and the City represents one of those rare cases in criticism where the detractors are making so much noise, despite not quite representing a majority. It's not so much the "for or against" rhetoric that's especially interesting, but the condescending manner in which the film is approached, even by its supporters. It seems to me that even critics who are fairly indifferent about the movie are going to great lengths to let their readers know that Sex and the City simply isn't their thing.

I don't want to make any grand suppositions, but this phenomenon seems to reflect the hegemony of patriarchy within journalistic film criticism. The irony of this statement is that when it comes to the proliferation of masculinity in cinema, Hollywood usually takes the blame and critics get a free pass. But the level of discourse about Sex and the City reveals a few tendencies in even the most productive sects in American film criticism, about the assumed male spectator.

I have not seen Sex and the City, so I cannot say what is true or untrue. But that's not really the aim of my observations. What really interests me about the SATC discourse is that it features so much self-conscious defensiveness. Critics who are downright vitriolic are targeting Sex and the City for its glorification of hyper-materialism and consumer culture, and its audacity for centering on four female characters more interested in the latest fashion trends anything else. This seems an odd claim to me, since American cinema represents one of the pinnacle commodities in contemporary culture. When critics are routinely pumping out 600-word formulaic pieces in support of "consumer culture," I wonder why films like Sex and the City are singled out, and not some of the massive action blockbusters whose saturation in media and advertising reaches sickening heights.

On the other hand, you have critics who are not outright hateful of the movie, but admit that it's not their thing. This position is much more useful than blind rage, but, again, why do critics speak this way of movies like Sex and the City and not other show-turned movies like The Simpsons, or even just certain genres or styles, like horror films or sword-and-sandal epics?

Not two weeks ago, critics largely raved about Jon Favreau's Iron Man, a comic-book actioner about a war profiteer turned-action hero. The film was competently made, no doubt, but it's hard to account for the overenthusiastic critical reception. Even critics who outright said they were getting sick of comic book movies seemed to like it. Winning over just about everyone, the film is an anomaly to me, and evidence that perhaps critics should be more reflective of their practice and reflexive. I know that it's a critic's job to treat a movie on its own terms, but if there's one thing anyone studying the arts and social sciences should know, it's that nothing stands in isolation. And part of the job of critics is to identify trends, anticipate them, and critique not just formal craft in individual movies, but to situate them amongst a larger inquiry into art, commercialism, and socioeconomic policies.

Now, I didn't read all of the reviews for Iron Man, so I don't want to make a sweeping generalization. But I did read a number of them. The best one I read was by Filmbrain, over at Like Anna Karina's Sweater. He didn't write a review, or talk about plot or character. He offered a simple observation that qualifies as evocative, interesting criticism. The post was entitled, What I learned from Iron Man, and it read:

"A pretty, Ivy League educated, socially (and politically) conscious Vanity Fair reporter will, in a matter of minutes, toss aside her personal ideology (to say nothing of her professional ethics) and jump into bed with an alpha-male war profiteer who first questions her intelligence, and then follows up with a sleazy pickup line."

I don't expect professional critics to muster the courage to write anything like this, but a number of online writers with this potential don't exercise it for that kind of commentary. Moreover, at no point did I read anything in the sea of positive reviews for Iron Man that the film not being the reviewer's cup of tea, so to speak. I would guess not, since so many of the films critics are subjected to in a year are of this variety. I suppose no one goes into professional criticism expecting that they won't see hundreds of movies like this a year. Apparently, male-centric films are ok with most critics, and why not? Hollywood cinema has always been a dreamscape for a patriarchal society, so why should critics be any different? It's the expectation of these trends, the passive acceptance of the imposition of particular values and assumptions about gender, individualism, class, race, etc. that worries me; the fact that critics appear more interested in playing the game, than looking past the surface of film cultures and analyzing trends and practices, revealing new perspectives and enabling other, in hopes of bettering the production and consumption of movies.

As Andy Horbal once noted, there is a scary amount of sameness in professional film criticism, so much that it's hard not to wonder that criticism has become the very commodity about which many of its participants complain movies have become. It's hard to hold individual critics responsible for these larger ideological trends, but at what point do we begin questioning the punditry that criticism seems to represent when viewed in a collective light. There are definitely bright spots in film criticism, but they are shining lights enshrouded in a dominant cultural system that doesn't reward progressive thought; which is, in fact, positioned as "the alternative."

Some argue that other modes of criticism are a way of correcting some of the weaknesses of professional criticism. But this largely depends on the ideological stance of the argument. Framed from a perspective of representations of gender in cinema, and the manifestations of deeply embedded cultural notions of masculinity and femininity, I'd say that all venues of journalistic film criticism are subject to massive interpretive problems stemming from a hegemony of patriarchy that pervades media.

I'm sure this isn't a popular perspecitve, so I'm welcome to counterarguments. Discuss!

8 comments:

Ed Howard said...

I think part of the reason that Sex and the City is getting this vitriolic anti-consumerist reaction, while blockbuster actioners don't, is that SATC positions itself as providing a positive role model for women. Iron Man doesn't pretend to be anything more than a well-made action film, and it's one of the better examples of that particular genre despite its muddled politics. I haven't seen the SATC movie, and I won't be either, but if it's anything like the episodes of the TV show I have seen, then it will be an extravagantly unrealistic fairy tale vision of big city life, all the while pretending to provide "empowerment" for women. It's no better than Seinfeld or Friends in its lack of economic realities and total disconnection from the way real people live their lives, and yet certain people latch onto it as though it provides some sort of feminist commentary.

So a large part of the reason SATC gets kneejerk negative reactions is not necessarily its inherent quality, which is no better or worse than most TV sitcoms, but because many people look to it for so much more simply because of cosmetic surface modifications. SATC was proof (like Tell Me You Love Me after it) that we are now in an age where the simple addition of frank sex to a show is not enough to make it radical or even "edgy." It's probably not too fair to judge the film based on the reaction to it, and it should probably just be judged as a competent, often funny sitcom, but it's hard for any critics to dismiss their expectations. To be confronted with a cultural experience that has so often been praised as empowering and feminist, and to find that it's just a fluffy and brain-dead comedy that exalts materialism, is inevitably a disappointing experience.

A lot of people have praised the film and the show for offering "strong women" characters, but if SATC is the best women can do in pop culture, they'd probably be better off bowing out of appearing altogether. I forget where I read it now, probably one of my regular blog stops, but someone pointed out the irony that the same people praising the women characters in this movie have probably never seen, and never would see, a film with real strong women characters -- one great example was Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies -- or even, Heaven forbid, a film actually MADE by a woman, like Agnes Varda or Chantal Akerman.

Chris Cagle said...

Ted, interesting polemic. I'm going to try to reflect more on it after actually seeing the movie, but for now I'd like to reply to Ed that I'm a big fan of Varda, Akerman, AND Sex and the City. A male fan, but a genuine fan nonetheless.

Ted Pigeon said...

Chris: Please share your thoughts on the movie after you see it. It might lend itself to the discussion.

Ed: To me, the issue not about female empowerment at all. I haven't met any feminist media scholars who have referred to Sex and the City as empowering. I'm not sure that even the creative minds behind the show would refer to it as empowering. That seems to me a discursive tool used within the dominant discourse that's meant to unfairly position female-centered narratives (or texts, if you will) as needing to justify themselves by being empowering to exist at all.

This is about cinematic representation, not just of women, but of gender. I have seen a few episodes of the show over the years, and have been fairly indifferent, to be honest. A show or film focusing on women doesn't make it automatically important, but it has become so more as a social event and subject of critical dialogue.

I don't disagree at all with critics who have discussed the hyper-consumerism of the film, the emptiness of the characters, etc. But I simply cannot dismiss the fact that critics selectively deploy these kinds of arguments, since they can be made about a lot of movies.

It's the assumptions buried within the dialogue that I find most interesting here. And while I agree that Iron Man was not out to make some bold statement about gender politics and negotiation, it nevertheless exhibited a number of deeply embedded values, practices, and concepts when it comes to gender in narrative, and the maintenance of gender identities in social discourse.

Ed Howard said...

Hey Ted, I don't want to get in too deep about a movie I haven't seen, based only on my casual viewing of a handful of TV episodes. I will say though that a cursory Google search for "sex and the city, empowerment" provided quite a bit of evidence that there are indeed people who take the show seriously as a feminist commentary or a source of empowering role models for women. This book takes the show's feminist content very seriously indeed, and even uses the show as a marker of a "third wave" for American feminism. Of course, there are also plenty of feminists who are having none of it, and rightfully so. This Guardian article seems to span a whole range of female opinions about the show, from empowering to inane.

You're probably right that the arguments about hyper-consumerism and gender roles could be applied just as easily to plenty of other Hollywood films, including ones targeted primarily at males. But to return to your example from earlier, Iron Man was not marketed as THE guy film the way SATC has been marketed as THE girl film. Its cultural centrality as a representation of women in the media singles it out for criticism. That's as much a sad commentary on our film and TV industries as on the film itself, of course. If films centered on women and their stories were as common as ones centered on men, SATC wouldn't earn nearly as much praise OR vitriol, since it would be seen in its proper context. But since Hollywood's not making those films, and the one property that does get marketed as the female film has all these questionable assumptions and ideologies at its core, it's not surprising that it's been picked out for so much criticism. I'd love to see more and better films with central female characters, including ones that are hugely popular. It's just that, based on what I've seen anyway, it doesn't seem like SATC is it.

Ted Pigeon said...

Well, based on the discussion we've had so far, who needs to talk about the movie?

In all seriousness, you bring up a lot of good points. I guess I should have refined my statement about Sex and the City and feminism. I'm sure there's plenty of perspectives out there deeming the show/film empowering feminist material, but none that I would take seriously. Because in the limited exposure I've had to feminist media research, I came to understand that such views are rather pedantic, and more discussed as pop-culture's representations of feminist media research.

Does that mean that Sex and the City isn't important? Of course not. It is very important, much like Hillary's Clinton's campaign; Important in terms of the discourse about the text/subject.

Your point about Sex and the City being the female show/movie, as if it represents the female voice in entertainment, is perhaps the most important aspect of this discussion. Which is why I explicitly tried to make this about representation.

When it comes to the dominant practice, there is no defining text for it. Its values and assumptions are embedded in all texts, in some form or another, even the alternatives models, counterarguments, and minorities.

There is no voice for white masculinity, simply because white masculinity is the status quo; it is the air we breathe, so to speak. And I don't mean just for white men, but for all of those who participate in a culture whose meanings and practices are largely appropriated according to favor white, male interests. Which is why critics perhaps tend not to single out aspects of certain movies, particularly well-made ones like Iron Man. Critics represent the same interests, a fact that has become crystal clear in the Sex and the City discourse. I'm not saying it begins or ends with critics, and that critics need to change their ways, because clearly this is a much more complicated set of relations. Nevertheless, it's a bit depressing when critical dialogue is reduced to the same plane.

Please forgive me for not going into more detail right now. It's extremely late, and I need to get some sleep. But I am very interested to continue this discussion, and will hopefully offer some more thoughts tonight. In the mean time, please keep the comments coming.

Ed Howard said...

Hey Ted,
Thanks for keeping this interesting discussion going. I don't have much to add at this point, mainly because we seem to be coming closer and closer to agreement on a lot of these issues. I will say, totally anecdotally, that my fiancee's boss at her law firm, presumably a very intelligent and successful career woman, says that SATC is a groundbreaking feminist show and a huge step forward for women, much to my fiancee's disgust. So I wouldn't limit the idea that SATC is a feminist/radical show to the pedantic fringes of media studies. Whether you take those opinions seriously or not (and hell, I certainly don't), they're out there and represent a significant portion of the reasons for the show's success. The idea that this show is somehow feminist has serious traction, probably with many more women than you'd think, and holding up these characters as feminist icons and role models can only, I think, be an ultimately damaging meme.

For all the talk about SATC's sexual freedom, the women on the show still mainly seem to talk about guys 24/7, and despite the fact that these are supposed to be career women the episodes I saw never seemed to show the women actually working. Not to mention the fact that Carrie's job is hardly commensurate with the economic status she seems to have on the show, further divorcing the show from the realities of real women. It's a fairy tale, and it does as much to reinforce gender stereotypes as it does to expand sexual representations in the media. Though the show got a lot of praise for including some serious attention to breastfeeding for the first time on TV, one of the things my fiancee was so offended by from the film was its not-so-veiled suggestion that women cease to be sexual creatures and let themselves go after giving birth. Some serious mixed messages going on here, it seems.

On the other hand, I'd love to see more feminist/racial/alternative critiques of this sort leveled at all kinds of mainstream films, and in retrospect my own review of Iron Man was probably lighter than it should have been on the troublesome treatment of gender in the film. It's a bit tough to analyze the extent to which the film endorses Stark's condescending attitudes towards women. I mean, clearly we're not meant to see him as an endearing figure, but as a bit of a prick, and this includes his dismissive treatment of women. Even the scene with the stripping stewardesses on the plane was a rap video parody that's so over the top it's hard not to see at least a hint of a critical undercurrent there. Even towards the end, when Stark has redeemed himself and recreated his character as a hero in other ways, Pepper Potts is there to remind him that he's been a jerk to her, coolly rebuffing his attempt at seduction. But it's not an unproblematic film in this respect, and it does deserve to be analyzed for what the film has to say about women and men's treatment of them.

jmac said...

Ted,

Thanks, baby! :) You understand it perfectly.

It can be difficult to wrap our minds around the concept that all of us can see the same film and that it can take us to radically different places. Cinema is consciousness! We can experience the same thing and have completely different reactions. So if a film critic doesn't get SATC the HBO series, I might advise sitting this one out, you know? I always try to write about what I feel drawn to and what I understand. There is a difference between examining a film intellectually and judging it based on personal tastes and assumptions . . .

A few of the comments in this dialogue illustrate that some cannot accept the mise en scene of SATC. The shoes, the bags, the designers, the Vogue editors, all that is a cinematic language! Why are beautiful clothes held as the worst example of excess, when there is so much violence and stupidity in cinema?

I could say a whole lot more, but ultimately SATC will have the last word. I cannot change anything simply by reacting to film critics and pointing out the hundreds of ways they are wrong! :) What really changes things is creating something so wonderfully new and beautiful that people cannot help but love it. That's what SATC is for many of us. Everyone else will just have to catch up . . .

:)

NATHANIEL R said...

thank you for posting this. i missed the discussion as I was out of town and away from the internet but I was alarmed at how few critics, even the intelligent ones, were so proud of their ignorance when it came to this film.

odd.