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Jan 27 2014

The Arm (also, the art of selective disregard as a means of intellectual survival in a hostile society)

Hopefully* the other night at 3 AM you did not, while in the throes of a nuclear hot flash, accidentally tune to the Turner Classic Movies channel. If you did, I pity you, for with your bloodshot eyes you saw an Irene Dunne/Charles Bickford movie from about 1842 and were once again reminded why American culture makes you want to rip your own head off.

I allude to pre-code rags-to-riches melodrama No Other Woman, the story of a Joe Sixpack steel worker, his saintly paragon of a wife, and all the trouble that is heaped upon them by wife’s modest aspirations beyond her station. Owing to Dunne’s cleverness the couple unexpectedly make a pile of dough, whereupon Bickford immediately starts drinking like a fish and cheating on Dunne with a gold-digging “exotic blonde.” Bickford’s behavior is very bad indeed, but ultimately the long-suffering Dunne’s endless capacity for abuse shows him the error of his ways. She takes him back at the end; after so much profligacy the poor guy needs a little TLC.

What do you care about some crap B-movie from the 30s? Not much, except possibly for a couple of rape-culture-proliferation details: one, No Other Woman contains an example of that gag-a-mag misogynist plot device, the assault-embrace; and two, TCM promotes it (and every other “classic” sexist/racist/heteronormative film they show, which is every film they show) as fluffy entertainment without critique or analysis of any kind, thereby contributing to the 21st-century proliferation of rape culture.

I’ll get to the sweepingly generalized impugnment of globally sanctioned misogyny in a sec, but first, take a gander at the assault-embrace trope as it appears in No Other Woman.

Like all female characters used to glorify the Global Accords Governing Fair Use of Women, working-class Irene Dunne displays a spunky bit of personal autonomy at the beginning of No Other Woman. This is so she can be properly bitchslapped by the rest of the movie. Her little spark of humanity is quickly extinguished when Bickford, her thickneck galoot of a fiancé, domesticates her with his animal magnetism. He does this by forcing her into an embrace to which — because Hollywood is synonymous with rape culture, and rape culture insists that women want to be raped — she ultimately submits with great enthusiasm. Dunne’s inherent feminine weakness for Bickford’s brute force plays out according to the standard model of 20th century heterosexual relationships: sexual assault as an expression of romantic love.

An indispensable mainstay of all filmic melodrama of the 20th century, the assault-embrace scene — by which I mean, the moment at which the woman gets her humanity dominated out of her by a representative of the male supremacist class (and likes it, goddammit) — is filmed in exactly the same way every time:

Dude grabs woman by the wrist. Woman protests “you’re hurting me.” Dude muscles her into position and starts sucking her face.

Cue the Arm.

Scarlett O'Hara demonstrates the art of the submissive arm

Scarlett O’Hara demonstrates the art of the submissive arm

The Savage Death Island Institute for Dudelionormative Cinematic Studies has found that the primary requirement for 20th century Hollywood ingenues, apart from Nordic genetics, was an arm that could, all on its own, cogently express sexy, feminine submission. During the forced kiss we usually can’t see her dude-encrusted face, so we have to gauge her level of assimilation by the attitude of the arm. At first she stiffens it against the autonomy-sucking assailant, but after a titillating moment of resistance, it relaxes into a lily-white noodle of compliance. It’s as if all her humanity were contained in the muscles of that arm, and now that he has successfully degraded her, all she can do is drape languidly around his neck like a limp cravat.**

“No” means “yes.”

“I hate you” means “I love you.”

Etc.

Colonel Kong rides the giant dick of death to Mutual Assured Destruction

Colonel Kong rides the giant dick of death to Mutual Assured Destruction

Longtime readers are no strangers to my tumultuous and ambivalent relationship with Turner Classic Movies.*** The agonizing predicament of the radical feminist film enthusiast is that pretty much the entire canon of cinematic oeuvres she grudgingly admires (for technique-y reasons relating to Truth & Beauty) she must simultaneously dismiss (for political reasons relating to the ceaseless promotion of the Global Accords Governing Fair Use of Women).

“Turn if off!” you say. “Why torture yourself?”

But it’s no use just not watching the movies. The cognitive dissonance elicited in the feminist film buff by Hollywood’s exaltation of misogyny is not unique to the cinema/buff relationship. It isn’t just cinema, but the entirety of human culture and society, including all the arts, sciences, governments, media, traditions, and religions, that ceaselessly promotes rape culture. Thus, movie fan or no, a high-grade cognitive dissonance is a permanent and uninterrupted fact of life for all women. You may not be a film buff, but certainly you are a life buff. Unlike TV, you can’t just turn universal patriarchy off. There’s no opt-out because there’s nowhere to opt out to. Somehow, you have to try to scrape up the occasional a speck of joy or pleasure or whatnot from within the context of oppression.

So, because it is impossible to exist outside the culture that hates you, you learn, after a time, how to cope: denial, appeasement, compartmentalization, or, as in the following example, selective disregard. In order to appreciate, say, dude-directed Dr Strangelove, you may selectively admire the set designer’s nod to German expressionism, the hand-held cinéma vérité sequences, the gritty realism of the B-52 scenes, and the masterful comedic treatment of Cold War mutual-assured-destruction angst. But then you have to selectively ignore shit left and right. You have to ignore that the only woman in the film is a bikinied sexbot, literally a porn model. You have to ignore that disability is portrayed as evil. You have to ignore that this is a whitey film about a manly subject, full of white men doing manly shit, intended for an audience of white men who think white men are awesome. You also have to ignore that the whole thing — from the opening sequence where the planes are schtupping, to the climax where Slim Pickens sprouts an H-bomb where his dick used to be, to the dudesex fantasy denouement — is basically just Kubrick whacking off, cracking a big fat 95-minute dirty joke.

By the way, the argument that, because Strangelove is satire, it gets a pass? Nope. In a patriarchy, if the sex class is the butt of the satirical joke, the satire is misogynist. And if the American universe were not unequivocally misogynist, the following exchange between George C Scott and Peter Sellers, describing Strangelove’s post-apocalyptic mineshaft fantasy, would not be funny.

Turgidson:
Doctor, you mentioned the ratio of ten women to each man. Now, wouldn’t that necessitate the abandonment of the so-called monogamous sexual relationship, I mean, as far as men were concerned?

Strangelove:
Regrettably, yes. But it is, you know, a sacrifice required for the future of the human race. I hasten to add that since each man will be required to do prodigious … service along these lines, the women will have to be selected for their sexual characteristics, which will have to be of a highly stimulating nature.

So, for women, watching famous movies (or reading famous novels, or looking at famous paintings, or walking to the — in short, appreciating critically-acclaimed “culture” in any way whatsoever) is an exercise in anger management, rationalization, and self-loathing.****

Meanwhile, back to 3 AM and my encounter with No Other Woman: there are only so many times an aunt can, without blowing a lobe, watch perfectly interesting leading women in these classic films suddenly morph into dishrags as they nobly sacrifice their humanity to the tyranny of some dickhead lug for the sake of patriarchal mores. Just once, after a lifetime of ingesting this dehumanizing, sexist, patriarchy-affirming cock-schlock, it would be so gratifying to see an attempted assault-embrace scene end with the woman using her humanity-arm to sock that rapey-ass dude in the neck and off she goes to pursue a successful career as an astrophysicist. And her wardrobe is sweatpants.

In Hollywood, a female lead in sweatpants would normally portend a Pygmalion plot where the lonely tomboy depressive can only find happiness after she gets a femininity makeover and lands a dude who suddenly finds her interesting now that she’s conventionally hottt. Not in my movie! In my movie there is no dude love interest for whom she must be tamed into a delicate fuck-flower; she is still in sweats at the end. Neither are there any scenes where a serial killer puts her in a wet, ripped T-shirt and chains her by the wrists in an abandoned factory. Pregnancy isn’t a plot device, either. In fact, the rest of this movie is about her discovery of a distant planet where the atmosphere contains an awesome radioactive element that turns Y chromosomes into X chromosomes. Eluding government special ops cylons who try to stop her, she leads a crack team of sweatpant-wearin’ rogue spaceladies on a mission to collect the element, bring it back to Earth, and resolve the War Between the Sexes once and for all!

_____________________

* “Hopefully,” for you hidebound old linguistic purists, is the modern, declunkified way that people under 50 now express sanguinitude. Try it!

** Another creepy aspect of the classic submission pose is the broken-neck-lookin’ angle of the head. Chiropractic was invented to address the chronic cricks of subdued females.

*** If you’ve never felt moved to tune in to TCM, the deal is, it’s the only commercial-free channel on basic cable, and it runs mostly old mainstream Hollywood movies, from turn-of-the-century silents to Jaws, all day and all night. In the evenings the films are introduced by avuncular Hollywood fanboy Robert Osborne, whose focus leans more toward gossipy details about the stars than toward critical analysis. Maddeningly, he has no interest whatsoever in camera angles or editing or any of the arty stuff that makes film truly interesting.

**** Women are occasionally allowed to make films, but I reveal no secrets when I say that in its 85-year history, only one woman has ever won an Academy Award for Best Director. She is Kathryn Bigelow, who made The Hurt Locker, a movie about attractive young white women fighting with each other at a girly wedding. No wait, I’m thinking of the one with the knee-slapping scene where a woman in a wedding dress has atomic diarrhea in a public street. The Hurt Locker is the tasteful, artistic one about a dude who is addicted to war.

Either way, amirite?

_______________________

28 comments

  1. Lab Rat

    Yes, Savage Death Island ex-pats living in Dudeland do have to wade through a crap load of this kind of awfulness to access any media at all. At my house, we do have a good time doing our Mystery Science Theater 3000 riffing on these old classics. Currently, we are wending our sarcastic way through an entire season of Bat Masterson courtesey of the Encore Westerns channel.

    But you do sometimes have to opt out. I have now given up entirely on Downton Abbey. I was able to forgive some of patriarchy conforming plot points in the early seasons, but the story line for second episode of the new season has me saying no thanks. And that it’s being done to one of my favorite characters and with no redeeming character development of any kind makes it doubly unforgiveable.

    I’ve noticed that as tolerance for explicit sex scenes in television has increased, we now get blow by blow rape scenes along for the ride. While the exploitation is no different that the arm lock of days gone by, it’s extremely upsetting to watch. I already know how it goes – I don’t need to see it. And to me it’s seldom drives a useful plot point. It’s almost invariably exploitive.

  2. Alison

    I’ve long avoided Hollywood, not only because of its misogyny, but also because it does not portray Truth and Beauty anywhere nearly as well, or with as interesting technique, as other film traditions. There are so many other great directors and films out there. It’s not necessary and there’s not enough time to turn to Hollywood at all, ever. I find a lot of what I seek through Netflix. Agnes Varda is one of the greatest film directors of all times and all places. Her oeuvre does not necessitate the cognitive dissonance you mention.

  3. Pandechion

    So, because it is impossible to exist outside the culture that hates you, you learn, after a time, how to cope: denial, appeasement, compartmentalization, or, as in the following example, selective disregard.

    I’ve been on a bit of a Katherine Hepburn bender lately. I have an inkling that she knew full well how short our end of the stick is. She was a damn fine actress because she acted with full knowledge of it. But every script lets her down sooner or later, and when that happens a falsity comes into her performance that is humiliating to watch. I can barely make it through the last part of Adam’s Rib. It’s too sad.

  4. Comradde PhysioProffe

    You have to ignore that this is a whitey film about a manly subject, full of white men doing manly shit, intended for an audience of white men who think white men are awesome.

    I agree with your point about satire not immunizing this film from criticism for propagating cis white dude supremacy. On the other hand, my interpretation has been that the whole point the film is trying to make is that cis white dudes running the world are fucken scary delusional freaks. On the other other hand, maybe this is no different from the sitcom trope of the buffoon husband whose smarter wife “runs the household”, but still ends up doing all the work and catering to the buffoon’s whims. In other words, the absurdity of cis white dude supremacy is acknowledged, but then normalized and accepted.

  5. ew_nc

    After marinating in third-wave fun feminism the past few months, this post is manna. Many third waves love Hollywood themed sexuality. I have to wonder if women need to have a certain set amount of rape culture encounters before they let go of the sex-pos crap and realize that men hate them.

    But I digress. The assault-embrace is prevalent in television as well. I grew up on it, so imagine my surprise when at a tender young age, I found myself in that very situation and discovered that it’s not at all romantic, it’s fuckin’ scary! But Hollywood loves this old standard, don’t they? Because penises.

    Oh, and reading “dude encrusted face” has probably changed my life. For the better, I think.

  6. au naturel

    “So, because it is impossible to exist outside the culture that hates you, you learn, after a time, how to cope: denial, appeasement, compartmentalization”

    That same line jumped out at me. I always liked Bette Davis for her willingness to take on characters that were less than pretty and not just in appearance. My favourite was The Letter. She killed the lover who jilted her and in the end refused to go back to her husband either. She didn’t want to be with him and this was in British Malaysia at a time when a woman was (thought of as ) nothing without a man. But I suppose patriarchy still prevailed, because after she rebuffed him, she walked outside and was murdered. Guess William Wyler decided that since she was manless, she was better off dead….

  7. Twisty

    Comradde PhysioProffe

    January 27, 2014 at 3:50 pm (UTC -6) | Edit comment

    [...] the absurdity of cis white dude supremacy is acknowledged, but then normalized and accepted.

    And then deemed awesome. You know that scene at the end that I quote? The auteurial tone is unmistakeably gleeful at the prospect of 10 Playboy centerfolds for every dude, frolicking for eternity in literal man-caves.

  8. Ashley

    so glad you wrote! my work days were a lot better when you were posting every day. just saying :)

    “So, for women, watching famous movies (or reading famous novels, or looking at famous paintings, or walking to the — in short, appreciating critically-acclaimed “culture” in any way whatsoever) is an exercise in anger management, rationalization, and self-loathing.****”

    yeah..

    I feel like this is pretty much everything for me, even music and social situations. it’s a lot of smile and nod and honestly, after now about 7 years of feminist awakening, I wonder how people can NOT see what I see and what was apparent in this movie. ?? I guess there really are women who watch the Arm in GWTW and think “what a pretty dress.” hmm. I have no idea what men think. I can’t imagine. “she’s got a great arm.” uhhh gawwd. I think if women could hear inside men’s brains there’d be a lot more radfems.

    I’ve been on a serious search lately for movies I can enjoy without the exact thing you’re describing and there’s basically nothing. Do you gals know that the only real tv series of like the last 20 years that has any real feminist themes is the Gilmore Girls? how f%%g sad is that? And even then they’re constantly apologizing for the show’s own subject matter because after all, it was on the WB.

    My nonfeminist friends get off on “Bridesmaids,” and everyone touts Melissa McCarthy as a comic genius (which she IS, for timing and delivery and all), but all of her jokes in that movie revolve around her being Fat And Disgusting, which is just her playing into her understanding of how dudes really see her. I mean…

    So a lot of times I do wind up watching dude-geared movies because the themes and jokes revolve around something (sometimes) other than stupid femininity and then, as you said, trying to appreciate or enjoy AROUND sexism, or through it.

    I mean, you can’t read all the time.

    good to hear from you :)

  9. polarcontrol

    Autonomy-sucking assailants, The Savage Death Island Institute for Dudelionormative Cinematic Studies, humanity-arms to sock rapey-ass dudes in the neck –

    Lard I’ve missed Twisty!

    Who else can give us such comedy enjoyment out of all this horribleness.

    Here’s some more depressing news:

    “In the largest study of its kind, the Institute on Gender in Media found the more hours of TV/movies a girl watches, the fewer options she believes she has in her life. And the more hours a boy watches, the more sexist his views become.”

    http://www.beautyredefined.net/where-my-girls-at-this-infographic-says-it-all/

  10. K

    Ashley, I haven’t seen Bridesmaids, but The Heat (McCarthy, and Sandra Bullock) has not a single fat joke at McCarthy’s expense. (I don’t actually remember any fat jokes in it at all but I can’t swear there were none.) Also, Sandra Bullock as a nerdy FBI agent? Makes you wonder why no one ever thought of that before. Wait…Miss Congeniality? Anyway, they are both great in The Heat, and Ms. Bullock never puts on a bikini.

  11. Lidon

    Yeah but in The Heat, there’s still that scene where McCarthy’s character is criticizing Bullock’s character for looking prudish and then proceeds to rip off piece by piece of her clothing until she’s scantily clad so she “blends in” while at the club (gee, didn’t see that coming). That movie wasn’t bad in some ways but it sure as hell wasn’t perfect. In fact, I generally swear off movies but I only watched it because I was on a 14 hour flight.

    Anyway, please make movies Twistie.

  12. Lidon

    *Twisty!! (This is what happens when you don’t comment for a while)

  13. Ashley

    You’re right, The Heat was cool/better. I really liked the scene where she calls the perv’s wife while he’s trying to pay a streetwalker and tells her exactly what he’s doing. Funny!

    Also, I decided to come comment again because I literally just walked in the door from seeing Autumn:Osage County and while it’s not going to brighten anyone’s day, it’s heavy with patriarchal themes without being aware. Like, the whole thing is one big expose of patriarchy within families without ever knowing what it’s doing. However, Miz Meryl Streep GETS it or she wouldn’t be able to play her role to the unbelievable perfection that she does. That woman is f%%$#g amazing. She really is. I think she’s a somewhat feminist, secretly. not sure… anyway, it was worth the $11. I don’t say that much about movies.

    anyway, have a good night y’all.

  14. Laurie

    So good to read this; it really hit home, because I’m a pre-code lover / hater too. I love the first half of the films for their low-rent beauty and social commentary and gritty female leads doing daring things, but by the end, Ruth Chatterton/Ann Dvorak/Aline MacMahon — some of the most amazing women on screen — are always brought to heel by the obnoxious dude (uh, George Brent?). The early talkies were such a wild period, with women making strides as screenwriters as well as onscreen. But just as in (un)fun feminism now, our advances got reined in and sexualized, diverted back to the blustering dudes using whatever means necessary to get it.

    “The arm” is kind of the anti-Bechdel test. Now I’m going to be looking for it whenever I watch any of my old favorites. Even “Lilly Turner,”"Heat Lightning,” “Safe in Hell” and “Five Star Final”? Probably, damnit. Thank you.

    PolarControl asks “Who else can give us such comedy enjoyment out of all this horribleness?”
    The answer is nobody. Thanks for all the years of hilarious deconstruction of the hell we inhabit, have a happy and healthy new year, and long may you blame, Twisty.

  15. Twisty

    Aw. You guys.

  16. Mullet

    Twisty, you light up my life! It’s always a treat when you write. Thank you. I’m incredibly curious to hear what you think of Jane Campion’s latest- Top of the Lake. I thought it was a pretty damning narrative of the global accords – which necessitated rape/pregnancy plot lines. Hard to watch, but I liked the show politically as well as technically. Refreshing!

  17. SaraLynn

    I have so needed to read something regarding patriarchy saturated cinema lately…I mistakably saw The Wolf of Wallstreet. I do not know how I could have NOT known it was awful. I mean, I guess not really seeing the trailor had something to do with it but I digress. The worst part was not even the grotesque scenes of nudity (99% female of course) or vulgarity or even every single woman being either a prositute or nagging wife but the ride home. I saw this film with my BF and he could not understand why I was visibly upset. I am not saying that I am shocked by that, he is a dude after all (and not an extremely enlightend one either). I was pointing out the…well attempting to discuss the underlying message given to women (and men) by the way the film was produced but his “take home message” was something along the lines of “Greed will make people do crazy things!” Must be nice to be a dude. I could not get him to understand that women should not be thrown under the bus to tell some sick dude’s story in a movie. IBTP

    Oy vey! Yeah, I do not forsee myself going to a movie theatre again for a long while.

  18. quixote

    Sanguinitudinously, long may you blame, indeed!

  19. noshoes

    Twisty, I’m so happy you’re back. Thanks for another great commentary! I’m wearin’ sweatpants right now, waiting for your movie to come on TCM. Oh shit, Jaws again!

  20. iorarua

    Love your term ‘assault-embrace’, Twisty.

    Yeah, I hate all this stuff too, but unfortunately, I just love old Hollywood movies! In order to watch these old flicks and maintain some feminist dignity, I’ve had to do much the same thing as multiple personality disorder people have to do – or at least what Hollywood says they do – split off from feminist myself.

    I also like to jump on the particular movie’s IMDb, YouTube and other film buff sites and throw in some comments about the heroine’s masochism, the hero’s macho misogyny and sprout statistics about how many female directors were working in Hollywood at the time – Dorothy Arzner until about 1940 and then about 15 years later, Ida Lupina, and that’s about it. Even today, not much has changed.

    I also like to ‘rewrite’ the movie’s story in my head – and how the story might have unfolded if a woman had been directing it and if women executives had been running 50% of the studio system and if the Production Code had ever allowed onscreen women to have sex.

  21. huffysnappy

    Ah, the assault-embrace, to which I was exposed by my Dad watching Golden Years of Hollywood weekend TV matinees.From the time I was 6 or 7 my reaction to any such scene was a tense all over body grimace and a silent scream of ‘Aaah, no, DON’T LET HIM’ in which I willed the woman character to resist the inevitable. Accompanied by intense feelings of rage and shame.

    btw, I think Judy Davis slapped Sam Neill in the face in response to an attempted assault-embrace in the movie version of My Brilliant Career. I don’t think she went limp and succumbed immediately afterwards either.

  22. huffysnappy

    Er, got that claim about Sybylla’s reaction to the assault embrace wrong. It was a lash across the face with a whip, not a slap.

  23. Mildred

    This reminds me of this time in one of my Indigenous Studies classes and our teacher said in certain tribes the girls are married when they’re around 13-14 years old, and the males around 30 and the one mature age student dude yells out “AWESOME!” (he’s around 50 years old, I’d say)
    and its in that moment that I wished there was some cutting insult a woman can say to a man, with equal venom to some of the classics men can say to women to put them in their place. Something that makes them small AND fills them with shame. ‘Creepy’ comes close but its not quite mean enough. I says to this dude, “Would YOU like that?” Sarcastically, and he gives me this look like ‘oh shush you’re 20 years old and waaaaay over the hill’
    “YEAH! ALL men would like that!”
    to which the teacher, herself around 40 says, “That’s when females are most beautiful anyway”

    I did not like or love Strangelove because it felt like doofy husband for the 1960′s. The only female in the whole movie was a playboy model playing a secretary :/

  24. Lab Rat

    @Mildred: In response to the 50 year creep in the classroom’s comment of “AWESOME!” how about

    “FELONY!”

  25. Cyberwulf

    Grown men whooping for joy at the prospect of marrying children? I’d go straight to “fucking paedo!” and let them cry to the whole world if they don’t like it. Men HATE being called paedophiles and rapists even when the cap fits.

  26. emilybites

    The Arm sometimes morphs into the punch-and-relent, too – when the woman hits the attacker/love interest with her free hand but eventually winds down under his relentless assault/embrace.

    If every film had a scene where a dude was grabbed by a much bigger woman, restrained, forcibly kissed and shushed while he struggled, eyebrows would be raised. But that’s just how you treat women so it looks totally normal.

    Glad you’re back here, Twisty.

  27. mearl

    Praise be to the Twisty Faster Who Blogs More Frequently Than She Did in 2013! Twisty, your blog is an island of sanity in a glittering sea of patriarchal rubbish, thankfully sans Dr. Rapeperv or Strangelove or Pornfink or whatever his name was.

    The other Blamers beat me to it, but – sad to say – “The Heat” was the best movie I have seen lately. I believe it passes the Bechdel test, too. Considering the amount of changes anything resembling a “feminist” screenplay has to go through to make it in Hollywood, I was happy to see that much female ass-kicking squeak by the male-POV-centered producers, advertisers, financial backers, script editors, et. al. I laughed so hard at some of the scenes that my sister and I had to back it up and rewatch them three or four times. I don’t know if I was laughing because the movie really WAS that funny, or because I was so relieved to finally have been thrown one tiny scrap of actual feminist-like comedy in a lifetime of male-dominated starvation.

    When I get too depressed, I know I can always go back and watch reruns of “Absolutely Fabulous” on YouTube and sometimes from the public library.

  28. Serial Cereal

    Can’t y the x, Twist. Can’t penguin a giraffe. Bad math. Otherwise, nice. Makes me want to throw together a crack team handycam indie short.

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