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.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.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.
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?
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?