When does the cost of heterosexual sex become too high for women?

Dear Joel,

One of the loudest complaints of conservatives about feminism is that it undermines families.  The right to vote, women in the workforce, contraception–it all adds up to women rejecting their God-mandated roles as “weaker vessels” and their dependency on men.  Pat Robertson’s version of feminism goes this way:

“The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.”

Sure, Robertson is a kook, but his thinking appears in less extremist versions, like Mark Regnerus’ Cheap Sex (which I’ve criticized before). The controversial sociologist argues that we’ve made sex too easy. Without consequences, men have little reason to marry, and that’s undermining families. (Yes, Regnerus blames WOMEN’S increased willingness* to have sex outside of marriage for MEN’S failure to become decent husbands.)

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The thesis of Mark Regnerus’ Cheap Sex: “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?” 

For forty years, it’s been conservative “pro-family” consensus that women are ruining marriage and that feminism is turning us into queer witches.

If you think that “cheap sex” is destroying marriages/family/America, then it only makes sense that you’d reverse the beloved ACA contraception mandate, ban most abortions after 20 weeks, and allow federally-funded health care for poor children to expire. You make sex costlier so that women become more selective about their partners. (Men don’t have to worry about being selective, because they can escape the consequences of sex much more easily, not being the ones who get pregnant, after all.) They withhold sex until marriage, driving men into legally-binding relationships that will force them to grow up. Unwanted pregnancies, deadbeat dads, men who refuse to enter the workforce, gangs, crime–we address them all through the panacea that is marriage! Women go back to using their strongest asset–their vaginas–to inspire men to grow up. Instead of just having casual sex with adultescent losers, we can marry them! Why the hell did we even need the 19th Amendment when we could just cross our legs to make men do what we want!

But have Republicans considered how hard it’s going to be sell high-risk sex to women? If we have to choose between sex that puts us at increased risk of pregnancy, with less access to abortion and no support for pregnancy, babies, or children….

Maybe we’ll choose sex with women instead.

 

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I’m mostly joking when I suggest that Republicans like Paul Ryan can turn women into lesbians, but they can sure make sex with men an unattractive option. 

It might not be for all of us, but I encourage my women friends who would otherwise be having sex Republican men to at least consider it.

Rebecca

*Regnerus’ claim that we have more noncommittal sex is not supported by evidence. Compared to previous generations, young people today are delaying the onset of sex and will likely have fewer partners, on average, than previous generations.

 

 

Whedonesque

Dear Rebecca:

I’ve been a fan of Joss Whedon’s shows for awhile. “Firefly” was one of the best short-lived shows ever to exist, and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” still (mostly) stands up 20 years later.

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More than an entertainer, though, Whedon has been known as that rare thing: A guy who proudly adopts the “feminist” label. Only….

Joss Whedon made his name directing cult television shows such as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and big-budget action movies that often featured women in empowering roles. Many applauded him for being a champion of women, a feminist in an industry accused of misogyny and sexism.

That image was challenged by his ex-wife Kai Cole, who wrote an essay in a Hollywood industry blog called the Wrap Sunday accusing him of serially cheating during their 16-year marriage and calling him a “hypocrite preaching feminist ideals.”

“I want to let women know that he is not who he pretends to be,” Cole wrote. “I want the people who worship him to know he is human, and the organizations giving him awards for his feminist work, to think twice in the future about honoring a man who does not practice what he preaches.”

So. Confession time. I’m terrified that I, too, am Joss Whedon.

I’m not abusing my power as a producer by (allegedly) sleeping around with female actors, nor have I (allegedly) fired a woman for being pregnant. I like to think I wouldn’t do such things.

I also know it’s possible I would.

I know my heart. I know its temptations. I know I try to be better than my most base self, but I also know my most base self is in there somewhere.

There’s a lot of talk these days on the left about how people with privilege can be allies, and I confess sometimes to wondering about the limits of allyship. I try to be supportive of feminists, people of color, all the Ls, Gs, Bs, and Ts. I think this is my best self. It’s who I want to be. I think.

But I’ve never really had the power to be a total monster. And I sometimes stop short of identifying myself as a “feminist” publicly, not because it is a bad thing to be, but because I know I might be a bad man who someday shows myself to be an utter hypocrite. Joss Whedon’s troubles show me I’m not the only one.

Maybe this isn’t something to admit publicly. But I suspect that if I’m going to write honestly and ardently about the issues I write about, a bit of honesty here is critical.

I’ll keep trying to be better than my worst self. But my best self feels like a fragile thing sometimes.

With respect, Joel

The ‘Bechdel test’ doesn’t limit movies. It asks them to stop being so limited.

Dear Rebecca:

I’m shocked, shocked that a National Review writer has decided to take issue with the “Bechdel test.” The test, as I’m sure you know, is a very simple way to check if your movies have even a moment in them that isn’t dude oriented.

Here’s Wikipedia:

The Bechdel test asks whether a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. The requirement that the two women must be named is sometimes added.

And here’s NRO’s Kyle Smith:

In the past few years, the Bechdel Test has begun popping up casually in reviews like a feminist Good Housekeeping Seal of approval. Take this appreciation last month of the 1992 film A League of Their Own, published by Katie Baker on the site The Ringer: “It is, in my possibly blinded by love but also correct opinion, one of the best sports movies there is. And it is an honest ode to women and sisters and friendships, with a story that breezes through the Bechdel test by the end of the opening scene.”

Hey, and you know what? Tom Selleck’s Matthew Quigley appears almost immediately in Quigley Down Under. Hurrah, this film breezes through the Cowboy Test by the end of the opening scene!

Neither of these two tests gives you any hint as to the worth of a film, and furthermore neither of them tells you anything about a film’s general feminist wokeness. It doesn’t even tell you whether the film is entirely about a woman.

A couple of observations:

•You know why the “Cowboy Test” is ridiculous? Because there have been a million fricking movies about cowboys. We actually have no need of further cowboy movies — though, admittedly, I’d watch one if a good one came along — because just about every permutation of the genre has been exhausted. The Bechdel test was invented, meanwhile, because such female-centric moments were relatively rare.

•Smith is right that the Bechdel test doesn’t tell you about the worth of a film or its feminist bona fides. Nobody makes those claims for it! (Check the video above for confirmation of this.) Instead, the underlying question is this: Does this movie contain a single moment that’s not all about the guys in it? It is the very minimum a movie can do, in other words, to put a female perspective onscreen.

• Which means that the Bechdel test doesn’t do much to constrain movie art: The art itself is pretty constrained — the movie business has increasingly been designed to appeal to and arouse the passions of teenage boys. To the degree female characters are designed to appeal to this demographic, it’s not often with their agency apart from men in mind. The Bechdel test was created because movies are so dude-oriented that getting such a moment was unexpected, to be noted.

Smith says the Bechdel test is irrelevant because women don’t make the kinds of movies that reap big box office. “Have a wander through the sci-fi and fantasy section of your local bookstore: How many of these books’ authors are female? Yet these are where the big movie ideas come from. If a woman wants the next Lord of the Rings–style franchise to pass the Bechdel Test, then a woman should come up with a story with as much earning potential as J. R. R. Tolkien’s.”

Which is … stupid. Tell the makers and viewers of Wonder Woman that they don’t like sci-fi adventure. For the love of god, tell my nerdy-ass wife — but give me a head start out of the room.

Hollywood discovers that there’s an audience for women-centric movies every couple of years, then promptly forgets it. Using that amnesia to justify the ongoing omission of women and women’s perspectives from our films isn’t just dumb — it’s clearly leaving a lot of money on the table. Conservatives, you’d think, might embrace the Bechdel test for this reason if for nothing else: It just might help them make a ton of cash from an underserved audience.

Sincerely, Joel

Masculinity so Fragile: The Wonder Woman Edition

Dear Joel,

Oh, the hours I spent playing Wonder Woman as a child! She was the ideal superhero–yes, because she was a woman (and a dark haired one at that, which made her the un-Barbie to me–and my joy in discovering her only highlights the pain that children of color often feel when they face another summer with no heroes of color on the screen). But she was also accessible to me: you could step into the role with nearly no gear. Unlike billionaire Bruce Wayne, who relied on a manor full of gadgets to get the job done, Wonder Woman required only three things: Bracelets of Submission (which could be crafted from the blue extra-wide rubber bands that held together broccoli bought at the grocery store), the Lasso of Truth (which we made from any old rope we could find), and an Invisible Plane (which was the easiest of all to craft!). Clearly, DC wasn’t thinking about merchandizing to children when Wonder Woman came to be.

But that she was a woman meant a lot, too. I’d like to say that we simply didn’t see too many women as heroes “back when I was a kid,” but that’s still pretty much the case (though I think there are significant exceptions, including Mulan, Brave, and Moana). We tend to classify movies by and about men as movies (unless they are about war or whatever The Revenant was about) and movies by and about women as women’s movies, as if men’s gendered experiences don’t shape how they view films but movies for women are only accessible to those who have been through the gendered experiences of women.

And writers know this. It’s why Harry Potter is about a boy and his friends Hermione and Ron–a group that is two-thirds boys. When girls take the lead role or outnumber boys, boys start to see the book (or the film) as for girls. And when a book about a boy is written by a woman, her publisher will ask her to use her initials or a pen name to hide her gender. Ramona Quimby and Pippi Longstocking are the literary exceptions in that they are read by boys (or are read to boys), too, but Ramona and Pippi are also girls who are quite explicit about embracing danger, fun, and silliness–and rejecting dresses, obedience, and good manners.  Until Dora the Explorer, we didn’t have a girl character with the kind of multi-media power (a TV show, video games, books, a stage show) that was cultivated for boy characters. Even Dora, though, wasn’t bringing in the boy viewers and so she got a male counterpart: her cousin Diego.

 

Above, left to right: Pippi Longstocking challenges Adolf, the strongman, at the circus, Ramona Quimby tears around on her tricycle, and Harry Potter and his pals Hermione and Ron pose for a picture

So, while it’s so important for women to see women as heroes on the screen, the major obstacle to them getting there is the idea that men won’t watch them. Yet the fact that audiences for things like monster truck rallies and pro wrestling events and Mel Gibson films are mostly men doesn’t prevent them from being produced–nor does the fact that some films (50 Shades of Grey, all those lovely Jane Austen adaptations) were watched primarily by women mean that such films shouldn’t be produced. Twilight made a boatload of money but was marketed mostly to women and girls.

If we already produce movies with a gendered market in mind, why the hesitation to produce more movies with women in the heroic roles? As the success of Wonder Woman among women viewers shows, women are available and ready to watch.

I’m not sure, then, that the problem is so much with films with strong women characters as much as it is with men who can’t imagine a woman saving them. Films like 50 Shades of Grey and Twilight might be movies for women, but they don’t threaten men. Wonder Woman is going to save men. She might even physically save them. (As happens in real life, too–women work as fire fighters and on avalanche rescue teams and as hostage negotiators and they often actually physically save the lives of men, sometimes even by picking them up and carrying them to safety.)

So, yes, as you point out, if you are a white man mocking women crying at Wonder Woman, don’t; it’s easy but ugly to “sneer at people taking seriously something you don’t have to take seriously because it will never be a problem getting a superhero movie made about people who look like you.”

But I’m also betting that part of white men’s discomfort with Wonder Woman is that she’s saving people who do look like them.

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Above, a drawing from a Wonder Woman comic. Wonder Woman rescues a man from a fire by carrying him on her shoulder. How much you wanna bet he tried to insist that he could handle it on his own?

Rebecca

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PS. I have a lot more to say about Wonder Woman, including Gal Gadot’s support for assaults on Palestinian civilians, a real-life message that seems at odds with the film’s apparent criticisms of nationalism. I’m also not a huge Chris fan (Pine, Pratt, Hemsworth, Evans) as they seem to me to be the living embodiment(s) of the idea that in order for people of color and women to get ahead, undeserving white men are going to need to step aside. So let me think about it more. In the meantime, I’ll spend my free time this weekend re-reading Herland

126590The cover of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, serialized in 1915 and not published in book form until 1979.

White Dudes and Wonder Woman

Dear Rebecca:

Over the last year, some of my friends have offered up this jokey-not so jokey prayer in public: “Lord, give me the confidence of a mediocre white man.”

It came to mind today as I watched white dudes react to the runaway success of the new “Wonder Woman” movie. Frankly, it’s been an awkward grapple.

Here’s Rich Lowry at National Review, wondering why we can’t just enjoy a good superhero flick without getting caught up in feminist politics.

The critics have swooned, and some of them have literally cried over the movie. This is a bit much. The advancement of women in this country, or even just in Hollywood, didn’t depend on the production of a better female superhero vehicle than, say, Elektra (Rotten Tomato rating: 10 percent). Nor is it unusual anymore to see women beat up villains on screen. This hasn’t stopped people from losing their minds — a new American core competency — over Wonder Woman.

More complicatedly, David Edelstein at New York found himself, er, revising and extending his previous remarks giving the movie a mediocre review. After answering charges he’d spent too much time contemplating his looks, he answered the broader charge that he simply didn’t take the movie seriously enough:

I underestimated how much a superheroine at the center of a woman-directed film would mean to many people, and descriptions I considered lively and complimentary would come across as demeaning. Moreover, if Wonder Woman will empower women at this moment in history — in which reproductive rights are imperiled, and an admitted groper is working to undo decades of gains for women — then some of the criticisms of my review are just. I reserve the right to think that this is not, overall, a very good movie. But it is an important one.

For which NYT columnist Ross Douthat offered this bit of snark: “It’s a mediocre movie, but I didn’t understand how important mediocre movies are to the Cause.”

…which seems to miss the mark a bit.

The key to understanding why mediocre movies might be “important to the cause” goes back to Lowry’s column: He’s right! Elektra was a lousy movie that did lousy business. And what happened? Despite the flowering of the superhero genre over the last decade, nobody’s seen fit to make a major female superhero movie again until about now.

When superhero movies about white guys do badly, nobody puts that on their white guyness. Ryan Reynolds survived the critical failure of Wolverine and the failure failure of Green Lantern before finally striking gold with Deadpool. Now, it seems, he’s set for life. Short story: White guys don’t have to worry about mediocrity being a major setback.

Meanwhile, the studios offered up three major women-centered superhero movies over the course of 30 years, they flopped, and based on that — instead of the fact that the movies just sucked — the dudes-that-be decided there wasn’t an audience for women-centered superhero movies. They even decided women couldn’t be the villains.

Wonder Woman, it seems, proves that’s wrong.

So the response to Lowry is: When women are getting as many of these opportunities as men, maybe we’ll be able to dial the conversation back a bit. Until then, the process is natural.

And the response to Douthat is: Maybe you shouldn’t sneer at people taking seriously something you don’t have to take seriously because it will never be a problem getting a superhero movie made about people who look like you.

And the response to Edelstein is … well, I kind of wish he hadn’t written his response at all. Critics are inundated with fanboy — a term I used advisedly — criticism whenever they diss a superhero movie, and maybe he should’ve just shrugged it off. Today’s piece was too defensive to come across well, and certainly didn’t appear to be as considered as most of his film criticism usually is.

But read those last sentences again. He doesn’t owe Wonder Woman, the movie, undue respect if the movie hasn’t earned it. Indeed, he says that his review of the flick — that it’s “not … a very good movie” — stands. He can acknowledge that it’s an “important” movie, though — a judgment that belongs to a slightly wider conversation than the “thumbs up-thumbs down” movie review might permit. Did he do wrong with the initial review? I don’t think so. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t miss out on something.

Underlying all this (I think) is this sense, among white dudes, that their experience is the median, and that the white dude consensus about, well, anything is the conventional wisdom — maybe even objective truth — about a thing. But we all bring ourselves, our lives into the movie theater with us, and those perspectives affect how we see the movie. To say a movie is “important” without calling it good is a way of beginning to acknowledge those other perspectives.

It’s worth noting that the front page of Rotten Tomatoes “Wonder Woman” page features 20 reviews of the movie — and just five of them are women. The second page? Twenty more reviews, just one identifiable woman.

Think that influences our perspective, even a tiny bit?

I’m not sure that I’m articulating exactly what I want to say here. (One friend allowed I might be suffering from kneejerk leftism on this matter.) It just seems to me that white dudes — I am one — are often like fish in the ocean: They swim in a culture that often facilitates their desires. That’s not a culture that requires them to consider the feminist politics of a piece of art, or one that makes them grapple with why a movie might be important without necessarily appealing to them.

Apparently, it’s very upsetting when something comes along to challenge that.

Going to see the movie this weekend!

Cheers,

Joel