Grrrlz 2 Men

Richard Goldstein is executive editor of The Village Voice

Members of minority groups who break ranks are often called courageous. Think of how glibly that word has been applied to UC Regent Ward Connerly, the African American enemy of affirmative action, or to the legion of mocking post-feminists. Their dissent is a hot commodity. But the real courage belongs to the critical thinkers who sympathize with the movements they attack. Benjamin DeMott is that sort of intellectual. His progressive sensibility draws him to feminism, but his eye for unintended consequences convinces him that something in the women's movement has gone seriously awry.

In "Killer Woman Blues," DeMott argues that popular culture is pushing women toward a masculine identity whose signature is toughness. He's referring to the ruthless aggression, cutthroat competitiveness and cavalier disregard for intimacy displayed by so many female characters in films, sitcoms, self-help books and even literature. DeMott maintains that this process of "women-becoming-men" is a profound violation of the original feminist vision, with dire consequences for all of humankind.

DeMott's thesis is not entirely convincing, but his premise certainly is. He assembles such an arsenal of examples--including more than 150 recent films--that it seems undeniable: Women are embracing a new model in which autonomy and aggression are valorized. At the same time, DeMott asserts, there is a comparable shift in the masculine ideal. The "male sensitif ," as DeMott calls him, is a staple in high-rated sitcoms and top-grossing films such as "Friends" and "Jerry Maguire." As women learn to fight back, men begin to feel back, and for DeMott, this empathetic figure is an emblem of men becoming women. Is that bad? DeMott thinks so.

In lesser hands, such reasoning would serve as a cover for social conservatism. Indeed, the current backlash against feminism has made most progressives loath to criticize anything that emerges from the women's movement. DeMott takes on this daunting task and, despite some significant errors, he often succeeds, largely because he takes feminism seriously. His grounding in this century-old tradition--from Mary Wollstonecraft to Betty Friedan--enables him to show how much it is at odds with the current "kick-ass" code, but his acuity about contemporary life allows him to apply a rigorous skepticism to the claims of pop liberation. DeMott argues that the real goal of women becoming men has little to do with creating a world in which biology is not destiny. What calls itself liberation is actually oppression, even harder to see because it is overlaid with an aura of equality.

DeMott focuses on the ways that corporations have benefited from the "proliferation of images of the killer woman." These perks range from an infusion into the marketplace of cheap (female) labor to the public relations coup of seeming to embrace social progress by hiring women--at lower wages. Meanwhile, the attention that might be focused on the ruthlessness of modern corporations is instead aimed at the unsympathetic figure of the killer woman. She is "an uncommonly effective distraction; when attention focuses on her, structural issues and inequities retreat to the margins; heartless labor policies become infinitely less interesting than the question whether unscrupulous Ms. Executive Veepee will succeed in destroying Mr. Nice Guy--the chap unlucky enough to have to compete with her." The last laugh, DeMott insists, belongs to the boss who presides over this competition.

"Killer Woman Blues" is a fine example of DeMott's talent for social deconstruction, revealing a meaning utterly at odds with professed intention. This ability to reason dialectically has been all but lost to cultural criticism, with its insistence on the irony and complexity of images and texts. According to this new orthodoxy, Eminem doesn't really sing about killing women; he "unpacks" the issue of misogyny. DeMott is coming from an older, sounder school of thinking, one intent on divining the real meaning of things. He does not think of images as decentered objects in a postmodern universe. Instead, he dares to do what most critics are loath to attempt, lest they be thought of as unhip: DeMott thinks morally.

Though he acknowledges that the killer woman can be experienced as pure fantasy, DeMott worries about the actual effect on behavior. Of course, people don't live out the cultural images they consume. But the fact that aggression is exhilarating, not to mention an effective hedge against pain, makes it profoundly appealing. If women are invited to harden up and act out, no doubt many will. Shouldn't they? A small cadre of feminists thinks not, joining DeMott in maintaining that this process is not what women's liberation has been--or should be--about. For him, the shift in women's consciousness represents a major alteration "in the structure of contemporary feeling." The result is "confusion and disruption, shattering swerves and reversals, frustrating contradictions," a crisis in the marrow of ordinary life.

But something about this diagnosis ought to raise suspicions. Why is it always women who must practice "lovingly protective behavior"? Are men really less capable of caring, or less culpable for the consequences of their aggression? These questions arise from a major flaw in DeMott's analysis. He notices only the hardening of women and not the fact that this process is occurring in both sexes. The same culture that promotes the killer woman also proffers florid expressions of sadism to men. For every riot grrrl, there are dozens of rapine rappers, psycho slashers and other male denizens of hard-core. Even as sitcom Romeos go sensitive, Grammys go to Eminem, who boasts: "In a couple of minutes that bottle of Guinness is finished/You now have permission to officially slap bitches." If women are being exhorted to attack without remorse, what about the culture's killer men? If DeMott applied the same lens to both sexes, he might conclude that wildcat capitalism is making heroes of ruthless males and females alike. Instead, he sees only the loss to civilization that occurs when women are persuaded to act up. There is an unspoken nostalgia in this book, an odd quality of the world turned upside down, as if the problem lies in the derangement of women, not in the destruction caused by killer men. Try as he might to imagine a world in which the sexes coexist in a state of "imaginative engagement," it's hard to miss the message that this breakthrough is women's burden to bear.

DeMott's monosexual perspective results in an extremely odd reading of certain popular writers. He lauds Camille Paglia, oblivious to her killer-woman tendencies and her attacks on gay men. (For example, Paglia has written that Matthew Shepard asked for what he got.) He bangs the drum with Robert Bly, ruing the enfeebled father who produces the feminized son. (This, for him, is an utterly undesirable thing.) Though DeMott repeatedly proclaims his faith in gender flexibility, there is no room in his vision for men who feel most themselves when acting like women and vice versa. Even his most progressive impulse leads to a logical bind. DeMott rejects the notion that women and men are hard-wired to be different, preferring to describe the traits we associate with both sexes as a historical reality rather than a biological fact. Sexism has persisted across ages and cultures not just because men are physically stronger than women but because it is an effective way to organize society, according to DeMott. "What the past has made of women significantly fostered the moral development of the race," he writes. Here is where the dialectical rubber meets the road. Slavery, too, is a historical reality, yet surely DeMott would not advise the descendants of slaves to see the bright side of white supremacy. Why should women regard their bondage as "both a social resource and a blight"?

The answer might have to do with the fact that men and women can't escape from one another on anything like the scale that whites and blacks can separate. The heart has its own reasons, even in an age of prenuptial contracts. But does the imperative to bond require that women subordinate themselves to men? DeMott says no. What he imagines is more subtle, perhaps too subtle to be laid out in programmatic terms. Wisely, DeMott falls back on "the original feminist voices [who] spoke with a feeling for ... complexity and ambivalence. They treated what history has made of women as a resource as well as a tragedy; they alluded to the double truths contained in centuries of conjoined hypocrisy and idealism; they acknowledged femininity as both a source of delicate feeling ... and as fantasy and deceit." There is no escape from this labyrinth of contradictions--not where sex is concerned.

"Killer Woman Blues" is not a book to read for solutions. When it comes to gender, the synthesis that is the dialectician's dream is nowhere yet in sight. But the courage of this book is in its posing of a momentous question. It's also rather a simple one: Is the omelet worth the broken eggs?

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World