May 27, 2014

Why Accuracy Matters When Talking About Cultural Problems

How many students watch outsized frat-boy fantasies like “Neighbors” and feel, as Rodger did, unjustly shut out of college life that should be full of “sex and fun and pleasure”? How many men, raised on a steady diet of Judd Apatow comedies in which the shlubby arrested adolescent always gets the girl, find that those happy endings constantly elude them and conclude, “It’s not fair”?

- Ann Hornaday, Washington Post Film Critic: In a final videotaped message, a sad reflection of the sexist stories we so often see on screen

In the wake of the mass killing committed by Elliot Rodger at UC - Santa Barbara, there has been a focus on three things.
  1. The availability of firearms to anyone and the death that results
  2. Mental illness and this country's seeming unwillingness to properly deal with it
  3. A cultural reinforcement of misogynistic thought that dehumanizes women

The face of what happens when mental illness, misogyny and easy access to firearms intersect

I am not going to argue any of those points, because I think they are all accurate. Nor am I going to argue with Ms. Hornaday's overall point:

If our cinematic grammar is one of violence, sexual conquest and macho swagger — thanks to male studio executives who green-light projects according to their own pathetic predilections — no one should be surprised when those impulses take luridly literal form in the culture at large.

The cold truth is that our culture does dehumanize women into objects that are "rewards" for the "nice guy". Look at a classic movie like "Say Anything". Lloyd Dobler is a borderline stalker in real-life. But in a movie he shows that persistence and never taking "no" for an answer will get you a girlfriend. Over and over the message that "nice guys get the girl" is pounded into our heads.

So what happens in real life when the girl says "no" to the "nice guy"?

A lot of times...nothing. A majority of men are not predatory misogynists who see women as objects or rewards. They are human beings with good points and bad points, ups and downs... and they know something important. Something Elliot Rodger never quite understood.

Life owes you nothing. Women owe you nothing. No one owes you anything. And a majority of men get that.

But there is a sizable minority of men who don't understand that. Who see women as rewards. Who desire women, are scared that women have that power (in their minds) over them and then hate them for making them scared. This is where rape finds it's genesis, where the burqa was born, where mentally ill animals like Elliot Rodger find their justification for violence. It's why the most dangerous thing on this planet to women ... is men.

And this has to be confronted and addressed. This isn't blaming media for violence or saying that video games/movies cause mass killings. It's saying that the messages we communicate in our culture, regardless of the medium, can create ideas and beliefs that are dangerous and that can find root in a sizable minority of the population.

But back to the beginning and the problem I have with Ms. Hornaday's piece. She intentionally targets "Neighbors" and Judd Apatow as a problem. And she really misses the mark. Because if you look at Apatow's comedies and "Neighbors" (which Apatow wasn't even involved with), they aren't stories about frat-boy fantasies and pleasure.

They're about growing up, facing up to what life gives you and dealing with it.

What Apatow comedy are we talking about here? "40-Year-Old Virgin" shows a man coming out of his shell and trying to experience life. "Knocked Up" is about facing up to your responsibilities as an adult and giving up childish pursuits. "This is 40" is a smack across the face to parents / adults who think they can relive their youth.

Yes, there are relationships in those movies but never are they portrayed as a woman being a "reward" to a man (in the way a film like "Can't Hardly Wait" awards Jennifer Love-Hewitt to Ethan Embry on the basis of a single letter). And "Neighbors", for all the frat-boy antics involved, has a similar message: grow the hell up.

When addressing a real problem, you have to make sure your targets are accurate. Ms. Hornaday made a mistake here and the cost is that we are talking more about that than her otherwise very salient and important op-ed.

That all said...there is one (sadly) important by-product of Ms. Hornaday's error. Her twitter feed is demonstrating, better than her op-ed ever could, the problem we have with culture reinforcing these messages. Read the replys left to Ms. Hornaday by @ASAP_riffy or @orr_michaelorr4. No, I won't post them here but you should have a basic idea of what they might say.

This is an important conversation worth having. We just have to make sure we target the right culprits so our mistakes don't become the story instead.


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