Sunday, October 27, 2013

Female power

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2004)

The hot new spot in my downtown neighborhood is called Laide, an externally unprepossessing space housing a cool restaurant/bar. It’s a good place to hang out, with quality food and pleasant if slightly imprecise service. Laide’s design gimmick, if that’s the way to look at it, is built around sex – some erotic statues by the entrance, and vintage porn flicks projected on the wall (the night I was there, some time after midnight, they dumped the old stuff and started playing the Paris Hilton tape). From what I could see, very few if any of the patrons were actually watching the porn, and people who talk about having been to Laide generally don’t mention it. The badge of cool, I think, demands exactly that – to place oneself in a position to be (if we were nerds) titillated or (if we were prudes) offended, and then barely even to notice.

Town Bloody Hall

Laide would seem to me a perfectly plausible location for a first or second date, although the standard dating manuals, with their strategic relationship-building flowcharts and complex algorithms for calculating do’s and don’ts, would surely advise against it. Long insulated from dating considerations, I am genuinely uncertain how much of the prevailing wisdom in these matters has any real-life application, at least in a liberal, seen-it-all, Lavalife-friendly Western city. Certainly I’m not naive enough to think that everything between men and women has been equalized, although it seems likely to me that at least part of the remaining disparity might be subject to mutual agreement – albeit one in which it’s unclear how much of that agreement is lightly coerced by historical, cultural and biological determinism.

I recently rewatched the classic documentary Town Bloody Hall, which records a memorable, headline-forming debate on feminism that took place at New York’s town hall in 1971. Norman Mailer moderated a panel including Germaine Greer and Diana Trilling (with Susan Sontag, Betty Friedan and others in the audience). It’s still a rollickingly entertaining spectacle, although much of the way in which it’s entertaining (often involving Mailer being heckled, or blasting out outrageous statements) comes at the cost of a considered exploration of the issues.

The film transmits a distinct sense of accelerating female empowerment, but one grappling with multiple indices of oppression and belittlement. There’s a strong feeling of discomfort with the easy slogans of the liberation movement – Jacqueline Ceballos, at the time the president of the National Organization for Women, opens the debate with a laundry list of demands and goals, and then is never heard from again. Greer strikes more of a chord, not just for the audience but for the ages, with her vision of a more flexible, pluralistic movement. Mailer seems for the most part to be in tune with this, but occasionally shows severe limitations – such as in his claim that if a man doesn’t occasionally hit a woman, she’s caused him violence by denying him a necessary outlet. The film is very much a record of a specific time and place – such an event now would probably be an academic, sparsely attended yawner. This seems to me a case of at least one step forward.

The Stepford Wives

But also one back, because any debate on sexual politics nowadays is likely to be far more superficial than that in Town Bloody Hall. Take for example the shower of opinion pieces that accompanied Frank Oz’s remake of The Stepford Wives. The plot here is straightforward – a young couple and their kids, fleeing a career meltdown, move to a gated Connecticut community where all is beautiful and the wives are serenely compliant, to the point of idiocy. It turns out they’re all programmed to fulfill their nerdy husbands’ fantasies, and the heroine (played here by Nicole Kidman) is next in line for the treatment.

I can no longer recall much about the 1975 original, but I believe the tone was of a composed, precise chilliness. I searched the web for commentary on how that film might reflect the feminist waves of its time, but without finding much. Here’s one review I came across: “Little more than a knockoff of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Stepford Wives makes one tragic mistake: The women in town actually seem more interesting after their transformation than before it, when they come across as whiny and petulant, and little else.”

Which, obviously written by a male, might seem to unwittingly endorse the preconceptions that drive the Stepford males’ project. Anyway, the new film is an odd creation. Directed by Frank Oz and written by Paul Rudnick, it’s for the most part a comedy, partly a send-up of the original, partly a satire on...well, I’m not exactly sure what, and there lies the problem. The film doesn’t reinvent the concept of the Stepford wives in a modern idiom – as in the original, they’re all frilly dresses and Martha Stewart values. The men, hanging out in the Stepford Men’s Association, wear club jackets, smoke big cigars, and engage in radio-controlled car duels. I seriously question how relevant this will seem to Toronto audiences.

Stepford Husbands

The Stepford men are a narrow social sub-group – geeks who happened to be married to high-performing women and got tired of living in their shadows. This seems to be more about power than about sex – an interpretation supported by the film’s throwing in a gay couple and even a former champion terrier, transformed now into a mechanical echo of its former self. But this plight (a mere blip on the vast spectrum of power inequalities) doesn’t seem like a very compelling basis for social commentary. In the end, somewhat remarkably, the film comes up with a plot twist (not in the original) that goes some way to explaining the movie and justifying it on its own terms. But only at the cost of rendering everything we’ve seen the result of a single warped psyche, thus making it easy to write it all off.

I don’t want to dump on the film completely – in fact I might even give it a mild thumbs up for the wacky trilogy of Kidman, Bette Midler and Roger Bart, who – mocking everything around them  - share the film’s most engaging scenes. At 93 minutes, it’s a colourful, zippy concoction. But on top of everything I mentioned, the ending (apparently extensively reshot) is clumsy and poorly handled, leaving a distinctly flat taste in your mouth. It’s meant to be an affirmation of feminine individuality, but I don’t think too many female viewers will feel a bloodrush of identification. 

Despite all this, the fact that the film looks as if it ought to harbour some kind of meaning gives it some currency as a cultural focal point – and there would certainly have been even more attention paid to it if it hadn’t been generally poorly received. But this only raises questions about those who determine our cultural focal points. I doubt the film could sustain too many conversations at Laide, even if it were projected right on the wall.

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