By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
|Illustration by Peter Bennett|
“Oooee — she’s a harlot, she’s a princess.”
A few weeks ago, New York Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley had a feminist meltdown, or at least as much of a meltdown as the once–Gray Lady would ever allow in its pages. Reviewing the new situation comedy Good Girls Don’t, she came out swinging: “It is hard to pinpoint exactly when it became safe to be a stupid slut on television.” She then launched into a splendid rant about the man-pleasing desperation of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, SNL head writer Tina Fey needlessly removing her top in Mean Girls, and the travesty that Good Girls Don’t (“a cheaply taped sitcom that panders to the vast, insatiable appetite for cheerfully demeaning depictions of women”) should appear on Oxygen, a network purportedly dedicated to offering the enlightened female programming one can’t get on Lifetime.
Faced with such an eruption of genuine feeling — you could hear Stanley’s teeth grinding as she pounded away at the keyboard — I did what anyone would do. I watched the show. Man, was it rotten: mirthless, degrading and utterly inept. As the self-hating jokes about women piled up like a stack of old “Cathy” comic strips, I saw why Stanley had spoken almost fondly about the dignified days when Pamela Anderson proudly jiggled her way through Baywatch — at least her good posture suggested a spine. And I began thinking how dispiriting a woman must find it to watch this kind of crap for a living.
Although we’re told this is an age of female empowerment — why, women now earn 77 cents on every dollar earned by a man! — much of our pop culture is more wantonly retrograde than it was before the women’s liberation movement. Jessica Simpson has become a sensation, if not a role model, by presenting herself as a three-watt bulb. Socialite proto-hookers have made The Simple Life into a hot reality show (with no small boost from Paris Hilton’s bored foray into amateur porn). In Troy, even Helen of Troy — the most famous adulteress in Western civilization — is turned as bland as Laura Bush.
When movies like DodgeBall: A True Underdog Storyaren’t gratuitously leering at the T&A of Hollywood’s truest underdogs — the film industry now promotes the same sexual politics as beer commercials — they’re asking some actress to play a hooker, a porn star or an underdressed underage sexpot. (In a recent pud-pulling “think” piece in Esquire, Richard Roeper boldly revealed the shocking truth that middle-aged male moviegoers like ogling jailbait.) Even movies that supposedly take the women’s side too often serve up a teenage boy’s fantasies of womanhood — kick-ass chicks like Kill Bill’s Beatrix Kiddo and Charlie’s Angels — or sink into slack misogyny. The slapdash Stepford Wives remake may at first look like a satire of anti-feminist backlash, but by the end, the devil turns out to be, yes, a middle-aged career woman. No wonder so many women seek the maternal embrace of Oprah’s and Katie’s book clubs.
When I first came to the Weekly in the 1980s, I wrote alongside Helen Knode, the house bad girl, whose reviews frequently pointed out how movies debased women by portraying them as bimbos, psychos, whores and corpses — or ignoring them altogether. Each time she did so, she received furious letters from men saying, “Spare us your feminist politics and just review the movie” — as if it’s not part of a film that the female characters are all vacuous, skanky or dead. After fighting the good fight for several years, Helen eventually abandoned film criticism and wrote a crime novel, The Ticket Out, about the many ways that Hollywood kills women.
Although the degradation of women remains the often-unmentioned elephant in the home entertainment center — and let us not forget the “bitches” and “hos” of pop music — it hasn’t gone unnoticed. I recently asked a well-known film critic how often she sees movies she finds demeaning. “Every fucking week,” she replied. “But I only write about it now and then, when something really bothers me. If you do it all the time, you become boring. You don’t want to seem relentless.”
Sad to say, it’s easy to be thought relentless if you’re a female critic writing about pop culture. When a male reviewer like me points out that Starsky & Hutch displays a disgustingly puerile attitude toward women (wasn’t Ben Stiller once thought to be smart?), this proves I’m a sensitive guy, a hero. When a woman makes the identical observation, she’s considered a strident bitch.
If I seem peculiarly fascinated by the tribulations of women critics, this is because, in my formative years, I was enthralled by two of them: The New Yorker’s late, great film critic Pauline Kael and Susan Sontag, now 71, who has given herself the groovy description of “freelance intellectual.” I clearly wasn’t the only one. In his enjoyable new book Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me, Craig Seligman offers a personal riff on the two most visible American critics of the last 40 years. Not only were they hugely influential — their work has been strip-mined and embarrassingly mimicked by countless other critics — but their vast differences in taste, style and image (one was “Pauline,” the other “Sontag”) marked the boundaries of popular criticism.