|Illustration by Peter Bennett|
“Oooee — she’s a harlot, she’s a princess.”
—Pauline Kael on Anjelica Huston
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 Story aren’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.
Like Mary McCarthy before them, Kael and Sontag presumed to an authority that was routinely thought of as a masculine prerogative. If they have been more praised and reviled than their male counterparts, this isn’t simply because their work was better at capturing the joys of Jean-Luc Godard or modern styles of eroticism; the fact of their being women induced a protracted frisson in an America that has always found it easy to find the bitch lurking in the goddess. Raised in an era of two-fisted male dominance, they became anomalously famous, not least because they spent decades struggling against conventional womanhood, both in their personal lives — Kael had a daughter by a gay man, while Sontag, after an early marriage, settled into lesbianism — and, more important, in their writing.
Although Kael once declared that she consciously wrote as a woman (down to the bitchiness, Seligman quotes her as saying), the woman in question would have to be someone like Ma Barker. Brash, intensely personal, and drawn to vulgarity and violence — she loved “the visceral poetry of pulp” — Kael may have viewed life through the prism of a woman’s experience, but she always made a point of having the biggest balls in the room. When she hit The New Yorker in the ’60s, she gave that genteel magazine a saving jolt of cockiness — Mailer couldn’t have offered more swagger — and her whole approach to movies smacked of the womanizer who genuinely loves women but none for very long. Taking pride in never seeing a film more than once, let alone revising her opinion of it, she treated moviegoing like a series of one-night stands (as David Thomson shrewdly notes in the current Atlantic Monthly). She was fond of cinematic bullyboys like John Huston and Sam Peckinpah because, in her way, she was one. She fostered a small army of male acolytes who became known not as “Kaelites” but were given the sexually insulting moniker “Paulettes” by her rivals.
If Kael was the wisecracking Howard Hawks heroine who wasn’t just one of the guys but their leader, Sontag has always come off as something of an intellectual Ice Queen, detached, impersonal, Olympian. In her younger years, she looked like a sexy European actress, perhaps the brunette sister of Catherine Deneuve in Belle de Jour. Has any critic ever been more photogenic? But while her remote glamour promised a hidden reservoir of sensuality (one read her essay on the pornographic imagination not a little pruriently), her work emphatically did not. It strove toward the impersonality famously championed by such modernists as Flaubert and Joyce. Sontag was a woman critic, sure, but one who took pains to make her criticism transcend gender. And I do mean pains. Whether boosting the ’60s avant-garde or celebrating the timeless values of great art, Sontag has always been as achingly self-serious as a Tarkovsky retrospective. If she ever caught herself laughing at a movie like Dumb and Dumber, one suspects she’d splinter like a block of dry ice smacked with a hammer.
Both were experienced enough to appreciate the women’s movement — Kael once compared a woman writing for Playboy to a Jew writing for a Nazi paper — yet they were also independent enough to find something insulting in the idea that they personally would need it. Indeed, Kael had the self-made woman’s irritation with those who complained of victimization. When the original Stepford Wives came out, she dubbed it “the first women’s lib gothic,” complaining that if modern women turn into robotized creatures who emulate commercials, they do it to themselves.
Maybe so, but I wonder how Sontag and Kael would be different if they’d come to intellectual prominence not in the 1960s, when the culture pulsed with a feeling of liberation, but in our anti-feminist backlash days, when 8-year-old girls are already obeying the status dictates of commercial fashion, 12-year-old girls “hook up” to fellate boys who offer nothing in return, and a show like Good Girls Don’t boasts a premiere titled “My Roommate Is a Big Fat Slut.” I suspect they’d never stop wanting to scream.