I don’t like the films of Quentin Tarantino. I think Woody Allen’s work is rubbish, and Brett Easton Ellis’s books suck. Am I allowed to admit to this now?
For so long, I’ve been held back by the sexist male genius paradox, which decrees that any failure to appreciate the genius of a sexist male artist must be down to one’s own failure to rise above the sexism. It’s a problem many women have, though we’re only finding out about it today.
In Uma Thurman’s recent New York Times interview, she outlined awful experiences with Harvey Weinstein, but also described how she had felt pressurised by Tarantino to drive a car that she thought was dangerous. Tarantino is yet to respond to the allegation, but more and more women are coming forward to admit they never liked Pulp Fiction anyway. We’re witnessing similar things in relation to Allen’s films.
While this may not be the primary aim of the #metoo and #timesup movements – and not liking a film is hardly comparable to experiencing assault – I think this matters. One of the many ways in which abusive men get away with terrible things is because we’re supposed to respect their genius (and assume that misogyny is somehow a necessary part of it). Right now we’re calling time on the misogyny, but why can’t we call time on the perception of genius too?
I know that to some this will sound terribly unsophisticated, but there is a relationship between misogyny in art and misogyny in real life. It’s a complex one, as female writers have been outlining in recent discussions around thrillers and true crime, and it’s obviously not the case that artistic description equates to real-life prescription. Nonetheless, when male artists produce works which consistently prioritise the inner lives and/or fantasies of men, something has gone wrong. There’s a limit to how much women should have to transpose art in order to see a world in which they, too, are human. How good is a book or film when it demands so much on-the-spot correction from the reader or viewer?
Men who don’t like women – and there are an awful lot of them – frequently make art that a male-dominated establishment considers to be amazing, but which a high proportion of women consider to be crap. You didn’t know this? That’s because up till now we haven’t said.
For women, witnessing misogyny in “great” film and literature is akin to being one of the subjects in The Emperor’s New Clothes. You can’t help but notice something is wrong, yet no one else seems to notice, so you worry that the problem lies with you (and of course you can’t say anything – anyone who fails to see the finery is a simpleton!).
Like so many women of my generation, I’ve spent years pretending to laugh at “ironic” sexism, refusing to “stigmatise” extreme pornography and bestowing serious, straight-faced analysis on the useless art of self-styled genius men. Why have I done this? Because I want to be thought of as someone who has a sense of humour, someone who’s open-minded, someone who’s intelligent. I want to be seen as someone who “gets it”, even when I don’t.
Deciding a work of art is irreparably flawed just because the entire worldview underpinning it, the characterisation, the narrative drive, the humour, the whole lot relies on the assumption that women are not fully human – well, that’s a bit naïve, isn’t it? Shouldn’t I be able to get over that?
Well, no. No, I can’t and I won’t. I’ve struggled with this “hang on, is it just me?” feeling ever since I watched my first James Bond film at eight years old and concluded that rape, in some circumstances, must be OK. From now on I will be the little boy in the crowd pointing out that the misogyny-in-art Emperor is stark bollock naked.
This is not just a case of judging an artwork by the disgrace of the artist. Bret Easton Ellis may or may not be a misogynist in his personal life (he told The Guardian in 2010 “I don’t think I’m a misogynist. But if I was, so what?”). His book American Psycho, however, is packed with detailed scenes of rape and mutilation of female bodies. Writing about American Psycho in 2015, fellow author Irvine Welsh argues that accusations of misogyny are based on “bad faith” and “fatuous notions”:
American Psycho holds a hyper-real, satirical mirror up to our faces, and the uncomfortable shock of recognition it produces is that twisted reflection of ourselves, and the world we live in. It is not the “life-affirming” (so often a coded term for “deeply conservative”) novel beloved of bourgeois critics.
Obviously I don’t want to be bourgeois and conservative – who does? But honestly, this is the bullshit defence of an ultra-conservative, male-dominated art establishment which desperately tries to position misogyny – so mundane, so unoriginal, so murderous – as in some way edgy. There’s no genius required to describe pinning down a woman’s fingers with a nail gun before you cut out her tongue and rape her. I’m not shocked (I know what happens to women in real life); I’m just pissed off.
And I’m done with this, all of it. I understand the difference between art and artist (I wrote a PhD on the subject, not that this has ever silenced the mansplainers). I also understand that there’s nothing clever, subversive or enlightening about watching men in stupid suits with stupid names talk too fast and shoot each other, or in noticing a gay subtext in Top Gun, or in watching abused women die or – amazing plot twist! – not die in the end.
Just as the “best” postmodern theory tends to be appallingly written in order to fool us that the difficulty is in the ideas, the nihilism and misogyny of the “best” male directors is so glaringly obvious we end up assuming we’ve missed the hidden message (so we use “hyper-reality” as a posh way of describing unimaginative exaggeration). The real creativity isn’t in Manhattan or Inglourious Basterds; it’s in the imaginative contortions critics have gone through to make these films seem more than the sum of their parts.
There’s nothing unsophisticated in recognising that an industry mired in sexism will produce art that is tainted by sexist beliefs. There’s nothing childish or bourgeois about calling time on representations of the human condition which fail to accommodate half the human race. For too long genius has been defined as male, far removed from such petty concerns as granting consideration to the female gaze. This isn’t just unfair; it’s dull.
“You just didn’t get the irony/humour/bathos/[add your own technique]” is the male critic’s version of that lesson girls are taught from the first time they’re groped in the playground: abuse is flattery. We just haven’t learned to read it correctly. From now on I suggest we don’t even try.