Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Puzzle of the Thatcheresque Woman

So, I'm Facebook friends with a couple of film professors due largely to dumb luck. I learn a lot from the opinions and links that they post, and sometimes I wander onto their comment threads and embarrass myself in front of all the other PhDs they're friends with. It's something of an exercise in What Might Have Been, because my life could have taken that direction, too, toward film studies and film professorship. Some days I wish it had.

Not long ago, a conversation about Point Break led to a more general conversation about Kathryn Bigelow, who has directed lots of stuff. Her career is unusual in that she is 1) a female director who 2) doesn't stick to art films and 3) doesn't make movies nominally for women, a la Nora Ephron. A really smart woman on this Facebook thread noted that Bigelow made her mad because - I'm condensing a long conversation, and not actively trying to put words in her mouth - she didn't take the opportunity to be a feminist, or at least didn't do so pointedly, through her films. The owner of the thread stated that "When you have a chance to strike blows against power, but don't, then you are supporting power."

I've been mulling over this for some days now, and the more I think about it, the more it bothers me. Why is it automatically Bigelow's responsibility to be a feminist, or to offer critiques of sexism and the patriarchy? Why shouldn't she be allowed to make the films she wants to make rather than offering one message or another because of her gender? Seems to me like requiring her to exhibit feminism is as restrictive as requiring her not to.

Bigelow has struck me all along as a Thatcher kind of woman. Over time, I've come up with a mental tally of women in culture and public life who accomplish what they do not while bucking and protesting under the weight of the patriarchy, but while seemingly pretending it doesn't exist. I admit I have only fragments of knowledge about Margaret Thatcher and how she reacted to the sexism that she surely must have encountered, but it seems to me that she behaved as if her status as a female simply didn't matter. She was bottomlessly determined and ambitious (and probably bad for Britain), and I doubt any level of discrimination would have gotten in her way anyhow; but remembrances of her indicate that she was hardly a feminist. Her identity seems to have been largely defined by her politics, not her gender.

I think what Thatcher did can be referred to as "passing," potentially: burying typically female traits in order to get by in a man's world. But gender isn't something you can just put a hat over and pretend isn't there. You can't ever really be one of the boys. You have to deal with wearing pearls and a skirt instead of sock garters and a tie, and so does everyone else. I have this theory that if you're competent (and perhaps ruthless) enough, and if you have the attitude that it's simply not a big deal that you're a woman, your male colleagues may eventually see it the same way.

If that's so, isn't that a suitable way to overthrow the patriarchy? Insisting that men accept women in all their moon-goddess glory, with as much feminism as we can wad up in a fist to throw at their windshields, strikes me as bound to fail. Repressing women's voices, or insisting that women shouldn't talk about misogyny and rape and sexual harassment and unequal pay, is of course wrong. But can't Kathryn Bigelow cruise along and make her films without being required to be Gloria Steinem? Can't she just be a person, a filmmaker, without having to craft statements about her gender? Maybe it's a hobby-horse she doesn't want to ride. I have some gay female friends who, while they're affected by and upset about their lack of rights, are not interested in grabbing a poster and marching in a protest. They just want to live their lives.

Another name on my Thatcheresque Women list is Marilynne Robinson. I was amazed, when I read Gilead and then learned a bit about her, how she seems to have left gender mostly out of her career. Her work isn't really to my taste, but she's well-respected and has won loads of awards. She's just a good writer. Flannery O'Connor is just a good writer. Great White Male Narcissists are totally united in their praise for Saint Flannery. She's so good that her gender doesn't matter.

Isn't that the goal?

When I write, I try to write well, to write stories that anyone might enjoy. Some of my stories are about women's issues, and some aren't. I try to write stories that challenge readers, but I don't write to be shrill. I don't wade into writing or trying to publish with the assumption that my work is going to be taken less seriously because my name is marked feminine; such cynicism seems bound to do harm to me. I try to create female characters who are compelling to anyone, and sometimes I try to write more specifically from a female perspective, to tell a story that is a woman's to tell. But above all, I try to write well. How else am I going to show that my work is worth considering?

Bigelow did it by making good movies, one after another. Thatcher did it apparently by crushing everything in her path. Sri K. Pattabhi Jois said it thus: practice, practice, practice and all is coming. (This was his answer to virtually any question about yoga.) Cheryl Strayed says it thus: write so blazingly good that you can't be framed. Write or make films or be Prime Minister not like a girl, not like a boy, but like a motherfucker.

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