Blind Man with a Pistol

Sex in the City

As Shameless points out, there is something sexist about the kind of criticism coming out about the new (and ubiquitous) Sex and the City movie.

Why isn’t anybody calling out movie producers for their assumption that all it takes to get male movie-goers to the box office is car chases, explosions and breasts? If thousands of men flock to see the latest action flick, why isn’t that film’s very success suddenly a mark against it and proof that all men are shallow and vapid?

It’s a good question. So-called “chick lit,” for example, frequently makes the rounds on talk radio in a highly pitched discussion over whether or not it is worthwhile, whether or not it is “good for women,” and whether or not it should be read at all. Action movies, on the other hand, are taken as given, for what they are, and never have to endure bouts of soul searching or self-justification.

The problem arises because action flicks and macho video games never have a progressive politic incorrectly ascribed to them. It is characteristic of a society so terrified of feminism that any display of female empowerment, however stereotypical and however much it serves the interest of patriarchy, immediately earns the label. As a result, those who wish to buttress the term against erosion are compelled to join an almost frivolous debate: is Samantha’s “gut” feminist or not? In fact, it is in patriarchy’s best interest to enact this mischaracterization, to call what is expressly not feminism, feminism, because it subsumes dissenting voices in an act of self-affirmation. Meanwhile, the kind of feminism that gave women the vote, that pressed for equal wages and employment, that protected a woman jurisdiction over her own body, is relegated to the sidelines.

Consider the trajectory of the original series. Four strong , independent women decide to repudiate the stereotypes that society imposes upon them and live the lives that they want. So far, so good. There is a lot to be said for the subversive potential of public sex. If you believe that sex and gender politics are informed by sexual acts, then relegating sex to the bedroom, to the private sphere, is an ideological maneuver to keep us from discussing such implications. In their essay “Sex in Public,” Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner argue precisely this point.

The [heterosexual] sex act shielded by the zone of privacy is the affectional nimbus that heterosexual culture protects and from which it abstracts its model of ethics, but this utopia of social belonging is also supported and extended by acts less commonly recognized as part of sexual culture: paying taxes, being disgusted, philandering, bequeathing, celebrating a holiday, investing for the future, teaching, disposing of a corpse, carrying wallet photos, buying economy size, being nepotistic, running for president, divorcing, or owning anything “His” and “Hers.”

By refusing to keep sexual acts in the (imaginary) private sphere, sex in the city becomes a political act. Consider how gay and lesbian sex in public places is such an affrontry to our sensibilities. If we rescue the shame, intimacy and pleasure from the bedroom, we can introduce these impulses where they could really shake things up.

Intimate life is the endlessly cited elsewhere of political public discourse, a promised haven that distracts citizens from the unequal conditions of their political and economic lives, consoles them for the damaged humanity of mass society, and shames them for any divergence between their lives and the intimate sphere that is alleged to be simple personhood.

By the end of the series, however, all four protagonists pair off into heteronormative couples, some with children, most with typical soap opera lives. Any political potential has dissipated, any subversiveness vanished. It is perhaps what viewers always wanted, but the city registers a sense of disappointment that pervades the final season. When Samantha convinces her “steamy love interest” Smith Jared to pose for a billboard advertisement for Absolut Vodka, his nakedness is only tempered by a strategically placed Absolut bottle. Essentially, the commodified image of the vodka has replaced the sexual organ that had such primacy at the beginning of the show. We no longer have sex in the city (or even simply its promise) we have its trademarked image, a Times Square billboard of public sex utterly drained of political (and libidinal) potential.

Pulp fictions like Sex and the City are thus doubly anti-feminist. They advertise feminist dissent while selling its cosmetic image (and the companion martini); and such a bait-and-switch trick invites further attacks by weighing feminist fantasies on a harsher scale than masculinist ones, on the off-chance that such fantasies might actually empower women. As a result, in the popular imagination, Sex and the City becomes synonymous with feminismwith the cynically useful side-effect that once the show’s feminism disappears, so does ours.

Grand Theft Reality

Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto IV raked in more than $500 million its first week—and was linked to a real-life stabbing and mugging. The game is praised for its innovative, realistic and complex gameplay—and vilified for its simulated violence and misogyny. Make no mistake: the game is misogynist. Any attempt to excuse the game’s misogyny is revealing. There is something barbaric about the phrase “You don’t have to kill prostitutes to beat the game.”

But what makes me suspicious of such criticism is that video games seem to bear a disproportionate level of ire compared to the much more graphic violence depicted in television shows like CSI or torture-porn film like Saw or Hostel. In fact, much of the female objectification that occurs in the game is no different than what you’d see during a prime-time commercial break on NBC.

The difference, we claim, lies in the virtual participation such games enable. Simulation, the argument goes, is a small step away from reality. In fact, there is little evidence that first-person simulation offer any more of a connection with violence than watching film or television. So why does the virtual murder of a woman attract more media attention than a real one?

The war in Iraq, which has killed more people in real life than GTA4 will ever kill virtually, was a “clean war.” A war with precision weapons that, we were assured, didn’t kill anyone who didn’t deserve to die. Indeed, didn’t President Bush, five years ago almost to the day smiling in his jumpsuit in front of a banner declaring “Mission Accomplished,” assure us that the war is over? Jean Baudrillard, as he argued for the first Gulf War in The Gulf War: Did it Really Take Place?, would likely have said that it never really occurred in the first. “We are all hostages of media intoxication,” he writes, “induced to believe.” It occurs only in heavily mediated images on CNN with only cursory relevance to whatever is taking place on the ground.

Likewise Canada’s war in Afghanistan. Our government wages an imperialist act of aggression upon an unarmed nation for an act of terrorism that was neither directed at us, nor committed by those we attack; and we do it in the name of “defence.” Our military strategy, our Foreign Affairs Ministry informs us, is based on rhetoric, not substance. We are strengthening Canada’s role in the world by effecting American foreign policy. Our enemy is not an opposing army, but ethereal “insurgents.” And we are not allowed to see the bodies of our dead soldiers return home. There are no corpses, no weapons, no armies. “Just as wealth is no longer measured in the ostentation of wealth but by the secret circulation of speculative capital,” Baudrillard writes, “so war is not measured by being waged but by its speculative unfolding in an abstract electronic and informational space, the same space in which capital moves.”

The real violence our society inflicts has become simulated, and we combat this shift by criticizing virtuality as if it were real. Violence against sex workers is all but absent from the pages of our newspapers (unless it fits into our spectacular fantasies like the Pickton murders, effacing the individuals who lost their lives over a period of thirty years). Yet GTA4 comes out with attendant social outrage. It is as if the protests against the game are as simulated as the violence it represents: virtual protest for virtual violence while the real deal continues apace.

Games like GTA4 certainly provoke a visceral reaction, a watermark of the tragic misogynist violence that infects our society. But there is something altogether more tragic about a society that condemns sex-worker violence in a game yet does nothing about it in real life, for real sex workers and for real women. I suppose, when real violence becomes a simulation of itself, when the terror in which we are complicit is so overwhelming, so imposing, and so atrocious, what other recourse do we have? No wonder virtual games like GTA4 are so popular.

Modern Tragedy

Josef Fritzl. Nothing can possibly be said. An unspeakable tragedy. A ghastly act of sustained horror the likes of which cannot be recalled in history or in imagination.

Yet something must be said, because he is to stand trial. The debate over whether he is mentally fit, whether sentences in Europe are long enough (and if, at 73, he would survive an appropriate one anyway), and whether or not his case merits capital punishment. A lifetime (maybe two) of rape, four childhoods stolen, inconceivable abuse and imprisonment must now be translated into prison time.

How absurd. What would a punitive sentence accomplish? As a deterrent to future Josef Fritzls? As a stern lesson in the hopes of rehabilitation? A crucible for his soul? The barbarity of his crime has eliminated the possibility of justice.

Usually society is spared such futile calisthenics. When Nickel Mines killed five Amish school children in October 2006, he thankfully turned the gun on himself. The villain behind Austria’s other recent rape and imprisonment narrative, Wolfgang Priklopil, threw himself in front of a street car hours after his prisoner, Natascha Kampusch, escaped. Suicide provides closure to tragedies that would otherwise offer too many questions, that mock, rather than demonstrate our system of justice.

The day after Kimveer Gill opened fire on his Dawson College classmates on 13 September 2006, killing Anastasia Rebecca De Sousa, the Toronto Star ran the headline “Killer loved guns, hated people,” as if it were that simple. As if Kimveer Gill was an anomaly, a one-off who by some hellish mischance developed both a love for guns and a hatred for people. The blame, such a headline suggests, is wholly his: what could possibly be done about such a nutcase?

The logic of such headlines characterize our editorial pages in the aftermath of Josef Fritzl. “How could his wife not have known?”, they question. They could as easily ask how any of us could also not have known: we neighbours, we fellow Austrians, or we fellow human beings who were equally duped. This question, this displacement of blame, reveals that we did know—we do know. Likewise, ridiculous questions concerning the severity of Fritzl’s sentence distract us from the difficult social introspection of which his suicide would have wholly absolved us. We place the onus on Fritzl’s wife, on Gill’s love of guns, on anything that will do because we know, in our heart of hearts, that we are to blame.

The truth is that society failed these individuals catastrophically. When Oedipus Rex tears out his own eyes on stage in one of the most violent scenes in art, it is the price he pays for revealing the hypocrisies and impossible contradictions of the social contract. And the audience watches on, unsettled by the violence but satisfied that he has paid for his crime, that justice has been served. Yet what is truly tragic about Sophocles’s play is that we are complicit in Oedipus’s plight. Our laws and our social mores, the matrix in which we participate and which we reproduce daily, necessitate and determine Oedipus’s fate even as we punish him for it. And Oedipus, blood running from dull sockets, shows us his eyes as if to urge us to revelation.

This is the hard lesson of Josef Fritzl. What kind of society can create such a monster? How do we, as its citizens, contribute to such atrocity? How can a civilization that fantasizes about capturing and torturing women, that imprisons children in illegal concentration camps for a third of their life, that endorses endemic rape and violence in Africa, possibly be surprised when someone shows us our eyes?