- Oh ho ho hee hee ha ha.
Sam Tanenhaus, the editor of the Times Book Review, has an essay upcoming in the Sunday Arts and Leisure section, about the brilliant and unstable Dr. Amy Bishop, the Tenure Assassin.
Tanenhaus begins with the generally accepted notion that art both reflects cultural currents and shapes our perception of them—except when, occasionally “events occur [but] art offers no guidance.”
Like an aggrieved female on a shooting rampage, such as Dr. Bishop:
When she reportedly discharged her 9-millimeter handgun, she also punctured longstanding assumptions, or illusions, about women and violence…
What is your favorite thing about this sentence? My favorite thing about this sentence is how she “reportedly” fired her 9-mil, but definitely punctured assumptions, with her alleged bullets. But anyway.
“The Western literary tradition, from Shakespeare to Dostoevsky, teems with pathologically violent men… ” Tanenhaus says, whereas Women Who Kill have, in life and in art, been taken to be inexplicably anomalous mental cases, or to have previously been deeply traumatized. (When a female colleague got to this part, she stopped to iChat me: “LADY FREAKIN’ MACBETH? hello?”) Tanenhaus cites Thelma & Louise, and other films like it; they are:
… essentially exculpatory parables of empowerment, anchored in feminist ideology. Their heroines originate as victims, pushed to criminal excesses by injustices done to them.
A decade or two ago this all made sense. The underworld of domestic abuse and sexual violence was coming freshly to light.
This is an incredibly oversimplified chronology in terms of the feminist movement and its reflection in popular culture, but I’m going to let that go for the time being and move right on to that wonderful “a decade or two ago this all made sense”. But that was then, and “much has changed since then.” I will bet you a reference to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign was deleted from that sentence, which continues:
but the topic of women and violence — especially as represented by women — remains more or less in a time warp, bound by the themes of sexual and domestic trauma.
Which are totally not problems any more, and thus unworthy subjects for art, feminist or otherwise? Tanenhaus seems to think so: Dr. Bishop, an educated neuroscientist, “provides an index to the evolved status of women in 21st-century America,” what with her impressive education and career trajectory.
But though “these conditions have been developing for some years now… the most advanced narratives of female violence seem uninterested in them.” By “most advanced narratives of female violence,” Tanenhaus means, in total, two influential performance artists, Marina Abramovic (who has made public spectacle of her self-mutilation) and Karen Finley (who has made public spectacle of her sexuality). “All this is stimulating in its way,” Tanenhaus suggests with exquisite condescension, “but it feels curiously outmoded. Although Ms. Abramovic and Ms. Finley are both charismatic presences, their antennae seem to have rusted. They persist in registering the dimmed signals of a bygone time.”
No one will argue with Tanenhaus’s assertion that the state of women in America has changed considerably, for the better, in my lifetime. But, wow, holy gently paternal suggestion that the public and private exploitation of women is no longer a relevant subject for an American artist, Batman! Does Tanenhaus seriously fucking believe this? (I guess he thinks the Obama election ended personal prejudice and institutional racism too?) I would provide him with counterexamples, but if an actual grown-up human, a professional monitor of the culture fer chrissakes, is still in a position to need them, I wouldn’t know where to start.
Anyway. Now that it’s worked out its and society’s issues by glorifying the killing rampages of abuse victims—Tanenhaus talks about the “virtuosic… empathy” of Charlize Theron in Monster, though he has less to say about what Mailer’s may have felt for Gary Gilmore—feminist art should start to anticipate the violent capacity of female power. Ivory Tower academia, Tanenhaus implies, with its focus on identity politics and arcana, tippytoes inadequately around the apparently violent ramifications of female empowerment—though he doesn’t bother to distinguish highbrow and lowbrow depictions of male violence—in a way that more populist “crowd-pleasing” fare doesn’t:
The most useful glosses on Dr. Bishop may come from the world of popular, even pulpish, art — for instance, crowd-pleasing movies like “Black Widow,” “Blue Steel,” “The Silence of the Lambs,” Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” or even “Lost,” the ABC series. In all of them the hypothetical notion of empowerment gives way to the exercise of literal power.
He just lists these rather disparate films—but why, exactly, are they useful glosses? Kathryn Bigelow’s passionate, flawed, phallocentric Blue Steel, for instance, is about a lady cop who has her gun taken away from her; Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill is about a revenging superfetishassassinmother. But both films, though approaching the subject from polar-opposite directions, do present “strong,” not coincidentally violent women.
I don’t think Tanenhaus actually means to suggest that pathological female violence is a direct result of female empowerment, anymore than he’d suggest that Travis Bickle or Perry Smith was anything other than a specimen of American masculinity in tortured extremis. Rather, he means to suggest that in a climate of female empowerment, it ought to be harder for artists to ignore that female pathology can take the same form as male pathology. (Still, is it telling that he leaves it to a woman to clarify this point? It’s Patricia Cornwell who reminds us: “‘The more women appropriate power, the more their behavior will mimic that of other powerful people.'”)
It’s also a bit weird to base your article on a claim about the Amy Bishop shootings being an act unprecedented in art, and then list all the moments at which art has seemed to anticipate the signals. (Or maybe that’s not “a bit weird,” maybe it’s just a sign, like the obvious omission pointed out earlier, that I’m taking an deeply fallacious essay more seriously than it deserves.) Tanenhaus’s provides more examples from mid-century genre fiction; his real beef—though he’s admirably consistent about not caring whether a work is authored by a man or woman—seems to be with highbrow art betraying the influence of feminism.
(One might point out that one of the things highbrow feminism is really good at is finding complications in high and low depictions of sexual relationships. Tanenhaus avers that “male depictions of female violence are locked in the noir demimonde of fantasy, the slinky femmes fatales once played by Barbara Stanwyck and Lana Turner more or less duplicated by Kathleen Turner and Sharon Stone.” Aside from the fact that his later invocation of Kill Bill would seem to directly contradict this statement, this is a comical misreading of noir, much of which is predicated not on fantasy but on some genuinely knotty feelings about female agency. The “slinky femme fatale” played by Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct is a crazily complex deconstruction of female sexuality, for instance, as our own Miriam Bale wrote recently.)
But I digress. Tanenhaus leaves the last words to Joyce Carol Oates and Patricia Cornwell, and sets it up thusly:
Ms. Oates’s feminist credentials are in good order. But her assessment comes from beyond the realm of predigested doctrine. It echoes the blunt assertion made by Ms. Cornwell: “People kill because they can. Women can be just as violent as men.”
There you have it: credentialed feminists, and their “predigested doctrine,” are agents of censorious political correctness, blocking our art’s reception of the evident cultural truth that deranged violent female victims are out, and deranged violent empowered females are on the way in.