Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Oh, the Misogyny...

If you were a girl-child in the late '80s, you probably remember playing a game called MASH. MASH was prototypical of girl games from my childhood. Centered on pubescent girls' budding interest in sex, the game envelopes those interests in the safer trappings of adulthood-as-we-then-knew-it.

On a sheet of paper, the capital letters M-A-S-H were written at the top. These letters stood for Mansion, Apartment, Shack or House. Under this header appear categories involving other features of our futures...features such as cars, husbands, jobs and more, depending on the tenacity of the players. Each category held four options, which were eliminated through a complicated counting process that involved (I think) the roll of a die. Once only one option was left in each category, you had your future--be it living in a shack with Billy Brat with six children all named Starlight, or holed up in an apartment with the janitor while pursuing a career in hair-braiding.

Here's a sample:

I am still vaguely outraged that my parents allowed my sister and I to play this game. That despite my father's desire for me to be overtaken with a hot, burning love for soccer, he mirthfully shook his head at us instead, sitting in a circle on the living room floor, planning out the social architecture of our futures with notebook paper and pencils.

But then, I suppose I may never have bothered with college had I known I would end up living in a tiny apartment in Brooklyn without even a bicycle, making money by perjuring my creative standards daily in corporate America, far far away from the goals I imagined myself reaching before I stood teetering on the cusp of 30. But then there's S. Though it's hard to speak for my ten-year-old self now, the promise of a sweet bald man probably would have tipped the scales heavily, thus convincing me to continue my studies and not end up barefoot-and-pregnant in Florida. Probably.

Which brings me to the second in today's bugaboo blitz: M*A*S*H, the movie. Just in case the clip of the movie poster to the right isn't clear enough, here's another shot of the graphic used to market Altman's film:

Tasteful, right? Because what better way to make an anti-war statement than an inverted peace-sign made of a pair of legs?

I used to love watching this television show. From my recollection of the series, the female characters were nothing like those portrayed in the actual film--i.e. they were not barely-veiled targets for harassment and abuse.

Now, I grew up in a military house, and spent enough time around officers and at military events to kinda guess that even in the '90s,the military wasn't exactly a haven from sexism. However, I also saw a very positive side of the military--dedicated fathers and husbands, members of the community, working together for a cause they believed in strongly.

As an adult, I recognize that many of those "dedicated" members of the community could very well have been alcoholics, wife-beaters, philanderers, liars, cheats or even sexists. And, as a cultural participant, I am not immune to the histories of terrible actions taken by troops, past and present, during war. But the protagonists Hawkeye Pierce and Duke Forrest and their male cohorts go far beyond the call of middle-brow hazing during their "use of humor and hijinks to keep their sanity in the face of the horror of war" for the sake of entertainment (Thank you, IMDb.)

I don't want to trot out the details, for those who haven't yet had the pleasure, because it makes my blood pressure rise recounting just how these two use female soldiers to redirect their anger at having been drafted, their frustration with military protocol AND their self-congratulatory prankster/playboy ways. What I DO want to address is the issue of viewer identification. Like with the MASH game I played as a kid, participating in a game (or film) only works if one can identify with it.

My huffy outrage turned to genuine puzzlement after watching M*A*S*H, because the reasons women may have had for enjoying this film in its heyday seemed inscrutable. Then I remembered Laura Mulvey. (You knew that was coming, didn't you?)

According to Laura Mulvey's highly-influential "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," "classic" film puts all viewers in the masculine subject position, leaving the women in the film to be viewed not as selves, but as objects of desire. (In a very reductive nutshell.) Thus, even female viewers who may be politically opposed to the dynamics of a film will find herself more likely to identify with the masculine eye of the camera--the eye that almost always pursues heterosexual, masculine objects of desire: women and power.

In light of these thoughts, it is not surprising that an enormous feminist outcry was not heard when M*A*S*H came to the silver screen. The main thrust of the film, after all, is war, which in 1970 had a tad more interest for most Americans than did feminism, unfortunate as that may seem. War affects everyone, especially when there's a draft. Thus, my conclusion is that female viewers of this film must have identified with Hawkeye and Duke--the bucks brave enough to flout the authority that sent so many Americans to die in Vietnam.

Yes, they must have identified with the renegade soliders--not the nurses terrorized into granting the two access to a private hospital ward, not the young women taunted with bawdy requests for sexual favors and certainly not the doomed Major "Hot Lips" Houlihan exposed during her shower for the ostensible purpose of finding out whether she is or is not a natural blonde. (Nothing but class.)

And why should they, when other female soliders take part in the humiliation too, laughing at Houlihan as she flounders, wet and screaming, on the floor of the collapsed shower tent? It isn't that Houlihan's character is at all sympathetic. Rather, she is a standard Army-issue rule monkey, and a prig. Add a little sadism, and we'd have Nurse Ratched. Unlike Ratched, though, who is attacked because of her power, Houlihan is sexually harassed into a submission that was never denied. From her first night in the camp when she has sex with one of the soliders to her impotent attempts to lodge complaints to the General, Houlihan's "power" is a joke from the get-go. She is humiliated as an unfortunate emblem of the Army, and all of the humiliation centers around her sexuality. Which, apparently, she can't control, given the number of her attackers she ends up sleeping with before the movie ends.

And yet, women probably went to the movies with their boyfriends/husbands/lovers and enjoyed this film. Were it 1970, and were I a child of the '60s, would I have enjoyed it? I hope I would have been helping Gloria Steinem start Ms., or knocking on doors to advocate for pro-choice legislation. What scares me though, is not knowing whether that would have kept me from spending Friday night at the movies yuking it up.

On a positive note, I've moved past MASH the game, and I can safely say that I've somehow come out on the other side of adolescence without the internalized male gaze...or at least not the part of that eye that can look past violence against women. One could say that looks something like progress.

No comments: