Mansplaining away Hollywood misogyny

by Noanodyne

Salon continues their tradition of having a male write on a subject he is less qualified to write about than any of the many women who are experts on the subject that they could have gotten to write the article. Michael Barthel takes on the subject of women in the film industry and does a predictably ridiculous job of it. But don’t take my word for it, here is what he said in this article at Salon: “The Oscars’ woman problem.”

The title and his opening give an immediate glimpse of what’s to come. Using the trope “woman problem” gives his perspective away immediately. As Simone de Beauvoir said in The Second Sex:

“[T]he whole of feminine history has been man-made. Just as in America there is no Negro problem, but rather a white problem; just as anti-Semitism is not a Jewish problem, it is our problem; so the woman problem has always been a man problem.”

Not constructing the issue as the man problem that it actually is has the effect of erasing the actual nature and the source of the harm. Women are harmed. Men harm women. That is not a “woman problem” that is a man problem. And the man problem is misogyny. A word you can be sure this writer was never, ever going to use in this lightweight critique.

“Hollywood has long had a problem with women, but with Kathryn Bigelow’s historic best director Oscar in 2010 for “The Hurt Locker,” it looked like things might be slowly changing.”

A woman got the job to direct a movie about the glorification of men in war, because she has a history of writing guy-glorification crap, and that’s supposed to be a big step forward for women. So, as long as it’s women creating the hagiographies of men and their destructive behavior, we’re making real progress. Toward what exactly? Didn’t we already dismiss the idea that women doing things exactly like men doing them isn’t liberation? Yeah, thought so. But Barthel continues:

“And in 2011, the box-office success of “Bridesmaids,” a raunchy comedy written by and starring women, led to predictions that Hollywood was finally ready to recognize the reality that female-centric movies could be as profitable as man-centric movies.”

Oh wait, we not only get ahead by glorifying all the tropes of the glorious gender know as “men,” we also get ahead by glorifying all the tropes of the insipid gender known as “women.” Women creating movies based in the sexist stereotypes of women will surely lead us down the path of empowerfulment, right? Thanks, dude for your deep insight into what it will take for women to get anywhere in this world. He hedges his bets:

“While no industry that employs Michael Bay can really be considered a safe space, more women in production positions might mean better depictions of women, more roles for older actresses, and more influence at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organization that awards the Oscars.”

Having cleverly shown he gets how over the top macho Michael Bay is, he can claim credibility because he appears to actually care about the issue of women in films. Get it? We can now take him as an authority on all this. And then he does something even more “supportive” and seems to be desperate to show that indeed, he really does get it:

“That may end up being the case years down the line. But judging from the available evidence, it’s not going to happen any time soon. Bigelow’s movie was released in 2009, but in 2011, only 5 percent of the top-grossing movies were directed by women. And, astoundingly, the Oscars are even worse.”

Who exactly is “astounded”? Not the women who actually work in that industry, who have been saying this for decades and trying to get things to change with virtually no help from the men either inside the industry or who feed at the many troughs surrounding it, cough, Michael Barthel. And rather than interviewing these women and letting them speak to this issue from their own knowledge and experience — or better yet, giving this assignment to a woman who has been writing about it and talking to those women for a long time — we’re going to get to suffer through the whole rest of an article where a dude tries to catch up with the subject and pretend that it’s near and dear to his heart.

Think I’m exaggerating about his lack of background for writing this? What woman with this as her bio would get to write about this subject on a very popular web site:

From his Salon bio: “Michael Barthel is a PhD candidate in the communication department at the University of Washington. He has written about pop music for the Awl, Idolator, and the Village Voice.”

And from his academic bio: “His research focuses on political communication, with a particular interest in institutional trust, especially as regards the government and the press. Among other things, he has studied the effect of different kinds of Internet usage on political, social, and media trust; the professional norms and practices of web journalists; and the effect of how knowledge of a governmentally-sponsored deliberative process affects trust in government and efficacy.”

Having seen that utter lack of the qualifications to write this article, you won’t be surprised that he could get something so completely wrong in his next statement in the article:

“While it’s possible for male directors and writers to produce representative depictions of women (as Manohla Dargis said in a 2009 interview, ‘Flaubert wrote “Madame Bovary.” That’s all we need to say about that’), they mostly don’t.”

Using that quote in the way he did to support his point is breathtakingly dishonest and self-serving. She didn’t mean at all what he’s implying she meant. Here is the question that was asked and her answer again:

On whether there’s an essential difference between male-made and female-made movies:

“Flaubert wrote Madame Bovary. That’s all we need to say about that.”

I take a drastically different meaning from that, not just given the actual exchange, but knowing Dargis’ work, which has been far more incisively critical of the sexism and misogyny in the film industry than Barthel’s mis-applied quote would attest. See, that’s what comes of actually knowing the background of all this. And that is something a woman who studies the situation of women in the film industry, or who is a woman in the film industry, would be so much more likely to really understand and bring to this.

Barthel then trots out some more stats about what women have been nominated for best director — the lowest of lowest hanging statistical fruits he could have plucked — then quotes a man in the industry. Yes, not content with himself being a sore thumb sticking in the eyes of the women who know so much more about this, he must interject another man into the conversation:

“‘Hollywood is very big on symbolism and mistaking symbolic breakthroughs for actual breakthroughs,’ Richard Rushfield.[…] And then once they’ve had the symbolic breakthroughs and pat themselves on the back for a job well done, they forget to do the job.’”

Nice little sound bite that doesn’t actually say anything — just feel-good dudely pats on each other’s dudely backs for their easy recognition of an obvious problem. Guys have been doing this since forever: It’s all part of the nice guy schtick and it doesn’t provide meaningful analysis. Worse, that shallow quip takes the place of what a woman would have said, which could have been far more devastating. Wonder if that’s intentional? Wonder no more. Here’s Rushfield’s shallow quipping about another movie that deserves every bit of the lashing it has been getting:

“Shut up about The Help. Again, not my favorite movie of the idea.  But for Hollywood to produce mainstream grown up stories with uplifting positive messages, even if those messages are simplistic, and even if they blur a lot of history, is pretty much what Hollywood was invented to do and almost never does anymore.  Apres The Help, all that is left in mainstream filmmaking is Battleship.  It’s a middlebrow story, but an unpretentious. One with an almost entirely female cast. And for what it is, not badly made. It’s not so awful that there should be a few of these now and then.”

That’s who Barthel thought was worthy of quoting about serious issues in the film industry. But even dudes like this recognize once in a while that they are far out of their depth and give a nod to female experts from time to time, as Barthel does here:

“Nor were the 2010 Oscars an unalloyed triumph for feminism. As Rebecca Clark Mane, a feminist cultural critic from the University of Washington, pointed out, the dual wins for Sandra Bullock in ‘The Blind Side’ and Mo’Nique in ‘Precious’ sent a troubling message. ‘They managed to both celebrate regressive gender politics which locate women’s primary role as mothers while at the same time setting the “bad” black mother against the “good” white mother,’ she wrote.”

But not content to let that very powerful statement stand as a meaningful platform for what could have come next, he covers his tiny little privates quickly, lest all that ball busting get out of hand:

“Bridesmaids” has already had a positive effect on the fortunes of some women in the industry; “Who Invited Her?,” a comedy by Sascha Rothschild about a woman invited along on a bachelor party weekend, was quickly picked up after “Bridesmaids’” big numbers came out.”

There ya go, little ladies, back to where you belong in the wasteland of what can be forever dismissed as “chick flicks” and where you can’t stir up any trouble for the gents and their genitals. Barthel seems to have completely forgotten the part of his own odyssey where Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency (who could have done so much better on this article than some random dude) made this clear to him:

“Female characters aren’t given anything to do besides pine about their (heterosexual) romantic interests.”

Even though he gallantly put that in his very own article — such a Nice Guy™ — he can’t keep track of the actual thread of what’s going on with all of the shit that women in the film industry experience. You know, because he’s a dude. And knows fuck all about this subject.

“[I]t’s telling that every action movie of note released since ‘The Hurt Locker’ has been directed by a man.”

And what does it tell? No idea, because he doesn’t bother to explore that either, because it’s back to something that is over his head. Instead, he trots out the much discussed and very obvious demographics of Hollywood — yeah, we get it dude, dudes are in charge and women are screwed. That this is news to you or some of your dudely readers doesn’t make it a shocking or interesting revelation in a piece that has had many chances by then to go past the obvious (and past what women have already been talking about for a long time, if Barthel had asked them). Better to just fall back on the usual:

“Hollywood’s sexism is so obvious that it’s become almost hard to get worked up about.”

Aside from the fact that he’s just given away that he himself is bored by the subject he’s covering, that’s the cry of “sexism” that men love to hide behind.

And Barthel’s use of it here is another stellar example of why they love it so much. It’s a cover for him — he can pretend to care while completely ignoring the actual misogynist pit of rancid man-meat and fetid patriarchal-pus that Hollywood actually is. And he obviously doesn’t even understand what effects that misogyny has and has had on women. In his utter lack of comprehension of what women experience, he completely misses the point of the movie that has women’s shitty choices as its central theme.

“It’s like the supposedly anachronistic plot of another nominee, ‘Albert Nobbs’: Women can only succeed by acting like men.”

There is so much wrong with that sentence that I could have written a whole piece on just that. But I’ll stick to the second part. (Spoiler alert for those who haven’t seen it. And note that I use the pronouns of the characters’ chosen gender.)

In fact, that’s not what the movie posits at all. Albert has not “succeeded” in any conventional sense of the word. Albert is celibate, deeply lonely, a servant with a devious employer who later steals his financial legacy, bound to a strict class hierarchy, isolated even from the people who might care for him, and a ghost in his own life who pines to be and do something more. Does that sound like success? The woman who became Albert was completely subsumed by an identity taken on solely for survival in a misogynist society that she escaped from after being gang raped.

Albert’s friend, Mr. Page, enjoys “success” in that he can work and travel and live freely, but he is forever bound to utter secrecy and even in his moment of devastating grief, he must maintain his chosen identity at all costs. The solution to one of the movie’s saddest problems is to continue in the very specific role he has chosen. I’m sure a man sees that as “success.” I would say that every choice those two females (and other females in the movie as well) had to make was at the huge expense of living complete lives. Just as women always do. They were damned either way — Albert more than Mr. Page, but neither has the “success” of being just human.

But a guy who thinks Bridesmaids is a “great” film isn’t going to get that:

“It’s not that ‘Bridesmaids’ isn’t a great film that deserves a billion awards. It’s just that, standing up there by itself, you start to get suspicious why that film was singled out. It’s like Carrie suddenly getting picked as homecoming queen. Reasonable observers begin to suspect there’s an ulterior motive at work.”

What in the what? I’m not even going to waste the energy on everything that’s wrong with that, but for fuck sake, doesn’t Salon have editors? And after that contradictory and pointless blather, we get this sage proclamation:

“How to fix this? The industry isn’t going to deal with the problem by itself, or it would’ve done so already.”

Ya think? Gosh, maybe that’s why women have been working their asses off on projects such as the Institute on Gender in the Media. But you’d have to know something about the subject and be interested in exploring past the obvious and beyond platitudes to actually find out about and write about that.

He does have a suggestion, though. In his infinitely dudely wisdom, Barthel tells us that if Hollywood makes a lot more misogynist movies that have male directors and writers, all will be well:

“It’s even in its self-interest to cater to female audiences (movies like “Twilight” show how much potential is there).”

Again, someone who actually knew the background of all this, a woman in the industry for example, would know about how outraged women in the industry were when the female director of the first very successful Twilight movie was replaced by male directors for all subsequent Twilight movies. And a female and feminist cultural critic would be able to point out the disgusting anti-female tropes that form the entire architecture for those stories. But hey, why quibble. Dude is thinking that not having enough vaginas in Hollywood is the problem.

“Maybe we need some affirmative action for Hollywood.”

Having too few women in Hollywood is a problem, especially for women who want to be working there and for those of us who enjoy film as an artistic or entertainment medium. But the greater problem is that the representations of women’s real lives, real concerns, and real experiences are all but missing from all mainstream media and for a very specific reason and that is the fundamental issue that should be addressed.

As Barthel himself says:

“And if the Oscars are anything to judge by, then Hollywood doesn’t value women very highly at all.”

Indeed, if the mainstream media is anything to judge by, the mainstream doesn’t value women very highly at all.

And that includes Salon and Michael Barthel.

8 Comments to “Mansplaining away Hollywood misogyny”

  1. Thanks for going through this bit by bit, Noan. Pointing out that this guy was unqualified to write the article in the first place, and why, is important. Calling him on each piece of oblivious or overt misogyny systematically like this is grueling but necessary. His total misunderstanding of the Madame Bovary quote is so telling. Ugh. Flaubert hated his character and couldn’t wait to kill her at the end.Then there’s his utter misunderstanding of Albert Nobbs, a film I can’t wait to see again for the wonderful handling of very complex issues of race and class. Very good analysis, thanks again.

  2. Completely completely brilliant article! Have you sent it to Salon and dudebro author yet? Really well written, i love an article that makes me cheer, thank you!

  3. I had to watch some of the Oscars last night. I was thinking of Demi Moore and her recent health problems from being so emaciated. Sad. Angelina Jolie looked far too thin and unhealthy, too. Unfortunately the pursuit of terminal female thiness still seems to be thriving.

    It was kind of atrocious, the announcer tried to praise female acting this year by talking about all the strong female roles and how women had portrayed statesmen and world leaders. Then he proceeded to introduce the cast of Bridesmaids who all came out and did penis jokes. Geesh! It was like reminding women of their place in society, which is apparently at the end of a penis.

  4. yttik- The thin emaciated look has nothing to do with attractiveness, I have figured out. It has to do with starving and harming the woman, keeping her weak and subordinate. In the 19th century they kept women emotionally and mentally weak by denying her education. In the 20th century, that doesn’t work anymore, so they keep her physically weak by anorexia and dieting.

    And glad to know I’m not the only kid out there boiling over those ridiculous penis jokes!! heaven forbid should we make the penis anything but a huge trophy with a mind of its own by refusing to acknowledge its physical and social sovereignty in every single matter! (I mean how everyone always must talk about penises as if they are sooo important and how they must always be portrayed as this HUGE physical organ with a mind of its own, this special organ).

  5. Excellent take down, Noan. Made me want to applaud. The deliberate misrepresentation of the Flaubert quote is unbelieveable.

  6. Noan, have you sent your rebuttle to Barthel, I think you should so that the Dude knows he has been exposed for the asshole he really is. Male opinion such as this on such a serious matter needs exposing……great take down…send it to him from all of us……..

  7. Thanks all! I just tweeted about it:

    And maybe someone with a strong stomach can wade into the discussion at the Salon article itself

  8. I registered at Salon and left a link to this post. Might be a bit late though – last comment was two days ago.

    Shamelessly derailing to ask if anyone here has any tips for introducing a very sweet-tempered new baby kitty to a very territorial, bad-ass, slightly older kitty.

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