Friday, September 27, 2013

Bigmouth Strikes: Gilmour Not the Norm, But Universities Still to Blame

Reflecting on the recent internet furor over David Gilmour's big mouth, I realized just how lucky my experience as a female in academia has been. During the 15 years I was (among other things) getting my two degrees in English at three Canadian institutions, 1995-2010, I was unfailingly treated with respect by my male professors, and in some cases something like awe. As far as gender-specific encouragement goes, I remember in particular the philosophy professor who told me “Don't let him get away with that!” when I backed down during an argument with a male student (I may have been the only woman in the seminar, but I can't remember because I paid no attention to my fellow students in university, only to the professor, the readings, and the ideas); and the high school math teacher who told me I'd be bored and stop attending class if I switched to business math (he was sweet but he couldn't do anything to interest me in math, not as long as there was literature to read). As far as encouraging me as a writer went, I remember the junior high teacher who slammed my screenplay assignment down on my desk with a big “A” scrawled on it and demanded, “Where did you learn to WRITE like that!??”

(Do I sound as pompous as Gilmour? Good, we can get that out of the way.)

I don't know about the rest of North America, but based on my experience, Canadian high schools and universities are far from being rife with male chauvinism. (In elementary school nearly all of my teachers, both male and female, hated me for being intelligent and intellectually curious, but that's another pedagogical kettle of fish.) Clearly these math and philosophy teachers had absorbed feminism's lessons about raising the self-esteem and engagement level of female students in these traditionally male subject areas. It didn't work with math but it did work with philosophy: I was interested in big ideas, not big numbers. Philosophy was my minor as an undergraduate, English my major, and I also have a Master's in English. I don't think David Gilmour is the norm – no, not even for his age. The majority of the male professors I took classes from, or simply socialized with, during 1995-2010 were between the ages of 45 and 65, and if they were 45 in 1995, that would place them within Gilmour's generation. Gilmour has no excuse.

You might think from the foregoing that I don't think that either North American Humanities departments or North American literary culture is male chauvinist, but you would be wrong. It's true that my English professors were 50/50 male/female (that's based on the total number of professors I took courses from, with my course choices dependent on my interests, what was available, and what was required for my program); my philosophy professors, on the other hand, were male straight down the line. Of all of the multiple-author English courses I took, the professor (male or female) managed to fit in a token female in about half the cases. The only course I ever took in which the female writers outnumbered the male writers was a Modernism course taught by a self-declared feminist. As for single-author course offerings: I took five on male authors (Milton, Shakespeare, Keats, Donne, and T. S. Eliot), one on a female author (Austen), and don't recall in the 20 semesters of choosing courses seeing another one offered on a female author.

These experiences jibe with findings about the under-representation of female contributors and reviews of books by women in traditional literary journals like the New York Review of Books and London Review of Books. What's really depressing is that this under-representation is being carried over into new online journals like The Quarterly Conversation, which is ostensibly devoted to reviewing experimental world literature in translation but which you'd be forgiven for thinking is a space where men can hero-worship men, thanks to the shrines to Murakami, Wallace, and Bolano, and the low numbers of female contributors and subjects (in 2013 to date, together they hover at a little over 25%). Incidentally, the proof of my own devotion to Bolano is on this blog, and I have female friends and acquaintances that are among the biggest Murakami, Wallace, and Bolano fans I know. (That's how I discovered TQC: by looking for Bolano coverage.) So why is The Quarterly Conversation such an aggressively male space? And why is this considered literary culture as per usual, while spaces where women hero-worship women (e.g. Sylvia Plath, Margaret Atwood, and Jeannette Winterson) are considered “feminist”? There are non-feminist female-dominated literary spaces on the internet, such as Goodreads, which seems to have been overtaken by chicklit-lovers – because, as Jonathan Franzen once lamented, in America women read and men don't. But that's average men and women. The literary elite is all, well, serious heterosexual guys – the writers and the reviewers. Women can have all of low literary culture to themselves as long as high literary culture remains the preserve of men.

What can we do to rectify this situation? Based on my own experience we are heading in the right direction in the universities, but we still have a long way to go, and it's not as though new media is going to automatically rescue us from ancient cultural assumptions. I can see the serious heterosexual guy contributors to TQC stamping their feet and pulling a Gilmour: “But I like what I like, and you can't make me like anything else! (And by the way, I only like The Best.)” And if the discouragement of women in subjects like philosophy isn't happening at the classroom level – where is it happening? Why have I heard from young female philosophy students that it's easier to get published with a male or gender-neutral pseudonym? If I were doing a minor in philosophy now, would I find more female professors, or not?

As far as my major is concerned, we have got to get female authors out of the Women's Studies ghetto (which should become Gender Studies anyway, and perhaps in some interdisciplinary cases, Sex Studies) and into the canon. Now that we've entered the 21st century this should be easier than ever, since there are plenty of well-known 20th century English-language female authors. But it's not as easy as it looks, since the two big “isms,” Modernism and postmodernism, are dominated by a roll call of male heroes (from Joyce to Beckett to Pynchon to DFW). To introduce more diversity into English Studies we might have to de-emphasize the traditional isms, and there's nothing necessarily wrong with that. On the contrary, since Modernism is widely seen (by its practitioners too) as being the end of traditional literary values, why shouldn't the postmodern literary canon be in perpetual flux and subject to perpetual debate?

It remains to be seen whether English Studies is even going to emerge from the demands of diversity, on the one hand, and the challenge of the digital era, on the other, in any kind of recognizable form. Should English finally be liberated from the theological close reading model? Is it possible that the kind of enrichment and pleasure offered by the close reading of aesthetically accomplished texts – the study of the canon – is only one kind, and that others that are just as good can come of reading and literary analysis? Is it coincidence or zeitgeist that I conceived the idea of reading The Recognitions side by side with its cultural evil twin, Peyton Place (the difficult male masterpiece vs. the trashy female bestseller), not long before I read Andrew Seals's Quarterly Conversation article on Franco Moretti's cheeky canon-revising concept of “distant reading,” “We Have Never Been Well-Read”? It does seem as though we're going to have to whittle down the pre-20th century canon even more, get those Great Dead White Males and smattering of females out of the way so that we can then pick our way through the ensuing flux, realizing that there is absolutely no way for us to read everything of value and interest, so we might as well study whatever we want to? Moreover, in North America this decision to educate oneself in these matters – to spend your youth thinking, to become a contemplative and critical citizen – is undertaken at a gouging cost with little if any financial reward at the end of it – but that's another cultural battle.

Meanwhile, I want to say these things to the commenters who've been defending Gilmour yet who seem to known nothing about either the study of literature or feminism, which pretty much rules them out from commenting:
  1. David Gilmour is not a “specialist.” He does not even have a Ph.D.. He's a literary author. He's stated that by his own choice, in fact insistence, he only teaches “what he loves.” That he only loves fiction by ageing white guys doesn't make him a specialist in fiction by ageing white guys. Just like if I only liked to read vampire fiction, that wouldn't make me a specialist in vampire fiction. I would be a specialist in vampire fiction if I chose that as my field of scholarship (with research and theses and discoveries about the genre and all of that), regardless of my feelings about vampire novels. 
  1. Yes, there are courses devoted to the exclusive study of literature by women. No, that's not a double standard, given the under-representation of female authors in English literature courses that I've described above. I've also stated that I think it's time to get rid of Women's Studies, but not so that we can go back to the old way of doing things. If the young male university students proclaiming their butthurt at the existence of Women's Studies are being sincere rather than disingenuous, I am sincerely concerned about their ability to reason. As for all of the young female university students (again, I presume that's what these women are) who have rushed to proclaim that they hate female authors too – all I can say is, good luck with that. Seriously, Canada, you're producing real winners.
  1. The issue is not whether or not it's important to be “passionate” about your subject matter. The issue is that by declaring himself passionate only about literature by “serious heterosexual guys” (and Proust... but whatever), Gilmour revealed that he's a close-minded, sexist, parochial ninny. Yes it is sexist to only read authors of your own gender, yes I would say that if a woman declared she was only interested in reading books by women.

I can definitely see how, as some commenters have claimed, Gilmour is a popular teacher. It probably is fun for a change to be taught by someone who is not a scholar, who has the privilege of only teaching what he loves (not what best represents his area of speciality, nor what would be best for the students), and who feels no obligation to be objective and distance himself from his feelings about the material. This is one of the benefits of hiring arts celebrity instructors; the other is that in this way such usually-struggling artists can earn a few more peanuts. Gilmour, however, has abused the privilege he's been granted of teaching what he loves by only loving what superficially resembles him. He is absolutely free to love what he wants and read what he wants, whatever anyone may think of it (as we are free to state what we think of it, given that he publicized these views). He is not, however, free to teach whatever he wants. University instructors and universities have obligations to their students. Gilmour is free to be uninterested in diversity in his private life, but not in his pedagogy.

And yet this opens a can of worms, which is presumably why the principal of Victoria College is defending Gilmour and hiding behind that ludicrous (in this context) word “specialized”: can professors be forced to include works by women and other examples of diversity in their syllabi? Should I have been upset that I didn't read anything by women in my philosophy classes? (I don't think I did, though I don't know about all of those analytical philosophy articles, and maybe they were using pseudonyms or initials.) The issue, however, is not that inclusion of texts by women is mandatory, but that Gilmour appears to be excluding certain authors from his syllabus because they are women, and that is discriminatory. The only way that would not be discriminatory is if he were teaching a course on male fiction.

I think it's endearing that the student protestors responded with the mantra “Gilmour! Read more!” (which was the first thing his Hazlitt interview made me think, after “What a nincompoop”) and by dressing up the statue of the great Canadian critic Northrop Frye in drag. Although I think there are grounds for firing Gilmour in his statements, what the outcry should really be about is making not Gilmour but English lit courses in general more diverse. It doesn't matter whether individual serious (white) heterosexual guy professors share Gilmour's sentiments: those sentiments are institutionalized. And we know that in the consumer-student era, students can get what they demand. They might as well use that dubious, debt-bought power for good.

This post belongs to a series on thinking about how cultural criticism should be practiced, and oddly enough, given the occasion, I'm more optimistic in this entry than I was in the first.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

American Eccentrics, Hollywood Transcendentalism, and Progressive Politics

Academic feminist film criticism has brought some attention to the woman's film as a genre, but most widely-known woman's films gained their cultural prominence through the attention of men – gay men, who made a cult of Garbo and Dietrich, Hepburn and Stanwyck, and especially Crawford and Davis. It's an oddity of the history of Hollywood film reception that straight men hero-worship the male directors they've nominated as “auteurs” while gay men diva-worship the female stars. Moreover, to judge from the type of directors likely to be embraced as important auteurs by either the French New Wave critics or their American followers you might assume that the great American cinematic subject is “men being violent” (although sometimes this subject is under scrutiny, as in the films of Nicholas Ray and Paul Thomas Anderson). Perhaps the only prominent male critic to write about the woman's picture is Stanley Cavell in the 90s, and I have never seen this work cited by other critics, whereas I see his work on screwball comedy cited all the time. Douglas Sirk (taken seriously since the championing of Fassbinder in the 70s) is the single fashionable auteur who directed woman's pictures.

The “machismo” of the American film canon is all the odder when you consider that the gynocentric side of the war between Fieldingites and Richardsonians in academic criticism of the English novel triumphed over the androcentric side long before the advent of academic feminism, with F. R. Leavis's The Great Tradition (1948) a pivotal salvo in the battle. Harold Bloom has often spoken of the “lines” of Richardson and Fielding and their separate supporters; Leavis wasn't fond of either, but his favouring of Austen, Lawrence, and honourary English novelist helped to put heroines at the centre of the English lit canon. But this is the English novel. American Romanticism and the odd “novel” that it produced is, as Leslie Fiedler pointed out, often conspicuously and purposefully devoid of women, although one must also contend with Hawthorne and that cultural misfit, his admirer, James.

I am not so much pleading for criticism of American films to adopt a more gynocentric approach as I am pointing out the arbitrary elements of canon formation, which in this case reflected the way that both American and French male critics (and Pauline Kael) thought about what it means to be “American.” Likewise, the gynocentric slant of criticism of the English novel reflects what critics came to think the novel should be about, namely interiority; although with Modernism an even more highly developed interiority is instead attached to the autobiographical protagonist, who will now be male when the author is male (as he usually is).

Given the present state of the American film canon, however, a corrective may be in order. With the field divided between a macho auteurism that favours movies in which women, if present at all to a significance degree, are relegated to the sidelines and traditional roles (however feisty they may be in them, as in the Ford and Hawks Westerns), and the seemingly endless fascination with film noir, a genre in which women are represented by the femme fatale, it can't hurt to bring more attention to the woman's picture and to the many interesting directors (such as Frank Borzage, William Dieterle, and frequent woman's picture director King Vidor) who have never become fashionable auteurs perhaps in part because they were not especially interested in masculinity as a subject.

A film critic friend of mine once told me that noir was the only genre of which it can be said that every member was interesting, and while I agree with him about the inherent interest of noir, I think the same can be said for the woman's picture if it can be considered a genre. Does a Hollywood movie become a woman's picture just because it stars a woman – meaning that women will watch movies starring men but not vice versa? It can sometimes seem so, although women can also be the stars of horror films (or, today, action films*) and the co-stars of romantic comedies and dramas. In the woman's picture, however, men are usually love interests or secondary characters. A woman's picture can star a man, however, like Sirk's There's Always Tomorrow, which puts Fred MacMurray in the same trapped middle-class position as Jane Wyman in All That Heaven Allows; just as a woman can be the protagonist of a noir (e.g. Ophuls's The Reckless Moment), although noirs with female protagonists are usually considered noir/woman's picture hybrids, which by rights should be the most interesting genre of all – and it's true. There is also a sub-genre of woman's picture, or woman's picture/noir, in which the male protagonist falls in love with a woman he's never seen in the flesh, who does not appear for the first stretch of the film (e.g. Preminger's 1944 Laura and Dieterle's 1945 Love Letters), which shows the influence of the Gothic on both genres and serves as a bridge between Wilkie Collins's 1859 The Woman in White and Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 Vertigo.

I was prompted to reflect on these things after seeing a couple of interesting forgotten classical Hollywood, Nicholas Ray's A Woman's Secret (1949), with a screenplay by Herman (of Citizen Kane authorship controversy) Mankiewicz, and People Will Talk (1951), written for the screen and directed by the other Mankiewicz brother, Joseph. Joseph Mankiewicz is not a fashionable auteur even though as a writer-director and sometimes writer-director-producer he is an auteur a la lettre. Is this because he was so often associated with woman's pictures, such as his most famous movie, All About Eve? People Will Talk, released the year after All About Eve (and with its same producer, Darryl F. Zanuck), is a remarkable comedy-drama in which Cary Grant's eccentric, progressive, cultured, and magically benevolent Dr. Praetorius (that's correct) becomes romantically involved with a woman who's become pregnant out of wedlock (that's correct), for which she is neither shamed nor punished. It's evident that attacks on 50s conformism started early in the movies – a lot earlier than Sirk's 1956 All That Heaven Allows (a movie kindred in spirit), maybe as early as the great Mildred Pierce (1945). The tension between conformism and individualism in American culture is American culture, of course, and People Will Talk sometimes reminded me of a Mr. Deeds Goes to Town if the latter were populated by atheist intellectuals instead of small-town innocents.

Jeanne Craine is not as much of a feminist in this film as she first appears... but Cary Grant is.

As for A Woman's Secret, it seems to have slipped through the cracks of the canon because it made no impact at the time and does not fit in with the auteurist-friendly subject of many of Ray's later films, starting with the success of Rebel Without a Cause on: aforementioned masculinity. It's easy to see why A Woman's Secret did not set the world on fire at the time of release, and it's for the same reasons that it's so delightfully charming now. It is absolutely a screenwriter's picture, and Mankiewicz has no interest in any of the genres that it dabbles in, from woman's picture to murder mystery. The murder plot in fact makes no sense psychologically, and the two women it involves (played by Maureen O'Hara and Gloria Grahame) are shoved into the background and flashbacks while Melvyn Douglas takes centre stage as a world-weary author avatar.

Drat... I just had that rug cleaned!

The Svengali melodrama in which O'Hara and Grahame are embroiled could be a lot of fun, as it is in the Cukor-directed Gothic melodrama A Woman's Face (1945), starring Douglas, Joan Crawford, and Conrad Veidt. Mankiewicz, however, gives it perfunctory treatment, instead developing the comedic characters of the long-suffering elderly police inspector and his exceedingly eccentric, mystery novel-reading, amateur-detective wife, who finally, semi-inadvertently, provides the key (literally) to the mystery. The sharp-edged interaction between these characters, played by Mary Philips and Jay C. Flippen, is delightful; while Philips's character is a patented “batty woman,” it's evident that she chafes at her husband's mild/gruff, but withal complacent, patriarchal authority, and Philips gives her line readings just the right note of off-kilter menace to be laugh-out-loud funny, especially when she seizes an opportunity to declare, “I could have you committed, you know,” soon after missing his coffee cup and dumping a spoonful of sugar into his lap.

As an ill-educated but strong-willed floozy, Gloria Grahame also delivers line readings that tease out the absurdism in Mankiewicz's literate and whimsical dialogue. Douglas is the flippant playboy from Ninotchka, but even more dissipated ten years on, with a touch of Oscar Levant about his piano-playing wisecracker – if Levant could ever be imagined as conducting an affair with a woman or as giving up his bachelor ways in the final moments. The Douglas-O'Hara extra-wedlock affair is another one slipped past the censors, suggested by a reference to her jealousy of Grahame and confirmed by his louche body language with her in a later scene. Blink and you'll spend most of the movie thinking he's her gay best friend.

Speaking of American non-conformists, it struck me on a recent viewing of the 1934 Anne of Green Gables that one of the greatest of them in literature isn't a citizen of the United States at all. In Canada, beginning with my generation it's been a rite of passage to grow up with the mid-80s made-for-TV movie starring Megan Follows, and it seems evident that the later adaptation's casting of Marilla and Matthew and especially Anne herself owe a lot to the 30s film. The latter, however, adds a romantic plot to the episodic novel, focusing in fan fiction style on Anne's relationship with Gilbert Blyth. The movie's Gilbert Blyth himself departs from the studious young man of the book with whom Anne intellectually competes to become a sort of teenage proto-John Garfield type; especially hilarious if one was a fan of the 80s movie's daringly effeminate Gilbert.

Jonathan Crombie's "daringly effeminate" Gilbert Blythe... Candrogyny strikes again?

But although the 30s movie doesn't stick to Montgomery's vision of the clash between Anne's imaginative and impulsive ways and the town's demand for decorum and propriety (brokered by Marilla, who appreciates both Anne's ways and the town's), there's an early scene in which Anne elaborates on her preferred way of praying, as opposed to the way she's been taught, that's shocking in its frank portrayal of the young adolescent's “pagan” animism and antidoctrinalism. Exalted by her Romantic imagination (Elinor Dashwood would never approve), Anne is in some ways more of a Transcendentalist even than Jo March, in a line of Protestant heroines that descends from Jane Austen and ends up in two superb woman's pictures that explicitly grapple with philosophical subjects in a Transcendentalist context, the great Bette Davis vehicle Now, Voyager and Douglas Sirks's All That Heaven Allows.

The Anglo-American noncomformist spirit has often been represented by heroines presumably because women have traditionally had to do so little to not conform to their social role**; because being female is already to not conform to the male-determined “norm” (hence the emphasis in the initial chapters of Anne of Green Gables on the mistake of ordering her instead of a boy); because women are encouraged to develop their imaginations and middle-class women traditionally had the (double-edged, as the non-Anglo-American example of Madame Bovary emphasizes) leisure in which to do so; because women are not encouraged to challenge their circumstances or environment, which makes it all the more dramatic when they do. See also the heroines of Theodor Dreyer, an auteur very much concerned with both spirituality and nonconformism. Another good example from cinematic history is Powell and Pressburger's Gone to Earth (1950), in which Jennifer Jones plays a peasant woman who identifies with her dead mother's paganism, who cannot find happiness with either the Baptist minister who thinks she's an innocent child of nature or the swaggering squire who satisfies her body but threatens her soul, and who scandalizes her community in her attempt to achieve fulfilment (compare Dreyer's Day of Wrath).

Since seeing Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master I've wanted to compare it to Now, Voyager: both are “therapy” movies that use sea voyages as metaphors for spiritual journeys, and in both cases the protagonist must work out their relationship to male authority, represented by a guru/mentor. Since Now, Voyager, with its overt reference to Whitman, is about the process of becoming an individual (and shows how Transcendentalism might have special application for women, who historically have not been encouraged to think their own thoughts and lead their own lives), Davis resolves her relationship with male authority with relative ease (her mommy issues are another matter); in contrast, in The Master, Joaquin Phoenix seems to be offered charismatic authority as a solution to his “male” anger and alienation, and a finally unacceptable one. (His mommy issues, too, are another story, and one that, along with the central performances by brothers who ape James Dean's persona in remarkably different ways, makes The Master a fascinating companion to Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho, which, come to think about it, is also about the search for/escape from a problematic male guru as much as about longing for the mother.) 

*I can't comment on “chick flicks,” the contemporary equivalent to the studio-era “woman's picture,” since I have seen very few of them. They do often appear to indulge in gender essentialism, but whether that's also true of studio-era woman's pictures and I simply overlook it because of their cultural context, or whether the few hundred woman's pictures that have any reputation are exceptions that challenged that context, is something I haven't studied. I know that some feminist film critics have embraced blockbusters with female appeal like James Cameron's Titanic, but that's further than I'm capable of going even though I'm willing to admit that theoretically Cameron's dopey, historically dodgy, and impeccably pop-feminist blockbuster could be the true heir to Gone With the Wind.

**Nowadays, on the other hand, it's probably easier for a boy or man to fail to conform to his gender role than it is for a girl or woman. This kind of nonconformism, however, has not yet been absorbed into our narrative consciousness. At the same time, it's hardly the case that women have total freedom to ignore conventional gender self-presentation. It's interesting to see self-declared feminist Janelle Monae – sporting Bette Davis's pompadour from Now, Voyager – bring female androgyny to a pop arena in which female bodily display and conventional attractiveness remain mandatory (hence the abuse Amy Winehouse took). Even in indie, where conventional sexiness is met with disapproval (hence the abuse that Lana Del Rey gets), there's a weird emphasis on long, flowing Pre-Raphaelite hair (Kate Bush, Neko Case, Florence Welch... heck, even Courtney Love in recent years... that's totally enough for a thing). Camille Paglia may have been right that Madonna was the most important feminist of the 1980s because she proved that sexiness and power were not mutual contradictory, but once the lesson of Madonna was absorbed by a new generation of women in pop that message became muddled: no one doubts that Beyonce, for example, is powerful (i.e. she's famous, wealthy, and in charge of her career), but unlike Madonna, she does not project an image of power (not even when she specifically manufactures one in the form of Sasha Fierce). Should she? What were the goals of feminism again? For women to be self-determining and financially successful or for women to be a threat to the status quo, a.k.a. scare the bejesus out of heterosexual men? And what do we make of the fact that despite the continued insistence on women's sexual self-display in pop music, most of Madonna and Beyonce's male fans are gay? It's a crazy world out there, kids....

"Mother... I'm not afraid!"