Monday, September 8, 2008

Terminator, Buffy, and the Elektra Complex


Tonight brings the second season of Terminator, which means dainty little Summer Glau beating people up, and in some sense we have Joss Whedon to thank for that, since her main resume item for being dainty but violent before this was his Serenity movie.

That teen-girl-butt-kicker archetype in turn echoes his character Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and she’s as good as any starting point for talking about tensions within “third wave” feminism (for many people, this entry just got a lot less fun fast). Long philosophical story short: feminism is an amorphous thing that may have some good points (despite my ten-point critique of it in a prior entry that generated so many negative comments), but I’m not sure that pretending that girls can routinely beat up boys is its strongest suit.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying Buffy is rooted in some sort of pent-up she-anger directed at males (nor am I suddenly demanding realism or whining about violence — though I think in the long run, feminism’s greatest and most libertarian contribution may be nudging the world ever-farther away from thinking that physical might makes right, and I suppose readers can let me know if that observation is enough to make me a feminist or, once again, merely a jerk, or both, or neither).

Rather, I’m saying that third wave feminism (90s stuff, basically) — unlike the (fairly-libertarian) first wave of feminists seeking equal legal rights or the (leftist) second wave seeking social egalitarianism by statist means if necessary — seems to get a lot of its appeal from the relativistic pretense that there are simply no generalizations one is allowed to make about differences between the two sexes, such as observing that one tends to be larger and stronger than the other.

(Generalizations, which can be very useful and may well be true even when they aren’t, do not commit me to patently-false universal claims such as all men being stronger than all women, which is the sort of straw man [straw person?] claim angry third-wavers tend to pretend they’re up against when they launch their smug, snippy little Response posts; far from the generalizations being universally true, as a few people would be happy to remind me, I once lost an arm wrestling match to a female — an unusually fit one around six feet tall [not Megan McArdle] — but that is, I hope we all agree, beside the point.)

The problem with pretending that women are just as likely to be macho as men is that what starts out as an implicit promise to “let the chips fall where they may” (the simplest phrasing of the attitude that I think all freedom-loving laissez-faire types ought to feel obliged to take toward these issues) tends inevitably to lead to the observation that the chips are, in fact, falling in certain predictable patterns, and when the feminists are disappointed by this, it’s suddenly time to let the second-wave methods (affirmative action laws, etc.) snap back into action, and we all realize we were living in a fantasy land of spirited no-holds-barred competition.

As with the naive formulations of conservatism described in my entry yesterday, what seemed like a set of universal principles begins to look instead like special pleading for a favored subset of the population with shifting, even hypocritical demands (and you were worried my Palin comments wouldn’t lead us back to Month of Sex entries! I live to segue!).

Or to put it more briefly: there is no better way to get your boyfriend to think of you as a second-class citizen than to insist that women love horror movies as much as men — and that he’s a sexist pig if he thinks otherwise — then demand that he comfort you as you cry in the theatre later (that’s purely a hypothetical-metaphorical example, you understand — not meant to suggest there are no female horror fans, as my predominantly nerdy acquaintances well know).


One reason, I think, that men — like Joss Whedon — are so tempted to buy into third-wave feminism faster than men bought into first- or second-wave feminism is simply that living in a world of women who did genuinely kickbox their way through life and never cry would be totally hot. (One of the least-convincing recurring claims of feminism is that we men want women to be weak, fragile, and weeping — when in fact most of us spend a great deal of effort trying to get at least some women we know to stop being weak, fragile, and weeping, as these qualities are not fun but seem pretty hard-wired into a lot of women anyway, despite all the social pressures — especially from men — to be tougher.)

Take the beautiful 1990 hardcover graphic novel Elektra Lives Again by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley, which I stumbled across in my old room at my parents’ house in Norwich last weekend (not far from that recently located Sooty the Bear puppet and his magic wand). Elektra, Daredevil’s killed-and-resurrected foe/girlfriend (played by Jennifer Garner in two — two! — fairly forgettable films), is a beautiful ninja assassin, and her story here is a reminder of why we all loved Frank Miller in the first place back circa the 1980s. Instead of the monotone dark shadows of works like his Sin City, this Elektra story is full of big spreads and bright colors like a strained-glass window (fittingly for the Catholic Daredevil).

Indeed, the colorful and topographical-feeling, sculptured-rooftops cityscapes in Elektra Lives Again feel more like the work of Will Eisner, who created the urban superhero The Spirit, than the upcoming Spirit movie probably will, since the movie, by Miller wearing his director hat, appears (from ads and posters) to adhere all too closely to Miller’s own Sin City style of shadows and silhouettes. If Miller wants to do that stuff, maybe he should just do another Sin City movie — or direct The Dark Knight Returns if Chris Nolan ever has a tragic falling out with Warner Brothers.

In any case, I applaud Elektra, Buffy, and Cameron/River for being able to take down whole armies of males in a fight, but — at the risk of sounding like I’m even more feminist than the feminists — machismo may be an unreasonable standard by which to judge women, one more demand that we all (condescendingly) refrain from commenting on reality so that the womenfolk can pretend whatever they like.

And, no, I am not suggesting that men can fly, in case that’s unclear.


jenny said...

over at cracked, there’s an interesting look at “hollywood’s 5 saddest attempts at feminism” which includes summer glau’s role in serenity/firefly. it didn’t include, i was happy to see, sigourney weaver’s ripley in alien. (i’ll leave any commentary about her role in the subsequent three sequels aside.)

Todd Seavey said...

Sigourney will fight a different alien species in another James Cameron-directed film — this time in 3D — in December 2009’s _Avatar_, which he’s been planning for about fifteen years, by the way. I expect it will rule, and that I will fully believe a woman can kick ass (she’s also around six feet, as I learned the one time I spoke to her, at a Central Park Conservancy event, just before Alien 4 — but she’s not the one who beat me in arm wrestling, either [nor is Jenny, I should add, though I wouldn't be shocked if she did, and Jenny does in fact kickbox]).

Mary Mastroianni reportedly cried on the set of _Abyss_, by the way, because Cameron is so mean and authoritarian he told the extras to urinate in their wetsuits to save time. Note that I do not blame her, but I suspect that Arnold did not cry on the set of _Terminator 2_.

Todd Seavey said...

On a vaguely related note (for those “in the know”): Valerie D’Orazio reports that she could use a new job, if anyone reading cares to assist.

P.S. I might be interested in becoming the vocalist in a “riot grrl” band, if the band will spring for vocal lessons and owns its own van.

Clay Waters said...

I’ve never won an arm-wrestling match at my favorite bar, partly because it’s a dive bar where the barmaids haul up their own restock (feel the burn) and partly because I’m a pale, milksop shadow of a man. Mostly the latter.

jenny said...

a friend of mine (male) regularly attends CLAW (charlottesville lady arm wrestlers) meetups at the blue moon diner. you could check them out next time you’re in this neck of the woods.

and fwiw, what kickboxing prowess i may have likely doesn’t translate into arm wrestling skill.

Joe Calhoun said...

It seems to me that the second wave feminists are the ones that kick ass in the real world – just ask Larry Summers. And as that example shows it’s not always through government action. The third wave group embodied by Buffy, et al is just fantasy stuff that is indeed, as Todd points out, damn hot and intended for men rather than any young feminists.

Having just sent an 18 year old libertarian daughter off to college (her film professor branded her as a libertarian in her first class at San Francisco Art Institute; I’m so proud), I think I may have some insight into this third wave feminism. While she is a little unusual in that she actually absorbed the libertarianism of her parents, she and her friends don’t seem much interested in government intervention. They have grown up in a world where they’ve been told repeatedly that they can do anything they want and they have embraced that. If my daughter and her friends are any indication, the future of feminism will be more like first wave than second wave. In fact, I would say they will be much more libertarian than the first wave and not much interested in kicking collective male ass except when it gets in the way of their career goals.

On a personal note, my 105 pound wife is freakishly strong and could kick all your asses in arm wrestling. Furthermore, my desire to piss in my wetsuit is inversely correlated with the temperature of the water in which I’m immersed and has nothing to do with being macho or not.

Christopher said...

For the record, both Buffy and River Tam shed tears on many occasions.

Todd Seavey said...

While I think of it: having mentioned _The Abyss_, I want to note that that film was painfully like James Cameron’s other movies rolled into one, worse, film:

–aliens (but not cool ones like in _Aliens_)

–people trapped underwater (like in _Titanic_ but without the epic scope)

–a CGI shapeshifting thing (like in T2, except lame)

On the bright side, it was better than _Cabin Boy_, which _Abyss_ actor and Letterman veteran Chris Elliot appeared in five years later.