Sunday, May 1, 2011

In Defense of Sausage Fests

Amanda Marcotte offers two reasons why The Shawshank Redemption enjoys the highest ratings of any film on IMDB:

2) Mediocrity rules ... I actually feel bad dinging the movie for these, because in a way, it's unfair. "Shawshank" isn't a mediocre movie---the acting, the script, the directing are all pretty damn good. But it still rises to the top for the same reason that mediocrity rules. It plays it safe. And not having female characters in it is one of the most important ways it plays it safe ... The idea behind "mediocrity rules" is that true greatness always runs the risk of offense, or at least turning people off. For one thing, greatness is innovative, which means that you lose huge portions of the audience that wants a warm bath of not being challenged at all ... "Shawshank" doesn't have anything in it that's going to chase people out the door. It appeals to the smart and the stupid alike, the liberal and the conservative. Everyone can get behind the story of a man redeeming himself after the system grinds him down unfairly. It's set in the past and outside of the world, minimizing the chance of referring to anything that triggers people's distaste. There's nothing polarizing about it ...
I have no interesting disagreements with any of that -- it's true to say there's little in this story that dares to divide the audience by taking a controversial stand, as by asking the audience to accept an evil character or reject a good character. An uninteresting qualification would be to observe how the film's broad acceptance testifies to the fact that compelling film and challenging film bear no necessary relationship.

What about Marcotte's first reason?
1) It's got no female characters ... I would argue that its lack of any real female characters contributes to the feeling that it's safe ... Women are polarizing figures in our society in general, because of the eternal rule of the patriarchy that a woman is never doing anything right. Everyone is eager to tear at women and judge women and examine women closely for perceived slights against what they personally believe a woman should be like. There's also the feminist urge to examine women closely to see if they're rising above the gender trap. Simply by being Other, women capture attention and controversy. There's a reason that Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin both are more polarizing figures than their male counterparts. Putting a woman onscreen causes the audience to start dividing against itself. But "Shawshank" is a bunch of dudes. This contributes to the non-challenging aspect of it. Even the rape somehow gets removed from the toxic gender norms that create rape (and therefore allow men to become victims) by the magic lady erasure of the movie. [emphasis mine]
Um ... no. First, off hand, I can't think of another film that observes so explicitly that rape arises not from sexual desire but from the desire to dominate, violate, and demean, a claim that I would expect Marcotte to embrace.

Second, while I can agree that the removal of women from a story can simplify it with respect to several well-worn strands of human conflict -- for starters, all the conflicts and tensions among men and women -- I would add that narrative fiction necessarily simplifies human experience in the service of story and theme. Quick -- how many films or novels show the details of food preparation and intake? What story of valor lingers on the tendency of terrified warriors to shit themselves, as the king of The Game of Thrones comments in episode three of the HBO series? What does The Stranger tell us about Meursault's view of his father, and what does Crime and Punishment tell us about Raskolnikov's teenage years?

The only question is what will be highlighted and what will be hidden, and the most that can be said of a story that features all men and no (or incidental) women is that it has made a particular narrative and thematic choice -- the same choice that other stories have made, none of them necessarily presenting tidy, accessible, crowd-pleasing worlds at that: Frankenstein, Moby Dick, 12 Angry Men, and There Will Be Blood spring to mind as examples of complex, challenging sausage fests.

Men and men's perspectives are overrepresented in film, and unchallenging films far outnumber thoughtful ones. These are problems, but they are distinct problems.


Ian McCullough said...

I would add John Carpenter's The Thing as a great sausage fest. I think a woman character added for demographic or marketing reasons is far worse than omitting female roles where it makes some narrative sense (19th century whale boat, Antarctic research base).

Dale said...

Ian, I agree. Especially in The Olden Dayes, there were settings in which women (or men) just weren't present. It's a cheap anachronism to insert them for the sake of modern audiences.