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Soap Operas Are Not Documentaries (and ‘Feminism’ Is a Word With a Definition)

Posted on | March 1, 2011 | 32 Comments

There has been, as Da Tech Tech Guy notes, quite a bit of sex talk lately on the right side of blogosphere. The Kathryn Jean Lopez column that inspired my musings on the Contraceptive Culture leads Little Miss Attila to many musings of her own, including this:

[A]s a former hippie I find the notion of staying on oral contraceptives for more than several years at a time fairly shocking . . . Manipulating your hormones is a short-term strategy; one doesn’t run a body that way.

The “former hippie” comment caught my eye, being old enough to remember the hippie era. It’s weird how some parts of hippie culture survived and some parts didn’t. Fashionable people are all into food that is organic and natural (being “natural” was a big thing with the hippies), but the same fashionable people do not object to women dosing themselves with synthetic hormones in order to maintain an artificial sterility.

Resisting the temptation to write another essay on that topic, instead I’ll note Attila’s invocation of Wendy Shalit (whom I first interviewed in 1999, shortly after publication of Shalit’s first book, A Return to Modesty). Attila sees “sexual freedom” as a Frankenstein monster rampaging out of control:

[W]hat we’ve created at this point is a situation in which women and girls attempt to ignore their own emotions and “out-detach” the boys. In practice, this means many have trained themselves to be sexually available, and make no demands whatsover–and, yes: in some circles, a request to spend time with a guy doing anything other than sex is considered a “demand,” as Wendy Shalit has documented extensively in her books. . . .
[W]e have to get back to a place wherein “sexual freedom,” as a cultural norm, actually includes the freedom to say “no.”

By all means, read the whole thing. Part of the problem Attila is examining is one of culturally-induced expectations.

Popular culture is saturated with messages that “everybody’s doing it,” and this message is conveyed in so many ways — from Cosmo magazine to sitcoms to Cialis commercials — that young people may not even recognize it as a message. Young people may believe that’s just the way things are and, to the extent that they are bothered at all by the hypersexualized culture, what bothers them is their inability to get their own experiences to match the excitement and glamour of sexual adventure as depicted in the media.

The gap between media glamour and mundane reality is part of the “funhouse mirror” effect of pop culture, which distorts our perceptions in ways that most people never think about. Popular culture, and particularly television, can confuse people about how things really are and also offers implausible ideals of how things should be.

As a result of these funhouse-mirror distortions, people find themselves disappointed by the failure of their lives to match an “ideal” that exists — and can only exist — in the fictionalized world created by screenwriters.

Many years ago, I noticed that the way TV and movies portray journalism is completely out of whack with the reality of daily working life in the news business. There was no way on earth, for example, that Mary Tyler Moore could have afforded that stylish apartment on the kind of salary an assistant news producer earned at a Minneapolis TV station in 1970.

How many girls grew up watching MTM, pursued journalism careers, and then spent years of bitter disappointment eating ramen noodles in crappy apartments, wondering why their lives weren’t as glamorous and fun as they had been led to expect?

Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death remains the best examination of how TV, as a medium, inherently distorts reality. Unfortunately, most people never look at TV with the “medium is the message” understanding that Postman learned from his mentor, Marshall McLuhan. They don’t perceive the strings that manipulate the marionettes and may not even realize they’re watching a puppet show.

When people try to emulate in real life the fictions portrayed on TV, the results are inevitably disappointing. And this is what’s happened with the Frankenstein monster of “sexual freedom” — the carefree and exciting adventures of glamorous people depicted in popular entertainment are not actually possible for real-life people.

Unlike soap operas and sitcoms, where every conflict is resolved before the end of the episode, real-life sex has real-life consequences that may be as serious as the protagonist’s death. (According to the Hollywood narrative, only villains and minor characters experience genuinely bad consequences. The audience identifies with the hero or heroine, who is always a winner in the end. No boy ever watched a James Bond movie and imagined himself as “Henchman #2,” who meets his doom in the third scene. Nor did any girl ever watch a romantic comedy and see herself as the “snobby girlfriend” who, in the end, is rejected by the dream guy in favor of the plucky heroine.) 

The consequence-free sexual carnival portrayed in movies and TV is a fictionalized ideal that cannot exist in real life. Very bad results predictably ensue when people attempt a real-life re-enactment of Hollywood’s false ideal, especially if the people attempting this re-enactment are a bunch of naive hormone-crazed teenagers.

Which brings us to Ace of Spades. No, he’s not a naive hormone-crazed teenager, but he got linked by Attila for a rant that includes his thoughts on the harmful effects of the popular 1990s primetime soap opera Melrose Place:

I never really watched Melrose Place, but I was forced to witness it by proxy (it was a craze when I was younger, all but inescapable . . .).
But I was always struck by soap opera’s go-to “What If?” comic-book premise. The clear pattern on Melrose Place was that most of the women, particularly the pro-active, heroic, popular characters, were all sexually liberated and very nearly sexually predatory, whereas men all pined for commitment and courtship and white picket fences and moped about when they couldn’t have that. . . .
Silly third-generation feminists watched Melrose Place and didn’t realize it was fantasy inverted-world wish-fulfillment, but in fact was describing actual reality, or at least the way the world could be and should be, if dirty men weren’t screwing everything up by insisting that Heather Loclear settle down and marry someone.

Read the whole thing. This idea of Hollywood fiction portraying the world as it could be — as it should be — while rendering our real-life world as a problem to be solved is deeply implicated in, for example, the disgruntlement of ax-grinders who resent Natalie Portman’s  proclamation that motherhood is “the most important role” of her life.

Rather than being “slaves to some defunct economist,” as Keynes said, many people nowadays are slaves to some defunct screenwriter who scripted the entertainments of their youth.

* * * * *

What do we mean by the term “feminist”? Who is qualified to claim that label and what obligations does that claim impose on the claimant? The reason I raise these questions now is that, in talking back to Natalie Portman’s ax-grinder critics, Joanne Bamberger clearly feels the need to signify:

There was a time when I never thought I would write words like these. I’ve got degrees and accomplishments and many other things in my life that I am more than happy about. But in the end, many chapters we look to for self-definition are transitory. My experiences as a mother — the good, the bad and the in-between — will be with me forever. . . .
I am one of the most ardent feminists around. Just ask some of the women who know me, including those on the political right. They’ll more than vouch for my credentials on that front.

Why these pledges of allegiance to feminism? Why the defensiveness, as if Bamberger fears that by speaking out on behalf of Portman’s maternal joy, she might be required to forfeit her feminist “credentials”?

I’ve remarked previously about the phenomenon of women who call themselves “conservative feminists,” by which they probably mean “feminists who vote Republican” — if in fact they really mean anything at all. Because I have begun to suspect that, for many women writers, “feminist” has been ripped from its proper intellectual and political context, expropriated as a sort of status-marker.

Feminism as we know it today is an ideological legacy of the radical Left. It was a Marxist fellow traveler, Betty Friedan, who authored this movement’s manifesto, The Feminine Mystique, a full-frontal assault on the bourgeois existence of America’s suburban middle class. Friedan became a leading figure of what is now called “Second Wave feminism” (the “First Wave” being radicals of the 19th and early 20th century, from the Seneca Falls conventioneers to the progressive suffragettes), but Friedan’s influence was eventually eclipsed by younger “Women’s Liberation” radicals associated with the ’60s New Left.

This thumbnail history of feminism is recounted for the edification of women who insist on calling themselves “feminist” while at the same time embracing the kind of normal, bourgeois middle-class existence that actual feminists are sworn to destroy.

Ladies, your label doesn’t match your lifestyles. And you ought to re-examine the oxymoronic implications.

Permit me to draw down upon myself the fury of every woman within reach of a keyboard by explaining what I think motivates bourgeois women writers to claim the “feminist” label:

When you say “feminist,” what you really mean to say is “intelligent, college-educated, career woman.”

In your mind, “feminist” signifies a self-actualizing, autonomous and rationally aware existence — a conception of yourself as antithesis to a stereotypical view of Those Other Women Who Aren’t Feminists, women whom you scorn as ignorant, dependent, unaccomplished and unfulfilled.

One notices this tic when a woman writer like Bamberger feels compelled to criticize feminist orthodoxy: “I am proud to be a feminist but . . .”

In other words, the dissenting woman writer feels she must declare her feminist bona fides, or else risk being dismissed as one of Those Other Women Who Aren’t Feminist, because she knows that if she’s seen as one of them, she won’t be accepted as a qualified participant in the conversation. There seems to be a sign, tacked up beside the entrance to the Women Writers Cartel, which reads:

No Non-Feminists Need Apply

And so, before daring to dissent from the regnant distaff orthodoxy, women writers are obligated to make obeisance before the altar of Feminism, and to couch their arguments in terms of offering an internal critique of the movement, rather than declaring themselves enemies of feminism.

Such women, far from being autonomous, are actually demonstrating how easily they can be intimidated into conformity by peer pressure. If they were truly independent, they wouldn’t bother to protest their loyalty to an ideology — “I am too a feminist! Check my credentials!” — before speaking their own minds.

Just so you can see where Wendy Shalit is coming from, here is my Jan. 19, 1999, Washington Times interview with her:

Author pushes for return
of modesty among women

Old-fashioned virtue would
go far in modern world

By Robert Stacy McCain
Wendy Shalit has a modest proposal for young women.
She believes that the traditional feminine virtue of modesty is the solution to many of the problems – from sexual harassment to depression to eating disorders – faced by young women today.
The 23-year-old Milwaukee native makes her arguments in “A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue,” a new book by the Free Press that is already generating what she calls “a visceral reaction.”
“I was on National Public Radio and one woman said my book should be banned . . . but another woman was so glad that finally someone is discussing these issues,” Miss Shalit said in an interview last week during a visit to Washington. “I never have somebody tell me that they have mixed feelings or they’re not sure what they think about modesty. They always have one extreme reaction or the other.”
Miss Shalit, the younger sister of former New Republic writer Ruth Shalit, first gained widespread attention in 1995. That’s when, as a sophomore at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., she wrote an article for Commentary magazine criticizing several sex-related problems on campus, including coed bathrooms in the college’s dormitories. Reader’s Digest reprinted the article, and numerous pundits cited Miss Shalit’s account as testimony to political correctness run amok.
Her conflict with a sexually explicit culture actually began years earlier when, as a fourth-grader, her complaints about a sex-education class led her parents to request that she be excused from the classes. She spent those hours in the library.
“I was glad to be in the library, because the other girls got teased, and I would just pretend like I didn’t know what they were talking about,” she recalls. “And in a lot of cases, I didn’t, and I was glad not to, frankly.”
Sex education in public schools should be “completely abolished,” Miss Shalit says. “At best, it’s redundant, because kids do not learn the facts from sex education. They know it already.”
But Miss Shalit also says sex education hurts girls – “and boys, too” – by eroding natural modesty. “The problem is that we have it so early now, we really don’t allow people to develop their personalities before their sexual identity,” she says.
The argument that sex education helps resolve unhealthy sexual “hang-ups” is flatly wrong, she contends. “Every single study” shows that “low self-esteem is correlated with early intercourse for girls,” she said.
“That’s very interesting, because we associate modesty with making women weak. That’s what we’re told – that modesty oppressed women. Then why is the case that women . . . who wait the longest are indeed the ones who have the most self-esteem?”
Miss Shalit answers her own question: “Well, it’s because they have a sense of self that is beyond how they view themselves as a sex object. And they want to wait for the right person. There’s nothing wrong with that. When you’re insecure, you feel like you have to sleep with . . . every guy who asks, because
otherwise you have ‘hang-ups.’ You don’t have enough self-confidence to say, ‘I don’t have a hang-up. You’re just a jerk.’ ”
Beyond coed bathrooms and sex education, Miss Shalit’s book explores the intellectual history of modesty, examining arguments by such philosophers as David Hume and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, as well as by feminists from Mary Wollstonecraft to Simone de Beauvoir.
“The early feminists were very interested in sexual virtue,” she says. “Simone de Beauvoir thought modesty was natural, and that was interesting to me, because . . . you associate her with the most radical feminists. . . . But even she felt modesty was the one thing that was natural for women, and that if
society didn’t respect that, there would be a lot of brutality against women.”
That prediction has proved true, Miss Shalit says, citing the 1993 case of the “Spur Posse” – a gang of high school boys who scored “points” by having sex with girls – as evidence that male honor is an “obligation related to . . . female modesty.”
“Today we have the real sexual double standard, because we have the ‘Spur Posse,’ men who are men by scoring instead of being men by sticking by one woman and being honorable,” she says. “What is manly has changed.”
What is womanly has also changed, she says, because feminists, women’s magazines and the mental health industry are all devoted to desensitizing women to sex.
“Now it’s become pathological, if you have feelings about sex,” she says. “I see a lot of my friends on Prozac because they think they’re too sensitive. And it’s just very sad, because we’re ‘curing’ precisely the instincts we should be valuing.”
Women today get too much bad advice, especially from women’s magazines, Miss Shalit says.
“The women’s magazines play a huge normative role” because “they do give advice,” she says. “We’re all encouraged to become, basically, adulteresses, and grow up to be very sophisticated, hip, ‘fatal’ women. . . . I think the advice is so bad that a lot of women would rather have no advice than to read
these magazines.”
Advice from feminists is just as bad, Miss Shalit says. Feminist author Naomi Wolf “says we’re all bad girls now, there are no good girls, and we have to liberate our ‘shadow slut.’ . . . I don’t think it’s true. I think there are a lot of girls who are good and want to be good, it’s just not cool to be good anymore. It’s decidedly uncool, because we’re all supposed to be jaded and very sophisticated at age 12.”
The author says modesty is important because it “protects sexual vulnerability,” which she believes is “a wonderful thing” that can lead to “a profound connection.” But feminists, she said, now view modesty as “something that we’re trying to cure young women of.”
Miss Shalit has kept her sense of humor about critics, such as the hostile caller on NPR. “She said, ‘I’m a feminist, and I’m just hopping mad, you can imagine, and I think you should take that book and burn it.’ ” It was not until after the show was over, Miss Shalit said, that she thought of “the clever response” to the caller: “You should buy millions of books and burn them.”


32 Responses to “Soap Operas Are Not Documentaries (and ‘Feminism’ Is a Word With a Definition)”

  1. Jeff Y.
    March 1st, 2011 @ 2:16 pm