Thursday, 8 April 2010

brief interviews with hideous men- some thoughts

So the other night my other half brought me in the 2009 film 'brief interviews with hideous men', told me it was my kind of thing, got bored after 20 minutes and left me to watch the rest. In what is probably going to humiliatingly reveal my complete cultural ignorance, before he brought it home, I had been completely unaware of this film and the book it is based on. [potential spoilers ahead- although I reckon you could watch this film knowing what is going to happen without it being a major issue]

So, the film begins with various men sitting behind a desk, giving narratives about their personal- and frequently sex- lives (have fun identifying the men out of all your favourite US tv shows! Is that Jim from the US Office; Stabler from SVU; dude from Leverage!- what do you mean I watch too much tv?). There is a tape recorder on the desk, but you do not see the interviewer or know the question. As the sequence of interviews continues, the interviewer (the new woman out of law and order: criminal intent) is seen and eventually the interviews are interspersed with sequences of conversations between her and other men in her life. She is a grad-student interviewing men for her studies. You never hear the questions she asks her interviewees and her conversation with other men in her life (ex-boyfriend, other grad-students, her u/grad students, professor) is very much dominated by their speaking; she is limited to brief responses and questions. The very few other women in this film have almost no dialogue- perhaps one sentence throughout.

Yet, this film is all about women. All these men, except perhaps one, are discussing their relationships with women. The women in these narratives are not human; they are objects for sexual gratification; they are wives discussed for their looks, not their minds; they are absent as much as they are present (like the interviewer). The men's narratives are relentlessly shallow, frequently misogynistic- they are truly hideous men. Yet sometimes complex questions are suggested in these narratives- one man describing his past concern that his wife may get ugly as she aged (she didn't) comments on how shallow it sounds, but asks if it could sound otherwise? One (physically beautiful) man in repeated sections that build on each other (and act as a rhetorical attack on the interviewer in their increased aggression) suggests that rape is not the worst thing that could happen to a woman- they can move on, become better because of it- but then ends his narrative by suggesting he was talking about his own rape. In one of the last narratives, the ex-boyfriend who cheated relates how his cheating began with an intention to use a women that he knew he could manipulate easily into bed and leave with no regret (he had no intent to end his primary relationship); but the woman he cheats with relates a narrative of her life and she becomes so fully human to him that he cannot leave her (and so dumps the girlfriend). Yet, in this act (and the narrative structure sets it up this way), he dehumanises the girlfriend he left behind- for one woman to become human another must be dehumanised. And then it is the end with no resolution, just hideous, shallow men and the woman who wants interview them.

Yet, the (this) viewer can't help but question all of these narratives. Yes, they fulfil every stereotype of masculinity presented in the media- they are the 'bad guys' that are popularly represented to haunt feminist narratives. These are how feminists are seen to conceive of men. Yet, the viewer knows that they are not men; they are empty shells as unhuman as they woman they describe. The question that these hideous men raise is not where are the 'good' men- but where are the 'real' men- the 3-dimensional men; those who are good and bad and ugly at the same time. In this sense, this is not a feminist narrative- it undermines the feminist (the interviewer) by suggesting that this is not masculinity- and if it is not masculinity, then what are feminists fighting against? Because if real men are not hideous, then what is feminism all about? In essence, the film both creates a false masculinity and a false construction of what feminism is in order to undermine feminism.

What is perhaps the more complex question, is what is the film's ultimate intent? Is it to undermine feminism- or are you meant to recognise that this is the intent of the narrative, because if you do, it then raises the question, if this is not feminism- what is?

Sunday, 4 April 2010

The Privacy of the Home.

There is a myth that the home is a ‘private’ space that should be free from state intervention or the intrusions of the ‘public’. The importance of this belief has been brought to light most recently in debates over whether B&B owners should be allowed to refuse service to gay people (or any other people) due to their belief system. Is the home a private space where people should feel free to discriminate or is it a public space open to state control? I want to suggest that this division of public and private is a myth- that the home has never been a wholly private space- and that to frame this debate in a discussion of private homeowner rights acts to remove the rights of gay people and other ‘undesirable’ groups.

Far from being a private space, for the last 500 years in Britain, the home has been intrinsically linked to social control. The early modern household (1500-1750) was conceptualised as the state writ small. The ideal early modern home was headed by its married patriarch who exercised control over his wife, children and servants-both ensuring that they behaved in an orderly way and having to personally answer to higher authorities if his household behaved badly. In a time before an extensive state apparatus and police existed to manage social behaviour, this function fell to the head of household. The household was conceptualised as a miniature state and in fact, the relationship between a monarch and his or her kingdom was understood to mirror that of the household. The home provided a model for the operation of the state.

From an alternative perspective, it is also worth considering that the Royal Court- from which the monarch governed the state- was actually part of the private household of the monarch. Separate buildings for ‘public’ or ‘state’ functions were only beginning to be thought of in this period- and most were related to the operation of trade (like Guildhalls). In practice, elite households in particular could double as ‘public’ buildings with their large halls or courtyards being used to hold markets, public meetings and demonstrations.

Furthermore, the home was not conceptualised as a private space. Indeed, openness to the scrutiny of others was essential to social credit and social reputation. The household that had something to hide was clearly up to no good and should be treated with caution. In a world where cash was limited and access to goods depended on reputation, the transparency of the household was vital to its survival. The awareness of prying eyes was meant to enforce good order- both making sure the head of household kept control of his family and ensuring that he did not abuse his authority. It offered a system of checks and balances to the head of household’s power.

At the same time, the household was a fluid entity with a constant stream of changing servants, visitors, lodgers, travellers needing a bed for the night, belying any sense of a contained family unit. Even lower down the social scale where households were smaller, neighbourliness and patronage systems meant that homes were equally open to public scrutiny and to inspection by social superiors. Poor households could be even more socially diverse with lodgers and travellers common means of income and multiple families could live in the same household to save money. Most households also had an economic function meaning that they were not just homes but places of business with all the public functions that entailed.

In the eighteenth century, the concept of ‘privacy’ (which had started to filter through since the 16th century) became increasingly culturally important seen in the separation of servant and family quarters in wealthy homes; the invention of ‘public’ and ‘private’ rooms in family homes; and the eventual removal of the economic functions of the household off into separate buildings. Yet, it should be noted this was a long process that happened to different households at different rates and the importance of home-working today suggests it was never completed. Even in the Victorian period, where it might be argued that the ‘private’ home was in its heyday, it was recognised that the home had both private and public functions- not surprising in an era where visiting relatives for weeks at a time was fashionable.

For eighteenth-century philosophers on this subject, the key distinction between a public and private space was still not whether it was located in or out of the home- but its function. Therefore, public space was economic space- the workplace, rather than places outside the home. Even the world of politics was not initially thought of as ‘public’, although this idea was to arrive quickly when the concept of public became increasingly associated with power. Public space was where people exercised power; private space was without power.

Despite this complexity of meaning, the changing functions of the household did lead to its increased association with the ‘private’ in the early nineteenth century. Yet, this phenomenon did not happen in a vacuum- it was mirrored by the rise of the ‘state’. As the household became more private and the separation of home and work made it more difficult to monitor the behaviour of individuals through household hierarchy, the state was created to ensure social order. The state expanded with an increasingly large and elaborate civil service, a police force, a more formal court system and, by the twentieth century, state controlled welfare systems. This state apparatus was always interested in the workings of the home and the prying eye of the guid neighbour was replaced by the beady eye of the officious state worker.

And from a feminist perspective, it was vital that the state existed. While the functions of the household and social order had changed, the belief in the right for a patriarch to manage and discipline his household had not. Yet, without the prying eyes of the guid neighbour, who was to act as a check and balance of that power? Many of the initial debates and court cases that defined the rights of the state to interfere in home life were brought by women trying to protect themselves and their children from violent or controlling patriarchs. In a sense then, not only was the rise of the state a response to the changing functions and increased privacy of the household, but the invitation to the state to interfere in the operations of the household was both a demand of feminists and required for good social order.

The home then has never been a private space, exempt from the rules of social behaviour or the requirements of society. It is not and has never been the last stronghold against state interference. On the contrary, its ‘private’ nature is predicated on the existence of the state and the right for the state to interfere in its operation. The two cannot exist separately. In this sense, the privacy of the home is an illusion- if one held dear to us. This is particularly the case when you use your home in public ways- such as when you run a business from your home. Because at that stage (whether you realise it or not), any sense of your home as private is removed and its public functions (always present) are once more made explicit.

To argue then that your private rights to discriminate are founded on the privacy of the household is to misunderstand the place and role of the household and the state in society. The question then becomes whether your right to discriminate is greater than the right of other people not to be discriminated against. While discrimination actively hurts people- and so damages society- you being asked to curtail your discrimination does not hurt you. Given that the protection of its members is the first duty of the state, that the law finds in favour of the right not to be discriminated against is lawful, logical and good for everybody.