Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Skin and the Game

Okay, so it's no real secret that I am a big David Simon fan. I cite both "The Wire" and "Treme" in my book's chapter "Liberty, Equality, and Empathy: How Compassion Holds the Tripod Together." And I have quoted him quite admiringly in this very blog. Full disclosure: I did get into it with him a little bit recently, but it had not dimmed my respect any.

But I was stunned when I read this article on David Simon's and George Pelecanos' next TV series, "The Duce," which is about the birth of the porn film industry in the 1970s. Their unexpectedly facile analysis of pornography and misogyny almost sounds like Andrea Dworkin or Catharine A. MacKinnon. 

I'm pretty sure the lion's share of blame for misogyny goes to countless centuries of patriarchy and not four decades of adult cinema. And I think the tragedy is not that things are getting worse but that they are not getting better fast enough - that, in 2017, we are still dealing with a host of stubborn old problems. But the nostalgic notion that things have been deteriorating for nearly fifty years is totally Borkian.

Let me put my largely generational biases on the table before I go on any further.

First, as a student of history, I am acutely skeptical of any "good old days" claims. There are exceptions, of course: For example, we were indisputably better off under Keynesian economics when unions were stronger. And America was more secular in the revolutionary era than in most subsequent periods. (The Enlightenment was fairly feminist as well.) Backlashes happen and they are frustrating, but they are rarely entirely successful at turning back the clock. And if we are talking about social issues in the modern era, we have more wins than losses. We elected a black president twice and gay marriage is the law of the land.

Second, I'm an artist and thus visually-oriented. Granted, my career path of drinking wine and drawing naked ladies fell through, for now. (I will retry the 
Peter Falk retirement plan again later.) But, as a Gen-Xer, I remember the searing stupidity of the 1980s porn wars and the idea that looking is inherently violent and exploitative. That curious crusade almost crippled feminism by making it actually ally with Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.(1) This helped reactionaries reinvent themselves as rebels, and conservatives have been pretending to be edgy libertarians ever since. Another result was it became harder to call yourself a feminist. You needed defensive qualifications, so it became easier for most people to just drop the label.(2) Second Wavers took feminism down the rabbit hole in the 1980s, requiring sex-positive Third Wavers to rescue it in the late 1990s. It proved, once again, that there is no cause so righteous or any grievance so legitimate that Baby Boomers cannot easily derail it.

Third, Simon's and Pelecanos' poor phrasing smacks of Boomers' hypocritically scolding every subsequent generation while white-washing their lurid youth. In the 1980s, the aptly-named Me Generation fused Ayn Rand with Christian fundamentalism and borgarted "sex, drugs, and rock and roll" by declaring the party over. There were other contributing factors to be sure: The HIV-AIDS retrovirus had a chilling effect. But the backlash did not limit itself to sex. Every urban legend and half-baked crusade got a respectful hearing. Did heavy metal music cause Satanism? Did playing Dungeons and Dragons cause teen suicide? That last lunacy got indulgent coverage by CBS's venerable "60 Minutes." Yes, let's blame rap music for all those nonexistent super-predators.(3) In sum, no excuse for yet another anti-youth crackdown was considered too absurd to promote. Vilifying kids was in and witch hunts made excellent television.

Long story short, I remember my parents and their peers and I am not particularly impressed with their moral authority or their memory.(4) So, I may be overreacting; but I am pretty sure I have heard numerous covers of this familiar tune about today's brutal youth and coarsening mores.

Now that that seductive aside has been dispatched, let's get back to the less sexy topic of pornography.

The reactionary myth that women were treated better fifty years ago is perennial favorite, but the historical record shows the opposite. In old movies, it was common to see women getting "some sense slapped into them" and it was something the audience was supposed to applaud or laugh at. And the abuse came from the heroes as well as the villains. Think of Steve McQueen or Sean Connery, both on-screen and off. In the television show "The Honeymooners," Ralph threatening to sock Alice "to the moon" was a running gag turned into a song. This behavior was not just condoned but encouraged. We clearly have a long ways to go, but I cannot imagine a network sitcom getting away with this shit today.

Is there misogyny in some porn? Of course! There is misogyny in everything because we live in a patriarchy. Why is misogyny invisible unless nipples are visible? Don't blame the nipples. Yes, you can point to horrific content out there; but it looks like what's in the preceding paragraph only with nudity added.(5) Nudity is not the problem, but it is absurdly easy to claim that it is and still be taken seriously.

I know the show's creators primarily blame capitalism, but their rhetoric sounds a lot like that used by cultural conservatives against "permissive liberalism." Pelecanos' pre-porn industry nostalgia sounds particularly odd. Read this excerpt. It practically screams selective memory:
Pelecanos, 60, thinks about the two sons he raised and the conversations he overheard when their friends came to the family home. “The way they talk about girls and women is a little horrifying. It’s different from when I was coming up. It’s one thing what was described as locker-room talk, like, ‘Man, look at her legs. I’d love to…’ – that kind of thing. But when you get into this other thing, calling girls tricks and talking about doing violence to them and all that stuff, I’d never heard that growing up, man. I just didn’t.

I recall hearing rape jokes as a kid in the 1970s. I think Pelecanos is remembering not being shocked and forgetting why. People often recall the past in terms of how they felt more vividly than they remember what actually happened and then they poorly reason backwards accordingly. This is why being an oral historian is maddening. Today, we are are rightly shocked by things we used to accept, so we notice it more. That's a side effect of getting things fixed: We no longer have the luxury of ignoring our ugliness.

Speaking of which, another obvious factor heightening misogyny's visibility is how unfiltered social media has eclipsed old media. Nothing happens under-the-radar anymore. Today's comments sections on articles are nothing like the letters to the editor in days of yore - at least not in terms of what the public eventually sees. Letters to the editor are, well, edited. Editors were gatekeepers to the public square back then. Today, the walls are largely gone and the gateway doesn't get much traffic: It's more like a symbolic arch now. I would expect a former reporter like Simon would instantly realize this. How do you blame tits and not Twitter? Again, things have definitely gotten better; but we are still pretty terrible and now nothing is hidden anymore. In the footnote to another post, I wrote:
We have not become a more racist nation. The two elections of President Barack Obama by landslides disprove that. But Facebook - or, as I like to call it, "Racist Litmus" - gave all your friends and relatives a platform for parading their previously-concealed bigotries. It's just like that episode of "Gilligan's Island" where everyone temporarily got telepathy. And Trump is certainly the perfect Internet age candidate because he personifies all the narcissism, bullying, and kooky conspiracy theories the Internet offers. Indeed, it has already become a widely-circulated/stolen cliché that he is a walking comments section. Like the Internet, Trump just makes this ignorant demographic impossible to ignore anymore.(6)
Likewise, the visibility of police brutality rose with the accessibility of smart phones, but we are not witnessing a spike in lawlessness by the law: We are witnessing what generations of African Americans have always experienced, but what white society has heretofore refused to believe or even hear.

I know Simon and Pelecanos are not actually saying "Let's turn the clock back to when everyone respected women," because another cable show, "Mad Men," dashes that fancy. But that's what such nostalgic arguments sound like. Again, I know they know better; but if that's how they come across, they obviously have not thought-through their argument or are incautious about how it may be heard. I don't think they hate youth and, given their previous shows, they sure don't eschew nudity. Best guess says they are not out to romanticize the 1970s and will depict pre-existing sexism as well. But the Guardian article's implication is that the characters will be slightly less tainted than people today because they were not raised with the culture they are creating. That is a likely takeaway for readers unfamiliar with their work.

I am admittedly pretty skittish about reliving the 80s. As I have blogged before, Donald Trump echoes Ronald Reagan in a variety of ways. Last year on the campaign trail, Trump had promised another crackdown on porn. It's probably another empty promise, and at the time I had joked about another Meese Commission Report - only being presented in a casino with lady justice's aluminum mammaries getting gold-plated for the occasion. But in retrospect, it is yet another way Trump could poison our social climate from the bully pulpit. If he decides he needs to shore up his base, he might resume pandering to the religious right, emboldening them as he has white supremacists. Whether intended or not, a spike in anti-abortion violence seems like a probable outcome - particularly given his penchant for egging people on.

There's no denying that we are living in the midst of an ongoing backlash against feminism - and that progress is still getting made despite it. But the fantasy that pornography is the source is like blaming rock or hip hop for any other social ill. It's ridiculously simplistic. Yes, the culture we consume has an influence on us and there is a feedback loop between culture and society as a whole. But in a patriarchy, misogyny permeates all mediums and genres, so always isolating the same one as the central cause of it is odd and lets all the others off the hook. It's a will-o'-the-wisp, that too many liberals too easily follow. 

The relative anonymity of the Internet allows us to be our worst selves largely without consequences. And people are creatures of habit who often forget to shift gears when moving from one context or environment to another. That this might have rippling effects coarsening society seems pretty likely.

Of course, every anti-Millennial screed has a technological component and Boomers (the first generation raised with television) are quick to cite tech when calling youth callow, 
shallow, narcissistic or brutish. But just as humans are creatures of habit, we are spectacularly adaptable as well. Boomers weren't raised with the Internet, but they still took to it like a duck to water. Maybe it was James Bond movies or the debut of Sharper Image catalogs in the 1980s, but they love their gadgets. I will forever remember the later's green naked lady hologram, which made me green with envy. As I like to say, if smart phones existed in their youth there would not be enough room on The Cloud for all their naked selfies at Woodstock and their revenge porn would no longer be limited to Polaroids. Yes, revenge porn is terrible; but let's not pretend the Age of Aquarius would have behaved any differently if they had the technology at their fingertips then.

Donald Trump's all-hours tweeting illustrates his generation's gadget addiction is no less intense than any other age cohort's. Most of those racist comments on online news sites come from Fox News-watching retirees with ample time on their hands - which also freed them up to attend Tea Party protests. Moral scolds are quick to blame the young, but the bulk of the ugliness comes from the old. Whether electronic or pharmaceutical, they embraced every new toy that enabled their bad behavior. Rush Limbaugh visiting sex tourist destinations with a suitcase of Viagra sums up his demographic quite nicely. So do the rape cocktails of Bill Cosby, speaking of moral scolds. Hey Bill, pull your pants up! The Baby Boomers are obviously going to lose in any comparison of relative ethical sexual behavior. The recent death of Hugh Hefner has revealed ample additional examples of our elders' misbehavior.

But, whatever generation is the champion of this dismal limbo contest, technology has indisputably turned a hot spotlight on it.(7) This - not seeing skin - is the most plausible explanation for misogyny's vastly augmented visibility. We still live in a capitalist patriarchy. Yes, social progress has been made, but technological progress has moved far faster and we now have brighter spotlights.

All that said, I still want to see the show when I get a chance and I remain great fans of the creators. And I still encourage everyone to seek out their lesser known shows like "Treme" and "Show Me a Hero." They are scandalously ignored gems and not watching them is a sort of dereliction of civic duty.

As self-appointed patriotism ombudsman, I can say this with great "surety."

EDIT 10/14/17:

So, I finally saw the pilot last night and I must admit I feel like a bit of a dick for this post. It is a pretty unflinching picture of the ugliness. Again, I strongly doubted Simon and Pelecanos were making a "good old days" claim, but I'm always very wary how things can get misinterpreted. (Witness early libertarian enthusiasm for "The Wire.") Of course, the ugliness won't prevent conservatives from tacking their own interpretations. Were Rudy Giuliani to ever run for anything again, I imagine he might point to this current series and resume bragging about how he had cleaned up Times Square.


1) It is disputed whether either MacKinnon or Dworkin ever claimed there is no such thing as consensual intercourse. Snopes says nope but the Kaminer Atlantic article says different. Most theorists (in any field) are terrible writers. Clarity is often not a strong suit which leaves them open to both honest and dishonest misinterpretation. However, MacKinnon and Dworkin did claim than porn causes rape. Pretty similar thinking is coming back in vogue and it is disappointing to hear it coming from Simon and Pelecanos.

2) I was a kid in the 1970s, but I recall calling yourself a feminist had less stigma. Alan Alda said he was a feminist and he played the cool guy on "M*A*S*H." As a kid, I alternately wanted to be Alan Alda and Allen Arkin - or an amalgamation of the two.

3) In subsequent decades, Boomers continued to project every social ill they had augmented onto their progeny. As Mike Males has documented, the bogeyman of teen "superpredators" was as hypocritical as it was mythological. Spikes in violent crime tracked Boomers as they aged: Youth crime was high when they were young and middle aged crime climbed as they entered middle age. The same pattern defined every panic from teenage promiscuity to binge-drinking: A historically reckless, violent, and entitled generation insisted that objectively improving youth behavior was actually worsening. It's their eternal shtick.

4) They tend to do things like reinvent Nancy Reagan as an HIV-AIDS activist, re-landscape contexts, or forget those who have helped them. That last one is a chronic problem.

5) Admittedly, one of my blind spots may be that I prefer still images to videos which have awful dialog, so I am probably spared a lot. Supposedly, many women are now turning to gifs on Tumbler because, while mechanically repetitious, they isolate moments they like from the parts they find objectionable - which understandably is most of it. But I don't think their consumption of pictures and gifs will corrupt them.

6) This explains a great deal. In 1980, people could plausibly wonder aloud, "How did Reagan win? Nobody I know voted for him." Today, people wonder the same about Trump, but you know damn well aunt Janet did from her monstrous Facebook posts. From the likes she got, you can tell her husband and uncle Bud did too. Before, you had only the vaguest awareness that their politics were not yours and diplomatically avoided the topic. Anyway, between weddings and funerals, you hardly ever saw them. Today, you daily discover exactly what they think in excruciating detail. Ditto for your high school peers.

7) Those who can afford this fancy technology, anyway. My recent iPhone 4S acquisition was a gift from a friend - a hand-me-down. Otherwise, I would not own a smart phone of any sort.

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