Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Revenge of the X Chromosome

“Women are going to take over the world. You know, men, no matter how bad they were to women over the years, over the centuries, needed women for the race to continue. But all women needed were about a hundred semen slaves that they could milk every day, you see, and they could keep the race going. So they don’t need us. And – there’s a real possibility in my mind, about one in ten, that a hundred years from now there will be about a hundred men on earth and the women will have it all to themselves.. . . "
                                                 Norman Mailer.

We’ve been sitting in the dark waiting for the last credits to roll by on the movie remake of “Total Recall”, and I’m marveling at how well the movies have trained us to sit through the credits. While I’m sitting in the dark I’m thinking about a short story by Ray Bradbury called “the Anthem Sprinters” about Irish movie goers and how they hate the Irish National Anthem so much, at the end of every movie they make an Olympic sprint for the door to see who can hit the lobby first before the anthem cranks up. The immense credit list for Total Recall sails by and then Rick the manager turns on the house lights, a friendly signal to get the hell out so they can sweep.

Rick is my kid's new boss. My kid’s gotten his first job in the movie industry - making popcorn, sweeping up trash under the seats and tearing tickets. Everybody starts somewhere. Tarantino famously worked in a video store, Tom Hanks carried scenery backdrops across town.

Colin Farrell plays the part once played by Arnold Swarzennegger in the 1990 film as Douglas Quaid, a down at the heels factory worker whose job is to tighten two screws on a robot’s chest plate. Quaid is longing for a little romance and mortal danger in his life. To be Somebody. Total Recall has two female leads. One is the nice bitch, one is the cruel bitch.

Kate Beckinsale is his loving and faithful wife Lori, at least until she isn't. He’s having these awful dreams of being a secret agent on the run and goes to “ReKal”, a kind of vacation travel agency that can artificially implant memories of derring-do in your skull that are indistinguishable from reality, without the inconvenience of actually being tortured, burned, shot or mutilated or destroying your marriage with adulterous affairs.

His attempt to have memories of being a secret agent backfire when it is revealed that in fact he really is a secret agent whose memories have been suppressed to keep his cover air tight which creates an interesting premise – is he really a secret agent disguised as a dull factory worker? Or is this the memory he paid good money for? His loving, sexy wife turns out not be that at all – no – she’s a violent, vicious, snarling bitch whose mission was to keep a lid on him in case he breaks through the memory suppression and becomes Hauser the secret agent again. All this cheerful mayhem is based on a short story published in the old sci fi pulps by Phillip K Dick gorgeously titled “We Can Remember it For You Wholesale”. Dick, who had mental health issues, was fascinated by the fluidity of consciousness and identity and made it one of the central themes of his work. The mystery which is never revealed is whether the memories are real or a “paranoid episode”.

It’s the women in the movie that fascinate me. Lori is a kind of ideal working class wife, with a job as a paramedic on an emergency trauma unit; sympathetic, longsuffering and sweet tempered and runway model hot in slinky underwear. She’s way too good for him, but doesn’t seem to notice. When the memories are implanted, or reawakened, take your pick, she transforms instantly into Totally Hot Kung Fu Bitch Mama (THKFBM), trying her goddamnedest to kill Quaid with a hot slug between the eyes or a stiletto heel in the temple.  When Quaid wails “But those last seven years, I thought you loved me!” Lori grins maliciously, “What can I say? I give ‘good wife’.” and pops a few more rounds at his head.

On the run, Quaid/Hauser meets Melina, another THKFBM, who while equally totally hot (are there ever any ugly women in these movies besides Judy Dench?) is a rebel and former lover and devoted to saving his ass.

One of the challenges in story craft is creating a deep character, a character with presence, contradictions, soul and personality. One of the images in the writer’s tool box for making the hero/heroine stand out in clear focus is making him/her a part of a larger character web. You see the character defined by the people who are close to him, especially when the people close to him are opposites. Batman is defined by the Joker when they share the same scenes, because they are so similar but inhabit opposite ends of a moral spectrum. Lori and Melina are similar, have similar roles, similar relationships with the hero, but inhabit different ends of the moral spectrum.
There is a trend in popular entertainment these days which I think has ramifications for human evolution. The revenge of the x chromosome. For millennia, men have pursued the demands of that Y chromosome to spread their sperm as far and wide as possible. There is a theory, which I think has some truth in it, that one of the reasons men have fought wars since ancient times is for free pussy. Burn a village, carry off the women and you’ve got loads of new pussy. You can even skip the carrying off part. In an instant of bliss a man ejaculates enough sperm cells to impregnate every woman of breeding age in the continent of Europe. Genghis Khan, the emperor of emperors, spread his DNA diversely enough to be currently tracked in millions of men today. Historically emperors have had fantastic harems, the Old Testament attributes 700 official wives to King Solomon, and that’s not counting concubines and slave women. It’s good to be king, although even in my most lurid fantasies that seems a little extreme, especially if you have the additional duties of royal office to attend to. But great women leaders have rarely had harems of men. Catherine the Great, Cleopatra, Elizabeth I (who often sent lovers with a wandering dick off to the Tower of London. It’s good to be queen.) tend towards capricious serial monogamy, taking lovers one at a time and disposing of them when they become boring or annoying.

When I lived in the Caribbean I observed the macho image men have constructed for themselves there, which has little to do with what women want, and more to do with alpha apes competing among themselves for dominance through display, often to the detriment of their families. Macho is what men created for other men. In America, up until the ‘60s, there was a definitive image of the manly man as a quietly strong guy with a steady hand on the rudder, who keeps his existential angst out of sight. He goes to work on the assembly line with his blue collar and lunch box, has a beer with the guys and comes home to his family. His wife is there, Buddy the son, Spot the dog, and his pipe and slippers served up just before the hot dinner by a slender, sweet tempered woman in a dress, heels and pearls. He is the benevolent lord of his tiny fiefdom and his great calling in life is to bring his paycheck home to his family. This is a definition of manliness which I believed was defined by women for men.

Times have changed, life is unreliable, men even more so in the Age of Crazy Pussy and women feel they have to be more self reliant. Reliant to the point of not needing a man for anything other than the transient pleasure of his company. Like the great empresses, if he gets annoying or dull he’s disposable.

The ’50s TV mom has always been a quietly erotic image created by men for men. She is wise and capable, but emotionally pliant. She defines herself by her house work and her family. She needs them and will never abandon them to “find herself”. She has the ability to gaze raptly at his conversation even when bored. She worries about things that can be managed with a little gumption. She does the housework made up to the best of her beauty, usually in a knee high dress, clothes referred to sometimes by rape detectives as “providing accessibility”. When the lord of the realm comes home from a stressful day it’s easy to brush aside the pipe and slippers, tiptoe mom upstairs to his room, a friendly shove backwards on the bed, up with the skirt and faster than the Beev can gasp “Gee, Wally!” he’ll be feeling so much more relaxed.

Images are the personification of an idea. They are the distillation of complex ideas, going far back to a time before man became literary when complex ideas were expressed in stories and richly deep images from cave paintings to the Sistine Chapel. Dream images are the personalization of complex ideas under the surface within ourselves. Movies and television, novels and stories, these are the way a given culture dreams and packages itself in popular mythos. The THKFBM is a kind of aggressive caricature personifying the modern woman’s dilemma. A woman more and more has the feeling of having to go it alone in this world, plus still managing her traditional duties. What is most core to the character of the THKFBM is that she doesn’t need or even expect a man to save her or help her. She needs them to stay the eff out of her way.

Which begs the question – whose fantasy is this? Is this a man’s fantasy? I don’t think so. I think this is the fantasy and the personification of the exhilaration and frustration of the modern woman. Modern religion is very much the product and consequence of fascination with linear thinking and linear consciousness. Ancient religion, before the wide spread of literacy was all about encapsulating complex and unthinkable ideas into pictures and stories. Icons. This is the origin of myth. In ancient times no one believed there was such a thing as the Garden of Eden. It was the symbol, the myth, of something much bigger.

Which begs the question – if the THKFBM is a woman’s fantasy, is she also a myth? What is the myth that she embodies? Maybe Norman Mailer is on to something.


  1. Garce - having had a great grandmother who kicked ass (her husband's) and took names, I think the difference now is that media allows for the portrayal of women as they are, sort of. Not how they really are, of course, because where's the conflict and drama in that? But at least we have more than two role models now (mother/saint/virgin/bride versus whore/seductress), and being a moral person no longer means being a doormat.

  2. I'm not sure how far we have come. Witness the proliferation of 60s-oriented TV shows, and you'll catch a whiff of the longing of white men to be back in the catbird seat where they used to perch, supremely happy in their role as #1, while women and people of any color were kept in "their place", which was lower down in the pecking order.

    I once worked in a division of 14 white men and me...I asked them which made them more uncomfortable, the idea that a white woman was with them, meaning that they were all trying not to swear or tell sexist jokes around me, or the idea that a black man might get promoted, then they'd be unable to tell racist jokes. In other words, would their "male-ness" allow them to bond with the black man in a way they never did with me? (One VP told me I didn't get enough respect from "the gals" in customer service because I used the same bathroom as they did. I offered to try a urinal...)

    While it may be true that women don't need men to have children, men certainly need women to have their children. But these days we have the courts siding with rapists whose violent acts resulted in a child, and they are legally allowed to sue for joint custody! WTF? Maleness triumphs over legality?

    We have a huge backlash against women, and I think the kick-ass heroines you spoke of here, Garce, are the result of men's fear that they won't be necessary anymore, and that the female can get by without them. Most women don't want to be like that...but feel abandoned. The old meme no longer fits their lives, because men are so apt to up and leave that a female needs to be able to support herself. But no one really wants to raise children's tiring in a viscerally-draining way. And it's so comforting to have someone to hold you at night, when your fears threaten to overwhelm you.

    But men and women both face such fears, as well as the fear of growing old alone. Women also face the ever-present fear of rape and sexual violence, which men don't grow up adapting to. I read a great quote recently: "Homophobia is the fear that some other man will treat you like you treat women".

    There is still a chasm between us, even in the "enlightened" western first world. Really scared people (white men mostly, and some women) are trying to force us backwards to a reality that probably wasn't really as good as they think it was. But we need to work together as human beings...male and female... to create new paradigms for relationships.

    I'm the mother of 3 sons and a daughter. I've had these kinds of discussions with them since they learned to talk. Only by making each other think about these things, can we ever hope to progress to a new reality of true, respectful equality.

    And as for the new movie...the original of Total Recall is one of only 2 movies that I personally own. Just like the new Star Trek movie series is an abomination to anyone who loved all of the old series', the new version is not something I want any part of. Think up some new ideas or I'll stop going to movies!

  3. Great post, Garce (where in the world do you get your wonderful pictures?), and as usual, full of intriguing questions.

    I think men and women collaborate (unconsciously) in the images they build of their own and the other's gender. It's also the case that in the fifties - in every era - there were women (and men) who didn't fit into the officially defined roles. In many cases, that made them invisible. (In some cases, they were incarcerated or committed to psychiatric institutions.)

    Quarantine uses exactly the images you cite from the 1950s. America in the middle of the twenty first century is nostalgic for the golden Eisenhower years. And the genetically tailored porn features curvy women in full skirts and pearls, sweet, welcoming and accessible.

  4. Hi Kathleen!

    I think media allows for showing women more as they are because 1)they're buying power has increased 2) They're more actively involved in the creation of entertainment media. I've always been amazed that the movie of "American Psycho", a savage satire on male values, was directed by a woman. Most of the kick ass heroines in fiction like Anita Blake are also created by women. They've come into their own.


  5. Hi Fiona!

    I've noticed also the 60s style TV shows around like Mad Men that are so popular. It does reflect a kind of nostalgia among boomers like me who remember that time, which was a great time to be a white male but not anybody else.

    I think the kick-ass women may be a reflection of men's fear, but they're also a creation of women especially as they begin to seize on their identity. I've recently been reading Betty Dodson's autobiographical "Sex For One" and I'm reminded of the awesome, and scary (to men) erotic capacity of the female. The erotic capacity of women when awakened is far beyond men. I think this is why men have kept them down through the ages.

    I've noticed also during this election season the backlash towards women from conservatives and that longing for a simpler time, but I think the tide of history is against them. You can;t put that X chromosome back in the bottle.


  6. Hi Lisabet!

    I think we created those images of the 60's mom and dad for ourselves in pop culture also partly because they never existed in real life. My parents weren't like that. I've heard one of the problems Romney has in this election is his family - they're too perfect. His kids and grandkids look like they're stepped squeaky clean and sane from the Eisenhower era and who knows people like that?

    Tell you what, those curvy women in skirts and pearls, sweet and accessible are still quite a turn on for me.


  7. Oh - and that image is from Frank Frazetta - King of the pulp magazine illustrators. Probably my favorite painter, god help me . . .


  8. It's completely obvious and blatant, what Lori represents. I've seen her trope a thousand times before - nothing's changed on that score. She's not a kick ass anything. She's the model wife, and when she stops being the model wife she is immediatly the bitch, who is then horribly killed.

    That's not progress, or evidence that women are going to take over the world. That's male writers stamping women down before they can get even the slightest taste of *equality*, never mind superiority.

    Total Recall is just the worst example of tough bitches that you could have picked. Even Melina - she exists purely to aid and propel Quade's story. You never learn a thing about her.

    Ever read up on women in refrigerators? Or the test applied to modern film to see how many times the female characters talk about something other than men? If you haven't, look them up.

    They'll tell you something about how close women are to taking over anything.

  9. So - I guess you don't like that movie?

    I've never read about women in refrigerators, what is that?

    You and I may not agree on this, but I definately think women are on their way, at least in our culture, though you can make a case that the women in Total Recall are a little bit formula bitches. Maybe they're men's idea of bitches.


  10. Why does it have to be a case of not liking the movie? Do you think that's what my above judgement is about?

    I love the original, and it has the exact same problem. Finding a movie's representation of women problematic and thoroughly enjoying it are not mutually exclusive to me.

    Women in refrigerators is the idea that a woman's death (particularly in superhero movies/comics) is there purely to drive the hero's story. It's based on an actual issue of a comic where the hero's girlfriend is found stuffed in a refrigerator. But the idea it's talking about applies to most modern films - that women are only there, dead or alive, to serve the hero's story.

    And I agree that women are on their way. I just don't agree that they're heading towards some mythical superiority or dominance. And I definitely don't agree that Total Recall is evidence of anything but same old same old.

    Good examples of *progress* would be Kick-Ass, or maybe Salt (which was originally written for a man), or little moments in male-dominated films like the recent Bourne, Spiderman and Avengers movies. All had wonderful moments of women actually doing stuff, saving the day, getting equal footing with a man. But the very fact that I find that very surprising and positive should tell you something about where women are right now.


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