thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

He Said, She Said: The Affair’s Romantic Battle Over Narrative Control

In feminism, gender on November 17, 2014 at 11:29 am

Sarah Todd

Adultery is boring, at least when married men do it on TV. It’s no big mystery why a dissolute, murder-y president might seek out passion and endless drama in the form of a long-term affair, or why a mid-century ad man would try to hush his inner nihilist by sleeping with a steady stream of modern women. Even when shows complicate the roles of husband, wife, and mistress—as both Scandal and Mad Men do—their parts remain underpinned by all-too-familiar tropes. Husbands are deceitful and lusty, wives are a drag, mistresses are sexy but needy and women love shopping, I guess.

Not only are these plot lines offensive to all parties involved, they also tend to assign men ultimate control over how the affair plays out. After all, the husband holds the power to decide where he’ll spend the night, with whom he’ll split an expensive bottle of wine, the person he’ll call first when he gets a piece of bad news, and of course who he’ll end up with in the end. His desires determine what happens next. Meanwhile the wife has zero agency within the love triangle, since she typically doesn’t know it exists. The mistress is also beholden to her lover’s decisions. If she’s a cool girl, she’ll acquiesce to his comings and goings without making demands; if she wants more, better hide the bunnies. Moving between his domestic life and his clandestine one, the husband is the only person involved who has all the information and can make choices accordingly.

Thankfully, the Showtime series The Affair has managed to find a way to do something new with the creaky old infidelity tale. On the surface, the show revolves around a familiar plotline: Restless family man meets libidinous younger woman. But the series immediately calls the reliability of these characterizations into question. More than infidelity, The Affair is about how the way we construct the stories of our lives confers power—sometimes to ourselves, sometimes to someone else.

Each episode of the series thus far has been split between the perspectives of the adulterers, Noah (Dominic West) and Alison (Ruth Wilson), as a police detective questions them over a mysterious death. The story of how their affair began, revealed in flashbacks, varies according to who’s doing the talking.

Not That Kind of Review: Lena Dunham’s Uneven First Book

In Uncategorized on November 14, 2014 at 6:00 am

kind-girl

Sarah S.

I have always been puzzled by the furor over Lena Dunham. I like her. I find her work interesting and her persona engaging. But the intelligentsia act as if she’s the Second Coming while pundits and intellectuals on both sides of the political spectrum behave as if she’s the Devil incarnate.

Sexism plays a role here, as we know. No male artists come in for the same amount of vitriol from so many parties. Even James Franco is allowed to be just irritating and pretentious, no deeper meaning or criticism required (at least not from the barrage of both mainstream and dark-cornered publications).

The other condemnation of Dunham gets more sticky, and that’s the complaints about her privilege—white, straight, wealthy, coddled, and empowered. But again, other similarly or even more privileged people squeak through the gauntlet, such as Sophia Coppola, or are easily dismissed as vapid and therefore not worth critiquing, a la Paris Hilton.

It seems that Dunham’s buffet of sins create a cyclone: she’s too white, too rich, too naked, too normal looking, too honest, and too ambitious. The ambition seems to be the crux of the matter. You can have privileged white females from hell to breakfast but perish the thought they want be dynamic, in control creators.

To me, Dunham is just an artist—ambitious, talented, and young—which explains the unevenness of   her output. Case in point, her first collection of personal essays, Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned.” 

Where The Mindy Project’s “Slipped” Went Wrong

In feminism, rape culture, sexism on October 21, 2014 at 9:42 am

Phoebe B.

The Mindy Project’s recent episode “Slipped” had potential—potential to tackle rape culture and issues of consent, even with humor thrown into the mix. It seemed perfectly timed with California’s recent “Yes Means Yes” legislation and the ongoing federal investigation into rape on college campuses. Sadly, the episode failed to treat a difficult topic with the warmth and empathy exemplified by films like Obvious Child, which was able to find humor in the sensitive issue of abortion without sacrificing compassion. Instead, “Slipped” just felt lazy: the episode engaged rape culture in a cursory way that ultimately disregarded and did a disservice to the very real violence of rape.

“Slipped” begins as Danny and Mindy are having sex. Danny—without asking—attempts to slip his penis into Mindy’s butt. The problem is not that Danny wants to try anal sex so much as the fact that he doesn’t ask. While he immediately pulls out and apologizes, he then lies repeatedly about his rationale: his aim was off, his eyes are bad, etc. Most damningly of all, Danny eventually reveals that he did it because he thought Mindy had had anal sex before, because she watches porn. His assumption, then, is that because Mindy has dated a lot and watches porn, that she is already and always sexually willing and able.

Consent matters both in relationships and outside of them. It’s always better to ask, and neither party should assume that various sex positions will be okay. What’s more, just because a person has done something once—had anal sex, watched porn, the list goes on—does not mean that their partner now has unfettered access or that they have a willingness or desire to do it again, a topic Sarah Todd tackled beautifully in her essay on teen sex, consent, and Switched at Birth.

Ultimately, Mindy decides—after a botched sex-ed session with her fellow doctor Peter—that she will give anal sex with Danny a shot. That’s all well and good, but her reasons are upsetting and also misguided. She believes Danny has ample sexual experience and so worries that she will bore him with her limited bedroom knowledge. Danny ultimately corrects this misconception, but the episode allows this sensibility to sit for far too long. So Mindy then procures the help of a sedative because she “has to do something she can’t be awake for, but legally can’t be a asleep for.”

This is a rape joke and it’s not funny at all. Instead of doing what she’s comfortable with in bed, Mindy’s decision is to cater to Danny’s desires and roofie herself in the process. When Mindy passes out, it’s played for laughs as she attempts to maintain some cool while her world literally spins. Here, the show makes a joke of the serious issue of non-consensual sex, eliding the very real danger and trauma that comes with being roofied.

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