Monday, October 5, 2015

Addyi, Desire, And The Social Control Of Women's Sexuality

This week I'm writing about Addyi, which I realize makes me like two months behind the targeted moment for writing about things, but what can I say? Speed is not the philosopher's main strong point.

Addyi, of course, is the libido pill for women, the "female Viagra." You don't need to explain why the particulars are likely to make it less than a blockbuster. As the NYT says, "In one trial, women who took the drug had an average of 4.4 “satisfying sexual experiences a month” compared with 3.7 for women given a placebo." On average it might increase the number from 2-3 per month to 3-4.

No one is more in favor of one more satisfying sexual event per month than I am, and if that were the end of the story, I'd be like, Great, knock yourselves out. But Addyi comes with serious potential side effects, including severely low blood pressure and loss of consciousness. Plus, you're not supposed to take it while drinking alcohol. And on top of everything else? You have to take it every day, at a cost -- to someone anyway -- of 400 dollars per month.

As I understand it, for some women the drug is much more effective than "one more per month" and overall it's good news that women will have the option of taking this drug. But so much about the way this drug is described, promoted, and understood is annoying.

First, there's this constant reference to "libido," "desire," and "sex drive." As is frequently pointed out, Viagra doesn't directly cause desire: it just enables more blood flow to the penis so a man can get an erection. Addyi targets the brain, the aim being to create an effect of desire. The implication is that lack of desire is the problem.

But many women don't experience sexual desire as a drive, a hunger from nowhere. They experience it in response to things. This is called "responsive desire" -- as opposed to "spontaneous desire" -- and there's nothing wrong with it at all. Unless, of course, you think the way men do things is the only appropriate way to do them.

Second, this point about desire really brings home the weirdness of measuring success in terms of "satisfying sexual encounters." In women with responsive desire, this makes it seem like the success of the drug is basically that you get to skip the activities that cause responsive desire -- like, I don't know, talking quietly, snuggling, foreplay, clean sheets, whatever -- and get straight to the action. 

This reminds me of Rachel Maines' great book The Technology of Orgasm. Maines tells an astonishing story about how vibrators were introduced as labor-saving devices for physicians to treat female hysteria: instead of having to repetitively rub their hands between a woman's legs for ever and ever -- so boring! -- doctors could use the vibrator. Voilà! Hysteria cured in minutes. I think Haines describes the vibrator as doing "the job that no one else wanted."

Speaking of vibrators, does "satisfying sexual encounters" include masturbation? I don't know.

Finally, I don't know if you read this article by Daniel Bergner in the New York Times a couple of years ago. It's about the ongoing search for the female Viagra. And much of the article fits with what I've already said: women seeking out out the drug in clinical trials describe feeling deficient because, while they have responsive desire and pleasure in sex, they don't have spontaneous desire -- that "drive" associated with the masculine pattern of lust.

Bergner has a fascinating discussion of the interplay of issues having to do with long-term monogamy and the drive of lust, pointing out that empirically, while women and men both tend to experience this drive at the start of a new relationship, that drive fades for women much faster than for men: a new partner is often something that reignites that feeling of spontaneous desire for women.

As an aside here: it kills me how these facts are not interpreted as challenging the standard socio-biology idea of women as naturally monogamous and are taken instead to prove that men's drive is just that much stronger overall. Your theory predicts P and the evidence says not-P, and you're like, Well, P anyway, just something else is going on. Obviously, social investment in the natural monogamy of women is intense.

Toward the end, Bergner talks about social views of women's sexuality, and how they affect development of these drugs. Basically, the aim is for the effects to be "good but not too good." Bergner describes one researcher being "a bit stunned by the entrenched mores that lay within what he’d heard" in discussions, concluding that "there’s a bias against -- a fear of creating the sexually aggressive woman."

One day, you're mechanizing the process of treating hysteria by rubbing women between the legs in doctors offices. A few years later you're psychopharmasizing to get the perfect female desire: not too much, not too little, not for the wrong people, and not requiring time consuming interventions like conversation, attention, and a light sense of touch.

Plus ça change.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Memory, Materiality, And An Autographed Photo Of Bert And Ernie

When I was twelve or thirteen years old, my father sent a letter and some paper clips to Bert -- you know, of "Bert and Ernie" -- and got back a signed 8 by 10 inch glossy photo of the two of them, and scrawled across it it said, "Dear Pat, Thanks for the paperclips. They were really keen. Love, Bert."

Even though he was born in 1935 and was thus outside the target demographic, my father loved Sesame Street. He especially loved certain muppets, and especially Oscar the Grouch and Bert. At his University office, where he was Dean of Engineering, he had Oscar and Bert finger puppets out on the desk.

The reasons for my father's love were probably complex. He'd grown up very poor in a family of Italian immigrants, with all kinds of associated miseries, instabilities, and frightening things, and so in one way he loved anything that suggested safety, predictability, warmth, and cleanliness. When he got home from work he'd turn on Mister Rogers. For a time we made yearly pilgrimages to Disney World -- a place where American capitalism enabled us to meet seemingly disparate entertainment goals: my goal of kid-fun, and his goal of seeing the trains run on time. Of course he'd love Sesame Street.

But I'd guess that my father's love for Bert and Oscar was also very specific. He appreciated Oscar's deep contrariness -- the need to be mad and sour when everyone was saying what a sunny day it was. My father was, after all, a man who rooted for The Yankees the whole time we lived near Boston -- just to be a pain in the ass.

With Bert, I'm sure my father admired Bert's nerdiness, way before nerdiness was a self-identification. My father liked to collect color charts for car options, and he kept them in three-ring binders that he'd take down and carefully peruse every so often. He liked to do his taxes, and once caused a ruckus by bringing them to an afternoon family affair to work on.

My father was a fanatic for office stationary of all kinds, and the paperclips were special ones from Germany. They were plastic and colorful and shaped in a funny surprising way. Maybe you don't remember that Bert had a paperclip collection, but he did, so my father put some in an envelope with a letter for Bert saying these were for his collection and he put his work return address: "Dean of Engineering, such-and-so College."

That he got back a signed and personalized photo with reference to the actual paperclips just killed me, I thought it was so awesome and funny. I loved imagining some Sesame Street personnel taking the time to consider the gift and think about the recipient. I loved that they thought a signed glossy with a message scrawled across it was just the thing. I loved that the writing was made to look childlike.

I was thinking about this signed glossy photo of Ernie and Bert this week because Frank Oz was the guest on Wait Wait Don't Tell Me and he's the guy who voices Bert and they all got talking about Bert's personality. And I remembered with sharp pang that the photo doesn't exist any more. It was lost in a fire in 1994, when I was in my twenties and a fire that started in the middle of the night ended up burning our entire apartment building down to the ground.

My father died when I was fifteen, which meant it had already been years since he'd died. I carried that photo around with me, and I talked about it all the time, and I told everyone I knew about how my father had sent paperclips to Bert for his collection.

Especially since the fire, I am usually the kind of person who doesn't care much about things and stuff. I can't deal with clutter. I like to throw things away. I don't keep memorabilia.

But the memory of this photo gave me pause. I feel like I would really, really like to have this photo -- to have it materially and not have just the memory of it.

Normally for me, the memory is enough. But now I think about this photo and there are things I feel I need to see again. Did Bert really say "keen" or might have been "neat"? Did Bert have his eyebrows in his characteristic frowny expression, or were they raised in his characteristic "surprised" mode? Am I remember the block-like childish writing correctly?

As a committed anti-disposophobe, I hate to think that it's the actual material object -- the object, which so cluttery, so easily lost, so fragile, so prone to decomposition, and so ephemeral -- that matters. But I think it might be true.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Sexual Intrusion And Sexual Harm: How Bad Is Bad?

One time ages ago I was listening to a podcast, and this guy told a story about how his wife had been shown some pornographic pictures and how he, the narrator, had completely lost his shit.

As I recall it, they were at some kind of large event -- selling small items or something, at some large theme-oriented fair, or something like that. They'd been separated when the guy went to get food for lunch, leaving the woman in charge of their area, and a stranger, another guy, had approached the woman and started talking to her. Then, just a couple minutes in, the stranger had taken out his cell phone and said "look at this" and showed her some pornographic photos, including, if memory serves, some of naked men with erections. Then he had run off.

At least as the narrator told the story, the narrator's wife was very, very, very, very upset. She was frightened and disturbed. She felt violated. She felt like she'd been the victim of a kind of sexual attack. When the narrator found out what happened he flipped out. He tore off to find the culprit, with the intention of physically attacking him. 

The rest of the story was about how the narrator had come to terms with his rage before he hurt the stranger, and the point of the story was about anger and self-control and not hurting people. But the part that stuck with me was the part about the woman feeling so violated.

It stuck with me because I couldn't imagine feeling so upset about something like that. I'm not judging her reaction or anything -- she has the right to her feelings and worldview. It's just so different from my own feelings and worldview.

I just can't picture dirty pictures having that effect on me. I suppose if there were no people around and a guy did that and then stuck around I'd feel frightened. Certain guys in certain sexually charged situations can become scary pretty fast, as I wrote about in this post about being in a lingerie store with a nervous guy, because they give you the feeling they're going to fly off the handle. But this story didn't seem to have those aspects at all. They were in a big crowd. He showed the pictures and ran off.

Together my friend and I run the Society for the Philosophy of Sex and Love, and occasionally people send us things that are weird or inappropriate or whatever. One time someone sent a long series of photos of himself in various poses, in various themed bits of costume, showcasing his penis in a variety of moods. Far from being shocked and upset, I was inclined to view this email somewhat in the light of a gift: it made me laugh, and when I showed it to my friends it made them laugh.

The wide range of different reactions people have to things like this is, I believe, one reason we find it so hard to come to conclusions about the moral quality of actions like the stranger-with-the-phone. I mean, what he did was wrong, and not nice. Sure. But was it a little wrong? Or very very wrong?

I feel like people often a sense there should be some kind of general answer to these kinds of questions, like we should be able to work out a moral principle, with a clear and justified bright line, and apply it across the board. But I doubt that's possible, partly because what causes sexual harm to people is so variable.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Writing Ruins Everything

Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, Portrait of a Woman, via Wikimedia Commons

There's a whole school of thought out there that says writing can be a form of therapy: if you experienced something bad or complicated or painful, you can write about it, and this will allow you to process your feelings and move on.

I never thought much about this idea until recently, because -- well, I'm not sure why, but part of the reason is probably that when I feel discouraged or unhappy in a substantive way, it's almost never consciously linked in my mind to something that happened in the past. It almost always takes the form more of general melancholia/what's-the-point/this-goddamn-vale-of-tears and not oh-this-thing-that-happened. Writing about that would just be blah-blah-blah-blah-blah.

I had occasion to think about it recently, though. For reasons having nothing to do with therapy and everything to do with oh-maybe-that-would-be-interesting-and-fun, I took a couple of memoir writing classes through the Gotham Writers Workshop. To my surprise, I found that writing about things made me experience them in a worse way.

For example, for one assignment I wrote a really short piece about how when I see an ambulance rushing somewhere with its siren on, I'm often reminded with a jolt of the night my father had a heart attack, when I was fifteen. Because we lived in a condo complex with complicated intertwined streets, as the ambulance was on its way the suggestion was made that I should walk through the dark quiet streets to the entrance to flag them down and show them the way to the house. And that's what I did.

I wrote about this experience, and I wrote about learning a few hours later that he had died. I wrote about how when I would see an ambulance on its way somewhere, I would often be cast momentarily back to the fear and sadness of that night, and I would picture some other family, waiting for this ambulance, and I would imagine their fear and sadness. I wrote about how I would often then be briefly suspended in time, reminded of the fragility of human life and human happiness.

The teacher liked the piece. She suggested I might submit it to be published, in an online literary forum for very short pieces, after making some revisions. As I made the revisions, I had a mix of feelings. The changes were improving the writing as a piece of writing, but at the same time, I felt like crafting the narrative into the right sort of narrative meant shifting my understanding and perception of what had happened and how it had felt.

Its a recurring problem for me with writing. When it comes to memoir, the shaping of a narrative feels a lot like lying. Every piece I ended up writing for those courses, I felt like I had to turn a series of "well, I don't know, there was this, but there was also that"; things were happening that were unrelated but felt important; who-the-hell-knows-what-is-going-on into some story about How I Changed or What I Learned.

After all that narrative shaping, I felt like I had trouble getting the confusingness of the original memories back. Instead, I had these new memories, organized in a neater, tidier, more standardized, more McMuffin kind of way.

It was like the old messy and less interpreted memories had been overwritten.

After I revised the short piece about ambulances, I submitted it to the forum my teacher had suggested. A couple of weeks later they rejected it. Honestly, when I found out it was rejected, I wasn't as disappointed as I'd thought I'd be -- I almost had a sense of relief that the mood of that piece wasn't a mood I'd be putting out into the world. But still. Being rejected always sucks.

Now when I see an ambulance, instead of thinking about fear and sadness and the fragility of life, I'm reminded instead of writing this piece, and I'm reminded of the experience of having it rejected.

In a way you might think this would be an improvement, replacing a very painful and sad memory with a merely annoying one. But it doesn't feel like an improvement at all. It feels like a total loss.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Happy Labor Day And See You All Next Week

Hello readers, partly because I spent the weekend at this mini-conference at William and Mary honoring philosopher Alan Goldman, I regret to say I won't be able to post today. I can, however, share this picture of a large insect that I took while I was visiting Williamsburg. Doesn't it look like it has a teeny tiny smiley face?

I hope everyone is enjoying labor day! I'll see you all back here next Monday. 

Monday, August 31, 2015

Guest Post: Regulating Mobile Dating Apps

This guest post is by Chris Grisdale 
Twitter: @Cgrisdale Instagram: chrisgrisdale

From a certain point of view, mobile dating applications are a kind of trading floor—exchanges where personal profiles, not companies, are listed. And while Stock Exchanges have been with us for a long time, dating applications relatively recent. The Toronto Stock Exchange (TSX) has provided space for companies to access the public capital markets since 1861. Mobile phone applications like Tinder and Grindr have only provided a meeting point for the “love market” since 2009. 

Tinder and Grindr solve an old relationship problem known as “settling.” You know the scenario: two years ago your friend quietly whispers, “she could have done so much better” referring to you at a cocktail party and now you find yourself sympathizing. While our parents might have to live with the nagging feeling that their partner could have been more physically attractive, better educated or wealthier had they greater exposure in the “love market,” our generation doesn’t have the same problem. Sure, the problem of how long a person should stay on the market remains, but these applications create unprecedented exposure—there are more people to meet.  Better bargains are struck; fewer traders accept below market value.

There are market perils. While securities laws regulate access to public capital markets, it is worth wondering whether public access to the romance markets should also be regulated. And if so, what regulation is appropriate?

The principle means of regulating the public capital markets is through the prospectus, which requires a company to give full and complete disclosure of any matter material of the company, updated through a continuous disclosure regime. A company going public has to take steps to discover all the material information, and once public has to continue to account. Our real estate market, however, is still principally governed by the rule of caveat emptor—buyer be-ware. The rule puts the risk on the buyer. It’s the buyer’s responsibility to inspect the goods, not the seller’s duty to disclose material information. One exception, to the rule is a known latent defect. It’s illegal for a seller that knows of an invisible defect to not disclose it. But the exception does not impose a positive obligation to uncover problems.

Participants in the love markets often provide insufficient or inaccurate information because, in the course of a transaction, it may not be in the interests of a party to provide full or accurate information to the other. In the market for love, an informational failure spans from the banal to the serious. At best a party wastes time on a coffee because the counterparty’s profile inaccurately reflects their true assets and liabilities—the worst version of this is the catfish scenario. At worst there’s risks associated with sexually transmitted infections.

Occasionally a counterparty will purposefully use outdated and inaccurate photographs—be wary of instagram filters. The strategy is simple: entice a potential counterparty to incur a sunk cost, in this case, time. Once you’ve met for coffee, you’re not likely to immediately leave. You’re there for at least 30 minutes to an hour. Once you’re in for a penny, you’re in for a pound. But this strategy is only successful when the inaccuracies don’t deviate too far from the true value.

According to the Urban Dictionary a catfish is a person who pretends to be someone their not to pursue deceptive online romances. MTV capitalized on the catfish phenomenon with the reality show Catfish that films the public exposure of false online identities for all our amusement.

But from the legal point of view, perhaps the most interesting disclosure issue is whether legal liability arises from the failure to accurately disclose the existence of sexually transmitted infections. If we followed the securities regulation approach on this issue, we might impose a positive obligation to get tested and disclose the status to participating in these trading floors. Where we, however, to take a caveat emptor approach liability would only arise when the seller has knowledge of a sexually transmitted infection. Current law errs on the side of caveat emptor.

While the securities approach seems too harsh, the caveat emptor rule seems like bad public policy. People are less inclined to get tested.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Grexit "Plan B" And Our Dreams Of A Frictionless World

Like so many people I was fascinated by the whole "Plan B for Grexit" idea. Did you follow this? The former finance minister Varoufakis and some pals had this idea for what to do in case Greece suddenly became expunged from the Eurozone. As has been noted, it reads like something you'd cook up if you'd been sitting in your room bingewatching bad TV spy thrillers.

Basically, the group said they had hacked into government servers to get the financial information for citizens and companies, and they were going to assign PIN numbers and systems for moving money around. The example Varoufakis gives involves the state "paying" a pharmaceutical company on behalf of the national health service, but I from what I understand the idea was that if you were just an ordinary person hoping to buy a loaf of bread or something -- well, there'd be an app for that. Having set up a parallel banking system, the currency could be flipped to the drachma "at the drop of a hat."

I'm the last one to argue about the wisdom of having a "Plan B." Of course: how can you negotiate unless you actually have other options? What's wild to me is the idea that you can create a currency system in a kind of seamless, quick, off the cuff kind of way.

The difficulties seem obvious. Only about a third of Greeks have smartphones. The introduction of massive software requires coding, de-bugging, and beta-testing, and is not, as Bertie Wooster would say, the work of a moment. You need teams of coders and bureaucrats and communications people, not five guys sitting in a room thinking about things.

This post from Naked Capitalism has a round up of the whole thing, and I couldn't get over some of the comments. Someone says: what's the big deal? Can't they just use checks? As if the check processing industry were something you could "poof" into existence with a computer. I'm no expert, but I was under the impression that the check processing aspect of the Fed in the US used to be an enormous branch employing thousands of people who had to be educated and trained, with massive systems in place and actual buildings for the checks to go to for processing.

The whole thing reminded me of this post from a few months ago at the Archdruid Report. Setting aside the claims about the "death of the internet," the part that interested me was about the internet's costs. Like a lot of people, I had been seduced into thinking of the internet as a kind of seamless, non-material, non-friction space. Doesn't it seem that way? Like the "Plan B" team, we think that if we do something on the internet, it's somehow an instant, zero-cost thing. A space where things really do "poof!" into existence.

Of course, debacles like the IT problems of the Obamacare rollout show how delicate and difficult good website organization and coding really is. But at a deeper level, things really aren't seamless and zero cost at all. The Archdruid Report says,
Let’s start by looking at the costs. Every time I’ve mentioned the future of the internet on this blog, I’ve gotten comments and emails from readers who think that the price of their monthly internet service is a reasonable measure of the cost of the internet as a whole. For a useful corrective to this delusion, talk to people who work in data centers. You’ll hear about trucks pulling up to the loading dock every single day to offload pallet after pallet of brand new hard drives and other components, to replace those that will burn out that same day. You’ll hear about power bills that would easily cover the electricity costs of a small city. You’ll hear about many other costs as well. Data centers are not cheap to run, there are many thousands of them, and they’re only one part of the vast infrastructure we call the internet: by many measures, the most gargantuan technological project in the history of our species.
The Archdruid Report goes on to outline the Ponzi-ish scheme that keeps the whole thing moving along. Huge companies spend more and more, failing to make a profit but buttressed by venture capitalists who are looking for the next big thing. It's about the least seamless, frictionless thing you can imagine, but it's presented to use as seamless and frictionless because someone is making money when we see it that way.

When I think about these things, I wonder about the role that seamlessness and frictionlessness life play in people's dreams and fantasies. In this previous post I wrote about the dream of the "singularity": a post-human time, when people will transcend human bodies and materiality and live on in some completely seamless and frictionless way. And as I said there, I can't even understand what these people are dreaming of.

If popular culture is any guide, what we really love are things like food, sex, sports, and hanging out. None of these are seamless or frictionless activities, or things you could do if you were just a brain downloaded into a computer. In fact, the things computer brains do well -- like math and playing chess -- well, for most people they're not even registering on the fun scale.

So while there are obvious aspects of wishful thinking with Plan B type planning, in a deeper sense there's a question of where our dreams of a seamless world are coming from, and how those dreams lead us to the errors they do. And there I don't really know the answer.

Monday, August 17, 2015

What Is Femininity, Anyway?

Back in July, Laura Jane Grace was the guest on Marc Maron's WTF podcast, and one of the things she talked about was her "experiences as a trans woman in a punk rock world." I'd never heard of Laura Jane Grace and I don't know much of anything about her music -- but as usual it was an interesting discussion.

At one point Laura Jane and Marc got talking about gender dysphoria. Laura Jane described being a little boy and seeing -- I think it was Madonna? -- on TV and hoping to grow up into that kind of person, and slowly becoming aware that that wasn't the way things were heading.

Later she described how much more recently she began hiding her gender dysphoria experiences. She talked about how she was trying to keep it a secret, and so she would hide that part of herself away from people, and act on it only when she was alone, on tour or something. 

Marc asked about what that was like -- like what texture did that experience have, what did it involve? And she talked about wanting to wear women's clothing, and how sad it could be to have to settle -- to settle for the first thing you could grab at Target or whatever, instead of being able to have things you really like, in your own style.

And at one point she was elaborating on the clothing point, and -- I'm just recounting this from memory of course -- she said something about how she would want to wear feminine clothing, like either specifically feminine items like a dress or clothes styled in a certain way. For example, if she was going to wear a tank top, she'd want it to be a tank top cut in a particularly feminine way.

When she said that, I felt like I knew just the kind desire she was referring to. I love to wear feminine clothing, and sometimes I feel a strong desire to do so. And I've had just that feeling. Sure, a tank top. But can it be cut in a certain style, please?

There's something about this kind of desire I've never really felt I understood though, and that is: What's femininity got to do with it? What is femininity anyway?

I mean, if someone has a strong desire to wear one kind of tank top rather than another, what is that about?

Is it just that we live in a world that socially constructs gender strongly through clothes, so that a desire to feel like a woman manifests itself as a desire to wear certain kinds of tank tops?

That could be it. But that answer's never felt sufficient to my own experience. I'm a cisgender woman with a pretty curvy bod. Even when I wear jeans and a hoody, I feel like a woman and I look like a woman and people -- usually -- respond to me as a woman. But I don't feel feminine. And sometimes I want to feel feminine, and I want to wear the clothes associated with that feeling. So for me it seems to go beyond gender identification.

Another answer that insufficient to my personal experience is the "sexiness" answer. When I want to wear feminine clothes, it's not the same as wanting to wear a sexy outfit. On me, a low-cut shirt and snug pants often conveys way more sex appeal than a dress. But that outfit is not feminine. And it's the dress I often find myself wanting to wear.

About a year and a half ago I was on a plane coming home from Paris and I watched this movie "Les Adieux à la reine" -- "a fictional account of the last days of Marie Antoinette in power seen through the eyes of Sidonie Laborde, a young servant who reads aloud to the queen." This movie, incidentally, passes a double-secret reverse Bechdel test: as far as I can recall, there are no scenes where two men talk to one another at all. It is all women all the time.

From Les Adieux à la reine
The clothes in this movie -- the clothes! I haven't felt so stirred by a something on a small screen in a long, long, time. Yet even as I was filled with strange emotion and longing, I was unclear what exactly the emotion and longing were about. Why did these lace gowns, elaborate hairstyles and cinched waists speak to me in this way? What were they trying to say?

I don't know the answer. I think it's something about femininity, but what, exactly, I have no idea.

None of this, of course, is meant to speak to Laura Jane Grace's experience -- it's just my story. But if the bridal gown industrial complex is any indication -- I am not alone.

Monday, August 10, 2015

La Dolce Vita Bella Donna, Or, The Problem Of Narrative Female Promiscuity

A week ago I went to see La Dolce Vita at the Bell Lightbox. I'm a huge Fellini fan and I can't get enough of Marcello Mastroianni so of course I loved it and thought it was brilliant.

Among the themes of the movie is our modern celebrity-obsessed, reality-TV drenched, pictures-or-it-didn't-happen culture -- which, given that it was made in 1960, really shows the crazy prescience and brilliance of Fellini himself. This is the movie that literally created the concept of "paparazzi."

Paparazzi in La Dolce Vita
 Among the other themes of the movie is the ambivalence of our hero -- also named "Marcello." Our hero flits from party to party, photo-op to photo-op, babe to babe, with a vague sense that he ought to be doing something deeper and more sensible with his life. On the other hand, his one sensible intellectual friend is suicidally depressed with the boredom of family life. And Marcello is tormented by his fiancé and how she only talk about what they're going to have for dinner, what kind of house they're going to live in some day, and how mad she is that he isn't at home.

Marcello and Maddalena go for a drive
I feel like when a woman says she loves a movie that deals with themes of male sexual promiscuity and big-breasted babes like Anita Ekberg, there's always suspicion. Isn't the movie sexist and misogynistic? What's a woman doing liking a movie like that? Is she really engaging in some misogyny of her own? Is she really just crushing on Marcello Mastroianni and wishing she was Anita Ekberg-- thus exemplifying her own sexist bullshit?

Marcello and Sylvia
But I think this kind of suspicion is deeply misplaced. Women, too, struggle with ambivalence, with the dilemmas of the boring versus the stupid, with the attractions of vapidity. God knows they struggle with being turned on sexually by qualities and people they would otherwise find revolting. Of course they want to see these themes explored in movies and art.

So what's a girl to do? You might think, Well, why can't there be the female version, and why couldn't you go see that? You know -- like how they're doing Ghostbusters with an all female cast? You could have La Dolce Vita starring Catherine Deneuve as Marcella: a beautiful but conflicted journalist who traipses around Rome having sex with rich and famous people, going to their parties, apologizing to her cute but boring guy back home, going with her mother to a strip club --

Oh wait. No, you couldn't actually have that movie. I don't just mean that that movie would never get made -- which is of course also true. I think it goes deeper than that -- because I think you actually could not make a movie about a woman who acts like that and have the movie be about the same sort of things at all. No matter how you tried to do it, it would not come off that way.

For one thing, in our time and place you simply cannot present a promiscuous woman and have her story be about the human condition. Because of our various modern cultural obsessions and because of the meaning we assign to women's sexuality, promiscuity in women just can't be interpreted that way. 

When it comes to narrative female promiscuity, there are several common interpretive tropes.

-- There's the obvious reactionary trope: "What a slut, she deserves to have something awful happen to her."

-- There's the surprisingly common damage trope: "She runs around like that because she was hurt as a child/is desperate for love/wants to get back at someone/is looking for attention.

-- There's the objectification trope: "The author/filmmaker/director is just pandering to the desires of male audiences to see sexy and sexualized women."

Obviously these are different: it's often true, for example, that the author/filmmaker/director is just pandering to guys in the audience. As useful as this can be to point out, however, it basically guarantees that a story about a "Marcella" could never be understood as a story about the conflicts between glamor and home life, about the attractions of the awful and the stupid, or about whether it's worth trying to do something with yourself or whether it's all pointless anyway. It would be interpreted as being about something else.

So that movie -- about the female Marcella -- is a movie that couldn't really exist.

This means if you're a woman and you want to watch a movie about those things, you have to go see one in which a guy experiences them, and then project yourself into the main Marcello Mastroianni character instead of into, say, the Anita Ekberg ingenue character or the Anouk Aimée bored heiress character.

If you are doing that, you'll thank the Forces That Control The Universe that not only does Marcello have beautiful, soulful eyes with luxurious lashes, he also wears amazing clothes, rides occasionally in the passenger seat, and likes to sit around cafés drinking and talking. It's not so far away, after all.

Monday, August 3, 2015

What Do People Think About All Day?

This question isn't a joke and I don't mean it metaphorically or as an indirect way of implying something else. I mean it literally. What do people think about?

A couple of months ago, I was diagnosed with a cracked tooth just before I was going to travel to Paris, and the specialist I saw said I absolutely had to do something about it before I could go. If I didn't, there was a danger the pressure changes of air travel would exacerbate the crack and cause terrible pain. I imagined landing in a European city in intense dental pain and immediately decided to take his advice.

He recommended a root canal. I'd had one before, and it was pretty bad, but he assured me that there would be no pain. They'd do whatever they had to do to make sure my mouth was numb enough and it would be fine.

I was skeptical. I have this thing where novocaine or lidocaine or whatever it is they use these days is ineffective on me without some other drug, like nitrous oxide. I've always been this way. Shot after shot after shot, it never really works. My regular dentist gives me nitrous -- since he treats a lot of kids he always calls it "the magic nose" -- and that works amazingly. As we've discussed, for me nitrous mostly changes a frightening and painful experience into a fun opportunity to take legal drugs.

The specialist didn't use nitrous, though. I trusted him about the pain, but still: it was just going to be me with the needles and the drill and the whole unpleasant experience.

I had like a week in between arranging the appointment and the actual event, and in the meantime I tried not to think about it. When I did think about it, I kind of freaked out. The whole mechanism of a root canal -- well, look, I'm not even going to into it, because if you're at all like me even the description of it is so disturbing, so much the sort of thing that would cause you pain, so much the kind of thing that seems like it's damaging you rather than helping you, you don't even want to think about it.

As in the nature of things, the more I tried not to think about it, the more I thought about it, and the more I thought about it the worse I felt. Being by nature and by training an overly reflective person, I started to think about why I couldn't put it out of my mind, which got me thinking about what other things I think about on a daily basis and why I couldn't substitute some of those things in for thinking about the root canal. 

And the more I pondered that the more weirded out I got. What do I think about? Once you bracket the obvious planning and internal complaining, what is there? I was appalled to notice that while happy thoughts about the past could barely hold my attention for a nanosecond, unhappy thoughts about the past could stay festering in my brain over long and recurring moments.

Once when I was in ninth grade, I was hanging around some kids I thought were cool including a boy I thought was cute, and they were being funny, and I was laughing. And that boy turned to me and said, "What is it with you anyway? You'll laugh at anything."

How is it memories like that can really catch hold and stick with you, while nice thoughts about people who love you just drift away like the seeds of a Cottonwood tree?

I don't if everyone is like this, but I found some of my happiest and most absorbed moments, moments when I could successfully not think about the root canal, were spent musing about possible future projects -- not, like, realistic projects like finishing my book manuscript or learning to make spanakopita, but just-beyond-realistic projects, like getting into bodybuilding or writing a successful comedy-drama screenplay.

I'm usually a very reality-based person. WTF?

Eventually I started casting around for other things to fill my mind, to block out thoughts of the root canal. And that's when I started wondering: what do other people think about? I see them sitting quietly on the subway, or standing around before exercise class, and their expressions look pretty placid. Are they obsessing about the past? Are they daydreaming about the future? What else is there?

In the end, I thought about that root canal all week all the time, and I fretted about it and worried about it, and finally the day came, and though the doctor was as good as his word in terms of dental numbness, it's also the case that I had to have shot after shot after shot of novocaine, and after each one they had to test my tooth with a super cold thing that made me jump out of the chair, and there were complexities which meant they coudn't finish it in one three hour appointment so I had to come back.

But it all ended up fine and my teeth feel great. So all that suckiness and difficulty? I try not to think about it.