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.


Janet Vickers said...

what about a woman who is a star hockey player who also has soulful eyes and long eyelashes and big breasts and full lips on a pouty mouth - who wins all the time and who enjoys all the spoils - everything everywhere, no options, no boredom and no punishment. Surely someone will make a movie like that.

Brandon Cooke said...

Hi Patricia,

Very thought-provoking post, as usual!

I'm wondering what you think of the films Belle de Jour or Breillat's Romance. I don't mean to suggest they are perfect female counterparts to the Fellini film, but they do seem to do many of the things you suggest can't be done.

Patricia Marino said...

Hi Brandon, Well, I love Belle de Jour, but given that the movie presents her as engaging in prostitution I'd say it fits my overall idea that promiscuity in women tends to appear as something else; the Wikipedia page reminds me there is also some suggestion of being "haunted by a childhood memories, including one involving a man who appears to touch her inappropriately." I haven't seen _Romance_ - but I will try to check it out!

Brandon Cooke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brandon Cooke said...

Yes, but it seemed to me that since what Severine got off on was degradation, humiliation, and submission, working as a prostitute was just part of her getting what she really wanted sexually. As I recall (and it's been a while since I last saw the film), Bunuel was rather careful not to moralize Severine's tastes or actions.

Thinking of a less high-brow example, isn't (largely) judgement-free female promiscuity one of the central themes of Sex and the City? Not that I was ever really a fan, but the Samantha Jones character was definitely the best of the lot.

(P.S. I deleted my previous comment because I couldn't seem to use the HTML code to get a n tilde.)

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