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Grrrlz 2 Men

KILLER WOMAN BLUES Why Americans Can't Think Straight About Gender and Power By Benjamin DeMott Houghton Mifflin: 256 pp., $26

July 08, 2001|RICHARD GOLDSTEIN | Richard Goldstein is executive editor of The Village Voice

Members of minority groups who break ranks are often called courageous. Think of how glibly that word has been applied to UC Regent Ward Connerly, the African American enemy of affirmative action, or to the legion of mocking post-feminists. Their dissent is a hot commodity. But the real courage belongs to the critical thinkers who sympathize with the movements they attack. Benjamin DeMott is that sort of intellectual. His progressive sensibility draws him to feminism, but his eye for unintended consequences convinces him that something in the women's movement has gone seriously awry.

In "Killer Woman Blues," DeMott argues that popular culture is pushing women toward a masculine identity whose signature is toughness. He's referring to the ruthless aggression, cutthroat competitiveness and cavalier disregard for intimacy displayed by so many female characters in films, sitcoms, self-help books and even literature. DeMott maintains that this process of "women-becoming-men" is a profound violation of the original feminist vision, with dire consequences for all of humankind.

DeMott's thesis is not entirely convincing, but his premise certainly is. He assembles such an arsenal of examples--including more than 150 recent films--that it seems undeniable: Women are embracing a new model in which autonomy and aggression are valorized. At the same time, DeMott asserts, there is a comparable shift in the masculine ideal. The "male sensitif ," as DeMott calls him, is a staple in high-rated sitcoms and top-grossing films such as "Friends" and "Jerry Maguire." As women learn to fight back, men begin to feel back, and for DeMott, this empathetic figure is an emblem of men becoming women. Is that bad? DeMott thinks so.

In lesser hands, such reasoning would serve as a cover for social conservatism. Indeed, the current backlash against feminism has made most progressives loath to criticize anything that emerges from the women's movement. DeMott takes on this daunting task and, despite some significant errors, he often succeeds, largely because he takes feminism seriously. His grounding in this century-old tradition--from Mary Wollstonecraft to Betty Friedan--enables him to show how much it is at odds with the current "kick-ass" code, but his acuity about contemporary life allows him to apply a rigorous skepticism to the claims of pop liberation. DeMott argues that the real goal of women becoming men has little to do with creating a world in which biology is not destiny. What calls itself liberation is actually oppression, even harder to see because it is overlaid with an aura of equality.

DeMott focuses on the ways that corporations have benefited from the "proliferation of images of the killer woman." These perks range from an infusion into the marketplace of cheap (female) labor to the public relations coup of seeming to embrace social progress by hiring women--at lower wages. Meanwhile, the attention that might be focused on the ruthlessness of modern corporations is instead aimed at the unsympathetic figure of the killer woman. She is "an uncommonly effective distraction; when attention focuses on her, structural issues and inequities retreat to the margins; heartless labor policies become infinitely less interesting than the question whether unscrupulous Ms. Executive Veepee will succeed in destroying Mr. Nice Guy--the chap unlucky enough to have to compete with her." The last laugh, DeMott insists, belongs to the boss who presides over this competition.

"Killer Woman Blues" is a fine example of DeMott's talent for social deconstruction, revealing a meaning utterly at odds with professed intention. This ability to reason dialectically has been all but lost to cultural criticism, with its insistence on the irony and complexity of images and texts. According to this new orthodoxy, Eminem doesn't really sing about killing women; he "unpacks" the issue of misogyny. DeMott is coming from an older, sounder school of thinking, one intent on divining the real meaning of things. He does not think of images as decentered objects in a postmodern universe. Instead, he dares to do what most critics are loath to attempt, lest they be thought of as unhip: DeMott thinks morally.

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