Killer Woman Blues: Why Americans Can't Think Straight About Gender and Powerby Benjamin DeMott
The new "killer woman," says Benjamin DeMott in this lively and provocative book, believes that empowerment lies in tough, aggressive, "male" behavior. This gender denial, he contends, is reshaping American society and betraying the original vision of feminism, which embodied the ideal of a more compassionate and nurturing society for both women and men. Today,
The new "killer woman," says Benjamin DeMott in this lively and provocative book, believes that empowerment lies in tough, aggressive, "male" behavior. This gender denial, he contends, is reshaping American society and betraying the original vision of feminism, which embodied the ideal of a more compassionate and nurturing society for both women and men. Today, many women believe they must "become men" to succeedand men are perceived as often ruthless and brutally competitive. Differences molded by nature and history are obscured, as is the healthy flexibility that would free both sexes from rigid gender positions. The other side of this coin is an increasingly hard-nosed ethos in corporate America and in our public policy.
We can no longer think straight about gender and power, DeMott argues, because we are inundated daily by a flood of cultural materialpopular and literary fiction, movies, sitcoms, commercials, cartoons, the whole media mixembodying the killer woman and her values. It leads us to believe that the sexes have nothing to teach each other except ever harsher modes of selfishness and cruelty, both at work and at home. DeMott makes his case persuasively with a wealth of fascinating and highly entertaining material. Present, among others, are Nicole Kidman, Walt Whitman, Courtney Love, Teddy Roosevelt, and Rudy Giuliani, along with The New Yorker, Salon, Ally McBeal, Sex and the City, and much more.
Concluding with a passionate plea for a return to feminism's large-spirited vision of human variousness, KILLER WOMAN BLUES clarifies several of our nation's most troubling social problems and will surely be heatedly discussed.
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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My subject is the demise of an ideal: the betrayal, largely for profit, of the concepts of justice, sexual openness, and full human development for both sexes which once shaped this country’s politics of liberation and equality.
Everywhere in the culture-from Cadillac, Heineken, Coors, and Gatorade commercials to Jim Beam print ads, from Vanity Fair to Leg Show-smart, career-minded, theoretically liberated women are depicted as driven by rage to scorn and humiliate men. The multiplex and the tube choke with stories of women of ambition who rape and murder- announcements to tens of millions that equal justice means free expression of violent hatred of the other sex. Night after night Sitcom America’s working mothers, single and married, display remoteness from and indifference to their young, as though the key project of liberation was to place cynical detachment high above steadiness of concern for the helpless on the scale of human virtues. The entire culture industry appears obsessed with reducing feminism itself to a venture in wish fulfillment, an expression of the presumably universal desire of women to think, feel, and behave like stereotypical men.
And there is little or no counterattack by women-and some mindlessly ardent participation by them in the slander. Women who have held national attention for decades-and women with swiftly rising reputations as well-appear undisturbed by reductive versions of liberationist politics. That politics was once admired for both its programmatic goals and its underlying values, and the admiration was deserved. Liberationist politics taught that the achievement of gender equality would curb autocratic impulses across the board. It taught that ending hypocritical elevation of the “purer sex” would launch an era of unprecedented good faith and truthfulness between the sexes. It taught that releasing the sexes from imprisonment in fixed gender roles would mean richer, more amply imagined lives for all. The broad embrace of these and related teachings actually effected, for a time, a significant transformation of public and private life.
But in turn-of-the-millennium America that transformation seems under siege. A new enlightenment affirms that the point of gender equality is simply to extend the formerly males-only experience of bullying and exploiting to females. It proposes that descending from the pedestal makes sense for women because of the exemption gained-resembling men’s-from exacting codes of conduct. It hints that release from fixed gender roles is good because it enables women to develop “masculine” tastes for coarseness, coercion, and violence.
And the new enlightenment appears to be having large impact. Tough-guy feminism legitimizes ever higher levels of corporate callousness and arrogance, and worsens the effect of labor’s continued decline. Many factors figure in recent American draconianism: boomlets for capital punishment, profit-fixated managed care, harsh dealing with society’s poorest and weakest-and for awarding, in every conflict between market values and their alternatives, preferential treatment to market values. But it’s unlikely that any factor matters more than the dogmas set under examination in the pages ahead. The assault on the liberationist vision and the devitalization of the instinct for decency are, by my reckoning, two sides of a single coin.
At the center of the dogmas I speak of lies the phenomenon of gender shift: a debased version of the feminist ideal of gender flexibility.
In its modern incarnation the ideal of gender flexibility emerged roughly four to five decades ago-almost a half century after the constitutional amendment broadening the vote-during the struggle to liberate women from sex-role stereotypes and end public and private sexism. Enthusiasm for the ideal was spurred by women’s awakening to the lie of their “natural” submissiveness and by men’s awakening to the lie of their “natural” peerlessness-by rejection, in other words, of ascribed inferiority and superiority. Real-world events swiftly demonstrated that the ideal was more than a figment. For long decades the only vocabulary appropriate for women’s progress had been that of slow molecular advance hard-won gains and long- anticipated breakthroughs. But overnight the pace of change quickened. Well-publicized ascent by women to the top of managerial and other hierarchies, triumphs in the arts and sciences, incontrovertible evidence that women were making it as commercial pilots, physicians, combat engineers, clerics, geneticists, city editors, Supreme Court justices: these induced confidence that occupational interchangeability between the sexes was entirely conceivable.
Social and intellectual history alike supported the confidence. Social upheavals had transformed public and private manners, class relationships, recreation and entertainment, installing openness as a cardinal virtue. Intellectual upheavals had erased boundaries between a raft of formerly noncommunicating disciplinesanthropology and literature, chemistry and biology, many more. Among the challenges to convention that bristled in the new thought, few were clearer than the challenge lodged against orthodox views of the human sexes: views holding that human maleness and femaleness were fixed, timeless, contextless universals separable from human will and interest and preceding organized social existence.
Feminism brought this challenge onto the public stage, now in blunt anger, now with sophistication and nuance. It argued that the status and character of men and women-the separate strengths, weaknesses, competencies, and failings perceived at any particular moment as proof of “natural differences”-were ordained neither by nature nor by gods; they were, instead, cultural constructions. Behind the constructions lay centuries of caste dementia-false pride and false abjectness grown in the soil of presumed male superiority and female inferiority and fed by the same unreason that sustained belief in the divinity of kings, the justness of slavery, and the evil of impugning power and authority.
Bent on overturning caste dementia, feminism introduced audiences to the elementary but underrecognized truth that biological differences between the human sexes were one thing, cultural differences quite another. It proposed gender as the right name for the accumulated bodies of opinion, superstition, and law regarding “masculinity” and “femininity”: decrees about proper relationships between the sexes and rituals and practices translating the decrees into daily behavior. It accompanied its explanation of gender with avowals that no culture’s version of gender differences can be “absolute or true” (as one scholar put it) or “separable from [or prior to] social organization.” And in the process it brought to life an extraordinary new vision centered on the ideal gender flexibility that soon ranked as a principal influence on late twentieth-century changes in male-female relationships. That ideal animated belief in possibility, pointing new paths for the development of both sexes, instilling the conviction that the structures and forms blocking development should becould betransformed. Gender flexibility became the core of thinking about a new kind of society inhabited by men and women educated to different aspirations from those that ruled the past and embodying in themselves new understandings of each other. The vision asked of both sexes a certain height; it required of both sexes readiness to explore fresh concepts of human identity; it markedly transformed millions of lives.
Today’s mania for gender shift for women-becoming-men is in process of undoing the advance.
Most Americans are introduced to gender shift by narrative entertainment and commercials; both regularly raid and pillage gender identity territoryto amuse or excite or shock. And both traduce or travestymock and parodythe substance of gender history.
The story lines floating up at the touch of a remote focus on familiar opposites: toughness and tenderness, aggression and sensitivity. The situations clothe in weird glamour a cluster of obnoxious behaviors: boorish, mean, cruel, or absurd on one hand, enervated, feckless, and self-indulgent on the other. The talk and laugh tracks celebrate a paradise of instant, doltish role reversal. Women gluttonize at meals, lather their cheeks and shave, physically punish weaker members of their own sex, rape male underlings. (Males respondin a variety of mediums, including “literary” fictionby taking up effeminacy or ditsiness as modes of charm or “style,” or by adopting the sulky manners of the cunt-tease.) Moral inversionvices redefined as virtues, stupidity preening as sophistication serves as the norm. Corruption is dignified, and arrogance and abuse - - violence as wellare established as values. The past, particularly gender history itself, is stripped of the capital resources that alone can generate morally positive visions of the human future. No morally positive vision of human variousness is allowed even momentarily to breathe.
The ascendant ethos is, moreover, no mere affair of story lines, pop or literary; it’s a force in family life and in workplaces high and low, a prompter and inhibitor claiming that this or that vexing reality could be better controlled or managed if one shed femaleness, rid oneself of “sentimentality,” concentrated on the bottom line, struck a macho pose. Most centrally, gender shift is a new attitude toward self and others, and a new tone of voice. The sound is easily recognized. Listen to the voice behind you on the bus, someone opining to a friend: “Guys have needs. I have needshey, forget ‘relationships,’ let’s deal.” Listen to an amusing scribble in the mail, a letter from a friend who’s a new mother: “Sometimes the only thing that stops Susie crying is a CD of old Johnny Cash songs. She bobs her head at the part where he sings, ‘I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.’ A good sign.” Listen to a successful magazine editor appearing to claim, in the New York Observer, that she has a penis. The editor warns her male interviewer that “I could make you feel very low if I wanted to very easily,” and goes on to a mystifying discourse on his&her penises. “Here’s a little exercise,” she explains. “There are positions where the penis goes in, but you can’t really tell whose penis it is. The woman can straddle the man so their groins go together, and I can reach down and masturbate the penis between us, but you can’t tell whose penis it is.” Listen carefully, in fact, and the language of gender shiftof women becoming menis audible everywhere, from bars to bestsellers. Demi Moore speaks it when she shouts, “Suck my dick!” in GI Jane. Whoopi Goldberg speaks it when she orders a male coach, in Coach, to “Blow me!” Elizabeth Randall, capital projects manager for Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, speaks it when she says, “I have the balls to go one on one with contractors.” Judith Regan, book editor, speaks it when she shouts down a critical underling by announcing, “You can’t tell me what to do; I’ve got the biggest cock in this whole building!” “She’s got big balls, that woman,” says Geraldo Rivera, discussing Christiane Amanpour in Esquire. “She’s got the biggest balls at Dow Jones,” says Vanity Fair, quoting an unnamed informant discussing a Wall Street Journal executive. “She’s ballsy,” says the actress Catherine Zeta-Jones about the character she plays in the film The Mask of Zorro. “She knows cojones from cowardice,” says a photo caption for a New Yorker profile of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. “Janet Reno’s going down to Miami [about Elián González] tomorrow,” says Bill Maher on Politically Incorrect. “Of course. She’s the only one in this administration with any testicles.” I find it funny, says Sharon Stone in GQ, “that certain Hollywood suits now refer to [me] as Sharon Stones.” Impatient horninessthe stereotypically male varietyshapes the credo of the on-line girlzine Minx. “Girls demand satisfaction . . . Don’t waste our time. . . Make us come.” Eagerness for solid knowledge of the particulars of uniquely male pain thrums on the Internet. Stefanie among others seeks info about what happens when guys are kicked “down there”: I’m kinda curious about it. You see all the time in the movies and stuff, and so many different things happen I don’t know which is real. Sometimes it shows a guy bend over for two seconds, then he gets up and keeps attacking, other times the guy’s on the ground, out. What does it feel like when you’re kicked/kneed/punched in the balls? Can anyone provide details of what happened and how it felt, what you did then, etc.?
Daily a crop of high-fashion interviewers and columnistsDiane Sawyer, Maureen Dowdspeaks the new language, as when Dowd mocks, in a tough-guy tone, “the little dears” (men) for “openly discussing their messy love lives at the office.” In her own tough- guy tone Sawyer taunts Al Gore as a liar for claiming he once “mucked pigpens.” Gender shift idioms grow in favor among “serious” discussants of public issueswomen under mounting pressure to prove their machismo. And, predictably, men imitate the voguish talk of wised-up women, adopting old-style “femme” postures, sometimes with operatic extravagance, as a way of dramatizing their relaxed, buoyantly good-humored masculinity. Thus Governor George W. Bush disarms an independently powerful lieutenant governor, Bob Bullock, who ventures to cross him on a piece of legislation, by speakingall ironical playfulnessin the voice of an aggrieved woman: At a breakfast meeting during the 1997 legislative session, Bullock told Bush he planned to back a bill Bush opposed. “I’m sorry, Governor,” Bullock said, “but I’m going to have to fuck you on this one.” In front of staff, Bush stood up, grabbed Bullock by the shoulders, pulled him forward, and kissed him. “If you’re going to fuck me,” Bush said, “you’ll have to kiss me first.” This book offers no brief for humorlessness or vapid romanticisms, no salutes (hypocritical or other) to the “weaker sex” or to emotion for emotion’s sake. But it is critical throughout of the notion that imitating stereotypes of the other sex significantly enriches the self. It argues that today’s “killer woman” should be seen as a victim as well as an agent, wounded not only by perverted individual will but by savage new cultural precepts and mandates. (In an important dimension Killer Woman Blues is a lament for killer women themselves as well as for the rest of us.) Part I of the book surveys the ascendant images, arguments, and narratives in popular culture and working lives, and also looks into the pertinent historical and political backgrounds. Part II compares gender shift attitudes with some habits of thought and feeling that liberationism at its best aims to nurture. Part III studies examples of conflict, confusion, and loss in life and contemporary writing traceable to the spread of the new culture, and Part IV assesses some recent, highly publicized, nostalgia-prone stirrings of resistance to the culture. The concluding chapter returns to the theme of engagement developed in Part II, celebrating moments of achieved variousness, models of character and vision superior to those that currently command veneration.
The beliefs controlling all four sections are the same. I believe that today’s infatuation with hardness is tightly connected with the advent of enthusiasm for women-becoming-men, and that the gestating culture is subtly weakening the foundations of this country’s sense of social justice. I believe that, by drawing attention to the obstacles that gender shift culture sets in the path of straight thinking, a book can contribute to the work of rebuilding those foundations. And I believe that wasting the intellectual and social promise of feminismlosing touch with the liberationist ideal of gender flexibilitycould have costs far exceeding those that political accountants on either the right or the left know how to measure: could, in truth, disastrously blight our country’s psycho- moral future.
Copyright © 2000 by Benjamin DeMott
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