VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN ON TV

Alyssa has an interesting pair of posts up about violence against women on TV:

Is it disturbing that some directors and writers treat violence against women as a joke, or as a form of glamor? Absolutely. But I’m not necessarily against all portrayals of women as under attack. If those portrayals illustrate and make clearer to people the hideousness of rape, of murder, of intimate partner violence, I’m hard-pressed to say they shouldn’t exist.

For me, the distinction here is really between exposure and endorsement. I think generally we liberals are more likely to criticize media for what they endorse (“that scene is a sympathetic portrayal or rape”), whereas conservatives are more likely to criticize media for what they expose us to (“that scene shows graphic sex”). I wrote more about this here. I’ll be the first to admit though that the distinction often becomes hazy in practice. Take Lars von Trier’s movie Antichrist: defenders claim its long graphic portrayal of extreme emotional and physical abuse of a woman really is sympathetic to her (or even that she is a stand-in for the male director); critics accuse the director of reveling in the misogyny and lacking irony when he has the victim say that maybe women deserve all their suffering because they are fundamentally evil. Personally I’ve found the criticisms more compelling, but I won’t come down strongly without seeing the movie. And I don’t want to see it.

POLITICIZE AWAY

Of all the tropes trotted out in the wake of the murders at Virginia Tech, perhaps the most grating is the one about how tragedy shouldn’t be politicized. The tragedy is already political. It results from the murderous choice of one man. But only some murderous plans are realized. And only some murderous potentials flourish. To honor the dead by eschewing public policy discussions about how to reduce the likelihood of a disturbed student getting a gun and killing dozens of classmates and faculty is a cruel joke.

Liberals and others make a mistake when they excoriate the right-wingers proposing sex-segregated housing or mandatory monotheism or concealed weapons for everyone as solutions to this tragedy for “politicizing” the deaths. Instead, let’s excoriate them for offering really, really bad ideas, and for blaming the wrong people for something terrible that transpired.

Why shouldn’t people contending to run the country tell us – as they did with this week’s Supreme Court outrage – what it has to do with their plans for our country? We can mourn together with people we disagree with without pretending that those disagreements have no consequences.

BEDROOM POLITICS

Last year, Grover Norquist told a New York Times reporter that he had little trouble getting the culture warriors over at the Eagle Forum to stand with the auto industry in opposition fuel efficiency standards because “it’s backdoor family planning. You can’t have nine kids in the little teeny cars.”

Certainly, leaders on the modern American right, as well as the left, struggles with how to keep its constituent movements working constructively together, or at least keep them from actively undercutting each other. But those struggles seem to turn out better on the right. Arguably, that’s because the right has real power to mete out amongst the groups and individuals who make it work and can therefore keep them in line. But there’s as strong a case to be made that being out of power is more unifying – that’s why, in the fall of 2004, well-justified and broadlyy shared anti-Bushism made it so much easier to imagine that there really was a coherent, unified left in this country. That example itself suggests one of the problems we face: while there’s more discussion these days about the importance of broad-based, multi-issue progressive coalitions, the people most vocally pushing for them want such coalitions to work essentially as extensions of Democratic Congressional and Senate Campaign Committees. “Netroots” folks like Kos actually pride themselves on their lack of ideology (and get vouched for on this count over at The New Republic).

Meanwhile, while a certain amount of the hand-wringing on the right about Bush’s supposed unconservatism is just a strategic response to his unpopularity – that is, an attempt to save the conservative brand from public dislike of its most prominent example – there is a genuine gap between certain aspects of what Bush is doing and the preferences of the grassroots activists and house intellectuals of the conservative movement, and it seems to be spurring renewed consideration at least in the pages of the right-wing mags about whether there can be a multi-issue conservative ideological coalition that’s not a partisan one. If conservatives do a better job than liberals of organizing across issues for a vision beyond the electoral fortunes of a party, even as conservatives and not liberals are running the government, then the left will have been outmaneuvered again.

That’s why folks across the left should be excited about UNITE HERE’s Sleep With the Right People campaign, part of the union’s international Hotel Workers Rising project, through which hotelworkers in cities all over North America are using concurrent contract expirations to leverage strategic pressure on major hotel chains to raise the standard of living for all their workers and agree to fair organizing conditions for those without collective bargaining rights (I start work with HWR tomorrow; views expressed here are my own). Sleep With the Right People represents a crucial alliance of progressives committed to the dignity and empowerment of people too often marginalized based on sexuality, class, gender, race, or the intersection of these identities.

As Hugh argues here and here, this campaign represents a critical stand against the view that “difference” should be “a cause of fear.” It recognizes the interconnectedness of the freedoms to join a partner in building a life together, and to partner with co-workers to build a more democratic workplace, each without sacrificing safety from violence or freedom from want. It’s a step towards the ameliorating the too-frequent insensitivity of the labor movement towards identities other than class and the too-frequent insensitivity of the LGBTQ movement towards identities other than sexuality. There are more steps ahead.

CULTURAL CRITICISM, LEFT AND RIGHT

A series of dust-ups in the media about the media this summer – from the flap on Kos about an ad with women mudwrestling to Jon Stewart’s arguments with Bernard Goldberg, Zell Miller, and Rick Santorum about whether the culture has coarsened – has gotten me thinking about the different ways liberals and conservatives consider and critique what’s in the movies and on TV.

One clear but too-often-obscured distinction is between criticism and calls for censorship. Rick Santorum gets at this in his book when he insists in his book that “If it’s legal, it must be right…it must be moral.” If one accepts Santorum’s frame – which is also Catherine McKinnon’s – then the question of what should be in the media and the question of what should be censored from the media are – at least in particularly agregious cases – mapped onto each other. Too often, progressives answer other progressives’ media criticism as if it were an implicit call for censorship, rather than as the “more speech” which the left has traditionally and rightly seen as the answer to bad speech.

Liberal and conservative approaches to media criticism are also distinguished by choice – or at least prioritization – of boogeymen from amongst sex, violence, bigotry, et al. And, arguably, by the question of how much we should care at all.

But related, and – I think – more interesting – is a distinction I haven’t seen discussed: Is the problem what kind of behaviors and images are shown on TV, or what kind of ideology is advanced there? Do we care what the media exposes or what it endorses? By asking the question and making the distinction, I guess, I’ve already pegged myself in the liberal camp that says that the distinction is a meaningful one and that what’s endorsed is a more worthwhile ground for consideration or condemnation than what’s exposed. That’s not to say that it’s possible to present images or actions with neutrality – only that it’s possible to present the same ones with a whole range of meanings and judgments.

If we’re concerned about sex, we can worry about whether sex happens on TV or we can worry about whether the sex on TV is portrayed as a good or bad (or healthy or unhealthy, or cool or uncool) thing. If we’re concerned about sexism, we can worry about whether people are portrayed being or acting sexist on TV or we can worry about whether that sexism is presented in a favorable light. In each case, I’d say that if you see the thing as an evil (my take: sexism is, sex isn’t), your time and energy is better spent worrying about how good or bad that evil is portrayed to be than about how often it appears on the screen.

That’s why the fixation on nudity on TV is doubly conservative – conservative for the contention that human sexuality is what media consumers should be guarded against and conservative for the concern over the naked image itself rather than the social meaning with which it appears. Sure it’s easier to keep a tally of naked breasts than of positive portrayals of behaviors you think are negative, but the tendency of right-wing critics to go for the former approach seems to be about more than convenience. And that approach – grouping together breasts shown breast-feeding, breasts shown in an intimate moment between spouses, and breasts shown on a child being molested – leaves them looking that much more like middle-schoolers.

Among the problems with an approach to media criticism which fixates on what viewers are exposed to rather than what they see endorsed is that it lets pass all kinds of social meanings which are problematic but not explicit. Whatever your values, your chances of seeing them spread in society are affected more by G-rated movies than Playboy.

Teenagers with bats seriously beat one of the striking clerks in LA yesterday. He was sent to the Hospital; they were questioned and sent home. As Nathan Newman observes:

Anti-union propaganda always harp on “union violence” but they rarely talk about the violence employer-related thugs regularly inflict on peaceful picketers…Like the hyping of “union corruption”- rarely more than pissant embezzling by a few isolated officials, a pale reflection of the mass looting by Enron and other corporate officials, the hype of “union violence” while ignoring employer and government violence is one of the Big Lies by the Lying Liars of the rightwing to undermine public support for unionism.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for conservatives to condemn the “cultural explanation” and “media influence” behind this particular crime, or to explore how it is that we convince sixteen-year old boys that standing up for a living wage is a provocation worthy of violent retribution.