"I don't think that being a strong person is about ignoring your emotions and fighting your feelings. Putting on a brave face doesn't mean you're a brave person. That's why everybody in my life knows everything that I'm going through. I can't hide anything from them. People need to realise that being open isn't the same as being weak."

- Taylor Swift

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Look Closer

Now Playing: Treacherous (this love is treacherous, this daydream is dangerous, this love is treacherous and I, I, I...I like it)

So this is on the orders of my beloved English teacher.

This is the kind of thing that I like to write. I like being funny. I think I disappoint some hardcore lit snobs when I tell them that I read a lot of blogs, and I watch a lot of stand-up comedy. I adore Dan Savage. I can't wait to get my hands on Belle de Jour's books. I love Frankie Boyle, Adam Hills, Wil Anderson, Shappi Khorsandi, Hughesy, Chris Addison, Jack Whitehall, Jeff Green, Ed Byrne, Sarah Millican, Sarah Kendall.

I love love love vloggers. Laci Green is a big favourite of mine.

And so this is where I get my inspiration from - not only topic matters but also how to say what I want to say. My journalese is bitchy, catty, cynical and sarcastic - but nobody taught it to me, it's something I learned myself, by copying what I like to read. People have this idea in their head that 'good' writing is stiff and boring and dull, and that journalists and schoolkids speak different languages - but they don't, it really is the same. Writing must be engaging and enjoyable and entertaining or it doesn't matter what you say, nobody's going to listen. Writing must market itself.

So here is a very long winded brainstorm-cum-journalese-critique. Don't try and copy this for WACE, btw. Firstly, unless you are in the top 0.5% of the state this will scream 'copying somebody'. Secondly, I didn't write this to a specific question and I guarantee if you reel this off and then think about which question it best fits you will get a sucky mark. Thirdly, this is over 2,000 words long. I have edited it for my purposes but I'm not going to clue you in as to how. If you try and write this you won't have any time for anything else and will induce carpal tunnel. Fourthly...I've scheduled this after the 2012 WACE exams. Because I'm evil.

So here it is:

Look Closer
by G. K.

Oh, American Beauty. The film that everyone thinks is about a horse with a stupid name until they see it for what it is - a masterpiece of left-wing criticism of the American dream and a mockery of the futile attempts to find happiness and meaning in the doldrums of suburbia. American Beauty champions something that is more taboo than sex, drugs and homosexuality - it celebrates the beauty of being yourself.

That's the idea, anyway. The story of a man who's bored with his boring, unsexy life with his boring, unsexy job and his boring, unsexy marriage with his boring, unsexy wife is something we're all familiar with. We all know someone who tries to solve his male pattern baldness and mortgage with a tacky new sports car, regressing into the teenage 'nobody loves me, everybody hates me' attitude and Humbert Humbert fantasies. American Beauty glorifies the mid-life crisis by disguising regression into chauvinistic, misogynistic, hyper masculine behaviour as 'finding meaning in life' by reinforcing outdated gender roles and attitudes towards sexuality through the unsympathetic portrayal of modern women who fail to conform to hypocritical sexual standards.

Carolyn Burnham is painted as the antagonist of the whole parade - she's a hard working career woman in a male-dominated industry and a house-proud wife and mother. There's actually nothing wrong with the above, if you think about it - in this day and age, most women do have a career outside of changing nappies and scrubbing toilets, and even the most optimistic estimates suggest that men won't be pulling equal weight in domestic duties until 2050. But for all her efforts Carolyn is ridiculed by her husband when he warns his daughter that she's turning into 'a bitch, just like your mother', and 'what, so you're mother of the year now?'. Although it is made abundantly clear that Carolyn, like Lester, is lost in life, unable to find meaning, sexually frustrated and trapped in an unsuccessful career, her character is a one-dimensional stereotype of what happens when women don't become dutiful homemakers - a terrible mother and a domineering wife over her emasculated husband. Her practicality - such as not wanting to soil a $4000 sofa and wondering what the heck Lester did to the family car - is dressed up as 'materialism', as is her desire to stay in her job, as meaningless and frustrating as it is, to make ends meet. Lester is applauded for quitting his job and for errant spending, and the subsequent pressure placed on Carolyn only serves to exaggerate her characterisation as a heartless career woman who treats her daughter 'like an employee', although the film's idealistic narrative fails to point out that if Carolyn really did join her husband in his mid life crisis spiral they'd be swapping boring, comfortable suburbia with homelessness and poverty. It's a choice between bad or worse, and yet Carolyn is depicted as a frigid, characterless, money-driven shrew when she chooses the former. American Beauty is arguably a film about sex, and what happens when men don't get sex - but it also depicts a sinisterly misogynist sub-plot of what happens when women get sex; a whirlwind romance, a few moments of bliss in a shady motel followed by humiliation at a fast food joint, and an emotional break up as punishment for getting 'the royal treatment, so to speak'. The characterisation of Carolyn Burnham reinforces the myth that marriage to a career woman will result in emasculation, domestic disorder and sexual frustration, and attempts to juxtapose the frigid straw feminist archetype with the fallen women by 'punishing' Carolyn for attempting to explore her sexuality outside of the heterosexual monogamous suburban marriage, which remains the only acceptable time and place for expressions of female sexuality.

Enter Lester Burnham, the perfect candidate for a self-destructive journey of self-discovery. He's bored, but he's also rather boring - even though American Beauty attempts to paint him as the hero amongst his emasculating wife, sullen teenage daughter, promiscuous Angela Hayes and murderous neighbours with stalker sons, there's nothing inherently wrong with Lester Burnham or his life until he decides to take financial advice from a drug-dealing teenager and thinks he can turn off his responsibilities as a husband, father and breadwinner overnight. Without thinking of the emotional or financial impact of his actions on his family - but I guess that is the point of a mid life crisis, to simply not give a damn anymore - Lester says to a teenage drug dealer that he is 'his personal hero' and acts on his every desire - to buy that car he wanted, to smoke as much pot as he likes and to lust over a nubile young woman he regards as little more than a sex object. Whilst Carolyn is villainized for succumbing to the boring, adult, unsexy responsibilities of managing a home and putting food on the table - literally, you never ever see Lester cook anything - Lester is applauded for reckless spending, for calling his wife and daughter 'a bitch', and for preying on high school cheerleaders. This hedonism that has become a defining characteristic of masculinity - to the extent that it is somehow implied that the natural state of men is to rape unless women are dressed in burqas - that sees Lester swing from totally emasculated and downtrodden to violent and hyper masculine, as seen when he orders his family around, tells Carolyn on several occasions that she 'can't tell him what to do', verbally abuses his daughter and behaves increasingly violent and erratic. Whilst Carolyn is punished with an abrupt breakup and humiliation for her sexual indiscretions, Lester is almost allowed to follow through with his Lolita fantasies - until he chickens out and adheres to the glorification of female virginity, in which the purely arbitrary and largely irrelevant sexual history of the object of his affections becomes a new moral compass to curb Lester's hedonism before he gets shot in the head. Lester Burnham is presented in American Beauty as a man on a journey to find meaning in life and to embrace being individual, when in reality he is little more than a cliché, a stereotypical presentation of the destructive mid-life crises of the real world and a character who presents a dangerous message that to be yourself you have to be reckless, irresponsible, childlike and embrace hyper masculinity and violence.

Unless you've been living under a rock for the last few weeks you'll see a lot of hype about how Bella and Edward's relationship in Twilight meets the fifteen criteria set out by the National Domestic Violence Hotline in the US for abusive relationships, and that poor writing and inexplicably sparkly vampires aside, Edward is a creepy, manipulative stalker. In the same vein of promoting reckless hedonistic hyper masculinity as 'being yourself', the character of Ricky promotes creepy stalking (there is no other way to rehash 'spending large quantities of time with a video camera aimed at your bedroom window') as an attribute of the 'strong, silent type' - or worse, as proof of 'true love'. The construction of Angela's insecurity is primarily constructed out of her fear that other people don't like her and that she's jealous of the attention that Ricky is giving Jane, but Angela's got it right - Ricky is creepy, he is stalking and there was a high chance that he did have 'a shrine with pictures of Jane surrounded by dead people's heads and stuff' - okay, maybe not, but he was certainly the type. Further, the kind of kid who casually walks out of part time jobs and deals dope on the side to make exorbitant amounts of fast cash is not exactly 'good boyfriend material', and yet part of the 'beauty of life' theme of American Beauty is that Jane has found her soul mate and is going to run away to a big city with a drug dealer. Angela's fears for Jane - which are reconstructed as 'insecurity' and 'selfishness' - are genuine, and reflect genuine fears for teenage girls who succumb to this Ricky/Edward Cullen charm and fall for the often dangerous trope that is recurring in pop culture that stalking = love, and that anyone can get away with anything as long as he isn't a) boring, like your dad and b) he loves you, unlike your dad. American Beauty attempts to challenge societal convention by saying that eccentricity is good for you - yes, but stalking, smoking illegal substances, dealing in an illegal trade and being underage and convincing your underage girlfriend to run away on an escapade funded by drug money is not good for you and is not an appropriate antithesis to the superficial American dream that is (rightly) critiqued by the film. American Beauty attacks the monotony of suburban life by replacing it with dangerous and reckless fantasies of underage runaways making it big on an illegal trade, and presents as an ideal partner in crime - literally - for finding the 'beauty' that Lester attempts to find through hedonism and hyper masculinity is a creepy, silent, sullen, stalker. Lovely.

And then, of course, there is Angela - the shameless, promiscuous teenager who spends most of her dialogue discussing genital size and is the object of affection, sorry, lust for Lester and his Humbert Humbert fantasies - this reading is encouraged subliminally, as Angela's surname 'Hayes' is a homophone for Lolita's surname, 'Haze', and Lester Burnham is an anagram of 'Humbert learns' - learns what? He certainly didn't learn that it isn't legal or socially acceptable to sexually prey on schoolgirls, because that's what Lester spends most of his screen time doing. He also didn't learn that women - especially girls who could be his daughter - are actual people, considering that Angela never actually talks to Lester in real time or in dream time, except to say things he wants to hear, like how good he looks after he's worked out or some other strange sexual innuendo. American Beauty is trying to be all left-wing and modern by saying that yes, teenagers are sexual beings - all three teenage characters take their clothes off at some point during the movie - but Angela is nothing more than a sex object, and her characterisation is purely based out of her sexual behaviour and how she is perceived as a sexual object. Angela's 'insecurity' is based out of nothing more than her untrue, crass bragging, she's cut down by Ricky for essentially being promiscuous - a normal teenage thing, believe it or not - and jealous - a normal human thing, believe it or not - and her role in Lester's life is not because of her dialogue or her personality or her actions, but by the consequences of Lester wondering what she looks like naked. Angela is characterised as shallow, dumb, insecure - but only because she is perceived to be promiscuous. But the biggest lesson that Humbert Lester didn't learn is that women can't be treated as sex objects with no feelings or intelligence or personality just because they're promiscuous, and they don't suddenly become human beings - or vulnerable, scared, underage girls - after the great revelation that they're virgins. Lester's sudden change in attitude, where he becomes a comforting, fatherly presence who perceives Angela as a daughter rather than a sex object is not due to any moral change in him, or a realization that paedophilia is neither legal nor socially acceptable - it's simply his response to the cultural attitudes and hype around virginity, and the idea that virginity or lack thereof is the sole factor in how women should be treated. American Beauty reinforces harmful stereotypes by emphasizing Angela's perceived promiscuity over any other trait she might have, and by adhering to the outdated and sexist concept of valuing a woman's virginity above and beyond recognising her as a human being.

American Beauty's tagline is to look closer - look closer at the rot at the root of perfection, look closer at the things that are supposed to make us happy and how they are totally incongruous with the things that actually make us happy. But do as it says - look closer - and you'll see that underneath the left-wing criticism of right-wing middle class ambition American Beauty reinforces many of the things it attempts to critique - that hyper masculinity is the only way for men to assert themselves, that career women are frigid, bitchy, calculative, materialistic and should be punished for proving the above wrong, that girls should be attracted to boys who are dangerous and scary because at least he's an alternative to your dad, or the kind of boys who will turn out to be like your dad, and that girls aren't worthy of being treated as human beings if they're promiscuous. Whilst American Beauty critiques suburbia, it also reinforces outdated, misogynistic and harmful gender stereotypes, reflecting that we as a society can challenge some things and champion others, but other ideas remain too deeply entrenched to even be considered for an update.

1 comment:

Adelaide Dupont said...

One word critique: Eviscerating!

Journalists and schoolkids do indeed speak the same language, and when this collides with the world and language of film, you get some very powerful and original writing.

When I think of American Beauty, I think of pageants and sometimes of roses, and not so much horses.

When men don't get sex, and when women do: I'm thinking. Who knows what of whose fantasies? (Do Jane and/or Carolyn know of Lester's fantasies?)

Never thought of American Beauty as overtly political.

Boredom is really a keg to the movie. And Lester is trying to cover for our boredom, it appears.

"American Beauty glorifies the mid-life crisis by disguising regression into chauvinistic, misogynistic, hyper masculine behaviour as 'finding meaning in life' by reinforcing outdated gender roles and attitudes towards sexuality through the unsympathetic portrayal of modern women who fail to conform to hypocritical sexual standards."

(Was this a thesis-statement at all, Lady Solitaire?)

It is hard within that framework to see that feminism is neither terrifying nor domineering.

The "when women get sex" scenario is very much the centre of a whole genre of independent movies set in hamburger joints and hotels and gas stations.

And Lester doesn't even barbecue? (I see, Lester worked in fast food).

Mid-life crises can be neutral or even constructive, but this possibility is not explored.

Great stuff about the construction of Angela's insecurity.

Jane running away to the big city.

Eccentricity and its effect on others is a big thing in American Beauty.

Remember lots of characters like Angela in other late 1990s movies for adults and teenagers. Not surprised that she doesn't talk except to tell Lester what he wants to hear.

Those are some deeply entrenched ideas!

Pleasures and substitutes for pleasure.

How did the sofa get soiled or threatened to be soiled?

I'm not so sure Lester regressed into that "nobody likes me" attitude. It was always in him, his default? And therefore he went for a girl who was insecure or he perceived it to be.

"Humbert learns".

Ricky is probably an interested and interesting character.

"Boys who are like your Dad, or who could be like your Dad".