Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Stakes

A couple episodes into the fourth season of Breaking Bad, my fears about the direction we're going in seem to have been justified: now that there's no facade, now that there's just Walt, criminal mastermind, it's more of a really well-written and beautifully shot crime drama than anything else. Skyler's own transformation as she "breaks bad" promises to be very interesting this season, although it's unclear if this will be treated as more than a side plot. Amanda has an interesting post arguing, persuasively to my mind, that what's happened is not really a moral transformation on Walt's part - he's just become fully realized as the asshole he always was underneath the nerdy facade of his previous life. She's responding to an interesting but odd post by Chuck Klosterman, which argues that Breaking Bad is the best of the widely agreed-upon group of "TV as great art" shows of the last decade (the others being The Wire, The Sopranos, and Mad Men). As always, what's interesting is not which is actually best, but the reasons given and what the tell us about the reader, and Klosterman's are odd, if not unfamiliar. Klosterman likes Breaking Bad's clear morality:

Breaking Bad is the only one built on the uncomfortable premise that there's an irrefutable difference between what's right and what's wrong, and it's the only one where the characters have real control over how they choose to live.
This is different than The Sopranos, Klosterman argues, because it was always clear Tony and the people around him were fundamentally immoral (again, he's assuming that this can't be true of Walt, because he's not actually killing people at the start.) The Wire is too morally nuanced, its characters existing in a world where the lines between doing good and evil, intentions and results are hopelessly convoluted. As a result,
The conditions matter more than the participants. As we drift further and further from its 2008 finale, it increasingly feels like the ultimate takeaway from The Wire was more political than philosophical. Which is not exactly a criticism, because that's an accomplishment, too … it's just that it turns the plot of The Wire into a delivery mechanism for David Simon's polemic worldview (which makes its value dependent on how much the audience is predisposed to agree with him).
Ah yes, the old the "political makes things narrower" argument - which is odd since Klosterman has just said that The Wire is the most morally complex of the shows, but because that moral complexity takes place in a context (which is by and large what makes it complex), it must be somehow diminished, less than universal (as opposed to Breaking Bad, which is I guess universal because it involves a middle-class while protagonist who presumably makes his purely immoral decisions in a social vacuum.)
But the discussion of Mad Men is odder still:
Mad Men is set in the 1960s, so every action the characters make is not really a reflection on who they are; they're mostly a commentary on the era. Don Draper is a bad husband, but "that's just how it was in those days." Characters can do or say whatever they want without remorse, because almost all their decisions can be excused (or at least explained) by the circumstances of the period. Roger Sterling's depravity is a form of retrospective entertainment, so very little is at stake. The people on this show need to be irresponsible for the sake of plausibility, so we can't really hold them accountable for what they do.
I hear people say things like this all the time, and I just don't get it. Isn't it clear that the characters do navigate their restricted environment in very different ways? That they not only exist within its strictures but help enforce them on one another? I guess people who say things like that think that they live in morally correct times, that their own choices and morality aren't shaped by anything but their own inborn and universal compass. Maybe the drama of choosing to act badly in a fundamentally morally correct world has a purity that Klosterman appreciates, but it's not the world anyone (even Walt) lives in.

Perhaps the most revealing moment came in this aside to the discussion of Mad Men:
Semirelated: Of these four shows, Mad Men is the only that doesn't regularly involve violence. This also changes the gravity of the characters' decision-making, because the worst thing that can happen to anyone is merely losing a job or being humiliated.

It shouldn't be necessary to belabor what's wrong with this: the stakes on Mad Men are never a problem, given the gut-wrenching emotional violence that "merely" being humiliated entails. Also: the "worst that can happen" also includes being raped, regularly sexually harassed, the daily violence of living the closet, having to conceal a pregnancy and giving up your child, having your life choices thoroughly constrained by sexism and racism, being a young child and having parents who are completely emotionally distant if not abusive. So yeah. (Of course then your definition of 'anyone' has to go beyond Don and Roger.) People rail on about violence in popular culture, but what's often under that discussion is the assumption that violence, when properly dealt with, is the necessary condition of moral seriousness, that anything else is just an updated costume drama. It doesn't matter to me which of these shows people think is best, but I do think Mad Men has done something important in how it dramatizes emotional violence - which can be particularly challenging for the viewer as we aren't given the release physical violence often provides. This should put to rest the "costume drama" insult once and for all - except that Wharton, Forester, James et. all knew a thing or two about emotional violence as well. . .

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Critique of Pure Feminist Reason

Although The New Yorker has been called out for the relatively low proportion of female bylines, they've gone a long way towards winning me over by making Ariel Levy a regular. She's brilliant on any topic, but it's especially gratifying and sanity-restoring to read articles on feminism, or feminist-inflected pieces, like her brilliant profile of Cindy McCain, in a mainstream publication that not only don't make you want to throw things across the room, but that actually make you say, yes, that's it exactly.

I didn't have quite that reaction to Jane Kramer's profile of Elisabeth Badinter, in last week's issue, but I was fascinated by it. Badinter is a French philosopher, the author of a "three-volume social history of the French Enlightenment"and co-author with her politician husband of a biographer of Condorcet. She's also the author of five polemics on what, in her case, it doesn't seem archaic to call "the woman question," from a 1980 attack on the idea of maternal instinct through her recent indictment of "what she regards as a spreading cult of 'motherhood fundamentalism' in the West."

Badinter's books, Kramer tells us, are popular in the provinces and found at supermarket checkouts, but the context is very different from, say, the last time this was true of feminist polemics in this country. Friedan and Steinem, whatever their flaws, were extremely effective popularizing writers, but they were also of course crack activists, organizers, and institution builders. Badinter tells Kramer that "The daily work of militancy is not for me. As a feminist, I can only do one thing - put into relief something that has been ignored." Which is of course her right - but the intellectual-turned polemicist poses certain problems distinct from the polemicist/activist. Badinter's popular works sell, but outside of a movement, we end up with the equivalent of dueling bloggers saying, "I'm not judging the choices of other mothers, but . . ." - This is pretty much where Badinter goes when it's pointed out to her that there's little evidence her country is in the grips of some maternal cult: France actually has low rates of long-term breast-feeding and high rates of mother's participation in the workforce. The empirical is accidental; it's the polemics that matter.

Part of this seems to be about the role granted to "public intellectuals" in France. Anyone who's been unfortunate enough to have more than five minute's exposure to Bernard Henri-Levy's imperial gasbagging should suspect that the much vaunted greater stature given to "intellectuals" in that country is at best a mixed blessing. Even in a case, like Bandinter's, where someone has done serious, intense archival work, it takes us to the the idea that everything someone has to say thereby becomes important regardless of how it stands on its own merits. Sometimes the results are mostly silly, as in a Princeton talk Joan Scott recalls in Kramer's article:
Badinter was saying all sorts of banal things about how the French were sexier than Americans, better at sex, how American women washed too much, how they were embarrassed by bodily odors, by oral sex. We asked hostile questions, like, 'How can you say these things off the top of your head?'
Of course, feminism has long had this effect on people, and it's not feminism's fault: gender, sex, family, mother, work: these things cut so deep, matter so much, who can stop from saying these things off the top of one's head? But sometimes the results are not just silly but dangerous - as in Badinter's advocacy of the headscarf ban in French school and the more recent ban on niqabs in public (incorrectly referred to as burqas, as Kramer notes.) More on that in a minute.

There's something going on here besides the temptations of a public platform. From her beloved Enlightenment figures Bandinter has inherited a love of categorical abstraction. Atheists hate it when people point out any similarities between their approach and that of religion, but in this case it's hard to avoid. For Badinter, attachment parenting is bad because it coincides with the "naturalistic ideology" that's been ruining things since Rousseau. How different is that from the religious position that birth control is bad because it's "unnatural"? She concedes that 'motherhood fundamentalism' isn't actually a major trend in France, but it could be. This gets even worse, not surprisingly, when she turns her philosophical devotion to secularism on the hot button issues of the moment:
She sees her defense of the burqa law as consistent with her concern for the rights of Afghan women . . . There are five or six million French Muslims, and, for now, she says, the percentage of Muslim mothers with full-time jobs is no less than the national average; she wants to keep those women out in the world assimilating.
In other words, there's no evidence that religion is keeping women from the workforce, but she wants to ban their religious expression - just in case it does! Badinter is upset that women are have abandoned the liberating ideas of her beloved Enlightenment - "never mind," Kramer points out, "that the citoyennes of 1789 lost those rights before they ever had them, or that they got to vote only after the Second World War." And never mind that, at its best, "the personal is the political" meant that there was something important in testing the abstract categories passed down by tradition - be that tradition religious, secular, intellectual - against the realities of one's lived experience. Kramer makes Badinter seems like a compelling figure in a lot of ways, and points out that she deserves credit for embracing the label and intellectual work of feminism, unlike most of her peers in the French elite. But I couldn't help but find the way Kramer describes the debate depressingly familiar, echoing the worst press-driven "debates" that pit one group of women against another. The intellectual weight (or baggage) Badinter brings to the table doesn't help matters. She may reflect the problems of the current xenophobia among European secularists, of intellectuals in the public sphere, or just of philosophy as a discipline, but in any case, it all seems, as Joan Didion once said (wrongly in my estimation) of the women's movement itself, to have become a symptom rather than a diagnosis or a cure.