Afternoon Delight! A movie I just watched. Here are my thoughts.
This movie has a plot: A wealthy white heterosexual Jewish Angeleno (they do keep harping on the Jewishness… but then so do I) couple is unhappy. A stripper enters. The wife is enticed–but in what regard? Does she wish to “reform” the young stripper as a mother/savior or have sex with her as a sexual sex-desiring person? How humanly complicated! That is the plot.
This movie was directed by Jill Soloway, the younger of the Soloway sisters, a sibling unit I enjoy. I have hitherto been more aware of older sister Faith Soloway’s weirder, queer-er Internet comedy but this movie directed by the more mainstream Soloway was quite nice. They even wrote a chapter in a book together! I am envious indeed of the idea of complementarily creative, collaborative sisters.
I was drawn to this movie for the role confusion. I came away from this movie with a MISSION, the same one I always have: to spread the gospel of humdrum human complicatedness. There is no “role confusion” but growing and changing! Our histories influence us, but do not determine us. Social convention and received notions of ‘normalcy’ precede us and form (i.e. straitjacket) us but cannot contain us. We contain multitudes!
What is sold as SENSATIONAL, subversive or brave is really quite usual. People are complicated. Their motives are mysterious. Because of the existence of the unconscious, we are not even aware of, nor in control of all our desires. We are not linear. This is my understanding of identity. It shifts. Our desires are overlapping, miasmic; they change as we do. But as a culture, we are not sold this narrative so when the real life flux happens (such as feelings we weren’t prepared to have, and for which we have no context or template), we are surprised. Or maybe that’s too cynical.
The wife does not understand what role she is assuming towards the stripper. She feels like her mother, behaves with her like a sister yet contains a strange inchoate desire for her. So how does she communicate this? Like the rest of her class in this particular milieu (wealthy white Jewish professionals and non-working wives), she communicates herself tensely and frantically in jokes. There’s a lot of wired, frenzied joking in the movie. The idiom of her group is defensively jokey. Compulsive, mirthless joking is a major way rules and etiquette are maintained in this social world. To my ears, a lot of the dialogue feels overly gushing and fake but maybe well-intentioned. “I LOVE YOUUU” is shrieked to someone a character barely knows, “OH MY GODD!” is hollered about something that’s not a big deal. In any number of possibly awkward situations, the characters assume ‘awkward’ as a default mode. They are ACUTELY AWARE THAT STUFF IS AWKWARD AND IN THEIR DISCOMFORT IT’S LIKE THEY MAGNIFY THEIR EXPERIENCES OF AWKWARDNESS WITH ALL-CAPS JOKES. I’d like to think that these characters are basically good and just really nervous, trying to show goodwill and support through what looks to me like overcompensating good cheer that sounds so fake, but which I imagine isn’t intentionally malicious. It’s like they live in a kind of defensively, carefully stylized awkwardness that makes fun of itself as awkward in order to distance itself from questioning the apparent awkwardness’s origins or usefulness. Like, why is a situation awkward? Because a person feels nervous, inadequate, embarrassed? Seems smarter to explore the feeling than slap it away with a joke.
But I do this all the time! Surely, many of us use jokes and intellectualization and outright anger to defend ourselves against discomfort. It’s too easy to call ourselves Good and the characters Bad and solely blame Others for their blindness and small-minded liberal hypocrisy. And I find it too tempting to construe of the constant joking in this movie (and in this world, as well as our own worlds) as solely defensively serving to protect the characters from experiencing their real pain, real human contradictions, etc. I think it’s better to remember that just as desires are diverse, strategies for coping are diverse. Everyone has individual, particular methods for dealing with pain and shame and embarrassment that follow collective class patterns. I want to remember that diversity exists in how people feel and express feelings, as well as the feelings themselves.
I found the herd mentality in this movie frustrating: the girls in one pack, the boys in another. The creation of difference and allegiances and fetishization of the Other. In this world, boys and girls can’t be friends, can’t really relate to each others’ experiences, are hierarchically arranged into working men and non-working women, must only desire each other, and of course the only players are white wealthy able-bodied people. Plus, they’re all Jews! (here I over-identify with The Jews and am embarrassed)(see: “Jews in the U.S. The Rising Costs of Whiteness”!). But this bifurcated, mob-mentality world is also… OUR world! We all belong to groups, even groups of outliers.
I have no intention (but no infallibility neither) to fall into the absolutist, patriarchal trap of externalizing extremes. I don’t think a) THESE people are followers whereas I’M such a brave, lone wolf, that I exist in “pure” isolation like a Wild West cowboy or that b) good can’t come out of a collective, that the culture created of any group is fundamentally dangerous, that the mythical stand-alone American is better than some corrupt Commie collective. I don’t believe in such extremes, which being extremes, naturally belong together on two sides of a spectrum so far apart they’re practically touching. The good liberals in this movie are good American conformists, ignorant and sex-obsessed. I don’t think herds, mobs or classes are the main problems here. Fear of discomfort (the wife feeling weird about the stripper, the husbands playing separately from the wives) is the larger issue. Within any group structure, fear emerges differently but it emerges all the same. These characters don’t really deal with their fear. They are too afraid to be afraid. Instead they make jokes. Instead of confronting attraction, they frame it as “motherly.” The wife is trying to “save” the young sex worker in the storied vein of powerful white missionaries with savior complexes before her.
This movie is a nightmare of wealthy white liberal prudery and thoughtless gender segregation (Girls night out! Boys Only surfing expedition!) that sensationalizes-stigmatizes sex, conceives of it as oppositional and heterosexual or at least heteronormative. Within this squeamish world there is the usual sex-negativity that accompanies sexualization (“sexually repressed to the point of being sexually obsessed” as opposed to sexually accepting) and what some (therapists) would call a neurotic unconscious fixation on jokes within a unrelentingly calcified sense of AWKWARDNESS that is unescapable, a paralyzing pattern that can’t be broken. The characters are very, very tense and proper in a liberal, “We’re all having a good time/we’re not prejudiced” kind of way. They are very titillated by sex and threatened by sex work, reflexively invested in “saving” rather than understanding the young stripper (I’m using stripper and sex worker interchangeably–what I mean is they met her while she was working as a stripper, which could be constituted as sex work, but she also does sex work besides). To them, she is not a complicated person with complicated feelings. She is just a victim (or a whore). The main characters who think themselves liberal-minded apply the most classically patriarchal, reductive paradigm to women ever: virgin or whore, good girl or bad girls; save the children. Zzzzzzzz.
Here are my major takeaway points from this movie!
- Insulation is a stupid thing. Getting too enmeshed in any ideology, buying into any credo within any class is dangerous. “I am a good liberal”; “I am a good feminist film critic”; “I am neutral”: None of these statements is wholly true! It is, I think, better to challenge oneself, on occasion, rather than become calcified in one’s beliefs. The characters in this movie are not good or evil, just blind bigots, like all of us sometimes.
- Aw-shucks humor can be a very effective defense, not necessarily helpful: It is easier to joke than to delve. It is easier to mock one’s awkwardness through increasing stylized awkwardness than to challenge oneself to be comfortable with discomfort. It is so easy. I’m doing it right now.
- There is potential for fluidity: Would that our culture allowed for porousness in how one feels about oneself and feels about others. To shift in one’s identity or orientation as one changes tastes and ideas and foods is a humdrum human thing, I think. Why not? We’re not already dead. We change! I often think, if ANYONE can be a sexual option for you (rather than just the assigned sex group), what does that do in terms of responsibility? Like, if you COULD be attracted to anyone, what does that do in terms of your conception of yourself, what kind of person you are? If you COULD have sex with anyone, how would you go about it? We’d all have to learn new pick-up lines, by which I mean: Respect. If it’s not just about cooties and gross sex and dirty scandalousness and BOYS HERE and GIRLS THERE, what does that mean for how our culture talks about sex? Perhaps sex would not be conceived of as adversarial and dissimilar TEAMS but as individuals who exist within many intersecting groups who can explore/attend to their own desires and respect the desires of others.
This movie was cool. There were complications. There were no enemies. ‘The Enemy’ is a quality that anyone can possess, a kind of surety where humility is more helpful. ‘The Enemy’ is like a spirit! A human spirit. But brought on quicker by too much money and isolation in mainstream media.