At a family funeral in North Carolina, a cousin and I exchanged e-mail addresses. No sooner had I returned to New York than my on-line mailbox was flooded with antimale jokes of a wildness and venom that startled even this professionally unshockable observer of the passing scene. They’d obviously been forwarded around and had gathered the fury of multiple readers throughout the hinterlands, the froth rising faster than the waters of hurricanes Dennis and Floyd.
Why don’t women blink during foreplay?
They don’t have time.
Why does it take a million sperm to fertilize one egg?
They won’t stop for directions.
Why did God put men on earth?
Because a vibrator can’t mow the lawn.
What do electric trains and breasts have in common?
They’re intended for children, but it’s the men who usually end up playing with them.
How many men does it take to put a toilet seat down?
Nobody knows, it hasn’t happened yet.
I pictured housewives, soccer moms in S.U.V.’s, seething with discontent, stuck in marriages they can’t afford to get out of, Thelmas and Louises for whom the Internet is the Wild West where they can hang out their grudges, vent revenge fantasies and roam free. Susan Faludi has turned her attention from the conspiracy against power feminists to feminism’s forgotten man–downtrodden blue-collar males–but the backlash of the downtrodden female is just gathering steam. Communion on the Internet–talking tough and sexy–has an erotic kick of its own, a form of shacking up together over the body of the vanquished male.
How will this airing of phallic hostilities play out? Will jokes relieve tension or raise the ante? If Lorena Bobbitt had plugged into the hate-male sisterhood, might she have castrated her husband in cyberspace instead? My feeling is that this on-line legitimization of hate fantasies is more likely to encourage action than exorcise it, giving inchoate anger and unconscious feelings a form and substance.
“Do we really need men?” these jokes ask, or, “Why can’t a man be more like a woman?” A timely and not entirely chimerical question given the advanced state of surgery and the many cutting-edge films and plays that celebrate our imagined options in our climate of “sexual fluidity.”
Fleeing the stereotypes of male and female, the “women” in Pedro Almodóvar’s films are hybrids for whom the words real and natural no longer apply. A character in his new All About My Mother defines authenticity as “the more you resemble what you dream you are.” This definition is provided by a flamboyant drag queen (played by actress Antonia San Juan) who has gotten breasts in Paris but has held onto his genitals.
Even before moving from subtext to text, androgyny and homoeroticism have always been a rich substratum in film. In this sense, the monolithic model of feminist film theory–the active male “gaze” transfixing and immobilizing the passive female–oversimplified the medium. Hitchcock both desired and was his leading ladies, using his leading men as intermediaries. And Hitch’s ladies had gazes and perverse desires of their own. The gay George Cukor wasn’t the only director who vicariously dressed in women’s clothes. All artists have some or a lot of the opposite sex in them: Through the eyes of a male a female peeks out, through the eyes of a female a male. One’s mother and father hover over the proceedings, playing an active but elusive role in the sexual tug-o’-war between fictional characters.
Director Spike Jonze understands that the appeal of art–for both the artist and the patron–is getting inside the bodies of others and particularly the sexual other. In Mr. Jonze’s film Being John Malkovich , a playful spin on sex roles, John Cusack plays a puppeteer who inhabits two lovers–Héloïse and Abélard–as he rhythmically moves them in coital sync despite the wall between them. Later, as a seedy employee who can’t get to first base with a bitchy, beautiful co-worker played by Catherine Keener, the puppeteer “gets into her skin” by creating a perfect facsimile marionette who has charming conversations with his own wooden surrogate.
In a literal yet magical twist on celebrity worship and transmigration, characters plunge through a looking-glass tunnel and enjoy 15 minutes inside the head and chameleon persona of John Malkovich. This leads to head-spinning three-way attractions involving only two bodies, but three libidos and three pairs of eyes.
Americans have never accepted limitations–metaphysical, geographical or biological. The yearning to be the other becomes a greedier desire to be both male and female. The shortage of women during the last 10 years of Saturday Night Live can be explained by the joys of drag: The actors in the cast play the men, gay or straight, plus every nutty variety of woman.
In his new movie, Mr. Almodóvar doesn’t forsake camp, but in the battle between affection and caricature, love wins out in a deeper portrait of female bonding. His women are still “women”–idealized, exaggerated, cultural artifacts–but that’s right in tune with current notions of “constructed” sex roles.
In overthrowing the rigid gender roles of the 50’s, we’re in the midst of a massive sexual identity crisis. The means to realize our dreams of ourselves whether of a younger face, a cloned body, genetically planned offspring or brand new genitalia, flushes our dreams into the open but plunges us into a moral quagmire. If we destigmatize every shameful desire and fantasy, where and how do we draw the line? Incest? Necrophilia? Pedophilia? Why stop there?
My own fantasy at this millennial juncture is to start over, put Humpty Dumpty back together again by returning to the presexual, pre-Freudian nursery. After all, H.D., that smooth epicene spheroid, is no macho male. He may wear pants and a tie, but what could be more female than an egg? In Kevin Smith’s Dogma , the neutered angels seem to be having a fine time, unaware that anything is missing.
Is having it neither way just a new version of having it all?