Thursday, July 18, 2013

Depiction is not Endorsement

I was discussing a movie with a friend, A Clockwork Orange by Stanley Kubrick. And my friend casually said that there were a lot of misogynistic movies in the '60s. This bothered me, because it implied that Clockwork Orange was misogynistic. I don't think so and here's why.

The movie follows the exploits of a band of evil men, termed droogs, moving about a utopian socialist Britain. I think that is an important aspect of the movie's message. These young men aren't stealing loves of bread for starving loved ones, they have every material need supplied by a generous government. Yet they are evil.

To demonstrate how evil they are the movie shows them perpetrate serial rapes, assault, and murder. (I've said elsewhere that this movie could not be set in America with its Second Amendment. An armed citizen would put put down a rampaging droog like a mad dog.) In particular, the movie shows brutal rapes and assaults to remind the viewer that these aren't just boys out having fun, but murderous villains.

IF the movie showed women "asking for it" by dressing or acting provocatively, then excused the droogs on that basis, YEAH that would be misogynistic. Big Time. This movie does the opposite of excusing or justifying violence against others, it condemns it and uses it as a premise for what happens in the 2nd and 3rd reels.

Ergo, I don't think the depiction of violent assaults perpetrated against women makes the movie misogynistic. You may disapprove of the crimes Stanley Kubrick depicted. For the love of God I hope you disapprove!

Where it might be sexist, I suppose, is that women were victims to evoke greater sympathy in audiences. Is it sexist to think women are inherently weaker or less capable of defending themselves? Is it sexist to think viewers will be naturally sympathetic to a female rape victim. Maybe, but that's a bit of a stretch. (And the 2nd Amendment empowers women to carry an equalizer.)

EVIL is part of the human condition. The Problem of Evil won't be solved this side of Judgment Day, so evil is a worthy subject of depiction in art. Art tells the truth and there are truths about evil that art should depict and explore. In my own prose, I've depicted various acts of evil. I desperately hope none of them are ever regarded as endorsements for those crimes. Yet, because I want my art to tell the truth, I feel I should accurately depict criminal acts of which I do not approve.

As stated elsewhere, criminal acts are more common in the small than in the large. For every criminal mastermind there are a legion of petty crooks. Now, if you're the kind of writer who wants to Tell The Truth About The Human Condition, then you'll want to depict a mix of petty acts of crime and major cases. There is such a thing as horrendous atrocities--like shooting up a grade school--but those things are relatively rare. If you're going to tell the truth about the human condition, then you should depict both venal and mortal sins.

The hard thing about good and evil is knowing the difference. There are things that I think are evil, that if I told you, you'd think I'm evil for thinking them evil. Should those things come up, I'll depict them as accurately and as honestly as I can, while leaving the reader to make his/her own mind up about good and evil regarding these things. Other things like rape, murder, and assault are not in this category, the writer can express disapproval, but the wise writer doesn't hit the reader over the head with a moral club.

Or let's consider the n-word. Suppose you have a low-income white boy using the n-word a LOT. And let's suppose he even says of an industrial accident, "nobody was killed except a couple <<n-words>>." Now, if I tell you the white boy is the hero of the novel, you'd think the novel and the novelist racist. Right?

BUT suppose I tell you a little more about this white boy who uses the n-word: He's a fugitive and he's helping Jim, an escaped slave, get away down the Mississippi river. And the author is playing a sly game of showing a noble black man surrounded by white savages. Huckleberry Finn is in the middle coming to realize Jim is a better man than the whites known as "the duke" and "the king" who are scalawags.

By depicting Huck Finn's moral journey from unthinking racist to enlightenment, the novel is the opposite of racist. It is anti-racist. Depicting the evil of racism in this novel is Mark Twain's sly method of condemning racism.

When you find your story taking you into something you don't approve of, you should tell the truth of it. If it's something we all agree about like Nazis, we'll understand the irony of Springtime for Hitler. If it's something like rape and murder, it should be clear you're not endorsing it. But a reader like my friend can err by thinking it's misogynist or racist.

That's a risk, but I think the game is definitely worth the candle.


  1. Great article! I don't know that I've heard a better defense of Twain vs. the n-word vaporists.

  2. Wow. Much to mull over, friend - thank you!


Those more worthy than I: