Sunday, May 18, 2014

i think you need help

Daughton (1996) argues that by the time of Groundhog Day, the world no longer supported the "traditional masculine belief system" that Phil Connors represents. She calls it "the masculinity of the 19th century" and "no longer functional for men today" (p. 141). She cites Rapping (1994) in assessing the

'juvenilized' version of American manhood [as] Hollywood's answer to a real political crisis in the meaning of masculinity... We live in a world that has made old-fashioned heroism hard to believe in... (p. 141, quoting Rapping, p. 118-9)

Daughton suggests the Groundhog Day answer as follows:

"In fact, the rhetorical point of Groundhog Day has more to do with its protagonist coming to appreciate the stereotypically feminine focus on connection with others, than with reinscribing the stereotypically masculine individuation and domination glorified in films.... (p. 141)

(And, I believe I've quoted that passage before, but I will mention again that Daughton cites JFK of all movies as her example of the "films" at the end there. Given the timing of Groundhog Day's release, the early 1990s, I would think that better films to reference would be the likes of the Rambo or Rocky films, or any of Arnold Schwarzenegger's cinematic oeuvre from that same decade.

It's no coincidence that as the Cold War wound down that masculinity was augmented on film; what once was, as Rapping puts it, "old-fashioned heroism" just couldn't exist anymore. Everything was politics, more talk than action. The Old West was too far behind to give us stereotypical heroes. In fact, Phil's Clint Eastwood costume evokes not just the classic cowboy but a deconstructionist version of that cowboy. Film has become more... sophisticated, I suppose, as the world became a little too complicated for the idea that one guy could take on hundreds of bad guys and save the day.)

But, my thing these last few days is, even if Phil ends up focusing on this "stereotypically feminine... connection to others," does that mean the film itself isn't still a little reductionist and simplistic in its treatment of women? Davies (1995) argues that Groundhog Day "resolves itself overtly in worthiness and antisexism" (p. 225). But, is Groundhog Day antisexist? Even if we accept the idea that Phil turns toward the feminine, does this necessarily equate to raising up the feminine or lowering Phil? Are these two things one and the same?

Recall this bit I quoted yesterday from Martinuzzi (2010) regarding slasher films:

So why are all these movies touted by fans and filmmakers as "feminist"? Because men are the victims in them. It's creepy when you think about it, isn't it? The norm in horror films, and in most cultures around the world, is that men are seen as the aggressors and women the subservient and the victims. But switching the dynamic and putting men suddenly at the (usually sexual) mercy of a woman with intent to harm does nothing but reinforce the mainstream ideology that women with control of their sexuality (and by default, their reproduction) are dangerous, intend harm, and will always turn on their male superiors. Movies in which teenage girls discover their sexuality and then use it solely to inflict harm on males for the sake of revenge is a guilty male fear if I've ever seen one. So next time you want to call a horror film "feminist", make sure it espouses gender equality—not the cutting-off of penises by horny, monstrous women who like sex.

Does switching the dynamic in a horror film change the reality of a patriarchal, , paternalistic, sexist system? Or is it just an example of Freire's false generosity?Does Phil embracing the feminine, while reifying our sociocultural impulse toward coupling, change the world? Or, is Phil still just a man once he's free of the time loop? Bacha (1998) suggests that, while Phil and Rita

go hand in hand into tomorrow... Ramis is also cynical about this transformation. It is almost as if he is telling men how really to get a woman. But he also knows that, although liberated from the day, Phil is still in a box... It feels good but is it really love? (p. 396-7)

Brummett (2015) tells us that Groundhog Day

positions the female in the empowered position of being able to validate [Phil's] experience. It is only toward the end of the movie as Phil moves from attempts to control women to a more equal and loving relationship that Rita comes to believe him. It is that equality that will save him. The film thus positions authentic relationships with woman as an antidote to a simulational obsession. (p. 270).

I'm optimistic, myself, about Phil's chances. Getting back to the day-to-day will be difficult, maybe even traumatizing, but I think there are certain fundamental changes we undergo that become permanent. Sure, Phil is already acting like the man "when he assumes responsibility for where they are going to live" as Davies puts it. Is it, as Davies suggests, "a refusal to take back to the big city the regenerated/redefined roles that have been so hard won in the repeated small-town day?" (p. 228). Or, is this the happy ending we want for ourselves, or wanted for ourselves back when this film was first written, redrafted, or produced onto film, when the Cold War had still only recently come to an end and we were getting bogged down in political correctness?

(A side issue occurs to me. Even if the film is sexist, is it old enough now that we might find it quaint in its gendered trappings? Or do modern romantic comedies just project the same sexist standards that Groundhog Day does?)

Am I even in a position to answer any of this? I mean, I am a white male in America. There's this point from Paulo Freire that always stuck with me. He suggests that the people in charge, the oppressors, cannot implement liberation for the oppressed. In this case, Harold Ramis, Phil Connors, me--we cannot lift up women because then we are still embodying the belief that women need to be lifted up, that they cannot lift themselves. This point always bothered me when I'd read Freire because for some oppressed groups, it doesn't seem possible that they might lift themselves up. Then again, I see them, even when I don't want to, through the eyes of a white male. Freire describes the catch-22 this way:

But if the implementation of a liberating education requires political power and the oppressed have none, how then is it possible to carry out the pedagogy of the oppressed prior to a revolution?

It troubles me to think that no one can ever be lifted up. It troubles me that I think they need to be. It troubles me that maybe they really do need to be.

I would counter with this: if a female in the audience sees the heroine of a slasher film turn the killer's violence against him and takes something positive from it, is she not better off? Is the world not better off? My problem is I get stuck on this idea that the response needs to be unanimously received. But, nothing works that way. If one girl is changed for the better by seeing a the killer get his comeuppance in a horror film, if one man is changed for the better by seeing Phil Connors get in touch with his feminine side, then something positive has happened.

I'm barely into the film tonight. Rita just quoted Sir Walter Scott, and I wonder if she isn't cutting down all men in power, not just Phil, when she recites

The wretch, concentred all in self,
Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonour’d, and unsung.

Taken literally, there is only one man who sprang from dust. Adam, the first man and the one from which we all descend, if you believe in that sort of thing. The irony, though, is that Rita applies this poem to Phil because he's egocentric, but have not all the men who have been wept, honour'd and sung, likely egocentric? I think of the Great Man or the Whiggish version of history, every story revolving around some man who led his people to accomplish some thing or another, until eventually the world arrives at its destiny--us, now, and men are still in charge.

And, I've been singing of Phil Connors for 9 1/2 months now.

And, in the last few days, that song has been off key.

We generally take the third act of Groundhog Day as a series of positives. Phil improves himself by reading, by studying music, by learning to ice sculpt. And, he starts to help people and save lives. But, even Phil's good deeds take on a darker tone when looked at through a particularly critical lens.

Simply put, Phil plays God. He decides who live and who dies. He saves some women from having to change a tire, which may be helpful but is also sexist. It's like I described chivalry yesterday--a system of honor built on the idea that the one doing the service is better than the one being served. That's another thing that troubles me. At a certain point, it's almost like you can never do anything for anyone else, because on some level you are suggesting they cannot do it themselves. I don't like that idea.

In a deleted scene, Phil saves a young girl from being hit by a truck. In passing, he makes a sexist remark about how her future runway modeling career...

But, what's interesting there is the visual. A little girl with a big, manly truck bearing down on her. It's like a metaphor for the world.





Now, back to the cataloging:

(Four days on gender and sexism is starting to feel very dense, especially relative to my original post on the topic.)

Phil identifies Rita as "the kindest, sweetest, prettiest person" he's ever met. These are a) all feminine traits but b) also rather complimentary. There's a fine line (and a slippery chivalrous slope) between being nice and being sexist. And Phil's little speech is decidedly not an example of cinematic masculinity, but that's kind of a positive thing.

Phil carrying stuff for Larry might just be proof that Phil is being nice regardless of gender.

How do I fit the homophobia-as-comedy bit that is Phil hugging Ned into a catalog of sexist details? Mostly, I've been talking about Phil's, and the film's, treatment of women. Is exploiting Ned's discomfort at close physical contact with another man not the same sort of sexism? It's not just white male privilege but white heterosexual male privilege. And, Phil should know better by this point than to take advantage of it.

(And, why does Phil call the Old Man "Father"? Really, that ties into a topic I've got planned for later, but it also ties into Phil calling Mrs. Lancaster "Mama." On the one hand, maybe we can assume Phil doesn't have great relationships with his parents (despite that scene with his mother in Rubin's original script) and that's part of why he's so messed up. Or maybe the binary gender norms are being reinforced deliberately (though not necessarily consciously) because the romantic comedy requires it.)

A problem I have with the three old ladies scene--aside from Phil's chivalry--is the banter between the women. The woman in the back seat is, at first, the smarter one, pointing out," It's only a flat tire" and the car is not "totaled." But, then the car shakes and that same smart woman panics and says, "It' an earthquake." It's just silly detail until we go on to the next scene...

Buster's choking so maybe it's reasonable that his wife and his daughter panic. But, combined with so many other details throughout the film, it's problematic that Buster's daughter doesn't know what to do and Buster's wife's solution is confused and silly--"Call 411, an ambulance, a lawyer, a doctor, anything."

And then Phil lights a cigarette for a woman who just can't find her own lighter because there's just too much stuff in her purse. And, I'm reminded of this exchange from Summer School:

Chainsaw: This menstruation thing is a scam. Women are so lucky.

Denise: WHAT? Oh we're so lucky? You think having your period is a picnic in the park? First of all you're all PMSed out, and second you don't any room in your purse for your hairbrush because of all the damn mini pads. You are SO ignorant!

And, then there's Larry, coming on to Nancy like a more awkward version of pre-loop Phil. Obviously, this works as a contrast so we can see how much Phil has changed. Assuming we think he has.

Except for a couple of those old ladies, the dance floor is all heteronormative couples.

It's interesting that it's Buster's wife who approaches Phil and does most of the talking in thanking him. And so does Felix's wife--Felix doesn't even have a line here. But, it's Fred who talks to Phil first when he and Debbie come to thank him. Debbie isn't thanking him. In fact, the way she tells Phil, "You are the best," you can almost get the impression she's got a bit of a crush on Phil after whatever he did to "fan the flames of her passion" for Fred. But, Fred--he's got reason to be thankful. If Debbie hadn't married him, then who would he be? It's actually a weird little reversal on the normal wedding story, I suppose. The groom is the one who needs reassurance, who needs to be married...

And, the auction, arguably continues the reversal. Or it's more false generosity, upending the status quo in order to ultimately uphold it by reinforcing heteronormative coupling. What would happen if, say, that Tip Top waiter Bill threw out a bid? Would Buster accept it?

On the one hand, Phil's question--"Is there anything I can do for you, today?--goes back to the chivalry thing, except, on the other hand, it's up to Rita to decide what she wants done. Maybe that's the key to the Freire thing that bugs me. It isn't that we shouldn't help others. It's that we shouldn't decide in what form that help should be. When we decide that we know what is best for the little people, they remain little people, no matter what we do for them.

Does Groundhog Day rely on sexist notions? Sure. Does it suggest those notions are correct, though? Not really. Ultimately, the reason the movie works, and why it remains popular to this day, is because Phil truly seems to have transformed into a better version of who he was before. He still has some sarcasm and some wit, and his actions still suggest a divide between women and men, but he's moved along the spectrum into some better area than before. He's doing good. And, the film seems to be trying to as well. The genre requires the film to end with a coupling, a reinforcement of traditional gender roles and coupling. But, at least the film is telling us it shouldn't be easy. Phil shouldn't just win Rita's affection because he's the man and she's the woman and that's what kind of movie this is. He has to work at it. And, though we don't get to see it, I think Rita will have to work at it if their relationship is going to last into the future.

It may be a traditional ending, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's a bad one.

Today's reason to repeat a day forever: to help anyone and everyone in the way that he or she wants to be helped. And, to get out of the way of those who don't want or need it.

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