Feminism Didn’t Arrive at the Oscars

 

I’ve been doing more than a little thinking about Oscar movies this year. It turns out I’ve seen quite a number of them and had something to say. Well, today the thing I want to talk about is Arrival, both shockingly and remarkably a feminist movie. It made nearly $100 million in America, so it’s made a splash, and then it was nominated in eight categories, only to leave with one measly technical award. Maybe it’s a complete bust and will soon be forgotten as most things are. I’m told it lacked the deep concern with human individuality of the big winners. But there is something to respect in its feminist outlook and so I’ll talk to you about that if you have the time.

These days, it seems like women are protagonists in science fiction stories. That’s a sign of the future, at least in the sense that men have been the protagonists up to now and there has to be some change for there to be a future. Arrival is the rare science-fiction story in which the woman protagonist is actually important because she is a woman. There are both obvious and subtle effects of this new-found womanhood: in the story on which the movie is based, the protagonist is male. Movies may be more progressive than books, I suppose.

The story is this: one day, aliens arrive unannounced in weird-looking ships suspended over various parts of the world, twelve in number, like the Apostles of Christ or the months of the year, depending on how you think about it. They are incommunicado. Men must make the effort to overcome their shock and reach out of their silent awareness that they are not, after all, alone. That’s what really scares us, I suppose, loneliness. The two protagonists are both quite lonely and, being man and woman, eventually learn to put two together. Don’t credit the aliens with teaching people how to make children too soon, however, because this story has a twist.

My friend who works for Boeing in Seattle who told me about this movie says, it’s good, he liked it, it’s interesting, but it’s a chick flick. Why the dissatisfaction? Well, not a lot happens. Most of the stuff is not done by people, but rather it happens to them. This lack of action is one sign of the feminine outlook. This makes you ask about the actions and the answers are startling: the people who do act in the story are almost always men, always crazy, and usually working for the government. We’re going to need a list just to catalog all the faults of men, as women sometimes do:

  1. A man refuses to accede to Louise’s—the protagonist’s—desire to know more about the aliens. That wastes a lot of time and he comes back to her, because let’s face it, she’s not only unique, but also irreplaceable. That’s what men are like–they think they have options, so they’re going to fuss before they accept the inevitable. The woman, for her part, has the peace of a saint and is not incensed or mean about the man’s inconstancy.
  2. The choice of linguist turns out to be about how wrong men are: A man is so foolish as to think war is about arguments. The woman wisely knows war starts because of a desire for more cows. It is implied that only men are stupid enough to kill each other for such.
  3. Men are so foolish as to break every military oath there is in an insane attempt to blow up the alien ship while murdering their fellow soldiers, fellow Americans. This is part of the hysterical politics of the movie, which you might or might not take as a feminine view.
  4. Men are also so foolish and paranoid as to think that it’s best not to communicate with strangers or foreigners—the movie is all about the evil, unjust, violent rule of scared government spies over thoughtful, self-sacrificing scientists who want to form a community, but happen to be helplessly weak.
  5. The men running the government are also so bad at communicating that they can only start–or fail to stop–national panics and awful protests, riots, and sprees of looting, which one assumes are also the work of men. Most of this is explicit, but the implicit stuff comes along naturally by that point in the story.
  6. Let’s go back a step: why were the soldiers turning murderous? Because of pundits—men—who talked paranoid nationalism. I bet you didn’t see that coming. The politics in the movie feels a lot like you’re about to see a Christian pastor doing terrible things. The wonder of it is, that scene never comes. I guess, thank God for small mercies.
  7. Then there’s international stuff going on: the Russians and Chinese are, if possible, even more bellicose than the Americans. Their men also do evil things, though not quite as stupid as the Americans, and ultimately a Chinese general sees the light: the only man who matters who listens to what a woman tells him.
  8. Finally, a man divorces his wife and abandons their child, although they saved the world together, because he’s too much man to have learned, as she did, to stop worrying about the future.

I may have left out some minor wrongs committed by men; it’s even possible men ever do anything right except by obeying Louise, our heroine, but I cannot quite recall. So it’s not a surprise my friends raise an eyebrow at the chick-flick aspect of it all. But what does it mean? Why is the story slanted this way? Well, the most important thing is, women are collectively pacifists, at least compared to men. That may well be true and it was certainly the opinion of ancient and modern comedians like Aristophanes or Shakespeare. Women as a group do not think war has any dignity, it would seem. This is why the story has no problem depicting America’s political classes, in relation to national security and defense, in such a terrible light, and this was before Mr. Trump was elected! You could say this is a liberal v. conservative issue, but it might not be. It might just be the slant necessary for this kind of story. If you think communication can solve the important problems, then this is inevitable. If you think experts–linguists–are worth anything to diplomacy or politics, then maybe this makes more sense… This also points out that people who dislike this preening pacifism of the intellectuals might believe, deep down, that the really important problems are solved through violence.

The next strange thing that’s tied up with the feminine-pacifist perspective has to do with communication. What you do expect to get out of talking to aliens? It’s not hard to say, looking to sci-fi: cool gadgets, new powers, and all sorts of remarkable stories and adventures. That’s a boyish attitude, of course, but I’d say that’s what makes the economy work, not an affectionate willingness to communicate. Sci-fi used to try to predict things like satellites, super-computers, to say nothing of space travel… From a man’s point of view, aliens might just be the negative form of a positive desire, to get some things done in a world that now seems made to prevent any new things from happening. You have to be from outer space to even think you could change something in America for the better!

Well, the woman is not invested in technological advance. She learns more from the aliens than anyone else and what she learns is to stop thinking of time as past-present-future. Why do we do that in the first place? We do it because we are mortal and have limited powers. We perceive the world through our senses and, in limited ways, we remember our past and expect the future, in fear or hope. Does the woman-protagonist hope communication makes for immortality? No, that hope is the hope of the manly striving that leads to wars, but also to the inventions meant to fend off death and suffering. The suggestion seems to be that men really want to be Jesus Christ, conquering death, all the while certain that there’s a beginning and an ending to things—they just do it in this life rather than the next. In that sense, scientific-economic progress is Christianity for atheists.

What’s the alternative? Our woman protagonist does the most shocking thing you’ll see at the movies. I’m not going to spoil it for you. But remember that in Interstellar, everyone worth watching was busy quoting Dylan Thomas about raging against the dying of the light. That was all about striving to save mankind and therefore investing mankind’s dignity in intelligent, loving adventuring to save people. In this case, there’s something similar, mankind is saved, but only from itself, and the protagonist is not at all invested in the future. There’s no space adventure, the aliens come to you, and you don’t have to risk your life in a rocket ship to the stars. There’s not much place for manliness, therefore. You could say the protagonist is not some kind of apocalyptic Christian, but what Hollywood might think of as Buddhist, at heart.

The woman lacks a taste for conflict. In fact, without conflict her life seems rather empty, not to say meaningless. She does not ever seem to get a sense of what might change that. She is alone and does not seem happy. But then again the adventure of a lifetime does not make her happy, exactly. There is too much suffering involved. What seems to distinguish her from the other characters is the mood of fear. The men almost always become bellicose. This is what Americans might call a high-testosterone environment. Lots of guns. She rather seems to be ok with fear–she lacks the manly claim to self-control, self-possession. Her dignity is not tied up in confronting things. It seems like the audience is very much unlike her–very much like the men–people rather love the dangerous stuff, at least to watch. The story of the egg-shaped ships with the mind-defying powers seems designed to make men worthless. When you have to move forward in weakness, the protagonist might be a woman.

Louise is asked by her daughter why she is called Hannah. The mother says to the daughter, it’s a palindrome. This is tied up with the riddle of the girl’s life. But the name, whence we get Anne, is Jewish—Samuel’s mother is named Hanna—it means favor, taken to mean that God favors the woman with a child. The linguist mother presumably knows the etymology, but she does not mention it. One wonders whether fertility really matters if you think that knowledge is so important.

I’ll try your patience with another Biblical story by way of conclusion. In the garden of Eden, Eve, before thinking about children or anything like that, wanted knowledge. Now, she can have it and eat it, too, so to speak.

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  1. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    It seems to me that the movie itself sounds meandering and vaguely philosophical without really ever arriving at any point other than that (like so many other Aliens-as-saviors / sages/ prophets type movies) that humanity needs to evolve.  Contact (with Jodie Foster) seems a more plausible and far less preachy movie.  Have you seen both, and could you compare the two?  I’m not going to bother with Arrival.

    • #1
  2. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    skipsul (View Comment):
    It seems to me that the movie itself sounds meandering and vaguely philosophical without really ever arriving at any point other than that (like so many other Aliens-as-saviors / sages/ prophets type movies) that humanity needs to evolve. Contact (with Jodie Foster) seems a more plausible and far less preachy movie. Have you seen both, and could you compare the two? I’m not going to bother with Arrival.

    So, first things first: Don’t watch it! Too many people have seen it already. It’s a movie for people who like weird movies. The truth is, lots of people come to think about important things that way. It does some worthwhile work. The guy who made it last made Sicario, which I would not hesitate to recommend, except to the sensitive.

    Next, Contact: I have a low opinion of Carl Sagan. I think the movie is one of those things that doesn’t bear revisiting. It’s very flat, too.

    Arrival is much more hysterical politically, but psychologically it is more astute. You really do see why a hurt woman might be able to be more humble than men who feel the weight of the world on their shoulders. That being responsible or protective forces you to get answers quick & that attitude, in rare cases, causes crises, although most of the time it’s workable & reasonable, if taxing.

    The togetherness of mankind is super-fake in a drama, but actually secretly makes perfect sense.

    • #2
  3. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    So in Aristophanes as much as in Shakespeare, comedies are sometimes orchestrated by prudent women, in illegal ways. Well, really, more in Aristophanes than in Shakespeare–it was less the thing to do in modern times than in the shameless old democracy. Women show up as less political, more dedicated to reasoning about private things than public things & less intent on punishing or revenges.

    Whereas in this other situation in Arrival, it’s instead somehow tied up with woman’s endurance, the willingness to suffer, a kind of willingness to be martyred. Less fighting back. That’s just no good for togetherness or world peace, however noble martyrdom may be.

    • #3
  4. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    I say it’s a sermon and I say to hell with it.

    • #4
  5. RightAngles Member
    RightAngles
    @RightAngles

    The woman wisely knows war starts because of a desire for more cows. 

    Hahaha!

    • #5
  6. RightAngles Member
    RightAngles
    @RightAngles

    I just want to be entertained. Not yelled at.

    • #6
  7. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    RightAngles (View Comment):
    I just want to be entertained. Not yelled at.

    This one’s not entertaining. It’s vaguely spooky & it’s unsettling. That’s where it’s going. There’s a kind of thriller thing & some kind of mysticism involved. People I’ve talked to mostly found it engrossing. But it ultimately fails.

    But it doesn’t yell at you, either. I’m the first conservative–the first person!–to bring out all the things I wrote in my article. I guess the aliens must have noticed, too. Everyone else, though, kind of rolled with it…

    • #7
  8. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Percival (View Comment):
    I say it’s a sermon and I say to hell with it.

    I don’t recommend the movie, but I think it does speak to young people, not just to Americans. It’s not something old people would get as easily, unless they were sort of outside society. Now, most young people are. They were not brought up in associations that gave them habits & opinions so they can live together. It’s not hard to see why that the face of God–that’s what the unsettling stuff is all about ultimately–would show up as a communication problem first.

    • #8
  9. RightAngles Member
    RightAngles
    @RightAngles

    Titus Techera (View Comment):

    RightAngles (View Comment):
    I just want to be entertained. Not yelled at.

    This one’s not entertaining. It’s vaguely spooky & it’s unsettling. That’s where it’s going. There’s a kind of thriller thing & some kind of mysticism involved. People I’ve talked to mostly found it engrossing. But it ultimately fails.

    But it doesn’t yell at you, either. I’m the first conservative–the first person!–to bring out all the things I wrote in my article. I guess the aliens must have noticed, too. Everyone else, though, kind of rolled with it…

    But I AM entertained by spooky scary thrillers! However, the minute my Lefty Agenda Meter goes off, the irritation factor far outweighs the entertainment. And the detection of a political agenda always feels to me like I’m being yelled at.

    • #9
  10. I Walton Member
    I Walton
    @IWalton

    Is it still feminist to recognize the profound differences between men and women and then exaggerate them to make sure nobody misses the point?  I thought feminism had moved beyond that or is it that men are good for only one or two things?

    • #10
  11. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    By the way, the movie also recalled to me Reagan’s old line at the UN: Aliens are going to bring the world together. I think, being that Reagan was not a buckaroo, he did not simply mean that mankind would unite in war against aliens. I think like in this kind of story, the thing is, you can find out your human when you realize something about aliens that makes them both like you & unlike you.

    Frankly, I think a lot of this is exactly like when kids love dogs or men love horses. You get in that togetherness a sense of deep similarities & also a deep loneliness that’s who you are.

    Nobody seems to want to throw money at stories about how things in America can work out, neither conservatives nor liberals nor apoliticals. People have to look at aliens to get a sense that they’re human because they find that very difficult with human beings.

    In a sense, it’s the revenge of the nerds. Way back when it was only clownish guys like Carl Sagan who didn’t know, talking is for people, don’t waste your life on aliens. But with the nerds who prophesied the coming of the superhero culture, this also came, the inability to see human as human without seeing really alien things… I’m just glad there’s no horror in this stuff. It’s still fairly humane American exploration of the wilderness out there…

    • #11
  12. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    I Walton (View Comment):
    Is it still feminist to recognize the profound differences between men and women and then exaggerate them to make sure nobody misses the point? I thought feminism had moved beyond that or is it that men are good for only one or two things?

    That’s the thing of it: Mostly, men appear as no good! About to blow up the world-levels no good! It’s not easy to separate the political hysteria from the more thoughtful stuff I’ve tried to bring out.

    Also, the end of the story: There’s no men & women coming together in the end, either. The point the plot seems to make is, manliness is the past-

    • #12
  13. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    Titus Techera (View Comment):

    RightAngles (View Comment):
    I just want to be entertained. Not yelled at.

    This one’s not entertaining. It’s vaguely spooky & it’s unsettling. That’s where it’s going. There’s a kind of thriller thing & some kind of mysticism involved. People I’ve talked to mostly found it engrossing. But it ultimately fails.

    But it doesn’t yell at you, either. I’m the first conservative–the first person!–to bring out all the things I wrote in my article. I guess the aliens must have noticed, too. Everyone else, though, kind of rolled with it…

    But I AM entertained by spooky scary thrillers! However, the minute my Lefty Agenda Meter goes off, the irritation factor far outweighs the entertainment. And the detection of a political agenda always feels to me like I’m being yelled at.

    Oh, sure, I know what you mean! Come to think of it, I’m not surprised you like a fright now & then! But yeah, I also get annoyed. One of my beats is American culture, so I’ve learned to put up with a lot & try to see the American heart even in liberal stuff… So I’ll even say something good for American spectacles I emphatically do not recommend.

    That’s as close as I get to bipartisanship…

    • #13
  14. RightAngles Member
    RightAngles
    @RightAngles

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    By the way, the movie also recalled to me Reagan’s old line at the UN: Aliens are going to bring the world together.

    I had this thought when I saw “Independence Day.” There’s a shot of a group of bystanders’ first view of the alien ship. The crowd had blacks and whites and all different people. Suddenly they weren’t black or white. Just Earthlings with a whole lot more in common with each other than with the slimy creatures.

    • #14
  15. RightAngles Member
    RightAngles
    @RightAngles

    Titus Techera (View Comment):

    I Walton (View Comment):
    Is it still feminist to recognize the profound differences between men and women and then exaggerate them to make sure nobody misses the point? I thought feminism had moved beyond that or is it that men are good for only one or two things?

    That’s the thing of it: Mostly, men appear as no good! About to blow up the world-levels no good! It’s not easy to separate the political hysteria from the more thoughtful stuff I’ve tried to bring out.

    Also, the end of the story: There’s no men & women coming together in the end, either. The point the plot seems to make is, manliness is the past-

    But it’s yet another inconsistency in feminism and every other one of their causes really. On the one hand, they want to pretend there’s no difference between the sexes (women can be firemen too! And fighter pilots!), but when it suits them they paint the differences in bright colors, and their idea of the differences always favors women.

    Same for multiculturalism. They always paint themselves into ethical corners. “We must respect all cultures different from our own!” But when that ideal crashes into their feminist ideology, their pointy little heads explode. Oh, what’s that you say? Islam won’t let women drive or vote? They think it’s okay to set their wives on fire? Never mind.

    • #15
  16. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    You know the phrase in Bringing up baby? The love impulse in the male animal can often manifest itself as aggression. Feminism is lonely, pissed of business…

    • #16
  17. Gumby Mark Thatcher
    Gumby Mark
    @GumbyMark

    Thanks for giving me a logical explanation for why I disliked the movie.  At the time I just thought it was boring.  Hey, I’m just a simple guy.

    • #17
  18. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Gumby Mark (View Comment):
    Thanks for giving me a logical explanation for why I disliked the movie. At the time I just thought it was boring. Hey, I’m just a simple guy.

    Don’t tell me: Simple guy–You’re easily satisfied with the very best!

    • #18
  19. Randy Weivoda Moderator
    Randy Weivoda
    @RandyWeivoda

    I haven’t seen this movie but it’s par for the course to show military leaders as trigger-happy fools who want to engage in war without even considering other choices.

    • #19
  20. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Randy Weivoda (View Comment):
    I haven’t seen this movie but it’s par for the course to show military leaders as trigger-happy fools who want to engage in war without even considering other choices.

    Well, not in Interstellar or Man of steel. What other alien movies have we had lately?

    • #20
  21. Mountie Coolidge
    Mountie
    @Mountie

    Titus Techera (View Comment):

    skipsul (View Comment):
    It seems to me that the movie itself sounds meandering and vaguely philosophical without really ever arriving at any point other than that (like so many other Aliens-as-saviors / sages/ prophets type movies) that humanity needs to evolve. Contact (with Jodie Foster) seems a more plausible and far less preachy movie. Have you seen both, and could you compare the two? I’m not going to bother with Arrival.

     

    Next, Contact: I have a low opinion of Carl Sagan. I think the movie is one of those things that doesn’t bear revisiting. It’s very flat, too.

    Contact the book was vastly better than Contact the movie. The book ending for Contact ended with a hopefully uptick.

    As far as Arrival is concerned, without getting into spoiler alert territory, it was a good flick. When you get to the end and realize that you’ve been watching it the wrong way is great.

    • #21
  22. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Yeah, but if you then sit down to think what ‘the right way’ would mean, what have you got? You can preface your answer with a big spoiler alert…

    • #22
  23. Randy Weivoda Moderator
    Randy Weivoda
    @RandyWeivoda

    Titus Techera (View Comment):

    Randy Weivoda (View Comment):
    I haven’t seen this movie but it’s par for the course to show military leaders as trigger-happy fools who want to engage in war without even considering other choices.

    Well, not in Interstellar or Man of steel. What other alien movies have we had lately?

    I haven’t seen too many new movies lately, but it’s kind of an old Hollywood trope that when aliens come to visit you’ve got the generals that just want to blast them without even trying to talk.

    • #23
  24. Mike LaRoche Inactive
    Mike LaRoche
    @MikeLaRoche

    The next Star Trek needs to bring back hot chicks in miniskirts.

    • #24
  25. Chris Campion Coolidge
    Chris Campion
    @ChrisCampion

    Villeneuve is a genius.  Look at his filmographyIncendies is fantasticEnemy is freakySicario was riveting.

    That the Oscars would overlook real talent, not pandering self-cheering, fails to shock.

    • #25
  26. Chris Campion Coolidge
    Chris Campion
    @ChrisCampion

    Mike LaRoche (View Comment):
    The next Star Trek needs to bring back hot chicks in miniskirts.

    You mean it’s not?

    Darnies.

     

    • #26
  27. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    Just because it is cerebral doesn’t make it feminist or feminine.  It also doesn’t necessarily make it good or interesting.

    The story in the movie, the ability to perceive time without respect to linear perception, is not new (see Merlin in “The Once and Future King”) but the portrayal of the concept is somewhat interesting in this movie.

    The same story would have the same weight if the roles were reversed.  A man and a woman meet and one gains the ability to see all time at once and the other only understands what the other sees but can’t see himself.  They fall in love and have a child.

    The twist is that the woman knows the child will die young of a painful disease.  They both mourn the loss of the child, but the man also is angry that the woman put him and more especially the child through the pain, knowing it would be painful.

    So the question is raised, is life worth living if the happiness is fleeting?

    The woman seems to respond yes and that all life is fleeting.  The man, limited by his time perspective says no.

    I think it is pretty sexist to say these questions are biased by one’s sex.

    The real problem is the movie is boring.

    • #27
  28. Chris Campion Coolidge
    Chris Campion
    @ChrisCampion

    Skyler (View Comment):
    Just because it is cerebral doesn’t make it feminist or feminine. It also doesn’t necessarily make it good or interesting.

    The story in the movie, the ability to perceive time without respect to linear perception, is not new (see Merlin in “The Once and Future King”) but the portrayal of the concept is somewhat interesting in this movie.

    The same story would have the same weight if the roles were reversed. A man and a woman meet and one gains the ability to see all time at once and the other only understands what the other sees but can’t see himself. They fall in love and have a child.

    The twist is that the woman knows the child will die young of a painful disease. They both mourn the loss of the child, but the man also is angry that the woman put him and more especially the child through the pain, knowing it would be painful.

    So the question is raised, is life worth living if the happiness is fleeting?

    The woman seems to respond yes and that all life is fleeting. The man, limited by his time perspective says no.

    I think it is pretty sexist to say these questions are biased by one’s sex.

    The real problem is the movie is boring.

    Nope.  The real problem is that it lacks tacos.

    • #28
  29. Valiuth Inactive
    Valiuth
    @Valiuth

    Perhaps I look at movies in too shallow a way. I always go into Sci-fi movies hoping for one of two things. Either and interesting logical exploration of some scientific concept or conundrum or rip snorting space marine action. Clearly I was not expecting the later from this movie. But I was hoping for the former. Which in someways I got. We had non humanoid aliens, and deep logical puzzle of communicating with a clearly sentient species, when we seemingly have nothing physiologically or culturally in common. So much of the faults of men that you speak of I take as a cowardly attempt by the movie makers to instill more traditional “action” into a movie that is all about basic problem solving. Certainly the whole Army mutiny thing just had the stench of Hollywood boiler plate action schlock.

    The great flaw of the movie is that instead of having a scientific and solid materialist solution, it just jumped the metaphysical shark into a quasi mystical causality loop explanation for everything. It was all an elaborate setup for a deus exmachina resolution to a manufactured piece of movie action cliche.

    • #29
  30. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    Titus Techera: Finally, a man divorces his wife and abandons their child, although they saved the world together, because he’s too much man to have learned, as she did, to stop worrying about the future.

    I think in other words, you missed the whole point of the movie.

    The man did not abandon his child.  He left his wife after the child died because he blamed her for having the child, knowing that Hannah would die young and painfully.  (Or maybe I missed the time line a bit and he left his wife before the child died, but the point of the story remains the same.)

    The space aliens were almost entirely unimportant in this movie.  They were only the means by which the woman gained the ability to see all time at once (through a quasi Noam Chomsky ability to perceive differently because she learned a new language of the aliens who do not perceive time at all.)

    continued . . .

     

    • #30
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