The Porter Zone

Philosophical musings and more

Monthly Archives: July 2010

Sexual Politics and the Contemporary Rom-Com


This is a subject I have thought about for some while, and have written about more briefly elsewhere.  However, I am not sure I have yet strip-mined it of all its content, so here we go again.  To put it briefly, my thesis is that if we look at the rom-coms emerging from Hollywood today we see a rather nasty anti-feminism underlying many of them.  What I want to do is to discuss that, looking in particular at how the sexual politics of rom-coms has changed since the golden age of the 1930s / 40s, to make a tentative effort at determining what it means.

On  this last question, all I can do is offer a tentative effort.  I can document what the phenomenon is that I believe is responsible for this, but I have no idea why that phenomenon is happening.  For that I turn over to you, and I hope to find in comments on this illumination, and perhaps even an answer.

The Rom-Com I : How things were

I’m going to look at four classic rom-coms, two in which the man starts off with the wrong woman, and two in which the woman starts off with the wrong man.  Three of them involve Katharine Hepburn, which is only fair, as she was arguably the greatest movie actress ever (and the AFI seems to agree with me), and all four involve Cary Grant (and I do think the AFI were wrong to put Bogart above him).  They are:

Wrong woman

  • Bringing up Baby
  • Holiday

Wrong man

  • The Philadelphia Story
  • His Girl Friday

Well let’s have a look at them.  One obvious similarity is that all of the characters (except the wrong one) in all these films are intelligent, witty and self-sufficient.  Hepburn’s character loves Grant’s in both ‘Bringing up Baby’ and ‘Holiday’, but it’s clear that she expects to do more than simply sit at his feet and gaze adoringly.  Given what she manages to do to the poor man’s dinosaur in ‘Bringing up Baby’ one hesitates to imagine their married life.

Now turn to ‘The Philadelphia Story’.  This is interesting.  Grant is, as always, urbane, but Hepburn’s character (and remember, this part was written specifically for her) is a woman who, at the start views marriage as being about her being a virgin goddess up on a pedestal, while her husband adores her.  And the clod she is engaged to at the outset is happy to do just that.  What she learns, in the course of some unusual pre-wedding events, is that marriage must be a partnership of equals, and on that basis she is able to re-marry Grant’s character, their first marriage having foundered on the rock of her selfishness and his drinking.

So marriage is a partnership (almost literally so in ‘His Girl Friday’, where the re-marrying couple are editor and star journalist).  Both partners are intelligent, urbane and witty and they have mutual respect for one another (at the start of ‘The Philadelphia Story’ almost everyone admires Hepburn’s character, but no-one respects her: that has changed by the end).  I know I’ve said this once, but it bears repetition before we look at the train-wreck that is the modern rom-com.

Interlude : Horror films then and now

I write this the day after reading the depressing news that the ‘Saw’ saga is the most successful horror franchise in history.  So successful horror constitutes coming up the increasingly complex and bloody ways of killing people.  I see.  And a truly great contemporary(ish) horror movie: ‘The Others’ is ignored, despite the fact that I think it contains the most frightening (as opposed to viscerally nauseating) film moment I have ever seen.  And what was this moment of terror?  Simplicity itself: a piano lid that was up when it should have been down.  It sounds like nothing, but as the climax to some half-hour of building tension it is terrifying.

Think again of the long sequences with the geiger counter in Howard Hawks’ ‘The Thing From Outer Space’.  We scarcely ever see the thing.  We never see him actually doing grisly deeds.  But the long sequence of absolute silence broken only by the click of the geiger counter is what real fear is about: anticipation and the unknown.

So how come that horror, which after all has impeccable credentials as a genre, from ‘The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari’ (where we can be more scared by a man opening his eyes than by any number of dismemberments) and ‘Nosferatu’ has come to a genre defined in terms of the effectiveness of its ‘kills’ (in the nauseating language used by current aficionados).  Simple: it used to be the province of adults.  Now the audience is predominantly teen-age boys, who aren’t mature enough for the subtler joys of suspense and things not being as they should, but who dig a dismembered corpse with the proper callousness.

The Rom-Com II : How things are

Back to rom-coms.  I’m afraid things have gone down-hill a bit since the age of Hepburn and Grant.  And not just because neither is still alive (though that doesn’t help).  Let’s look at things now, shall we?

Now, I’m not going to rehearse examples, partly because these flicks are too unmemorable to stay in my memory as more than basic schematic outlines, variations on a theme, and partly because to write them all down would be just too unpleasant.  Anyway, I fear you will recognise only too well what I am writing about.

So here’s the basic plot.  Not all of them have all details, but this is the basic framework you should use if you want to write a successful modern rom-com.  Here goes.  Young woman is successful in her career and is engaged to a nice, equally successful ‘new man’ type.  You know what I mean: he’s considerate, treats her as an equal, all that stuff.  Well, anyway, our heroine is still discontented.  And then she meets a knuckle-dragging specimen to call whom a neanderthal would be an insult to neanderthals everywhere.  He views women as objects, appears to have fewer neurons than fingers, and is generally the sort of thing the cat might bring in on a slow Friday night.  And naturally, after a brief outburst of hating him, our heroine dumps her perfectly nice boyfriend for this monster.  And we then fade out and are left thinking: that was a happy ending?

Well, I don’t think it was.  I think it’s quite terrible, actually.  What a message to be sending to young women (the predominant audience being women in their twenties)?  Forget the achievements of the women’s movement: what you need is a real man, the sort who smells a bit, wears odd socks and will treat you like shit, but that’s all right because on the rare nights he’s sober he’ll roger you ’til the cows come home.  And probably won’t notice that you’re faking it either.

So why are modern rom-coms sending such an anti-feminist message?  Now, I am not one of those people who believe that movie studios are evil and deliberately foist brainless pap on us.  I think they’re interested in making money and have discovered that brainless pap is what people want (whereas back in the golden age, they were more inclined to make what they thought the people ought to want).  So we get horror movies with no real fear in them, just visceral disgust (‘Carry on Screaming’ is more scary than most modern horror flicks, plus it has the incomparable Fenella Fielding and Kenneth Williams), and for some reason we get anti-feminist rom-coms.

So why do young women want an anti-feminist message?  I have no idea.  When I raised this elsewhere one told me that to her friends ‘feminism’ was a dirty word.  For heaven’s sake, why?  Surely women should be proud of the achievements that have been made, and eager to drive on progress to true equality?  As a male, old-fashioned feminist, I just don’t get it.

And for my next trick

By special request: how a cat nearly got me arrested.


Quantum Mechanics stole my car

Quantum ordinaryness

I have lost count of the number of ways people abuse the word ‘quantum’.  From describing every breakthrough as a ‘quantum leap’, to Terry Pratchett saying that something is very strange, but it’s all probably due to quantum, to one book I read that attempted, rather desperately I thought, to argue that God was the thing that made quantum mechanics so weird.

And here’s the thing.  Quantum theory is used as a lazy excuse to justify more or less everything, and its probabilistic nature is viewed as a deep, deep mystery that we mere mortals cannot hope to fathom (going back to the God = quantum argument for a moment).

Now, as I hope to show, actually quantum mechanics is actually very simple, and its statistical nature makes perfect sense.  You just need to be a bit less anthropocentric in your reasoning than we like to be.

Wave-particle duality and quantum measurement

First let’s look at the so-called paradox of wave-particle duality, as evinced in the dual-slit experiment. Now ontology is determined both by knowledge and one’s perceptual capabilities.  

To see this, let us imagine a thought experiment.  I have three cards, and I show them to two people, one with normal vision, the other red-green colour-blind.  They agree that one of the cards is a different colour, but disagree as to which one it is (this is because, as has recently been discovered, red-green colour-blind people can distinguish shades of green that the rest of us can’t).  So perception shapes ontology.

Another thought experiment.  I look into the sky and I see two surprisingly identical looking stars quite close to one another.  I try to build a theory that might allow creation of groups of identical stars. Then I learn general relativity, and I realise that there is only one star, but there is also another thing, to act as the gravitational lens, that I cannot otherwise see.  So my ontology now includes ‘things I can’t see but that bend light’.  So knowledge shapes ontology.

Back to quantum mechanics.  Pretend for the moment that quantum mechanics is the ultimate reality. We are big, slow-moving, fairly light objects, and the other objects we interact with are the same. We inhabit the macroscopic world, where quantum effects get averaged out. So our perceptions, our philosophies are based on the presupposition that everything behaves like macroscopic objects. Then we see things that don’t fit the conceptual scheme and they, well, don’t fit the conceptual scheme.

Now imagine what would have happened if we had evolved on a neutron star. We’d be very small. We’d be used to enormous gravitational fields, and our senses would almost certainly work at the level of wave functions (or something equivalent). In which case the whole ‘electron in two places at once’ thing would be meaningless to us, because of course an electron is an extended object, not a point.

I made an assumption that quantum mechanics is correct here, but you can see that it isn’t really needed. All that’s needed is the observation that we have a point-object conceptual scheme, whereas (at least at our current level of observational acuity) we are beginning to see things that conflict with that conceptual scheme due to our having extended our sensory range. But we still in our hearts want to stick with the point-object paradigm. Hence the so-called paradox.

Quantum mechanics and probabilities

‘But’, you say, ‘I thought quantum mechanics was probabilistic.  That’s weird.’  Well, no, actually.  Imagine I have a field and I divide it up into lots of squares, and the only information I have about things in the field is whether they are in one of the squares (in other words, I have deliberately limited myself to a coarse perceptive scheme – you’ll see why in a moment).  Now say there’s a cow in the field.  It shows up not as a cow, but as a selection of squares.  But if I try to grab the cow by reaching into  a square, I won’t always succeed, because the cow isn’t square.  I will succeed with a certain probability.  In other words, because I have thrown information away, the cow has abruptly become probabilistic!

Now, in quantum mechanics it’s not that we’re throwing information away, it’s just that our conceptual scheme is so at variance with whatever is going on, that when we try to look at quanta we lose information.  So we end up with the cow syndrome.  The quanta are perfectly ordinary objects, when viewed with an appropriate conceptual scheme and we don’t have, and never will have, that scheme.

I can go one stage further.  I have divided the field into squares.  Say you divide it into chunks of your own devising.  We both register the cow as a set of probabilities associated to chunks.  What relation is there between those two sets of probabilities?  A very complex one.  In fact, there need be no relation.  Say I divide the field into strips running north-south, and you divide it into strips running east-west.  Say the cow is facing north.  Then I see the cow as being in one strip with probability 1 (certainty) while you see it as being spread across several strips.  Now say the cow starts to walk towards me.  You see it change; I do not.  There is no relation between the probabilities I see and the probabilities you see.  In other words, we have not the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, but something far worse: a complete failure of our theories (the division into strips) to interoperate.

(Technical note for QM cognoscenti: the argument above is not an example of hidden variables, because I am not saying there need be anything other than the wave function evolving according to QM’s rules.  My point is that we try to partition the space of wave functions into point particle shaped chunks, and this is not a good partition.)

And for my next trick . . .

Coming up: why I hate ‘Twilight’ and what I intend to do about it . . .