Thursday, January 06, 2005

Stepford Wives and Hitchhiker's Guide

Time for a little culture analysis! Fun, huh?

I'm gonna begin with the sci fi part. Because sci fi is often so connected with technocracy, cybernetic visions of a future utopia, etc., it often contains autocratic or hierarchal concepts. For example: Isaac Asimov has little commentary in his Foundation series on freedom and non-autocratic societies. The closest he gets is Solarian society, a society of incredible wealth where robots do all the labor. His main characters are scientists, government officials, all "smart" guys speaking in highly formal language. And he makes oblique references in his commentaries to the necessity for state leaders to compensate for stupid people and how sci fi can make the ignorant masses aware of science, ignoring that it's overwhelmingly not a lack of information (especially not about science) but rather decisions made in elite settings that's the problem.
Now, Douglas Adams' work is already critically admired and loved almost universally by sci fi fans. But it's also worth it to comment on its leftist credentials and analysis. I'm borrowing from the original tape series and the books for my analysis. The first few episodes open with a broadside on bureaucracy, with Mr. Prosser being the stupid, inconsiderate bureaucrat, followed by the Vogon's destruction of Earth. The series goes on with a critique of luxury industries (in particular, the custom planet industry of Magrithea, who offer such a popular service that they soon have all the money in the galaxy and thus lead to universal bankruptcy); an attack on planned obsolesence (the shoe industry on one planet expands their profit by creating worse and worse shoes, thus forcing people to buy ever-more obsolete shoes that are ever more uncomfortable); a celebration of every being, even the apparently useless (the planet of Golgafrincham dies from a virus after it gets rid of the telephone sanitizers); and similar. The book really has a very profound leftist mentality that can be enjoyed by everybody.
I also watched the Stepford Wives earlier "today", and enjoyed it quite a bit. I thought it made a lot of good comments on gender politics. I'll just list some points of discussion I thought of (if you haven't seen the movie, spoiler alert):

1. Matthew Broderick's character buys into the insane plan of essentially lobotomizing wives into utter subservience because he has never felt like an equal partner in marriage. Feminists often respond to this sentiment among men by saying (rightly) that men have dominated over the "weaker" 51% of humankind since the dawn of history (though in different modes and to different degrees) and that men continue to benefit disproportionately in this society. As true as these comments are, that's a non sequitur on two levels: A) It's still possible even in a patriarchal society for, internal to relationships, there to be a power dynamic that works the other way, and such a power dynamic is not ergo justified by the prevailing broader society; B) A future society ruled by women would be as injust as a society ruled by men. Notice the parallels between the arguments offered by chauvinists and those argued by some women: Women will be "too weak" or will "create an era of peace"; women will "baby society" or "will take care of the unfortunate"; etc. Just as even a feminist that believes that there are genetic and/or fundamental differences between men and women that necessarily generate differential modes of behavior dispenses with the logic men offer in that it is self-justifying ("War is necessary because I'm a man and I see war is necessary") and irrelevant because it's still against fundamental human rights, so could someone who is perfectly concerned about justice recognize that a society run by women, even if "better" by some self-justifying paradigm, would nonetheless violate basic rights. It doesn't matter if the dictator is the smartest or nicest in the land, people should never be ruled. To return to Matt Broderick: The character, while somewhat emasculated in presentation, nonetheless opts to let his wife have independence and frees all of the women in the town from the nanochips controlling them. He is a heroic and compassionate character, so it is clear that we are meant to sympathize with a man who is constantly overshadowed by his wife.

Because, in this society, differential rates of "success" can lead to vast differences in power and prosperity, the natural tendency is for everyone to rush to the state or run to the institutions of capitalism, a slight inequity in the relationship can feel totally crippling if the wife or husband has loads of cash and influence and the other partner has nothing. If everyone were roughly equal in power and influence, i.e. if we made a participatory polity and economy, then this as well as many other problems would decline, and there wouldn't be as much economic stake in the power dynamics in a relationship. In the meantime, feminists need to be concerned that men feel that they may be emasculated in a future society, and some of the genetic/essential arguments some feminists make about the superiority of women sure doesn't help in this regard. Many good men are scared by the excesses of the feminist movement, so this is no small concern.

2) The architect of the madness of perfect people is actually a woman. She responds to too much stress by essentially trying to go back to the 50s, beginning with the perfect wives and working on the perfect husbands. She killed her husband and created a robot copy who could convince men to buy into the dream of perfect people. Thus, a powerful woman is pitted against another powerful woman, making the conflict something rather different than mere empowered v. disempowered struggles. There's a few interpretations of this. a) Even empowered members of an otherwise disempowered class can collaborate with and adopt the ideas of, even going so far as to cynically steal the voice of, the predominant voice in society. We see this overwhelmingly in revolutionary movements, where even in the process of improvement disgusting aspects of the old order remain enshrined and almost become beatified by the apparent positive change in all other respects. There is some comfort in oppression; it is safe and protected, even simple. b) The movie talks quite a bit about perfection and the drive for it, but it's interesting that the main person who truly wanted a totally perfect world and went to the greatest lengths for it was a woman. The flip side of the mothering urge is the "perfect" urge, the desire to save everybody, to pursue stability and safety even at the cost of freedom, to use love as a bludgeon. The movie's criticism of wanting a perfect world seems to me to be misplaced and conflates two separate things. The question is not, "Should we make the world as good as we can?" Clearly that poses no immediate problems. The questions are secondary ones: "Who defines 'good'?" "To what lengths will we go to make the world 'better'?" "Will we let this perfection drive reach unhealthy proportions?" Those are the real questions. Everybody would like if it there was no violence, but if doing so meant sacrificing art, feeling, love, scientific advancement, freedom, etc., then it wouldn't be worth it and would sharply constrain potentials for the future.

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