Who’s Afraid of the Female Gaze? Part Deux

The female gaze isn’t all good though. You see, for every Toni Morrison, there’s a Stephanie Meyer and an E. L. James. Understandable. It’s not hard to imagine why young girls would rather immerse themselves in the self-gratifying fantasy of Bella Swan, than face the stark, tragic realities endured by Pecola Breedlove. They might have more in common with the latter, but even I can admit that the Bluest Eye is one of the most difficult novels I have ever read. But I don’t regret it.

The Bluest Eye tells the story of Pecola Breedlove, as seen through the eyes of nine-year-old Claudia MacTeer. Pecola is the resident black scapegoat, a figure of boundless ridicule and unrestrained contempt in her own community; she is the physical embodiment of their self-hatred, their pain, their subjugation. Pecola barely exists outside this metaphor, and in that way she is another Bella.  A silhouette. She is the vessel, or perhaps the mirror, reflecting the reader, allowing them to experience the story in the character’s shoes. Except hers is not the tale of an awkward girl finding “true love.” Hers is the story of a girl who has been called ugly all her life, a girl who is emotionally neglected, sexually abused, and for whom there can be no happy ending outside her disordered, mangled imagination. I don’t believe anyone has ever optioned this novel for the screen, although it is probably the most cinematic and accessible of Morrison’s works. I doubt anyone ever will.

The surest way to target a female demographic is to write a love story, and I think it’s as true of television as it is of film. Some of my favorite shows are guilty of it. Take Scandal, the latest drama to turn gold under the Shonda Rimes (Grey’s Anatomy creator) touch.

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Olivia Pope is a successful, ballsy “fixer.” You got a problem that could destroy your career, your livelihood and/or your reputation, she WILL fix it. There’s not a problem she and her team can’t handle. Of course, you might not always trust them or like the solutions they offer, but you can’t lose with the “Gladiators in Suits” on your side. In stark contrast to her professional life, Olivia’s personal life is a mess. As soon as she gets around President Fitzgerald Grant (hmm, what does that name remind you of…), she becomes a vulnerable puddle of pouty lip quivers, shaky breaths and ultimately meaningless protests. This season, she and the unhappily married, burgeoning alcoholic Fitz have been on the outs. Meanwhile, she has had the opportunity to free herself of this toxic relationship and enjoy a healthy one. Does she take it? Nope. Wanna know her reasoning?

“I don’t want normal and easy and simple. I want painful, difficult, devastating, life-changing, extraordinary love.”

I’ll get back to that one.

Stephanie Savage’s Gossip Girl is a far less commendable show and I never expected much from it to begin with. It revels in its awfulness, it’s shallow, transient pleasures and all the things that don’t make life worth living. But they seemed to hit a nice little stride when two of the show’s most likable characters, Dan Humphrey and Blair Waldorf embarked on a relationship that was–shocker–both emotionally and intellectually healthy. Dan is practically perfect in every way; he supports Blair, encourages her, gives her his shoulder to lean on, runs to the rescue the second she calls, and generally embodies every Sarah MacLachlan song ever written.

But that wasn’t dramatic enough. Because healthy love is boring. Love should be passionate (read 95 percent sexual, 5 percent whatever else you need to sustain a relationship). At the end of Season 5, Blair dumps Dan for  Chuck Bass, the show’s resident bad  boy, an admittedly charismatic Ed Westwick, who, unfortunately, whispers his way through most scenes and broods, squinty-eyed and brow furrowed through the rest. In the span of their very young “love” Chuck has sold Blair for a hotel (yes, you read that correctly), cheated on her several times, punched a glass window painfully close to her face, leaving it scratched, sabotaged her relationships with friends, potential boyfriends, and family–and that’s just the big stuff. On top of that, he verbally and emotionally abuses her, and even after she leaves Dan for him, he refuses to be with her because, well, basically, she’s got too much going for her.

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Here’s just a little tidbit of their delightful, incredibly romantic exchange.

Chuck: My father was right. I always put your first. And you bet against me every time. And now I have nothing.

Blair: You have me.

Chuck: That’s not enough. I need a future.

Blair: Then let me be a part of it.

Chuck: I don’t want to be Mr. Blair Waldorf. I’m Chuck Bass.

My belly’s so full of butterflies I may projectile vomit. That’s sarcasm, by the way. So, after this swoon-worthy conversation, does Blair say screw you, dude, and move on with her life? Haha, no. Predictably. Here’s Blair’s take on great love:

“What we [she and Chuck] have is a great love. It’s complicated. Intense. All-consuming. No matter what we do and how much we fight, it’ll always pull us in. What’s mere happiness in the face of all that, right?”

Jesus. Just so we’re together, Blair seems to be saying happiness, genuine happiness whether it be within yourself or in a simple, uncomplicated relationship (God, the horror) pales in comparison to “intense, all-consuming” great love. Love, apparently, is separate from happiness. Interesting.

Okay, so let’s put this all in perspective. Here’s an example of a Blair-Dan convo.

BlairSomehow between being traded for a hotel and selling out for a tiara, I lost my true self. But I want to be found. Could you possibly help?

Dan: I have a feeling that the real Blair Waldorf is a lot closer than you think. It wasn’t too long ago she and I were working side-by-side at W, and I completely fell for her.

Blair: And, what was that girl like?

Dan: That girl is fiercely strong. Independent. Outspoken. Beautiful. Capable of anything…and no man or magazine should be able to take that away from her.

So…yeah. Just to reiterate, Blair left Dan to be with Chuck. She left a guy who was emotionally available and accessible for the one who was neither.

I would be woefully remiss if I did not mention the Bronte sisters and the powerful influence their Byronic heroes still undoubtedly wield over the genre today. There are no excuses to be made for Heathcliff; he’s a dick, but then Wuthering Heights never intended the ill-fated romance of its main lovers to be idealized. They are to be pitied, never aspired to. Jane Eyre is all about passion, but always passion WITH respect, never without it, for that is a dangerous combination as she learns throughout the novel. Jane never compromises herself for “love.” She actually has the real thing offered to her after years of neglect and the absence of tenderness, but she decides that she would rather forgo the love of another if it means sacrificing her self-respect. Her twenty-first century counterparts possess no such gumption or courage. They feel not one iota of her dignity. For them, if love comes without passion, then it had better not come at all. Perhaps even worse, if it the self must be compromised in the name of love, lust, sex, and/or the occasional “Hey, girl, you look cute today,” well then, so be it. 

I’d love to blame the patriarchy right now, but I can’t. These are women upholding a warped, distorted view of what a desirable relationship looks like. If these stories, by no means the limit (we’d be here all day if I had to enumerate the countless books, films, and music lyrics follow in the same vein), are what women are meant to go by we must look for men who check only one box, the only box that matters: sexual attraction. For nothing else matters when it comes to “love.” 

In order to avoid being completely obtuse, understandably, it’s rather more difficult to write about healthy romance while also maintaining an engaging level of tension and drama. People have to watch these shows, after all.  But it would be refreshing at this point to see a nice guy finish first.

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