Sunday, November 22, 2009

"if at first you don't succeed, stalk, stalk again."

With the new Twilight movie out, the feminist blogosphere is once again abuzz with commentary and critique. Most of the really salient sociological commentary on Bella and Edward's relationship has been done already, seeing as the first book was published in 2005, and I'm not going to try to restate what has already been admirably stated (not least of all because I wouldn't read those books unless there was a gun to my head, and even then, I don't know which I'd resent more). I'm more interested in talking about the prevalence of dangerous, anti-woman tropes in pieces of media that aren't under the cultural studies microscope. Specifically, I'm interested in Sports Night and The West Wing, the two flagship productions of liberal darling Aaron Sorkin.

I want to make clear that the reason I'm able to speak intelligently about Sports Night and The West Wing is that I love both of them to teeny tiny pieces. I've watched every episode of SN at least three or four times and am currently in the process of rewatching TWW for the second time, having finished my first watch-through in August. When it comes to understanding and distilling tentpole liberal issues, very few do it better than Sorkin. He's smart and funny and compelling and his projects made me feel patriotic during the Bush administration (no small feat, I assure you). But none of that makes up for the fact that homeboy consistently and spectacularly fucks up when it comes to representing women on his shows.

I could go on about how the number of mistakes made by press secretary C.J. Cregg, the only woman on Senior Staff for much of TWW, far outpaces those made by male staffers. I could talk about how every man on TWW has a bad case of mansplaining syndrome triggered by the strong tendency of the show's women to misunderstand or underestimate the value of important issues (Sam teaching CJ about the census stands out as a particularly egregious example). I could mention the strange tendency of TWW'S men to heap adulation on women for doing things they would not blink twice if men did. Or I could talk about how SN can't seem to find a non-neurotic professional woman with two hands and a flashlight except for when it found Sally, the classic careerist sleeps-her-way-to-the-top man-eater.

But none of that is what I'm going to focus on! (Although I can. Believe me. Just ask my mother, with whom I'm rewatching TWW and who has begun to join my games of "Spot the Sexism.") No, I'm going to focus on Sorkin's favorite way of bringing couples together: stalking.*


Season 1 of Sports Night features a multi-episode arc wherein Dan, one of the show's protags, pursues and eventually begins to date a woman named Rebecca. Although he initially pursues her because he's told she likes him, it rapidly becomes clear that she doesn't know who he is and would in fact like him to go away. However, that's not enough to deter Dan, who we later learn asks her out nineteen times before she says yes. We also learn that she said no all those times because Dan is a sports anchor and her previous marriage to a sports anchor left her burned. End result: Dan and Rebecca date successfully until her ex-husband decides he wishes to rekindle their marriage. When that fails, she comes running back to Dan (season 2), only to be rebuffed because she broke his heart last time.

Hold that in your minds for a moment while we turn to Season 1 of West Wing, which features the all-too-familiar arc of the relationship between press secretary CJ and reporter Danny Concannon. Despite CJ repeatedly telling Danny that she doesn't want to date him and furthermore can't without compromising her professional credibility, Danny is relentlessly persistent, "sensing" CJ's growing affection for him. There's a business-dinner-cum-date, the gift of a fish, a kiss in CJ's office - and then nothing, as CJ asserts her authority and ends the flirtation. It all works out, though, in Season 7, when Danny reappears at the end of Bartlet's second term and reminds now-Chief-of-Staff CJ that their shifted professional responsibilities now allow for a relationship. End result: TOGETHER FOREVARRRRRRR.

The myth being propagated here is that all any man has to do to get the girl he wants is ask enough times - "she's just playing hard to get," or "she just needs to be shown what he has to offer," or "she just needs to be convinced." This trope has been used literally countless times in movies and on TV, but Sorkin really has a gift for it. The reasons why it is bad and dangerous are many, and I am going to present them in handy list form.

1) It devalues women's "no."
The women in Sorkin say no. They say it repeatedly, emphatically and unambiguously. Rebecca says it nineteen times, and though we never get a count on how many times CJ says no, it's probably close to the same. By portraying women's "no"s as building up towards an inevitable "yes," this trope devalues women's "no," thereby helping contribute to rape culture.

2) It propagates the outdated myth that women just play hard-to-get.
While Rebecca is initially entirely disinterested in Dan, CJ is shown to be interested in Danny from the get-go and only saying no out of concern for her career. In the abstract, she's a classic hard-to-get narrative: Danny can only "get" her when he passes the necessary "test" (in this case, getting a career where there's no conflict). I don't deny that there was a time when women commonly played hard-to-get as a means of testing the seriousness of prospective male suitors, but it wasn't healthy or reasonable behavior when it was common. Acting as though it's par for the course now, when it's not, normalizes what is in fact dysfunctional behavior on the part of women brought on by a set of oppressive gender norms defining a woman who says yes too early as "slutty." On the flip side, given that this is no longer common or accepted behavior, its normalization only further works to devalue women's "no." When women say no, they need to be believed, because 99 times out of 100, no means no. And is the off chance that this is that one time, is it worth the 99 other times when it's stalking?

3) It propagates the offensive and outdated myth that women can be "convinced" to love any man who wants them.
Both CJ and Rebecca break down and date their respective Daniels after a great deal of effort and self-promotion on behalf of the men. I have said this a million times to a million people, and I'll say it here: no one can convince anyone else to love them. (There's a great xkcd strip about this.) In the vast majority of cases, it's either there or it's not, and there's nothing anyone can do either way. That doesn't mean people shouldn't get to know each other, nor does it mean that "it" can be discerned before the first date. It does mean, however, that no one can make someone like them unless they would have anyway. I would bet heaps of money that this is true of 98.5% of people. The idea that women can be convinced to care about any man who wants them leads directly to my next point...

4) ... that since men can convince any woman they want to love them, there should be no woman they can't convince - men deserve whatever woman they want. Therefore, any woman who will deny them what they deserve is a "bitch."
I, um, really don't know any other way to explain this, so if you're confused, let me know and we'll take a bang at it.

5) It normalizes disturbed behavior.
Ignoring someone when they are repeatedly telling you no indicates a marked separation from reality on your part, as well as dangerous tendencies. It is how stalkers and rapists behave. By showing this as perfectly normal behavior, it makes it that much harder for women to spot individuals whose behavior towards them is disturbed and, when they do, to speak up about it and be believed that the behavior in question is in fact Wrong. ("Boys will be boys!")

6) It erases the very real trauma that can be experienced by women who are the recipients of this type of behavior.
Why might a woman who has repeatedly say no finally say yes? Maybe she fears for her safety if she continues saying no. Maybe she thinks that if she says yes, she'll finally be left alone. Maybe she, like so many women, has been so conditioned to be a good girl that she can't conceive of being so assertive, and so she says yes to avoid being that worst of things, not-nice. Whatever the reason, I can virtually guarantee it's not that the nineteenth sales pitch suddenly illuminated everything she missed the first eighteen times, and she now finds Man X deeply compelling. She said yes for some reason that has almost certainly damaged her.

Before anyone says that "it's just tv," I'd ask you to realize how utterly foolish that sounds. Media normalizes, or to put it differently, teaches us what's normal. Media propagates. Media teaches us how things in the world work by showing us things working that way over and over and over. It's not that people are stupid and believe whatever the TV tells them; it's that media influences us in ways a lot more subtle than "HEY YOU, THINK THIS." Additionally, before anyone busts out the "OMG DAN AND DANNY ARE SO SWEET AND CJ AND REBECCA CLEARLY LOVED THEM FROM THE BEGINNING," we'll put aside for a moment the fact that that reading is highly questionable and say: fine. That doesn't change the fact that in reality, the men who do this aren't sweet, and the women they do it to don't love them from the beginning. And well-intentioned men who do this to women - men who are, in fact, sweet, and are just trying out something that they've repeatedly been told is okay - are unwitting contributors to a culture that doesn't listen when a woman says no.

*Various Googling has reminded me that he did this as well on his most recent short-lived show, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. And the character who did it there was also named Danny. That officially moves this from a lol-Sorkin-trope to downright creepy territory.
**Yeah, this one goes under Stuff I Didn't Get. There'll be a post about that in the future.