Tag Archives: feminism

Mary and her followers

Because I lost a friend to cancer recently, I’m in a eulogizing mood. Sticking with the theme of social/cultural commentary, I return to my favorite arena—the arts—to pay tribute to a television icon, Mary Tyler Moore. We lost so many icons in 2016 (Bowie, Prince, Muhammed Ali, the heartbreaking back-to-back blow of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds) that it seems unusual to me that I’d choose Moore’s passing to remark on. She was neither the most or the least influential figure on the aforementioned list, but her life is relevant to the themes of privilege and prejudice that are on many of my clients’ minds these days.

As I wrote in my last entry, American television exported many symbols in my seventies youth, but few of them were comic. Britain of the 70s seemed to have enough of its own comedy, so its public had little use for contemporary American stars like Carol O’Connor, who played Archie Bunker (who was actually based on a British character), or Carol Burnett, or Mary Tyler Moore. Following immigration, I watched her on sick days from school, or on indolent summer vacations, when reruns of The Dick Van Dyke Show were part of a daily TV diet. Watching Laura Petry, I was vaguely aware that she was modeled upon an early sixties ideal: beautiful, graceful, lightly comic (ala Lucille Ball); aspiring a pre-tragic Jackie Kennedy. Her later transformation into Mary Richards, a character fronting Moore’s eponymous 70s sitcom, reminded me more of my mother: she was still beautiful, still gracious, but now she was unmarried (that part’s not like my mom), dating (though carefully falling short of promiscuity, it seemed), and solidly career-focused. She put the men in their place (“put a sock in it, Ted”), but she was never mean about it. Like all of our favorite social revolutionaries, she smiled a lot.

At one time, I may have thought her a poor woman’s Jane Fonda or Sally Field, two of my favorite female movie stars of that era. Ordinary People changed that. Playing a middle-aged woman grieving the loss of a favored son, she dropped the winning persona, lost her smile, and delivered a performance of such complexity that Ordinary People (for a while, anyway) became a staple of graduate school counseling programs, as a teaching tool illustrating dysfunctional families coping with loss. Tyler Moore’s character, in particular, seemed to absorb so many viewers’ projections. She was cold and unsympathetic, yet compelling. Easy to dislike, her manner of coping was too familiar, too relatable, to be dismissed. After OP, her career seemed to wane, as she drifted into mediocre TV movies. Her focus turned to charity, being active in animal rights issues; was sadly beset with alcoholism and diabetes.

I sort of waited for a worthy heir apparent, and thought Julie Roberts and Sandra Bullock fit the bill—Jennifer Aniston, too. These stars were wonderful, but something had changed. I had changed. By the nineties I was noticing Hollywood’s lazy feminism. Murphy Brown, a late eighties sitcom, seemed to keep alive the semi-tradition of lauding independent women, with the implication that social equality in all areas was being promoted. But at this point something else was being suggested of male figures who were career-focused, unmarried, and sexually liberated. Represented by the likes of Jerry Seinfeid, the male cast of Friends, the various roles Charlie Sheen has inhabited, the “independent” men of TV were usually roguish, or at best inoffensively feckless (as in the case of Seinfeld). Their independence was spun as emotional detachment, became a source of parody. They were relationship-phobic. The phrase, “afraid to commit” became a chestnut feminine critique.

The feminists of my mother’s generation seemed to yield to a generation of tiresome male-bashers, largely oblivious to their reversed double standards. This seems to have influenced a number of backlashes: right-wing social movements, reactionary politics; uber-sexist male celebrities. Remember Andrew Dice Clay? He was so obnoxious I once thought him a leftist plant: a kind of pop media Manchurian Candidate, sent by principals of a progressive movement to illustrate the wrongness of an arch-conservative demographic. There have been plenty other provocateurs since, each increasingly provocative, representing new waves of established thought, with fresh, distinctive voices, perhaps, but with ever more ugliness, on both sides of the social/political divide, if I’m honest. If light comedy with a social comment still exists, I’m struggling to find it.

Graeme Daniels, MFT

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Longing to matter

 

End of the year. These are the shortest days as time tumbles towards the new year, and in that compressed space it seems time to add a parting note or two about my last novel, Venus Looks Down On A Prairie Vole. Written mostly in 2015, published in the shortest days of last year, I now feel it slipping from my mind, no longer living a constant, parallel life in my head. I imagine many writers, the successful and the (like me) unsuccessful, are like this. We are fickle. We skipped well upon rocks over water when kids, and are prone to moving on in certain areas of our lives, losing interest before others do, assuming that interest is there in the first place.

For myself, of the various intermingling themes in Venus, freedom and loneliness linger with the most purpose. From the outset of the novel, the freedom of therapist Daniel Pierce is not a happy one. Estranged from his son, and grieving over the death of his wife, he plods through a daily task which reflects a more mundane aspect of his isolation: he struggles to communicate with a representative of an insurance company, seeking to get paid for his services. Intended to satirize the managed care industry, this exchange is bookended at story’s end, and lives in light juxtaposition with the novel’s more serious plot. Yet it highlights an unpleasant side of Pierce’s outsider role, one in which complaints go unheard; acknowledgement, and sometimes reward, is delayed, or withheld indefinitely. The result is helplessness: a sense that he is alone, vulnerable, and—treated as dispensable by a governing machine—fated to lose.

The idea was to set him up (and the reader) for a winning comeback. Daniel Pierce, a stand-in for mental health professionals who are underpaid, who are poorly represented by their associations; for whom laws (like AB1775) are written without their proper consultation, gets to be difficult. He gets to show an arrogant if well-meaning interventionist that he won’t enact hers or mainstream society’s notions of heroism. He gets to show lawyers, even a judge, that he won’t be at their beckon call, and further, that he won’t betray the principles of his profession just because they think there is a greater cause. For anyone who might listen, he (like myself), will expose hypocrisy, tautologies, and—despite the will of a legal and professional system—fashion his own ending.

It’s a fantasy, of course. Side note: I enjoyed a documentary about Alfred Hitchcock recently in which Martin Scorsese enthused about Vertigo, one of my favorite films. He loved the way the film indulged fantasy, dodging that which is plausible for the sake of compelling drama. Amen, I say. And so, Venus is a statement of my fantasy: a longing to matter when isolated and (at least sometimes) unheard. The story is ironic for me in so far as I am largely happy in my relatively isolated, private practice. Yes, I have the occasional problem with managed care, but in Venus I put a little on it for the sake of compelling drama. And yes, I have been subpoenaed and otherwise called upon to break the confidentiality of clients by an importuning authority, but I have not grandstanded as Daniel Pierce does.

The story is ironic for Daniel Pierce in so far as he isn’t necessarily sympathetic to his wrongdoing client. His default advocacy for a man accused of molesting his child is a serendipitous event, and Pierce defends the privacy of their session (the professional one, plus those which symbolically take place away from the confines of an acceptable setting) not because he thinks the man innocent, but rather because he’s concerned with principle: preserving the confidentiality of the therapeutic space, for everyone. If you think that a precious or overreaching cause, especially in the context of child abuse, then consider what I’ve previously written in entries like “Why child abuse isn’t as important as you think”. Why are psychotherapists mandated reporters of child abuse while lawyers and clergy (in effect) are not? Is it because our service isn’t dovetailing with legal rights? Is it because we are secular in our mission?

To address a secondary theme, Pierce isn’t necessarily sympathetic to his misbehaving client base. Though not nearly as hateful as Lira, his women and children’s advocate antagonist, Pierce is often jaded by the sex offending or sexually addictive men that he sits with. Many of them are indeed entitled, or misogynistic, or plainly self-centered, while others are less offensively lost—underdogs of another kind. In some respects, Daniel is like most therapists: trying to be neutral, but nonetheless stumbling into an advocate’s role at times, holding different sides of individuals, including that which is objectionable. As weary with them as he is any oppressive system, Daniel weighs his dedication to those wayward men against a sometimes-I-wonder-why-I-bother-with-you attitude.

I have bothered considerably with the ideas contained with Venus Looks Down On A Prairie Vole. I have, I think, one more aspect, or pair of ideas, to explain. Then it will be time to move on to another story, and perhaps another cause. On to lengthier days.

Graeme Daniels, MFT

 

 

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Saturday morning sex talk

 

Not the appropriate time, you might think, for a discussion about sex. Or maybe it is. Who knows. Funny, that was the prevailing theme of the talk I’d arranged at Walnut Creek Library, within its Las Trampas room, overlooking Broadway street. It was a bright, sunny early fall morning today. Few showed up—only four—to discuss an article in the latest issue of The Therapist, which rather decried the sex addiction treatment industry, which I was looking to promote.

Sort of.

One of my gigs is with a small agency in WC called Impulse Treatment Center, which for thirty years has provided group therapy for men primarily, who struggle with sexual behaviors that disrupt their lives: porn use, prostitution, visiting strip clubs, sexual massage establishments, and so on–behaviors that fit a distinctly masculine stereotype. In theory, there are female sex addicts also, but how they are manifesting is one of the unanswered questions blocking the admission of a sex addiction-like diagnosis into the APA’s Diagnostic Standards Manual (DSM-V)

I passed out some assessment tools that are used in intake processes, referring to the Sexual Addiction Screening Test (SAST) as designed and (somewhat) evolved by Patrick Carnes over the last twenty years, but focusing on a new tool called the HBI-19. This Hypersexual Disorder Inventory tool, designed by researchers at UCLA, aims less at a list of behaviors as it does an individual’s internal experience of sexual activity. The specific behaviors that are commonly associated with sex addiction are not even indicated on the HBI-19, inclining the observer to consider a more subjective understanding of a problem.

Unlike some, I’ve no problem with this, for it seems to me that assessing addiction based upon criteria of specified behaviors, or the frequency of said behaviors, misses the point of assessment. Currently, and all too often, addiction is determined via an externalized focus. What do I mean? I mean that addiction (and therefore treatment) tends to be considered when individuals cross certain thresholds: when they’ve broken the law, or been discovered by a spouse or partner—when they’ve been exposed, which presumably constitutes the loss of control watershed that so many cite as their hitting bottom experience.

Others might assert that problems exist because sexual behaviors cause conflict with values, thus leading to depression, low esteem, and social isolation. A recognition of these factors is promising as far as treatment is concerned. The more an individual’s motivation is internal—that is, not defined or mandated by others—the more available an individual is for an authentic therapy experience, whether that episode is with an individual practitioner or a group of peers.

Yet the internal motivation of those seeking care is precisely what is being attacked in some quarters. Jay Blevins, the author (or editor—it’s not clear) of the article “How concepts of sex and porn addiction are failing our clients”, asserts that “sex negative forces” (what a term!) in the sex addiction treatment field, headed by the likes of Carnes, incorporate scare tactics about ‘unsafe’ practices, and moral judgements derived from religious values, which further a homophobic (but not anti-male?) social agenda.

Blevins makes a good point that the purported medical consequences of extensive porn use (such as erectile disorder) are not supported by scientific data, but the term addiction was never intended to be used as a medical term—for that we have the term dependence. Addiction is a cultural term, drawing attention to a psychological or–as the 12-step community asserts–a spiritual problem. Whether personal distress is generated from an internal examination versus an oppressive assimilation of institutional mores, as people like Blevins assert: that’s for each person to decide.

Graeme Daniels, MFT

 

 

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Poking ideology, ladies first

 

 

Whenever I consider a critique of a social group, an organization, or an ideology, I try to pause and think about where I am vulnerable; about who or what my sacred cows are, and whether I can take needling comments from the lesser knowing on the sidelines. I’m not a religious or especially political person (I think), so I don’t get my feathers ruffled when viewing debates. I am only thinly amused by scoffing comic journalists, and I sigh at the familiar rhetoric, bemoan all I don’t know or can’t know. As for miscellaneous activism, well, the AB1775 thing was about the only cause I researched well enough and thus felt qualified to comment on.

In most matters I prefer the observer’s role, plus the ethos of the neutral, hence my affinity for psychoanalytic thought, my periodic disdain for reductionist thinking in psychotherapy, as expressed elsewhere in this blog. Activism is an adjunct of psychotherapy for some. With a particular cause in mind, many enter grad schools wanting to “work with ___” because their lives have been touched by whatever their bone of contention is. That wasn’t me and it still isn’t. Mine is an ideology influenced more and more by the unknown, so the stance of the neutral radiates through Venus Looks Down On A Prairie Vole, my mischief novel about a jaded psychologist/neutral (or neutered) male, Daniel Pierce, who is stalked by a former prostitute and thereafter challenged to assume the activist role. Lira is a law student who likely saved money from her night job to earn an education and a better life for herself. She is an empowered woman looking back, looking to help the less fortunate, the not-yet-survived sisters on the streets, plus the odd John or two who needs redemption, whether they want it or not. Her ideology, which is a broader, not goal-specific construct, is likely feminist, though she doesn’t indicate this in such specific terms.

It’s difficult tackling an ideology because ideologies are multi-faceted and evolving. They defy simplification, require and deserve considerable thought and reading, so I’m skeptical of labels from those who identify with an ideology without putting in study time; from those who oppose an ideology based upon a similarly stereotyping process. If you haven’t combed through The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, or “Beyond The Pleasure Principle” by Freud, or read anything by either Cordelia Fine or Melanie Klein, then stop with the broad-brush dismissals. So when Kirkus remarks in their review that Daniel Pierce is anti-feminist, I have to take issue because I don’t satirize feminism in my novel, but rather some of its derivative rhetoric that is co-opted by common opportunists, and which informs a modern narrative. Besides, I have to wonder what ruffled the feathers of my reviewer because he or she didn’t get specific. It’s certainly true that my narrator issues a few sideways jibes aimed at popular trends: at women’s seeming double standards in the dating arena; at the goading of men that happens in advertising: the suggestion that men should take drugs to enhance sexual performance, whether to serve ego, the pleasure of a wanting partner, or both; the way media increasingly presents women as sexual aggressors, men as on the run, clutching fearfully at their pants, acting like fools; the way musical/lyrical clichés are deemed misogynist if depicting women in supplicant roles—romantic or millennially winning if men are.

Daniel Pierce is traditionalist in some ways, but is neither an anti-feminist nor a misogynist. He’s monogamist, partly because of love, otherwise by constitution. Sexually, he’s played it safe in life while keeping at arm’s length the influence of promiscuous men, so he’s wary of Rick, the would-be porn star who buddies up to Daniel, liking his quiet non-conformism. Rick is aware that Daniel is not a player, but scarcely registers the psychologist’s critique of reckless sex. Daniel could give or take guys like Rick, knowing them to be endangered, but he’s more concerned for his own psychological kind: the sexually diffident or undersexed; the workaholic, drab men who sacrifice decades to the man and then die of heart attacks. If pushed he’d point out that if women want the same pay or workplace opportunities as these men, they may need to do more of the work his masculine forebears did: the blue collar or dangerous jobs that still comprise well over ninety percent of workplace injuries. Let us not forget that the harbinger of feminism, the suffragette movement, more or less suspended itself to support men in their most dangerous traditional role, that of soldier. Subsequently, World War I slaughtered nearly half of the European male population of that era, which is not women’s fault, but what did they do? Time moved on: women organized and confronted the alcohol industry with temperance movements, industrialists about child labor; they rightly won voting rights, the right to own property, etcetera, while never having to register for the draft, and few women over the years complained about that.

When pushed by Lira to co-sign her assessment of Derek Metcalf as a child molester, Daniel pushes back, supposing that the child in question (Derek’s five year old son) may be a pawn in a protracted custody dispute, latterly mired in manufactured charges, coached and inconsistent reports from the son about alleged behaviors, the adjudication of which is meant to leverage a favorable custody outcome for the mother. While Daniel’s familial background is thinly sketched in Venus, I suggest towards the end that his father was not a Prairie Vole (a monogamist), and that Daniel’s mother, a figure on whom he once doted, left his father at some point in Daniel’s childhood. On the one hand, I accept Clarion’s critique that my title, Venus Looks Down On A Prairie, may be too obscure, or confused, for the average reader. I’d intended to give clues in the text, but otherwise leave room for you to wonder. Well, I guess I’ll supply an answer, whether you wonder or not. Daniel is looked down upon by women (or would be so), not because he’s a philanderer and therefore commonly misogynist (he’s not), and certainly not because he was a devoted husband, but rather because he isn’t a hero. He simply refuses to split in that traditional way. His refrain, I don’t do anything, is partly a complaint, partly a muted boast, and he defies a traditionalist male role that lingers in our society, whether feminists want this or not.

 

 

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Talkin’ about it

 

 

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The ins and outs of porn

 

Nothing like a little innuendo to start a blog that is both serious and comic in nature, but if you’re waiting to read about best porn sites on the internet, you’ll be greatly disappointed, for this entry is about as anti-porn as it gets, ironically. This entry is all about the written word and the long narrative—things porn dispensed with almost from the get-go of its existence.

Reviews are available of my porn-on-the-periphery novel, Venus Looks Down On A Prairie Vole: mostly lukewarm responses from the likes of Kirkus and Clarion, who seem to regard my writing as competent, if unremarkable, but take issue with my central character, thinking him unlikeable, a drag upon a worthy cause. The only thing that’s surprising is their reticence. You’d think reviewers would spend a bit less time/print giving synopsis; a bit more time reviewing prose, plot or character development. Daniel Pierce, my protagonist, is indeed an unhappy guy, as the Clarion reviewer points out. He is perhaps arrogant as Kirkus observes. But I’d expected to read more about why reviewers think this, and beyond that, to wonder. It’s strange to me that while people in my profession are used to seeing beyond defenses into what’s inside another (in other words, observing that which is not expressed explicitly), readers expect conscious endeavor, and reject characters who won’t say what readers want them to. In writing Venus, I knew I’d annoy progressives with my teasing of feminist cliches, what I think are tired attacks upon porn. I’d expect disapproval from 12-step adherents, who may not care for my lampooning of drug treatment, or the casual misuse of recovery principles. Both these factions, plus old school paternalists—everyone—might resent my implied sympathy towards sex offenders. As Daniel observes towards the beginning, you the reader might not like what he’s about to share.

Of all these contentious themes, porn gets the spotlight today. It’s in your face, as Daniel comments. Here’s a sample from the text:

“You see, in sex, real sex, not porn sex, eyes are the thing; the personal center. I know because I don’t have great eyes or facial symmetry, which hasn’t helped my pursuit of sex—well, except when light flatters me, when no one is around to look. I wish it were different, not that I want more sex these days. I just wish I knew what makes a pair of eyes great. When I hear people say, “so and so has pretty eyes”, I always wonder what they’re referring to, because compliments tend to be unspecific. Is it the color, the shade, or size, or what my mom, my first gal, used to call “the shine” that dots the pupils? The women of porn stare into cameras seducing viewers with their eyes, big pupils and all, plus their dirtied personalities, looking undignified, yet ambiguously powerful; ambiguously not, I guess. They say—some say—that the women of porn are in it for the power, the sexual power, not the money. Are they? I don’t know, though if you ask me, no one’s coming out of porn looking or feeling their best. The real issue—the real offense to the egalitarian way—is the air of servitude, for what porn really does is arrest women into roles of pleasing. Don’t agree? Go watch some porn”

Actually, eyes are secondary. The penis is the star—the object, if you will—of porn, Daniel remarks, adding that they are in our faces, and “literally in women’s”. These are examples of his flippant, crude armchair views, and a portent of more earnest commentary later on in the story. Venus echoes an argument I first read in Martin Amis’ Money, written thirty five years ago when porn existed only in magazines or in seedy, downtown theaters—maybe videotapes. Money is a masterpiece of gritty, maverick literature. In it, a character (Amis himself, actually) says to John Self, the protagonist, that pornography objectifies women and men equally. Self, a debauched porn addict himself, jovially disagrees, saying that men don’t or wouldn’t mind being so objectified, especially for money (his stand-by argument about everything). Amis rebukes this assumption, claiming he and most men wouldn’t have sex for money, thus pointing out that all involved in porn are exploited. Lira, my women’s advocate/former prostitute in Venus, argues that whatever exploitation of men exists in porn is irrelevant, as men are the dominant consumers. Daniel retorts that if the consumer is the oppressor, then we are all oppressors in our consumer society, and that scapegoating sex for the problem of exploitation merely exposes western prurience.

This is not to say that he’s a fan of porn. In fact, he finds it cold, cynical and narcissistic, though he shamefacedly indulges on occasion when feeling disconnected. But like myself, he’s wary of the righteous; distrustful of zeitgeist opinion, well-marketed, sound-bitten ideas, and therefore has a soft spot for the demonized consumer. This leads him to work with sex addicts in his practice, and with some sex offenders, though he demurs on most cases mired in a legal process. Meanwhile, serendipity places him the company of Rick, ostensibly a chef whom Daniel meets when working shifts at a restaurant during his practice-shedding hiatus. Later, it turns out that Rick is a budding porn actor who goes by the name Kane Able, a typical double entendre slapped on for parody’s sake. So, too, are some scenarios that are common to porn’s semi-theater: the fireman or policeman skit-gimmicks, enacted with thin, tongue-in-cheek pretense, which play upon themes of heroism, damsels in distress and the pull for male sacrifice; abuse of authority, plus the chance to fashion dialogue replete with daft innuendo, silly plays upon words. As a result, Venus is filled with plays upon words, at times mimicking the artifices of porn; otherwise providing a kind of parallel script alongside the action.

Amidst all of this, Venus drops down into a serious contemplation of sex and gender politics. In its subtext it observes a shift in mores, from the castigation of female sexuality, to a back-handed latter-day quest for more freedom, but to what end? For men, the freedom train is heading in the opposite direction. Former license(s) is being revoked, yielding more punishments, weaker performance, and more anxiety, even as advertising media goads them to take the same old risks. Porn offers a kind of refuge to those who are not sure that sex, as in regular intimacy-enhancing, not-paid-for sex, is worth the effort or the risks. With respect to this problem, Daniel Pierce is an outsider: he’s too old to have known the ubiquity of porn prior to his marriage or to have experienced dating as the online shopping exercise it currently is. In a sense, he is safe from contaminated society, but still he is adrift, a closet romantic largely suppressing comment but now seizing a moment with an unlikely listener. Lira listens well enough, but like my reviewers, I think, doesn’t really connect with him. I realize that’s what Daniel Pierce’s story is about: a lament for what is missed.

 

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