Heather Cromarty: on Pain Porn and Complicity

While reading Pain, Porn and Complicity my mind kept returning to that bizarre Stephen Marche interview of Megan Fox in Esquire.  It was mysteriously bad.  It was doesn’t-make-sense bad.  At the time I thought Marche had played his hand early on in the piece, when he wrote “the symmetry of her face, up close, is genuinely shocking. …  It’s not really even that beautiful. It’s closer to the sublime, a force of nature … What she is is flawless. There is absolutely nothing wrong with her.”  Whether this symmetry is a nervous hallucination on Marche’s part, or because rumoured plastic surgery has created her face, Marche perceives it as “indistinguishable from humans yet … not human” (McConnell).  I supposed that Marche was experiencing Fox’s face as uncanny because the human face is not flawless, and it is not symmetrical. “Uncanniness leads to uncertainty in the eyes of beholders who cannot trust evidence provided by their senses, and thus, uncertainty” (McConnell). Fox, with her perfect face and ability to speak instead of being a “screen saver“ creeps him out.  And so he writes an article about her spooky religion, her Gothic mansion festooned with candles and iconography, of ripping out the hearts of virgins.  In writing about movies where “ugly” women succeed, he chooses two with the word “monster” in the title: “Or else you must disfigure yourself, like Charlize Theron in Monster. Or you must allow yourself to be brutalized, like Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball.”  “I have to feel like I’m in control of my body,” says the object-subject Fox, and Marche spends his word allotment deeply uneasy of that control.  This is all directly in relation to the main thesis of  Pain, Porn and Complicity: “What happens when a beautiful woman — what Laura Mulvey would call an object of scopophilia, or what the rest of us would more colloquially term ‘eye candy’ — is invested with enough agency to become the central subject.”

Pain, Porn and Complicity: Women Heroes from Pygmalion to Twilight applies critical theory to science fiction and fantasy media.  Many of the examples used by author Kathleen McConnell are low-rated, by viewers and/or critics.  McConnell introduces A.I. by saying “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence is not a good movie”; Dark Angel was cancelled after only two seasons; Catwoman, in its Halle Berry version, was rated as “barely a film — it’s more like a music video-slash-TV commercial-slash-computer game.” She employs the Pygmalion myth as underpinning for inquiry involving ideas of creation and ownership.  These ideas come into play rather often, for the robots in A.I., the genetically enhanced heroine of Dark Angel, and of course the eventual vampire turn of Bell Swan in the Twilight series.   McConnell is able to “flex and stretch” (the title of the Catwoman essay) within the confines of some truly terrible sounding pop culture products.  For example, while she has done a large and literate analysis of Dark Angel, the astute analysis cannot save it from sounding like a truly awful show.  It feels as if the subtext must be subconscious, making a psychoanalytic analysis rather perfectly appropriate.

McConnell’s most thoughtful essay deals with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Columbine Massacre of 1999. She was in the midst of formulating an essay on Buffy’s effect on the pop culture landscape but had to shift course after Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shot and killed 12 of their peers, then themselves. “How could I write about Buffy’s metaphorical battles?” she asks, after the all too real violence had erupted at Columbine. “And yet, bizarrely it seemed to me at the time, a connection developed between the massacre and the TV show.”  McConnell, unlike talking heads everywhere, didn’t attempt to blame the media and culture for high school violence.  Rather, she writes that Buffy could not exist without a culture in which high-school violence already existed. McConnell employs the idea of the “strange attractor” from chaos theory:

’deeply encoded structures’ in what otherwise appear to be chaotic situations.  … Theorists posit the presence of a strange attractor to explain unpredictable phenomena which occur within a bounded, definable situation. … Whedon recognized that there is a predictable element to the chaotic incidents of violence that take place in high schools, though he doesn’t call it a ‘strange attractor.’ He calls it the Hellmouth. … I posit that there’s a strange attractor in any given high school culture and the Hellmouth of Buffy is a metaphorical reification of that high school strange attractor.

Columbine was going to happen, eventually, because it was “statistically though not individually predictable.” Buffy tapped into “the central myth of high school as horrific.”

The piece likely to be the most read, or flipped to first, is the analysis of the Twilight[i] quartet of novels. As one of the biggest pop culture phenomena in the past ten years, the series is certainly worth investigating. The analysis of Twilight isn’t at all surprising (Twilight mimics 1970s romances which focus on the heroine’s abnegation), but it is thorough.  The examination of masochism in female protagonists is most welcome because it’s (probably necessarily) missing from Gilles Deleuze’s investigation of literary masochism and sadism, Coldness and Cruelty. Twilight (and the tradition of 1970s romance novels it mimics) inverts the original masochistic setup. “Edward has the cruelty, callousness, coldness, menace, age, damned good looks and car, while Bella has the blandness, mother-wit, ability to cook, patience-in-adversity, efficiency-in-planning, good clothes sense and facility for lying required for the hero and heroine of a 1970s mass-market romance.”

Deleuze defines masochism as a contract sought, codified, and enacted mainly by the masochist.  Using the work of Michelle A. Massé, McConnell writes that the female masochist, in contrast, is “’the end result of a long and varyingly successful cultural training’ (Massé, 3) which teaches girls to monitor themselves, to normalize the denial of active drives, to forget their pain and suffering as pain and suffering and to remember them as evidence of affection and their own lovability.”  This is “precisely the amnesiac, masochistic path which Bella follows through the quartet.” For women in a romance or Gothic novel, masochism is never a choice — it’s an expectation.

It’s to McConnell’s credit that her ideas and the way she puts them across can work outside their specific analyses.  The work on Twilight is even more applicable to the cultural response to 50 Shades of Grey, less an iteration than direct retelling of Twilight that substitutes BDSM for the supernatural.  50 Shades’ success was almost assured because it held so tightly to the formula. Without having read the whole book, but enough of the book and the multitude of pieces about it, I suspect that the formula set up by Stephanie Myer in Twilight functions even better in 50 Shades even if — especially if — the notion of masochism in a female Gothic heroine is removed from a sexual context.  Indeed many have commented that in 50 Shades there’s a striking lack of sex in a book ostensibly about sex.  What 50 Shades does have, though, is the focus on the contract, pages and pages and pages of the contract, which brings us right back around to Deleuze.

McConnell’s work, while wholly interesting in itself, also gives a reader a lasting lens through which to view other media. This is precisely what good theoretical explication should do.

Heather Cromarty is a contributor to Lemon Hound.


[i] I follow McConnell’s convention of formatting the series as Twilight, and the first book of the series as Twilight.

Please follow and like us:
0

173total visits,2visits today

Social media & sharing icons powered by UltimatelySocial