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No smiles

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Sunday, Mar 30, 2008

Watching Saturday Night Fever got me thinking about this. The film’s usually remembered as the film that launched disco into the mainstream, but it’s a pretty disturbing, dark film, full of class-inflected racism and misogyny. It climaxes with a gang rape in the backseat of a car while Travolta, thwarted in his own rape attempt, sulks in the front seat. Then the Bobby C., the kid who got a girl pregnant but doesn’t want to be forced to marry her, jumps off the Verrazano Bridge, seemingly trapped by her refusal to get an abortion. The woman-hating is pretty raw and only partially redeemed by the implication of the final scene, that Travolta escapes juvenile mediocrity and working-class self-sabotage by learning to have a mature friendship with a woman, his dance partner who has already made the symbolic leap to Manhattan. The unpleasant ending all but obliterates the vicarious liberation supplied by the peerless dance sequences (now no longer kitschy but just incredible), leaving viewers feeling trapped with a bunch of narrow-minded bigots and misguided dreamers who don’t have enough sense to hope for the sort of things that we watching can approve of. It’s uncomfortable, but does it serve any useful purpose to confront us so starkly with the limited horizons, the doomedness, of the people it has chosen to depict and give an aura of reality to? Is it some kind of implied critique, or are we still vicariously thrilling, only to something else, something meaner, the kind of harsh reality we are happy to see inflicted on other classes (making us feel a bit immune from it)? In Fear of Falling, Barbara Ehrenreich argues that the film fits in to the late 1960s-early 1970s “discovery of the working class” by the middle class interests that control the media and have a lot at stake in fashioning a working class other to demonize and contrast themselves with. And it certainly sets up admission to the middle class as maturity, the prize for rejecting the hedonistic life of the disco and the immediate gratifications it caters to. But is there also a critique of misogyny in all the female hating throughout the film, or simply a reinforcement of its alleged inevitability, or of the hopelessness of trying to changing it?


I want to give the film the benefit of the doubt and view it as exposing underlying misogyny that most films have built into their structure. Something Shulamith Firestone points out throughout Dialectic of Sex is that sexism often manifests in forms we’re trained to regard as appealing and pleasant, or as harmless fun; this is how it gets replicated and reproduced for generation after generation. For example: “Because the class oppression of women and children is couched in the phraseology of ‘cute’ it is much harder to fight than open oppression.” Cuteness is a form of infantilization and self-trivialization, but there can still be something irresistible and fun about cataloging cute things and cooing over them. It would be curmudgeonly and false to deny their appeal, only they have become intimately connected with setting out the boundaries of gendered behavior. Firestone responds to the way men often demand smiles from women (and children) and mask their aggression with this request that seems to them innocuous, almost a favor (she’ll be so much prettier if she smiles) by earnestly calling for “a smile boycott, at which declaration all women would instantly abandon their ‘pleasing’ smiles, henceforth smiling only when something pleased them.” Of course, I, like most white middle-class men, have been enacting the smile boycott my entire life and never understood it to be a politically motivated action. The freedom to express one’s feelings naturally is not automatically granted. In fact, it’s finding out who experiences that freedom and takes it for granted is a good way to identify who has privilege in a society.

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