Dodsworth and Patriarchy

William Wyler's Dodsworth is a fascinating film due to its critique of patriarchy. There's this idea that feminism was in a terrible state between the World Wars (when, in fact, people like Dorothy Sayers were writing fairly steadily on the issue), that it gain ground after WWII and reached its peak during the wonderful 70s what with Woodstock and the Sexual Revolution (where wolfish men discovered that liberated women are even more susceptible and unprotected than their less liberated counterparts) and so on and so forth.

This is a fallacy. The issue was, as they say, under advisement for a long time before the 70s (for as long as people have been on the earth, frankly), and people have had some downright interesting things to say on the subject. Unfortunately, the interesting things that people like Wyler and Sayers had to say have become swallowed up in the "all women think the same" creed of the Democratic party (apparently, it's why I should have voted for Kerry) which creed causes women like me to grind their teeth in manifest disapproval (and go vote for somebody else).

What Wyler has to say in Dodsworth is that patriarchy has its downside for men as well as for women. In Dodsworth, a captain of industry retires and goes to Europe with his wife who he adores, or thinks he does. His wife, who is childish, shallow, vain and pathetic, then begins a series of flirtations/affairs in a desperate attempt to avoid the knowledge that she is growing old. Dodsworth puts up with it all until the wife, flattered by the attentions of a younger man, pushes Dodsworth to agreeing to a divorce. Which he reluctantly does. Dodsworth travels around Europe, depressed, waiting for the divorce to become final and eventually discovers that life actually isn't so bad when you don't have to worry about a childish, shallow, vain, pathetic leech. Except then, to nobody's surprise, the marriage to the younger man falls through and the wife comes running back to Dodsworth. Since I didn't actually loath the movie, you might be able to guess the ending, but I'll leave some lingering suspense.

The point about patriarchy is that Dodsworth's actions for most of the movie are those of a man who feels an obligation to protect this vain, silly woman. She's his wife. She's his responsibility. He keeps coming back and coming back because it simply isn't in the cards for him to say, "You're an adult, get over yourself." And (and this is the even more important point), the wife expects him to keep coming back and keep coming back. She wants it both ways; she wants this carefree independent life . . . with a safety net. She wants to be her own woman and do her own thing as long as hubby is always in the background to pick up the pieces.

Colette Dowling calls this the Cinderella Complex and wrote a book about it. In her book, she points out that equality is more than just a token agreement ("I'm equal/you're equal, aren't we great!"), it's a choice. For women, it involves, among other things, taking on responsibility. Men can no longer be held accountable (i.e. blamed) for women's mistakes or expected to fix them and vice versa. (There's a wonderful Dharma & Greg episode in which Greg meets up with an old school chum who has "made it" and Greg gets upset that Dharma never pushed him more, at which point Dharma reminds him that she will always support him, but hey, buddy, it's up to you. "I know," Greg says to her, "but when you said 'Follow your dreams,' you think you could have added a bit about how hard it is?")

Now, I have a great deal of respect for two types of women (well, three really). The first type of woman accepts patriarchy as it is, the pros and cons. She likes the pros of patriarchy: the protection, the chivalry, the whatnot. She's willing to put up with the cons. She isn't weak or credulous. Afterall, there's nothing that proves that any system out there is better than patriarchy and every reason to believe a matriarchy would be just as problematic and besides, many women get along better with men than with other women anyway.

The second type of woman wants true equality, perhaps because she believes it is possible, perhaps because she thinks it ought to be possible (it isn't really, but that's not the point), perhaps because she thinks she has a duty to try to make it possible. She's willing to pay the costs, let them fall as they will. She's willing to do the hard work of being an independent person. And she doesn't blame the system because blaming the system is just another way of avoiding responsibility and of falling back into "I'm so weak, I have to have men protect me/change their behavior, etc. before I can be strong."

And then there's the rest of us who waffle between those two positions, and I actually respect that as well. Because, well, a lot of life is waffling between positions, trying to compromise, trying to get along with people, trying not to go all crazy and self-important.

But what I don't respect are the women who want it both ways; they want all the benefits of equality, independence, but they want a safety net. They don't want to duke it out with men, gender to gender, which is, you know, fair and honorable and all that good stuff. They want men to say, "Oh, yes, you're right, we're horrible. Stupid us. We’ll stop our horrible male behavior and see that you get what you want." And if actual men won't do this, they want the system to do it, the horrible, horrible patriarchal system that has been so mean to them (poor, little butterflies). The government becomes daddy, and they will scold daddy until daddy behaves nicely. (Which utterly fails with someone like Bush; it works with someone like Clinton, that salacious rogue; he'll be anybody's daddy, no problem. But Bush is married to a reserved, intelligent and self-contained woman who he loves devotedly, and I doubt it would even occur to him that he's supposed to be running around making women in general feel good about themselves.)

Of course, it all comes down to the problem that if you throw out the bathwater of patriarchy, you throw out the baby of American democracy (which democracy makes it possible for women to duke it out with men). But, say I, either take the gift and play the game, ladies (offense or defense, it doesn't really matter), or get out of the tub. But to sit around complaining that the bathwater is too hot or too cold and that the guy in charge of the tap should be doing a better job, and really, you should be in charge anyway, but well, you just can't because life is so unfair, blah, blah, blah, well, that's just silly, vain, shallow and pathetic, now isn't it?

CATEGORY: MOVIES

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