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  • Jo Page

Designing Men

I grew up in a house full of women—my mother, my sisters, our dog--my father having died when I was nine. Like my own mother, I became a single parent, too, when my two daughters were still small. Plus, I’ve always hewed to the traditionally feminine: I was a ballet dancer. I’m VIB at Sephora. I budget-plan for cashmere.

That said, I’ve spent my adult life in what has been a traditionally male profession. Sure, times change and you see more female clergy. But at any given meeting of regional pastors, my gender is predictably in the minority.

Perhaps because of the lack of fathers/brothers/sons in my life, I have always been fascinated by men. Or maleness. I like military history—largely written by men. I like church history—largely written by men. I like the Western literary canon--again, largely written by men. Since I’m straight, I have sought men as companions and partners, too.

But I’m feeling uncomfortable these days about men. And no, it’s not because of Peter Martins/Charles Dutoit/Aniz Ansari/Garrison Keillor/Matt Lauer/Charlie Rose/Jeremy Piven/Al Franken/Mario Batali/Tavis Smiley/Ryan Lizza/Dustin Hoffman/Andrew Kreiberg/Roy Moore/Louis CK/Ben and Casey Affleck/Harvey and Bob Weinstein/Michael Oreskes/George HW Bush/Steven Seagal/James Toback/James Franco etc. et. al. These are just the famous guys—well, some, anyway.

Men sexually harassing women (or men) may be news, but it’s not new. We need to quit feigning shock and just find a way to end it. Because most women manage not to treat our crushes like the condiments bar at a rest-stop MacDonald’s.

No, what’s worrying me is the portrayal of men in recent films.

That’s nothing new, either, sadistic male characters. Think Hannibal Lector. Harry Lime, Hans Landa, Lord Voldemort. Think Robert Mitchem in “Night of the Hunter” and in “Cape Fear.” Robert DeNiro in the “Cape Fear” remake. Think Jack Nicholson in just about anything. Or in his unique neuroses-excuses-misogyny-way, Woody Allen

Years ago I saw “Cold Mountain” with my daughter when she was young enough that I regretted our movie choice. I wept as Mrs. Swanger was tortured, coming as it does after sundry rapes and beatings. I wanted to whisper to my daughter, “people aren’t like that.” But maybe some people are.

So I was stymied by back-to-back viewings of “Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri” and “The Shape of Water,” both hugely favored to win big at the Academy Awards. Both movies feature male directors. And both are chock-a-block full of men worthy of hating.

Guillermo del Toro makes it a little easier in his film. We are authorized to hate Richard Strickland and to be (at the very least) disgusted at Zelda’s less-than-useless husband, Brewster. But in a world run by men, “The Shape of Water” makes us want to dive deep and swim hard to get away from it, though that is not an easy exit.

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is psychologically craftier—but craftier and pernicious. Its conceit is an overblown cliché—people can change. But it’s not clear that they do. And there is no justice afforded the wronged, nor punishment meted to the wrongdoers. Francis McDormand is supposed to make all of this okay since we loved her as Marge in “Fargo.” But her character here is a harridan vigilante who, were she not living in Ebbing, Missouri might be able to see Russia from her house. The bond she forms with racist Dickson didn’t endear the movie to my extended, mixed-race family. I think you have to be really, really white to like “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”

Movies that normalize cruelty portrayed as typically male behavior—even if they wag a finger at it—also authorize it. And when male directors proffer despicable men as entertainment—as we find in two of our Oscar-nominated blockbusters this year--I end up confused: Is this merely self-hatred? Or cinematic reporting? And what does this say about men?


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