News & Politics

When the Babes Beat Up the Boys

A recent spate of pop culture man-beatings indicates that the War of the Sexes is far from over. Why has the image of a frenzied female attacking a callow guy become a media staple?
Hoping to score a few publicity points in what seems to be the worst magazine market in the history of humankind, the neanderthal rag Maxim is teaming up with bimbo bible Cosmopolitan to declare the war of the sexes over.

The truce was Maxim's idea, and no wonder -- after all, the caricatured men they pander to are regularly getting their asses kicked all over the culture, from Janet Jackson videos to art house films like "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon" and "The Business of Strangers." Online, it's easy to see the enduring affection for Valerie Solanis, shooter of Andy Warhol and author of the SCUM Manifesto, which declared, "To call a man an animal is to flatter him; he's a machine, a walking dildo ... The male is, by his very nature, a leech, an emotional parasite and, therefore, not ethically entitled to live, as no one has the right to live at someone else's expense." The Manifesto is reproduced on a dozen websites in several languages by adorers who agree with the San Francisco Bay Guardian columnist who wrote last year, "I may not follow in her footsteps, but I definitely light a candle for her on occasion, as do many women. She may be a wacky somewhat addled saint, but she's a bit of a saint to me."

Clearly, a rapprochement about toilet seat covers won't go far towards dampening such anger. Before any gender truce is possible, we need to figure out why so many women are so enraged, and why the image of a frenzied female attacking a callow guy has become such a media staple.

It all started innocently enough, with cute, courageous post-feminist icons like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Powerpuff Girls, Tomb Raider's Laura Croft and Charlie's Angels. These were girls on the side of good, able to get along with the nice guys who came their way but unafraid to take on villains of either gender. Buffy never used her awesome strength against men who were merely caddish -- she saved it for homicidal monsters.

Of course, for many women who know the sharp, desolate fear of walking home on empty streets late at night, it's viscerally satisfying to watch Buffy demolish the (usually) male demons lurking in dark alleys. Yet creator Joss Whedon never casts the fights as explicit sex wars. In one episode last year, she gets her heart trampled by a campus player, but viewers hoping that Buffy would give him a kung-fu comeuppance would have been disappointed. Instead, later in the season, she saved his life.

Lately, though, girl power has gone awry. Now, men are being punished not for violence, but for betraying promises they may never have made. Take the recent Janet Jackson video for "Son of a Gun," where, backed by a posse of stone-faced glamazons, Miss Jackson uses telekinetic powers to lay waste to a hapless guy while a sample from Carly Simon's "You're So Vain" loops ominously.

Then there's Pink's 2001 video "You Make Me Sick," in which the scarlet-haired singer rams her motorcycle through the plate-glass wall of an apartment belonging to the man who did her wrong.

In mainstream movies, there's Cameron Diaz trying to kill both herself and Tom Cruise because he dissed her after a one-night stand. On the indie circuit there's Stockard Channing and Julia Stiles assaulting and degrading a corporate headhunter for his supposed sexual offenses -- or just his potential to commit them.

This new wave of violence against men is no longer about empowered heroines protecting the world from metaphorical rapists and pillagers. This is about raw, crazy, Fatal Attraction-style vengeance. But in this era of the swinging single girl, of hook ups and friendly fucks and Sex and the City, what exactly are women getting revenge for?

Despite what the right wing says, these fictional females don't represent the castrating succubae unleashed by feminism. Rather, they represent the rage and betrayal born from a very bad deal that post-feminists struck with Maxim-like men.

In the mid-90s, it suddenly became very fashionable for feminists to loudly proclaim their love of sex. The term do-me feminism was coined by Esquire, Maxim's predecessor, to describe figures like Katie Roiphe, Susie Bright and other strong, aggressive chicks who went out of their way to knock down the straw woman of old-school feminist prudery. An explosion of randy female sex columnists followed, people like Details Anka and The New York Press's Amy Sohn. They made clear that they wanted to come, not to commit.

Thus one of the key archetypes of the 90s was born -- the power-slut in designer heels, savvy, horny as hell and on the prowl. "Where does it say that women can't act like men?" asked Fox's iconic Ally McBeal. Candace Bushnell, whose Sex and the City column was the basis of the hit show, put it this way: "If you're a successful single woman in this city, you have two choices: You can beat your head against the wall trying to find a relationship, or you can say 'screw it' and just go out and have sex like a man."

But shouldn't the point of a feminist sexual revolution have been to make it ok -- to make it fabulous -- to have sex like women, whatever that might mean? What Bushnell was talking about wasn't freedom, it was capitulation -- agreeing to men's terms in order to pre-empt disappointment. Women weren't challenging the old idea of seduction as a contest between predator and prey -- they were just demanding to play a new role.

Thus in many stories, sex became a weird dance between two hostile parties warily circling each other like characters in a millennial "Dangerous Liaisons." Consider this scene from Jennifer Egan's brilliant new novel "Look At Me," in which the narrator Charlotte brings a casual pickup home. "I was not like most women," she assures us. "For me, the sexual act had nothing to do with love, or rarely ... I didn't worry much about my own performance; as I saw it, any man who succeeded at picking me up with so little effort, with no strings attached and without having to pay for it, should consider himself to be having an extremely good day." So far, she's the epitome of libidinous cool, but the sensualist facade falls apart in the next few paragraphs. "Paul seemed pretty starved himself, and the whole thing was over quickly," Egan writes. "And it was only as he rose from the bed, his body illuminated by the colored lights of the city, that I caught the glint of calculation behind his eyes, a cold, blank set to his face. His shadow self, and not a nice one."

There's no sense of triumph at the end of this scene (as there might have been if it had been written from Paul's perspective), just a sour sort of emptiness and percolating hate. "Look At Me" also contains a scene that, if the gender roles were reversed, would be a pretty unambiguous case of rape, and another that recalls Cameron Diaz's suicidal/homicidal dash in "Vanilla Sky.'

In "Look At Me," Charlotte's emotionless sexual voracity quickly exposes itself as a defense mechanism. A similar neediness often shows beneath post-feminist do-me bravado. Women declare their desire for boy toys, but they seem to long for old-fashioned chivalry. In Katie Roiphe's 1997 "The Independent Woman (and Other Lies)," she admitted to pining for a man who would take care of her. In Amy Sohn's first novel, which seemed like a fictionalized memoir, the sex-columnist narrator invents her skanky exploits while secretly hoping to land a mensch. In "Kate and Leopold," this season's only romantic comedy, Manhattanite Meg Ryan is won over by the anachronistic courtesy of a time-traveling Victorian Duke. In pop culture, women dream of gentlemen while insisting they don't want any more than the most callous womanizer is offering.

The drama being played out in movies, videos, music and books is rooted in this schizophrenia and the inchoate anger that results from it. Thus on MTV female singers declare their sexual libertinism and then turn around and beat men to a pulp for being unfaithful. Janet Jackson celebrates nasty boys in one song and punishes them in another. Pink is a self-actualized diva on songs like "Most Girls," singing, "I never cared too much for love/ It was all a bunch of mush that I just did not want/ Paid was the issue of the day/ If a girlfriend's got some game/ Couldn't be more fly, gettin paid was everything." But songs like "You Make Me Sick" and "There You Go" are loud, enflamed tracks about avenging unfaithfulness. One song on her 2000 album "Can't Take Me Home" is aptly titled "Split Personality."

In "The Business of Strangers," Julia Stiles is cast as a caricature post-feminist, replete with tattoos and a porn habit. She uses her sexual allure to dominate and humiliate the businessmen around her -- much to the initial delight of middle-age corporate striver Stockard Channing. But in the end Stiles' character is no heroine, nor is she righting any specific wrongs. Her anger is rooted in the ability of men in general to hurt women. "Like every man, he knows he has the potential to do what he shouldn't do," she says at one point. The particular man she chooses to torment is just a symbol of his sex.

As Susan Faludi pointed out in her book "Stiffed," men who abuse women usually do so out of a sense of powerlessness rather than a feeling of striding dominance. The same can be said of women who lash out blindly at men. Characters like Buffy and Jen Yu in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon are empowering because they take on the superhero mantle for themselves. That's a very different thing than adopting the prerogative of the abuser.

It's not that women don't have a lot to be livid about. The fact that the image of women attacking men doesn't have the same impact as men terrorizing women is testament to a continued power imbalance. But most of this Lorena Bobbitish behavior doesn't have much to do with achieving equal rights. Rather, it's about frustration in a brutal sexual marketplace.

And it's not good for anyone. After all, who seems like the stronger woman -- Pink on her kamikaze bike, steely Janet Jackson knocking a man on the floor in a parking garage, or the round, soulful, self-assured Angie Stone singing "Brotha," her ode to good black men? Stone projects an easy, glowing confidence, transcending the victim/victor mode for a kind of understated sensual solidarity. Fury may be a potent weapon in ripping old structures apart, but to build anything new and satisfying, there's got to be love.

Michelle Goldberg is a Brooklyn-based freelancer whose work has appeared in Salon, The Industry Standard, Shift, Speak, the National Post and newspapers nationwide.

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