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Joss Whedon on “Captivity”: Powerful Signal to Even More Powerful Noise

July 14, 2007

Joss WhedonBuffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon recently posted the following essay at Whedonesque.com on the newest feature film from Roland Joffe, Captivity.

In a review of the film by Hollywood Reporter critic, Frank Scheck, he speaks to what comes to my mind and clearly came to Joss Whedon’s mind:

“What made the esteemed director of The Killing Fields and
The Mission stoop to this is anybody’s guess.”

* * * *

May 20, 2007

Let’s Watch A Girl Get Beaten to Death.

This is not my blog, but I don’t have a blog, or a space, and I’d like to be heard for a bit.

Last month seventeen year old Dua Khalil was pulled into a crowd of young men, some of them (the instigators) family, who then kicked and stoned her to death. This is an example of the breath-taking oxymoron “honor killing”, in which a family member (almost always female) is murdered for some religious or ethical transgression. Dua Khalil, who was of the Yazidi faith, had been seen in the company of a Sunni Muslim, and possibly suspected of having married him or converted. That she was torturously murdered for this is not, in fact, a particularly uncommon story. But now you can watch the action up close on CNN. Because as the girl was on the ground trying to get up, her face nothing but red, the few in the group of more than twenty men who were not busy kicking her and hurling stones at her were filming the event with their camera-phones.

There were security officers standing outside the area doing nothing, but the footage of the murder was taken – by more than one phone – from the front row. Which means whoever shot it did so not to record the horror of the event, but to commemorate it. To share it. Because it was cool.

I could start a rant about the level to which we have become desensitized to violence, about the evils of the voyeuristic digital world in which everything is shown and everything is game, but honestly, it’s been said. And I certainly have no jingoistic cultural agenda. I like to think that in America this would be considered unbearably appalling, that Kitty Genovese is still remembered, that we are more evolved. But coincidentally, right before I stumbled on this vid I watched the trailer for “Captivity”.

A few of you may know that I took public exception to the billboard campaign for this film, which showed a concise narrative of the kidnapping, torture and murder of a sexy young woman. I wanted to see if the film was perhaps more substantial (especially given the fact that it was directed by “The Killing Fields” Roland Joffe) than the exploitive ad campaign had painted it. The trailer resembles nothing so much as the CNN story on Dua Khalil. Pretty much all you learn is that Elisha Cuthbert is beautiful, then kidnapped, inventively, repeatedly and horrifically tortured, and that the first thing she screams is “I’m sorry”.

“I’m sorry.”

What is wrong with women?

I mean wrong. Physically. Spiritually. Something unnatural, something destructive, something that needs to be corrected.

How did more than half the people in the world come out incorrectly? I have spent a good part of my life trying to do that math, and I’m no closer to a viable equation. And I have yet to find a culture that doesn’t buy into it. Women’s inferiority – in fact, their malevolence — is as ingrained in American popular culture as it is anywhere they’re sporting burkhas. I find it in movies, I hear it in the jokes of colleagues, I see it plastered on billboards, and not just the ones for horror movies. Women are weak. Women are manipulative. Women are somehow morally unfinished. (Objectification: another tangential rant avoided.) And the logical extension of this line of thinking is that women are, at the very least, expendable.

I try to think how we got here. The theory I developed in college (shared by many I’m sure) is one I have yet to beat: Womb Envy. Biology: women are generally smaller and weaker than men. But they’re also much tougher. Put simply, men are strong enough to overpower a woman and propagate. Women are tough enough to have and nurture children, with or without the aid of a man. Oh, and they’ve also got the equipment to do that, to be part of the life cycle, to create and bond in a way no man ever really will. Somewhere a long time ago a bunch of men got together and said, “If all we do is hunt and gather, let’s make hunting and gathering the awesomest achievement, and let’s make childbirth kinda weak and shameful.”

It’s a rather silly simplification, but I believe on a mass, unconscious level, it’s entirely true. How else to explain the fact that cultures who would die to eradicate each other have always agreed on one issue? That every popular religion puts restrictions on women’s behavior that are practically untenable? That the act of being a free, attractive, self-assertive woman is punishable by torture and death? In the case of this upcoming torture-porn, fictional. In the case of Dua Khalil, mundanely, unthinkably real. And both available for your viewing pleasure.

It’s safe to say that I’ve snapped. That something broke, like one of those robots you can conquer with a logical conundrum. All my life I’ve looked at this faulty equation, trying to understand, and I’ve shorted out. I don’t pretend to be a great guy; I know really really well about objectification, trust me. And I’m not for a second going down the “women are saints” route – that just leads to more stone-throwing (and occasional Joan-burning). I just think there is the staggering imbalance in the world that we all just take for granted. If we were all told the sky was evil, or at best a little embarrassing, and we ought not look at it, wouldn’t that tradition eventually fall apart? (I was going to use ‘trees’ as my example, but at the rate we’re getting rid of them I’m pretty sure we really do think they’re evil. See how all rants become one?)

Now those of you who frequent this site are, in my wildly biased opinion, fairly evolved. You may hear nothing new here. You may be way ahead of me. But I can’t contain my despair, for Dua Khalil, for humanity, for the world we’re shaping. Those of you who have followed the link I set up know that it doesn’t bring you to a video of a murder. It brings you to a place of sanity, of people who have never stopped asking the question of what is wrong with this world and have set about trying to change the answer. Because it’s no longer enough to be a decent person. It’s no longer enough to shake our heads and make concerned grimaces at the news. True enlightened activism is the only thing that can save humanity from itself. I’ve always had a bent towards apocalyptic fiction, and I’m beginning to understand why. I look and I see the earth in flames. Her face was nothing but red.

All I ask is this: Do something. Try something. Speaking out, showing up, writing a letter, a check, a strongly worded e-mail. Pick a cause – there are few unworthy ones. And nudge yourself past the brink of tacit support to action. Once a month, once a year, or just once. If you can’t think of what to do, there is this handy link. Even just learning enough about a subject so you can speak against an opponent eloquently makes you an unusual personage. Start with that. Any one of you would have cried out, would have intervened, had you been in that crowd in Bashiqa. Well thanks to digital technology, you’re all in it now.

I have never had any faith in humanity. But I will give us props on this: if we can evolve, invent and theorize our way into the technologically magical, culturally diverse and artistically magnificent race we are and still get people to buy the idiotic idea that half of us are inferior, we’re pretty amazing. Let our next sleight of hand be to make that myth disappear.

The sky isn’t evil. Try looking up.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 14, 2007 4:29 pm

    Joss:

    Thank you. Two words which frequently lack full coverage, as in this case. But I truly appreciate your question. Yes. Some of us do look up. And down. And to both sides. But it’s hard to blame those that do not, as ignorance isn’t just bliss, it’s better than heroin these days.

    I am female, constantly finding myself in the middle of crowds preaching the evil of silence. You know when I’m in the room: you see AND hear me coming. Having supported myself since I was a child, I am aware of my power and not shy about it. I enjoy men; I love men; I do not need men. BTW: I’ve got a great 25+ year marriage to a really remarkable man.

    I’m grateful to be living in SoCal because even here, I’m fully aware that in any other country on the planet…hell, in many parts of this country…I would never have made it to the age of 50 with my mouth. Whether it would have been death by family (like poor Dua Khalil) or at the hands of some stranger who took exception, I am an easy target for anyone who doesn’t like a woman with a brain. And there are lots of objectors out there.

    What’s wrong with women? Great question. I campaigned for ERA, even though I was too young to wear, let alone burn a bra. I believed in the message. So did more than a few men at the time. And yet even with the voting majority (and wealth) in this country being women, we couldn’t get this simple amendment passed. Why?

    Now you probably don’t get invited inside female inner circles as much as I do. Although, I suspect that you get invited more than most men. I have 50 years of observation and have spoken with hundreds of women on this subject: what’s wrong with us? Why do we let this myth continue to stand that we are the “weaker” sex? That we are stupid, incapable of making or sticking with decisions, bad drivers, and overall manipulators of all mankind? I mean, geez….how long are we gonna put up with that snake in the garden crap?

    I have come to the conclusion that as with many things in life, there is no one reason but a synergy. Womb Envy? Well, I’ll rank that at the top of reasons why men do it. Clearly it’s a fear of losing their power or edge. But why don’t women just rise up and smack you guys down when the first word…the first suggestion…is made? Do most women actually think men are more physically capable than women? No. I believe that most women understand that they have both the power to make life, and take it. And thus, one of our bigger problems.

    Women are raised to be mothers. We’re raised to be tolerant of a wide variety of behaviors and to appreciate the long view. We don’t just grok evolution; we are evolution. Just thinking about the process of child rearing, women start off as the center of the universe and become both all and nothing to that child throughout its life cycle. Women are taught to understand things like self-sacrifice. It’s genetically imperative, basic survival of the species stuff. And it’s biologically reinforced.

    Men are generally taught to take care of themselves. Period. Be the biggest, be the toughest, eat the most meat. As you put it, be the best hunters and gatherers. Kill (or steal from) large beasts. Insert chest thumping here. This training extends through college frat boys and beyond. We emphasize it in all forms of learning, from nursery rhymes and storybooks, to the bible, to our early comic books, to our TV and movies that always end in the girl losing a high-heel running through the forest and weeping in terror as she’s devoured by the big bad monster. Boys are encouraged to date and experiment, girls are “protected.” Girls are also taught to be survivors (we had to lobby for the right to go to war). And survivors do not stick their necks out, or at least, not as a first solution. They think before they react; less casualties.

    So, I think some of it is genetic and most of it is indoctrination. But let’s not forget the value of good PR. We have actually lived quite peacefully, flourishing as a matriarchy for many, many more years than we have as a patriarchy. But our little monkey brains have short memories (thus, the only possible explanation for electing two Bushes in the same freakin’ century). So we’re only seeing the new PR, which is all patriarchal psycho-babble.

    My last defense, your Honor, is distraction. Women are triggered from day one to preen themselves. Constantly. We have vast grooming and decorating rituals that can easily consume most of our waking spare time. You see it with 20-somethings, sure. But you also see it with 11-year olds and women beyond their 80s. And how many 9-month old girls do you see with pierced ears and nail polish already? We are distracted by the false insertion of the need to attract the opposite sex, in order to fulfill the prime directive (get a mate, have a family, protect the family). And we’re taught it’s a competition, thus further dividing us.

    This is my very favorite part. Not only are there more than enough men to go around (and really, some times, too damn many) but in all my years, I have never had a man say “No, I can’t have sex with you because you’re not wearing mascara.” Let’s face it. Most guys just need a “Ya wanna?” and frequently just the “Ya” part. So what’s the purpose of all the grooming and preening to have a competitive advantage? Distraction. TAA DAAA! Better than Houdini. Be the prettiest, the thinnest, or the sexiest. Unobtainable goals to keep us all spinning on the hamster wheel.

    Back to my earlier question: why don’t women do something about this? Well, I am the most shamed by this but it also makes the most sense. The answer is pretty simple—because at least at the moment, it serves us best. Most of the women I know and have observed in my life do not see the benefit in objecting. Why? Does it really change their lives, right now, today? Yes, I said that women are taught to take the long view. But most women also believe at their very core that they are smarter than men. Much smarter. It’s our unacknowledged global mythology—mom is smarter than we are; women are stupid. And yet, ask little kids who is smarter. Ask married couples on the street. Why do we even have a First Lady position? Could it be that none of us believe a man can do it alone?

    So most of my sisters ask what’s the point of railing when the same thing can be achieved on a quieter level? Does it matter who looks like they are in charge when we already know who’s really in charge? Which gets us right back to that whole snake in the garden lie: manipulation. Are women manipulative? You bet. Is that always a negative thing? Well, Luke, from a certain perspective, nothing is all good or bad.

    With the possible exception of movies like Joffe’s Captivity. Which has me asking wtf? This is a genre that I’m not a fan of—horror erotica. If you’re going to do it, call it what it is. Whack off material. Porn. Now I have no personal issue with pornography and have enjoyed it with and without my husband. But I have a problem with wolves in sheep’s clothing. This isn’t anything except pornography. There’s no message. No entertainment value beyond pure male sexual fantasy. So call it what it is. My “wtf?” is why would someone of Joffe’s caliber do this type of movie. Well, it just goes to show how pervasive the mythology is in America. This is what’s selling right now. It’s the new black. Really, how different is this from Hostel Part II?

    (And isn’t it interesting that when you and I grew up, the scary monster was some guy in a rubber suit and now it’s just some guy? What does that say about what really scares us?)

    What’s wrong with women? Well, we apparently don’t have a problem with a false image as long as it helps us accomplish what we want, individually. I don’t agree with that, but I’ve rarely been in the majority. What can we do about it? Well, you’re already doing it. I am a long-time Joss Whedon fan for exactly that reason: your respect and positive portrayal of women.

    The first year Buffy hit the WB, I was having lunch with an older friend, a woman in her mid 70s. In discussing our week, I mentioned taking time off from work to watch Buffy. My friend responded by launching into a half-hour discussion of why Buffy was her very favorite TV show and that she even had her husband watching it. She loved how Buffy didn’t doubt herself simply because she was born female and the positive message it sent out to all girls. And this was just one of many conversations that I have had with both girls and guys who loved Buffy because of her strengths. So strong women characters wipe out negative portrayals about 2:1, I think. And people out there like you who continue to show us strong women à la Ripley help young…and not so young girls…know that they’re not alone. A good thing.

    Sorry for the length. I honestly never respond to these things and have never, ever blogged before. But something in this hit a chord. Maybe it’s because I am producing an indie horror movie and have received all sorts of investor objections to a script with no nudity, no slashing, and no victimizing women. The girls in this film are the aggressors (it’s called Dead Girls Club and it’s very suspense-oriented like the old Hitchcocks). In countless meetings with old white guys, I’m told that it’s just not normal for the girls to be aggressive. My favorite was a meeting with a group of Mormon investors who had just put about $500k into a movie about zombies eating passengers on a 747 in mid-flight. Nice. But when they read our script and saw that the girls were the aggressors and not the victims, they unanimously voted it as being “too weird.”

    What a world. What a biz. Good to have people like you in it. Thank you again.

    debra

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