Time for a confession: about once a month I sit down in the middle of the day.
That’s it. That’s my confession. You were hoping for something a bit more titillating, weren’t you?
Mainly I sit down because I’m so exhausted that the mere thought of trying to be productive makes me want to curl into the fetal position and cry, but since doing so would freak me out, instead, I watch TV.
TV, in the middle of the day, even with 999 channels (we have satellite) is an utter wasteland. 999 channels and there is seriously Nothing On. Friends reruns. Two-bit talk shows. Porn. Flipping channels can honestly make me despair about the future of civilization, or wonder if we’ve deceived ourselves collectively into thinking we are civilized when that ship sailed long before The Maury Show hit the airwaves.
But every once in a while, deep in the HBO channels, there’s a movie on that I remember from my 20s and I’ll watch it for a while. Last month it was True Lies (1994). Remember that disaster starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis as Harry and Helen Tasker? The most impressive thing in that movie was the AV-8B Harrier jet that Harry commandeers near the end. But what arrested my attention at this most recent viewing was the way in which the movie captures the shift that was well underway by the mid-90s concerning the relationship between the sexes and women’s roles in particular — what the expectations were for us in marriage, the workplace, society, sex.
Movies, we all know, both reflect and shape cultural expectations, so when a mess like True Lies hits the screen, we unwittingly bear witness to the tension, usually without even knowing it. In my case, I didn’t see anything “wrong” at the time with True Lies — to the contrary, I thought it was great that the frumpy housewife got to be a sexy spy after all, and that she did things like slug her boorish husband in the jaw for lying to her. But the movie drips with misogyny — I just didn’t have eyes to see it.
This month I watched GI Jane (1997). Demi Moore plays Jordan O’Neil (note the gender-neutral name), a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy who is manipulated by scheming politicians (a redundancy if ever there was one) to be a token female in a fictionalized version of Navy SEAL training and, if she makes the grade, covert ops. It is assumed that she will ring out of bootcamp and prove that all women for all times should not serve in the US Military. Of course, our hero does not fail. She shaves her head, meets every challenge and shows she’s not only physically capable but also clever, a natural born leader. In the end, she gets serious (and poetic!) props from the Command Master Chief, played by Viggo Mortensen — the only thing in the course of her experience to bring tears to her eyes.
I’m sure library shelves are full of graduate-level theses examining the portrayal of women in film, and I have no intent of adding to that discourse here.
Rather, I want to point out — and maybe this is obvious — that when you sit down and watch a 20 year old movie it is much easier to see the ways in which our culture was trying to make sense of how men and women ought to relate, in what ways were they same and different, what the available roles were for each gender. Schwarzenegger was at the pinnacle of his movie career in 1994 and represented the ideal archetypal male. Demi Moore had posed for that scandalous Vanity Fair cover 6 years earlier and her physical transformation into GI Jane had both men and women alike slack-jawed (how on earth could a woman, a mother, do those one-handed pushups?).
Here’s the money shot. I point all this out because we are, of course, in a similar transformational cultural moment — maybe we never left the last one — and too many of us are too blind too much of the time to what is happening and what is at stake. I include myself in there, friends. What it means to be men and women is Up For Grabs right now, as technology and a global economy have shifted the ground from underneath our feet. I’m sure there are many other factors, but those two stand out for me.
The Church that I love is trying to figure this out too, both theologically and practically, and as you might expect, many people seem to be retreating to a place far away from that midline: the conservatives are getting more conservative and the progressives more progressive. Few want to occupy the tentative, tension-filled space near the middle where the line is hard to see because you are standing right on top of it.
I could write a thesis on the myriad ways in which this is happening right now in Evangelical culture. In fact, it would take a thesis-length paper to do it justice. On the one end of the spectrum, we watch the redefinition of gender-as-spectrum and the concurrent redefinition of marriage; Tony Jones and sacramental vs. legal wives; the Emergent Church and LGBTQ inclusion, and so on. On the other end, pretty much anything connected to Mark Driscoll, John Piper and Al Mohler; the Authentic Manhood movement that places Jesus in Schwarzenegger’s coveted role; the Duggars, Duck Dynasty, and lots of guys like this fellow, affiliated with John Eldredge, who in all fairness, explains forthrightly and quite thoughtfully that his blog is for men. Manly men (or those who want to be). Knife-toting, flannel shirt wearing, God-fearing, Spiritual Leader (TM) Men, not wussy metro men who live in suburbs and enjoy wearing Tommy Bahamas shirts and drinking wine. And Definitely Not For Women.
Because women are the opposite of men, male is the opposite of female, masculine is the opposite of feminine. Or is it women and men are on a continuum, a spectrum, with gender as fluid and negotiable, and roles between and among men and women also best understood as fluid and negotiable. Or something else that’s not linear at all, a gender version of wave particle duality?
We are living in this tense cultural moment and it is hard for us to see the ways in which we are being shaped by and also reflecting and reinforcing our preconceptions. Some of us don’t care because we think it doesn’t matter. Some think if we withdraw far enough the raging current won’t knock us or our children off our feet. Some pick up arms of all sorts to wage culture war.
What will we think 20 years from now, when time and distance and experience yield hindsight and, one hopes, at least a modicum of wisdom? What will our movies, our blogs, even our theology tell us about ourselves 10 years, 20 years hence?
Perhaps the more salient question, given that there is nothing new under the sun, is how ought we to live this moment? How ought we hold the tension, treat our “enemy” who wants to shape male and female in ways we don’t approve? How ought we think about and engage with those who hold the opposing point of view?
I don’t have the answer, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.