I recently watched the film “Shame,” directed by Steve McQueen starring Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan. Michael Fassbender plays Brandon, a successful person in his 30’s living in New York who suffers from a sexual addiction. It is a truly amazing film, and it’s really unfortunate that it wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award last year. Unfortunately, the existence of the film and the reaction to it say almost as much as the film itself does.

Shame Movie Poster

Shame Movie Poster (1)

Warning: Spoilers Ahead!

It’s difficult to classify specifically what Brandon’s addiction is, and the film wisely doesn’t try and explain it for us. Instead, the film simply observes his behavior and his interactions with others. It simultaneously tries to make a statement about addiction in general, but also sets out to tell a very personal story as well. We see Brandon engaging in as many sexual encounters as possible. He takes several breaks during work to masturbate in a bathroom stall. He always arrives late to work, even though he leaves his apartment early. He takes long lunches and takes off during the afternoon to have sex with prostitutes. He starts looking at porn and masturbating as soon as he gets home, and doesn’t stop until he goes to bed. His life is consumed by sex.

Brandon’s sister Sissy is a singer trying to make it in New York, but hasn’t had a lot of luck. Early in the film, she stops by Brandon’s apartment and asks to stay with him because she doesn’t have anywhere else to stay. Brandon, desperate to conceal his addiction, is very reluctant to say yes but he eventually relents. They don’t get along and constantly fight, but she stays and he doesn’t throw her out. We learn that Sissy cuts herself and it is implied that she has attempted to commit suicide in the past. Both of their pasts are shrouded in mystery, but we get the impression that they went through a shared trauma together.


Brandon (2)

Brandon sometimes goes out in the evening with his boss, David, to various bars and lounges. David is the type that hits on anything that moves, and usually fails spectacularly. Brandon never hits on anyone, which ironically makes him more attractive to others than David does. Brandon never puts any effort into picking up women at all; if they happen to want to have sex, then all the better, but otherwise he couldn’t care less. I suspect that Brandon doesn’t try because he is so used to porn/prostitutes who don’t say no that pursuing women at a bar just isn’t worth the effort. One night, David and Brandon go to hear Sissy sing, leading to one of the best scenes in the entire film.

Brandon eventually asks a co-worker, Marianne, out one evening which leads to a very awkward dinner. Brandon obviously doesn’t know how to act around real people. At one point, he goes to a hotel with Marianne where they try to have sex, but Brandon isn’t able to maintain an erection. It’s a rather unusual situation for someone with a sex addiction, but at the same time it kinda makes sense. Brandon is not used to having to care about the sexuality of a partner, and indeed is not used to having any connection at all with his partner. It’s possible that Brandon feels that having sex with Marianne is letting her into his secret life, making him apprehensive. Or perhaps it’s that sex with Marianne is a little to “real” for him. Or maybe it’s just simply too much effort. Sex with prostitutes is an act of fantasy that is completely focused on Brandon, so this situation just doesn’t fit with his usual experiences.

The comparisons with drug abuse are obvious, but there are a few key differences. Drug abuse has, in a way, become “accepted.” Not in the sense that it’s OK to be addicted to drugs, but in the sense that it’s OK to admit if you have a problem. Society has accepted that drug abuse is just a part of modern society, albeit an undesirable one. Sex addiction, however, has no such acceptance. Admitting that one is a sex addict is likely to result in much shaming and revulsion for all but the most experienced therapists. It must be an incredibly lonely experience compared to other addictions. We see this in the reaction of Brandon when his sister catches him masturbating one evening. This, in and of itself, isn’t that big of a deal; most guys, myself included, have been caught masturbating at least once in their lives. Normally it’s just an embarrassing situation that you get over quickly, but not so with Brandon: he utterly flips out. He is aware that sex addiction is universally reviled, and is freaked out that his may be exposed. While most addicts display similar behavior, the severity of the reaction for Brandon seems much greater.


Sissy (2)

The climactic moment in the movie has Brandon spiraling out of control wherein he goes on a sex “bender.” He goes to clubs, meets up with prostitutes, and even frequents a gay bar where he hooks up with some men, something he hadn’t shown an inclination for before. It seems obvious that Brandon just needs more and more, and is willing to try anything to satisfy his cravings. Like any addiction, his fixes become less and less fixating over time, requiring him to do more and more to satisfy him. During this time, Sissy attempts to commit suicide. When Brandon finally gets home, he finds her in a pool of blood on his bathroom floor. She survives, barely, and Brandon is utterly shaken. He resolves himself to rid himself of his addiction, and we get the sense that he may finally find some resolution. But, as in reality, this is not bound to last. While riding on the subway, Brandon exchanges glances with a beautiful woman and we immediately know that he has slipped back into his old habits. Although not exactly an uplifting ending, it is sadly realistic. People who overcome their addictions are, unfortunately, in the minority.

One frustrating aspect of this film is it’s rating. This film was rated NC-17, and that is absolutely absurd. It’s not surprising in the least, but it’s still absurd. In any absolute measure of the sense, there wasn’t anything in this film that Eyes Wide Shut, Original Sin, or Basic Instinct didn’t also have. So what makes this movie different? Two things: it contained full male nudity, and it contained gay sex. This is something that just pisses me off to no end: full female nudity is perfectly OK (hell, PG-13 rated Titanic had full female nudity), but full male nudity is verboten. It’s a perfect example of the inherit sexism present in the mainstream media. They feel that women are supposed to be sex objects, and men aren’t. Same thing with sex. Heterosexual sex can be very explicit, as long as it’s not hardcore, to be R rated as Original Sin showed. But if it’s gay sex? Forget it. That this film was rated NC-17 shows off perfectly well the biases in mainstream movie industry today, and shows just how far we have to go before we really achieve equality. At least we have people like Steve McQueen who are willing to make films the way they need to be made, regardless of the impact it will have on their bottom line.

(1) “Shame Movie Posters #3.” IMP Awards. 18th November, 2011. Available: http://www.impawards.com/2011/shame_ver3.html
(2) “Shame.” Fox Searchlight. Available: http://www.foxsearchlight.com/shame/

Self Portrait by Francesca Woodman

I was at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) recently where I saw the collected works of Francesca Woodman. It was a truly amazing exhibit! SFMOMA puts it best in describing Woodman:

Francesca Woodman (1958-1981) was an artist decisively of her time, yet her photographs retain an undeniable immediacy. Thirty years after her death, they continue to inspire audiences with their dazzling ambiguities and their remarkably rich explorations of self-portraiture and the body in architectural space. (1)

Woodman was only active for a few years, starting in 1975 and ending when she committed suicide in 1982. She focused primarily on self-portraiture, intending her work to be a sort of dialog with herself. (2) While others focused on the world around them, Woodman look inward. Her work has an ambiguity about them that is endlessly fascinating. The meaning of her work is very non-obvious, and I’m sure has generated much discussion. She explored a variety of themes, such as occupation of space and differentiation of the self from one’s environment. She has a number of pieces where she almost appears to be disappearing into the space itself.

There is one piece that spoke to me more than the rest. SFMOMA had the title listed as “Untitled,” but I have also found the title listed as “Self Portrait,” so I am going to use that title going forward. While studying this picture, I started talking with one of the museum staff about it, and our interpretations of the piece were quite different; a perfect example of the ambiguity of her work. Before I discuss our interpretations, take a moment to come up with your own. It’s hard to see in this copy of the image, but the sheet of paper on the wall is a birth certificate, and the scarf around her neck is a mink scarf.

Self Portrait

"Self Portrait" by Francesca Woodman (1) (3)

The staff member and I both agreed that the birth certificate plays an important role, but we differed on what that importance was. The staff member viewed the birth certificate as an unnecessary reminder that the subject is alive…i.e. that there is this beautiful woman filled with complexity who is very much alive, and the birth certificate is only necessary for those who can’t see it. It makes a statement that people get caught up with image and how they think society wants them to look and that they needed to be reminded from time to time what real beauty is. My interpretation is subtly, yet dramatically different. I don’t think that the birth certificate is superfluous for the subject but necessary for others, but rather that it is superfluous for others but necessary for the subject.

When this picture was taken, Woodman was attempting to become a fashion photographer in New York. It seems reasonable to assume that she was aware of the superficiality of the industry. Look how the mink scarf serves as a sort of border between the superficial and the real. Her face is very done up; covered in makeup, perfect hair, that “modelling” expression that looks like there is no emotion. It is practically lifeless. Contrast this with her body below the scarf. Her body is very natural, with skin blemishes, armpit hair, and a more natural skin tone. To me, this represents a woman who has forgotten that there is a real person below the facade of superficiality thrust upon her by the industry/society, and needs the birth certificate to remind herself that she really is still alive.

Which interpretation is correct? I’m not sure, and I’m not even sure if there is a “correct” interpretation, or even if the question itself is valid. It’s also interesting to ponder that the photo was taken in 1981, the year that Woodman committed suicide. Could this have been an expression of how she saw herself at the time? She never said while she was still alive, so we’ll never know. All we can do is ponder her magnificent work and discuss, as great works of art are wont to do.

(1) “Francesca Woodman.” San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. 151 Third Street, San Francisco, California. Visited January 15th, 2012. Reference: http://www.sfmoma.org/exhib_events/exhibitions/430
(2) Romano, Gianni. “Francesca Woodman on being an angel.” PhotoArts. October, 1998. Available: http://photoarts.com/journal/romano/woodman/
(3) “The Friends of the Uffizi Gallery.” The Friends of the Uffizi Gallery. Available: http://www.friendsoftheuffizigallery.org/gifts.html

Misogyny in the atheist community…again

So once again, the topic of gender equality has had to be dragged out and explained one…more…time… (1) (2) (3) (4) (5). The last article (5) by Greta Christina is especially pointed (if you haven’t read it, do so right now). In the comments, an astute reader posited that the misogyny issues we are grappling with is our “hot-button” issue for our community, just like pedophilia is Catholicism’s hot-button issue. These types of events are unfortunately bound to happen once a community has a large number of members (expected value increases), but how the community reacts to such events is not just a matter of probability. It says something more fundamental about the community.

Misogynistic Conversation on Facebook

Misogynistic Conversation on Facebook (5)

When we look at the priest sex abuse scandals, there doesn’t appear to be (to me at least) that there is much internal conflict within the church on how to deal with this. Catholics mostly seem to just brush it away (“They aren’t really Christians”), and chalk it up to a few bad apples. This says to me that the average Catholic does not care about this issue, and by extension does not care about solving this issue. Very few Catholics are actually pedophiles, but by not taking an assertive stance against that incredibly small minority that are, Catholicism as a whole has been hurt, with membership declining faster than other denominations (6). Normally I would be incredibly happy to see church membership declining, but this is not a good reason why.

In many ways, the issues we face with misogyny in the atheist community appears to be having a similar, if somewhat muted, effect. When one of our movement’s best bloggers writes a post about her desires to rage-quite the movement (7), there is a problem. The number of actual misogynistic assholes in the movement is, I’m sure, quite low, but when we don’t try to address these issues when they come up, we make our movement weaker.

There is hope though. Beginning with Elevatorgate, we are beginning to speak up about these instances. Progress is being made. I have certainly learned a lot from the discussion of these events. While I wouldn’t consider myself as having been misogynistic like the guys that were discussed, my views on feminism and the state of female equality were definitely skewed. It has been through these discussions that my opinions have changed for the better, and I doubt I’m the only one.

(1) Watson, Rebecca. “Reddit Makes Me Hate Atheists.” Skepchick. 27th December, 2011. Available: http://skepchick.org/2011/12/reddit-makes-me-hate-atheists/
(2) McCreight, Jen. “The straw woman of the skeptical movement.” Blag Hag. 2nd January, 2012. Available: http://freethoughtblogs.com/blaghag/2012/01/the-straw-woman-of-the-skeptical-movement/
(3) Mehta, Hemant. “Accounting for Accumulation.” Friendly Atheist. 5th January, 2012. Available: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2012/01/05/accounting-for-accumulation/
(4) Christina, Greta. “Why “Yes, But” Is the Wrong Response to Misogyny.” Greta Christina’s Blog. 29th December, 2011. Available: http://freethoughtblogs.com/greta/2011/12/29/why-yes-but-is-the-wrong-response-to-misogyny/
(5) Christina, Greta. “Two Questions for DJ Grothe.” Greta Christina’s Blog. 9th January, 2012. Available: http://freethoughtblogs.com/greta/2012/01/09/two-questions-for-dj-grothe/
(6) “NCC’s 2009 Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches reports decline in Catholic, Southern Baptist membership.” National Council of Churches. 23rd February, 2009. Available: http://www.ncccusa.org/news/090130yearbook1.html
(7) McCreight, Jen. “Drama.” Blag Hag. 10th January, 2012. Available: http://freethoughtblogs.com/blaghag/2012/01/drama/

P.S. Sorry for the lack of updates lately. I’ve been swamped at work plus the traveling for the holiday’s, so I have had very little time for much else. Things should be more or less returning to normal over the next week or two though.