The Eye of the Story
The Roles of Gender:
A Closer look into Masculin/Feminin,
Gently Down the Stream, and The Smell of Burning Ants
I do not like Paul. For every possible redeemable or understandable reason that Masculin/Feminin presents about Paul, the gothic-hero, the anti-hero, the he means well protagonist, I cannot bring it to myself to like any part of Paul for more than about .3 seconds. I don’t like Paul because I know people like Paul and, in more ways than I’d like to admit, I am a little like Paul. In my interpretation of Goddard’s 1965 French cinema masterpiece, Paul represents what it is to be the typical Man and therefore operates to encompass the tropes of the majority of the male population of France, The United States, and the entire, albeit mainly western, world. In this representation of Man we see all of their shortcomings, for which there are many, in our lead actor Paul. We see the control that Paul exudes over the women in his life, and, though to a far lesser extent, the power that he holds over Robert (the less attractive, less successful, less aggressive but still aggressive man). We see the manic addiction to knowledge in Paul, the need for knowledge of the whereabouts of those, whom Paul regards as his property. We see the self-imposed “overseer of the world and of all life that is below him, the one true god” complex that Paul feeds through his interviews (mainly if not entirely, I can’t quite remember, consisting of female interviewees) and through his monologues to the ever-present “viewer”.
I feel as though Paul in real life, without the novelty of a writer acting as his puppet master, would still have these monologues, have this selfish observation that he shrouds his days in. It is the other trope of the man. If they are not a meathead then they are a wallflower, but one must be careful because in that innocent, sad lonely intellectual resides such a viscous judgment of those around him, of the women around him, that all who exist in this world, in his world, become lesser. Feel free to notice the connection that I seem to be making between Him, of what we refer to as a Man, and Him, of what some refer to as a God. We see this connection in Madeline as well, operating as the audiences understanding of the classic Woman. The politeness, the feigned interests in some boy like Paul for (and we cannot be certain of which this is or if it is both) an obligation that is felt, and awkwardness perhaps or for need of pure survival. To not provoke the proverbial beast that is seated next to her, with his cold and creepy/charming-not-sure-which-probably-both-maybe-neither-smile.
These states of being that both Paul and Madeline inhabit appear to work as a blanket, encompassing the mindset of the youth of the 1960’s and the identities of Men and Women in general. Out of everything that I believe can be felt in the social constructs that exist around Man and Woman, around the Masculine and the Feminine, the one thing that I always feel, regardless of the moment, is frustration. Some might call it tension, at times it could be jealousy or envy, or fear but at it’s core I believe that having such a strict definition of “what a man is” and “what a woman is” adds to the human mind such an extreme level of stress that frustration is the only apt comparison of this constant feeling.
We see this with everyone in Masculin/Feminin, in the pauses and nervous laughter or Catherine’s conversation with Robert, in everything. We see this intense feeling of frustration, even leading to what I would categorize as depression or trauma to a massive extent with Oscar, Beli, Yunior and even Lola in The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao but where I feel we see the most openly see the damage that can be done by this way of living is in both The Smell of Burning Ants and in Gently Down the Stream, one film focusing on the male-centric view of this issue and one focusing on the female. In my opinion both focus on the freedom that is lost in our current worldview of the “right” type of sexuality though I believe that to be changing rapidly in our immediate culture, hopefully something that will continue to spread in the next coming years. In every instance it seems that neither gender role is afforded with anything genuinely good. I do believe that Men have had the easier, the better, and the more lucrative time with this type of societal structure that has managed to persist for what appears to be all of recorded history (I very much hope that it was different before though I doubt it) but where22 the Male gender has come out ahead on I feel that they have also come out inhumane. Upon watching these films, reading these books, I find it hard to not believe that both men and women begin the journey to destroying both themselves and each other from the second that they enter this world.
This is not a new idea. I do not believe that I am alone in these feelings. That being said I feel like this issue has been gaining, and sufficiently losing, ground since the start of the industrial revolution. There is something about the not needing to worry about survival on a day-to-day, hour to hour pace that makes a human manic in a way. When we don’t live to survive we must replace it with something else. We replace this need with the need to thrive in the world that we have created. The problem is that we never set a definition of what this “Thrival” entails and how we work with others on this journey, to make it something that we do together and not against each other. I think the issue of gender roles and the problem with how we treat people of the opposite, and of the same, sex that don’t fit our expectation, or even if they do, is routed in something deeper than the social game we play. What that is I don’t know, but I think that movies like Masculin/Feminin, movies like The Smell of Burning Ants and Gently Down the Stream, books about people like Oscar and Lola move us in the direction of the answer to whatever question I am trying to pose.