Distract and conquer

Apparently, Kirsten Dunst is now the foremost spokesperson for the gender binary.

At least, that’s what the Information Superhighway has decided.  Dunst, best known for her role as MJ in the 2002 Spiderman reboot, temporarily secured her place in the public eye by waxing prosaic in a Harper’s Bazaar interview on the topic of How All Relationships Work and How Everybody Ought to Run Their Lives.  Dunst stated that “sometimes, you need your knight in shining armour . . . You need a man to be a man and a woman to be a woman. That’s how relationships work.”  (FYI, I’m typing that in my “demure sheltered damsel with daddy issues” voice.)

I sincerely hope that you have the same reaction to that quote that I do, which is to say, revulsion tinged with anger.  Dunst adequately summed up the conservative, sexist sentiment that we all know lurks everywhere, largely unnoticed because of its sheer ubiquity.  It embodies the hetero/cis privilege that allows people like Dunst to paste black and white wallpaper over the mottled canvas of reality.  It marginalizes our relationships and our selves.  It symbolizes every hurt and slight that queer people– and hell, just plain non-cookie-cutter human beings– repeatedly receive.

And yet, it’s also because of the ubiquity of sentiments like Dunst’s that we must be cautious of leaping so quickly onto the backlash bandwagon that we get taken somewhere we didn’t want to go.  It’s crucial to remember that taking offense, in and of itself, is not newsworthy, however worthy the cause.  (This from headcheese, who aims to keep her level of offendedness above 87% at all times, and higher while blogging.)

We lit majors learn early in our careers a principle that would serve us all well in and out of academia:  Any given critical lens turns up a bumper crop of examples-in-point everywhere it looks; but for those raw data and their philosophical responses to serve any critical function, they must first be evaluated in the literary and critical context.  Noticing that something exists isn’t enough to warrant an audience’s interest.  We need to know why these particular data are worth part of our limited time and energy resources– to what arguments are they a premise; how do they change, rebut or add to what others have already argued; why these particular examples instead of others?

For example, if I said, “Lolita is about a pedophile,” or “The Bell Curve is racist,” while that might be informative to some, it would not be a useful premise for an article or review, nor even a decent blog post.  It contributes nothing to an ongoing conversation about those issues.  It doesn’t engage with any intellectual or cultural context except in some kind of facile, read-only syllogism (“The Bell Curve = racist, racist = bad, QED The Bell Curve = bad”) and therefore it effects no change.  Instead of taking us in new, better directions, it just gets added to the litany of Things That Suck, soon to be displaced by an equally pertinent example.

And so it is with the mass outcry of “Kirsten Dunst is sexist!”  I’m having to fight the urge to say,  “Well, duh!”  As someone who takes an interest in women’s and gender issues and theory, I see Kirsten Dunst absolutely everywhere.  What she said in so many words (i.e., not that many) is the exact same ideology that I notice to varying degrees of explicitness in media and culture on a constant basis.  It’s not just a turd in our pool, we’re fucking swimming in sewage.  Does that mean it’s not really there, or that it doesn’t matter?  On the contrary.  But does it mean that when a golden turd from some actor in a mediocre movie floats by, it’s a good use of our time and energy to splash around yelling, “Oh my god, there’s shit in this pool”?

Of course, there’s the counterargument that celebrities’ opinions deserve a response because they have the public’s ear.  (Despite the constant petulant mewling of “You’re just a dumb singer/writer/actor/etc. so stop having opinions!”)  But do Dunst’s words on their own really have any sway?  Sure, there’s been a predictable anti-backlash of shock jocks and their wannabes reminding us how “feminist cunts” just want to turn women into men and outlaw motherhood and mandate buttsex, because “in the 21st century, it’s wrong for a woman to like a man.”  And those are the same people who would have been saying the exact same thing anyway.  (Maybe it gave them pretext for a break from talking about how Common Core is a tool of bolshie reeducation or whatever, but so what.)

Do we really think that a generation of impressionable youngsters, who for some reason read Harper’s Bazaar and even know who Kirsten Dunst is 12 years after Spiderman was released, sit poised to mold their gender paradigm around MJ’s every word?  (Unless we’re asserting that she somehow delivers powerful subliminal messages through her otherwise unremarkable performances.)  Elevating quotes like these to sit at the big-kid table of public discourse is reason they’re perceived as important, not the other way around.

Nor is there a case to be made that addressing the quote is important because it informs people about ongoing sexism.  Again, for such information to be effective, it needs to contribute some kind of coherent perspective that shows the intended audience– in this case, everyone– what larger feminist issues are at stake, and why we should care, and what we should do.  If Dunst’s offending quip wants a place in that lesson, it’s going to have a lot of stiff competition.

If there is anything we can learn from the Dunst debauchle, it’s not about the true fact that a disturbing number of people are still so ignorant and bigoted about gender.  It’s about how our public debate is framed and manipulated.  A controversial quote is set forth, people’s Google alerts come flooding in, and the stage is set!  On each side, the family armor is donned, the old chestnuts are trotted out– Dunst the “unlikely warrior” facing inevitable “feminist ire,” summed up by Erin Gloria Ryan’s rather unfortunately worded statement that Dunst is “kind of dumb about” gender theory seeing as she’s not paid to write about it.  Heckling and shield-bashing ensues at a mildly obnoxious volume until everyone gets bored.

And after the satisfaction of feeling like we accomplished something by letting everyone know how much we are mad and sad (or glad) about Dunst’s amateur gender theorizing, we all go back to swimming in the same patriarchal poop soup.

Dunst gets a little upward tick in her publicity (let us hope not as much as Duck Dynasty seems to have boomed since a scripted faux-hillbilly genuine-asshat hated on queer men– surprise, surprise!– in an interview, remember that?)  … But who really reaps the benefits of this histrionic flame war?  All the people we aren’t talking about while we’re busy talking about her and Phil Robertson and Paula Deen.  The legislators, the corporate suits behind the scenes, the people whose words actually can do scary things to us, like, say, keep us earning 75 cents on the dollar a man gets paid for the same job.  Dunst may as well be a human shield.  And the saddest thing is just how well it’s working.