Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Not for Little Children

Just watched Todd Field's Little Children on Netflix. It didn't strike me as a very successful movie on a number of fronts, covering familiar territory (repression in the suburbs) in a way that was neither particularly convincing (I could not figure out who these people were) nor very inventive. The most striking thing about it, to my jaded eye, was that it focused so much attention on masturbation as a symbol of marital discord. Watching the mocking portrayal of one of the husbands as he masturbates to Internet porn (only a real freak would ever do something like that!), it struck me that I've been seeing a lot of this lately, by which I mean: portrayals of masturbation as a marker of failing relationships or worse.

In Apatow's recent Knocked Up, Paul Rudd's uptight and controlling wife derisively describes catching her husband masturbating to her sister. And in HBO's execrable short series, Tell Me You Love Me masturbation repeatedly turns up as a sign of trouble. Now, I'm not going to start a support group, but it strikes me as interesting, and kind of creepy, that so many cultural products are pathologizing what might be described as innocent fun and the desired alternative to extra-marital adventures.

When did jacking go so wrong? I mean since the writings of St. Paul. Was it American Beauty's portrayal of the masturbating hero as a symbol of the suburban man trapped in a loveless marriage and dead-end job?

I'm not quite sure how to interpret it, except maybe as a cultural expression of our increasing need to imagine and represent relationships so perfect that they fulfill every possible desire, including those of our fantasy lives.


Beecham said...

Surprised by the pathologization of masturbation? I was going to suggest that your response reflects how effective the Our Bodies, Ourselves, pro-masturbation movements of the 70s have been. Except, that book, of course, was about liberating women by embracing masturbation. So there's something conservative not just in the pathologized depiction of men masturbating, but also in the restriction of masturbation to the domain of men. Now that I think about it, I wonder whether that book, too, relied on and gained power by rejecting notions of a happy life being one in which masturbation is made unnecessary--the same implied idea that disturbs you here. In fact, the pro-masturbation movement maybe reinforced the idea that masturbation is an alternative, rather than a part of, life as a couple.

It's striking that where sodomy, incest, pedophilia, coprophagia seem interesting and often make a movie cutting-edge and artistic, that depicting masturbation remains a fundamentally conservative gesture.

The examples you give also sound distinct from another mode that I feel is common in pop culture, masturbation humor: Seinfeld, There's Something about Mary, even Portnoy's Complaint. There's something about adolescent awkwardness and self-consciousness that many of these funny masturbation scenes seem to conjure up.

It all seems sadly unimaginative. How far we've come from Pepys' proud descriptions of how he could "have it complete" just "by the use of fancy," i.e. without using his hands. And, yes, Pepys was married.

sk said...

Great distinctions, b. Masturbation seems particularly, or really only, tragic when it concerns married men. When you're an adolescent or single, it's comedy. And women are pathologized (in some of the very examples i mentioned above) when they are unable (read: too repressed) to masturbate. It seems to reinforce the point made by another tv critic on the subject of tv drama in general and thirtysomething in particular. One of the key subjects of these shows is how women succeed or fail at domesticating male sexuality within marriage. I'm sure Pepys never thought it would go this far. Or Boswell. Though they did feel guilty about the prostitutes who were a constant temptation in the dark streets of London.