Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Nothing Shocking About Shame

I've been thinking lately about how the supposedly daring movie Shame illustrates how little our culture has developed its attitudes about sex beyond high school level.

The main reason I can see for its reputation as daring is that it includes full frontal male nudity. OK, that was why I went to see the movie in the theater. I certainly didn't mind getting a really good look at every part of Michael Fassbender.

But other than that, I thought it reinforced a lot of stereotypes about sex. The main character struggles with a lot of disgust about himself and his desires that makes it hard to see any of the sex as actually hot. And that's a big thing for the crushing moral sense that pervades the movie. I felt like there was a sense of punishment, and the movie was so busy punishing the character that both he and the audience weren't allowed to really enjoy any sex.

There were moments of his degradation that I found sort of comical. For example, at one point, he throws away his porn collection. I think I'm supposed to be shocked at how much there is and how lurid it is. Instead, I fought the urge to burst out laughing in the theater. My first thought was, "Who has porn on paper and video these days? Doesn't the man have a laptop? Smart phone?" My second thought was, "Is that it?"

At another point, he's trying to pick up a girl in a bar and I think I was supposed to be stunned by his dirty talk. First, he tells her how much he loves going down on a woman and how he wants to make her come. Then he tells her boyfriend that he's going to fuck her in the ass and gets punched the moment he steps outside. OK. Not the coolest behavior. And, yeah, hearing Fassbender's voice saying those words was pretty hot -- I wouldn't mind a specialized recording (minus the punching sound effects). But it all felt angled the wrong way, like I was supposed to be disturbed less by his lack of self-control or poor etiquette and more by the fact that he was willing to talk at all about fucking a girl in the ass or going down on her.

I felt irritated by that, and my irritation increased as the character continued to "hit bottom" with his sex addiction. From getting punched out, he goes immediately to (gasp!) a gay bar, where he (double gasp!) hooks up with a man(!!!?!). Clearly, a sexual experience with another man is the height of debauchery and dissolution. The character is so desperate that he will willingly let a man go down on him. (Can you detect my sarcasm here?). It was deeply disappointing to me that the movie was arranged this way -- I think I was supposed to feel horrified that he was willing to stoop to the gay. Now, it may not have been a sign of his emotional health that he's willing to get a blow job from... whoever... but I didn't think it was any worse to get one from a random man than from a random woman (and he's been doing stuff with all kinds of random women for the whole movie). I felt like the scene exploited our society's homophobic tendencies.

Finally, I had to roll my eyes at the followup to the gay scene. The character immediately goes somewhere else, where he manages to have a threesome with two women. I read this as the movie needing to prove that he's still straight. He still "really a man," not secretly gay (and therefore "not really a man").

The definition of hitting bottom felt all wrong, simultaneously shaming and glorifying all the wrong stuff.

So, Fassbender is hot as hell (but most especially as Magneto in X-Men: First Class), and the movie raised some interesting issues. But its main effect on me was to illustrate some of the mental twists our society has around sex.

This is not to say that people can't behave in a shameful way about sex, or that Fassbender's character is a shining example of how one ought to be. But I think a lot of the techniques used to illustrate his shameful behavior were more about a general fear of sex than anything else.

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