Rightwing Film Geek

The Secret Feminism of the Secret Lives of Dentists

In e-mail and list-servs, I have often lamented the dearth of good American film critics who are self-consciously right-wing. The one exception that I have almost always made, depending on the health of the American Spectator, has been James Bowman, who has been critic there since at least the early 90s. I was somewhat surprised to learn, on Mark Shea’s blog (thanks for linking bud) that Bowman loathed THE SECRET LIVES OF DENTISTS.

My surprise was based on DENTISTS being one of the few films of recent vintage that presents as (eventually) whole and happy a marriage in terms other than post-psychological, post-analytical “let’s discuss our relationship” nonsense that Bowman and I both loathe. I even know people who were aggravated by DENTISTS because the wife dropped a few hints at wanting to “discuss what’s wrong with us,” but the husband resisted — from reticence, from fear, using a desire for sex, from busy-ness, and [finally] from love.

dentists-hope.jpgBowman isn’t buying, instead seeing this movie as a feminist fantasy, a thought that quite literally never occurred to this ardent anti-feminist. His argument basically is that Campbell Scott’s character is a feminized, emasculated, honor-free less-than-man who doesn’t turn his wife out because of her eventually-confirmed adultery. Not only does he doesn’t kick her out, thus giving wives everywhere a license to cheat, but his impulse to do that is embodied in the boorish Denis Leary (thereby proving that the filmmakers are out to caricature masculine pride). It has its loopy parts (hygiene and good health represent femininity?), but this is a reasonably coherent argument, though I doubt very many actual feminists would see themselves in this movie (like they did in THE HOURS). In their fantasy movie, the wife would have left her husband, either because the lover satisfied her more, or because he was uncommunicative, or just … because. By staying, she’s admitting her need for a bicycle, and that’s a no-no.

But my problem is that Bowman is that he leaves out two rather important factors. First of all, he writes more than 700 words on a film about marriage without once using the word “love.” There’s nothing wrong with protesting collapsing sex roles, but Bowman is just playing into feminist hands if he writes of nothing more than asserting masculine honor. After all, St. Paul’s notorious (to Our Very Advanced Modern Minds) admonition for wives to submit to their husbands (the Second Reading this past Sunday, coincidentally) is couched very specifically, and made thus defensible in my opinion, in terms of his parallel exhortations for husbands to love their wives, as Christ loved the Church, and for both to submit themselves to the Lordship of Christ. “As He loved the Church” means, among other things, to die and sacrifice Himself so that sins may be forgiven etc. I hate to put it quite this crudely, but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Bowman, following Nietzsche, simply sees Christianity as slave morality. Its doctrine of divine grace, Christ’s command to forgive seventy times seven — it’s all just a rationalization for feminine weakness. He even signs off with: “Here we have mommy’s revenge fantasy as she does act on it, leaving daddy to teach the formerly feminine virtues of submissiveness and forbearance. Talk about your chick flicks!” Um … OK.

The other rather large matter that Bowman leaves out is … the children. He only makes one slight mention of the fact that the family has three children, and that’s to complain that … get this … they’re all daughters, thus enveloping Scott’s character in femininity, with all that cleanliness, with no puddles of vomit or anything. I submit that this complicates matters. Having children, being entrusted with a life, imposes enormous duties, and unfortunately they are duties that men are too often eager to ditch if given an excuse to rationalize away the demands of love and duty. It’s one thing to dump a girlfriend and even (from a social POV) a childless marriage. But scholars like Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and Maggie Gallagher have done yeoman’s work in recent years collecting the data on the effect of divorce, and there can no longer be any serious doubt that divorce hurts a couple’s children in myriad ways. Is wounded pride and the pleasure of slamming the door in the bitch’s face really that valuable? And is a cultural conservative really arguing that? Just because one has “right” on one’s side doesn’t mean that it is “right” to do it. Walking out on your children pretty much fits that template of the cataclysmic action against which every presumption should be honored. Even if one has been wronged. As Rod Dreher put it on Shea’s blog, “If Scott would do what Leary says, he really wouldn’t be wrong. Nobody could really hold it against him. And yet, and yet…”

Another correspondent at Shea’s blog complained that “Bowman does come across as too macho for his own good.” And too eager to embrace reacting from wounded pride, rather than consider consequences and duty to others, like the gang-banger who’ll shoot you from dissing him by stepping on his shadow. Now Bowman can perfectly fairly protest that the gang-banger has a distorted view of honor. He’d obviously be correct on the intellectual merits, but social history is littered with the unintended consequences of ideas. And at his better moments in his other writings, Bowman recognizes that Christianity can never be wholly at peace with honor-based ethics. But mocking as he does the notion that “A person can think anything they want … But you mustn’t act on it” is, at the very least, unhelpful in the world we now live in, whose vices-disguised-as-virtues Bowman has so well diagnosed elsewhere.

August 26, 2003 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , ,

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