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Exchange on Women’s Liberation & the Movies

In response to:

See America First from the January 1, 1970 issue

To the Editors:

Ellen Willis’s review of Easy Rider and Alice’s Restaurant [NYR, Jan. 1] is overall an adequate critique of the counter-culture and some of its weaknesses. However, the section dealing with the treatment of females in these two movies is conspicuously out of balance with the otherwise mature and intelligent article.

Let me point out how emotional and illogical Willis’s comments regarding this issue are. While I have not seen Alice’s Restaurant, I have gone back to see Easy Rider a second time. Therefore, although my observations will be restricted to the latter film, they will reflect thorough knowledge and deep preoccupation with the issues it raises.

Miss (Mrs.?) Willis claims that the male members of the counter-culture either (1) “become obnoxiously aggressive, arrogant, and violent…reducing women to faceless instruments of their sexual phantasies,” or (2) “more cleverly, consider themselves liberated from the strictures of the traditional male role—the obligation to support women financially and protect them physically, to be strong, competitive and ambitious, to suppress their emotions and their personal vanity…, while nonetheless insisting that women serve them and defer to them.”

More specifically, the author accuses Captain America (Billy, Peter Fonda) of “considering himself far above such concerns” as sleeping with one of the whores met at the New Orleans whorehouse.

Now isn’t this an absurd interpretation of Fonda’s behavior in that particular scene? Isn’t it obvious that what Fonda is expressing at that moment is, in the first place, intense grief about the recent murder of his lawyer friend and, related to that, a genuine respect for the young prostitute he is coupled with and the wish to share with her some of his feelings rather than to jump into bed right away and use her to forget his pain? As a kind, sensitive and above all healthy person, Billy does not operate by using sexual release as a cure-all for tension. The mood at this particular moment is one of sadness. It calls for friendship and respect. Thus Fonda, as opposed to his partner Wyatt, invites his girlfriend for a walk and a talk. A talk, incidentally, in which his object is not to cry on her shoulder, but in which he asks questions about her, shows interest.

The point is, of course, that in the eyes of such radical and highly irrational feminists as Ellen Willis (no surprise to note that she is an active member of a women’s liberation group), we men can no longer do anything right:

As the above discussion of a passage from Easy Rider shows, a man who seeks good friendship with a prostitute rather the immediate sex is accused of haughtiness. Conversely, his friend is called frivolous because he is eager to sleep with the woman without delay. One can’t win.

To get back to the two types of treatment that according to Miss Willis male hippies give to their female friends, this too presents men with an unsolvable dilemma: What the hell are we supposed to do? What image should American men try to approximate in order to satisfy the modern American female?

My own answer to that is that we should not strive to emulate any image at all, because the expectations that are had of us by the “emancipated” American female are basically contradictory: On the one hand she is all in favor of emancipation and liberation, but on the other hand she is terribly reluctant to share with men the burdens of leadership and responsibility that inevitably come with freedom and equality. Thus men are accused either of (1) being arrogant and exploitative, or of (2) abdicating their responsibilities.

Let me turn the table on you, Miss Willis, and ask you this: Could it be that what you expect from men is that they be both (1) meek and subservient and at the same time (2) the workhorses who will provide social and financial security without raising any fuss?

In sum, the women’s liberation movement is suffering from a number of weaknesses: In the first place it tends, as all revolutionary movements do, to evoke the antithesis of what it struggles against. Thus it lapses into a dogmatic extremism that is no better than the ideology of the man’s world which prevails in traditionalistic society. Secondly, a large number of modern American females seem to have become so intoxicated by their new freedom (provided by the radically free social and political climate as well as by the pill) that they have forgotten what men have known for a long time: That you cannot develop and promote for decades a culture that has been characterized as “momism” without emasculating the weaker and alienating the stronger among us. That you cannot ask for a 50 percent share of the job market and still cling on to outrageous alimony rates. That you cannot reduce the male head of the household to a buffoon, to a Dagwood Bumstead—as is typical of middle-class suburban culture—and still expect him to be a chivalrous hero when the need and occasion arises. Or conversely, that you cannot wish for and stimulate men to develop such masculine characteristics as strength, competitiveness, and ambition while expecting to remain in control of them. In sum, that you cannot have your cake and eat it too.

Let’s face it, the battle between the sexes is perennial and you, Miss Willis, would be the last person to want it to cease.

Thomas M. Kando

Sacramento State College

Sacramento, California

Ellen Willis replies:

The sexist attitudes expressed in this letter are all too typical and a sad commentary on where most men are at these days. It is also sad that New York Review should find it necessary to publish such outpourings instead of throwing them in the wastebasket with the rest of the crank mail.

Mr. Kando calls me “emotional” and “illogical” (like all females, right?). That I am emotional about my own oppression and that of my sisters I freely admit. I don’t regard emotion as a disease. If Mr. Kando does not feel, that is his problem. The fact is, he doesn’t want to feel the suffering of women because it would make him uncomfortable. He might even be forced to consider doing something about it. As for logic, Mr. K. displays very little. He takes my remark about the whorehouse completely out of context; I was observing that throughout the movie Fonda shows a contempt for sex that places him in the Western he-man tradition. And I did not say that Dennis Hopper is frivolous because he wants to sleep with a woman, but that, as an example of the movie’s anti-sex bias, only the character already established as frivolous is interested in sex, while the hero is not. Anyway, it is hardly logical to imagine that buying a woman’s companionship is somehow “healthier” and less exploitative than buying her body. (After all, Fonda “shows an interest” in her—how magnanimous!) On the contrary, a prostitute might well prefer sleeping with a customer to having him paw all over her soul.

In response to my argument that many men try to have it both ways by rejecting their traditional obligations while preserving their male privileges, Mr. Kando whines that women want freedom without responsibility—proving my point beautifully. A common male reaction to feminism is to bring up some small aspect of female subordination that inconveniences men (like alimony) and accuse us of persecuting them. In other words, not only do they refuse to deal with our oppression, but we are supposed to give up the few bones that have been tossed our way in order to prove our sincerity—no questions asked. You can’t have alimony and fifty percent of the job market at the same time, says Mr. K. smugly. But we don’t have fifty percent of the job market and are nowhere near getting it: we are the worst paid, most marginal group in the labor force (white women earn less than non-white men, non-white women least of all). Furthermore, as our marriage laws stand, a wife is required to do household work and childbearing for subsistence rather than a fair wage, which makes her totally dependent economically. I’m all for abolishing alimony—which is far more oppressive to second wives than to men—so long as we simultaneously abolish all job discrimination and guarantee housewives a minimum wage, higher pay for overtime, unemployment and retirement benefits, paid vacations, maternity leaves, and the right to strike. How about it, Mr. K.?

As for all the allegedly emancipated women who are trying to reduce men to quivering jelly, this is strictly a paranoid fantasy similar to the belief of some right-wingers that blacks and Communist hippies are taking over the country. Anyone whose eyes are halfway open will observe that by and large men are still safely in control of their families and everything else. But naturally, since they regard their illegitimate privileges as biological rights based on sex, they interpret women’s assault on those privileges as castration. And because they cannot conceive of a society based on true equality and mutual respect rather than power, they assume that since we don’t want to be dominated we must want to dominate. The fact is, however, that the only people who dominate men are other men. Who is really taking it out of Dagwood—Blondie, or his boss? It’s about time men stopped fighting the so-called battle of the sexes (which is really a 5000-year-long pogrom against women) and faced their real enemies, the few men at the top who control us all.

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