October 14, 2016KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsEthicsRemembrances

“Ultimate Male Nightmares”: on Boxing Helena and Election 2016 (Part 1)


Tagline: "A deep, dark obsession that bares a woman's body and a man's soul."
Tagline: “A deep, dark obsession that bares a woman’s body and a man’s soul.”

Recently, I had a conversation with an older male colleague who enlightened me on the “real” reason Boxing Helena is not the “awkward fairy tale” as Jennifer Lynch intended: apparently a doctor cutting off all the limbs of a woman who spurned his advances in order to fully possess her is not a male fantasy. Not at all, my colleague repeated, slapping his desk lightly with each word, just to make sure I understood the gravity of what was to come.

Imagine, he said, almost in a whisper, imagine what a burden a woman like that would become. You’re stuck with her. She’s totally dependent on you for everything.

Well, I replied, you do realize the Julian Sands character made her that way. He’s the one who cut off her limbs in the first place.

Oh yes, he said, that’s why Lynch couldn’t present him as a real man. Not just because he was bad in bed, or that he was in love with his cruel, seductive mother. No, he wasn’t a real man because no real man would want such limited choices.

Limited choices? I asked.

Think about it, he went on. Not only is she totally dependent on you, but there’s very little she can do. . .in bed, I mean, if we are talking about fairy tales and fantasies, as the film insists. And not just in bed. She practically barks at him when he goes for a run and leaves her alone for what, an hour? Imagine coming home to that every day.

My colleague paused, and gave a very visible shutter.

You’re too young to remember, he said to me, but when Boxing Helena first hit the theaters, all the feminists in America were up in arms over the film. Saying it promoted violence against women. But after I saw it—because of course I saw it—I walked out of there thinking, fairy tale? Ultimate male fantasy? Did Jennifer Lynch really think that’s what men want? Hardly. Try the ultimate male nightmare. And a bad film. One of the worst I’ve ever seen.

* * *

“It’s just words, folks.”

—Donald Trump,
concerning the now-infamous 2005 Tape

I dare any woman—especially in this political climate—to read Nathan Rabin’s unfortunately titled “Chick In A Box Case File #144: Boxing Helena”, which includes such analytical gems like director Jennifer Lynch being “barely old enough to buy wine coolers at the local Wal-Mart.” Rabin also designates Sherilyn Fenn as the film’s only saving grace since she “possesses not just the beauty and ripe sexuality that are the birthright of every Hollywood sexpot,” but then adds she is “nothing more than a beautiful blank” (a blank what? You might ask, but let’s move on for now) before ending his review with this very oddly censorious proclamation: “For perhaps the first and last time, Kim Basinger was right.” (And so I take it that Nathan Rabin knows Kim Basinger personally, and not just personally, but knows all of the choices she’s ever made, and also all the future choices she has yet to make, but again, let’s move on for now.)

And yet, for all of Rabin’s “analysis,” it is the comments section following the review that is most telling of the so-called enlightened male specimen, that self-assured yet incredibly insecure artsy, liberal yet fundamentally patriarchal mind; just take a peek and you will see what I mean. No, really. Scroll down and read the first fifty or so comments, and you’ll begin to wonder just how the hell such sexism can breed even more sexism in such a small, insignficant space.

Because before we can even talk about Boxing Helena, we must first question why we can’t seem to discuss women’s art and work outside of the relentless male gaze. I’m thinking of the literary and academic spaces I inhabit, or the dinner conversations in which I haven’t even settled into my seat only to hear certain male (usually self-proclaimed) liberal minds rating female poets and writers on their hotness first and then their accomplishments and what inevitably must be wrong with her and her and her. It’s like sitting down with a bunch of straight male Joan Rivers without the wit or originality. There is little humor to these discussions; there is a clear mission here to tear down and discredit, as innocuous as such conversation seems. Because such a gaze is engineered to find fault, not celebrate beauty, however narrow its particular definition is here.

I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard a brief mention of a young female writer or poet’s new work in The New Yorker or such establishment, only to then hear the “real” in-depth analysis of her overall appearance, her body, her relationship status, her preference for certain camera angles, noting that she won’t look as good without X hair length, or that she won’t age well given her smoking habits, and the rumors that she’s a difficult person to deal with, not likable at all, or too likable, and that must be a filter she’s always using, right? My absolutely favorite moment, though, is when these particular men turn to me and say since I’m bisexual, I must get what they mean, right?

No. I don’t. Because I’m still a woman. Because the merit of a woman’s work is so quickly dismissed by these “revelations” of said men who seem strangely proud of themselves, as if they can so quickly disappear her success by an unveiling of her “flaws,” as if we women are all guilty of throwing a glamour via literary witchcraft.

How dare we be three-dimensional and un-saintly. And flawed. And dynamic. How dare we not try harder to hide our roughest corners, our rippled tongues.

* * *

This past week, I saw a few of those same male, liberal minds take Donald Trump and Billy Bush to task on their social media, their outrage seemingly so genuine and bitter, as if they truly understand that “locker-room talk” never stays in the locker room but disseminates far and wide, that it infiltrates how we talk about and to women, women we know and those we don’t, those in the public eye and those furthest from it. That such talk is never a matter of “just words,” as Trump claims, but leads to different levels of hatred, loathing and violence against women. Like this past summer’s bashing of the Ghostbusters reboot. Or the one of many trolls who attacked Leslie Jones and claimed he was “doing God’s work.” Or the criticizing of Gigi Hadid for “Un-Model Behavior” when she engaged in self-defense after a stranger grabbed her and hoisted her up into the air. Or the woman in hijab shopping on New York City’s Fifth Avenue whose clothes were set aflame. Or all the women who’ve had acid thrown in their faces for going to school, for not being properly veiled, for simply instructing a male coworker on how to use proper safety measures.

It’s how we speak about women that bothers me the most, how quickly we are ready to wipe away her accomplishments. This is not being PC. This is not about censorship. This is not about un-valuing beauty, however one might choose among its many definitions. This is about power and the unsettling self-assurance I’ve seen men undermine the success of women, only then to turn the conversation to the deeply uncertain and doubtfulness of their own, looking for reassurance and a re-centering of the old patriarchal narrative, all in the same breathe. Because they somehow steer the conversation back to themselves: what they value, what they desire, what they see.

A still from Boxing Helena
A still from Boxing Helena

Because my enlightened colleague claimed that Boxing Helena is not about a psychotic doctor who dreamed he used his power and inherited wealth to completely rob an artistic, unmarried, adventurous, uninhibited woman of her humanity—it’s that she would have been a burden on him, in the bedroom and life in general, see? It’s a male nightmare. Because Fatal Attraction is yet another movie about obsessive love, only it’s a woman’s obsessive love (as told from the male P.O.V., but let’s move on), although Glenn Close’s Alex (note the unisex name) is an otherwise an artistic, unmarried, adventurous, uninhibited free spirit who suddenly and completely falls for an unexceptional man named Dan (played by Michael Douglas) without reason, meaning she loses her sanity and is willing to assassinate her own career to stalk and harass him—but really, we must move on now— and of course in the end Alex alone is responsible for her own downfall, and Dan is free all of wrongdoings, because it is not he who pulls the trigger at the end but his dutiful wife Beth, (played by Ann Archer who once credited the roll in rebooting her career).

Because only the dutiful wife can unburden her man from the nightmare he himself created. Because only she could make their home a safe space again by killing off the other woman. Because his hands at the end must be unsullied and cleansed of his own actions.

Because how often have I been asked by straight white men to make “this”—the very academic halls and literary spaces they once solely claimed—a safe space for them, so they can talk “freely” in the language that makes all others most unfree.  Because it doesn’t make me feel any more powerful when they ask. Because they aren’t asking.

Because, in more ways than one, they want me, and countless other women, to pull the trigger for them.

Because that’s what it means for a woman to even think of voting for Trump.

Because we even got to this point, and I can’t really move on.


This is Part 1 of a two-part series on Boxing Helena and Election 2016.