Acting Your Age

Chased through Six Days, Seven Nights by predictably swarthy, gun-wielding bad guys, Harrison Ford's gruff pilot Quinn admits to feeling "a little bit" scared. His companion, an ostensibly saucy magazine editor played by Anne Heche, refuses to hear him, demanding that he be her "courageous captain." Quinn snorts and retorts, in so many mocking words: "I thought men were supposed to embrace their 'feminine side.'"

An insignificant moment in a silly movie. Yet I keep sorting through the layers of this 1998 movie humor, beginning with the unsubtle conflation of "female" and "fearfulness." Then there's the 30-year age difference between the actors, which emphasizes Ford's air of competence and Heche's ornamental beauty. And the way their interplay echoes that of Ford and Karen Allen in Raiders of the Lost Ark--except that those 1981 characters were nearly equals in age, competence, and beauty. An absence haunts this scene, informs it--the absence of Allen and other actresses her age. Quinn's derision is really addressed to them, to the generation of women who revived and popularized American feminism. Look, his line says, you've been replaced with more pliable babe-age, and all your fierce theory has been reduced to laughable pop-psych babble.

The advance press on Six Days, Seven Nights concerned Heche's inappropriateness for the role due to her lesbian relationship, not her age. I'd call that fuss a mere smoke screen, if it weren't also such a savage bit of veiled intimidation: a warning to young actresses (and young women) to stick with playing pretty foils to $20 million old men and not bond with other women where they might find that their paychecks don't add up to much either. In the 30 years since feminists first waved the stats, the amount a woman earns for every dollar made by a man has risen 10 whopping cents to a reportedly precarious (just wait for the next recession) $.79. No wonder Heche's Robin whimsically defaults on her job to have sex--and, it's implied, babies--with Quinn, who does not choose to so default.

Last week I read a 438-page book titled What Are We Fighting For? Sex, Race, Class, and the Future of Feminism (St. Martin's). Feminist writer and pioneer science-fiction novelist Joanna Russ began work on this tome in 1985, and in many ways it shows its age, and hers. Russ did not envision, for instance, that late capitalism might suck up the '80s feminist notion of empowerment and spit it out as a "saucy" heroine who may knock out criminals but still knocks herself out for her man. She didn't imagine that gay pride could be marketed, sold, and assimilated as an aesthetic, a look, a rainbow-flag coffee cup. She credits conservative backlash efforts for the vacuum that used to be a movement, completely missing the fact that "liberal" popular culture has transformed political activism into a lifestyle product choice. Her analysis doesn't even begin to account for Xena: Warrior Princess.

Precisely because of its datedness, though, Russ's feet-on-the-ground, stubbornly materialist socialism can invigorate like a dip in icy water. She cares less about what people buy--and what political dissent those choices supposedly represent--than whether they can afford to buy anything. She values cultural images of racial interrelationship less than knee-to-knee ill communication. "Deeds, not words," Russ writes, and she means that lots of articles about the New Fathering don't matter a whit when the work week of U.S. female housemakers, with or without outside employment, averages 15 hours more than their husbands'.

To equalize labor worldwide--and account for women's economically invisible "domestic" labor--men would have to increase their workload by a third. Who would willingly do this, Russ queries without sarcasm. Our current state of gender inequality, she claims, is not an ideology that can be combatted with ideas (or with purchased product, I would add). It is an economic system that benefits men. Even the poorest men do not work as long hours as the women who live with them. Especially, writes Russ, if you count the emotional labor of monitoring, supporting, and knitting together men's psyches.

This is another point, however, when What Are We Fighting For? strikes me as mulishly doctrinaire. The night of the last big storm, I attended a wedding. The bride is older and earns more money than the groom. I know, because I have seen them, that this woman and man monitor, support, and knit together each other's psyches. I know, because I have seen them, that they share the work in their home.

What man would willingly do this, Russ asks. What man would, Quinn sneers, so embrace his "feminine side"? The answer, in part: a man raised by a woman, a woman Harrison Ford's age. Deeds, not words.

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