America has a synecdoche problem, starting with the fact that America doesn’t know it has a synecdoche problem. For the last two months, America has wrestled with texts and narratives that seemed to shine a light on America’s sexism – or did they? That depended on our interpretations of the symbolic values of the texts. We’ve been fighting over synecdoches – over which part should stand for the whole.
Media texts trade in symbolism – a movie, a TV show, even a web series is not “just” those people in it, but seems to stand for more. That’s why, if a show stars only white actors (like Friends), it seems exclusionary. Twitter is not exactly helping us with nuance, because it exacerbates the tendency to label something – so are you saying it’s sexist? Are you saying it’s feminist? But rather than suggest that such debates are inherently myopic, let’s deconstruct their appeal.
The video of Ray Rice coldcocking his fiancée in an elevator seemed like a case of relative agreement – Americans agreed that Ray Rice had to suffer for this transgression. The problem became one of differing synecdoches. The NFL and the Baltimore Ravens clearly did not want Americans to think that Rice’s punch symbolized any wider culture of league violence – that’s why they cut Rice as though removing a melanoma. Others saw Rice’s punch as a symbol of domestic violence inside and outside sports culture. In a roundabout way, this latter group helped the NFL; if domestic violence is ubiquitous, can the league be singled out? Depending how you interpret the post-Rice narrative, the feminists have won (Rice isn’t coming back; the next person caught on such a video will be similarly shunned), or the anti-feminists have won (Roger Goddell, who initially soft-pedaled Rice’s penalty, remains commissioner). Which synecdoche do we choose?
For some people, the megahit Gone Girl is feminist, because it stars, and is written and produced by, some very talented women. (Love the sister and the chief investigator!) For other people, Gone Girl is anti-feminist, because the Amy character, who drives the narrative, is pretty much the opposite of a role model. Both these interpretations presume an excess of symbolic value – that is, one side suggests that women are so disenfranchised that mere representation is a net-plus, while the other suggests that women are so disenfranchised that they can’t afford a negative role model. On a more textual level, does freedom of choice include freedom to raise a child in a stifling, loveless marriage? As a culture, we can’t decide; we reduce our opinions to conflicting tweets. In a way, the synecdoche battle may have helped the film’s box office, as people insist on learning which symbols they prefer.
Speaking of movies, the growing awareness of the Bechdel Test is a study in battling synecdoches. The Bechdel Test is an up-or-down evaluation on whether a film has 1) two named females, 2) who talk to each other, 3) about something other than men. Of course, some feminist films fail the Bechdel Test, for example Gravity (and arguably Gone Girl). Advocates of the Bechdel Test attempt to patiently explain that the Test cannot identify any one film as regressive, but that if you look at a list of, say, the top 200 films of the year (particularly compared to years gone by) and see how many pass and how many fail, you get a sense of a sexism problem. This explanation doesn’t sit well with at least half of the twitterverse, who respond with something like: is Avengers sexist, or what? Because films are in their nature infused with symbolism, the confusion is understandable, but as the Test becomes more well-known, the battle of perception continues.
#gamergate is another case of warring synecdoches, which shouldn’t obscure the absolutely wrong, unsymbolic, unjustifiable death threats against media critic Anita Sarkessian that forced her to cancel a recent planned appearance at Utah State University. Doxxing Zoe Quinn – and really anyone – is likewise indefensible, and reveals how fights over synecdoches can spill over into real-world consequences. #gamergate is nothing if not a battle over symbolism – the feminist critics feel that games shouldn’t show women as bimbos and victims, and some retrograde gamers feel that video games should be able to show whatever they want. There’s no doubt that some gamers have proven themselves to be Neanderthals – like those who doxxed Felicia Day for coming out in favor of feminist critiques, but were far more sparing of male celebrities who said something similar. It’s somewhat interesting that some gamers seem to be holding the line against symbolic value in their most-favored media – one wonders if cheerleaders will get a similarly nasty defense in a few years.
New York Times writer Alessandra Stanley’s unfortunate, tone-deaf appraisal of Shonda Rhimes as someone who has remade the “Angry Black Woman” type immediately became its own type of battle over synecdoches. The fact that Stanley chose to invoke this type while also calling Viola Davis something other than “classically beautiful” set up a no-win situation for Stanley – she clearly misread her synecdoches. Part of the problem was that Rhimes’ shows, like Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How To Get Away With Murder, don’t seem to primarily symbolize anger or beauty (unlike, say, half of reality TV). Because Stanley seemed to invoke wrong or at least misleading synecdoches, it was easy to characterize her as sexist and racist, and people mostly did. She probably had a good point or two rolling around in her essay, but instead, she served as further evidence of getting your synecdoches right.
Even the reaction to Renee Zellweger’s apparent facial reconstruction quickly devolved into a battle over synecdoches. Did Zellweger symbolize a) every woman’s right to look however she wants without backbiting from people who don’t know her or b) the tragic pressure that women feel to appear younger than they are? People weren’t just leaving it at “both”; tweets flew fast and furious in support of either position. Celebrities are caught in a bit of a synecdoche trap, owing to their nature as both like us and unlike us: does it inherently victimize a celebrity to identify them as part of a wider problem? (For example, if I had said ten years ago that Jodie Foster hurts the cause of gay civil rights by not coming out?) Last week, the New York Times ran a “Room For Debate” that was very, very careful to support nuance; one wished that such a Room for Debate had run around the time of Heidi Montag’s ten surgeries.
The most important thing about synecdoche battles is that they don’t really end. After people get tired of calling each other sexist, women (and men) have to get on with their lives, and the symbolic value of these incidents…evolves. We all decide, as a culture, what wisdom we take from scuffles like the ones of the last two months. (As we did with, say, the UCSB massacre and #yesallwomen.) To some, they demonstrate how far women have come; for others, how far women still have to go. As with Zellweger, tweeting “both” isn’t going to do it; like the Times, we have to come up with more sophisticated rooms for ongoing debate.