Fighting Words

The sex talk pundits can't handle


Ridley Scott makes movies about the frailties of human flesh and the capacities of human will. His heroes are not especially introspective. They cope in hostile environments. Sometimes, as in Thelma and Louise, they are heroic only in the tragic, Aristotelian sense–done in by fatal flaws. They are not the stuff of romanticism but of earlier, less subjective and emotion-centered art. Indeed, Thelma and Louise die because they cannot master their impulses.

Scott's latest archetypal work is G.I. Jane, a film that has sparked unremittingly stupid public comment, much of it from people who have not even bothered to plop down the money to see the movie. It is no more a work of realist fiction–much less some kind of documentary–than Blade Runner or Alien. It is not, at some literal level, about whether women could or should be Navy SEALs. It is the mythic story of a particular, extraordinary character.

At the movie's moral center is a condemnation of self-pity. The film relentlessly exposes and attacks the corrosive double standards designed to make military life easier for women. And it savages politicians who exploit the serious work of warriors for their own venal and symbolic purposes. These messages are as subtle as a mortar attack. Yet most of the public commentary on the movie has missed them.

This obtuseness is no accident. Archetypes let loose in the culture have great power. And Scott's vision of a woman without self-pity, who controls and releases her righteous rage only in extremely effective self-defense–against first physical, then political brutality–does not fit current cultural agendas.

Conservatives don't like the image of a woman as a heroic public actor, especially if her actions involve martial virtues. They want to keep the simple correspondence between traditionally masculine virtues and men, and traditionally feminine virtues and women, with no room for pesky individuals who won't fit the stereotypes.

To justify tradition, they repair to biology, ignoring the difference between statistical patterns and individual data points: "Men are physically stronger than women….Men are also more aggressive," writes columnist Mona Charen, dropping all troublesome qualifiers. But the mean of a distribution is not the distribution as a whole: As a statistical matter, men are also taller than women, but watch the end of a fashion show and you'll see runway models towering over male designers.

Suzanne Fields, another conservative columnist, declares flatly that "men and women thrive in separate but equal single-sex institutions, both public and private." Not "some" men and women, or "most" men and women, but men and women in general. Perhaps Fields is just sloppy, but the generalization is part of a pattern: blurring biology, statistical characteristics, and social institutions and roles.

Despite the aggressive media creations whom Rich Karlgaard has dubbed "right-wing chicks," conservatives are increasingly willing to confess their discomfort with women's public roles: "Can conservatives persuade women to leave the workplace and return to the kitchen and nursery, or, as one of our Founding Fathers put it, to the `domestic society' where manners are formed and morality taught, and where `the lovely and accomplished woman shines with superiour lustre'? Right now we're having trouble keeping them out of the trenches," writes Walter Berns in The Weekly Standard. In Commentary, David Gelernter muses over a personal dilemma: He dislikes the idea of career women but doesn't want to give up his female colleagues.

As Berns suggests, conservatives have pretty decisively lost this particular culture war. The real threat to traditionally masculine public virtues comes not from conservatives who want to deny them to women but from allegedly feminist intellectuals, and some muddle-brained soccer moms (and the politicians who court them), who want to deny them to everyone.

By "traditionally masculine virtues," I do not mean only the martial variety, emphasizing physical courage and physical strength. Caltech, with 30 percent women undergraduates, is as traditionally masculine as the newly co-ed Virginia Military Institute. Both schools' cultures judge students, and expect students to judge themselves, not by what they feel but by what they do. Both embrace competition and challenge–and accept the risk of failure and embarrassment that necessarily accompanies the pursuit of excellence. Both expect young men and women to do things that are hard, even if that means enduring short-term physical, mental, or emotional pain for the sake of long-term benefits.

Once upon a time, long, long ago, mainstream feminism was about making such virtues the province of women as well as men–or, more properly, the province of women who chose to pursue them. Nowadays defending mediocrity is a feminist project. A woman who aspires to test herself, especially in equal competition with men, is deemed "male-identified." Formerly male institutions that seek to uphold their historical standards are charged with ill will toward women.

No sooner had women arrived at VMI than their allegedly feminist supporters began making noises about lowering its physical training standards. "The worst thing VMI could do is expect women to be men and not to take into account the particular skills and strengths women bring," said Marcia Greenberger of the National Women's Law Center. And Pamela Hess, who edits a couple of defense-related newsletters, wrote in The Washington Post that VMI's training standards are too high for women, making them unfair. Plus, she said, "the arbitrary strength and endurance standards…have nothing to do with what is required of students in discharging their so-called military duties. The closest thing to military activity these pseudo-soldiers will ever be asked to do with their physical prowess is march about parade grounds with rifles on their shoulders."

Hess, of course, misses the point of VMI's physical training, which is not practical but personal and pedagogical. "The young men and women at VMI are attempting to see how far they can push themselves, and they don't need to be held back by the usual liberal excuses," wrote Post reader James Black in response to Hess. Not surprisingly, this defense of achievement appeared not in a professional commentary article but in a reader's reply to one. The general public is ahead of the commentators on this issue, which helps account for the success of G.I. Jane, with its subversive anti-self-pity, anti-double standards message. As Liz Johnston, the mother of a VMI sophomore, said of the school's female cadets, "I hope they will do my gender proud–and not whine like Shannon Faulkner," who forced the Citadel to admit her and washed out almost immediately.

Whining has, however, become a sort of public virtue. And VMI's "rat line" is a lot tougher than some of the experiences women are encouraged to whine about. "I'm uncomfortable when a professor takes my ideas and subjects me to some sort of public humiliation," New York University law student Sarah Thieman told The New York Times, complaining about the Socratic method of law school teaching. "A man who's more used to competition maybe can take that kind of intense scrutiny." Her fellow student Alison Shanes, a member of the law review, said, "We're not whining because we're not doing well. We're whining because we're not happy."

Thieman and Shanes are not exactly doing their gender proud. Indeed, one might think they would feel publicly humiliated to find their fragility recorded in The New York Times. But they have academic big shots to back them up. Their campaign to change NYU's teaching methods was encouraged by the scholarly work of University of Pennsylvania law professor Lani Guinier, who fortunately did not become Bill Clinton's assistant attorney general for civil rights. In 1995, she and several co-authors published a law review article attacking the Socratic method because it makes female law students feel bad, to the apparent detriment of their grades; the piece was later expanded into a book called Becoming Gentlemen, which, as its title suggests, considers traditional legal virtues male territory.

Law school professors' probing questions, their verbal jousting with students, "looks to many women like ritualized combat," say Guinier and co-authors. Socratic teaching, they suggest, forces women to become "social males," competitive, rational, quick-thinking, and sharp-witted. Even though law school exams are graded without names and class participation barely counts in course grades, women earn lower grades than men with similar admissions qualifications.

The authors' conclusion: "There is something about the law school environment that has a negative academic impact on female law students. Although some have said in response to our data that perhaps most women are not well suited to law school or should simply learn to adapt better to its rigors, we are inclined to believe that it is law school–not the women–that should change."

This conclusion is a demand that law schools cease to foster certain virtues–the virtues associated with doing rather than feeling, with public rather than private life, and, yes, traditionally with men rather than women. One could imagine a law school pursuing a curriculum based on traditional feminine virtues: patience, fidelity, modesty, harmony, orderliness, sensitivity, beauty, and manipulative cunning. It would not turn out many trial lawyers or keen legal scholars, but the law is a big field with room for many different sorts of people. That sort of pluralism would not, however, satisfy Guinier and her allies. It would still allow old-fashioned Socratic teaching in other places. They want every place to be the same.

Our public debate tends to insist on the one best way for everything–in this case, the one best way to be a man, a woman, or an androgynous human being. When we talk about sex roles, the debate also mixes up two different disputes: The first is over whether, and in what roles, women should be allowed to pursue traditionally "masculine" public virtues. The second is over whether such virtues are worthy of pursuit, or whether they are "patriarchal," or just not nice, and should therefore be eliminated. (There are similarly confused, though somewhat less prominent, arguments about traditional feminine virtues.) Both traditionalists and feminists tend to switch arguments to suit their short-term political or rhetorical purposes.

People whose job it is to discuss "women's issues" can rarely be trusted with such matters. They are too busy spinning, too driven by preconceived notions, too dedicated to a uniform vision, and just plain too narrow to accept–much less appreciate–the diversity of individual personalities and preferences, strengths and aspirations. They cannot speak frankly. They have to follow their scripts.

That is why nonprofessionals like Liz Johnston and James Black can address issues of standards and sex more forthrightly than official commentators. And it is why audiences resonate more to the admitted fiction of G.I. Jane than to the supposed truths of Crossfire.