Suzanne Fields / October 28, 2011

Sexual Politics at the Movies

“The Ides of March,” the slick new movie with George Clooney as an unethical presidential candidate, is a morality tale for our time. It lacks tragic dimensions, it’s melodramatic without complexity of character, and it has a neatly constructed plot that has no emotional depth, sliding over the surfaces of the political world as we have come to know it, up close and personal.

But it entertains as an engaging tale about the dirty tricks of politics. Entertainment, after all, is what politics has become.

“The Ides of March,” the slick new movie with George Clooney as an unethical presidential candidate, is a morality tale for our time. It lacks tragic dimensions, it’s melodramatic without complexity of character, and it has a neatly constructed plot that has no emotional depth, sliding over the surfaces of the political world as we have come to know it, up close and personal.

But it entertains as an engaging tale about the dirty tricks of politics. Entertainment, after all, is what politics has become.

The title, if it means anything, is simplistically ironic, since there is no Caesar to beware of, and no political men deeply troubled over the abuse of power beyond their own resumes and getting their man elected. If Ryan Gossling, who plays a press secretary for the candidate, has the “lean and hungry look” of Cassius, it’s merely a likeness in body image, not in intellectual profundity. His disappointment in his candidate’s morals will hardly register with an audience that came of age with a popular president parsing the meaning of “is,” and that witnessed a liberal candidate with good hair professing undying love for a wife who suffered from cancer while he fathered a child with someone else.

The movie’s smooth-talking hypocritical Clooney character is as familiar today as the political operatives who surround him whose cynicism grows in proportion to the success of the candidates they support.

The tragic victim of the movie is Molly, age 20, a seduced intern (played by Evan Rachel Wood) for whom abortion is more of a deal-breaker than a moral decision. She is crushed, less by power than by her own glib choices and the men who take advantage of them. She’s simply not mature enough to understand. But that makes her representative of her sex at 20 in 2011.

If there’s moral insight here, it lies in the sexual relations as depicted not only among men in power, but in the attitudes of the women who work for them. More important than the cliches and the commonplace is the tragic dimension of a bright young woman as she is trivialized by powerful men. She accepts her trivialization as something as normal as the air she breathes. So much for women’s liberation.

The movie, in fact, reflects the sexual mores of those who grew up after the “second sex” won equality with the first, when women were told they could cultivate the same sexual attitudes as men. The young girl who becomes pregnant in a power seduction acts as though she’s entirely in control of her body, but ultimately she’s as much a victim as a 19th century heroine in a Thomas Hardy novel, pregnant by the baron of the house in which she’s a maid. Nature will not be mocked.

The victimized intern is typical of young women today who are confused over how to manage their sexuality as they move into a larger world where they’re taught to act “just like a man.” In an Atlantic magazine cover story, “All the Single Ladies,” Kate Bolick writes about the downside of the “hook-up” culture where high-status men still exercise the power of sex. She describes the diminishment of men in the current culture, but the men who still call the shots for the sexual slots, first in college and then in the work world, are big enough.

The captain of the college football team morphs into the successful man about town (in politics, business, entertainment) often with an official girlfriend, or even a wife. But he maintains a “soft harem” on the side. Kate Bolick visits the popular blog HookingUpSmart.com, which tracks the current dating world of young singles where casual sex is the norm and young women are subject to a sultan-like exploiter with “neo-concubines who service him in the barroom, bathroom or wherever the beer is flowing.” Such young women are always willing, no matter how demeaning.

“There used to be more assortative mating, where a ‘5’ would date a ‘5,”“ she writes. "But now every woman who is a '6’ and above wants the hottest guy on campus, and she can have him – for one night.” Such hook-ups are powered less by the liberation of lust or sensual pleasure than by a narrow social conformity that reduces women to objects, as in the old patriarchy. This makes the rewards of marriage and children even more elusive and difficult to attain – and maintain.

Since we began by quoting “Julius Caesar,” it’s only fitting to recall another famous line of the Bard: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

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