The artist’s patriarchy says, “The creative man is exempt from interpretive labor1 by his efforts to endlessly interpret himself.” His privilege (and ignorance) is excused and upheld by his perceived sensitivity, no matter how shallow the affect.
While the twentieth century American man could reduce a woman through physical force, his twenty-first century cosmopolitan counterpart has had to resort to more subtle means. Synecdoche2 is his tool. The women in his life, instead of existing as full and complete human beings (with pains, desires, hopes, struggles, and the complex webs of people and experiences which form the context of their lives), are rendered interchangeable, mechanical parts. Their experiences are all negated by his own.
The Charlie Kaufman film Synecdoche, New York couldn’t have been better named. The movies’s protagonist, Caden Cotard, is embraced and understood by woman after woman3 right up to the moment of his death4. Yet all these women could have been a single character, or better yet, a mirror into which Caden would stare. Most films (and works of literature for that matter) are stuffed with straw women5. Synecdoche takes this to a self-conscious (and painful) extreme.
Through the lens of patriarchy, many will see Caden as an honest hero. Yet Caden’s domineering self-absorption is provided an antidote in a funeral monologue:
Everything is more complicated than you think. You only see a tenth of what is true. But there are a million little strings attached to every choice you make. You can destroy your life every time you choose. But maybe you won’t know for twenty years, and you may never ever trace it to its source. And you only get one chance to play it out. Just try and figure out your own divorce. And they say there is no fate, but there is. It’s what you create. And even though the world goes on for eons and eons, you are only here for a fraction of a fraction of a second. Most of your time is spent being dead or not yet born, but while alive, you wait in vain, wasting years, for a phone call, or a letter, or a look from someone or something to make it all right, but it never comes. Or it seems to but it doesn’t really. So you spend your time in vague regret, or vaguer hope that something good will come along, something to make you feel connected, and to make you feel whole, something to make you feel loved. But the truth is, I feel so angry, and the truth is, I feel so fucking sad. And the truth is I’ve felt so fucking hurt for so fucking long, and for just as long have been pretending I’m OK, just to get along, just for…I don’t know why. Maybe because no one wants to hear about my misery, because they have their own. Well, fuck everybody. Amen.
And our dear Caden chooses not to swallow the antidote. He can ignore this remedy and the perspective of every other female-bodied being, for he is the artist, and this is the artist’s patriarchy.
- The term “interpretive labor” originates in the work of anthropologist David Graeber, defined as “the constant work of imaginative identification with others.” As Graeber explains:
“One thing that arbitrary power does is allow one to avoid [interpretive labor] to some extent. It’s a luxury—insofar as luxury is above all, all the things you don’t have to worry about or even think about. As a result, whenever you have a social hierarchy, the people on the bottom have to constantly think about what the people above them are thinking and feeling (and hence, inevitably, end up caring about them to a certain extent) but this really doesn’t happen very much the other way around.” [↩]
- Synecdoche is a figure of speech in which a part of a thing is used to refer to the whole, a whole is used to refer to a part, a class is used to refer to a more general class, a class is used to refer to a more specific class, a material is used to refer to an object composed of it, or a container is used to refer to its contents. I’m using synecdoche as metaphor for the conflation of individual beings with genericized beings writ large. [↩]
- Caden’s first wife Adele is an obvious exception to this. However, she is presented to the audience as the likely cause of Caden’s loneliness and a justification for his attempts to “complete himself.” [↩]
- Cotard’s exchange with the woman as he is dying so aptly demonstrates the interchangeability of the women. She is little more than a stranger, yet she is no less a fit for this dying heart-to-heart than any of the other women in Caden’s life. [↩]
- A play on the straw man, which is a component of an argument based on misrepresentation of an opponent’s position, a straw woman would be an overly simplistic, shallow representation of a woman. Most women in film have no lives outside their relation/utility to men. [↩]