Ada, you are so totally right: Fatal Attraction is not so much an artistic rendering of the real problems confronting American women as gender roles evolved in the 1980s as a male-written-and-directed revenge fantasy against women who dared to have career aspirations and extra-marital sex lives.
Much like Sam Tanenhaus’ article on the failure of female artists to be attuned to premeditated female violence is not so much a thoughtful investigation of the relationship between female artists and female perpetrators of violence as it is a revenge fantasy of a powerful man who seems super-pissed at uppity women in general and particularly women who probably don’t give a shit about what a New York Times journalist thinks they should engage with in their art.
Tanenhaus’ piece is obviously not really about female artists not engaging with female violence. Because at the end of the article, he names a whole bunch of female artists who, in fact, have.
But it’s oh-so-instructive to see how he manages to try and support the thesis that he finally disproves. He does it by making the kind of issues that both feminism and some female artists are engaged with seem cliché, uncool, boring.
But if violence against women is really as old hat as Tanenhaus manages to make it seem, then how come the lead story on the NYT’s home page right at this very moment is about Governor Patterson’s domestic abuse scandal? And if body image issues are such a yawn, then how come the NYT’s other baby boomer reactionaries, David Brooks and Maureen Dowd, can’t stop writing about the hidden meaning of Michelle Obama’s arms? (Which I once wrote about, here on Salon.)
And you’re right—he totally picks on the two performance artists on which he rests most of his flimsy case, Marina Abramovic and Karen Finley (who, yes, I saw last Saturday! She was great!). He calls their work “stimulating in its way”; “curiously outmoded”; persistent in “registering the dimmed signals of a bygone time.” One might appropriate these dismissive phrases and use them to describe Tanenhaus’ own article, which definitely sounds like it was written by an angry baby boomer who knows there is this thing called feminism that he is supposed to be P.C.-ish about but whose ideas about gender are basically stuck in 1967. Beneath the faux-breezy boredom of Tanenhaus’ tone is a kind of sexist rage that is simmering like that Fatal Attraction bunny.
Even if premeditated female-perpetrated violence is a brand-new trend (and this article’s reliance on a single case definitely doesn’t prove that) and even if it is a worthwhile exercise to diagnose what issues artists should engage with (which seems pretty dubious), I think there is a major issue that isn’t addressed here. Because if Mr. Tanenhaus really wants to see more female artists engaging with issues of female-perpetrated violence—particularly the kinds of artists that might be covered by the NYT—I think we probably need more famous female artists. Because when it comes down to it, besides the genre writers, who he approves of, he only names TWO. It seems like every year the NYT does some sort of “oh, shit, there are less female directors in Hollywood than ever” story. It also seems like every year they do the “oh, shit, there are no roles for actresses over the age of 35” story. The big arts story right now is how many female artists are in the Whitney Biennial this year. That’s awesome—and it also sucks that this is still a big surprise in 2010. Not to mention that the NYTs’ own story characterizes the women’s work apolitical. Does that mean that female artists don’t care about engaging with political issues like violence? Or does it mean that apolitical female artists have the best chances of success in the male-dominated art world?
That’s my feminist exegesis on Tanenhaus’ article. Which does not answer all of your excellent questions about women and killing. Because you are so right—90swomen LOVE to talk about women as aggressors and have been doing so…since the 90s. There are so many examples I don’t know where to start. Tanenhaus himself mentions Joyce Carol Oates, who is a hugely famous female author, and who wrote Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang in 1993. That’s right: GIRL GANG! It was later made into a movie. Margaret Atwood wrote this short story I read as a teenager about a character who gets a reproductive growth removed by her doctor and then makes it into a cheese ball and serves it to her sometimes-boyfriend. Not serial killing. But aggressive! She also wrote Cat’s Eye, which was about mean girls before there was Mean Girls. If we really wanted to be literal about female killers, Diablo Cody just did Jennifer’s Body.
We’re right, he’s wrong, I’m ready to talk about glitter gel again.