« Justice is a drama that plays out on many stages | Main | Research: History of Adulthood »

April 22, 2005

Don't Learn Your Ethics In "Sin City"

My questions: Is Sin City sexist? Not only is the fantasy world it portrays sexist -- but also, does creating a film like this promote sexist thinking in the real world? (If so, what should we do?) Putting aside how it portrays women, what "moral lessons" does Sin City teach me as a man? Beyond the ethics of personal relationships, and beyond just Sin City, how does author Frank Miller think men of honor should confront corrupt institutional power?


I want to address "Is Sin City sexist?" Starting point:

"I think it's a bit ridiculous saying [the vignettes are] misogynistic when several women actually have both prominent and powerful roles. Nudity does not equal misogyny. Additionally, cruelty to women is punished harshly in the movie."

This post sums up the way a lot of people feel about Sin City, so... Let's begin with the word "misogyny".

I agree that Sin City is not misogynistic, not in the strict sense of "woman-hating". It's true that its world is populated with men who abuse women -- but, yes, the misogynists get punished severely for their crimes.

Misogyny is just one flavor of sexism, though. I can describe several models of sexism, and show how Sin City meets the criteria for most of them.

[Aside: There are several widely-recognized branches of feminism: Liberal, Marxist, Radical, and Socialist being the best established. See "Feminist Politics and Human Nature" by Alison Jaggar, or "Feminist Thought" by Rosemarie Tong, for a good introduction. Since dictionary definitions of "sexism" derive from feminist thought, but only succeed insofar as the dictionaries' authors are familiar with feminist thought, I choose not to ground my arguments there. ...Nor, do I see a need to choose one variety of feminism as the "correct" one here. Looking at a variety of definitions makes for a richer discussion.]

One approach to defining sexism taken by Liberal feminists is to equate it with stereotypes. Men are strong, women are weak, and anything that contradicts this notion is anti-sexist. This is a line of thinking that helps fuel the "girls kick ass too" strain of films, exemplified by La Femme Nikita, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Tank Girl, Xena, etc.

A weak case can be made that Sin City is non-sexist or even pro-feminist using this standard. Certainly some of the female characters shoot guns, wield swords, and kick ass. On the other hand, you also have a fair number of women whose sole purpose seems to be being precious objects, to be protected from the misogynists, abusers, and women-killers by other strong men. If all sexism boils down to is the notion that "men are strong, women are weak", then the movie goes both ways.

Another line of thinking in Liberal feminism looks for double-standards, rather than just at caricatures.

Double-standards in Sin City? Heck yeah. I certainly agree that "Nudity does not equal misogyny." But isn't it interesting how much female nudity we get relative to male nudity? Why not show us Bruce Willis' penis? We got to see the lead male's penis in 28 Days Later... My impression is that we get to see a lot of women's breasts because that's what the male target-audience is going to enjoy.

That's just one instance of a double-standard. On the other hand, you have both men and women wielding guns -- so the movie also has an equalizing effect, at least on this one point. But probably the most commonly cited double-standard, the "virgin / whore" paradigm -- that's in full force. The only woman in the film that I can think of who's not literally a virgin or a whore is the lesbian parole officer -- who, according to the traditional pulp script for homosexuals, is promptly killed off. It's almost comical, the way in which Sin City universally divides women into those who must be protected from sex, and those whose sole purpose is sex.

Another line of thinking about sexism focuses on "androcentrism" -- male-centeredness. Using this criteria, I notice that none of the protagonists in the vignettes are female. The voice of the narrator is always male. The movie is a fantasy designed to be enjoyed by a male audience. In itself, perhaps that's not necessarily a bad thing. But look -- women are constantly in the position of having to be saved by the men. Even the gun-toting prostitutes are going to be in a world of trouble, if this one male hero can't get control of the severed head back.

...If even strong women have to be saved by a man, then doesn't that undermine any real sense of their strength?

If androcentrism is the essence of sexism, then to be anything but sexist, we need to see women existing independently of men. Here's a useful test to apply to any film: (1) Do two women talk to each other? (2) Do they talk to each other about something other than men? ...Sin City fails miserably on both accounts.

One more model of sexism -- the one that I personally find most useful, and the one that seems most damning for Sin City: women as men's property.

In the world of Sin City, bad men abuse their female property, and good men protect their female property by murdering the bad men. The only control that women can hope to have in this imaginary universe is preemptively selling themselves to men as prostitutes -- renting their bodies, rather than being in the clutches of possessive boyfriends. [And, as mentioned before, even as seemingly self-possessed prostitutes, their safety really depends upon being saved by the male protector.]

See, sexism is more than just women-hating. Reverence for women can be sexism too. In every instance, our male narrators -- in their quest to defend their angelic women -- wind up knocking them unconscious, slapping them, ignoring them, or lying to them. The consequences of this reverent urge to protect look pretty abusive and disrespectful to me.


OK -- that's enough of surveying different interpretations of "sexist". My original question was "Is Sin City sexist?" ...Really there are two ways of interpreting that: (1) Is the fantasy world created within this piece of fiction governed by the rules of sexism? or (2) Is the production and propagation of this film in the actual world an act of sexism?

Me, when I consider all of the different definitions of sexism that can be applied to this movie, I think it's pretty clear that the imaginary world of Sin City is governed by sexism.

As for whether creating and distributing this film in the real world is an act of sexism -- well, let's look at that.

You could laugh the movie off and say that it's just a fantasy. We all know the difference between reality and fiction, so even if the movie's content is sexist, it has no impact on the outside world.

You could acknowledge that the movie's content is sexist -- but then minimize that point. You could say that the story is situated in a time-period or sub-culture that was overtly sexist, and so to be accurate about the period, you must show sexism. ...You could even argue that omitting the sexism would be a white-washing of things as they really were!

Counter-arguments: Our lives are governed by fantasy. I watch Star Wars, in part, because I enjoy projecting myself into the role of Luke Skywalker. Conversely, I don't watch Steel Magnolias or other "chick flicks" because I don't enjoy projecting myself into the characters presented therein.

If the author and director of Sin City had any commercial interest at all in making this film, then they must have been concerned with getting men to the theater who enjoy this particular fantasy. This film not only reiterates past fantasies of being a possessive hero-protector of women, but also generates stronger feelings of identification with such characters. I feel comfortable saying that the film expands the influence of sexist thinking, rather than shrinking it.

So? What if the author and director of this film are guilty of promoting sexist thinking? Am I advocating that this film should be censored? Or that activists should picket the theaters where it's being shown? Or that we should minimize its financial success by not going to see it, not buying the DVD? Am I calling for movie producers to make films that are more "politically correct"? Or urging the male audience to balance out their psyches by going to see movies like Steel Magnolias once in a while?

Frankly, I don't have a prescriptive measure. But I don't think that means I shouldn't say: "the fantasy world of Sin City is sexist" or "the popularity of this movie is actively bolstering sexist attitudes".


Sin City is a visually stunning movie. And though the performances were occasionally wooden, I still found it emotionally compelling. I too have sexist fantasies of being a possessive hero-protector in my head.

So, turning 180-degrees from my first discussion about the movie's attitude towards women, now I want to ask this question: "What does Sin City tell me about how to be a good man?"

The heroes in this film were criminals. But in a universe where the government and police are corrupt, only criminals can truly be just. [The exception of course, is Bruce Willis, who was a cop bucking the system -- and whom had to consent to being treated like a criminal in order to do the right thing.] Regardless of which side of the law these characters fell on, however, they all had strong personal codes of ethics. You could say that they followed a higher law than the laws of men. [Yes, "men".]

This film says to me: "the most important thing in the world, in order to be a good man, is to protect women". I should protect little girls from being raped. I should avenge women who are murdered. If a new boyfriend is mistreating my ex, I should beat him up. If a group of women is in trouble, then I should be truly noble and risk my own life to save them. I must be made of steel; I must be ready to do violence in the name of protecting women; I must be a loner, ready to over-rule the will of women if they're not talking sense.

And my reward for this behavior? I may have to die -- but I'll know that I'm good, because I've saved a woman. I'll be recognized by strangers as a potential protector, and consequently get laid for the only time in my life. I'll get my ex-girlfriend back -- not the wussy one who dated an abuser, but the sexy one who's full of fire.

Wow. That's a thrilling image.

And I don't think that this ethical ideal is limited to Sin City. I won't try to make a critique of contemporary male role models in general -- but at least with Frank Miller, there seems to be continuity. I can't even say that I'm a Frank Miller aficionado -- but within the "Dark Knight Returns" universe, there's a scene where an aging Batman is arguing with his frail heart, trying not to have a heart attack just long enough so that he can do the right thing. The similarity to Bruce Willis' character in Sin City is so striking, I have to assume that Miller actually believes this stuff. It's not just making fun of the old pulps -- Miller truly wants us to look up to these characters, view them as legitimate ethical role models.

As a man who aspires to remove sexism from my own behavior, I think I should explicitly contradict at least two of Miller's "moral lessons", so as to not let them sink too far into my unconscious:

(1) Women do not need my protection. It's not my job to be a bodyguard. Women are perfectly able to fight off attackers. If my partner wants to bolster her ability to fight back, she can take a class. If I want to take a self-defense class, too -- that's cool. But a safe escape is almost always going to be preferable to a knock-down drag-out fight. Turning myself into a killing machine to protect women's virtue -- just makes me a killing machine.

[This point goes for little girls, too. Better to arm them with the self-determination to get away on their own, than dependence on me as some kind of savior who'll swoop in after the assault.]

(2) Don't get too invested in being one of the "good men". Seeing the men-who-hit-women as such embodiments of evil in this film, I'm encouraged to imagine the real world as being populated by good and bad men. Investing my identity in being a "good man" can lead to defensiveness against any implication that I've done wrong. If my "honor" makes me deaf to criticism, then I don't progressively learn how to be a better person -- I simply make it difficult for the loved ones I've hurt to confront me. Personally, I'd rather see "bad men" as persons who've taken negative ideas, ones that exist in my head too, to extremes. If all men have received sexist training, there's no guilt in harboring sexist thoughts -- just responsibility for making changes when you become aware of them, particularly if the revelation is via someone telling you you've hurt them.

Maybe this is my answer about what to do in response to Sin City's sexism: explicitly discuss the how the fantasy shows men treating women in sexist ways -- but then move on to focus on how it depicts men. The story's anti-heroes excite my imagination; yet, I don't want them to implicitly be held up as role-models for being an "honorable man".


Let's take the "how to be an honorable man" theme beyond men's relationships with women.

In Miller's universe, everyone who has institutional power is corrupt. The only solution is to become a vigilante. [Both points are true in Miller's Batman stories, too.] ...Given my Lefty perspectives on the tradition of police brutality, officially sanctioned use of torture at American detention centers around the world (such as Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo bay), the efforts of COINTELPRO to squelch radicals within the U.S., etc. -- there's something that feels... refreshingly honest? ...about how Miller depicts institutional power.

I'm an activist -- I'm interested in changing the institutions that govern our lives. ...But the vigilantism that Miller seems to lionize is street justice. If I really believe in Miller's worldview, then I need to be out on streets hunting down sexual predators -- perhaps with a gang of other gun-toting vigilantes behind me. [No thanks!] Or, I need to become a hard-boiled cop who doesn't follow rules. [Also, no thanks!]

In Sin City corrupt officials are as untouchable as gods. In Dark Knight Miller finally reveals what his alternative to corruption is: the "good guys" need to forcefully set up a global totalitarian regime.

[Hm. Do you suppose that George Bush II is himself playing out a similar fantasy: acting as the infallible Superman, pushing aside checks and balances, in order to become the sole arbiter of what's right?]

If the question is now "How do we uproot official corruption?" -- then I don't have a proposal of my own... But I know that I don't like what Miller would have us do.

* * *

So, in conclusion:

NO to Frank Miller's vision of honorable manhood.

NO to Frank Miller's vision of fixing the government with vigilantism and global totalitarianism.

...Sin City is exciting in part because of the force of it's internal ethical code -- but Miller's code is one that we should vocally reject.

Posted by Sven at April 22, 2005 03:17 PM