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Photo: Joanne Kim, Capital & Main

Now that the cheering and speeches at the women’s marches are over, what do we do next? Some people say they will run for office. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has a different idea – let’s continue as we have always behaved.

NPR has embraced the Academy’s position. On Tuesday, January 23, just hours after the Academy issued its annual list of Oscar nominees, NPR’s interviewer extraordinaire Terry Gross devoted an hour to worshipful, gushing, praise of Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film Phantom Thread. According to Gross, the film is a lush, lavish, insightful story of the healing of a wounded creative soul, a dressmaker who sees the ghost of his mother guiding his life.

Stripped of the artful trappings, the film is actually a Hollywood staple. A grey haired, stuck-in-a-rut middle-aged man is “saved” by the love of a beautiful woman, at least two or three decades his junior. It is, essentially, Pretty Woman for the art house set. It is My Fair Lady (1964), Rio Bravo (1959), The King and I (1956) To Have and Have Not (1944), and Pygmalion (1938). And of course, Pygmalion was written as a play in 1912.

These stories are the sort that are routinely praised as good hearted “Family Fare”, lacking explicit sex and celebrating traditional values and gender roles. They are in the category of “women’s movies” or “date films” – appealing to women ticket buyers more than men.

They are not propaganda. They are not forced on anyone. They present characters and behavior patterns that people want to watch. They respond to impulses in the human psyche, as Terry Gross so clearly showed.

Phantom Thread was nominated for six Oscar awards on the final day of 150 victim’s statements in the sentencing hearing for child sex molester Larry Nassar. On the same day the Republican Party made clear that it will not punish Congressman Pat Meehan (R-PA) for his harassment of a congressional aide, nor for his use of taxpayer dollars to pay a sex harassment settlement.

Although the “fake news” New York Times only broke the story of Pat Meehan’s harassment and misuse of tax dollars this week, it turns out that the Republican Party’s Ethics Committee chairwoman, Susan Brooks (R-IN), has known about both for years, and had no complaint about either.

I am not complaining about either Phantom Thread or the standard storytelling trope of younger-woman-saves-older-man, or about Republican women who encourage on-the-job harassment with their protective silence. But I will complain that many “progressive” writers seem to prefer to ignore anything that such storytelling, and that women’s ticket buying, might indicate about the complexities of human feelings and behaviors.

Recently, Huffington Post ran an article condemning actor Aziz Ansari for being involved in what the writer called “consensual but unwanted” sex. She says that it was the man’s duty, in the heat of a passionate encounter, to determine that sex to which a woman had consented was actually sex that the woman didn’t want. This writer, while trying to champion women’s rights, restated the traditional position that women don’t need to express their own positions, but rather rely on men to discern their inner dialogs. This is not empowering.

This is exactly what the gymnasts testifying this week kept repeating. They were taught, trained, browbeaten into relying on men (and some adult women) to “know what was best” for them, even when it clearly wasn’t. Now, a progressive writer tells us that women should be relying on men, in the bedroom, to make decisions for women about sexual activity.

As with so many other issues, I think that Hollywood has a better handle on this than the Democratic Party, or many progressives. There are real differences between men and women that affect the ways in which they interact. We need to both accept and understand those differences if we are going to be effective in controlling behaviors to prevent inequity in the workplace and the marketplace and in the home. Denying the differences and the ways in which they affect behavior guarantees that we won’t reach effective solutions to very real problems.

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What good will it do to end discrimination against women if we ignore climate change and environmental destruction, and all the elderly widows in Florida find that rising sea levels have put their state underwater?

The French are right: “Vive le difference!” Don’t deny, celebrate. Don’t accept denial or discrimination based on “le difference.” Exploit the differences to build a stronger, fairer society.

We should note that those who condemn Al Franken for admitting to misconduct, and Aziz Ansari for engaging in “consensual” sex have yet to write about women who protect, or even applaud sexual abusers. Susan Brooks, who protects Pat Meehan, hasn’t been attacked by “progressive” women writers. Nor has Betsy deVos who wants to eliminate all Title IX protections for female students, on her way to ending all public education. Nor has senator Joni Ernst, who is outraged about people criticizing her beloved Donald’s history with women.

What will, what should, the crop of new candidates from the women’s marches around the nation run on? Will outrage at sexual harassment and abuse sweep global warming off the table as a concern? Will some run to help get Donald’s wall built, to protect us from all the rapists that are being sent north by Mexico?

Or could we get candidates, female and male, who are interested in dealing with the complexities of human interactions and real world issues?

On Tuesday, I got an extremely offensive fund raising email from a conservative group calling itself “Democracy for America.” The email spent most of its content slamming Senator Chuck Schumer for his “shameful” capitulation to briefly end the government shutdown. The group is, apparently, horrified that Schumer got the REPUBLICAN Congress and President to sign a 6-year extension of funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, as well as for putting Queen McConnell on the spot guaranteeing a vote on some form of DACA bill within a couple of weeks. Then, as always happens, the group asked me to donate to its single issue, divisiveness-oriented politics.

Abortion is an important issue, as are all women’s health issues. So is general health care. So is climate change. And infrastructure repair. And all aspects of immigration reform. And the current assault on the environment, and on labor rights and on public education.

We need candidates who are willing to grapple with ALL of the important issues. Not candidates who are concerned about only one issue, and are willing to ignore other important matters while pursuing their single issue. What good will it do to end discrimination against women if we ignore climate change and environmental destruction, and all the elderly widows in Florida find that rising sea levels have put their state underwater?

Once upon a time, Democrats looked to farmers and factory workers and pioneer women to learn what issues were important.

Those original Democrats learned what was important to people who worked and suffered in real life. Pioneer women knew that workplace safety and protection from bankers’ excesses and predatory lending, and healthcare for their husbands and children were more important than whether the banker trying to foreclose their farms spoke to them in sexist terms. But for decades, Democratic “leaders” have been telling their voters what was important, rather than asking them what was important.

Bluegrass pioneer Hazel Dickens wrote Don’t Put Her Down in 1973, about the way men mistreat women. 1973 was decades after she started working in factories, after her mineworker brother died of black lung disease. It was more than a decade after she started working in the music industry, and had to deal with the sexism of producers and fellow performers.

If new candidates are going to make headway against “the establishment” they will need to work to bring our politics back to a belief that governance is a public service, rather than an opportunity to exploit, and financially gain from popular single-issue excitement. Sexual harassment and abuse can motivate, but it must not consume – it should inform voters’ understanding that, like black-white, native-immigrant, blue collar-white collar, union-nonunion, classifications are easy devices to divide people with common interests against themselves.

Tom Hall

Tom Hall