26 August 2009

Woman is the Future of Man: El Sexo Fuerte (1946)



I suspect that we do not have the critical vocabulary or temperament to adequately understand this unaccountable Mexican film. It is too ridiculous to be confused with art and too colored by legitimate social feelings to be dismissed as camp.


That some political message was built into El Sexo Fuerte (The Strong Sex, which screened last week at UCLA) and then tugged and slapped to within an inch of its life is apparent. Two men from modern day Mexico wash up in the Kingdom of Eden, a futuristic art deco fiefdom ruled by sexless harpies who nevertheless maintain harems made up of no less than seven bearded codgers old and harmless enough to be their grandfathers. The clean-shaven hombres are sold at auction (with one fetching an all-time high of 2,000 cows)—only to be “nationalized” and made to serve as royal manicurist and waiter. But a revolution is afoot: the Party of Authoritarian Masculinity stalks the underground and plots a patriarchal restoration. The queen’s cabinet falls prey to animal instincts and the whole kingdom is swept up in a mango epidemic (!) that can only be cured by locking lips. Soon the Masculinists have achieved their coup and embarked on a re-education campaign that emphasizes proper Mexican courting rituals and domestic duties.


The final scene goes further still. Patriarchy has been restored and the first couple enacts a typical domestic scene. The woman breathlessly renounces self-determination at every turn but henpecks her husband into kinky submission. Ceding the political sphere but retaining an entirely different (and, it is suggested, more important) will to power, this woman embodies the stealthy power of hearth and home.


This quite abbreviated summary lends perhaps too conventional a sense of structure to El Sexo Fuerte. It smoothes out the abrupt and incoherent ideological ruptures. It begins as a satiric spectacle of the contrafactual; visions of men crocheting and meekly conspiring towards civil rights are too absurd to be interpreted as anything but a critique of the ruling order. The cognitive dissonance cannot help but radicalize even the most conservative viewer.  But before long it becomes an apparently reactionary tribune of nationalist machismo, a cozy affirmation of the very things it has already indicted. Women can trounce around like statesmen and soldiers and carry cardboard ray guns but men can never be feminized.


More than a polemic, El Sexo Fuerte exceeds the value of any pure tract—it is an unconscious catalogue of free-floating sentimental resentments, imagined anxieties, repressed acknowledgments, half-truths and projections. It is more than a document of contradictory attitudes. It’s closer to sincere self-critique on an industrial scale—a national monument to feelings that cannot be uttered aloud. For a film that fails to stake out any ideological position for more than ten minutes, it nevertheless manages to put forward gender as performance, sex as the currency of political economy, entertainment as the apparatus for indoctrinating femininity, and half a dozen other subterranean avant-la-lettre feminist critiques.


There is no mise en scene to speak of. The same five or six sets are recycled and pilloried for every incident. The actors suppress so many internal contradictions to make up for the muted external dynamism. At its best El Sexo Fuerte comes across as a sporadically committed fusion of a Flash Gordon serial and Female, the infamous Warner pre-Coder that finds mankilling auto titan Ruth Chatterton unexpectedly renouncing corporate largesse for romance. It is as much about sexual politics as it is about the erotic thrill of caressing polystyrene shoulder pads. Its world is modernity’s deranged imagination of itself, with gears and gurneys and industrial film junk irrationally re-appropriated for interior design. Model cars whiz along the miniature highway. The costumes permit a leering gaze at purportedly post-sexual women. A line of sombrero-clad mariachi chorines emerges as the ultimate image of reconciliation.


The director of record is Emilio G√≥mez Muriel, either a major unrecognized talent or the most damning refutation of the auteur theory yet unearthed. 


POSTSCRIPT
Aaron Greenberg—who likes the film as much as, if not more than, I do—adds the following thoughts:


Women in power upset the natural order.  No sex, no romance; just emotionless and powerful.  But the movie also recognizes the arbitrariness of the situation – who counts as powerful and weak, man and woman, depends not on essential biology, but political contest.


To my mind the film’s most radical conceit comes in its exaggeration of gender inequalities, which also makes its later sanctioning of it so interesting.  The women constantly remind the frightened, monkish men that their situation is natural and (therefore?) attractive – something that men in power don’t even need to do!


So, on the one hand, the movie recognizes that gender and power are mobile and move together.  But everyone suffers with women in power; they’re ice queens and prudes who deny sexual and romantic life – which makes you wonder why they have so many men around at all, especially given that there’s no fucking or birthing going on.  [It is asserted at one point that the women order babies from Paris, just like any luxe commodity. – K.A.W.] But with men in power, natural (or familiar?) romance and sexuality are restored: women get want they want, men get what they need. 


The ideological acrobatics are amazing: the film both ironizes the “naturalness” of different power arrangements, but still resolves to patriarchy.  Gender might be performance or convention, but (anatomical?) men are men and (anatomical?) women are women. 


The film both yields moments of radical recognition and remains very interested in getting the audience off.   In yet another register, it participates in exactly the attitudes it seems to be calling into question.


The women probably haven’t had sex since the revolution, and they hardly have to impress their cuckolded husbands, but they still run around in mini-skirts and high-heels to titillate the male audience.  But this makes so much sense given the film’s strange logic: genders are mobile but (anatomical) women still need manicures and perms. 


The ending puts women in their place, out of political power, but in possession of their natural powers of persuasion.  Even when men rule, women still have power because men are stuck needing them, wanting them, and hating them all at once.  The film mistakes men’s affective attitudes towards women for women’s real, structural power.  

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