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Jeff Simon: Brilliant writers look into male toxicity

Jeff Simon
The old assumptions about sex, gender and power that people could have 15 years ago are no longer possible. Everything is different. Toxic male behavior has been outed and razed -- not just a little, but a lot and for any number of reasons (among the least complicated, it dovetails with escalating 21st technology and the corresponding disappearance of privacy).

Giant careers have sunk to the bottom of the sea under close examination of male sexual behavior -- Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Garrison Keillor, Roger Ailes, Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Kevin Spacey, Louis C. K., Al Franken.

We're bedevilled by careless media assumptions of the equality of sexual transgressions, whether we're talking about stupid and juvenile male jokes, or rape and other repellent felonies.

Rebecca Traister and Michelle Goldberg, along others, have written about the subject with reckless candor and intellectual agility.

Two of my favorite writers -- David Thomson and David Shields -- are, at the moment, giving us wildly different books about what the old male assumptions hath wrought and which now demand the most supple intelligence for common sense.

Thomson is one of the best film critics and historians in America and has been ever since the first appearance of his "Biographical Dictionary of Film" years ago.

Thomson's new book is "Sleeping With Strangers: How The Movies Shaped Desire," a fearless, personal, revealing and wildly original account of how men and women in American movies have affected the sexual desires all the rest of us have. This is a brand new way of looking at movie history -- and a brutally frank one, too.

Along the way, he traverses brilliantly such subjects as the crucial homosexual contribution to Hollywood and the prodigious misconduct charges against Weinstein. He is eminently sane in evaluating all sorts of Hollywood careers -- the way, for instance, the sexual tastes of Randolph Scott and Cary Grant during the period they lived together affected what they did on matinee movie screens.

About Weinstein, Thomson writes, "I don't question the charges brought against Weinstein and others or dispute those men's brutality. But these offenses are not new. Since it began the movie business was founded on men being superior voyeurs who cast women. That tradition covers Griffith, Chaplin, Sternberg, Hitchcock and Hawks among other (pantheon film directors). The profession and the art systematized sexual exploitation in which women bartered their bodies and their intimacy for a chance to be seen on screen.

"Don't just blame the businessmen. Males in the dark in movie theaters were spying on women in a similar way and exploiting them in their fantasies." There is, writes Thomson with notable equanimity, "no defense for the behavior of Weinstein et. al. but there can be regret over denial of their work."

This, I think, is Thomson's most powerful book and one of the smartest ever written about sex and the movies.

David Shields' "The Trouble With Men: Reflections on Sex, Love, Marriage, Pain and Power" is revealing and confessional to the point of exhibitionism, personal to the point of shock. His book is addressed to his wife about the most private things most of us could imagine, but he's doing something incredibly rare in his book and doing it in a way that is undeniably powerful and thoughtful.

"Will men ever see women as real?" he asks from the middle of 21st century America.

"For that to happen, men would first have to get some distance on ourselves as vectors on the grid of male sex drive and understand that their fantasy life is inevitably underwritten by howling weakness. Then they'll have to refuse to pretend that this weakness is not ever-present.

"Anthonia Porchia: Man is weak, and when he makes strength his profession, he is even weaker."

Here are two writers who have found a way to face a tortuous historical moment squarely and with neither cowardice or confusion.

What an amazing time to be reading books this one is.

"History never lags," writes Shields. "It lives on our nerve endings."
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