Hall of Mirrors: Facing Patriarchy in the Media, Facing Ourselves

John Wick is “a man of focus,” as another character describes him early in John Wick: Chapter 2. Once he sets his mind on a singular task, you don’t want to come between him and its accomplishment. When Chapter 2 begins, that task is the recovery of the ’69 Mustang that was taken from him in the first film. And indeed, many people come between Wick and his retrieval of the car, and they all meet violent ends as a result.

As Wick struggles to make his escape, the Mustang becomes absurdly damaged; the front end crumpled, the windshield cracked, the driver’s-side door knocked completely off. It looks the way cars often look in a Grand Theft Auto game at the end of a mission, and as I was watching the mayhem onscreen and my pulse started to race, some part of my brain yearned to play a video game in which I could also participate in a game of vehicular cat-and-mouse on rain-slicked city streets.

I entertained the idea of hopping into Grand Theft Auto Online and getting embroiled in a thrilling car chase, perhaps while “Midnight City,” M83’s synth anthem of urban transcendence, played on an in-game radio station. It would be a car chase both breathless and brutal, kinetic and soaring and beautiful enough to make Michael Mann proud. But some part of this desire made me a little uncomfortable, because I’ve dealt with a lot of entitled assholes in gaming culture, and my experiences have convinced me that games like GTA Online not only appeal to many such people but in many cases actively contribute to their attitudes, just one more drop in an ocean of media that works to normalize misogyny and patriarchy. And some of the things that appeal to them, I have to admit, are probably the same things that appeal to me.

I originally thought this piece might be about the ways in which Yakuza 0, the latest game in Sega’s long-running Yakuza series, delights in and celebrates sexism. It gives us a world in which women are expendable, interchangeable playthings and status symbols in the important dealings of men…

…a world where men revel in the objectification and exploitation of women…

…and where this exploitation takes many forms, from telephone clubs and parlors where you can watch live-action videos of sexualized, infantilized women, to the Japan Catfight Club where you can place bets on women in bikinis wrestling for your enjoyment, just to name a few.

In this world, women, by and large, exist for the pleasure of men. One of the game’s playable protagonists, Majima, is introduced in a scene in which he is working as the manager of the hottest hostess club in Sotenbori, the Grand. When a male customer sexually assaults a hostess, it is presented as an act of masterful management skill and benevolence that Majima handles the situation in a way that lets the male customer save face and walk away with his reputation untarnished.  The woman’s experiences don’t matter.

Later, when a yakuza boss kills a woman in cold blood after the game’s other protagonist, Kiryu Kazuma, refuses to join forces with him, Kiryu doesn’t flinch. Kiryu, the very image of a tough yet deeply soulful male hero, betrays no emotion at all in response to the wasted humanity.

And when Kiryu stumbles into having some control over a real estate organization, the woman, Marina, who is hired to serve as his secretary opts to call him “president” even though he’s not really the president of anything, because she actually wants to be as demure and “secretary-ish” as possible. It’s gross.

These are just a few examples. The more I played the game, the more I started to feel that an exploration of its misogyny would be complicated by the fact that it is so relentlessly, exuberantly, shamelessly misogynistic from its very first moment onward that it quickly works to normalize its own sexism. Many players would respond to any identification of its sexism with a shrug, as if to say, “It’s just Yakuza being Yakuza, what do you expect?”

The very fact that it’s so relentless and outrageous in its sexism comes to function as a defense, because to point out that sexism is to point out the blatantly obvious, and nobody wants to have the blatantly obvious pointed out to them. It seems condescending, insulting. We feel as if, because the sexism is so obvious, it’s also harmless. We can spend a while enjoying the idea that women are mere sexual objects, playthings and status symbols as a bit of goofy, lighthearted fun.

We are human beings in the cinema, or on the couch holding the controller or watching the television. We are complex and full of contradictions. We contain multitudes, and so do our readers.

But it doesn’t actually work this way. Allowing misogyny to remain normalized or to be further normalized is dangerous. Misogyny has so much power in our culture largely because it has already been so normalized. It is seen as natural, just the way things are, just a reflection of the differences between men and women. It is what lets Trump get away with saying that his boasts about sexual assault are just harmless “locker room talk” and still go on to become president, when the sensible reaction to this would be universal disgust and outrage. Journalists covering presidential politics have a responsibility to not let Trump’s misogyny, his racism, and his fear-mongering become normalized. They have a responsibility to continue identifying these aspects of his rhetoric and his policy again and again and again and again and again and again and again, even if many people begin responding to these reports with a shrug, as if to say, “It’s just Trump being Trump, what do you expect?”

In much the same way, so do cultural critics have a responsibility to continue working against the normalization of sexism, racism, and the ideology of domination through violence in our mass media. But that work is complicated. It requires self-reflection, introspection, a willingness to think critically about our own feelings and desires as well as about the media we engage with. As a critic who is also a human being who lives in this culture, I have to both acknowledge that in many ways I admired John Wick: Chapter 2, while also believing that on balance, it functions far more to reinforce what bell hooks rightly calls the imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy than to resist it.

There is nothing in this film that works to nudge us further from being a culture that revels in violence. Yes, the film acknowledges its own absurdity, beginning with footage of a Buster Keaton film being projected on the side of a building, as if to say to astute viewers, “We know what we’re doing: this is moviemaking, and there’s an element of physical comedy to what you’re about to see.” Touches like this lend the film more texture. They give critics more to dig into when writing about it, and they give viewers including me, who appreciate John Wick and its context in film history, more to savor.

But that is not a defense. The fact that the film playfully acknowledges that it knows what it’s doing doesn’t prevent it from effectively doing it. In this film, John Wick has a consultation with a man known as The Sommelier (Peter Serafanowicz), whose specialty is not wine but guns, and who treats Wick to “a tasting,” speaking up the virtues of every elegant killing machine he places in Wick’s hands as if it were a Cabernet Sauvignon of the finest vintage. This builds up an anticipation in the viewer, as we look forward to seeing each gun (as well as a blade, what Wick and The Sommelier refer to as “dessert” in the assembly of their wine course) being put to masterfully effective use by John on the assignment he’s preparing for. This is a film that fetishizes and revels in brutal gun violence. Domination through violence, or the threat of it, are at the core of patriarchy, and I believe we need a radical shift toward a media landscape that challenges and disrupts patriarchy, rather than celebrating it. And yet, I cannot deny that I enjoyed John Wick and its sequel.

These two things can coexist. I don’t believe that this, in and of itself, is a tremendous problem. The problem arises when we are reluctant to acknowledge this tension, to look closely at ourselves as individuals and as a culture, to question what ideas we may have internalized and what values we are to some degree buying into as we enjoy media that glorifies gun violence, or that celebrates traditional gender roles.

I think that the best, truest criticism of such media comes out of a wholly honest and self-reflective engagement, one that admits and acknowledges the ways in which we ourselves are moved or engaged by media, even as we object to aspects of the very ideology the film is communicating. For we are human beings in the cinema, or on the couch holding the controller or watching the television. We are complex and full of contradictions. We contain multitudes, and so do our readers. Part of the trick, it seems to me, lies in striking that balance, bringing both heart and intellect to bear. To ignore a work’s harmful values or messages is irresponsible. To deny that a work with harmful values or messages can still have moments of beauty or value or can still move us in some way is reductive. This is another way that most of us, as my colleague Ashley put it in her most recent piece, “live in the ambiguous in-between.”

I often think back to this 2012 piece by film critic Laura Canning about the challenges of being a feminist and a film critic. The film she uses to illuminate these difficulties is, of all things, the 2011 film The Muppets; you remember, the one with Amy Adams and Jason Segel. Yeah, that cute, feel-good hit. I highly encourage you to read the piece in its entirety, but I want to quote one paragraph here that captures something I so deeply, constantly feel. Canning writes:

Being a feminist and a film critic (or indeed a feminist and anyone who interrogates almost anything in contemporary culture) involves a curious process of mental ball-hopping that many of you may be familiar with. Essentially, when I see a film I have two choices. I can stop being a feminist for the duration of the film, and accept that I’m just going to enter a world in which feminism has no meaning or relevance. This involves deliberately marginalising myself, and my fellow 52% of the population, and leaving aside my own very deeply-held political and moral views. It also involves pretending that feminism is actually a marginal politics, a casual set of fringe positions taken Just To Be Awkward, When It Suits You rather than what it is, among other things: a daily practice, a structure of political principle, and most importantly of all, a rigorous stripping-away of culturally-determined assumptions about what it means to be a woman, or indeed a man.

And later, in a section that seems especially relevant to my feelings about a film like John Wick: Chapter 2, she says:

Is The Muppets a feminist film? It certainly isn’t. Is it an anti-feminist film? Possibly, but no more so than any other film. Does this invalidate my enjoyment of it? No. I enjoy an awful lot of things that aren’t specifically feminist, not because I am a misogynistic self-hater but because hell, I want to interrogate our cultural practices and ask the unasked questions and, yes absolutely I want to change the world; but I also want to squeeze a bit of craic out of it while doing so.

So I admit that I really enjoyed the new John Wick. And I think there is stuff of genuine value in it. As Wick, Keanu Reeves moves and speaks like a man set apart, a man living in the same world as other people and yet entirely separate from them, as if he doesn’t quite know how to be with and talk to people, like his soul bristles at every interaction. I thought of the third chapter of Olivia Laing’s extraordinary book The Lonely City, entitled My Heart Opens to Your Voice, in which Laing describes how, when you are lonely, when you’re not being touched, when you lack close connections with others, even ordinary exchanges become more difficult, and I loved the way Reeves’ performance so perfectly manifested the effects of loneliness on Wick in this way.

I loved, too, the way that at a certain point (for reasons I won’t go into), it seems as if the entire world is out to get Wick. Any guy casually sitting on a bench eating take-out, any violin-playing busker, anyone at all may be a threat to him. Watching this, I thought, “Yes, this is a bit like how it feels to live in a hostile culture. To be constantly on-guard, to know that any stranger on the street or on the subway or anywhere may despise you just for existing. The tendency toward constant vigilance that poisons your time in the world.”

And I love that in the first film, it isn’t Wick’s wife who is murdered, setting him on the path of revenge as is the case with so many male action heroes, but his dog. (His wife dies, but at least, at least she dies from disease rather than suffering a violent death at a killer’s hands.) I like that it’s the death of the dog that sets him off because it reframes what is most valuable and meaningful about our connections with others. The endless litany of dead women — girlfriends and wives — sacrificed to fuel the vengeance of male characters communicates that what is most important is for men to be loved by women, and to protect, within patriarchy, the women and children who love them. By making it about his dog, the original John Wick suggested that Wick’s potential salvation resided in his capacity to love and take care of something, rather than in being loved.

Of course, there may be those who will argue that the sexism of a game like Yakuza 0 is so exaggerated that it actually calls attention to the misogyny in such a way as to function as a critique of it. I welcome these readings, and value the opportunity to have my own perspective challenged; I often get far more out of interpretations of games that I disagree with than those that I agree with. However, while there may be validity to our personal, individual interpretations and readings, there is no doubt in my mind that a game like Yakuza 0 doesn’t actually function as a critique in our culture.

In a new piece on the 1987 film RoboCop for Vulture, Abraham Riesman writes, “RoboCop was intended to be a viciously hilarious attack on police brutality, union busting, mass-media brainwashing, and the exploitation of the working class by amoral corporate raiders. Alas, all too many people only noticed the viciousness, not the targets thereof.” Later, he laments, “Unfortunately, the mayhem and dismemberment is all that some people enjoy about the film, the ultimate insult to RoboCop’s teachings. We’re supposed to laugh at and loathe the use of violence.”

RoboCop, a film I admire a great deal, may well be intended as a critique — I believe that its biting comic excesses and its concerns with corporations callously capitalizing on overworked, exploited workers clearly indicate that it is — but speaking in broad terms, we as a culture are too in love with violence to read it that way. As Riesman suggests, for many viewers it works to glorify the very things it intends to lampoon. Similarly, Yakuza 0‘s outrageousness is hardly sufficient to make it function as a critique in our culture, precisely because sexism and misogyny are already so normalized here.

That is to say that at no point will most players who come to the game eager to enjoy and participate in its storylines and gameplay systems designed around the objectification and exploitation of women be made to feel uncomfortable about those desires. They will not find their ideology challenged. They will not come away from Yakuza 0 with a better, more critical understanding of patriarchy, or a sense that it can be dismantled and changed. On the contrary, they will find their attitudes catered to, indulged, and reinforced.

Often, I think that so much of mainstream games criticism, particularly pieces that refuse to confront the misogyny in games like Yakuza 0, or that offer up defenses of it, function to let all of us as gamers off the hook. They help all of us who love games, myself included, feel unconflicted about that love. In fact, they help us feel good about it. They make us feel unambiguously justified in our blind admiration for games, in our belief that games are worth not only our time but also the tremendous significance with which we imbue them. I’m of the opinion that we should feel conflicted sometimes, that the real value of criticism is often found in asking ourselves and each other the tough questions, in going to those uncomfortable places and asking ourselves why it is we like and respond to these things, what that says about our culture, and about us as individuals, too.

I want to be clear that the goal I strive for as a critic is not, as some detractors argue, a constant stream of sanitary art that presents an idealized, non-violent view of reality in which sexism and racism don’t exist and everything is perfect. In other words, I don’t want Yakuza 0 to pretend that telephone clubs and hostess clubs and all the rest of it don’t exist. On the contrary, I want messy, honest art that digs deep and confronts the realities of the systems in which we live and operate, illuminating them and inspiring critical thinking about them.

Nor do I want bloodless art in which people don’t experience desire and have sex. If anything, I want more real sexuality in my art, but that means seeing representations of desire, love, and sex that are liberated from or that challenge sexism and patriarchal fantasy. In Yakuza 0, the telephone clubs and hostess clubs are so deeply sad, the interactions that take place so limited by commerce and cultural expectation. There is no opportunity for genuine connections to develop; everyone is too busy playing a part, with women stroking the egos of men and men treating the women like children. This could have really been something if the game had recognized the sadness of this situation and done something with it, but it doesn’t.

Both John Wick: Chapter 2 and Yakuza 0 delight in the rules and structures of their underground criminal societies, the hierarchies, the notions of honor. John and Kiryu both buy wholesale into those systems and their values. And within these frameworks, both John Wick and Kiryu Kazuma are able to emerge looking like good, decent men, despite participating in systems rooted in violence (and, particularly in Kiryu’s case, misogyny as well). If Yakuza 0‘s Kiryu and Majima had moments of awakening, where they began not only to see but to actively reject the mechanisms of misogyny in which they operated, that could have been an authentic critique, and players who had purchased the game at least in part because of the glamorous Japanese gangster fantasy of interactions with objectified women would have found their perspectives challenged as the game actively began to rebel against them and deny them that fantasy.

But that never happens. What this particular film and game don’t do, what films and games almost never do, is step back from the systems in which the characters operate and question them, encouraging the viewer or player to question them, too. They don’t suggest that alternatives are possible, or acknowledge that imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy is able to continue functioning largely because it is allowed to remain invisible and normalized, to pass itself off as just the way things are. They don’t help us to see it as what it really is: a vicious and dehumanizing system constructed by people and culture that can be changed, dismantled, replaced.

At the cinemas right now alongside John Wick: Chapter 2 is a film about an altogether different kind of man, a true hero, James Baldwin. For the viewer unfamiliar with Baldwin’s work, I Am Not Your Negro will reveal that he saw these systems as clearly as anyone. Repeatedly in the film Baldwin speaks about the images on American movie and television screens, about figures like Gary Cooper, Doris Day, and John Wayne, and the stories America told itself about its own history, the ways in which it could use the cinema to “make a legend out of a massacre” and assure itself that “no crime was committed.” Baldwin understood that there was a direct and powerful connection between the images a culture creates about itself and the ideologies that determine how individuals and groups exist in relation to each other within that culture.

Early in the film, we see Baldwin on The Dick Cavett Show in 1968, and Cavett asks Baldwin if he feels that things are getting better for black people in the United States. Baldwin, of course, is having none of it. He doesn’t let Cavett or white America off the hook. Still to this day, in so many areas, I feel like I so often see well-meaning people who benefit in some way from systems of imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy acting to reassure themselves that things are getting better, and therefore that we can relax and enjoy ourselves, that we don’t need to feel complicit or actively work to change anything, when what we actually need is to do the sometimes-introspective, sometimes-uncomfortable work of maintaining a vigorous and radical opposition to the status quo. James Baldwin should make you feel uncomfortable, and really, good criticism of all kinds often should, as well.

At one point in the film, Baldwin says “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” If nothing can be changed until it is faced, then the answer, whatever it may be, is not to stop illuminating the machinery of oppression. We must continue to name it, identify it, specify it, fight against its acceptance and normalization, even if the response from some is a shrug and a “What do you expect?” Because the goal is not to change each individual mind. There will always be those who treat imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy as “normal.”

The goal is to continue working for a culture that does not treat patriarchy and its supporting systems as natural, normal, or invisible, but rather a culture that clearly sees how they function, that faces them, and works to dismantle them and replace them with systems that are better for everyone, and to do all this while acknowledging the messy truth that we ourselves are human beings who exist in this culture, and that some of us sometimes thrill at stories of men who, like modern-day samurai, feel bound by honor or obligation to exact vengeance, or just to get their cars back. After all, John Wick: Chapter 2‘s climactic sequence takes place in a hall-of-mirrors art exhibit intended to inspire reflection (pun intended), where visitors are instructed to consider “the nature of the self,” and I’d be a shoddy critic if my work involved entirely denying my own responses to the media I was critiquing.

But knowing myself also means knowing that, if continuing to point out again and again and again and again and again and again and again the ways in which so many films and video games and television shows work to make imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy seem natural and inevitable means some people grow weary of me, I’ll just have to keep it up anyway. For as Laura Canning says at the end of her piece:

Once you see not just how the world works, but how all of our cultural artefacts either tacitly or explicitly reinforce the subordination of women, you just can’t un-see it, though sometimes you wish you could. And that is also why I will just have to continue being That Asshole At The Cinema.