Selfie, Mary Gaitskill’s “The Other Place,” and Misogynist Serial Killers

Yesterday I had the misfortune of watching the pilot episode for ABC’s new comedy Selfie. In no uncertain terms, Selfie is one of the most obnoxious and abhorrent television shows ever conceived. It surprises me that a show with such a contemptible cast of characters made it through focus testing — and likely the reason is the excellent actors Karen Gillan and John Cho doing their best with material that is equal parts annoying and offensive — but rest assured its cancellation is a forgone conclusion. The show suffers for its frustrating main character, Eliza Dooley, who uttered the words “epic fail” and “feels” for (hopefully) the first (and last) time on network television. Her language is peppered with internet idioms and other intolerable garbage. Though a lack of adherence of realism is a poor reason to dislike a show, the verisimilitude of the show is severely compromised with the unrealistic portrayal of a person who speaks exclusively in terms from knowyourmeme.com.

The show trips itself up in more important ways than Dooley’s vernacular. One of the more apparent flaws is the fact that it endorses the worldview that social networking and self-representation via the internet is somehow making society “worse.” Such a notion is harmful, patently absurd, and logically fallacious despite somehow having ingrained itself into “common sense.” The idea that the “selfish” behavior of “millennials” is causing some sort of societal ruin is interchangeable with the deplorable longing for the “good old days.” In the same way the lusting for “back then” endorses an inherently racist and sexist society, making millennials and their involvement with social networks and the internet a scapegoat for (never articulated) problems or some kind of “moral decay” is utter stupidity. There is no evidence to establish a causal relationship between the use of social networking and the overall status of society. If there was, however, it would appear to me that the vast improvement in consideration of pressing social issues and institutional representation of various types of people means society has improved rather than somehow decayed.

Another faulty assumption of the show is that there is a connection between online presence and lack of empathy. An individual with a robust internet presence is no more likely to be inconsiderate than a person who has never been on Facebook. However, Selfie depicts Dooley as unsympathetic precisely because her use of social networks makes her inconsiderate. A chief irony of the show is that the male lead, John Cho’s Henry, truly lacks empathy — though this is true in spite of how the show attempts to represent him. For Henry to write off an entire category of people who engage in a singular behavior — the use of social networking — is profoundly tone deaf.

Ultimately, however, it is Henry who makes the show unsettling. Henry is unduly obsessed with Dooley’s faux confidence (as defined by the show in a fallacious representation of real life). His anger, supposedly something which should resonate with the audience, makes him seem very “off.” His unprovoked monologue railing against Dooley’s desire for approbation in one of the early scenes of the pilot disturbed me deeply. The idea that there is something shameful about a desire for approval or an enjoyment of recognition, however hollow it might be, deserves to be combated. Henry’s character attempts to make the audience comfortable with the idea that individuals who like attention (which is to say, basically everyone) have fundamental character flaws. However, this form of elitism is perpetrated by the worst kind of self-deceptive liars. It is nearly universally understood that recognition feels good and there is certainly nothing wrong with desiring it. The only reason someone should be held in contempt for a desire for attention — or anything — is if they’re willing to ethically compromise themselves to obtain it. Eliza, however, despite her narcissism clearly adheres to a moral code and is more exploited than exploiter. What is worse, this type of hatred of people who enjoy attention is generally gendered. A woman who projects confidence and enjoys attention is labeled an “attention whore” at the drop of a hat, whereas more often than not men are rarely subject to this kind of scrutiny. The conflation of sexual promiscuity and a desire for recognition speak to the gendered quality of the indictment.

Still, after being deeply shaken by Henry’s monologue and irrational distaste for people with a prominent internet life, understanding the gendered nature of his critique only took me so far. True, Henry immediately appears to be deeply misogynistic, but there was something else disturbing about the lack of proportionality between the perceived offense and response. After all, how reasonable is it to go on a tirade about an individual’s habits who you barely know? Oddly enough, it was Mary Gaitskill’s short story “The Other Place,” a short story about a potential serial killer, which brought Henry’s character into focus for me. In Gaitskill’s story, it follows a father who has pathological (but unrealized) desires to torture and kill women. In the story, Gaitskill’s protagonist’s murderous desires are triggered by women who are (in his mind) self-absorbed but lack “true” self-confidence. A woman who would project self-confidence but lacked it in actuality, a trait the protagonist’s predatory mind is able to recognize, would be a prime target for the protagonist’s hostility. Indeed, it is the same sort of behavior exhibited by his mother which formed his pathology.

There is a deeply twisted characteristic which is shared between Henry, Gaitskill’s protagonist, and serial killers who target women such as Elliot Rodger. Henry and Rodger believe their ire to be wholly justified and thus enact psychological and physical violence against women, violence which they believe to be morally permissible. It is only Gaitskill’s protagonist who has the self-awareness to interrogate this anger (however minimally), and of the three characters he is the only one to (narrowly) avoid perpetrating an act of violence. Their thought process is enabled by the misogynist social structure that makes women responsible for the attention paid to them. Women are somehow culpable, by wearing makeup or dressing in a certain way, for being subject to the male gaze. In reality, however, the agent in the equation is the person who pays attention rather than the person subject to attention. There is nothing an individual can do to force one to pay attention to them, so faulting someone for being subject to attention is an inherently flawed notion. This social structure is instituted most strikingly in grade schools, where restrictive dress codes are disproportionately imposed on women students to stop men from being “distracted.” The strange placement of the onus on women, rather than the men doing the ogling, is deeply unjust.

Placing Selfie‘s Henry and Gaitskill’s protagonist on a continuum of intensity is telling. Both are complicit in the perpetuation of the idea that there is only one way for women to express confidence — quietly and inward. The quiet propriety that attempts to circumscribe women’s self-expression has been shattered by the power granted by sexual agency and the potential for self-representation the internet provides. Though Henry’s monologue at the beginning of Selfie’s pilot is less intense by orders of magnitude than the youtube videos made by Rodger, they resonate similarly. These men are frustrated by women who flout convention and propriety. Both believe that women who behave in this way should be freely subject to contempt and consumption. By self-determining one’s identity and expressing one’s self in a public form, said person does not make themselves available for criticism. In no uncertain terms, the hostility and criticism that women with famed internet personas undergo is a form of psychological violence. That psychological violence is directly connected to those who feel justified in inflicting physical violence, like Gaitskill’s protagonist and Elliot Rodger. In this way, though Henry certainly does not desire to physically harm Eliza Dooley, his attempt to exert control over her and “fix” her is a violent act that erases her subjectivity and replaces it with an identity that is palatable to the patriarchy.

 
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