Waiting to Exhale: A crack high for the female psyche

plus "Getting clear on copyrights"

Published December 30, 1995 8:20PM (EST)

It's a measure of the media's drive-by approach to race relations that certain
events make news for showing us what we should have already known. Just as last
October's Million Man March drew huge acclaim at least partly because 800,000
black men came together without violence, "Waiting to Exhale" is the blockbuster
film of the hour mainly because it's showing black women as beautiful, savvy
professionals with disposable incomes and gorgeous clothes, instead of
welfare-dependent mothers with too many children.

Now I don't know what kind of rosy-colored, Prozac-in-the-water planet I live
on, but I wasn't expecting violence at the Million Man March. It was exactly
the moving, spiritual event I thought it would be. And I didn't need
"Waiting to Exhale" to show me that most black women are striving and succeeding,
despite racism. I know plenty of women like that. If black America thinks the
nation needs those affirmations, I'll concede that my notion of where we're at
racially might suffer from liberal white-girl optimism. But I won't cede my
right as a female to observe that the male-bashing taken to an extreme in
"Waiting to Exhale" is starting to seem a little like crack for the female psyche,
exhilarating in the short-term but ultimately crippling and dangerous.

Attacks on the film have centered on the bleak portrayal of black men, but black
women don't fare much better. Three of the four heroines are
trouser-chasing, champagne-swilling, bustier-wearing whiners who make obviously
wrong choices and then blame the nearest available target -- black men, white
women, gay men, their mothers -- for their troubles. The movie made me want to
run an outreach and intervention program for women leaving theaters across
America, to counteract the values portrayed on screen. My program would be
based on the following five principles:

Nobody is obligated to love us. At least two of the women in the film are patently unloveable unless they spend some time on the couch, or with a minister, a
shaman, or a straight-talking girlfriend who helps them work through the
combination of immaturity and female rage that's driving their bad choices. No
healthy man, black, Chinese or purple, is going to put up with their

Contempt is not an aphrodisiac. Several of the audience's favorite scenes
involved our heroines having extremely bad sex with selfish men, the type who
get on top and grunt for a while and roll off -- wham-bam without the
thank-you-ma'am kind of lovers. This is portrayed as typical of the injustice
our girls must endure. But the women in question don't much like the men they're
bedding in the first place. In one really disturbing scene, which the audience
howled at, the lover-to-be is a short, fat, bespectacled brother who was extremely
dark-skinned, in contrast with the gorgeous light-skinned heroine -- an ugly touch, I thought, in a black movie. She swallows her revulsion and fakes an orgasm, and later fakes love, because the overweight
lover's got a nice big...house. Why do these women expect good sex from men
they don't like? Which leads to my next principle:

It takes two people to have bad sex. I learned this in my 20s, and I haven't
had bad sex since. These women seemed to think their role in the act involved
lying around looking pretty in a push-up bustier, like a hormone-enhanced turkey
on a platter. As RuPaul says, "Girl, you better work."

Married men who cheat on their wives are bad bets for a commitment. Enough said.

White women are not the problem. The film opens with a black man -- a cardboard
cut-out, filthy-rich scumbag -- leaving Angela Bassett for a white woman. I
won't minimize the pain in that, nor deny the creepy social and psychological
factors that propel some black men to marry outside their race. But the
simplistic, good and evil portrayal of black-white relationships is appalling.
Normally, racial scapegoating in films follows a predictable, morally reassuring
if unrealistic trajectory: In the end the character realizes that the race of
his or her adversary isn't really the issue, and comes to some new
self-awareness. Not in this film. Relationships between black men and white
women are depicted as just plain wrong, sick, revenge against black women, case
closed, and there's absolutely no insight or epiphany to soften that kneejerk
judgment. In fact there's a disturbing psychological subtext -- The only good
white woman is a dead white woman -- when later in the film Bassett hooks up
with a black man whose white wife is dying of breast cancer.

Male-bashing can be good, clean fun after a hideous breakup. Personally, I
enjoyed the scene where Houston dumps a drink in her married lover's lap --
there are several men in my past whose laps are still crying out for a nice,
cold drink after all these years. But as a way of life, a philosophy of relationship, it's
destructive. It exonerates women from the bad choices we make, and lets us
forget that we usually get the men we deserve.

Unfortunately, we get the films we deserve, too, and the fact that women of every race are flocking to "Waiting
to Exhale" is a disturbing glimpse of our unreadiness for movies that tell the
truth -- ensuring we'll get more cheap thrills and psychological lies
masquerading as social commentary.

--Joan Walsh

Getting clear on copyrights

Important causes don't always get to choose their adherents. That's why politics often makes for such strange bedfellows.

Ironically, the Church of Scientology, certainly no bastion of individual liberty and social conscience, has drawn attention to an important emerging DigiCulture issue: copyright protection on the Internet. In some ways, this reality summons the same knee-jerk reaction I had when I heard that the ACLU was going to court in Skokie, Illinois, a few years back to help the American Nazi Party defend its right to demonstrate in the faces of Holocaust victims. I was sickened at the prospect of agreeing with these residents of the Conscience-Free Zone, but I knew I would be even sicker if I threw out the First Amendment just because I didn't agree with them.

In case you are unaware of it, the Church of Scientology is a strange little cult founded by a science fiction novelist named L. Ron Hubbard. It believes, among other things, that its basic teaching texts should not be freely distributed like the Bible, the Koran and other sacred writings, but rather must be meted out carefully to those who have been properly initiated in some unspecified mysteries. To that end, the church has taken a number of highly unusual steps, including copyrighting all of the books containing their fundamental principles. A number of prominent former Scientologists, motivated variously by avowed disgust with the teachings and deep concern over the church's socio-political agenda, have been uploading these documents to the Internet. The response by the church has been swift, direct, and frighteningly efficient. Local and federal law enforcement officers have raided the homes and offices of these dissidents and seized all of their computer equipment and records -- actions, at first blush, that are reminiscent of strongarm Gestapo tactics.

It does seem strange that a church should be in the forefront of this fight.
After all, if I believed that my spiritual institution held the key to salvation or whatever spiritual balm it was offering, I would want people to receive its teachings, so much so that I would make them freely distributable. I certainly wouldn't try to protect them with the tainted civil laws of copyright, would I? A quick trip to the religion section of my local bookstore proved me wrong -- every single sacred text there has a copyright notice. Indeed, it turns out that if you want to use extensive quotations from the Bible in any version but the King James, you'd better get permission from the copyright holder, who presumably would look unkindly on the prospect of allowing you to upload its contents in their entirety to a news group on the Internet or offer a text file for free download from your Web site.

However, at least those teachings are available to the public. The church of Scientology maintains it is not interested in suppressing dissent, only in protecting its copyrights -- but it would be a lot easier to believe this if you could walk into a bookstore and buy their books, thus honoring the copyright. Clearly they have other, less clearly delineated agendas.

Despite that, I cannot, in the final analysis, bring myself to harp at the church or its leaders for attempting to protect their lawfully (if mystifyingly) copyrighted materials from indiscriminate publication and dissemination. The bottom line is that protecting the principle of copyright supercedes other concerns. The blinding speed and utter secrecy with which one can capture, store, and forward confidential or copyrighted material to thousands of different points on the Internet must ultimately alter how copyright and other intellectual property protection evolves in the United States and, indeed, throughout the world.

--Dan Shafer

By Joan Walsh

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Copyright Intellectual Property Love And Sex Race Scientology Sex