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Surfing a Tide of Weirdness

“A desire to devour, punish, humiliate, or surrender seems to be a primal part of human nature, and it’s certainly a big part of sex,” observes Charlotte Rampling in this week’s New Yorker. “To discover what normal means, you have to surf a tide of weirdness.”

Rampling is speaking here of her new movie Heading South (Vers le Sud; Laurent Cantet, director), in which she plays the part of Ellen, a 55-year-old Wellesley French professor who spends her summers in Haiti, where she pays a young man for sex. Rampling’s comments on the nature of normality, therefore, are framed by her strong feelings of personal distaste for the character she plays in the film:

None of the deeply disturbing characters I’ve played were as unnatural to me as this one. I find it infuriating that a beautiful, smart woman like Ellen is—at any age—so invisible to the men of her own world that she has to pay.

Although Rampling’s remarks on “discover[ing] what normal means” are made in the context of her critique of the “unnatural” sexual attitudes and practices of her fictional character in the movie, they are also relevant to our understanding of the status of normality and normativity within discourses of sexual difference.

More specifically, this summer’s US release of Heading South (the film entered the international film circuit last September, but was not officially released in the US until last week) coincides with two controversies over the use of statistics to specify (and challenge) the normative position of women in our society. These two controversies, moreover, resonate quite directly with Ellen’s status in the film as an unmarried woman of a certain age, on the one hand, and as a professor at a women’s college, on the other.

First, in early June, Newsweek formally retracted its notorious “Marriage Crunch” cover story from almost precisely twenty years earlier, in which it had direly predicted that a woman who remained single at the age of 30 had only a 20% chance of ever marrying, and only a 5% chance of marriage if she remained single at the age of 35.

A 40-year-old bachelorette, the article concluded in its most controversial line, would be "more likely to be killed by a terrorist" than to ever marry (reporter Eloise Salholz borrowed the line from an internal memo by San Francisco correspondent Pamela Abramson, but states that it was intended as hyperbole). In the retraction, Newsweek had conceded that it had misrepresented the basic statistics, introduced hyperbole for rhetorical effect, and had had a pernicious effect on the national psyche as a whole. As the NY Times recently put it, the “Marriage Crunch” article “seems to have lodged itself permanently in the national psyche.”

Second, shortly afterwards, the “independent education think tank” Education Sector’s Sara Mead published “The Truth About Boys and Girls,” which directly critiqued a Newsweek cover story from this past January, entitled "The Boy Crisis. At every level of education, they're falling behind. What to do?" ( “The Trouble with Boys” on Newsweek’s website). (Newsweek was only one of many publications to report on this so-called “boy crisis” but, as with the “Marriage Crunch” headline, it proved to be unusually effective in capturing the national imagination.) The original “boy crisis” argument contended that the concerns about leveling the educational playing field in favor of girls had already  come full circle, and that now it was actually boys who are systematically falling behind and, by implication, in need of aggressive “affirmative action” themselves.

Mead’s “Truth about Boys and Girls” report, meanwhile, argues instead that the “real story is not bad news about boys getting worse; it’s good news about girls doing better.” Using a detailed analysis of statistics from the National Assessment of Education Progress, Mead concludes that boys in general, and white middle-class boys in particular, are in fact doing quite well, and that, overall, “there has been no radical or recent decline in boys' performance relative to girls. Nor is there a clear overall trend—boys score higher in some areas, girls in others.” If anything, Mead notes, the more salient vector of analysis should be one of class and race, and she specifically points to a “disturbingly low achievement [in reading] for poor, black, and Hispanic boys.”

About Carlos Rojas