The Perils of Patriarchy

Two new movies shed light on a dark world

Patriarchy is an unsustainable system that feeds on the domination of others by "divine" right and the immutable characteristics of the dominators and dominated. Whether by blood or gender, there are few ways for the dominated group to transcend their birth. There's the divine right of kings (and some queens) over their subjects, and the divine right of men over women and children. We started dismantling the divine right of kings with the creation of democracies; we are now mid-stream in challenging the divine right of men, regardless of class, in society and families.  

The "backstage" realities of a royal patriarchal system are rarely shown so vividly as in "The King's Speech," the wonderful new bio-pic starring Colin Firth as Great Britain's Prince Albert, who becomes George VI upon his elder brother's abdication, and Geoffrey Rush as Lionel Logue, the Australian speech therapist who helps his kingly patient transform his stubbornly stuck stammering to eloquent elocution. The film left me, dare I say it, speechless and grateful for director Tom Hooper and the writer of the brilliant original screenplay, David Seidler. All this genius filmmaking is supported by a perfect score composed by Alexandre Desplat. "The King's Speech" is screaming for an Academy Award from the top of its royal lungs.  

While I doubt many people other than those of us with a feminist lens would walk out of "The King's Speech" saying it's a feminist movie, I was struck with how rarely we get to see how patriarchy cruelly oppresses men as well as women and children, and yes, even princes and kings. What is so starkly present in "The King's Speech" is something that is usually missing in a "dick flick" -- real intimacy and friendship between men that includes vulnerability without force, and equality between the two friends, a true partnership. With a stunning performance as duchess-to-queen, Helena Bonham Carter also delivers a pitch-perfect performance as a reluctant royal and devoted friend, partner and wife to her reluctant king to-be husband.  

On the other side of the proverbial patriarchal tracks, there is another bio-pic called "The Fighter," starring genius actor Christian Bale as Dicky Eklund, the washed-up and crack-addicted "could've-been-a-contender" brother in a down-and-dirty, blue-collar Irish family in Lowell, Mass. There's nothing royal about this movie except most of the family members being a royal pain in the ass to the other brother, Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), who still has a shot at becoming a championship boxer.  

"The Fighter" aptly illustrates another dark facet of patriarchy where impoverished boys or men beat the hell out of each other for money. Boxing makes me sick. Nonetheless, "The Fighter" is a heart-wrenching film about another male protagonist who finds his way to redemption through partnership instead of domination. Sheila Jaffe should win an award for casting; the others are surely in the ring for an Oscar. Directed by David O. Russell and written by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson, "The Fighter" leaves you panting for air and with the scent of sweat and blood in your nostrils, even for a boxing hater like me. The mother, Alice Eklund, played with ferocious gusto by Melissa Leo, is brilliant as the drunken boxing manager who has seven daughters who are apparently suffering from various degrees of fetal alcohol syndrome. She puts all her time and money into her two sons as her great white hope(s) of getting out of poverty. Amy Adams, brilliantly playing a character light-years away from her typical perky parts, plays Micky's gritty girlfriend who has a vision and the ovaries to stick with her commitment to a life better than the next drink -- not only for herself, but for Micky.   

Riane Eisler, a friend as well as one of my favorite authors and intellectuals, is a true dominator/partnership analysis queen. Simply put, dominator cultures are militaristic and rigid; partnership cultures are more oriented toward all for one and one for all with no one and nothing left out. Scandinavian countries are good examples of partnership models; North Korea, with its active dictatorship and starving population, the dominator. It's not a cut and dried distinction. There are women who are dominators; there are men who are true partners, and we all fall into a combination of the two, somewhere between the two extremes. Eisler became world famous with "The Chalice and the Blade" and has continued with her other brilliant books, further breaking down the distinctions between dominator/partnership modes.

Perhaps you've heard people say that women's liberation is men's liberation too. That's not malarkey. King George VI became lifelong friends with his speech therapist because the latter defied custom and insisted they be equals. Micky Ward, the boxer, broke through staggering odds by responding to the beckoning of partnership and his own heart.  

Can you guess what I'll be doing with my hubby over the holidays? Seeing more movies! If you and your family will be doing the same, I can't recommend "The King's Speech" and "The Fighter" highly enough. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Note: This post appears both here and in my column in the December 23, 2010 issue of the Pasadena Weekly, for which it was written.

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