In Chris Kraus's essay-fiction Aliens & Anorexia (2000), her partner advises that, for greater success in the art world, she should label herself a feminist. Kraus objects: "Why should women settle to think and talk about just femaleness when men were constantly transcending gender?"
You can dispute that in a dozen ways, but it carries a disturbing truth, going against the grain of much contemporary intellectual and political thought. Hasn't at least a quarter-century of 'identity politics', and the feminist/queer philosophy of 'embodiment', taught us that we have to fight for — and from — who we really, materially are, in our bodies, ages, nationalities, social positions?
Disconcerting flashback: in 1996, the publicist for a commercial film distributor informed me that, as a guy of 36, I was plainly "not the target audience" for Barbra Streisand's The Mirror Has Two Faces, and thus not an appropriate person to review it. Me who (as it happens) had already given long, rave reviews to Streisand's Yentl (1983) and The Prince of Tides (1991)!
Today, the target audience has returned, but in a new form mixing identity politics, market-speak, and the type of 'data analysis' which universities now go crazy for: demographics. When Jocelyn Moorhouse's The Dressmaker opened in the UK, a particular critique was dismissed (on social media) for being by someone "not in this film's demographic". Meaning: not a woman, not queer, probably too old...
This logic is gaining force in many quarters. Clem Bastow in The Guardian came to the defence of Nancy Meyer's The Intern, claiming that the male majority who dominate film-reviewing positions (both in print and online) were simply not disposed to like a 'woman's film'. The bottom line here is unassailable: there should be many more female film critics (of all ages) showcased in public. But Bastow's analysis of The Intern swiftly went awry: in comparison to James L. Brooks (!), she asserted, "Meyers' characters are real and complex... at no point do [the] problems seem fantastical or invented". So, in this case, we can add a dreary, retrograde 'representational' politics (films should mirror real life!) to the demographic calculus.
Another Australia-based commentator, Lisa French in The Conversation, amplifies Bastow's argument: "The majority of reviewers don't represent audiences, who are not all men over 40... film critics tend to gravitate to films directed and written by individuals of their own sex. It is also likely that demographically similar reviewers would gravitate to similar worldviews... female audiences find it harder to locate points of view that reflect their own". Why does this particular convergence in contemporary opinion exasperate me? The idea that who we are in social terms is so fixed and exact that it can be mapped onto a precise taste in films and a specific 'worldview' is abhorrent, and the opposite of any politics that I believe is worth ultimately supporting. What demographic can account for the fact that I love, equally and simultaneously, Johnny Guitar (Ray), Outer Space (Tscherkassky), Mad Max: Fury Road (Miller), No Home Movie (Akerman), Smiley Face (Araki) and The Prince of Tides?
I am nobody special, no elevated cinephile in this respect. It isn't a question of being 'determined' by one's material place in the world, but being open, and having access to the full range of what's out there. Yet I keep reading the apparently serious assertion that, as a guy over 50, I will 'naturally' gravitate to films by guys over 50 — and for women under 30, the same thing, but inverted. And that, therefore, we all need decent mirror-images in the capitalist marketplace. It's a pernicious, conservative logic.
Yes, transcendence is a romantic ideal. Not all of us are free to transcend. And sometimes, those who speak of transcending themselves, of being simply 'human beings', are the most ruthless in exploiting their privilege. But transcendence does not refer to the world as it is, rather as it could or should be. It's a utopian notion. And utopia is not always a dirty word.