TBT: How the Patriarchy Infantilizes Men; or, Notes on Arthur Miller's Notes on The Bicycle Thief

I finally got around to reading Min Jin Lee's family saga novel Pachinko, and it reminded me just how far patriarchy extends around the world as well as how far back it goes in time. In the scheme of human evolution, the dominance of patriarchy is new and unusual, but for us individual humans with lifespans that max out in about a century or less, patriarchy has come to feel like human nature. That's unfortunate, especially for men. The patriarchy works to transform most people into slobbering, dumb dogs trained to lie submissively at the feet of kings and oligarch masters, and ordinary men suffer the worst of that burden. While women are at least free to build resilience in the face of their oppression, men are tricked into believing that the skills that build true inner strength are for girls, which ironically makes them fragile, infantile, and dependent upon the constant approval and support of an employer. In many White and Asian cultures, in particular, men are taught that their only worth is their net worth, as determined by some more powerful boss man, and that belief frequently leads to suicide.

One of Pachinko's main characters, Noa, succumbs to an early and senseless death from that scourge that primarily affects men who have internalized patriarchal values. Afterward, Noa's mother Sunja reflects upon the gender roles imposed on men and women in a patriarchal culture and how, though the patriarchy is unfair to all people in differently gendered ways, it uniquely robs men of the internal resources to handle oppression. She wonders whether her socialized female martyrdom and her coddling of Noa, as her firstborn son, led to his death.

From page 414:

All her life, Sunja had heard this sentiment from other women, that they must suffer--suffer as a girl, suffer as a wife, suffer as a mother--die suffering. Go-saeng--the word made her sick. ... Should she have taught her son to suffer the humiliation that she'd drunk like water? In the end, he had refused to suffer the conditions of his birth. Did mothers fail by not telling their sons that suffering would come?

Of course, the binary choice between accepting abuse and killing oneself is a false one pushed on us by patriarchy. We can do better than to choose between endless suffering and early death. Hope lives in the fact that our imaginations cannot be taken from us, as I asserted in my post "We Can Rise Above Death Cult Capitalism."

In the United States, patriarchy and late-stage capitalism are intertwined in the most grotesque way, and it has been that way for a century or more--meaning that no one alive today can remember when this was not the way of things--but we can still wise up to it. As a nation, we have done hard things before. We have succeeded at revolutions large and small. 

Dreaming of what we've never witnessed firsthand is essential. Listening to unfamiliar perspectives and exploring beyond the boundaries outlined for us by authority figures are always necessary steps toward true agency and freedom. As is critique of the status quo. Back in the Great Recession, I wrote the post below about a creative and successful, yet astonishingly unimaginative male novelist critiquing a film all about men's mindless suffering during the Great Depression, mindlessly. It's so meta. It's a critique of a critique of a critique of... what were we talking about? Oh yeah, men romanticizing their problems instead of fighting for change, because the patriarchy has tricked them into thinking that acting like a baby is the most important birthright of a man.

Today, things are changing for the better. Oh, it might not seem like it, but they are--slowly but surely. Today, there are more and more of us who can enjoy the subversive humor of comedian Dan Sheehan on Twitter, who pretends to be a wolf (read: untamed mind that thinks for itself) disguised as a good boi in a suit--uh, I mean, a real man, of course, as defined for common men by The Man.


Notes on Arthur Miller's Notes on The Bicycle Thief

"Don't put all your eggs in one bicycle basket." That's the message I took from this classic Italian film. Or, you could put it like, "Don't store your balls in your boss's briefcase."


Warning! SPOILER ALERT! If you are one of the few people, like me a little while ago, who doesn't already know how this movie ends--and plan to watch it and want the ending to come as a surprise--quit reading now.

OK, a quick and dirty synopsis is as follows:

A poor working class Italian man seeks work along with a mob of fellow unemployed poor dudes. He gets a job offer on the condition that he has reliable transportation (a bicycle). He used to have one, but he just done pawned it for food. Oops!

He lies and takes the job, then runs home whining to his hardworking wife, implicitly blaming her for his inability to do the work because she ate the food he bought her with the pawned bike. He then goes on in a "woe is me" manner, acting like his wife and the children he made with her are really cramping his style.

Meanwhile, his oldest son (just a little kid) is preparing for his own day job as a bike mechanic or gas station attendant or something... it's hard to tell. Anyway, little dude is clearly involved in some child labor while Dad yells at Mom for needing to eat food.

Finally, Mom throws a hissy and rips the sheets off all the beds. "You can sleep without sheets, can't you?" she screams, and then she goes to sell the sheets for money to buy another bike.

Except everyone in Rome has pawned their sheets, which are stacked in an enormous warehouse, and they don't fetch a very good price. But it's enough for a crappy bike, I guess.

Back at the ranch, Working Man's son tunes up his dad's bike, because he is some kind of skilled, genius superbaby who idolizes his father no matter how his father treats him.

While Dad and Son work, Mom spends a little of the family money visiting a psychic for good luck, accompanied by many other desperate housewives from all over the neighborhood. Dad is pissed when he finds out and yells at Mom for foolishly wasting money.

One day at work, Dad leans his bike up against a wall, unsecured... because, I don't know, maybe Mom spent their last lire on a palm reading that could have purchased a lock of some kind... and of course, it gets stolen. Duh. Everything not bolted down gets stolen in a desperately poor country at the height of a depression. Especially bikes. They are just so steal-able. Everyone knows this. But Working Man plays it like he cannot believe this just happened to him. I am started to think he is addicted to throwing baby tantrums and feeling sorry for himself.

He makes an initial attempt to chase down the bicycle thief, and to be fair, he puts in a good effort. Working Man is in great shape! But the thief escapes, and the police can't help. Although it's common knowledge that bikes are stolen regularly and immediately pawned for parts, Working Man goes on a futile and dramatic quest to find his stolen bike, enlisting the help of friends and his Super Son.

Meanwhile, he verbally abuses the child, leaves him behind repeatedly, and beats him a little bit. Finally he takes the boy to a nice restaurant in one of those grand gestures abusers use to fake-apologize, but then he forces the kid to guzzle wine and then cries about how he just ruined them all by spending their last dime on a fancy dinner. The little guy accepts a ton of abuse before finally getting angry at Dad, and then he only sulks for a short time.

Miraculously, Working Man finds the guy who stole his bike! But it turns out the thief is the spoiled rotten child of some powerful mobster family, and he has no hope of getting it back.

And for the grand finale...

Working Man stands in the street bemoaning his terrible fate and obsessively examining the sea of bicycles around him. He makes a half-assed attempt to steal one in front of a large group of men, who then attack him and call him "thief" and leave him blubbering in the road in front of his traumatized little son.

FIN.

OK, now here's the good part. Playwright Arthur Miller wrote a review, or "notes," that were printed in the cover of the DVD I rented. As you may recall from high school English class, Arthur Miller wrote Death of a Salesman, a sympathy-eliciting play about an unsuccessful salesman who goes nuts and becomes suicidal. So you can see how he would dig this film. In fact, he calls it "close to a lyrical masterpiece." Which is sort of back-handed and at the same time hyperbolic, don'cha think? Anyway...

I shall now pick on Miller's notes on this film using philosophical and psychological interpretations. Miller sets the tone with his first sentence: "The Bicycle Thief is Everyman's search for dignity--it is as though the soul of a man had been filmed."

Everyman? Is this some kind of Kantian "reasonable man" character--a white, Western adult male, most certainly Christian, emotionally and mentally stunted by a lifetime of being coddled, who can somehow nevertheless speak for the whole of humanity? Yup, I think so. I didn't bother to call the characters by their names in my synopsis, above, because it's clear that the main character is Working Class Man personified. Or even Man. Which is an old-timey way to say Humankind. Symbolism!

Miller continues to use the word "Man" with a capital M to encompass all of humanity. And if that weren't enough to reveal his feelings about the gentler sex, he makes sure to communicate that this cinematic masterpiece uses no "ladies' magazine plot masquerades."

Oh, no. This film shows "the facts of life as they exist." I can't argue with that last statement. The whole plot of the film is entirely plausible. It could have been a true story. Certainly things like that did happen in the '40s in Rome, all the time. My problem is with Miller's assumption that these particular "facts" somehow imbue the main character's thoughts and feelings with objective and universal Truth. Puh-leaze.

Miller loves generalizations, though. He even states in the next paragraph that "expressing... ideas about life" is "the central process of every writer's development."

And apparently, the highest end result of this process is... drumroll please... naivety. Miller says, "The Bicycle Thief is especially dear to me--as it will be to many others--[Yeah, we know, Arthur, because you're Reasonable Everyman, aren't you]--because it is so sweetly naive."

Merriam-Webster defines "naive" as:

1: marked by unaffected simplicity : artless, ingenuous
2: deficient in worldly wisdom or informed judgment

Arthur, did you mean that? I mean, I agree that the main character seemed a bit dull and deficient. But "unaffected?" Heck no. He threw tantrums of the caliber of a pro soccer player. Except after the call is made, a soccer player hops right back up and gets back in the game. Far from being "unaffected" or "artless," I found WCM (Working Class Man) to be manipulative and histrionic. I don't get what's so "sweet" about impotent frustration, child abuse, and drama queen antics by a grown man.

But back to the idea of realism. I do agree with the first stage of Miller's interpretation--that the film shows a plausible, realistic portrait of a man. (However, I said "a man," as in, a certain type of 1940s Italian failed breadwinner, not "Man.") I also appreciate the artistic simplicity of this movie--more a character portrait than a story. Miller says, "Its story is its central character, and he is the story--the desperate, unclinkable search of a poor man for his dignity."

Not to sound like a broken record, but again, Miller states that WCM "begins to seem like Man." Wow, I hope not. I saw this same movie. I saw a man portrayed, who seemed like he could be a real guy. But he does not have the same emotional needs, behavior patterns, or values as most men that I know personally. I view WCM as a specific result of a specifically harmful social dynamic, not an archetype of a normal man or human.

I see WCM as belonging to a specific, particular culture of victimization. He is individualistic, framing all his complaints in terms of himself. He behaves as though the world owes him something. He follows the same old tracks laid out for him by authority and convention that everyone else is trudging, although they all know there is nothing for them at the end. He waits in line with a hundred other men for some shitty job. He lets the wife pawn the sheets along with half the city. He spends all day crying and chasing a bike he knows he won't find. He is incapable of thinking outside the box or being creative. I'm not exactly blaming him. He is a product of the Western, top-down, authoritarian, follow-the-leader, commonsense, no-nonsense, exploitative, abusive culture that followed Mussolini. (Italy--along with all its men--has changed quite a lot since then, as a backlash to fascism.)

As a result, WCM suffers from a lack of social and coping skills. He shows a clear pattern of setting up failure for himself and expecting pity. His behavior is infantile. His society has failed him, yes. Jobs are scarce. Times are tough. I don't want to trivialize the hardships of the Great Depression. But WCM's response is to throw himself against every brick in the wall and hope that someone--like, say, a woman or a child--takes pity and rescues him. WCM pawns his bike in the first place for a meal--a bad long-term decision. Why didn't he pawn something else first? Then he doesn't lock or protect his bike in any way while working. Then he goes on a long, melodramatic, obviously futile search, wasting his friends' and family members' time and abusing his son, who is trying to help, all along the way. Then he makes a disingenuous attempt to steal someone else's bike in front of witnesses, only to fail miserably and cry like a baby, not once stopping to consider the feelings of his actual child except insofar as he can manipulate the child to serve him.

Miller goes on, "...are we not all in search of our dignity?"

Hmmm. I would have to say "no."

According to the all-knowing Merriam-Webster, "dignity" is defined as:

1 : the quality or state of being worthy, honored, or esteemed
2 a : high rank, office, or position b : a legal title of nobility or honor

To #1: "worthy" of what, I wonder? Who decides? "Honored" and "esteemed" are relative qualities. So, everyone has a basic need to have a high social status and be popular? I disagree. I think what WCM needs first is a sandwich and some counseling. Same goes for definitions #2a. and b. A high rank or title of nobility might bring in the necessary cash to support WCM's family. Those things could have value. But are they the ends in themselves? That, my friends, is brainwashing by an authoritarian culture with roots in the feudal system.

OK, I've established my opinion that "dignity" is not a basic human need or an end in itself, at least as defined above. But I do realize that dignity is important, to some extent, to most people. But Miller goes on, "And does this not come to us by means of our work which is our justification and our basic worth?" Ouch. I really hope not. Some of us are lucky enough to do meaningful work that we believe in. But honestly, most people do what it takes to make a buck, and the true meaning of their lives and sense of identity comes from things like friendships, family relationships, travel experiences, hobbies... Right? Yes, we all probably have a need to feel useful. But is our day job the one thing keeping us from throwing ourselves under a tram every day? Save the drama for your mama, Arthur.

Oh wait, he's not done. Miller explains that after the bike theft, WCM "has nothing, nothing at all." OK, nothing. Except an apartment... and sheetless beds... and a loving wife and two adoring children he clearly does not deserve... youth and bodily health and fitness... I mean, there are plenty of people in Rome today who don't have any of those things. And you don't see them crying on the cobblestones like babies. You might see them smoking doja with their punkabestia dogs or washing their clothes in the Tiber or fire dancing or pick-pocketing or playing an accordion or something. But if I did see a homeless person crying on the cobblestones, I would feel sympathy. Because that deserves a good cry. My point is that WCM's emotional meltdown is just as ridiculous as Miller's notes on the film.

Seriously, dude. There is always an alternative.

How would a mature, emotionally and psychologically healthy man (or woman) respond to this type of hardship? With acceptance and thought, for one thing. It's only natural to get pissed or shed a tear when something awful happens. But a healthy person then accepts the situation, and maybe works on solving the problem in a rational and creative way. Critical thinking kicks into gear. Multiple options spring from the amazingly flexible human brain, some of them crazy, some of them worth trying out. Lessons are learned, and the person takes note and moves forward instead of laying down in a pool of one's own tears. Especially when children are involved and counting on their parents to be adults.

What if WCM and WCW (Working Class Woman) pooled their pocket change ('cause you know homegirl was holding out for Miss Cleo) and bought a bike lock? (Gasp, the genius!) Or even some zip ties (or whatever similar thing they had back then) to slow down a potential thief? Or what about making the bike into a fixie (did they do that back then?) so the average thief would catapult himself into traffic if he tried to zoom off on it? Or what about loosening the parts on the bike so it would collapse if someone tried to nab it? You can't prevent disaster entirely, but you can certainly stack the deck.

Also, these folks live in the Mediterranean and complain that they're starving to death. Can you not plant some veggies and herbs in the windowsills? On the terrace? On the roof? Modern poor Romans ALL do it. It's easy, in fact. And you can grow stuff year-round. Not enough to feed your whole family if you live in an urban apartment, but enough to supplement your nutritional needs significantly.

And the pawning of the sheets really enraged me. Why do poor people screw themselves this way? It's like modern folks going to a check cashing place. This is only going to dig you in deeper and make you worse off than before. BUY LOW, SELL HIGH. Right? So WCW should have BOUGHT sheets at a rock-bottom price, not sold them. She could have draped them sensuously around her apartment, made herself a flowy robe and turban, and declared herself the neighborhood's resident Tarot reader. The "real-life desperate housewives" would have lined up at her door and handed over their cash. Hey, it's better than stealing. And to make it more ethical, she could use her creative mind (which unfortunately the character seems to lack) to give these poor women valid encouragement and practical ideas. Or hell, she could take up belly dancing and put on a show every weekend. Colorful entertainment goes gangbusters in bad times because people are seeking escape from the drudgery of their joyless days. Why not take advantage of the disadvantages? Make lemonade, if you will?

I have a real life example, told to me by the observant and inquiring Miss Moppet. Some years ago, there was a Nazi rally at the Lansing capitol building. That's a bad thing. It's embarrassing, nasty, destructive, dangerous, and all-around in poor taste. If you've never been to a Neo-Nazi rally, let me tell you. It's an ugly, stupid, rednecky affair. It's a Jerry Springer episode of epic proportions, and the police have to be backed by troopers from Detroit just to serve as the bouncers and keep the chairs from flying. OK, so during this rally, an African American man stood on the sidewalk in front of the gates. When Miss Moppet drove past him on her way home from work, do you think this man was sitting on the sidewalk crying? Shouting names at the ugly rednecks? Bemoaning the insult to his dignity?

Hell no. He was selling ice cream cones.

As Miss Moppet drove by, she yelled out the window, "What are you DOING?"

The man replied with a smile, "Selling ice cream!"

Wherever you are, Black Guy Selling Ice Cream at the Nazi Rally, you're my hero. I love you.

OK, the moral of this story is, Western culture (philosophy, psychology, sociology) has matured and evolved since Arthur Miller's time of unmanned salesmen and psychotically bored housewives. And so can we, individually! Glamorizing victimhood is just as repulsive as glamorizing the use of force to oppress others. Whether you're doing it to someone else or enabling someone else to do it to you, knock it off.

Let's all grow up together and let our kids be kids. Ice cream, anyone?

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