Saturday, May 31, 2014

Julian Assange's attitude to women: Old fashioned or creepy; an outlier or representative; an individual or a cultural issue?

Going through old draft blog posts- this one is from several years ago...

Posting Julian Assange's blog onto Facebook prompted some interesting discussion and reflection, thanks to Mark Bahnisch for initially drawing my attention to it. I kind of moved from ambivalence about the 'woman' question to quite a lot of interest in it- and I think the most fascinating dimensions are those that raise questions for us all as a culture.

After Leah and Mark commented on his 'creepy' attitude to women, I responded:

"I like the poetry and the stuff on gifted children. And the ethical stuff. I think he missed some assumptions on carbon offsetting. it seems like he does put women on a pedestal, as foreign, seeing them as 'lovely' or whatever. For me that sounds more old fashioned. I wouldn't say it's creepy. Maybe I didn't notice something.

My personal experience also in some way validates his views on women and mathematics. After studying the highest level maths at an all-girls school, and seeing myself as a 'maths' person, I spectacularly failed at university mathematics, and I put it down to being unable to relate to the way that my mostly male classmates conceptualised it all. I actually believe that there should be autonomous women's maths classes at university to alleviate this problem.

But in terms of Assange's attitude towards women in general, I wrote,
"For me, his attitude towards women is familiar- i remember a lot of nerdy engineers i used to study with were similar- in that they were often lost for words talking with women, idealised them etc. I have an affection for that kind of social ineptitude, but not for the sexism, which is partly why I left engineering."

I still feel undecided about this. I think he is awkward, rather than creepy. My bro says "I wouldn't say he's creepy- maybe his hair is creepy- why does it have to be white? I saw him in interviews before he was famous- He seems to be a nice guy- he is someone who strives to be a hero- I think he enjoys impressing people."

My mum- when I read her the post about women and thunderstorms said "I like it how he is aware of the body language going on between them. I think it's quite beautiful". For me his wistful description of the woman in the thunderstorm reminded me of Cathy in Wuthering Heights (well in the 1939 film adaptation with Merle Oberon as Cathy and Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff) It definitely belongs to high Romantic views of women, seeing women as more emotional and wild, closer to untamed Nature, emotional manipulative temptresses to enmesh men in their complex psychological plans.

but then I looked further in the blog, and conceded a little:

"well the coffee thing is weird- he covered himself in coffee when he was dating some coffee addict woman, and also yes he objectifies women quite a bit, and he seems to imply that women like decisiveness and brutality: "This conversational brutality took her breath away and she swooned."

hahaha now that sounds like really bad sexist erotic fiction.

This is the context of that line. He was being a typical shitstirring self righteous dogmatic atheist in a Canberra youth hostel:

One of the devout was the lovely daughter of a New Castle (sic) minister. At some point in my unintended wooing of her, she looked up, fluttered her eyelids and said 'Oh, you know so much! I hardly know anything!'. 'That is why you believe in God," I explained. This conversational brutality took her breath away and she swooned. I was exactly what she secretly longed for; a man willing to openly disagree with her father. All along she had needed a man to devote herself to. All along she had failed to find a man worthy of being called a man, failed to find a man who would not bow to gods, so she had chosen a god unworthy of being called a god, but who would not bow to a man.

To which Leah replies "Tres, tres, creepy....must write 'bodice rippers' in his spare time...."

My response is that even the phrasing sounds like Emily Bronte. It's typical Romantic melodrama. For example here is a monologue from Heathliff in Wuthering Heights:

She abandoned them under a delusion, picturing in me a hero of romance, and expecting unlimited indulgences from my chivalrous devotion. I can hardly regard her in the light of a rational creature, so obstinately has she persisted in forming a fabulous notion of my character and acting on the false impressions she cherished. But, at last, I think she begins to know me: I don't perceive the silly smiles and grimaces that provoked me at first; and the senseless incapability of discerning that I was in earnest when I gave her my opinion of her infatuation and herself. It was a marvellous effort of perspicacity to discover that I did not love her. I believed, at one time, no lessons could teach her that! And yet it is poorly learnt; for this morning she announced, as a piece of appalling intelligence, that I had actually succeeded in making her hate me! A positive labour of Hercules, I assure you!

Here we see Heathcliff coolly denigrating Isabella Linton's character as superficial and unintelligent, laughing at her naivety in believing the chivalric narrative that she saw him as part of. Very similar tone to that of Julian's. I think that Julian has read a lot of Gothic and Romantic literature, and sees women in an old fashioned, distant, stylised way. However I believe Assange is a far more principled person than Heathcliff, less individualistic and less driven by revenge.

In the context of the rape case, and all the discussion this has prompted, including Meg's great op ed, I thought more about the grey areas of consent in sex, the difficulties of verbal communication and the gendered role-playing of violence:

Consent, communication, sexual role-playing and violence.

I wrote,
"he believes that's what women want. A lot of men are like that, and actually some women DO claim to want the male to be dominant and even bad to them.
(A lot of people even think that violence is sexy, or play around with that cultural association that we have. A lot of porn also makes violence and sex one and the same. Also S&M is based on the enactment, dramatisation, exaggeration and inversion of these gendered positions of power/powerlessness in sex).

I think Julian's main problem is making assumptions, and not verifying them verbally. In other words, consent. Sounds like a lot of his decision making with women is based on non-verbal cues- as most peoples is- especially for shy, non-verbal people. He is highly imaginative and driven by grand symbolism and normative roles, so I am guessing he projects fantasies on to people, and thus is unlikely to be in the present moment, responding to the particularities of this situation.

I think the problem here is not that he is 'creepy' or a 'rapist' or whatever. I don't think it's helpful to dehumanise him because in this respect he is representative of our culture: this is something that we all need to take responsibility for. Julian has presumably taken a cue from these cultural representations of sex that being overpowered is the secret desire, and the default position of women. From that assumption, it is not hard to see how he would rationalise pinning a woman down in the course of otherwise consensual sex.

Part of the problem is that sexuality is very much inscribed with role playing and even dramatisation of those roles. Those things that we MOST need clarity on between sexual partners -for consent to be properly given- are taboo or effectively taboo for the seamless unfolding of the drama to take place!! Where in our culture- in films etc, has consent been explicitly given? ;) We don't have the cultural resources at our disposal - the role plays in our mind etc- to allow clear decision making within the escalation of desire in a way that 'makes sense' or 'feels right'.

Instead, as many people point out, asking for consent feels clumsy, like an interruption, an intrusion of the mind into matters of the body.

I am sure there have been lots of people working on making consent part of our culture of sex. I would be interested to hear about any of their work.

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