This installment of the Precious movie review is about an epidemic currently infecting our society that I call Scar Worship. I believe it comes from a combination of two societal trends that are currently everywhere:
- unflinchingly dwelling on and continuously reliving misery and hardship, and
- oversharing, in as explicit detail as the boundaries of good taste will allow in the belief that doing so proves our strength and our ability to deal with harsh realities will “raising awareness” and will somehow heal us
Many social critics call our current environment a “therapy culture.” Frank Furedi discusses this in his book Therapy Culture, and Christina Hoff Sommers treads similar ground in her book One Nation Under Therapy. While therapy culture has its good aspects, such as less blame being shifted to victims, more awareness of social issues affecting certain demographics and more people speaking out about problems that would never have previously been made public, the extremes that therapy culture has been taken to actually make victims weaker in the long run.
Dwelling on problems that have passed, reinforcing the feeling in victims that they will forever be emotionally crippled by whatever trauma was done to them and that such emotional and psychic scars will not only continue to haunt the victims throughout their lives but actually serve to define them…these are examples of therapy culture taken to its worst extreme: scar worship. Scar worship is where a victim’s goal is no longer to heal their scars but to celebrate them and keep them forever fresh by constantly picking at them. Meanwhile, the world is moving on without them and they’re still reliving their past over and over again, often trying to get closure from whoever it was the wronged them or trying to get sympathy from people they come across. They get so used to their nonstop pity party that they end up defining themselves by their trauma. It becomes their identity, and they begin to cling on to it for dear life because even a fucked up identity in the mind of most is better than no identity, and these people have reached a point where they have no idea who they are without their trauma.
In high school I remember reading a two-part interview in SPIN magazine between Camille Paglia and Celia Farber, which was reprinted in Paglia’s essay book Sex, Art and American Culture. But the part of the interview that really stuck with me almost two decades later was the following exchange about rape victims and the different ways to approach the victim mindset (emphasis at various points added by me):
FARBER: One point that hasn’t been made in the whole rape debate is women’s role over men, sexually. In the case of a rape, a man has to use brute force to obtain something that a woman has – her very sex. So naturally she’s weaker physically, and will always be oppressed by him physically. But in that moment when he decides that the only way he can get what he wants from her emotionally, or sexually, or whatever, is to rape her, he is confessing to a weakness that is all-encompassing. She is abused, but he is utterly tragic and pathetic. One is temporary and the other is permanent. I was raped once and it helped me to think of it like that. Not at all to apologize for him, but to focus on my power instead of my helplessness. It was a horrible experience, but it certainly didn’t destroy my whole life or my psyche, as much as contemporary wisdom insisted it must have.
PAGLIA: Right, we have what they want. I think woman is the dominant sex. Men have to do all sorts of stuff to prove that they are worthy of a woman’s attention. It’s very interesting what you said about the rape, because one of the German magazine reporters who came to talk to me – she’s been living in New York for ten years – she came to talk to me about two weeks ago and she told me a very interesting story, very similar to yours. She lives in Brooklyn, and she let this guy in whom she shouldn’t have, and she got raped. She said that, because she’s a feminist, of course she had to go for counseling. She said it was awful, that the minute she arrived there, the rape counselors were saying, “You will never recover from this, what’s happened to you is so terrible.” She said, what the hell, it was a terrible experience, but she was going to pick herself up, and it wasn’t that big a deal. The whole system now is designed to make you feel that you are maimed and mutilated forever if something like that happens. She said it made her feel worse.
Commenter DF, in the comments for the last installment, left this gem:
This abuse mentality reached a new cultural low in my mind when I came to learn that one of the guys that has been crushing for my girlfriend tried to gain her sympathy by admitting to her that he was sexually abused. I’ve met the guy and he’s what I’d call uber liberal squared and the most pro-feminist male on the eastern seaboard. What is fascinating about this kid is that he’s in a position to pull tons of chicks but due to a crippling lack of masculinity (even my gf unprompted mentioned that he’s very effeminate) he gets almost nowhere. Lack of game goes without saying. What surprised me was that my gf told me he wasn’t the first guy to pull such as stunt on her!
Sadly, I’ve heard many similar stories, especially on college campuses and big city dating scenes.
And it’s not just the left or women that have a monopoly on scar culture, it’s everywhere. I deal with it on my blog all the time. I’ve been trying to preach to guys out there about how to be stronger, better men and there seems to be a lot of readers who instead take my writings as license to blame women for everything under the sun and whine and wallow in self-pity. It sickens me. I talk about the damage radical feminism has done to male identity as a means to an end, and that end is to grow into better men. But many guys out there miss the point and want to remain exactly the same and instead make whining about radical feminism and emasculation the end game. They worship the scars they received from rejection, emasculation, heartbreak, divorce court and don’t make any effort to heal and grow stronger. I especially find this among people who find my blog from reading Men’s Rights blogs and as a result make the mistake of thinking I’m a fellow Men’s Rights Advocate (I’m not. In fact my attitude toward the Men’s Rights crowd is pretty similar to Roosh’s).
Oprah is the biggest living prophet for scar culture. As I described in previous installments, she constantly celebrates her scars and keeps them fresh in various ways. She acts and produces movies that describe traumas and dysfunctions that mirror her own. She consistently names books to her book club that revolve around characters wallowing in misery and having indignities heaped upon them. She will invite any celebrity under the sun to appear on her show if they’re willing to air out their dirty dysfunctional laundry, like when she recently had Mackenzie Phillips and Whitney Houston on to share their horror stories.
Oversharing is now the norm, as described by the Daily Waffle blog:
Now, there’s nothing wrong with emotional disclosure. It is healthy in moderation: better than keeping negative feelings bottled up. To communicate freely is normal, natural and surely healthier than the stiff-lipped, stoic ways of the past, when expressing feelings was unseemly, not ‘respectable’.
Can you keep a secret?
But what I resent is the constant baring of souls, the unsolicited sharing of intimate secrets, and the incessant outpouring of emotion. It’s a post-Oprah Winfrey world, where gushing is good – and where you, dear listener, are the unpaid therapist. All too often, oversharing is an imposition on the listener.
‘I’m afraid it’s part of the psychotherapy age that people feel the need to reveal themselves,’ says Pat Doonbar, a psychologist who specialises in confessions. But be warned: it’s not real therapy. ‘What oversharers are looking for is for others to be uncritical sounding boards. That’s not healing.’
Moreover, there may well be negative consequences of people knowing too much about you. ‘It’s about appropriate self-disclosure,’ says Relate counsellor Paula Hall. ‘If we give out intimate details, it should be in a situation of trust, with close relatives or a counsellor.’
The trouble is, oversharing is part of the spirit of the age. One only need read a newspaper, turn on the TV or look on the internet to witness a babel of people talking about themselves. Chat shows, teenagers weeping on reality television, celebrity biographies by the yard, memoirs about appalling childhoods – all these show a society in the grip of oversharing. Some in the public eye seem to relish such self-exposure. Take Richard Madeley, as in Richard and Judy, who let viewers into the secrets of his vasectomy, and even his daughter’s first period, on TV.
Onion AV Club has recently weighed in on the same topic:
Over the last century, we’ve evolved from a society hindered by unhealthy repression—taking our most painful secrets with us to the grave to spare our loved ones distress or social shame—to one that values the importance of unburdening and “exorcising our demons.” For most, this involves years of intense therapy sessions, followed by even more years of learning to cope with the revelations they engender, then slowly rebuilding a new life, where you accept those demons as part of who you are, but not the sum total. It’s a deliberate, frustrating, incredibly private process—unless you’re famous. In which case, you just go on Oprah.
Oprah is a listener. Oprah is a giver. Oprah is the warm, matriarchal hug that says things are going to be all right. Oprah is also the illusion that we, as a culture, take the harrowing confessions of her guests and learn to draw inspiration from them—which no, we simply gawk in horror at them, then dwell on and debate each other over the sordid details. For example, did anyone come away from Oprah’s recent interview with Whitney Houston with a greater understanding of why she spent most of the last decade in a drug-fueled stupor, or leave feeling inspired by her newfound commitment to rehabilitation? No, we came away with a few crazy anecdotes about Bobby Brown spray-painting “evil eyes” on the wall, a handful of carefully deflected non-answers, and plenty of forced “lessons you’ve learned” that Oprah shoehorned in to create the illusion that all of these things were somehow symbolic of a redemption arc that never really materialized. But oh, it’s cathartic, and look how brave she is, and see how we can take our pain and grow from it and so forth—and isn’t Oprah caring for providing a safe place where one can get those sorts of things out in the open?
Except some things have no business being out in the wide open. Some things do not need to be processed under the watchful eye of millions. Yet this is how our oversharing culture has lately learned to process things, and this is why you get revelations like the one absolutely everyone has been talking about today…
Leaving the central story aside for the moment, however, it’s the sideshow to this whole nauseating affair, the way it’s become endemic of how our culture now processes its tragedies, that I also find distressing—and it raises a question about our disturbing need to make our private problems public, and the way doing that almost automatically negates their impact. Phillips has said that she wants to “put a face on consensual incest,” and that’s a brave and noble intention. But outside of writing a memoir and appearing on Oprah to talk about said memoir, there doesn’t seem to be much else to that intention, at least so far. (Though it’s always possible that further speaking engagements to fellow victims, charitable donations, and the like will follow.) And that definitely goes for Oprah too: On her show, she prompted Mackenzie Phillips to cut right to the chase and cough up the incest story right quick, lest her audience assume this was another cut-and-dry “how I got sober” narrative and change the channel. And of course, as with anything Oprah does, it was all under the auspice of “confronting our pain so we can learn from it.” But what, exactly, did we learn today from this shitstorm, other than that John Phillips was probably the worst father in the world (which, you know, we already knew that), Mackenzie Phillips has a book for sale, and that Oprah—like our entire oversharing society—pretends to be sympathetic when really she’s just acting as a classy surrogate for her audience’s gawking? And will this finally be the nadir of the celebrity memoir, or—as some have already half-jokingly speculated—just the bar everyone else has to clear from now on? The idea that Mackenzie Phillips endured what she says she did is certainly tragic; that still we’re finding new, unnerving ways to turn confronting that tragedy into entertainment may be equally so.
Much of this critique also applies to the so-called “healing” and “learning” we’re supposedly undergoing when we see the freakshow of incest horrors in movies like Precious. I already gave one theory about why Oprah and her cohorts in scar worship love wallowing in this filth so much, and that is that they want to normalize dysfunction. The more they can convincingly paint the world as a predominantly dysfunctional place filled with incest, abuse, trauma, exploitation and teen pregnancies, the more normal their childhoods become by default. But there’s another reason besides normalizing dysfunction, and that’s self-aggrandizement. The Oprahs, Tyler Perrys and Lee Daniels of the world have a vested interest in painting a picture of typical black life as being as dysfunctional as one can imagine, because by doing so, they make their own success stories sound that much more remarkable. The successes Oprah, Tyler Perry and Lee Daniels have had are remarkable in their own right, but in a meritocratic society that lauds the concept of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps, their success stories become that much more remarkable if they can portray the environments they came from as being as hopeless and depraved as one can imagine.
People buy into this myth of Oprah as pro-woman and pro-black, but she’s not. She’s pro-Oprah. Period. Everything she does is motivated by narcissism and self-aggrandizement. Take for example the “down low” myth about their being an epidemic of black gay men pretending to be straight. There is no scientific evidence that this is more prevalent in the black male community than any other community. But based on the flimsiest of hearsay, Oprah was willing to dedicate a whole show on it and make “down low” into a household phrase and a supposed national emergency. If she was really as pro-black as people say, don’t you think she’d think long and hard before throwing black men under the bus with no proof?
Keith Boykin has written about the down low myth here and here. And one of the best pieces on the down low myth was by Ta-Nehisi Coates in Slate, and this excerpt was best, because it also gives some insight as to why so many white commentators of all political stripes also seem to love the movie Precious so much:
In the face of all the skeptical science, why is the belief in the Down Low menace so entrenched? For starters, there’s the phraseology, which hints at some carnal secret society, and is catchy to boot. It also helps that the Down Low is the sort of threat that white commentators of all political stripes like to condemn. Conservatives get to disparage black people’s inherent amorality (a band of men is endangering their families to have sex with other deceptive men), liberals can attack our inherent homophobia (the black community is so thuggish that the men can’t even admit to being gay), and everyone gets to agree that black America is, in a nutshell, a nuthouse. In short, shaking your head over the DL is the perfect way to shake your head over how awful it is to be black.
And what does Oprah get out of it? She gets to paint more black women as victims of awful, deceptive, sexually depraved black men. Her personal narrative now becomes cultural group narrative of all black women. Like she did during her big break when acting in Color Purple and continues to do to this day by backing Precious, she is only as pro-black as she needs to be until it clashes with her personal agenda of self-aggrandizement and scar worship, and at that point she’ll willingly help throw black men under the bus in order to make black women, and by association herself, look admirable.
White conservatives watching Precious get to lambast the Great Society and point fingers at the welfare queen stereotype Mo’Nique plays to prove how progressive liberal policies have ruined the black community. White liberals have a new movie to feel good about feeling bad about, absolving their guilt and proving once again they are the most caring people on the planet. Black people get a new meme in their neverending victimology and self-pity narrative. And Oprah and her ilk get to further normalize dysfunction while making their own success stories appear that much more remarkable.
I’ll leave it to you to figure out who doesn’t benefit from all of this.