Sublimated Misogyny In the Loop

I started writing this post when it was pointed out to me that Matthew Cheney’s post didn’t actually say the things I (mis)remembered him as saying. His post was probably the starting point for my reading of the film as locating the war in a kind of misguided eros , but in the process I somehow came to a somewhat different reading than him (“repressed homosexuality” is not, I think, a fully accurate or complete account of how eros gets misguided in the movie) without even realizing that I had done so.  Unless, of course, I got the idea somewhere else and forgot the source? I still feel like this reading of the film originates elsewhere; it feels like I’ve painstakingly recreated the only half-remembered argument of someone else (and maybe I have).

The thing about sexual obscenity — about saying “Fuck you” to someone, for example — is that it merges sex and violence, manages to be both a form of violent sexuality and a sexualized form of violence. This is relevant for talking about In the Loop not only because the movie has more uses of the word “fuck” in it than one could possibly track, but because — in the same way this kind of obscenity sublimates sex into violence (or violence into sex) — the movie shows the path to the US and Great Britain’s invasion of Iraq to have been the sublimation of sexualized violence into sexless, bloodless words (the the entire movie is, after all, about how a Director of Communications starts a war, how language creates violence by obscuring it).

It is not, for example, a coincidence that all the misogynist men in the movie are pushing the war (and vice versa), while all the reasonable people in it are women (and vice versa). There are no pro-war women in it, while the men who appear to be pushing the war turn out, inevitably, to be insincere and/or stupid (Toby, Simon, and the general each, at different moments, take stands against the rush to war, but while Simon and the general are nakedly self-serving (and fold like lawn furniture), Simon’s almost-willingness to actually take an almost sacrificial stand against the war seems to be as much a function of his own incompetence as anything else). I think this is so for some fairly complicated reasons which I want to tease out.

Part of the implied tragedy of the movie — and as a narration of the rush to begin a war we now know to have not only happened, but to have become a total clusterfuck, I think tragedy is the right generic frame — might be that instead of love tempering violence, as the Victorian sentimental tradition would dictate, women are sidelined both by and in the face of violence. Women aren’t, here, quite equated with “love,” full stop (as they so often are in the sentimental tradition), but men certainly are with its opposite, violence: all of them are either alpha-dogs or wannabes who use threats and the verbal performance of threats to form both their social hierarchy, and the principle from which all social action is derived: war. In this sense, they are differentiated simply on the basis of success: some of them are higher up the hierarchy than others. At the same time, the sexual expression that their desires for violence take is inevitably directed at women, inevitably the very women who are opposing the rush to war: just as the myth of the alpha-male equates mastery of violence with sexual performance, these men equate their alpha dog status with misogynistic dominance over (and antipathy to) all women.

By contrast the women in the movie tend to be basically rational and tend to live in the real world. Not all of them are actually against the war in any coherent or principled way, but this is unnecessary, for simply to take cognizance of a reality that is complicated and multi-sided, it seems, is to become a threat. Liza might have become the target of Chad’s harassment because of his obvious crush on her (which he sublimates into passive aggressive violence) but he takes her offending paper as his particular point of attack for the same reasons Linton does: to assert that there are two sides to the story is to deny Linton’s assertion that “we have all the facts we need.”

At its basis, of course, the movie is an account of stories, and how a faith in good story-telling fails in the face of naked, violent unapologetic mendacity: one side — pretty much the women — attempts to tell a story about reality to enable a decision making process while one side — pretty much the men — warps reality to fit the story they need to tell about it. But it’s important, I think, that Karen and company fail — and Liza’s career surely is doomed — because they so poorly grasp the basic logic of their opponents, and especially the dark malevolent force that is Malcolm. Judy attempts to dismiss his swearing and show that it has no effect on her, but her clumsiness actually shows just the opposite, for in the face of such aggression, non-aggression looks (and is) weak. But it’s a problem of language: the alpha-dog idiom of sublimated sexualized violence is as foreign to her as the realist idiom of “cases for and against” is to the prevailing political tendencies of both governments, in which the Linton Barwick’s are in ascendancy. And — contra Marla Daniels — you can lose if you do not play.

Liza is, interestingly, a little less clueless; she at least understands what she’s done in actually writing a real policy paper on real realities, which is why she’s now trying to backpedal away from it as quickly as possible. She even spars with Chad a bit, and although she doesn’t have the verve in doing of most of the men in the movie (even Simon Foster has a few moments, like the “Judy‘s Horse Cock” speech, or the bollocking of Toby), but the fact that she actually does strike back in the right idiom makes her the only woman in the movie that does so. She even manages to trip up Linton’s dim subordinate by playng on his male ego (the “hunk of the month” line), the lone example that otherwise proves the rule: while men like Malcolm get their way through hyper-masculine bullying — if there is actual power behind his words, it is never shown — this is the only example of a woman successfully using some kind of counter-tactic geared to defeat it. And, thus, the war.

The film’s real villain, though, is Linton Barwick. On the one hand, he keeps a live hand grenade on his desk as a paperweight, demonstrating that he’s a psychopath. On the other, though, he is completely horrified when Karen’s teeth start bleeding in a meeting; the actual sight of actual blood, it seems, is too much for him, and the meeting has to stop. She has to go; she is banished from the meeting. And there, in microcosm, is most of the movie’s narrative: psychotic men push a war they will never fight — but which they seem to revel in — against anti-war women whose awareness — even identification with? — of war’s reality disables them from effectively fighting it. Karen’s bleeding teeth are taken as — if I may give full rein to Freudian interpretive license — a kind of merged figure of vagina dentata and menstruation, which is to say, a host of fantasies and insecurities about masculine power that displace all the bad, dark stuff about violence onto women so they can be shushed from the room. Just as he cannot abide the sight of her horrible bloody teeth, the moment when he and his assistant hide their own mouths from her — because “she is an excitable yapping she-dog” — demonstrates the manner in which their they sublimate their own violence to make it acceptable. The problem with women, in other words, is that they’re all leaky and bloody; what we want, instead, is a good clean masculine war.