Spoiler Warning: Major Plot SpoilersWhile it hasn’t been sufficiently long since the release of Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel for me to justify the forthcoming plot spoilers in an attempt to analyze the film, I wrote most of this … Continue reading
Trigger Warning: Sexual Violence
Ridley Scott’s treatment of hegemonic masculinity in The Last Duel brilliantly illuminates the shortcomings of stereotypical male responses to sexual violence; outrage, indignation, bravado, and more violence. Through portrayal of these attitudes and actions, the male audience comes to understand that these responses are not only inadequate, but often exacerbating. What, I argue, the film fails to demonstrate, is the alternative. If we want to grow, we need to know.
While I thoroughly enjoyed Scott’s critique of masculinity, as the apparently intended target of that critique, I found myself lost and wanting. Where Damon’s performance shows me what not to do, and why not to do it, the film doesn’t clearly tell me what to do instead. I was left with the understanding that the feelings and actions I’ve been socialized to endorse are problematic (at best), but without a guide as to where to go from there. While there is certainly value to establishing our conditioned, reflexive responses as insufficient, in my experience, failing to offer a solution or alternative often entrenches the misunderstanding that films like this attempt to resolve. The voices that tell men to act outrageously, indignantly and violently are not subtle. They are loud, articulate and oppressive. My argument is that a vocalization of the alternative, if it hopes to produce individual or social change, needs to be equally audible and coherent.
If we want to grow, we need to know.
Without providing a practical solution, many social-justice oriented messages leave people like me, cishet males, with the impression that everything we think and do is wrong or evil and there’s no hope for a better future. I do not believe this need be the case. I believe a better future is possible, even for people like us 😉 . This post is my attempt at articulating such a path forward.
By way of self-preservation, I’d like to make a few clarifications before I begin.
First of all, I understand and acknowledge that there is more to the film than a message for men. Realistically, one can see the film as unconcerned with what a man takes away from it, prioritizing instead the untold story of Marguerite de Carrouges and (the many, many) women like her. This perspective is valuable in itself, without needing to serve male understanding. As I have often been reminded during my personal conversations around sexual assault, “it’s not about you.” However, I do think there is a valuable, useful message for men, even if it is tertiary. It is my belief that by clearly understanding such a message we can improve our selves and our world. As a man, speaking mostly to other men, I intend to excavate what lessons there are. This is not an attempt to diminish the other good messages of the film, but I do not see myself as appropriately positioned to speak to them.
Secondly, I’d like to acknowledge my own inadequacy. It is entirely possible that the message of “where to go from here” is clear in the film, or becomes clear to the average viewer with a little bit of cognitive effort. It is equally possible that Scott was deliberate in not plainly articulating this message, that he wanted the viewer to wrestle with the ideas somewhat and arrive at the conclusion on their own. (I have to imagine Socrates would agree with this approach, and tell me that what follows is useless at best and counterproductive at worst.) It is possible, I am admitting, that what I perceive as a lack in the film is actually a lack in myself, in my appraisal and understanding. Nevertheless, I persist.
Realistically, one can see the film as unconcerned with what a man takes away from it, prioritizing instead the untold story of Marguerite de Carrouges and (the many, many) women like her. This perspective is valuable in itself, without needing to serve male understanding.
Finally, I wish to acknowledge my potential for getting this whole thing horribly wrong. Later in this post I am going to say what I understand to be what someone like Damon’s Jean de Carrouges should do, according to the women with whom I’ve discussed these types of situations. It’s possible that, despite all of their best efforts, I’m too dull or too deeply socialized to hear and understand them. To any women bothering to read this self-serving blog post, thank you, and please, if you want to, let me know how I’m getting it wrong. I do genuinely believe many men want to get it right. Speaking only for myself, I can assure you I am doing my best, though I realize that may not be very good.
Before talking about the solution as I understand it, I’d like to take a bit of time to talk about what the film does well. If you’re already sick of my blathering (why are you here?) you can jump down to the Path Forward.
What the Film Does Well
If we take the film to be representing a historically silenced voice, the voice of women, it does pass the test of minimum competency, the Bechdel test. I owe my own awareness of this test to my friend, Dr. Hayden-William Courtland. For the uninitiated, the Bechdel test is named after political cartoonist Alison Bechdel, and provides a simple, embarrassingly acute, analysis of the portrayal of women in film. Essentially, the test requires that a work portray a conversation between two women (bonus points if they’re named) that does not concern a male character. While that criteria may sound laughable, I’ll encourage you to look out for it next time you watch a movie or show. As far as I can recall, there is only one conversation that meets this standard, and it’s a surreal one, centered around roquefort cheese. (It is possible I missed other qualifying conversations, and I do intend to watch the movie again and revise this writing.)
If we take the movie as further attempting to say something about the male psyche, the portrayal of the events of the film as from that character’s perspective are especially important.
Starting with de Carrouges, we see a discrepancy in the behaviors of Marguerite in his version compared to hers. Specifically, in Sir Jean’s version, Marguerite asks him to do something, to make it right, to render justice. However, in her recounting, she makes no such request. This is the first point. Oftentimes when a friend or a lover expresses some concern or hardship, the instinctive response is to attempt to solve the problem. However, as the litany of self-care and relationship advice accounts on instagram will attest, it is often the case that the person just wants to “vent,” to simply speak and be heard. I am not saying that if someone comes to you to talk about a sexual assault they don’t want you to do anything, but I am saying there is a difference between telling your friend about something and reporting an event to an authority/justice figure.If you don’t know which situation you’re in, just ask.
This analysis of de Carrouges’ inability to tell what is from what he wants it to be is bolstered by both his own self-aggrandizing reports (such as his powerful words on the field of battle and again during a diplomatic moment) and his misperception of Le Gris as a close, indebted friend. de Carrouges, as he represents most of us, sees what he wants to see, hears what he wants to hear. His fault is not that he is a liar per se, but that he lies to himself. His error is rarely stopping to ask, “what do you want, what can I do?” and when he does, refusing to hear the answer. I am reminded of a favorite line from another Damon film, Martin Scorsese’s The Departed: “We deal in deception here. What we do not deal with is self-deception.”Like many Scorsese films, The Departed utterly fails the Bechdel test. I don’t think we ever even see two female characters in the same scene, never mind having a conversation. Does de Carrouges want to be a good husband, or does he want to appear to be a good husband. For that matter, which do we want?
There is a difference between telling your friend about something and reporting an event to an authority/justice figure.
Turning next to Le Gris we see a male archetype that I find more sympathetic than de Carrouges. This individual is truly the individual of privilege, the quintessential chauvinist. Borrowing from UCLA professor Dr. Pamela Hieronymi, Le Gris is portrayed “in a context in which…chauvinism is widely accepted and in which he has not had his own attitudes remarked upon or questioned.”see her Reflection and Responsibility in Philosophy and Public Affairs 42 no. 1 (2014): page 30 Furthermore, not only is Le Gris never confronted with the possibility that his behavior is problematic, he is in fact rewarded for it by authority figures (specifically the Count Pierre d’Alençon, portrayed by Ben Affleck)! After this (almost) lifetime of uncorrected, positively reinforced bad behavior (what we would today call socialization), Le Gris is confronted in the most dire of circumstances: in court, with his life literally in the balance. What I find sympathetic in this character is the irremediable nature of his situation.
Heinous criminality aside, Le Gris is a useful and productive member of his society. He is able to apply his knowledge and skill not only to the battlefield but equally to the actuary tables. While an argument can be made for the inherently predatory and extortionary nature of feudalism, and thus an appropriate condemnation issued on the “true” value of what skills Le Gris does posses, I make a broader argument. I submit that human life has value, independent of (though potentially enriched by) its productive application. Assuming this is true, we can best honor this value by educating people like Le Gris in such a way that they avoid becoming a chauvinist in the first place. It is in defense of this belief that I write this entire piece. On the stand is not a place where education and reformation can take place. Instead Le Gris (I argue, understandably) defaults to that most insidious of behaviors, justification.
Justification is the surest guarantee against self-improvement. As the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous has made ubiquitous, the first step is admitting you have a problem. Where de Carrouges’ error is that he never stops to ask, Le Gris’ is that when he is confronted with his own bad behavior he explains it away. He never denies what he did. Instead, he makes excuses and creates reasons for why it isn’t bad. Personally, I can empathize with this behavior. Admitting that I am wrong is one of the more challenging things I have to do in this world. As someone who prides themselves in thinking carefully about my actions, in only doing the “right” thing, I am often blinded to the negative consequences of my actions by my own justifications of why I did it. In the philosophy of science there is a dictum, if something can’t be proven wrong then it can’t be right. In the science of self-improvement this is no less true. As long as we engage in justificatory behaviors like Le Gris, though we may avoid his more dire transgressions, we will remain guilty of the same developmental self-sabotage.
The Film As Critical Analysis
While I know that the racial branch of the Frankfurt school’s critical method is under popular attack with certain sections of the population,and even recently some academic criticism, as in Espen Hammer’s “Critical Theory and the Challenge of Relativism.” The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Relativism. Edited by Martin Kusch. … Continue reading especially the aforementioned cishet (white) male audience this post is aimed at, I’ve always found it to be an intriguing and useful method. In its most basic form Critical Analysis asks, what is your aim? Having established that goal it then asks, does your aim obtain via your methods?
In the film, Damon’s de Carrouges’ aim is, ostensibly, to demonstrate that he loves his wife. Speaking again only for myself in similar situations, while I have felt obligations to abstract concepts like Justice,A typically male morality, as defined by Lawrence Kohlberg, “The Development of Modes of Thinking and Choices in Years 10 to 16”. Ph. D. Dissertation, University of Chicago. 1958 sober self-reflection has established Care as the higher value.I owe this evolution in my moral understanding to Carol Gilligan’s In A Different Voice (1982) In situations where I’ve known someone who was sexually assaulted, my initial reaction is almost always anger. Anger, as we know, is the appropriate response to perceived injustice; Anger helps to motivate us to action where and when action is necessary. However, below that anger (oftentimes less perceptibly) is frustration and sadness that someone I care about is suffering, and has been made to suffer. In my younger, less sophisticated years I have been known to make the argument that while I don’t think capital punishment has an ethical basis, upon learning that some person raped someone I love, it is ethically permitted, and possibly even compulsory for me to murder the rapist. Something like both-your-eyes-for-an-eye, a response extreme enough as to make the next person rethink how much they want that eye in the first place.I owe this idea to Sun Tzu’s Art of War and Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince.
Critical Analysis asks, what is your aim? Having established that goal it then asks, does your aim obtain via your methods?
However, this approach does little in the way of practical justice. Does it undo the harm caused by the assault? It does not. Does it comfort or console the victim—Does it insulate them against further harm? Twice no. Does it make me feel better? Yes. And this is the important point. If our goal is to demonstrate through our actions that we care for the victim, if our goal is to in some way make their situation better, the typical responses of violence and legalism fail to achieve our end but, insidiously, allow us to feel better about our failure.
In the film the inherent harm of the legal approach is made tangible. If de Carrouges fails in his trial by combat, if, it is assumed, God judges Marguerite’s claims to be false, she will be burned alive until dead. In a portrayal of characteristically female valuation,Again I drawn on Gilligan for this characterization. Lest I (or she) be charged with trans-exclusionary theorizing, it should be noted that Gilligan’s account is based on developmental psychology … Continue reading Marguerite’s concern is not with her own bodily harm, but the future of her child, who will be left with neither father nor mother in a world she knows to be nasty, brutish and short.
In “real-life” instances, the danger of the legal approach is less tangible. However, considering the cases of Brock Turner and Chanel Miller, or Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, it should be apparent that where the villain is granted clemency, compassion and understanding, the victim carries stigma and shame, even in the face of so-called justice. At one point during her trial, one of Marguerite’s jurors attempts to excuse the actions of her rapist citing that pregnancy cannot happen if the women doesn’t enjoy the intercourse, paralleling the ignorant and shameful comments of former Missouri senator Todd Akin. An unfortunate number of us need not try too hard to imagine the horrors of sexual assault. If we acknowledge that the legal approach adds to that horror the humiliation of being called a liar, or being told we don’t know our own experience, it is clear to see that this is not the way.
Hopefully I needn’t say much about the inefficacy of violence in response to violence. The entirety of the film should make that point. Killing someone, or beating them, or whatever, is not going to make the victim feel better or improve their situation at all. While it may make you feel better, that self-serving approach only contributes to the alienation of the victim. While an appeal can be made to Justice, this comes at the expense of, again, the victim. If we truly want to help, truly want to care, what should we do instead? Finally, I offer an answer.
The Path Forward
In instances of sexual assault, we, men who care, should do whatever the victim wants.
“What do you want me to do?” This is the question I was fortunate enough to think to ask once. The answer that was given to me was plain, but I have to say I didn’t much care for it. Instead of listening, I turned to google, and then other individuals who had lived through similar situations, both as the victim and the would-be helper (hero seems woefully inappropriate here). The answer I received never changed. Out of respect for the delicacy of the situation I won’t go into specifics regarding anyone I talked to or what the situations were. I will say only the answer: In instances of sexual assault, we, men who care, should do whatever the victim wants. Not, my Carrougesian friends, what we think they want! What they say that they want.
In my experience, what the victim wants is never that satisfying, sanguinary thing: revenge. It’s oftentimes nothing, or the small thing of listening, believing and supporting. Possibly it’s the ungratifying nature of this response that makes it so loving. In this I am reminded of another medieval jousting film, Brian Hegeland’s A Knight’s Tale.A Knight’s Tale also fails the Bechdel test. When Heath Ledger’s Ulrich von Lichtenstein pledges to win a tournament for Shannyn Sossamon’s Jocelyn, she replies that he wins only for himself and his own glory. If he really loved her, she argues, he would lose for her. I would not be coarse enough to suggest that any victim would play such a game, but the point remains. Oftentimes, true expressions of love are the opposite of what we want to do, given the choice. To truly express love and care, especially in the terrible situations treated in this post, we must do what we are asked, not what we want.
Having said that, the question remains: Does the film convey this answer? If so, I’ve written a lot of words for no good reason. Thankfully, I believe I can demonstrate that it does not.
If we assume that de Carrouges knew Marguerite would get burned at the stake if her testimony was “proven” false, and his greatest concern was demonstrating love for his wife (over abstract notions of Justice), it seems he should not press the issue legally. Furthermore, if it is the case that Marguerite did not specifically request that de Carrouges do something, the argument against his seeking revenge or restitution or even recognition is plain. He should instead listen, believe and support.
If there is a character that advocates such an approach, it is Nicole de Buchard, mother of de Carrouges. However, on my viewing of her character, she represents a disconnected, outdated, and fatalist point of view. In none of the perspectives presented in the film is de Buchard characterized as sympathetic, sagacious or trustworthy. It is possible that Scott is making an argument for the wisdom of the more experienced generation, but her do-nothing stance seems to stem from an acceptance and endorsement of the status quo over a compassionate understanding of the right course of action. If the film is seen as social commentary, as well as historical drama, the usefulness of de Buchard’s approach, and as a result the film itself, is minimal. If de Buchard is articulating the path forward, she does it from such a point of recalcitrant callousness as to leave her message unintelligible.
Despite this lack of clarity, I do see the inherent value in critiquing the traditional, male responses to sexual assault. However, I look forward to portrayals that offer a positive role model, that show us what is to be done. I believe it is through the visual medium, maybe Ryan Gosling smoldering while holding a softly sobbing Anna Taylor-Joy, that the next generation of men will be educated and inspired. I believe it is through this instantiation, much more than my present articulation, that we, my brothers, will find a path forward. Here’s to the day.
|↑1||While it hasn’t been sufficiently long since the release of Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel for me to justify the forthcoming plot spoilers in an attempt to analyze the film, I wrote most of this post in a frenzy as soon as I got home from the theater. Such was the power of the movie in my view, and that should constitute the heartiest of endorsements. There have been a few occasions where I’ve neglected to post something topical so the issue could simmer down enough for people to think dispassionately about it and ended up not posting it all because the moment passed. I’m determined not to make that mistake again.|
|↑2||I owe my own awareness of this test to my friend, Dr. Hayden-William Courtland.|
|↑3||If you don’t know which situation you’re in, just ask.|
|↑4||Like many Scorsese films, The Departed utterly fails the Bechdel test. I don’t think we ever even see two female characters in the same scene, never mind having a conversation.|
|↑5||see her Reflection and Responsibility in Philosophy and Public Affairs 42 no. 1 (2014): page 30|
|↑6||and even recently some academic criticism, as in Espen Hammer’s “Critical Theory and the Challenge of Relativism.” The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Relativism. Edited by Martin Kusch. New York: Routledge, 2020|
|↑7||A typically male morality, as defined by Lawrence Kohlberg, “The Development of Modes of Thinking and Choices in Years 10 to 16”. Ph. D. Dissertation, University of Chicago. 1958|
|↑8||I owe this evolution in my moral understanding to Carol Gilligan’s In A Different Voice (1982)|
|↑9||I owe this idea to Sun Tzu’s Art of War and Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince.|
|↑10||Again I drawn on Gilligan for this characterization. Lest I (or she) be charged with trans-exclusionary theorizing, it should be noted that Gilligan’s account is based on developmental psychology and socialization. Specifically, she argues that the divergence in moral understanding between men and women can be traced back to their initial individuation process. Because men are typically (though not exclusively) raised by women, whether that’s parent, nanny or teacher, their process of individuation starts earlier; Males form an understanding of themselves as different than the others around them, especially (mostly female) authority figures. Conversely, at the same age, women see themselves as the same as (mostly female) others, especially figures of authority. As a result, individuation typically happens at a later age and starts from a different point of reference. Socialization is equally sex-biased, with certain values being pushed on certain apparent genders. This isn’t to say a male can’t intuitively value Care or a female can’t be taught to value Justice. If we assume Gilligan is “on to something” (and I would encourage anyone to read her book before making that evaluation) more research could be done on individuation and socialization of transgendered children. I could conceive of how the procedural complications to identifying such a subset may prove insurmountable, scientifically, but I’ll leave that to the experimental psychologists.|
|↑11||A Knight’s Tale also fails the Bechdel test.|