Stockholm Syndrome, Victimization, and the media’s version of American men

Stockholm Syndrome:  In psychology, Stockholm Syndrome is an apparently paradoxical psychological phenomenon in which hostages express empathy and have positive feelings towards their captors, sometimes to the point of defending them. These feelings are generally considered irrational in light of the danger or risk endured by the victims, who essentially mistake a lack of abuse from their captors for an act of kindness. The FBI’s Hostage Barricade Database System shows that roughly 27% of victims show evidence of Stockholm Syndrome


Victimization Symptoms: Victimization symptoms were proposed by Frank Ochberg as a distinct subcategory of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is not formally recognized in diagnostic systems such as DSM or ICD, and includes the following:

  • Shame: Deep embarrassment, often characterized as humiliation or mortification.
  • Self-blame: Exaggerated feelings of responsibility for the traumatic event, with guilt and remorse, despite obvious evidence of innocence.
  • Subjugation: Feeling belittled, dehumanized, lowered in dominance, and powerless as a direct result of the trauma.
  • Morbid hatred: Obsessions of vengeance and preoccupation with hurting or humiliating the perpetrator, with or without outbursts of anger or rage.
  • Paradoxical gratitude: Positive feelings toward the victimizer ranging from compassion to romantic love, including attachment but not necessarily identification. The feelings are usually experienced as ironic but profound gratitude for the gift of life from one who has demonstrated the will to kill. (Also known as pathological transference and/or Stockholm syndrome).
  • Defilement: Feeling dirty, disgusted, disgusting, tainted, “like spoiled goods,” and in extreme cases, rotten and evil.
  • Sexual inhibition: Loss of libido, reduced capacity for intimacy, more frequently associated with sexual assault.
  • Resignation: A state of broken will or despair, often associated with repetitive victimization or prolonged exploitation, with markedly diminished interest in past or future.
  • Second injury or second wound: Revictimization through participation in the criminal justice, health, mental health, and other systems.
  • Socioeconomic status downward drift: Reduction of opportunity or life-style, and increased risk of repeat criminal victimization due to psychological, social, and vocational impairment.

There’s an exciting publishing sensation out there.  It’s E.L James’s S&M trilogy, the first of which is Fifty Shades of Grey: Book One of the Fifty Shades Trilogy.  I haven’t read the books myself but, as best as I can tell, they are this generation’s Story of O.  As a hip young college student, I tried to read the Story of O, but I quickly got terribly bored.  All the faux sophistication in the world wasn’t going to make me like a creepy story of domination and submission.  My distaste for this genre seems to leave me in something of a minority.   The trilogy occupies the top three spots on Amazon’s bestseller list.  Women, apparently, are completely thrilled by this story of a naive young woman who enters into a submissive relationship with a tortured man who has a compulsive need to dominate women sexually:

Mr Grey, a 27-year-old billionaire, seduces young graduate, Anastasia Steele. He has a penchant for bondage and soon envelops her in a world of kinky sex, S&M and XXX-rated bedroom ‘contract’ games that make for solid post-watershed reading only. Love, inevitably, is not omitted from the romance.

Maureen Dowd, who is rather famous for holding men in disdain (or, as she asked and answered, Are Men Necessary?: When Sexes Collide) doesn’t think much of the book’s concept and, as I do, thinks it’s an O retread.  She is willing to consider the theory, however, that this whole S&M thing isn’t really about men dominating women but is, instead, about women making men do the work in the bedroom:

The Harvard-educated [Jennifer] Hunter [a dominatrix] asserts that most women are sexually submissive — “the sexually dominant woman is that rara avis” — and scoffs at the idea that anything in the book is offensive except its overwrought prose.

“Every good dominant knows that the submissive is really the partner in control,” she says. “All a submissive woman has to do is relax and enjoy the ride while delicious sexual acts are visited upon her. She’s the star of the proceedings. Someone is ministering to her needs for a change. Master is choreographing all the action. The book seems to have resonated with so many women because, after a long day of managing employees, making all the decisions and looking after children, a woman might be exhausted about being in charge and long to surrender control.”

Think about that theory:  because women are in charge of everything all day long, and are responsible for everything, their sexual fantasy involves a man who takes charge, even if the manifestation of that willingness to take charge is to engage in bizarre, but ultimately tame, sexual games that would have left the Marquis de Sade nodding in bored approval, much like a doting parent at the kindergarten play.  Or to put it more bluntly, since men are disappointingly absent during the daytime, let’s pretend they can be “manly men” at night time.  I don’t know about you, but I find that terribly sad.  It answers Dowd’s question by saying men aren’t necessary at all, except to fulfill some freakish fantasies.

50 Shades of Grey isn’t the only pop culture phenomenon out there celebrating bizarre sexual practices that see women pretending to be the weaker sex.  Frank Bruni, with great sadness, examines a new TV show called Girls, which he sees as emblematic of the failure of women’s lib, which has resulted in a dehumanizing, dead-end, hook-up culture.  As with 50 Shades of Grey, the young woman in Girls is a prop for the man’s fantasies, with the woman’s pleasure (if any) coming from that passive prop status:

THE first time you see Lena Dunham’s character having sex in the new HBO series “Girls,” her back is to her boyfriend, who seems to regard her as an inconveniently loquacious halfway point between partner and prop, and her concern is whether she’s correctly following instructions.

“So I can just stay like this for a little while?” she asks. “Do you need me to move more?”

He needs her to intrude less. “Let’s play the quiet game,” he answers.

The second time, she’s an 11-year-old junkie with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, or so he tells her, commencing a role play in which he alone assigns the roles. He has highly specific fantasies, and she’s largely a fleshy canvas for them.

Who needs love when you can turn every relationship into a porn tableau?  Bruni is correct that this is deeply saddening.  I’m not sure, though, that I see it as a failure of women’s liberation, so much as one of its goals — but more about that in a few minutes.

Cultural critic Bill Bennett has looked at Dowd’s and Bruni’s columns and weighed in himself.  He sees this trend in pop culture as a terrible reflection on men — and he’s right, but for the wrong reason.  To Bennett, the book and show reveal a trend that has men degrading women:

Bruni goes on to grapple with Dunham’s loveless sex scenes and wonders whether today’s onslaught of pornography and easy sex has desensitized men to the point where they view women, to recall the words of an earlier day, only as objects. Even the act of sex itself is boring to some men unless it is ratcheted up in some strange, deviant fashion–all at the expense of the thoroughly humiliated and debased woman.

In the act of degrading women, men are also degrading themselves.

James Taranto explains, however, that Bennett errs at a very fundamental level in making the above comment.  You see, both 50 Shades and Girls emanate from female creative minds.  Yup, the fantasy of bored, overwhelmed women who desperately need someone else to take control in the bedroom is a female fantasy:

How does an essay about “Fifty Shades of Grey” and “Girls” turn into an anti-male screed? Both are written by women for women. Dowd notes, but Bennett omits, that the real first name of author E.L. James is Erika. As for “Girls,” Bruni points out that Lena Dunham “is not only its star but also its principal writer and director.” And if it’s anything like “Sex and the City,” no heterosexual man will ever watch it except as a favor to someone of the opposite sex.

We don’t dispute Bennett’s contention that pornography is degrading to women, but it takes no courage or insight to say so. “Fifty Shades of Gray” and “Girls” sound degrading too, but Bennett seems to shy away from confronting the fact that this degradation amounts to female pornography–produced by women for the entertainment of other women. In postfeminist America, it’s so much easier and safer to scapegoat men.

Taranto is absolutely right, but he hasn’t gone far enough, while Bennett hasn’t quite figured out what’s really going on.  Post-feminist America is indeed remarkably hostile to men and these books are evidence of the fact that feminism has reduced men to mere sexual utility.  Looking back on the rhetoric of the 60s and 70s, this was one of feminism’s goals all along.  After all, who can forget Gloria Steinem’s stirring battle cry:  “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.”  Feminists seem to have discovered that this is true in every area of life (work, child rearing, socializing, etc.), except in the bedroom, where an archaic amalgam of heterosexual urges and sheer exhaustion make a faux manly man an object of desire.

Both Bennett and Taranto, however, have pulled back from noting one important thing:  today’s media men — the film producers, TV producers, publishers, etc. — are entirely complicit in this trend of degradation, a trend that not only turns women into sex objects, but turns men into ciphers, useful only in a utilitarian way once the bedroom door closes.  Women may be roaring all over, but you cannot get these films and TV shows made, or these books published, without male participation, participation that is often very enthusiastic.

Take a film such as The Help, which was a Hollywood big deal.  Although it’s based upon a book that a woman, Kathryn Stockett, wrote, the movie is a male production.  A man — Tate Taylor — both wrote the script and directed the move.  And it is not a nice movie when it comes to men.  For one thing, the men are mostly missing in action. When they do appear, with two minor exceptions, the men in The Help are cowards, wife beaters, and racists.  The two exceptions are a paper cut-out black preacher man whose sole role is to give a brief sermon about Moses, and a white man who is on the screen for about two minutes and who is not racist.  And that’s it.  That’s Hollywood’s most recent approach to men in the Jim Crow South.

The Help is not anomalous.  Men do not fare well in media land.  They’re buffoonish, violent, and often invisible.  Women and girls routinely teach them lessons in order to make them more sensitive.  And invariably, the men are complicit in this.  Male actors, male producers, male directors, and male whatever other else they are in Hollywood willing produce widely broadcast materials that make America men look just awful.  It’s the rare production that celebrates manly virtues.

Hollywood’s men are not interested in providing affirmative role models for America’s boys and young men.  Instead like sufferers of Stockholm Syndrome or Victimization Syndrome, they gleefully join in with their intellectual captors in denigrating and demeaning men.  This is a tragedy when it comes to the men who have already given themselves over to their feminist captors and a national disaster when you imagine the second generation of young men raised to hate themselves.