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Thursday, April 18, 2024

Phantom Thread is not “propaganda for toxic masculinity” but a genius satire of it


A case study in society’s worsening ability to make distinctions

Some might insist that I shouldn’t discuss toxic masculinity because I’m a cisgender white male. However, a recent article in The New Yorker titled “Why ‘Phantom Thread’ is Propaganda for Toxic Masculinity,” was also written by a cisgender white male, and as a proud movie buff, I feel obligated to defend my favorite movie of the year when it’s unfairly criticized.

The article angers me because it includes so many thoughtful points about the regressive gender politics displayed in the film but never proves why it deserves to be labeled as “propaganda.” Films that depict past eras and antiquated social attitudes may do so favorably, in a propagandistic style, or unfavorably, in a satirical, critical style. “Phantom Thread” clearly accomplishes the latter by showing the destructive power of toxic masculinity. The author of the New Yorker article, Aleksandar Hemon, implies that depicting these attitudes is equivalent to propagandizing them.

The first clue that the film is going to be a subversive satire rather than propaganda is the name of Daniel Day-Lewis’s character: Reynolds Woodcock. It’s pretentious and sophisticated, yet almost a vulgar parody. The innuendo is almost too on-the-nose for such an elegantly crafted film, but it embodies the film’s many absurdities, and it’s hilarious. This name instantly signals the film’s dark humor and critical nature.

Hemon writes that the film “might appear to some as a critical exploration of male power, but for that to be the case there would have to be alternative positions that are not dependent on the hero’s centrality.” Firstly, Woodcock is no hero. And it’s arbitrary and nonsensical to say that the film can’t be a criticism of the patriarchy just because it fails to present an alternative situation for Alma. Alma wants to stay with Woodcock and his other female dressmakers despite the toxic and psychologically abusive environment. The dictatorial male figure shows what is still an unjust reality for many women today, which is why it’s important to accurately depict the unfavorable outcomes of this reality. This is what “Phantom Thread” does, but Hemon fails to recognize the difference between this and an actual endorsement of the behavior.

An early scene clearly indicates how the movie will attack and caricaturize people who take themselves way too seriously. At breakfast, Woodcock’s sacred time of the day, a tense argument ensues, and Woodcock whines in an incensed yet proper voice, “I cannot start my day with a confrontation.” This made me laugh out loud. It perfectly captures Woodcock’s petulant, eccentric and controlling nature and shows how he thinks he deserves special accomodations, just because he’s a creative genius. Subtle humor like this appears throughout the movie to highlight how unhealthy relationships are a direct result of his toxicity, so the idea that the movie somehow implicitly endorses this behavior is absurd.

Over time, Alma avoids being cast aside by discovering Woodcock’s vulnerabilities and exploiting them so that he continues to need her. Hemon makes the point that Woodcook is “so supreme that it [he] can choose even when and how to be weakened in the presence of a woman, who, in exchange for monogamy, is ever willing to serve it.” Yes, this is what happens. But the film in no way depicts this as something positive that any woman should experience, and Woodcock is not supreme — he is insecure and weak. Alma’s wanting to be with him despite his flaws is not a hidden, sinister, anti-feminist message; it’s just part of an intentionally absurd plot that highlights the powerful man’s role in creating twisted sexual dynamics. Situations like this happen in reality, so it’s only logical for us to make interesting, complex films that allow us to discuss and study them.

Arguments like Hemon’s are dangerous because they might cause other woke people to jump to conclusions that ultimately deny them the opportunity to actually experience (and more importantly, enjoy) a thought-provoking, compelling, subversive story with fantastic acting, gorgeous cinematography and immersive music. Political correctness can make people avoid ambiguities, so the rich nuance in works like “Phantom Thread” is often lost.

This film made me think deeply about power dynamics in relationships, the idea of the “delicate genius” and how abusive men with power often absorb inordinate amounts of credit. I certainly did not leave the film wanting to psychologically torment a woman to the point that she would poison me with mushrooms and cause me to develop a food-poisoning fetish. Anyone who did leave the theater craving that tasty experience has issues far more pressing than potentially being susceptible to “propaganda.”


Written by: Benjamin Porter — bbporter@ucdavis.edu

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.


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