What 'Californication' Can Teach Us About Rape Culture

How Hank Moody might help us navigate male sexuality in an age of feminism, Nice Guys, and Pickup Artists

 

When a young college man sees fit to murder six random women and injure thirteen other people because he couldn’t get laid—and be smug enough to post a personal diary of the events online for the world to see—it should no longer be news to anyone that we live in a rape culture. This young man’s actions were heinous and unjustifiable and they cannot simply be explained away with the assertion that he was “mentally ill.” Rather, his hatred was rooted in the very real and deeply complex network of beliefs and behavior that is rape culture.

Furthermore, trying to balance genuine sex positivity with the fact that we still live in a sexist culture is complicated. How can men want sex and still treat women like people? More and more we hear about how younger generations are involved in “hookup culture” and “casual sex,” but the models and memes given to us in the media are overwhelming and often disheartening. Casual sex is often seen as manipulative or exploitative by definition, and men who are very sexually active are often either lauded by pickup artists, or vilified as exploitative or creepy. But are male sluts always creeps?

The notorious Hank Moody (David Duchovny)

The seventh and final season of Californication has just come to a close, and I would like to take this opportunity to reflect on the series and its relationship to a lot of worries that have come up lately about sexism in dating.

This year the show’s lead character, Hank Moody (David Duchovny), is confronted by a young man interviewing him for a college newspaper. One of the first questions he asks Hank is: “Are you a misogynist?”

It strikes me that this is a common impression of Hank’s character, and I suspect this scene is the show’s nod to this reputation. I avoided the show at first, because it seemed seedy and probably misogynistic. After all, it’s about a dude who cruises around Los Angeles smoking and drinking and getting laid. What on earth could this show have to offer me?

But after watching the initial episode I was hooked.

Californication is about Hank Moody, a novelist-turned-scriptwriter who moves from New York to Los Angeles with his partner, Karen (Natascha McElhone), and his daughter, Becca (Madeleine Martin). In the first episode, we learn that Karen and Hank have split, and that Karen is getting married to her new boyfriend, Bill. Hank is still in love with Karen, and will spend the rest of the series trying to get her back. In the meantime, the show centers on his Hollywood life, his career as a writer, his relationship with his agent, Charlie Runkle (Evan Handler), and a host of other characters, including a long lineup of women that Hank sleeps with.

Hank and his ex-wife, Karen (Natasha McElhone)

When I started talking to people about the show, what I heard were different versions of: “oh god, that show? Isn’t it about some sexist douchebag who goes around sleeping with women all the time?” Articles like this one call Moody “a man-child who loves to love women, but at the same time, he is ready to reduce them to parts in order to satisfy his sexual inclinations.” Pickup artists take him as a kind of model for how to manipulate women into sleeping with them.

But their attempts at analyzing his “tactics” miss the point entirely. It’s true, Hank does sleep with a lot of ladies in this show. But he is neither a misogynist nor a pickup artist. He’s not manipulative. Hank has character flaws, sure, but being sexist is not one of them. Thinking that promiscuity alone is sufficient to define someone as sexist is a problem, because we end up conflating desiring sex with objectification. Which is a problem not just for men, but for women too, because then it seems like any time a woman sleeps with a man, it’s because she’s been manipulated or tricked or pressured in some way, and that clouds over any acknowledgement that women have desire too, not to mention sexual agency.

Dating Dilemmas: Sorting the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

First, some context. In the past few years, we have opened up newer and hopefully better discourses about sexuality and abuse. Rape culture has been featuring more and more in mainstream news stories, rather than stuck in feminist academic articles. You can find an excellent and detailed definition of rape culture here, but for the purposes of this article it can be understood as the idea that we live in a culture that both enables and promotes violence against, harassment of, and rape of women; a society in which women’s bodies are not seen as their own, but as “for” others in different respects: society’s standards, men’s pleasure, babies. This has lead to discussions of things like Nice Guy Syndrome (which I used to discuss among only my close friends), which has recently exploded on the Internet, spawning many articles and Tumblrs. Nice Guy Syndrome is essentially the approach used by some men of befriending women they are attracted to, and being nice to them with a view that “niceness” eventually entitles them to the romantic and sexual attention of these women. If that attention does not eventually come, resentment begins to build, which can lead to hostility and, in some cases, like with the Isla Vista shooter—violence. Nice indeed.

Pickup artistry, which involves figuring out how to game out interactions with women to get them into bed, has been similarly ridiculed from articles to comics. Both Nice Guys and PUAs are manifestations of a male uncertainty of how to “get” a woman, and so are, respectively, attempts at manipulating women into doing what men want.

"Mystery," from VH1's The Pickup Artist

Recently two articles in The Guardian discussed ways in which men should and shouldn’t approach women: the first was about a kind of anxiety that men have about being creepy or accidentally harassing women, that our culture might be in danger of interpreting any kind of sexual interest on men’s part as sexual harassment. Then there was a reply of sorts, explaining that there is a big divide between harassment and flirtation, and that this difference is not trivial, and not something that can be confused or accidental. The first article reminds me of what I hear—from friends and in the media—about men’s fears of seeming creepy. The second article reminds me of my own reactions to hearing these fears, which is that I find this slightly baffling and, at times, irritating. Because there is just such a clear difference between awkwardness and creepiness. A great, vast, cavernous gulf.

It’s understandable and good that men are being asked to take a second look at how they approach women. But often I find this results in a kind of paralysis, where men are afraid to express any desire, lest they tread into “creepy” territory. And this can, in the case of the first article, lead to a kind of confusion and resentment, and to a kind of pushback of the entire concept of “creepiness” because it seems threatening to men who consider themselves to be good people. And there are plenty of mixed messages out there about this. Like this depressing article on the alleged realities of dating, which claims that the only difference between creepy and romantic is whether or not the person being addressed is interested. This kind of claim is not only false, it’s dangerous, because it presumes that creepiness is determined by the woman, distracting from the real kinds of awareness and responsibility that are key to genuine human interaction.

Getting to a place where we can have such genuine human interactions is surely one of the goals of feminism. But there are a few things that we still need to unpack, and ways in which we need to expand this discourse.

What Exactly Is Creepiness? And Why Is It a Problem?

When I teach feminism to my undergraduates, I start with John Stuart Mill and Mary Wollstonecraft, who, in their respective ways, argue for institutional equality for women. Mill says that women should have the same legal rights as men, and Wollstonecraft wants equal education. In Wollstonecraft’s case, she argues against the prevalent idea (during the 18th century) that women are somehow essentially superficial and “naturally” obsessed with appearances. Rather, if you’re a woman in a culture where you’re unable to support yourself financially, so you need to marry a man in order to avoid becoming destitute, and then you’re told from birth that the only way that’s going to happen is if you’re pretty then sure, you’d be pretty concerned about the cut of your dress too. This isn’t superficiality: it’s survival.

Mary Wollstonecraft; Simone de Beauvoir

Unobvious issues at the time, but pretty clear to us now, and certainly concrete things for undergrads to latch onto. Women are people too! They should have the vote and they should have equal rights. And now we have pieces of paper that proclaim that this is so! But the next question is: what’s left to think about? Which is when I introduce them to is The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir. In the excerpt we read, she discusses what I like to call a phenomenological inequality, in which she explains that women are still forced to be aware of their appearance (and how it will garner different kinds of treatment) in a way that men are not:

To be sure, the young girl can today go out alone and idle in the Tuileries; but I have already noted how hostile the street is to her, with eyes and hands lying in wait everywhere; if she wanders carelessly, her mind drifting, if she lights a cigarette in front of a cafĂ©, if she goes alone to the movies, a disagreeable incident is soon bound to happen. She must inspire respect by her costume and her manners. But this preoccupation rivets her to the ground and to herself … everything influences her to let herself be hemmed in, dominated by existences foreign to her own.1

Women still have to be concerned with how they are perceived, what clothes they wear, how safe they feel in their environment. And as I roll through these considerations, the girls in my class start murmuring and nodding, because this is something that they all experience, something that’s second nature. And it’s something that comes from the fact that we are in a vulnerable social position.2 We’re used to being on the lookout for people who might be potentially dangerous. We’ve been told to “be careful” or “be safe!” our entire lives. For most of us, it’s become a natural underlying part of our consciousness, a kind of program running constantly at the back of our minds. We have creep radar. We are experts at it. And in fact, here is a short but awesome blog post about it.

University students challenging the prevalence of campus "rape culture"

One of the most striking statements from the post is that “even without any overt sexual angle, someone acting entitled and not respecting your boundaries already has too much in common with dangerous people.” That line really gets at something important, and I want to expand on the central role of expectation and entitlement when it comes to creepiness.

Expectation & Entitlement

Before I explain the dangers of entitlement, we need to look at the double-bind. Marilyn Frye, an American philosopher and feminist theorist, explains double-binds as “situations in which options are reduced to a very few and all of them expose one to penalty, censure, or deprivation.” There are many double-binds that women find themselves in, not least the slut/prude bind, in which she is defined as one or the other, depending on who is judging her. If you want more sex than society thinks is appropriate, you are a slut. But if you don’t want enough sex, then you are a prude (or, sometimes, a lesbian). There is no middle ground, no magical amount of sex she can have that excludes her from being one or the other. Her desires are constantly being defined by those around her.

But there are other binds, like the ones that stem from women being socialized to be social icing: to smooth things over, to avoid making waves, and definitely to avoid being aggressive or asserting herself too much (but again, what’s the magic formula for being able to assert yourself the exact right amount?), for which she would be seen as a “bitch.” So there are lots of scenarios when someone has to decide if she’s going to be “nice” and a “good sport” or if she’s going to be a “bitch.”

Suzanne Venker, Men's Rights Activist

And one thing that invokes a double-bind is entitlement. And by entitlement here I mean that someone feels owed sex, that they have done something to “deserve” it, or that they should have access to someone else’s body. If someone feels entitled, for whatever reason, be it because they bought you dinner, or because they feel you led them on, or because they have been nice to you, or because they generally just feel the world owes them a girlfriend, or a date, or sex, then the entire interaction becomes one-sided. The object of such entitlement now finds herself in a scenario where what she wants doesn’t matter, her available choices are reactions to someone else’s desire: now she is choosing if she’s going to go along with whatever is expected (whatever the man’s desire is) or if she’s going to push back against that, and find herself in an antagonistic situation in which she might be labeled a “bitch” or a “tease.” Not only is she, as a person, being defined by someone else in that moment, but her desire drops out of the equation entirely. Her choices are now essentially risk assessment: do you want a conflict or not? Do you want to anger this person or not? Do you want to be called a bitch or not?

And it can become genuinely dangerous. Imagine a scene where someone is hitting on a woman aggressively, someone who maybe she senses wouldn’t take outright rejection very well. She’s now got roughly four choices: be nice, which probably involves going along with something she’s not comfortable with. Or, she could be direct, and take the chance that this person might get physically aggressive, or verbally aggressive, or pout; or she could use some other kind of emotional manipulation, or fall back into the plausible deniability about what his real intentions were in the first place. Or she could try to deflect subtly, and extract herself as carefully and as cautiously from the situation as possible (a situation that risks being labeled “passive-aggressive” if it’s acknowledged at all). There is not always the option of rejecting someone clearly and directly, because if someone feels entitled then they won’t see you asserting your boundaries and respect that; they might take that assertion as a personal affront, resulting in an argument where once again, the exchange is about the feelings of the man and not the right of woman to assert herself. So women develop language and tactics and strategies for deflecting. Strategies that are in their nature indirect and subtle, and designed to allow the other person to pickup on her lack of interest without losing face. And how effective this strategy is depends on how willing or able the man is on picking up on those hints. And if he’s only invested in his own desire, his own ego, then he’s probably not going to be so amenable.

Roy Lichtenstein's Forget It! Forget Me! (1962)

So, what can we do with this? There’s been a lot of discussion surrounding (cis) male heterosexuality and how it shouldn’t be. And while this is all good, in the sense that we need to speak out more about rape culture and the multifaceted ways in which it is reinforced and enabled, there seems to be a lack of discourse around male sexuality in a positive sense. In other words: we can talk about what it shouldn’t look like, but how should it look? Well, here’s where Hank Moody comes in.

Hank Moody and Positive Sexuality

What Hank has to offer us is this: he’s a model for how to be a straight man and still treat women like human beings. Hank sleeps with a lot of women, but he never, ever expects sex from them, or feels entitled to them.

Of all the examples that I can think of, the best test of this is probably the way which Hank treats sex workers throughout the show. In season one he meets Trixie (Judy Greer), a sex worker with whom he has a friendship of sorts over several seasons. The first time he meets her, Hank’s father has just died. Hank is looking for escapism, but in between drugs and sex, they have a real conversation, and not just about Hank—he wants to know who she is. He’s interested in her past, in her dreams, in what she wants and who she is. (Turns out she wanted to be a veterinarian).

Hank and Trixie (Judy Greer)

They meet again at a music producer’s house in season two, where Trixie paints his toenails and they chat. Trixie is there with a few other sex workers to entertain the musicians; she offers Hank sex that he refuses because he’s back in a monogamous relationship with Karen. “Most men would say this wouldn’t count,” she says, nudging him. But it does, says Hank. (You know, because she’s a person.) After that she gets called away by someone else who wants to enlist her services, only to run out of his room a few minutes later, shouting that he’d committed an egregious act. “Dude, you can’t treat her like that, she’s a human being!” shouts Hank. “Whatever dude, she’s just a hooker,” counters the rocker.

And finally, he meets up with her again at a director’s house in season five. No longer in a relationship with Karen, they start to fool around, when Hank hears shouts from the other sex worker in the next room. “It’s fine,” Trixie says. Hank is about to go down on her (because it’s about her enjoyment too!), when he hears more screaming. “No, sorry, I can’t,” he apologizes, rushing off to see what’s going on. When he gets there, the director is standing over her, screaming at her that she’s not doing her job because she won’t let him abuse her. “Dude, you can’t treat her like that. She’s a PERSON,” he chastises, a move that gets him fired moments later.

Hank is also a writer in Hollywood, which is a culture depicted in the show as having very quid pro quo sorts of expectations. In season five, Stew—a producer—gives his nanny an acting job in the television show he’s producing because she gives him a blowjob. Contrast this with a scene in which one of the lead actresses in the same television show corners Hank in his trailer, expresses her frustration with playing a two-dimensional character, and asks him to write her better dialogue. He happily writes some up for her, after which she offers him sex, which he attempts to refuse. “Seriously,” he says “I was happy to do that for you, you don’t need to do this.”

Aside from the quid pro quo attitude, Hank also encounters men throughout the series who think of women as “theirs,” who see them as prizes to be won or objects to be fought over. Once again in season five, Hank has to keep his flirtation with a young singer under wraps, since her boyfriend, Samurai Apocalypse, who also happens to the actor starring in the show that Hank is writing for, has claimed her as “his,” and aggressively and violently goes after anyone who disregards that fact.

In the final season, Hank comes back into contact with Julia (Heather Graham), a woman he got pregnant just before Karen. There is interest between Hank and Julia, but there are a lot of other men after her too: notably the lead of the television show Hank finds himself writing for, as well as the producer. During a party, both these men approach Hank to express their interest in (and claim) her. Hashtag (Brandon Jackson), the lead actor, says to Hank: “Who’s that piece of ass?” Hank replies: “Oh that’s Julia, she’s working on the show. You’ll be doing some scenes with her.” The conversation continues:

Hashtag: Oh, I’m doing scenes with her all right. I’m doing scenes up here. (points to his head).

Hank: Ah. She’s also the mother of my son.

Hashtag: Oh, ok. [pause] You’re not together?

Hank: No, not currently.

Hashtag: Mmm. You ain’t crushin that ass?

Hank: Not at present. Like, twenty years ago. And even then, I wasn’t so much crushing it as admiring it. […]

Hashtag: See that’s where you’re wrong, Moody. You gotta murder that ass so that no other motherfucker can enjoy that ass. Right? It’s like a metaphorical murder. I’m gonna go see if I can turn this bitch out. I’m gonna catch you later. Think about my words.

The producer, Rick Rath (Michael Imperioli), approaches Hank:

Rick: What the fuck was that about?

Hank: Your number one is warm for your number sixteen’s form. And he doesn’t like the way you’re writing him.

Rick: It’s not enough that I have to fight with this motherfucker over expository dialogue? Now he feels entitled to my woman?

Hank: Oh? She’s your woman now?

Rick: Come on, cut me some slack all right? I’m a little heated up. She say anything about me?

Hank: Well, she said you were the perfect gentleman.

            Rick: Good. I’m trying you know? Usually I’m a fucking asshole.

The Anti-Creep

Hank is surrounded by men who talk about owning women, who speak aggressively and violently about women, and who often complain that treating women well is so difficult for them. But the constant juxtaposing of these attitudes against Hank, who never speaks this way, and often questions the way these men speak, is one way in which the show is actually bringing these attitudes into question, rather than reinforcing them. This is often implicit, but becomes at times more explicit. Later in the season, during some filming, it comes out that Hank and Julia had been seeing each other, and that another actress had been interested in Hank:

Rick: I asked you: are you okay with me pursuing her? You said you were! Then you move in on her, what the fuck?

Hank: I didn’t move in on her! It’s like you said, we share a kid… shit happens. And I’m not gonna apologize for any of this shit. It’s none of your business who she fucks or who she doesn’t fuck, because it’s up to her! She doesn’t exist to service us. We’re lucky she even looks in our direction occasionally.

Not only does Hank not feel that the women in his life owe him their attention or sex, he also sees them as people who can and should make their own choices about who they get to devote their time to. They are not objects to be fought over; they are people who get to make their own decisions.

Hank Moody: Slut, but not a Creep

This is not to say that all men need to be exactly like Hank Moody. Hank has plenty of character flaws, lack of foresight being chief among them. And don’t confuse my appreciation of the character with some unqualified love of the show: Californication is not perfect; like so many HBO and Showtime shows, it exploits its fair share of naked bodies to get ratings. But the point is that Hank has good intuitions and sensitivity when it comes to the women he encounters.

There are no rules for figuring this out, but it involves, for a start, an awareness of the social pressures women experience as a result of how they are perceived as objects often treated with entitlement. Hank, by avoiding entitlement and expectation, avoids the double-bind. Instead, because their desire doesn’t drop out of the equation, because these women are not thinking about what he wants but about what they want, what he makes possible is a situation in which women are able to be in touch with their desire—desire that is more often than not directed at him, garnering resentment from the male characters around him. But this doesn’t make Hank a creep, or a misogynist, or sexist. In a way, he’s a kind of anti-creep, because Hank not only facilitates situations in which women are consenting, he creates the possibility for women to get in touch with and act upon their own desires.

 


August 5, 2014

 

Lisa McKeown is a PhD student at the New School for Social Research in New York City. She earned her B.A. (Hon) from the University of Toronto, and an MSc in philosophy from the University of Edinburgh. Her interests hover around the intersections of ethics, aesthetics, and the philosophy of language. She’s currently writing a dissertation on feminism and speech-act theory, and teaches philosophy at New School University. She lives in Toronto and New York City. You can follow her on Twitter @lisammckeown.

 


1. Simone de Beauvoir. The Second Sex. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.

2. Ever wonder why children and dogs are great at sniffing out bad intentions and potential threats? Is this because they have magical powers? No. It’s more likely because they are in socially vulnerable position, and so are often on the lookout for the first signs that someone will take advantage of that power imbalance.

 

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Lisa is a PhD student at the New School for Social Research in New York City. She earned her B.A. (Hon) from the University of Toronto, and an MSc in philosophy from the University of Edinburgh. Her interests hover around the intersections of ethics, aesthetics, and the philosophy of language. She’s currently writing a dissertation on feminism and speech-act theory, and teaches philosophy at New School University. She lives in Toronto and New York City.