Friday, December 7, 2012

Mansplaining the Meltdown

The weirdest moment in HBO’s 2011 film Too Big to Fail is undoubtedly the one when Michele Davis, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury (played by Cynthia Nixon), suddenly announces that she doesn’t know how she’s going to explain the looming financial meltdown to the public. In response, three Treasury Department men protectively gather on chairs and sofas around her to patiently describe just how this shitstorm happened and what it means.
This might be a good moment to point out that Davis is the only woman in the entire film who isn’t a wife or a secretary. This might also be a good moment to point out that Davis’s job was to handle public relations for the Treasury department, meaning that her job description was to explain to the public what was going on in the economy. That she probably didn’t need to ask for help about how to do this, and that Paulson (played by William Hurt) was reportedly in the habit of asking her for such advice, rather than vice versa, is conveniently left out of the film. This is a textbook example of what has since come to be called mansplaining, the term coined to describe when men patronizingly explain things to women that they already understand, often better than the men attempting to explain it to them.

On the one hand, this scene is clearly in the film to provide its audience with a simple explanation of how it happened that financial giant Lehman Brothers is about to go bankrupt and why that event might throw the entire global economy into a tailspin. But the scene is just as clearly a message that it’s the woman in the room who has to have the terribly complicated concepts and consequences explained to her. The other woman in the film, Hank Paulson's wife (played by Kathy Baker), gets an even more dumbed-down version of the problem: it's a crisis about shopping and cooking (when you go to the supermarket to shop . . . there might not be milk in the store!).
 We also need to acknowledge that all of us ordinary viewers--everyone who is not an investment banker, whether they are women or men, housewives or workers--are being placed in the position of the one clueless woman in the room or the worried wife waiting at home. In fact, if you pay attention to the role of women in the by-now substantial number of films about the crisis, you'll notice firstly how few women there are on screen, and secondly how often these women are the first ones to get fucked over (and in some cases, quite literally fucked) by the disaster.

The more films and books about the crisis you consume, the more you realize that beneath the arcane and jargon-riddled complexity of the financial instruments devised to generate ever greater Wall Street wealth is a pretty simple story about greed. But as Yves Smith points out in her book Econned, greed ceases to explain this behavior at a certain point, where it emerges as something much closer to the kind of masculinist competition one might find in a frat house or on a football field:
In the testosterone-charged culture of Wall Street, particularly its trading rooms, pay often ceases to become a means to an end but is an end itself. In many cases, it isn't greed in the way most people think about it. The object is not to acquire more stuff or get a name on a building, but to win.
Words worth considering the next time you're made to feel that you can't possibly understand the complexity of the economic crisis to which you are nevertheless subject, especially considering that those who claim to best understand how to solve the problem are so often those who created it.

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