Troubled Masculinity and Broken Houses in OBSESSED

May 11, 2009

The recent movie Obsessed has been called in bad taste, and of course that’s true. It’s probably a little easier to spot the vulgarity here, because of the inter-racial sexual scandal, the flinging around of the slur “bitch,” and the sight of Beyonce kicking ass in heels. These are all more obvious signs that we should be uncomfortable, even though we tend not to notice much of the latent violence, racism, and misogyny of more mainstream and white films.  I’m actually curious about a certain terrible pleasure in taunting back, in having the upper hand for a moment, even at the cost of dredging up dangerous stereotypes and cultural divisions. The morally suspect, lascivious white woman; the vanquishing of the white woman stealing the Good Black Man; the defense of the upwardly mobile black family against the threat of the corrupt white trickster — these are old and harmful tropes for sure, but they express different fears and prejudices than the usual ones that jam the airwaves.  Besides, the film is rife with conflicting messages about gender, race, and the family — and isn’t that why we’re here? 

The plot is simple. Handsome successful Derek (Idris Elba) exchanges a few pleasantries with the skinny blonde temp at the office, who turns out to be bat shit crazy. Lisa (Ali Larder) continually tries to get in his pants, stalks him, and compromises his integrity.  Eventually she notches up the stalking to kidnapping levels, and only a major girlfight with wife Sharon (Beyonce Knowles) can stop her. 





Although Derek is cleared of wrongdoing by Lisa’s total insanity, he does get in trouble for lying to his wife. Why didn’t he tell her when Lisa assaulted him in at bathroom stall, or snuck into his car in lingerie, or followed him to the office retreat? He admits he couldn’t tell her, because it might make him sound a little guilty. And he was, a little. Sharon used to be Derek’s assistant, so she knows there’s precedent for office flirtation; when the scandal comes to light, she orders Derek out of the house.    

More than Derek, the movie suggests, what’s to blame here is the moneyed male office culture,  a culture that encourages men to cheat, that got Derek into all these fishy situations to begin with.  His office consists entirely of callous men, all white but for him, who compete for the biggest million dollar deals. There is constant ogling of women employees; a sophomoric pressure to drink, cheat, hire strippers; a no-spouse policy at the holiday party; and a decadent retreat for the men to hang out poolside and drink martinis.

Although the movie indirectly casts blame on this aggressive and entitled hyper-masculinity, it makes even more explicit attacks on men whose masculinity could be called into question. Derek’s gay male assistant (the solution to Sharon’s prohibition on women assistants — goodness knows only women and gay men serve as secretaries these days) is portrayed as an irresolute, bitchy queen. He is cajoled by Lisa into the kind of shallow friendship  between straight white women and their gay minions that is frequently feasted upon in popular culture, though often with a kind of foolish playfulness rather than the deep contempt displayed here. Weak, morally corruptible, Patrick abets Lisa even after her character’s been revealed, because he is too slight a man to realize what real consequences are.

When a crazy white girl threatens your job, family, and reputation, your masculinity is definitely at stake as well. Throughout it all, Derek must remain the paragon of manhood. He is more of a man than his oversexed straight colleagues: he is more sexually confident than they are and (therefore) more morally upstanding. Anyone who’s seen Idris Elba play it cool as Stringer Bell can imagine the smoothness he brings to this role, in which the ultimate masculinity means being strong enough to remain faithful to your wife.

But Derek’s power is limited in this situation. First, he is stymied by that ever-present spectre  of REVERSE DISCRIMINATION — the fear that a sexual harrassment complaint would backfire on him– because, as everyone knows, women can always cry victim and be believed (winning millions in settlement). That’s offered up as an incontrovertible reason why he can’t stop Lisa’s advances through official channels.

Unofficially, too, he is bound: though Lisa’s antics are infuriating even for the viewer and though Derek’s anger with her approaches a breaking point, he can never fight her physically. (In his review, Stephen Holden ridiculously indites the undercurrent of violence because he imagines a resemblance between Idris & Ali and O.J. & Nicole. This tells you more about Holden’s idiocy than the movie’s, and as one righteously piqued commentator noted, “If I was Stringer Bell, I’d sue you for defamation.”) At any rate, despite the rising tension between them, Derek can’t stop Lisa himself. The world that feminism ushered in won’t let you sue women nor strike ’em neither. He has to leave the beat down to his wife.

This, Sharon can deliver. Today’s (post)feminism demands a certain amount of violence from its heroines. Though the first half of the film belongs to Derek, Sharon comes forward in the latter half, to take matters into her own hands and assert power where the state and her husband have failed.

In the classic call of motherhood, Sharon mobilizes at the first threat to her son, throwing down the gauntlet like we saw in the previews: “You come to my house. You touch my child. You think you’re crazy? I’ll show you crazy.” Lisa is not only trying to take her husband but her whole family — no small threat. The life that Derek and Sharon are building is made much of from the opening scenes in which they move into their big new house with their shiny cars and their baby boy. Derek is ambitious at work, closing one important deal after another, and he would like to continue providing the good life for Sharon while she has more babies and takes care of the home. They have a mild conflict over the fact that she’d like to get her degree — something she starts really working toward once she’s kicked him out. When she eventually lets him back home, she’s ready with her demands: she wants to continue school, but she also wants to drive the Benz. 

Another theme of postfeminism (very present in Beyonce’s music), that women are entitled to certain material goods, shows up in this film as well. When an angry Sharon confidently tells Derek, “Get out of my house,” one of the girls sitting behind me in the theatre called out, “You don’t work!” Meaning, it’s his house, which sounds at first like a rational critique of Sharon’s demand. The patriarchal view is that, by supporting his wife, the man becomes entitled to more power in the relationship; it’s his house, so he doesn’t have to leave, no matter what he’s done (perhaps even: she has to do whatever he wants, because he supports her).

On the other side, the ideal feminist position would be that women do not need to be paid for their love with material items, both because we can support ourselves and because we all want to get beyond this master-slave brokerage of power and trading of goods. We don’t need you to “put a ring on it”; we’re looking instead for compassion and equality in our relationships and a freedom from this material exchange.

But there’s something else to this too. The house in Obsessed stands for the family and belongs to the family as well. The person who threatens the family has to go. This is the ideal principle upon which people start families together — we will pool our resources and erase disparities in income: it’s our money, all together, because it goes toward sustaining us as a family. Of course supporting the family involves a great deal of unpaid labour, caretaking, and domestic work. That’s why women who earn less than their partners have just as much right to the family’s wealth, and why Sharon can stake a claim to her big house.

But in a classic girl power scene, Sharon proceeds to destroy that big house in the smackdown with Lisa. They tear a great hole through the ceiling, sending the chandelier crashing right on top of the fancy glass coffee table (with a body in between). It’s a pretty dramatic destruction of the home they’ve been working so hard to preserve. One can see in this  a necessary battling of demons to preserve the tranquillity of the home, or proof of the violence lurking behind the most elegant of exteriors. One can also read an assertion of power and even a rejection of the wealth and security the husband provided, in order to express the fierce love and self-protection required here. The house as collateral damage in the defense of the family. 


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