Bowling for Columbine: Michael Moore off-target
by Carolyn Gage Off Our Backs, Jan/Feb 2003
The following are two reviews of the movie Bowling for Columbine, directed by Michael Moore. If you haven’t seen this movie, by all means, see it right away-it is an interesting statement on gun violence in the United States and an important progressives movie. As a forum for a variety of feminist opinions, off our backs actively encourages anyone with other viewpoints on this movie to write in and let them be heard. -the off our backs collective I just saw Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, and, although I think that Moore is sincere in his effort to discover the causes of violence in this country, I think his film seriously misses the mark. Here’s why: 1. Women are grossly underrepresented in the film, and Moore’s use of them is highly selective. First there are the sainted martyr/ mother figures, including a woman with a Million Mom March tee shirt and a traumatized teacher at a school shooting, whose taped “Oh Lord…Oh Lord…Oh Lord” rings in our ears. And then there is the welfare-to-work mother whose absence from home is explicitly given (by two middle-class white guys) as the reason for her sixyear-old boy’s murderous shooting of a little girl. This is just a New Age recycling of the old wheeze, “badmothering-causes-male-violence.” Moore’s contribution is to assure us that today’s bad mothers are not to blame, because “The System” has forced them to become bad mothers. Welfare-to-work certainly needs to be exposed for the wage slavery that it is, and for this, we should thank Moore. Unfortunately, his only interest in the subject is to prove that welfare-towork creates the bad mothers who are responsible for violent sons. 2. Violence against women is conspicuous in its absence from the film. Continue article Advertisement In fact, it’s never even mentioned. Moore gives us the body counts from U.S. military actions in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chile, Vietnam, Kosovo, and so on. But he does not tell us that nearly 100% of all these killings were perpetrated by males against populations that included large percentages of women and children. He does mention the 500,000 Iraqi children who have died as a result of U.S. sanctionsand, again, we should thank him for that. But if he is really serious about stopping the violence, he must be willing to draw the obvious conclusions about who is perpetrating it. Violence is a universal male phenomenon. 3. Moore portrays fear of crime as irrational, as if women have no reason to fear male violence. In his zealousness to promote Canada as a model of nonviolence, Moore shows his admiration for a Canadian woman who tells him that, despite repeated unlawful entry by strangers into her home, she still refuses to lock her doors. In an experiment to test his findings, Moore goes into an urban Canadian neighborhood, opening unlocked doors and entering homes unannounced. He congratulates the obviously disoriented occupants with “Thank you for not shooting me.” (I hope that the women who see this movie do not take Moore to heart. I hope that if a large white man enters their home without knocking, they do not wait to see if they are on Candid Camera, or if he is doing a cross-cultural survey of neighborly attitudes. I hope they grab the most dangerous weapon they can quickly lay their hands on, and, before waiting for any explanation, yell, “Get the hell out of my house, asshole-NOW!”) 4. Moore does not take women with guns seriously. Instead, women with guns are portrayed as mindless bimbos imitating macho boyfriends. Moore shows us pin-up girls on a calendar that was being used to fundraise for a predominantly male militia. He shows us a clip (no pun intended) of a Hollywood B-grade actress in a thong bikini spreading her legs and rapturously firing an automatic. But nowhere does Moore take women with guns seriously. Oh, there is one woman who has taken up guns, as she says, to defend herself. She is interviewed sitting on the floor, with her rambunctious young daughter wearing only underpants, tugging at her and attempting to interrupt. The woman is surrounded by mostly male members of a militia group. Now, this is an interesting clip. But Moore seems to view her as just some kind of gender anomaly, proof positive of the moral disintegration caused by gun culture. Does Michael Moore know that there is a strong, growing movement of women who are empowering ourselves with self-defense classes, and, specifically, with knowledge and skills about guns? Does he know that women who carry weapons are successful 80% of the time in deterring their assailants? (And, no, they are not “at risk” of having the weapon taken away and used against them. This is a sexist, urban legend designed to keep women helpless and compliant. The same argument could be just as easily applied to the police or to the armed forces. Except that they have too much common sense to fall for it.) Michael Moore traces the history of the men and guns in the United States. But he does not talk about the history of women with guns in the United States-and the relationship between women and guns is very different from that of men with guns. For example, here are a few of our gun-toting foremothers that Moore failed to include in his history of guns in the U.S.: General Harriet Tubman, who not only carried a gun, but also told her passengers on the Underground Railroad that she would not hesitate to shoot anyone who attempted to turn back. It is this policy, along with her skill and strategy, that account for the fact she never lost a single passenger. There is another African American woman who carried a gun-and not only carried it, but made damn sure that everyone knew she carried it: Ida Wells-Barnett. Wells-Barnett was one of the first African Americans to speak out publicly against lynching. When she began her newspaper campaign to expose lynching for what it was, a hate crime, her press was smashed and she was compelled to continue her work outside the South. According to her, “I felt that one had better die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or a rat in a trap. I had already determined to sell my life as dearly as possible if attacked. I felt if I could take one lyncher with me, this would even up the score a little bit.” Annie Oakley, a survivor of battery, whipping, torture, starving, freezing, and repeated, brutal rape at the hands of a foster father, became internationally famous for her skill as a markswoman. Contemporary feminists score her today for her failure to take up the cause of women’s suffrage, but they overlook her aggressive evangelism on the subject of women and guns. She believed that a woman should be “as comfortable holding a gun as she is holding a baby.” Although she taught classes on marksmanship to both men and women, the women’s classes were often free. Specifically addressing the gendered nature of socalled “domestic violence,” Oakley showed women how to conceal small, readily accessible hand guns inside a closed umbrella, and encouraged them to sleep with a loaded gun in a drawer beside their beds. 5. Moore never implicates masculinity or patriarchy as causes of violence. The Montreal Men Against Sexism might have been able to offer Michael Moore a more balanced perspective on Canada and violence: Men kill women and children as a proprietary, vengeful and terrorist act. They do so with the support of a sexist society and judicial system. As pro-feminist men, we try to reveal and to end this continuing massacre, which will go on as long as we do not end sexism and sexist violence, along with all of men’s alibis for them. But Michael Moore did talk to Montreal Men Against Sexism. He did talk to Marilyn Manson, mommyshocking, rock star darling of adolescent male punk-wannabes. (And, fascinating as Marilyn Manson’s namesakes are-and positively loaded with clues about the causes of violence in this cultureMoore chooses to overlook them.) So why is Moore courting the likes of Marilyn Manson and avoiding feminists in a film purportedly about stopping violence? Because, first of all, Michael was seeking to debunk the theory that would link the actions of murderous male adolescents to the violent lyrics in their favorite music (or, by extension, violence in film or television or video games). And because Moore is constructing a counter-culture star vehicle for himself. And, because he is a man, he has chosen the Oedipal struggle between father and son, the most tried and true of narrative arcs for re-inscribing manhood-which is ever and always the happy ending of all patriarchal drama. Specifically, Moore is out to topple a father figure, and in a tradition as old as Shakespeare’s Henry IV, he is collecting countercultural bad boys and other rejected sons along the way. And he’s got the perfect patriarch in mind: Charleton Heston. Heston is an aging matinee idol whose reputation rests on playing gladiators and biblical leaders. And, best yet, this daddy figure is the president of the NRA who has, conveniently, had the lack of tact to make public appearances in locales recently traumatized by gunrelated murders. How apocryphal! And in his anti-gun crusade, Michael Moore is going to stage a good, oldfashioned showdown. So, here he is, Michael Moore, looking like a scruffy Hoss Cartwright, stalking his man to his hideout-in this case a mansion that appears to be high in the Hollywood Hills. Aging film star meets younger, iconoclastic maverick for the classic father-son showdown. And, sure enough, Daddy’s racism and amorality are righteously and ruthlessly exposed. The high point of the showdown is reached when Moore whips out a full-color, eightby-twelve glossy photo of a six-yearold dead girl, brandishing it like a crucifix to ward off a vampiric Charleton Heston. What does this have to do with anything, except Moore’s ego and a future potential career in Hollywood? Ask any woman. We know. A showdown is still a showdown. The Oedipal struggle only results in one dominant male being replaced by another, arguably more sensitive, but still dominant male. And the women and girls remain tokens, just like the girl whose photo was so crassly exploited as a photo op for Moore. Given the dangerous nature of patriarchal governments and men in male-dominant culture, it would seem that the only options are victimization or reciprocal armament. Is there a solution? Yes, but you won’t find it in Marilyn Manson’s lyrics or by crossing into Canada. The solution lies outside the paradigm of male dominance, and that is why Moore was unable to find it. The fish does not know it’s wet, and Moore’s film is all wet. Male dominance is not “society,” and male violence is neither “human nature” nor a uniquely American phenomenon. Moore missed the biggest clue of all in the story of the Columbine killers. The two boys had been mercilessly gay-baited by their classmates for years. The film made no attempt to explore this at all, except in a blink-and-you-miss-it reference to the fact that sometimes the losers in high school can become the winners later in life, while the football heroes drop out of sight. Is Moore suggesting that tormented gay adolescents should cling to the hope that, after graduation, they might become heterosexual? Or that being called a “fag” doesn’t necessarily equate to being one? What about coming right out and saying that being gay is okay and that gay-baiting is heinous? Why all the pussyfooting around one of the obvious motives for the Columbine murders? Because to confront homophobia, one must confront the myth of manhood. And Moore, perhaps more than a little challenged by his own insecurities, has made a film that is profoundly invested in manhood, masculinity, machismo. Reinscribing them, yes-but, dumping them, no. Because Moore has excluded the feminist perspective from his film, Bowling for Columbine is just one more smokescreen designed to disguise the deadly mechanisms of a male dominant culture behind the rhetoric of liberalism. When a film draws attention away from the gendered nature of violence, it ultimately-in spite of whatever other causes it may advance-enables the perpetrators. Postscript: Not to digress too far from Columbine, which is, after all, the subject, but Canada was the native home of Marc LePine. We all remember LePine, except maybe Michael Moore. He was the twenty-five-yearold man who, on December 6, 1989, entered the University of Montreal’s School of Engineering and murdered nine women. Walking into a classroom carrying a .223 caliber semi-automatic rifle, he shouted, “I want the women.” He ordered the men to leave the classroom, and he lined the women up along one wall. “You are all feminists!” he yelled as he began shooting. By the end of his spree, he had murdered fourteen women and injured thirteen others-nine women and four men. Hear the words of Michele Landsberg of the Toronto Star, who was asked to write a front-page reaction piece the day after what has become known as the Montreal Massacre: The story, in countless broadcasts and news columns, became not the dead women but the outrage of “innocent”‘ men, in a fury at being linked by their maleness to Marc Lepine. It was all about them-were their feelings hurt, were they being discriminated against because afew all-female vigils were planned I regret that many of us spoke up so honestly only because it gave the backlash an opening for attack that served as a distraction from the real issue. But a determined band of feminists in Vancouver came together to build a monument and to educate Canadians on the widespread occurrence of violence against women. They had a seven-year struggle, with contributions from over six thousand donors before they could complete the project. The inscription on the monument generated a firestorm of controversy. Why? It reads, “for all women murdered by men.” It was those last two words that caused all the trouble. This article is dedicated, in the words of the Montreal Monument, to the memory of all women who have been murdered by men.