October 21, 2021

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‘The Contender’ Lit Me on Fire. Now It’s a Cringe Factory.

I’ve been working in journalism since I left college. I know that work doesn’t age well — that there is a direct one-to-one exchange on how relevant an article is when it’s published to how much you’re not going to brag that you wrote it years later — with lines you wrote just for humor’s sake and questions about a person’s past, body or addictions that you hadn’t had the sense to realize were out of bounds. Or even if they technically weren’t, that you should have avoided them entirely nonetheless out of decency. I wrote articles where I believed I was on the right side of history and it often took seeing them in print, or revisiting them years later, to realize how horrific my points of view were.

But that’s not my main point here; my main point is that I sat watching “The Contender” in 2000, at the age of 24, thinking that if a direct response to the sexism of the moment could land in theaters, that we had reached peak progress as far as feminism was concerned.

But what was I cheering? What was that movie really about? Was it about how women are received in the world? Or was it about not being allowed to ask Bill Clinton about his sex life? Wait, was this a pro-Clinton movie in the end?

And yet, it was progress — at the time, at least. To hear Hanson say that there were questions you couldn’t ask her, that her life was personal to her, that the world didn’t have the right to judge her for it, that was something I’d never seen before. It left me reeling with possibility. But I didn’t know that one day, I would not be able to discern if its microaggressions were intentional. I didn’t know that one day I would read my own work and realize that stories I had set forth as examples of the way the world moves forward would be offensive in their own right. The point is that if you live long enough, even the most progressive idea will be anachronistic, and you’ll be the jerk who once put it out there. We call that all kinds of bad things today, but, in fact, that’s actually what’s called progress.

Back then, I didn’t imagine there was any more progress to be had. I arrived here, in 2021, now finding “The Contender” adorably, offensively retro and wondering if what I think of as subversively progressive now will seem old-fashioned in 20 years. I wondered what I would think of this movie if I were younger and forced to watch it. I’d see how there were no nonwhite characters or sense of intersectionality; I’d watch the central character — the one on the movie poster — do nothing and say almost as much for an hour-and-a-half and I’d turn it off.

Progress, it turns out, is not something to arrive at; its most robust presentation is the understanding that you’ll never reach it. No, it’s the understanding that you’ll never reach it and that you cannot predict why from the moment you’re standing in. In that way, “The Contender” is the essence of progress. So are my dumb old magazine profiles; so is this essay, probably. That’s what progress is. It’s the ability to look at what you loved 20 years ago and regard it with disgust.