Jessica Hoffmann

No Impact Man and the Bizarre Notion that Heteronormativity Lacks Impact

Filed By Jessica Hoffmann | September 17, 2009 6:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Entertainment, Marriage Equality, Politics
Tags: heteronormative, marriage, misogyny, No Impact Man, nuclear family, sustainable relationships

The No-Impact-Man-Still.jpgnew documentary No Impact Man is about a man who tried to reduce his environmental footprint as much as possible for a year. Actually, as Jonathan Hiskes pointed out at Grist, it's a documentary about an entire household (husband/father, wife/mother, and child) who tried to reduce their environmental footprint for a year. And actually, as quite a few people pointed out when this household got attention in the New York Times and big morning TV shows during their year-long experiment, it's about a white, liberal, class-privileged, urban, U.S.-based family who tried to reduce their environmental footprint for a year.

If you believe the journey of privileged liberals as they discover more progressive or radical or social-justice-oriented ideas is a useful story to tell in popular culture -- perhaps because such stories might lead to other privileged liberals' being provoked to paradigm shifts or changes in behavior -- you'll likely appreciate how the film shows No Impact Man's awareness that individual action must be linked to collective action and structural change, as well as his discovery (via Majora Carter) of environmental-justice movement, which addresses how racism and economic exploitation connect to "green" issues. I haven't sorted out my beliefs on that matter.

What I want to talk about here is how No Impact Man reveals and shores up a very privileged-American culture of individualism rooted in the isolated, heteronormative nuclear family, and a related lack of critique of capitalism and consideration of broader visions of sustainability and interdependence.

"If I tried not to hurt the environment, what would that feel like?" No Impact Man wonders early on. I wonder whether that is even beginning to approach the right question (and I wonder that thinking of this challenging column by Derrick Jensen from Orion, which argues that "How should I live my life right now?" is precisely the wrong question to ask in facing ecological crisis -- which leads me to think of this compelling critique of Jensen's gender problem by Julia Glassman).

There's this obvious way No Impact Man's project is limited by its rather obsessive (though self-conscious) focus on individual lifestyle change as a response to a massive global problem -- which is not to say that individual behavior changes are meaningless or useless (or even that this engaging documentary is either of those things, entirely).

But No Impact Man is rooted in individualism and social hierarchy in a way that's more complicated than that.

There's the thread of misogyny that runs through the entire piece -- the way the audience is encouraged to laugh smugly as No Impact Man's wife struggles to live out her husband's vision. I saw the film in a room full of (progressive) people who laughed at her addiction to expensive espresso drinks, laughed at her anguished face the night her husband announced he was getting rid of all her cosmetics, and etc. ... I don't relate to her brand of conspicuous consumption myself, but I also think the way she is framed as a trifling creature struggling to get with the supposedly deeply ethical and serious program of her husband relies on some tired, misogynistic ideas of the silly feminine.

Further, No Impact Man is the story of a single nuclear family isolated in their urban U.S. household. We see their friends at one dinner party, and there's an old hippie who helps No Impact Man learn to garden, but for the most part this family is presented as disconnected from any larger community or social context.


They're framed by heteronormativity within capitalism -- the atomized nuclear family that aims to meet all basic needs within the space and relationships of the household. True to this frame, the husband and wife's relationship is rooted in the idea that they, two halves of a coupled whole, are meant to meet most of each other's needs, and this involves each making major compromises and intense negotiations when it turns out their desires happen not to coincide -- when, say, the husband decides to embark on a massive, lifestyle-altering project household-wide, although his wife is afraid it will affect her social life, career, and more... or when, say, the wife decides she wants another child and uses her participation in her husband's "no impact" project as leverage to argue for it although he has no interest in a second child.

The kinds of enormous compromises and weird negotiations shown here are rather horrifying to me. It doesn't look like sustainable interdependence, this isolated negotiation of huge desires behind the closed doors of a single apartment, disconnected from community, in which a single other person is meant to fulfill almost every need, and huge decisions (to have or not to have a child, to engage as a household in a huge lifestyle-altering experiment) are made in the space of a single relationship and an insular household.

Might more flexible models of domesticity and relationship allow lovers/coparents/friends/etc. to interrelate and be interdependent without having to be enmeshed in others' projects -- or entire new lives -- they don't want?

Doesn't No Impact Man have a huge impact on his wife and child? Don't we all, being interconnected, impact each other's lives? Might we do this in different ways, in structures that allow us to get different needs met in different relationships, that are not as exclusive and isolating as the limited and limiting kind of marriage/family shown in this film? (Are people really fighting so hard for the right to assimilate to, uh, this?)

If we're talking about ecology and sustainability, let's talk about challenging a model of domesticity and relationship that shores up individualistic capitalism (which, as the aging hippie in the film points out, is largely responsible for the ecological destruction No Impact Man means to resist). Let's talk about rooting all relationships in community, about models of interdependency that are not about imposing on others or resigning ourselves to others' desires that don't fit or even do damage, but asserting and affirming desires/dreams/needs within relationships that are multiple and flexible.

There's some compelling stuff in No Impact Man, no doubt. But it falls quite a bit short of a vision of a radically new way of being in the world.

Leave a comment

We want to know your opinion on this issue! While arguing about an opinion or idea is encouraged, personal attacks will not be tolerated. Please be respectful of others.

The editorial team will delete a comment that is off-topic, abusive, exceptionally incoherent, includes a slur or is soliciting and/or advertising. Repeated violations of the policy will result in revocation of your user account. Please keep in mind that this is our online home; ill-mannered house guests will be shown the door.

"(Are people really fighting so hard for the right to assimilate to, uh, this?)"

I know I'm a crank for seizing this as my favorite line in a great piece, but such is cranky life. Love it. (And love whole piece.)


I struggled with how best to word this, but it's time I just came out with the truth:

I love you. Seriously.

This is one of the best damn critiques of this whole new urban-let's-measure-our-dicks-by-the-extent-to-which-we-can-measure-meaningless-measures-without-critiquing-the-root-causes-of-our-problems "movement." I've had problems with the whole hyped-up eco-movement lately without being fully able to articulate all my issues with it, and no one has been as clear and eye-opening about its heterosexism and gender politics as you. Thanks for writing this.

Very good post. Have not seen the show but I have seen a few shows which address these issues in this way and I have to say that you did actually articulate what must have been what irritates me about these sorts of shows. Britain has generated a few of them in the last few years.

Joan and Yasmin - You know I love you both.

And Rob - Maybe I love you too; just don't know you enough to be sure yet ...

So now can all of us build on our love and show the norm lovers what other ways of living look like?

Fantastic post, Jessica! Doesn't the title say it all, "No Impact Man"?
Wife and child packed up with the rest of his chattel by the rugged individualist as he heads off to carve out his stake in the wild eco-frontier!!

Thoughtful and beautifully written.

Thanks for this!!


Laura Stempel | September 18, 2009 8:41 AM

And--no intended insult to children--I haven't see any reviews mention the way in which NIM & his wife are essentially trading "impacts." What's the impact of the second child she "gets" in exchange for giving up toilet paper and cosmetics?

Yeah, I was wondering that too: why not "No Impact Family"? Does his wife get to be "No Impact Woman"?

I'm wary of those portrayals of the "stupid woman" that usually show, for comic value, a woman choosing between her values and her hair care products. As if men don't have superficial desires that conflict with their values, and as if men don't, 99% of the time, let the superficial desires win.

More importantly, I'm also wary of the idea that we're all supposed to be happy with living in isolated families. I don't think people like it all that much. That lifestyle leaves them lonely and sad, but I think that quite a few people caught up in that lifestyle don't really get that there are alternatives, and having a neighborhood association (thinking more suburban than urban) isn't the same as having a community.

This reminds me of that time Oprah handed out energy-saving lightbulbs to her whole audience, a year or two after she handed out cars with mediocre fuel efficiency to her whole audience. Um, disconnect?

It seems that environmentalism in pop culture only comes in two forms: super-committed individual who doesn't use toilet paper that we all gasp at because they're crazy, or two or three easy-to-implement yet useless tips that'll reduce your impact by about .01%. Anything else would mean that we'd buy less junk, which means it can't get air time.

I think the truer quote for No Impact Man would be "If I tried not to be a smug self-righteous bastard with enormous invisible privilege of which I am blissfully ignorant, living in a world built on the wealth of millions stolen by force over centuries, what would that feel like?"

Um, it would probably feel like my life. Now there's a reality show for ya.

Excellent post, thanks.

Interesting post. But please, no more sentences like: "What I want to talk about here is how No Impact Man reveals and shores up a very privileged-American culture of individualism rooted in the isolated, heteronormative nuclear family, and a related lack of critique of capitalism and consideration of broader visions of sustainability and interdependence."

The points you're making are important; don't drown them in academic prose.

I don't see how the points are drowning in academic prose, Rob. How else would they be phrased?

@Rob, @Yasmin

I kind of agree with Rob on this one. Its a strange irony to criticize something as elitist using elitist sounding language.

Regardless, this post was amazing. I loved the points made and opened my eyes to things I hadn't even thought about before.

I also don't understand what's wrong with that sentence. I'm easily lost in academic language, and I understood it perfectly.

Plus, if you're saying you had trouble understanding the language, that's one thing. But if you're taking it upon yourself to a) scold Jess for using fancy language (which language I'm still having a hard time figuring as fancy) and b) decide for other people what they will or won't understand, well, that's irritating and patronizing.

Wonderful critique, thanks.

Extending the concept of interdependency - how on earth can anyone concerned about their "impact" choose to have a second child without considering the serious environmental impact having another child will incur? Overpopulation and the amount of resources your offspring will likely consume are two serious conversations that they did not even touch on. Their concerns were solely juggling work and career - and this in a "no impact" movie!
Aye yigh yigh.