In the wake of the utterly repugnant details regarding Harvey Weinstein’s treatment of women over the past few decades, it is perhaps fitting to ask the question, how do Hollywood films deal with predatory sexual behavior?
We have all heard a few stories of some of the seedier things that have gone on behind the scenes in Hollywood. Some of these stories were recounted in a recent article in The Guardian newspaper entitled ‘Moguls and starlets: 100 years of Hollywood’s corrosive, systemic sexism’. In it, we discover how “Shirley Temple recalled that Arthur Freed, a producer at MGM, exposed himself to her when she was 12 years old”, how “Marilyn Monroe compared Hollywood to an overcrowded brothel”, and how “Ginger Rogers said that Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia, chased her around a desk making passes”.
What is clear is that not only has this kind of behavior been an accepted part of the industry since the very early days, but that it has also been perversely celebrated as being a show of power that can be clearly seen, among other places, in the ‘casting couch’ fantasy that is a popular theme in pornography. In an industry where this kind of viewpoint as endemic, how has it somehow managed to keep it under the carpet, and did aspects of this predatory behavior ever seep out onto the silver screen?
The answer to the latter question is, unfortunately, a resounding yes. But to understand why, we need to look at Hollywood films through the ages to gain a clearer understanding of the issue, particularly given the dramatic shift in cultural values and what was seen as acceptable onscreen over the years.
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Hollywood – The early years
The 90th Academy Awards ceremony will take place on March 4, 2018, at which time Hollywood will be officially 108 years old. It is interesting to note that in 1910’s America, women still were unable to vote, attend many of the most prestigious universities, and were not even protected from something as severe as marital rape either.
During the early era of Hollywood, women were relegated to playing parts onscreen that were always supporting roles to the male lead. This mirrored their designated social role and frequently saw them objectified as purely helpless sex objects, as Fay Wray’s role in King Kong perfectly shows. Due to the strict censorship laws of the time, not much in the way of outwardly aggressive male predatory behavior was able to get past the censors, though that did not stop Clark Gable from telling Claudette Colbert’s father in It Happened One Night that “what she needs is a guy who will take a sock at her once a day, whether it is coming to her or not”.
The 1940’s and the femme fatale
As the 1930’s came to a close, an increasingly aggressive male was appearing onscreen. Often to overcome the reluctant or disinterested female, these leading males would be seen to force the women into the classic 1940’s ‘push hard and hold’ Hollywood kiss. The arrival of the often sinister ‘femme fatale’ in the Film Noir’s of the early 40’s not only heightened the onscreen sexual tension but also led to onscreen men becoming more openly predatory in their approach towards women. These women were portrayed as being highly dangerous for the male leads but at the same time irresistible, something which was used to justify the men’s forceful behavior. Images of male movie stars like Humphrey Bogart frequently forcing reluctant women into a kiss unquestionably helped to create an air of social acceptance for this kind of behavior in a whole generation of young people.
Interestingly, during this period, men did not have it all their own way. In many cases, women would actually aggressively lure the man protagonist into their ‘web’, in an effort to manipulate them into doing their evil deeds. Phyllis Dietrichson, played by Barbara Stanwyck, in the film Double Indemnity is one example where sexual predation is actually reversed. Like a spider, Phyllis lures in her ‘innocent’ male prey by using sex before then manipulating him into committing murder. This reversal in predatory behavior was only made possible by painting the women as cold, calculated, evil people who nearly always had to pay for their crimes with jail or death.
Hollywood and Feminism – The 1960’s and 70’s
The radical social upheaval that began to take root in mainstream America in the late 1960’s naturally had its impact on Hollywood films as well. Though several breakthrough films like McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1969) actually represented their leading ladies in a way that showed them to be stronger and more assertive than their male counterparts, it was the assimilation of aspects of the sexual liberation movement that began to allow an increasing number of images of sexual predation by men to be shown onscreen.
Nudity and even sex were now making their way into Hollywood films, something which also facilitated all the years of covert sexual predation to burst out onto the screen. During this era, ‘innocently’ slapping a woman on the backside and gazing at her breasts in a way that would certainly make her feel uncomfortable, was normalized, and even used to generate humor, as is the case in the Carry On films.
But things got even worse. Director Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971) became one of the shining examples of extreme sexual predation played out onscreen. After David Sumner and his wife Amy visit a small town in England, they set off a chain of events that leads to Amy’s rape by a group of locals after she refuses their advances. The rape scene caused outrage at the time, especially since it is filmed in Peckinpah’s ‘graphic style’ that until then, he had reserved for violent scenes only. Critics argued that the technique linked the glorified nature of Hollywood violence with sexual assaults on women. Though during this period, censors did attempt to remove more graphic scenes of sexual assaults, over time the rules were increasingly relaxed, allowing more and more scenes of sexual predation to get through.
Hollywood in the present day
The advent of internet pornography in the 2000’s ended Hollywood’s need to include a sex scene in just about every movie it made, as had been happening in the 1980’s and 90’s. This had some positive effect in reducing the need for graphic images of male sexual predation in mainstream film but unfortunately, it did not stop the practice. With the exception of films like American Psycho, where the main character is seen to clearly hunt women to have sex with and murder, when you examine a list of the films made since 2000, most no longer feature overtly obvious examples of extreme predation or violence towards women.
What has instead happened is that Hollywood has returned to more subtle representations of sexual predation that involve relegating women to the role of mere sex objects. This usually involves an attempt to make them appear as much like a human Barbie Doll as possible and show them as subservient to the male lead. These women are nearly always stereotyped and given far more screen time and dialogue than their male counterparts, just as this interesting article highlights.
All of this acts to preserve the continued objectification of women that for years has allowed men to maintain a view of them as living sex objects that can be dominated in whatever way they can get away with. Despite social changes leading to blatant sexism and aggressive sexual behavior becoming less and less common onscreen, the simple matter is that far from curing the problem, it has only pushed it into a more covert onscreen representation that can be seen in the objectification of women.
Though the kind of behavior exhibited by men such as Harvey Weinstein has always been rife within Hollywood, the ways in which it has been represented onscreen have subtly changed over the years. Since Hollywood is in effect a representation of mainstream cultural values, this fact raises an even more depressing picture about the levels of predatory behavior in society in general.
How Hollywood deals with this scandal is important. Hollywood is a beacon of values to not only the US but to the rest of world, so perhaps it can begin by taking a long look at the images of women it creates in front the camera, something that helps shape our society and therefore affects us all.
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