Friday, April 27, 2018


Had someone spent the better part of this year in a cave (an idea that grows increasingly appealing to me with each passing news day), only to just now become aware of the seismic social phenomenon that is the Me Too Movement; one could hardly fault them for assuming this newfound global discourse had been instigated by Hollywood as a means of addressing and drawing attention to the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment in the entertainment industry exclusively.
Indeed, as a sea of celebrated (largely white) faces comes to signify the frontlines of a movement that has, since an October 2017 tweet by actor Alyssa Milano, spawned a thousand hashtags and sparked a long-overdue cultural conversation, it’s easy to forget that the Me Too Movement was founded by African-American civil rights activist Tarana Burke as far back as 2006 as an “empowerment through empathy” program targeting women of color…traditionally the most underserved survivors of sexual violence.

The Color Purple (1985)
One of the few feature films to treat the sexual abuse of black women as a serious theme.
Historically, black women who speak out about rape, molestation, and sexual assault face resistance from all sides: accusations of race disloyalty if the perpetrator is a black male; said assault trivialized or disregarded if the perpetrator is a white male; silence or indifference from white females. 

When social-media frenzy—that unwieldy, modern equivalent of the scandal sheets of old—seized upon the band-aid-on-a-broken-leg karmic purge of the whole Harvey Weinstein scandal (offenses so unequivocal, males nationwide wide were granted license to condemn him free of having to bear either the weight of self-recognition or sting of complicity), defenders of the status quo were quick to whine about the  pendulum of consequence and accountability swinging too far. (This, after all of six months, mind you.) In the glare of spotlights and ancillary campaigns like #TimesUp and #NoMore, it looked for a while as though the essential tenets of Tarana Burke’s “me too. Movement” were in danger of submersion.  

Always a social movement about survivors (e.g., I see you and I understand) and less about naming and shaming, the focus of Burke’s Me Too movement encourages speaking aloud about that which gains its power from suppression, shame, and secrecy; recognizing the strength and value of those who survive traumas intended to instill feelings of guilt and worthlessness; and, most significantly, challenging the accepted perception that sexual assault and harassment are the isolated transgressions of a few bad apples, rather than a toxically pervasive by-product of socially-sanctioned misogyny and systemic sexism.

America is a fame-culture addicted country. So, if in the land of Celebrity Lives Matter it took our preoccupation with the problems of the privileged to give voice and visibility to what has long been an open-secret reality for millions of women nationwide; then it’s only fitting (if not downright ironic) that it should be via the industry that has made a fortune perpetuating and normalizing images of sexual abuse and violence towards women.

Marnie (1964)
Rape culture is when an esteemed director has to die before the public engages in a serious dialogue about an actress’ career-long disclosure of the sexual harassment she endured while in his employ. 
Alfred Hitchcock's behind-the-scenes harassment and obsession with Tippi Hedren
 lends Marnie's already distasteful rape scene an extra layer of ick.

For me, the single most surprising thing to come out of the whole #MeToo Movement are the reactions of shock, surprise, and incredulous outrage. All that convenient "Has this been happening under our very noses all this time?" self-absolution, instead of the more self-implicating—but arguably more accurate—realization that when it comes to acknowledging society's apathy towards the prevalence of sexual assault, our culture tends to adopt a position in line with a lyric from Stephen Sondheim's Company"Think what you can keep ignoring...."

Movies have the potential to be an eloquent voice for the things we find most difficult to discuss or even speak aloud. Similarly, I can think of few art forms more influential than film when it makes up its mind to utilize its magic to help shine a widescreen, Technicolor spotlight on some dark aspect of humanity society likes to keep relegated to the shadows. But traditionally speaking, when it comes to the depiction and treatment of women, it can’t be said that movies have always been what you might call a ready ally.

Hollywood rarely knows how to write a lead female character who is both sexual and sympathetic. Trapped by the narrow Madonna-whore social construct of womanhood, hack writers are often at a loss for how to feature as much nudity and sex as possible while still giving the audience a female lead they can root for/identify with. The irresponsible solution? Have her be the target of multiple sexual assaults. The Lonely Lady was marketed as a film with lots of sex and nudity, but in truth, there is very little sex in the film. What there’s plenty of is assault, coercion, battery, and rape.
Whatever brownie points The Lonely Lady earns for relevance (plot: women aren't taken seriously behind the camera in Hollywood) it loses due to its trivialization of sexual assault

If Movies Could Say #MeToo
So many of the films I cover for this blog are female-centric and were made during the era specific to when the Feminist Movement began to influence women’s roles both on and off screen. I'm intrigued by the possibility of exploring whether the attitudes in some of my favorites (and, in turn, my response to them) are dated, or, since many were once considered progressive, if they are in any way in tempo with the timbre of the times. Limiting my scope to films from my personal collection, my purpose in highlighting these movies is not just to illustrate how frequently rape, harassment, and sexual violence have figured in narratives and roles written for women over the years; but to examine the ways movies can reflect, shape, and possibly change our perceptions of behaviors and attitudes that have existed for too long without being challenged.

As with so many horror films and westerns, the raison d’être of biker movies (essentially westerns on wheels) is the spectacle of assault on the female form. Not because women’s vulnerability to male violence is of any real import to the plot, it’s there simply to convey how bad the bad guys are. A staple of movies devoted to the wrongheaded notion that the banner heading of "action" always denotes the confluence of sex and violence. The Born Losers was written by the film’s star Elizabeth James, whose screenplay she decided--whether out of embarrassment (appropriate) or the belief that no one would see a biker flick written by a woman (misguided)--to credit under the pseudonym James Lloyd. I ascribe to Ms. James the refreshingly fearless and independent-minded heroine, and I thank her for providing personal fave Jane Russell with a colorful guest appearance. But in all other aspects this cycle melodrama (which introduced the "peace through asskicking" character, Billy Jack) is non-stop rape, female victimization, and by-the-numbers damsel in distress stuff.

The “working girl” genre is long dead, but for a time there seemed to be a glut of films devoted to dramatizing the perils facing single women trying to make it in “a man’s world.” These films gave lip service to female independence, but always managed to make it clear that women were better off (safer) sticking closer to hearth and home. While the sincerity of the intentions of these films is up for debate, and their attitude often smacks of the sexist “If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen” toxic male in the workplace ethic; at least these movies recognized the commonality of sexual assault in women’s shared experience. In Valley of the Dolls Sharon Tate is subjected to objectification and sexual coercion; In The Best of Everything (1959) Diane Baker is sexually harassed on the job; and in The Group (1966) Jessica Walter is battered and narrowly escapes date rape. 

No insult to anyone who loves this film, but as soon as Woody Allen says the line "I'm 42 and she's 17," Manhattan morphs into a horror movie. I adored this film once, and back in 1979 nothing about this May/way-past-December romance gave me the willies (beyond Allen's fundamental unattractiveness, of course). I look at it now and...I mean, even applying the blinkers-on standards of the time (it was released two years after the Polanski rape trial) the Allen/Hemingway thing still creeps me out. She's of age and so is he, but the legalities don't undercut the gross-out factor. Now, I suffer a Breakfast at Tiffany's response when I encounter it. Which is to say that much in the same way I wish for there to be some way to cut Mickey Rooney's Mr. Yunioshi out of that lovely film, I harbor a similarly unreasonable desire for there to exist somewhere a Mariel Hemingway-free cut of Manhattan.

There's probably not a woman alive who can't relate, at least in part, to this image of Sandy Dennis being harassed by guys on a sidewalk. I'm forever baffled when I hear men say that women should feel complimented by wolf whistles and catcalls. That is, until I recognize the disingenuousness of such sentiments. Men know precisely what they are doing. They know the entitlement, they know the power, and they know they are exerting a subtle form of dominance. It's a put-down and sign of mastery; a signal that the right to speak out about a woman's body matters more than that woman's right to say she doesn't want to be subjected to it.

Written as a "meet cute" introduction for the two leads of Martin Scorsese's uneven musical romantic drama, this opening scene comprised of Robert De Niro's persistent pursuit of Liza Minnelli at a V-Day function has always felt more than a little creepy and threatening. Back in 1977 I chalked it up to the Travis Bickle effect, but upon revisiting the film recently, I have to say the toxic masculinity, sexual harassment vibe is off the chart. De Niro comes off as stalker material and Minnelli looks as though she wished pepper spray had been invented in 1945.

TO DIE FOR (1995)
In this satirical black comedy loosely based on a real-life incident, Nicole Kidman plays a cunning (albeit, not very bright) sociopath who dreams of a career as a news anchor. While Kidman's character is set up to be a parodistic amalgam of the worst of our fame-at-any-price culture, the way men respond to her character's professional ambitions offers a piercing (perhaps unintentional) commentary on how some men regard women in the professional sector. It says a lot when one realizes the level of professional condescension, objectification, harassment, and disregard Kidman's grossly unqualified character is met with would be precisely the same were she Diane Sawyer or Robin Roberts. America got a poisonous taste of this in our last election.

The jury is still out as to whether Richard Brooks' adaptation of Looking for Mr. Goodbar is a moralizing cautionary tale or a bracing expose of our culture's sexual hypocrisy (I vote for the latter). More disturbing than this film's violent denouement are the comments I read on IMDB and other online sources where the biggest takeaway some men (and a distressing number of women) have regarding the tragedy that made this movie such a shocker, is that Diane Keaton's character really shouldn't have laughed at Tom Berenger's inability to perform in bed. Yes, the fragility of the masculine ego is such an acknowledged no trespass zone that people actually think death is a foreseeable consequence of wounding it. 

The sensitive, thought-provoking, well-intentioned film about the subject of rape and its far-reaching psychological, emotional, judicial, and social aftermath has yet to be made. Back in 1976 this glossy pseudo-feminist Death Wish exploitation film pawned itself off as the genuine article by introducing many good talking points in its courtroom scenes. Especially as pertaining to the (continued) assertion that a woman can "provoke" her own sexual assault due to what she wears or how she looks. But by lingering over the unsavory particulars of the act of rape and giving short shrift to the characters and their motivations, Lipstick showed its true hand: it was simply interested is exploiting violent physical assault for sensation.

On the opposite end of the Lipstick spectrum is this rarely seen Carroll Baker arthouse entry that stands as one of the more complex and contemplative studies of a woman dealing with the emotional and psychological trauma of rape. Unfortunately, the brilliant character-study feel of the film's first half feels curiously at odds with the compassionate but arguably problematic second half. Recommenced for its focus on the survivor aspects of rape, and not dwelling upon nor exploiting the violence of the act itself.

The tendency for movies to sensationalize sexual assault and rape is that when the perpetrators are depicted as drooling monsters (Showgirls), it supports men not being able to recognize their own inappropriate or abusive behavior in these outsize portrayals. Similarly, when rape is only shown in terms of extreme violence and brutality (Blue Velvet), it reinforces a tendency in both sexes to only recognize and accept allegations of rape in terms of how brutal the assault and how much of a struggle the victim puts up. Smooth Talk, in which a sexual predator rapes a teenage girl by means of subtle threats and terrifying coercion, raises very real issues concerning how many date rapes and incidents of sexual assault occur with no physical violence. What can't be ignored is that in many instances assault can arise out of the threat of violence, the potential for violence, or merely the verbal and psychological assertion of power. In these instances, the perpetrator relies on society's blurred lines to ensure a victim's silence.

LOLITA (1962)
Stanley Kubrick was a genius. Vladimir Nabokov's novel is brilliant. James Mason's performance is his finest screen work. And I adore Shelly Winters in this. All that being said, my problem with Lolita is that it appears as though no one involved in the making of the film was the least bit concerned with the single aspect of the plot that strikes me as being so profoundly sad and scary. Lolita, a teenager, following the death of her mother, is bound to the possessive, predatory, obsessive molester her mother married. She has no one else. And like a captor, Humbert likes it that way. Add to this the fact that her only means of escape (as presented) is into the arms of another creepy pedophile (Clare Quilty) and you've got the makings of a tragedy, not a dark satire. Sure, the film is told from Humbert's twisted perspective, but for the film to ask the viewer not to concern themselves too unduly with what this girl is feeling or going trough is, for me, asking a bit much.

In this suspense thriller, Annabella Sciorra (a real-life Harvey Weinstein assault victim/accuser) plays a woman who is sexually molested by her gynecologist. The filing of her complaint spearheads the film's not-always-plausible nanny-takes-revenge plot and brings an end to this aspect of the story, but the strength of the sequence is that it offers a realistic, non-sensationalized look at the kind of assault that can happen to any woman. That it's also the kind of assault that leads so many women to question their own judgement makes it a brief but powerful entreaty for women to trust their instincts and listen to their bodies.

In closing, a look at this marvelous moment courtesy of Ellen Burstyn. A reminder that it's never too late to call 'em out on their bullshit.

This Is Just The Beginning
9 to 5 (1980)
A shout-out to my favorite workplace comedy. A film that humorously tackled sexism, workplace misconduct, the glass ceiling, and equal pay for women. There's no denying a lot has changed since this film came out, just as it's painfully clear there's a lot more work that needs to be done. But I've a feeling the recent groundswell of grassroots social activism is just the beginning of a wave of change. Here's hoping movies stay in step with the times and (better still) occasionally lead the way

"Silence in the face of injustice is complicity with the oppressor" - Ginette Sagan

There's so much backlash talk these days about the Me Too Movement fostering a "victim" mentality (something said at one time or another about all civil and human rights movements). But the reality has always been that speaking one's truth aloud, no matter the risk, odds, or assurance of outcome, is an act of triumph, the sign of a survivor, and profoundly heroic. me too. #MeToo

A short film about civil rights activist and Me Too founder Tarana Burke 
(click on link to view)

Filmmaker Sigal Avin and actor David Schwimmer produced a powerful series of five short films designed to demystify sexual misconduct. (click on link to view)

In this splendid New Yorker article by Molly Ringwald, the former Brat Pack member revisits her films The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles in the age of #MeToo 

Copyright © Ken Anderson