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.
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.
The Color Purple (1985)
One of the few feature films to treat the sexual abuse of black women as a serious theme.
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.
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.
|THE BORN LOSERS (1967)|
|VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1967)|
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.
|UP THE DOWN STAIRCASE (1967)|
|NEW YORK, NEW YORK (1977)|
|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.
|LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR (1977)|
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.
|SOMETHING WILD (1961)|
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.
|SMOOTH TALK (1985)|
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.
|ALICE DOESN'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE (1974)|
This Is Just The Beginning
"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)
|SHE'S REVOLUTIONARY (2018)|
|THAT'S HARASSMENT (2018)|
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