I didn’t expect everything to change after the allegations against Harvey Weinstein first surfaced, at least not all at once. But when woman after woman spoke out against him, and others accused still more Hollywood men of abuse, it did feel as if the movie world had slightly shifted off its axis. Suddenly, a whole lot of people were listening to what women in the industry had to say, and although much of it was terrible, this attention felt like a relief.
Among other things, this year’s torrent of truth-telling has underscored how much ordinary, unremarkable sexism — not just extreme or criminal behavior — women need to deal with just to get through the day. It’s pervasive. It seeps into your home and work, and shapes monumental and seemingly trivial choices as well as your art and your entertainment. The movies may offer us the promise of fleeting escape, but any woman can tell you that this getaway can feel distressingly, depressingly elusive when a film is in lock step with the worst the world gives us.
What I know from a life of watching and reviewing movies is that outrage is tedious, and exhausting. Sometimes it is just easier to go with the flow, though much depends on what’s happening onscreen and off. Sometimes, I don’t want to let a movie’s banal, casual sexism ruin my good time. So, I make expedient and strategic bargains with myself, glossing over some of the sexism and ignoring things that bother me (or trying to). I decide that the absence of female characters is acceptable or not too bad and maybe narratively justifiable. I want to keep grooving on the virtuosity of the directing, keep loving the (male) characters, the camerawork, gripping story and mysterious light.
[What the movies taught me about being a woman.]
This can be tough, particularly when a character makes an unmotivated sour remark about women or the camera pans over a woman’s body and hers alone, ogling her because the male director can. One reason that I appreciate and don’t just love “A Star Is Born” is that its director and male lead, Bradley Cooper, gives fairly equal time to both the body of his co-star, Lady Gaga, and to his own, including through some amusingly self-admiring shots of his bare chest. (Even so, like most movies, “Star” focuses on her face when the lovers are in bed, a vantage that both allows the viewer to see her as he sees her and turns her rapture into an emblem of their shared desire.)
Other male filmmakers either forget female viewers or don’t care that we’re watching, and at times their carelessness can jolt me out of their stories. That happened several times while I was watching “Vice,” Adam McKay’s movie about Dick Cheney. I’m sympathetic to McKay. When I first saw “The Big Short,” his satire about the 2008 financial crisis, I thought it was clever that he put Margot Robbie in a bubble bath to explain banker-speak. The scene briefly pulled me out of the story as I thought about his use of Robbie’s body, but I soon eased back in. When I recently watched the movie again, it felt less funny because the post-Weinstein world made it so.
In “Vice,” McKay conceives of the real Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) and his actual wife, Lynne (Amy Adams), as a contemporary Lord and Lady Macbeth. This gives Adams something to do beyond just playing the supportive wife even if the role is still a marital cheerleader. McKay also bookends the movie with what I think of as cinema’s Universal Bimbos, those young, dumb counterparts to the mean old ladies with puckered mouths whose clucking is meant to symbolize small-town hypocrisy or whatever. In “Vice,” some women dancing in slow motion and a female fan of the “Fast and Furious” franchise pop onscreen, symbolizing American decline.
It’s not that I’m noticing sexism more; I always noticed. It’s that I’m not gliding over the insults and insinuations, the snickering and unmotivated female nudity as easily — as resignedly — as I sometimes did. Years ago, I thought that accepting a certain amount of sexism in movies was the only way I was going to be able to continue loving them. And I couldn’t stay angry all the time; I didn’t want to live that way and still don’t. That was the right call even if it is also true that accepting — or acquiescing to — a degree of subjugation is instrumental to how sexism works: it depends on women getting along, and going along, with their own oppression.
Going along takes many forms, including propping up men. “Black Panther,” the year’s biggest domestic grossing movie, features women in galvanizing, narratively crucial supporting roles. But as in almost every comic-book movie its women serve a male-driven story, including in their capacity as the title superhero’s badass female army, the Dora Milaje. You need to look to indie movies for more complex, narratively pivotal representations of women, like those in “Support the Girls,” in which Regina Hall plays den mother to a group of waitresses, and “Leave No Trace,” about a teenage girl who, while living off the grid with her damaged dad, becomes its hero.
It would be great if representations like these made it into the mainstream, though I’m not hopeful. The fiscal conservatism of the industry doesn’t yield many bold, creative choices when it comes to the roles men and women are allowed to play. Disney occasionally makes splashy news with some of its directorial choices, notably Ava DuVernay for the female-driven fantasy “A Wrinkle in Time.” The studio excels at selling girl power. Behind the scenes, though, the people making the decisions remain overwhelming white and male; just four out of the 15 people on Walt Disney Studios’ executive team are women, a gender disparity shared by the other big studios.
You don’t have to look at the executive ranks to know that the industry has a long way to go before real change happens. Just look at the movies, the most popular of which remain male-directed and male-driven. It will be a while before we know if the allegations against men in the industry will have any impact on the kinds of stories we see, particularly at the big-studio level; it can often take a long time to make a movie. Yet if precedence is any guide, the industry will continue to issue apologies and make earnest-sounding promises — it is already casting out its designated monsters. But until men share real power with women, little of substance will change.
It wasn’t until powerful men were accused of sexually dehumanizing women that the industry’s sexism seemed on notice. Yet as time has passed, too often the focus has shifted to these men, with stories about their falls and potential next steps. I don’t care what Weinstein is going to do next; I’m interested in the women he allegedly assaulted. (He has denied the allegations.) I am also interested in the systems of power that permit male abuse and demand female (and male) silence in return. When we talk about industry sexism, the discussions often earnestly turn on words like representation and inclusion, but what we are talking about is an industry that systematically sees and treats women as inferior.
This sexism demands moral outrage too.
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