21 Aug 2013

Why there is no 'ironic' objectification

About a year ago, a screenwriter friend of mine asked me if I would take a look at a script he had written. I asked him if it was likely to inflame my feminist rage, which is often aggravated by Hollywood, the films it produces and its generally shitty treatment of women. He said he had chosen me deliberately as he wanted a feminist viewpoint, so I took a look. It only took a few scenes before I started to lose patience. Obligatory sex scene with focus on body of nubile young woman - check. Totally unnecessary scene showing faux-lesbian pornographic frolics - check. At this point, I told him that my mellow was getting thoroughly harshed and I didn't really fancy reading on, so I handed it back to him for possible re-writes.
My friend tried to mitigate my rage by explaining that the script was about a superficial, amoral man living a worthless life full of shallow pleasure-seeking, and that he would get his comeuppance later in the film. OK, fine. Job done, scene set. But how many female bodies had to be thrown under the bus before the audience understood that this man was going down the wrong path, and would shortly be shown the error of his ways? My point was, even if we as the audience were meant to see the objectified female bodies in the film as evidence of the protagonist's shitty, vacuous life, we still saw them. Trying to make the point that this man objectified women by objectifying them further is a pretty lame tactic. I made some suggestions - when showing how the media frequently uses faux-lesbianism to appeal to straight men, why do exactly what the media does and show the women in their full scantily-clad glory (feeding each other ice cream, as it happened)? Why not have some class and just show two pairs of feet interlinking, or block the audience's view with something totally boring and just intrigue us with the sounds of giggling and slurping? Point made, objectification dodged. It seems so easy, yet is so rarely practised.
I got to thinking more about this when I went to see Kick-Ass 2 last night. I wasn't expecting feminist miracles from the film, although the fact that the first Kick-Ass was surprisingly pro-woman was what made me a) actually watch it with some interest on a plane when I'd usually be unable to take in any forms of media after 36 hours without sleep and b) give the second film a try. However, aside from the uncomfortable regularity of homophobic insults being flung around (waaaay too many unconvincing uses of 'cocksucker' and similar epithets from Hit Girl), the cringeworthy effort to wring comedy out of an attempted rape scene, and the fact that of the four female superheroes in the film, two were scantily clad, what got my goat the most were two scenes of totally unnecessary objectification of women. 
Now, much like in the example I gave above, the random peppering of 'exotic' dancers and topless prostitutes in two scenes with baddie Motherfucker/Chris D'Amico were designed to show that the character in question was a Bad Guy. Trashy, evil, immoral. Look, his layer is decorated with table dancers and women gyrating in cages, what a douchebag! And yet...we're complicit in his douchebaggery, because those women are exposed for our delectation as much as they are for his fictional leching. We can see their teeny bikinis, wiggling backsides and taut thighs too. And our options are either to join in the perving, or judge the girls for being slutty pawns in a baddie's masterplan. Same goes for the eye-poppingly random scene whose function appeared solely to be 'Get some tits into this film', where we see Motherfucker cavorting in a swimming pool with two topless women who...let's just say they look very much like they work in the adult entertainment industry, with the surgical alterations you might expect to accompany such a career. Apart from ticking the 'LOOK, BOOBS!' box that is apparently so essential to a film's box office success that you might as well scrap your film if you don't have one topless female in it, the point of this scene seemed to be to further illustrate Motherfucker's role as a decadent and pretty idiotic villain.
But all that's really been achieved is that those women have been used as window dressing, the audience have been made complicit in treating them thus, and nothing whatsoever has been added to characters or plot. The audience KNOWS Motherfucker is a baddie, for fuck's sake. What gave it away - the name, the fact he's dressed all in black (even KIDS know the guy in black is always the baddie, jeez!), the fact he maims, kills and attempts to rape the good guys? Why do we need totally superfluous scenes of him surrounded by "sluts" to illustrate his badness?
I know it's pretty pointless to hope for nuanced understandings of gender issues in a film that treats prostitutes as either amoral whores or innocent victims, that at times seems to be playing racial stereotype bingo (Russian women are steroid-pumped no-shit-taking communists! Oriental men are ex-Triads and child molesters, and it's fine to call them 'spring roll' as long as it's a baddie saying it!), and that will only let its female protagonist be fully clothed because she's technically underage. However, is it really still beyond film-makers, in 20-fucking-13, to realise that this imagined need to inject every film with a dose of sleaze and sex, ALWAYS in the form of a scantily clad, slim, white, young, pneumatically-breasted woman, is just that - imaginary? I watched the film last night with five other people, three of whom were female. Did any of us four women rush to the cinema because we wanted a dose of tits? Amazingly, no. Would the two men who came with us have said 'Fuck no, I'm not bothering' if they'd've been told before viewing that the film contained zero objectified female bodies? I think not. So who exactly are Hollywood catering to when they continue to pump out this tired bullshit, except themselves?
It's hard not to get paranoid that there is a misogynist agenda at work in so many things that permeate our culture, because for all the people willing to stand up and say 'I reject this shit', that 'shit' keeps being produced. Sometimes it goes unquestioned, but increasingly people are objecting to it - and yet it keeps coming, apparently in service of a mysterious, unnamed audience who still want to see nothing but big guns and bouncing boobs. But as my experience with my screenwriter friend showed, the machine is still powerful enough that it can anaesthetise intelligent, sensitive people to a point where they don't even realise how their art is throwing women under the bus until someone points it out to them. And it was powerful enough to get me to watch a movie that regularly pissed me off with its retrograde politics. I can protest now, but I've already paid my money and added to the film's box office statistics, so what use is pointing out its sexism when the makers are deaf to the sound of anything but chinging cash registers? I guess it's to remind myself to never stop noticing this shit, in the hope that one day enough of us will notice it to effect change, and then we can go watch a film where the only thing that denotes a baddie is the fact he's stroking a cat. (And maybe has a British accent - j/k).

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