8 Dec 2014

Women as window dressing

If you're a woman, and especially if you're a feminist, and you object to the way that female bodies and body parts are regularly used as window dressing in films, TV programmes and music videos as well as in advertising, magazines and newspapers, you're likely to be accused, at some point, of being a prude. Of being jealous. Of being anti-sex. It's a quick and easy way to shut down valid complaints - telling someone, "You're boring. You're uptight. You're 'square'." And since in our heavily sexualised culture, women are regularly told that the worst thing they could possibly be is sexually unadventurous, that insult does tend to carry some weight. Still, it won't stop me from identifying the unnecessary, tedious and sexist hijacking of the female body that I see in popular culture around me.
If someone wants to accuse a feminist of being anti-sex, they might not want to pick a polyamorous, sexually active woman who makes no secret of her desire for physical pleasure without the restrictions of monogamous relationships. They might also want to pick a feminist who hasn't just written a book about BDSM and, while researching said book, spent a fair amount of time in kink clubs surrounded by moaning, writhing, sweating individuals, PVC, leather, floggers, chains and spanking benches. They might want to pick a feminist who hasn't written at length about various pursuits of pleasure, including visits to sex shops, why men's violent sexual fantasies are not necessarily a bad thing, casual sex and the female orgasm. If you're going to try and tell me that because I'm tired of bums, boobs and thighs being scattered all across popular culture like autumn leaves after a high wind, that must mean I have a problem with sex itself, you're going to be on a losing streak.

And you might also find yourself on the receiving end of my riding crop.
But I digress.

Last night I was slumped in front of Netflix watching The Dallas Buyers' Club, the true story of Ron Woodroof, a Texan man who, on discovering he was HIV positive in the mid-80s, went on a quest to get decent treatment (however illegally he had to do it). The film was OK; it went on a bit long. It had an interesting premise, and I learned a bit about how effective treatments for HIV were trialled (sometimes extremely inefficiently, and on the most vulnerable members of society, sadly). The character of Woodroof (played by Matthew McConaughey) was generally pretty dislikeable: selfish, violent, homophobic and largely out for himself, qualities which are not mitigated by the fact that he might have helped a lot of poor, black or gay people extend their lives by giving them access to decent treatment. After all, he only did it to make money, and one does wonder why a film gets made about a white straight man with HIV when everyone knows that the black and gay communities remain the ones disproportionately affected by the condition. Also, does anyone ever mention how it was a woman who pioneered the first successful HIV treatment? Of course not, because those who run the show control whose stories get told. Privilege privilege privilege - twas ever thus.

But what wound me up more than any of this were the unnecessary tits and bum shots included in the film, which added absolutely fuck-all to the storyline. Yes, Ron Woodroof had a lot of sex, and that's how he contracted HIV. The first shot of the film is him having sex. We get the picture. So why do we see various women's boobs and arses but don't even get a glimpse of Matthew McConaughey's nipples? If the inclusion of writhing bodies is meant to signify that Woodroof is promiscuous, then why is it never his body that's shown naked or nearly-naked - only those of women? Women, by the way, who don't even have speaking roles and don't even get named, reducing them to literally naked extras, begging the question of why they need to be included at all?

In my post where I despaired over the totally disappointing nature of Kick Ass II, which reversed all the fantastic feminist good work done by the original Kick Ass movie, I pointed out that people will still - amazingly! - come to see films without the promise of female nudity in them. So why are film makers so timid about ringing the changes and leaving out totally unnecessary shots of the unclothed female body? Why does every film about a "troubled man" still have to include the obligatory strip club scene, and why is the audience always treated to a table dance regardless of whether any of us want to see it or not? I didn't need to see the thong-clad behind of a nameless woman grinding towards Matthew McConaughey for several agonising minutes on my TV screen last night. I would've paid good money not to see it. And I do pay good money to watch Netflix, so why is what I and millions of other women would like to see never a consideration in the minds of pop culture producers? Why does the shitty, objectifying dollar speak louder than the one that would like to see just a few more fecking films that pass the Bechdel test, and a TV screen free of women's bum cracks?

As I observed in the earlier post, perhaps the way the female form is constantly used as window dressing to the "real action" in films, TV and advertising is so prevalent 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." That's maybe the most optimistic possible answer. The worst case answer is that pop culture producers know that what they're making is tedious, objectifying and sexist, but they don't care. Or they actively want it to be that way, to keep women in their places. Yep, Jennifer Garner may be wearing specs and playing an intelligent, fully clothed doctor in The Dallas Buyers' Club, but she's merely the other side of the virgin/whore coin that women are still trapped in by the limiting portrayals that mainstream films offer them. Matthew McConaughey's character gets to run the gamut of emotions and bad behaviour yet remain the hero - the women characters get to be either good or bad girls. The bad girls, of course, are reduced to their bodies and their sex drives and don't have names. The good girl resists the sexual charms of Ron Woodroof and cares for AIDs patients. In terms of progressive portrayals of women, this film might as well have been set in 1885, rather than 1985.

And yet, it could've been improved in a few simple steps.
1) If you're going to show sex scenes, either film equal amounts of both parties' bodies, or don't show them at all.
2) Cut the strip club scene. Not just from this film, but from every film ever. PLEASE. Just ditch this shit. No film actually needs it. We know if a guy's sitting slumped at a bar swigging whiskey, it's a sign he's troubled. That's enough. That'll suffice.
3) Give more than one fecking female character a name.
4) And hey, maybe even have some dialogue between them!

If you're too lazy to do any of those things, then just admit it. Just admit you want to work a bit of soft porn into your film and you have no intention for apologising for it. Just tell us that you do really think of women as either whores or saints, and that's why you can't depict them as anything other. Come out and say that you do think the best way to portray the sleaziness of Ron Woodroof's existence was not to show his naked body humping and covered in sweat, but rather the bodies of the women he had sex with, because they're really the dirty ones. Just tell us. Rather than pointing the finger at me and saying I'm the one with the problem.

Because I don't hate sex, or men, or the women who take their clothes off in a film or on a strip club stage for money. I do, however, hate that the latter options are far too often the only ones offered to women, and that this is propagated by a massive and powerful industry capable of doing so much good, yet which chooses to be lazy, unoriginal and continue to perpetuate the notion that women are unimportant, that they're sluts, that they can either be beautiful or clever, or sexy or good, but never both, never rich and full and flawed and nuanced, and that it's fine to reduce our beautiful, amazing, sexy, pleasure producing-bodies to personality-devoid slices pasted randomly across films like motel wallpaper.

And after watching that film, I think I might even hate Matthew McConaughey a bit.
But give me a few days, and a viewing of A Time To Kill, and I may yet recover ;)

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