Thursday, October 22, 2009

Between Thought and Expression



The Australian actress Nicole Kidman testified yesterday before the House International Organizations, Human Rights and Oversight Subcommittee on the subject of violence in film, in particular the sickening amount of onscreen violence against women. Kidman stated that many roles portray women as weak, as mere sex objects, or as both and that this permissive attitude of debasement contributes greatly to real life acts of violence perpetrated against women. The actress' intent was not merely to condemn the film industry for its excesses but also to advance the larger issue of unchecked, infrequently prosecuted violent acts committed against women across the globe.

The Oscar-winning actress said she is not interested in those kinds of demeaning roles, adding that the movie industry also has made an effort to contribute to solutions for ending the violence. Kidman testified before a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee that is considering legislation to address violence against women overseas through humanitarian relief efforts and grants to local organizations working on the problem.

That notable stories like these get submerged underneath the incessant back-and-forth of partisan or even inter-party bickering surprises me not one iota. Such stories are often pigeonholed as merely "women's topics" or moved to the back of the soft news queue, with the tacit assumption that celebrities are incapable of advancing much beyond their own careers or the manufactured drama designed to garnish publicity. As for this particular example in question, Kidman is notably treading cautiously here, not willing to assign full blame to Hollywood because of her stated belief that it has devoted committed and serious internal efforts towards self-regulation. Forgive me for being skeptical, because I know that few major money-making industries do an adequate job of policing themselves from within. Specifically regarding the celluloid conglomerate, it took the Hays Code and then the puritanical Production Code before Tinseltown ever strongly curtailed the content found in moving pictures.

Asked by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., if the movie industry has "played a bad role," Kidman said "probably," but quickly added that she herself doesn't.

"I can't be responsible for all of Hollywood but I can certainly be responsible for my own career," she said.

What has always concerned me is how precipitously the lines between reality and fantasy have blurred and continue to blur with every passing second. When we will refer to a patently fictional and contrived television series as "reality", then that is really saying something. Even early films were initially criticized for being fanciful time-wasters peddling a conception of reality far removed from the way things were, though audiences quickly realized they were far more real than they could had ever imagined. Visual entertainment often depends on a willingness to suspend disbelief, but these days this is often unnecessary. When whole cottage industries of film have sprung up around specialized, ultra-realistic genres wherein vulnerable, intelligence-challenged women are maimed, murdered, or otherwise butchered, then one sees the problem in all shades of Technicolor. That our combined response is usually that of a shrug is even more telling. Conservatives constantly reinforce a belief that racy sexuality undermines morality, but their critiques somehow never focus much on violent acts in media, which are far more pervasive and troubling.

In his classic monologue, "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television", George Carlin notes,

And people much wiser than I have said, "I'd rather have my son watch a film with two people making love than two people trying to kill one another." And I, of course, can agree.

One could make a strong case that part of the cultural schizophrenia that characterizes Americans is due to the dual, paradoxical forces that fetishize violence and deadly weapons but register a definite discomfort with sexuality. When the two are paired, a peculiar effect often occurs, whereby the presence of violence distracts from, or even invalidates the potentially objectionable presence of sexuality. Code-era screenwriters and directors relied frequently on symbolic puns and winking double entendres often rooted in violence to sneak sexuality past the censors. In cowboy movies, particularly, the phallic use and display of revolvers and guns flew over few heads, except, of course, those of the gatekeepers. Films which are proudly ultra-violent pass muster in ways that films which are proudly hyper-sexual do not. Where both are present in a particular cinematic work, most of the criticism focuses inevitably on the subversive sexuality, not necessarily the subversive violence.

In films which are degrading to women, screenwriters and directors often excuse much of the misogyny and sexism by labeling it pure fantasy or by rooting it in a long standing tradition of damsel in distress. In many horror films, particularly, women are portrayed as supremely gullible, highly culpable, and mere prey for men with sinister intentions. In such films, the "fun" of watching is wondering not whether the latest female victim will die, but speculating at which point and by what fashion. Combine violence with sex and one has just described a rapist and articulated rape culture. In a world where the media pumps out story after story with this same gruesome, discomforting storyline, except completely real this time, I wonder why some find such pleasure in artificial accounts of matters that are neither amusing, nor entertaining in reality. What we ought to seriously examine within ourselves is at what degree subliminal suggestions and subtlety influences our opinions and our beliefs. This is the basic premise of advertising and marketing and one born out by the relative success of a lifetime inundated with commercials, advertising jingles, and billboards. It may be a strategy more powerful than we would like to admit.

3 comments:

Clarissa said...

What a great post! Thank you for writing it and addressing this important issue in such an insightful way.

Liberality said...

I too would rather watch people "making love" than watch horrific violence. The trouble is I never see people making love in the movies (or even pretending to do so) rather, what I see is sex as power, sex as debasement, sex as a joke. I wonder if the majority of people even know what real love making is.

alarob said...

I've long suspected that one driving factor in the ever edgier portrayal of violence, degradation of women, and as much naked skin as possible without getting the box-office killing "NC-17" is a kind of contest among directors, who are far more concerned with their reputation with peers than with gratifying the public. Studio flacks are going to demand a changed ending anyway based on preview audiences. Let them worry about the public. Reputation in Hollywood brings better contracts, awards, and standing as an "artist." And you get reputation by pushing the envelope in ways that amuse your peers.