It’s becoming a tired formula. Every few months, a notable man praised and admired for his contribution to comedy, cinema, sports, art, science, politics, the left, the right, some movement or sector or industry, is brought down by allegations of sexism, very often sexual harassment, or even at times sexual assault. It usually transpires that the famous man in question had been transgressing quite blatantly for years, often decades, and getting away with it, before his public fall from grace.
Setting aside the sexual vices of two of the most powerful men in the world, namely Bill Clinton while president and Donald Trump just before he became president for the simple reason that neither man experienced any real fall from grace or significant decrease in power or prestige, let us just focus on show biz over the past two years. Just over the last two years alone, we’ve had Bill Cosby, Jian Ghomeshi, Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes, and now Harvey Weinstein. Each time one of these stories have broken out, other public figures and former associates have reacted invariably with shock and horror, shock and devastation, shock and dismay; the story has been covered incessantly and around the clock by media outlets, then eventually forgotten, and finally after the passage of an acceptable time interval the sexual predator has been rehabilitated into society – these days the medium of podcast being the favourite means.
I follow these stories closely, but I have yet to read a good analysis on the cultural contexts that make these cases so prevalent. These men are not the rogue exceptions in an otherwise perfect show biz. They are the embodiment of a culture centred around sexual exploitation of women – sometimes in the name the lofty ideal of art but often simply for more trivial reasons like profit or power. These artists, the overwhelming majority of whom are men, have their own perspective on what makes beautiful art which is often impossibly beautiful women taking off their clothes. These men, running practically every aspect of the film and TV industry, in turn have monopoly on how they shape our cultural norms of what is acceptable. For far too long western societies have continued to tolerate whatever is fed to them as art or entertainment because doing otherwise indicates ignorance and lack of sophistication.
I have always wondered why films – big-budget studio flicks and art-house titles alike – are so rife with naked women and ever more imaginative sex scenes. This fact is seldom scrutinised by film critics, promoters, or film festival jurors. Nor is its necessity ever questioned. Every once in a while, when a director goes too far, as was the case with Blue Is The Warmest Colour, and a debate erupts around the merits of a 10-minute unsimulated sex scene, in the end the majority of film critics who are other men side with the director. They insisted they like the scene not because they are ‘lecherous voyeurs’ but because it adds something to the narrative. Yet there was a divide in opinion along gender lines. Female film pundits as well as the author of the graphic novel on which the film is based, Julie Maroh, overwhelmingly disagreed. I loved Blue Is The Warmest Colour. The tragic end, the class difference, the underlying melancholic mood of the film. It brought tears to my eyes but I would have loved it just the same had the 10-minute sex scene been three minutes long only.
In every other instance, whenever the topic of the anti-feminist portrayal of the female form in films is broached, directors and critics, defend that particular representation of sexuality in that particular story as absolutely essential to the narrative. However, even if we buy into the premise that sex and sexuality are such inherently important aspects of life and love and that they are crucial tools in depicting relationship dynamics of the characters in a story, that still does not explain the disproportionate display of female nudity compared to male nudity. I’ve watched a fair number of films in my life-time. Yet I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve witnessed full frontal nudity involving male actors. Somehow male actors can deliver a powerful performance without putting their junk on display.
It is absolutely possible to tell a compelling story, depict pain, sadness, hope, injustice, love, even desire without exposing your actresses’ breasts. Female nudity is so ubiquitous in movies, that back at the Oscars of 2013, host Seth MacFarlane, did a whole sing and dance number We Saw Your Boobs in which he reeled off the names of a whole raft of actresses along with the movie(s) in which they were shot topless, as those actresses sat in the audience and looked on in visible discomfort. Interestingly, after the ceremony there was a swift backlash to the musical routine which was deemed offensive but there were no questions raised around the almost inevitable requirement that leading actresses take their clothes off in order “to do their work”. No one ever pointed out that these actresses’ work should entail acting not stripping and certainly not so frequently.
Lacking fur, feathers, scales, or fangs, humans have evolved dozens of facial muscles – 43 to be exact – to signal the whole spectrum of emotions to their surroundings. Happiness, sadness, surprise, fear, anger, aggression, disgust, contempt, jealousy, even desire can all the expressed on this universal canvas across multiple cultures and languages with zero help from the breasts or genitals. Intonation, body language, and most importantly verbal expression all combined can help elevate a performance to award-contending heights. Story telling on the big or the small screen really shouldn’t involve forcing your female actors have random unrealistic sexual encounters. Shakespeare, the greatest story-teller in the English language did quite well without R-rated material. Yet, many modern adaptations of his plays as well as his life story as depicted by Steve Madden in Shakespeare in Love, included topless females. There was really no need for us to see Gwyneth Paltrow’s boobs, no reason whatsoever, except that perhaps we’ve come to expect it.
Last year a video resurfaced of a 2013 interview with Bernardo Bertolucci at Cinémathèque Française discussing the infamous sodomisation of 19-year-old Maria Schneider’s character in The Last Tango in Paris by 40-year-old Marlon Brando with butter as lubricant. In the interview Bertolucci asserts that he “wanted her reaction as a girl, not as an actress” and although not informing the actress ahead of the shoot was “horrible” he doesn’t regret directing the scene as he did. When you watch the film today or say his other controversial number, Dreamers, they both seem kitsch and badly aged. The dialogues are cringe-worthy. Yet Bernardo Bertolucci, and other gross abusers of women like Woody Allen (alleged to have sexually abused his own daughter), Roman Polanski (who jumped bail and fled to Europe after having been charged with statutory rape of a 13-year-old in 1977), have been placed on a pedestal right below God, because they make art. Polanski got a standing ovation in 2003, when he won an Oscar for The Pianist. Allen despite not having made a decent film in over 20 years (his best films of the last two decades Blue Jasmine and Matchpoint are “sordid but overrated”) enjoys an undeserved level of admiration and prestige.
So where do we go from here. There are signs of hope. Although the overabundance of superfluous nudity and sex in movies has not been explicitly questioned to date, as the old dinosaurs of filmmaking die or retire we are seeing a bigger sample of new female-led fiction on the big as well as the small screen. Female artists, writers, producers, and directors who are ignoring the old and tired Hollywood conventions dictated by the male gaze and producing far better results and profits. A movement has also started whereby women fight for and support each others’ fight for more opportunities. I look forward to the time when we have diversity not only in casting but also in artistic decision making. I think that will have a positive impact on our wider culture and alleviate many of the problems working women face not just in film and TV but other industries.