I, Tonya, director Craig Gillespie’s biographical film about figure skating legend Tonya Harding, contained multiple scenes of domestic violence, played up for humor. Though based on Harding’s real experience, and thus worthy of exploration, the film’s comical treatment of violence read to many as grossly sensational. In an interview in January, the movie’s star, Margot Robbie, responded to comparisons of those scenes to the graphic work of Quentin Tarantino. “I’m a huge Tarantino fan, and I’ve heard him describe his violence as sensationalized violence. That’s not what we did at all,” Robbie told the New York Times. “We wanted to emphasize that this is a cycle and this is so routine for her, because it’s happened her whole life.”
Concerns about these cinematic depictions—of sexual assault, rape, domestic violence, etc.—persist in 2018, but in a much more transparent environment, with frequent use of the phrase “the era of #MeToo,” and at a time in which public attention around sexual violence has escalated across multiple industries. The seeds of a movement, planted 12 years ago by #MeToo founder Tarana Burke, landed in Hollywood in 2017 and has not left our cultural consciousness since.
An acknowledgment of the confluence of forces that control and fuel violent sexual behavior—and the ways that movies serve as a reflection and reinforcement of prevailing views—has worked to educate the general public. At the same time, our perhaps healthy pessimism about whether anything will change around the subject of women, movies, violence (on and off set), sexual harassment, and all its intersections remains.
Even with a shift in tone publicly, it’s easy for a movement to feel more like a moment, especially under the facade of Hollywood. In contrast to the all-black ensembles on display earlier this year at the Golden Globes—where the topic of sexual assault made for an intense conversational backdrop—only a handful of attendees at the 2018 Academy Awards wore modest orange flag pins on their garments in support of Time’s Up, Ryan Seacrest performed his red carpet duties despite allegations of sexual harassment (E!’s red carpet ratings were down 43 percent), and few actors addressed the issue on the main stage.
The pressure on women behind the movement to not only show up but develop subsequent systems to solve the problem feels both inconvenient and fitting. In a piece in March about the effectiveness of Time’s Up, The Hollywood Reporter noted that the campaign has raised $21 million in legal defense funds, then pointed to the organization’s apparently cliquish nature and lack of structure while wondering what’s next.
On the Oscars red carpet, Tarana Burke told The Los Angeles Times, “We’ve only been talking about sexual violence for four months, so when people are already rushed to say what’s next, we have a lot to unpack where we are right now. Really, what’s next is figuring out how to get sexual violence resources. We have millions of people around the world who have opened up and are talking about their needs.” What is really about to change and what won’t?
Violence as a release of fantasy—and women as props for the male director’s inhibitions—has worked as an immortal trope in Hollywood for decades, making the link between real-world sexual violence and depictions of violence against women in movies cause for ongoing interrogation. In August 1984, the New York Times published a story titled “Violence Against Women in Films.” The piece covered a study from the American Psychological Association confirming violence as a sexual stimulant for men, as well as a survey, which found that “one in eight movies commercially released in 1983 depicted violent acts against women, a sharp increase from 1982 when the rate was one movie in 20.”
Thirty years later, in 2014, the Washington Post wrote about the historic indulgence of the male director’s fantasy in connection with “sexualized violence” against women. Citing then-new films like Tombstones (starring Liam Neeson) and The Equalizer (starring Denzel Washington), writer Ann Hornaday noted the desensitizing nature of acts of violence on screen. “I’m not suggesting that movies cause violence against women or encourage the abuse of children,” she wrote. “What I am suggesting is that violence exists within a continuum of culturally sanctioned, ritualized aggression, from Sunday afternoon football games to Quentin Tarantino—that itself exists on a continuum, from the symbolic, cleansing and cathartic to the desensitizing, exploitative and profoundly hypocritical.”
What’s clear is that representations of violence against women in film involve tons of psychology, social conditioning, and manifestations that are just now being probed by a larger group of people. What’s been robbed of women, in these discussions, is the privilege of complexity, consideration of how women fantasize, and how we respond to or reject violent imagery.
The film perhaps most often referenced in the pantheon of violent acts of cinema is Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972), starring Maria Schneider. Last July, for an article about the creation of rape scenes (disturbingly known as “rape choreography”), published by L.A. Weekly, April Wolfe wrote:
Just a few years before her 2011 death, Schneider opened up about director Bernardo Bertolucci’s harsh treatment of her on set and his decision — with Marlon Brando — to spring some of the rape choreography on her at the last second, specifically Brando brandishing a stick of butter to lubricate her anus before he simulated penetration. “I felt a little raped,” she’d told the Daily Mail in 2007, blaming that experience for her personal downward spiral after she shot the film.
The 1970s often are cited as the glory days for daring cinema, but this is also the decade that drew up the blueprint for rape scenes that would follow.
In the piece, Wolfe also referenced director Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 film Straw Dogs for context—and how he reportedly aimed to shoot “the greatest rape scene ever”—and she reported that “while narratives of sexual assault are nothing new... these storylines have become particularly common in film and TV lately.” A Playlist.net piece about the history of rape in film further noted, regarding the Academy Awards, that: “Half of 2016’s eight Best Picture nominees depicted, alluded to, or dealt heavily with rape.”
While the theory and execution of the male gaze on screen has been thoroughly studied, conversations around #MeToo have us re-examining the trend with fresh eyes and scrutiny of its roots, from Alfred Hitchcock’s women protagonists in peril to Tarantino’s vengeful femme fatales and, more recently, excessive depictions of rape on television. (Years after its 1986 release Spike Lee admitted to wrongfully depicting his lead character enjoying her own rape in his first film, She’s Gotta Have It.) The lack of sweeping change in Hollywood begs the question of whether (or rather, how) we’ll see progression in ways that take us beyond dreams and theory.
“The problem is that what’s on the screen is indicative of what’s happening in the minds of the people making the films,” Debra Zimmerman, executive director of the advocacy group Women Make Movies, which focuses on representation in film and ending violence against women, tells Jezebel. “We are inundated with images of women as victims, images of murdered women’s bodies. They are rarely the narrative force; they’re rather the narrative background, or they’re being acted upon rather than acting.”
In short, men in power have stalled the course of evolution in film. But, of course, there’s more to the subject than simply the idea that male directors love torturing women on screen. Film critic Molly Haskell wrote in an introduction for the third iteration of her 1974 book, Reverence to Rape: “Compared to the astonishing presence of women in the arts, on the internet, in public life—Out There and brimming with confidence in ways unimaginable 30 or even 20 years ago—the movie industry feels rearguard, the last bastion of boys-club supremacy.” Haskell also cited both the neglected sadistic fantasies of women audiences and the agency of women on set.
In line with decades of nuanced feminist film theory that’s defined women characters as, in many ways, proxies for male desire, filmmaker Nina Menkes made the connection between onscreen violence, objectification, and the effects of Harvey Weinstein, in an essay for Filmmaker. There, she broke down how the issue of violence begins, naturally, with how women are seen.
“The actual language of cinema, the shot design itself, the way that women are photographed, creates a sort of subconscious indoctrination that all of us absorb, women and men,” Menkes tells Jezebel, adding that awareness of these images isn’t the same as censorship. “It’s not about being the sex police. It’s about pointing out that in something like 97 percent of the films we see, women are sexualized and made into sexual objects. It would be okay if it was 30 percent of the films and a lot of other things, too, but there’s such an overpowering message that comes through when this is what you’re constantly seeing. There is a very bizarre consciousness created about what women are really here to do. They’re here to fulfill desires or if I want to kill them, it’s sexy.”
Besides considering the views of the women involved in the violence depicted on film, we should note the eras in which women’s stories (white women’s) dominated Hollywood, in stark comparison to recent times. In a thorough essay about the false promise of feminist movies, filmmaker Anna Biller (The Love Witch) gave historical context on how films of the ’20s and ’30s focused on socializing men, and how the aspiration of glamour gave white women in Hollywood certain control of the gaze on screen:
Women were sexualized in many earlier movies and in men’s magazines, but usually not violently, and censorship codes required that the kinkier and more aggressive modes of expression would remain either unexpressed, or buried firmly in the underground.
The pre-code writers (many of whom were women) seemed to have social goals in mind when they wrote their scripts. They thought that if men knew what women really went through, they would be kinder and more empathetic towards them, and there would be less domestic violence. If a man saw that a sexualized woman was also a human being (all of those movies about a fallen woman with a heart of gold), he would treat women he was attracted to with more respect. The romance movies also socialized men (and women) to fall in love, creating a perfect utopia that gave men an incentive to love and marry women and not just try to use them for sex.
Biller went to note the shift in censoring that led to male directors having the dominant eye:
All of this changed when the censorship codes lifted, and men could finally express all of the things they’d been bottling up. And what were those things? Mainly, explicit sex and violence, and anger and frustration towards women. At first movies could only be explicit if they could prove that they contributed something worthwhile or artistic to culture, but soon no one bothered to enforce the obscenity statute, and men were given free rein to express themselves in any way they pleased. This change in censorship codes led to an unexpected surge at the box office for violent and sexually explicit films.
(Regarding censorship, a rep for the Motion Picture Association of America, which issues ratings for movies released in the US, told Jezebel that the MPAA has never tracked specific types of violence, i.e. rape or domestic violence, in movies.)
The filmmakers and advocates I spoke to believe statistics are shifting in women’s favor, but they also gestured toward Hollywood’s tendency to want to speed up the veneer of progress. What many people want is to be able to see history moving. In some ways, it is. “This is the first time I think there’s been actual fear of women out there. But I don’t know if that means that things will shift in terms of content,” Biller wrote via email. It has, at least, led to people trying to do what’s different.
There’s a sense that the advancement of women creatives is one obvious solution that might bring more nuanced, less aggressive depictions of violence against women on screen. After the New York Times broke its story about Harvey Weinstein on October 5, according to Kirsten Schaffer, executive director of Women in Film, the organization started getting calls from members with questions about how to be active. “I can tell you what has changed is people have cared. Decision-makers, studios, have cared about this issue,” Schaffer tells Jezebel. “But we really believe that one of the clearest ways to combat sexual harassment is to put more women in positions of power.”
“The cynic in me thinks that, to some extent, we’re preaching to the converted or swimming in the same pools,” Schaffer adds. “I think that some of the men that have perpetrated these ideas for a long time, it’s not necessarily bubbling up to them, but I hope it is seeping in, in some ways. That guy grew up watching these films in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and they’re replicating those images so we’re in a cyclical pattern, and I think it’s gonna take some enlightenment and a lot more women behind the camera.”
Of the top 250 films at the box office, 18 percent employed women directors, screenwriters, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers, according to a study by San Diego State’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film.
“I think the main problem with men only seeing their own fantasies on the screen is that a lot of men sincerely don’t believe that women have their own point of view or stories to tell,” Biller stated via email. “Because there is no widespread social awareness about the way women are systemically blocked from achieving their ambitions, many men think that it’s a more or less level playing field and that women are just bad storytellers or that they just don’t have anything to say. That obviously has huge repercussions on whether or not women are hired to do creative jobs.”
She added, “In my blog, I wrote about how everyone talks about feminism now as if they think it’s really important, but that has not led to more feminist content being made—it’s only led to the violent movies men make being labeled as feminist. The only thing that seems to really change content is box office returns.”
In a New York Times feature published in February—the salacious tone of which undermined the story’s point about the absence of clear agency among actresses on set—Uma Thurman spoke on her experience working with Quentin Tarantino on Kill Bill and with Weinstein. “I stand as both a person who was subjected to it and a person who was then also part of the cloud cover, so that’s a super weird split to have,” she said.
Jezebel later posted an unearthed audio of Tarantino on Howard Stern’s radio show in which Tarantino defended Roman Polanski’s sexual assault of a 13-year-old, by saying, “She wanted to have it.” Instances of powerful creative men reflecting sexual violence onto women, or bad views about women, are prevalent, Woody Allen being chief among them. Allegations of sexual misconduct against Louis C.K., which he confirmed as true, ran concurrent with promotions for his film about a 17-year-old girl and a predator filmmaker, I Love You, Daddy, which was later pulled from release. And Tarantino is Tarantino.
That’s not to say that predatory behavior necessarily manifests itself artistically, but that the overlapping connections between real life and film, which may have formerly been seen as innocuous, have risen to the surface to reveal how much sexual violence culture is ingrained.
“I think we need some more discussion of exactly that point, the correlation between what we see on screen and the behavior of these men. It’s complicated,” says Zimmerman. “What seems really creepy is when it is actually reflective, and I think that’s the case with Woody Allen. Or Louis CK, doing these performances, these monologues about what exactly was going on, and he was making a joke of it and we were all laughing. That’s the beginning of that correlation.”
“I understand why men don’t want to give up power in Hollywood,” Zimmerman adds. “If I could walk around in the world and see primarily images that reflect my fantasies, my dreams, and my desires, where I’m always the hero and I’m always the one going through the action and coming out with the beautiful woman, yeah, sure, I would want that too. I like seeing myself as a hero, and I want to be the one who’s choosing my path, and I certainly don’t want to see myself victimized all the time.”
It’s through the allegations in the past few months that, in theory, more people have realized how violence gets depicted, in part, because real violence is allowed to persist. In an ideal world, there would be more women of various backgrounds, not just white, in position to balance the point of view without, as people fear, stifling art. Change has so far been reflected unfortunately in the way people promote so-called “#MeToo Movies” and highlight films with a sexual assault angle—another example of the veneer of Hollywood. What we don’t want is more instances of #MeToo turning into a marketing point rather than an observed reflection of how women have long lived. And yet, that points to how much any type of progression tends to go hand-in-hand with profit.
Nina Menkes says, “I don’t think anyone in the industry thinks about their responsibility regarding violence in movies. People are mostly interested in what they like to see on screen and in what sells.”
“I do think women will speak out more on set, and some men will speak out on set and say this should not be happening. But I would say that it is about numbers,” says Zimmerman. “When there’s one person in the mix, one woman or even two in the room, it’s very hard. You need a certain number to tip the balance, to feel empowered, to feel like you’re not alone. That’s what’s actually started to create the change. It’s the accumulation.”