It can be a hard conversation to have. It almost doesn’t matter what scene you’re talking about; someone will argue with you about why it shouldn’t bother you. Which is kind of an unpleasant thing to say to someone at the best of times. People have a right to be bothered by the things that bother them, even if it’s weird. I’ve got a Thing about realistic depictions of cannibalism. And watching other people get shot. So yeah. But even that aside, in a situation like this, it might be worth considering that other people have a reason that’s actually rational.
And in fact, it makes me angry that I have to explain all that, because the issue at hand here is the not exactly radical proposal that a lot of film from the 1970s, even classic films that a lot of people love, has a tendency toward misogyny.
Shocking, I know. And yet no matter which scene I use to demonstrate what I mean, someone will tell me that it isn’t really an example of misogyny, or even sexism. Please resist the urge to do this; I’ve probably heard your argument before. What I want you to consider is that after watching enough of the movies I’m describing here, I am now hesitant whenever I start watching any movie from the 1970s that I’ve heard praised, because I worry about what’s in there that the person (usually male) hyping the movie didn’t notice.
I’ve had people who genuinely couldn’t understand why I turned off High Plains Drifter at the rape scene, because it makes sense in context that, okay, we haven’t gotten yet at the point the scene occurs. However, it seems to me that it’s a symptom of the kind of thing I’m describing. The movie just assumes that we’ll go along with the idea that the woman “deserves” to be raped by the hero until it explains to us why she does. Because he is still explicitly supposed to be the hero, even though he basically rides into town and rapes a woman.
In a lot of these movies, women can be evil, they can be mothers, and/or they can be dead. (I can think of a few movies where at least one woman is all three, but moving on.) In many others, women are punished for daring to try to be something else. My prime example of this is Suelleen Gay (Gwen Welles) from Nashville. Okay, so she can’t sing. However, that doesn’t mean she’s earned the humiliation she gets when she’s told she’s got a gig “performing” that turns out to mean stripping, not singing. I’ve been told we’re meant to be on her side, but we are talking about a director who sexually humiliates Sally Kellerman’s character on two non-consecutive occasions. (Did she break up with him in high school?) I’m not inclined to assume that he meant us to be on her side, not the side of the hooting, vicious businessmen. Why even have that scene?
A look through the Oscar nominees of the 1970s is frankly depressing. (And that’s leaving aside all the Fellini, which I just can’t even get into in a piece this short.) In 1972, the Best Actress winner was Liza Minnelli for Cabaret, which is basically about a woman ignoring the rise of the Nazis because she’s having a lot of sex instead. (In 1975, one of the Original Song nominees was “Theme From Mahogany“!) A big hit of 1973 was Paper Moon, wherein Ryan O’Neal ignores his daughter in favour of having sex with Madeline Kahn. Which is awkward on several levels. Sleuth is about two men treating a woman as a possession. And, okay, I haven’t seen Annie Hall. But the reason I haven’t is that I don’t like Woody Allen, in part because he lives in a world where it doesn’t matter how seriously unpleasant he is—or, eventually, how old he became—he’s still incredibly desirable.
As a woman, that gets exhausting. I’m tired of California Suite and its potentially dead prostitute. (No, really, I thought she was dead.) In a comedy. I’m tired of Rocky, where the only female character is mousy and unfailingly supportive. Even movies I like—Clockwork Orange is brilliant, and women only exist to be used sexually. So okay, that’s because Alex is a terrible person, and he’s our perspective character. But there’s only so often I want to hear that explanation in a decade where a Best Actress winner was an evil nurse with almost no screentime. Where the next year, the winner was the evil personification of television. Where not one Best Picture winner had a female perspective character, and some of them barely had female characters at all.
I can hear the words lining up in someone’s mouth. “Feminist backlash.” Someone is planning to say it, I know. Please consider something first. Jim Crow was the backlash against emancipation, and we don’t think that’s okay. Why is it considered an excuse that these men were mad that women were trying to get equal rights? It’s an explanation, but it isn’t a good one, and it surely isn’t an excuse.
Don’t get me wrong; there are counterexamples. I’ll do you a favour and name a few. The Godfather. Michael’s distancing from Kay is evidence that he’s no longer the decent guy he wants to be. Taxi Driver. Oh, women aren’t treated well in Taxi Driver, but everyone who mistreats a woman in Taxi Driver is implied to have something wrong with them, and how they treat women is a symptom of that. And frankly, Phantom of the Paradise is too busy with its homoeroticism to much care about women at all.
There’s Kramer vs. Kramer, which I’d honestly argue is feminist. Yes, Joanna Kramer is a fairly unpleasant person. On the other hand, it acknowledges that the mother isn’t necessarily the best parent, which is a feminist stance. There’s also—still rare—a female character who is the male main character’s friend but not romantic interest. Ted Kramer is a good parent who tries to do what’s best for his son, but it isn’t just because he’s a father.
I keep watching, because I keep looking for the exceptions. They’re out there. They’re worth it. And I’d say I haven’t even covered the worst offenders here, but the thing here is that these are all Oscar nominated films, except High Plains Drifter. Misogyny is so pervasive that it made it into quite a few Oscar nominees. No one may understand Shaft but his woman, but that didn’t stop him from cheating on her and ignoring her.