Misogyny Done Right

Shotgun mass wedding? Happy ending? Sexist cliches turned on their heads? It's all this, and more.

If you read the screed I posted yesterday about James Bond movies, you may be of the opinion that I've become a humorless political corrector with no tolerance for fantasy, satire, or simple battle-between-the-sexes fun. If you are of that opinion, this post should dispel those concerns.

To rehash, briefly: to my dismay, I found when settling down to a classic James Bond film that the blatant sexism and misogyny of the franchise were trumping the fun for me, and had to turn it off. I fumed about it for a day or two, then wrote up all the problems I saw in the disposable "Bond girls" and the hero's nonchalant attitude toward their frequent deaths, and why I have lost my tolerance for such plot devices. "But it's a fantasy!" someone commented, and she's right: it no more depicts the real world of espionage than Star Wars is an accurate portrayal of the space program. Fantasy or not, I've come to a point where the main character's reckless abuse of women is too much for me, and the whole thing feels like a relic of a bygone era where men were men and women were vaginas with tempers.

This is not the first time I have found a movie I once enjoyed leaving a bad taste in my mouth, by the way. I previously had this experience with Holiday Inn, the 1940s musical that introduced "White Christmas," and featured a startling firecracker dance by Fred Astaire. Watching it for the first time on my small black and white TV in 1983, just before embarking on a three-day train ride from Illinois to Oregon to celebrate Christmas with my family after my first semester of grad school, I loved it. Ten years later, I purchased a copy on VHS, put it on for my children, and had to turn it off. Between the stereotyped portrayal of the black servants at the hotel and the blackface song and dance number in celebration of Lincoln's birthday, I couldn't justify showing such blatant racism to anyone, nor could I enjoy it. I probably hadn't noticed it the first time around because, at that time, I'd known so few African-Americans. I had similar problems the last time--again, sometime in the 1990s--I tried to watch Gone with the Wind, and found the nostalgia for the nobility of antebellum slave culture revolting. And don't even get me started on Song of the South, Disney's paean to the happy lives slaves led on plantations, under the protective paternal gaze of their masters. Gah!

I could make excuses for these films, putting down the racism and sexism in each of them, by saying they are products of their times, that the producers of the films were just portraying popular attitudes, and should not be faulted for their inability to present entertainments that broke away from those attitudes. In the 1940s, Jim Crow still ruled in the South and African-Americans living in the North were almost all employed in service jobs. The romanticized South of Gone with the Wind was in complete harmony with the version of history presented in public school textbooks, probably even in northern schools where it was essential to maintaining the union of a nation still nursing its Civil War wounds. All of that may be true; and yet, this same period was already producing great works of art and literature by African-Americans, and had embraced their music, jazz, as the most American of art forms. There are, it must be admitted, few great works of popular entertainment that present an alternative approach to the black experience, but they do exist: Porgy and Bess, Stormy Weather, Cabin in the Sky. There are elements of these movies that bring on discomfort--minstrel songs, shuck-and-jive routines--but in the context of black performers putting on these acts for black audiences, come with the knowing wink of "Can you believe white people actually think these things about us?" Such entertainments tell me that Hollywood knew better, and could have done better, but simply chose not to.

Which brings us back to the misogyny of the entire Bond series. Sexist humor was enormously popular in the 1950s and 60s--cavemen dragging women by their hair back to the cave to rape them; Ralph Kramden promising to hit Alice "to the moon"; bosses chasing secretaries around desks to, like the cavemen, rape them; sex kittens begging to be mistresses of elderly rich men--and apart from that humor, popular culture was rife with images of infantalized women who couldn't be trusted with checkbooks or charge cards, who drove like maniacs, who burst into tears at the slightest criticism, who jumped up on chairs at the sight of a mouse. There was no question which gender ruled during this era, so why fault a series of movies that simply presents an accurate portrayal of contemporary attitudes?

The answer to that rhetorical question is that it didn't have to be that way. Hollywood was just as capable of turning sexism upside down as it was of portraying well-rounded black characters, and of doing it in entertaining ways. As evidence, I offer two films: The Quiet Man and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

John Ford's The Quiet Man tells the story of a retired boxer who, after killing a man in the ring, returns to his childhood home in Ireland to escape his guilty conscience. There he falls in love with a fiery-tempered local girl and, after a quick courtship, marries her. Their marriage quickly descends into cultural conflict, as his American sensibilities come up against the Irish customs she holds dear. The story culminates in a confrontation that both honors and subverts these customs. The stakes are high: for this man and this woman to have a life together, they must find a way to appreciate and affirm each other's identities, even as they push each other toward transcending those identities.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers takes the caveman-dragging-the-woman-by-her-hair joke and turns it on its head. A family of seven hard scrabble pioneer men descend from their mountain cabin on a town that is one step closer to civilization, woo the only eligible bachelorettes in town, then make off with them, closing the pass behind them with an avalanche, trapping them at the cabin until the thaw clears the pass. The women have minds of their own, and while they are clearly traumatized by the experience, soon take charge of the situation, barring the well-meaning but clueless men from the house. Over the course of the winter, the men are tamed by the women, and ultimately put at their mercy. Once the pass is cleared, and their fathers come charging in to right the wrongs committed against their daughters, the situation is again upended, and concludes with a shotgun wedding in which the women are calling the shots. The entire cliche is subverted from beginning to end: the rough-hewn pioneer brothers are dumb lunks, the town men are paternalistic jerks, and the women are the true heroes, wise, passionate, clever, and ultimately in charge of the entire situation.

To modern sensibilities, both these movies have shocking plots: John Wayne throwing Maureen O'Hara on the wedding bed or carrying her over his shoulder, the Pontipee men reenacting the rape of the Sabines by carrying off a wagonload of virgins; and yet both seem to understand the lie at the heart of the cliche of male dominance, tweaking it, subverting it, satirizing it with a sophistication remarkable for their early 1950s production dates.

These films are not outliers, either. Most musicals of the period present images of female power for the simple reason that a weak female lead is just not that interesting to a modern audience. Thus Marian the librarian is the only person in River City with the power to reform conman Harold Hill, Maria rescues grieving widower Von Trapp from his lonely misery while healing his relationship with his children, and Mary Poppins may well be the most powerful female character in any movie ever made. Eliza Doolittle, too, proves herself more clever than her erstwhile mentor, Henry Higgins, though his final line in both the theatrical and cinematic versions of My Fair Lady--"Bring me my slippers"--is extremely problematic, as is the sense that the only way to solve a problem like Maria is to marry her off; but comparing the forced happy endings to the rich character development and complex relationships depicted, these works overwhelmingly transcend the sexism of the era.

I could list many other films, musical, comedic, and dramatic, that present strong female characters who are very much in control of their lives, but I will leave it here. I believe I've made my point: Hollywood knew misogyny was a joke with limited appeal, knew how to subvert and transcend it, and when it did, created timeless entertainment that is still watchable.

It also knew how to pander, though, as it still does, and so we have frat boy fantasies of bedding and discarding sexy women while using clever gadgets to defeat supervillains. Such fantasies still dominate box offices throughout the summer, and sexism still figures prominently in their plot lines--think of Megan Fox draped across a motorcycle in Transformers--because that is what the teenage boys in the audience want. As I pointed out in my last post, though, it's a rare film that callously puts bullets in its female characters. Except in the Bond universe.


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