From being damseled, to oversexed, to silenced, the “fairer sex” has not been treated well in pop culture. Women have always been depicted terribly in film, but the way the men in those films treat women is even worse. It’s a trend that goes back for decades: portraying abusive relationships as romantic.
By carefully staging the plot, writers have continuously found ways to make disgusting behavior seem acceptible, necessary, and even downright heroic. This creative alchemy turns terrible men into “nice guys,” and has deeply personal implications that are all too real.
Abusive men are not raised in a vacuum. They are taught to think that their toxic behavior is beyond critique or question. Let’s take a look at how abuse has been portrayed in media, to uncover how popular conceptions of abuse have evolved over time.
This is the history of abuse in media, and the dangerous men those films produced.
The Hay’s Code Era Brought to You by Baby Face.
Frank Fay was a Vaudeville star for many years. He was a master of ceremonies for Warner Brother’s star-studded revue The Show of Shows, though he eventually fell into obscurity due to his abrasive manner and explicit support of fascism.
Before his rightfully-deserved fall from grace, Fay married a little-known New York actress named Ruby Stevens. She would later be known as Barbara Stanwyck, one of the most vibrant stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Stanwyck was known for playing strong female characters, and, because of that, remains a lesbian icon in some circles to this day (though the identification of her sexuality remains elusive).
She was also the victim of violent domestic abuse at the hands of Frank Fay, an influence she was never quite able to break. Sadly, this abusive relationship was not only indicative of the romantic relationships of the time, but decades into the future as well.
It may surprise some people to know that the way women were portrayed at the beginning of the film industry was not always puritanical and oppressive. There was a brief period roughly from 1928 to 1933 where experimental and provocative filmmaking flourished. Films like Marlene Detrich’s Blonde Venus, or the original Baby Face with Barbara Stanwyck, showed empowered women that selected their partners consensually (gasps). Not all these portrayals were positive, but there was a diversity of female perspectives for audience members to enjoy.
These would soon be squashed.
Under threat of regulation from Congress, Hollywood started to regulate itself through The Motion Production Code. These rules were initially published on March 31, 1930, but would become more seriously enforced by the president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), William H. Hays, starting around 1934. His strict leadership is why the code is often informally referred to as the “Hay’s Code.”
In regard to female sexuality, the code limited explicit portrayals of adultery, rape, passion, “sex perversion” (e.g. butt stuff) and even vulgarity. Criminal activity had to be depicted in a way that did not provide sympathy for the perpetrator. It’s important to know that, in the context of the era, pre-marital sex (having sex outside marriage) was in and of itself a criminal activity in many places, and, technically, is still on the books as a crime in states like Virginia.
One of the best examples of how the Hay’s Code transformed female sexuality in media was the 1933 film Baby Face. The film stars Stanwyck as Lily Powers, the daughter of a speakeasy owner who pimps her out to the clientele during the Prohibition. She has some agency in who she selects, though, and has a scene at the beginning of the film where she outright refuses to sleep with a patron.
Her father quickly dies, and she is counseled by her friend Cragg (Alphonse Ethier) to move to the big city to use her skills to get ahead in life. The advice he gives her is, for the time, weirdly empowering:
Cragg: That’s what makes me mad with you. You are a coward. I mean it. You let life defeat you. You don’t fight back.
Lily: What chance does a woman got?
Cragg: More chance than men. A woman young, beautiful like you can get anything she wants in the world. Because you have power over men. But you must use men. Not let them use you. You must be a master. Not a slave.
The advice is slightly misogynistic by today’s standards, but, back then, it was a battle cry. Lily decides to move to New York to find a place to work. She settles for a bank called Gotham Trust Building and quite literally starts to sleep her way to the top. She uses men to get promotions and then abandons them once they have surpassed their usefulness — in some cases, this even leads to their termination and death. Lily has weaponized female sexuality for entirely selfish purposes.
She is, essentially, a man.
In the original ending, Lily ends up with the grandson of the bank’s founder. When he gets into trouble, like all the other men in her life, he asks her to give back the money he’s provided her. She refuses to help him.
“I can’t do it. I’ve got to think of myself. I’ve gone through a lot to get those things.”
She recants this position by the end of the film, but, narratively, like any career-climbing man, she isn’t punished for her ambition thus far. The film ends with her staring into her lover’s eyes.
After the film started to be censored in several cities, the film’s producer, Warner Bros., hastily reshot the film so that Lily ends up losing everything. Her conversation with Cragg, along with many other scenes, are reworked to be less empowering. There is also a scene, tacked on at the end, where the bank’s board members discuss how Lily and her man have paid their debt to the bank and are now penniless.
In other words, the “evil” woman gets her comeuppance.
This would become a pattern. The Hay’s Code began a dichotomy where women were either docile objects for the men around them or, like in Baby Face, villains the narrative must punish. In feminist discourse, this is sometimes referred to as the Madonna-Whore complex, or the belief that society only gives women two archetypal roles to play: “the virgin” who waits for marriage and upholds the norms of society; or “the slut” who doesn’t and should be punished for it.
The same standard was not, of course, applied to men in film, either — nor in real life. Plenty of men abused women during this dark chapter of American history. As we discussed, one of them was Barbara Stanwyck’s alcoholic husband Frank Fay.
Stanwyck was in an abusive relationship with Fay for over six years. Fay was a racist, anti-semitic Vaudevillian actor, who, despite earnestly doing his best to jumpstart Stanwyck’s career by personally lobbying the head of Columbia Pictures, could ultimately not stand to see Stanwyck outshine him.
He drank excessively and hit both Stanwyck and their child. Fay used Stanwyck’s greater fame to draw in crowds for his live performances. She would play second to him on stage and introduce herself as Mrs. Frank Fay. In some of these performances, she was required to take a fall on stage. Stanwyck would go on to develop a series of skeletal injuries as a result.
No one batted an eye.
As long as someone didn’t make a show of it (i.e. raped a woman that wasn’t “theirs”), white men could rape and hurt women with relative impunity. Barbara Stanwyck’s husband, for example, never went to prison for abusing her. The reason for their parting was likely his overly-lavish spending habits. Fay had spent a fortune building an estate during the height of the Great Depression, and, consequently, went bankrupt. Stanwyck divorced him within a year of his filing and was prompted via studio involvement to marry the much younger Robert Taylor.
Though she grew up in poverty, Stanwyck ended up becoming a privileged person who had the ability to escape the confines of her abusive relationship, albeit because of a studio’s financial investment in her person. She couldn’t escape completely, however. She absorbed parts of Fay’s toxic worldview and came to thoroughly detest Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, unions, and all practical efforts to help the poor. She also expressed sympathy for fascism.
She in many ways became the living embodiment of Lily in Baby Face — calculating, but ultimately there for her man. Even after the divorce, Stanwyck never publicly spoke ill of Frank Fay — the man who had abused and raped her.
Apart from the racially-charged allegations that whites made against black men (often as false pretexts for lynchings), there were few sexual assault scandals as we know them today in the Hay’s Code era. This is because women were largely seen as property. Daughters belonged to their fathers, and married women belonged to their husbands. In marriage, the legal concept was called “coverture,” or the belief that a husband had authority over his wife’s person and property. While some states had started granting women greater autonomy as early as the late 1800s, this legal argument would carry on well into the 1970s.
The Hay’s Code era was not a good time for women to exert their sexual autonomy either in film or in real life. When the Code collapsed in 1968, the popular portrayals of sexuality that followed in the film industry were hardly positive for the mostly white women that dominated the silver screen. If anything, these representations embodied the “no means yes” mentality that men had believed for decades.
A norm men internalized implicitly.
The 60s, Shot by Goldfinger
Many of us are familiar with the Bill Clinton sexual assault scandal of the late 90s when the 42nd president of the United States engaged in an extramarital affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. The scandal rocked the country, and, ultimately, led to a failed Republican effort to impeach the President.
Monica Lewinsky was not treated well in the press. She was a figure of constant ridicule, and it took her years to reconstitute her image. As a society, we have softened in how we view Lewinsky, while our ire towards Bill Clinton, for committing what is frequently considered sexual assault, has only increased. Forty years earlier, however, another famous president did exactly the same thing, and the open secret hardly made a ripple in the press.
We are, of course, talking about the 35th president of the U.S., John Fitzgerald Kennedy, JFK, and his many “sexual conquests” during his very brief tenure as commander and chief.
Several of JFK’s affairs have come to light in recent years. One of them was related by then-intern Mimi Alford (at the time Mimi Beardsley) in her book Once Upon a Secret. In her tell-all, Mimi describes receiving a White House internship, despite never having applied for the position, and being “seduced” by the President her fourth day on the job. She was 19 years old at the time, and JFK, one of the most powerful men in the world, was 45. In her memoir, she talked about the power dynamic between them:
“I believed if I said no, my dream of a full-time job at the White House would slip away forever.”
Mimi was coerced repeatedly into such engagements. She spent her days in the White House waiting for the President to summon her to have sex. It’s easy to gawk at this brazen history of sexual assault, but the 60s were a difficult time for women.
On the one hand, the 60s were a period of changing norms and legislation. This was the era that Betty Friedan published her seminal work The Feminine Mystique. It was the decade the National Organization for Women (NOW) formed. It was when the Equal Pay Act was passed, which theoretically promised equitable wages for all Americans regardless of their race, religion, national origin, or sex.
The 60s, though, were also a period of continued hostility. Discrimination was still rampant, especially for nonwhite women, and a woman’s right to her own body was spurious at best. For example, the belief that someone needed to obtain consent before having sex with their spouse wasn’t a popular concept in mainstream culture, whereas failing to do this now is considered marital rape, or just rape. It would not be until 1979 that the first conviction of spousal rape would occur. Rape was more or less normalized during the 60s, which was a reality demonstrated to us explicitly through the media of the time.
The James Bond film Goldfinger is a perfect example. In the 1964 spy thriller, Agent 007 (played by Sean Connery) is attempting to stop the titular supervillain Goldfinger (Gert Fröbe) from using a dirty bomb to blow up Fort Knox, which at the time was the gold depository for the United States government. Goldfinger is a gold smuggler, and he wants to use the bomb to increase the value of his own stores.
The film was a massive success when it aired and earned $51 million at the domestic box office, which, when adjusted for inflation, makes it one of the highest-grossing films of all time. People loved this film, and it still holds a special place in the fandom’s heart.
The movie has not aged well, however. Books could be written about the problematic aspect of Goldfinger’s Korean manservant Odd Job (Harold Sakata) alone. In this context, let’s talk about how James Bond uses his manhood to pressure all the women in the film into doing what he wants, including having sex with him.
It’s the way James Bond pressures a maid into breaking into Goldfinger's Miami suite. He literally uses her room key while it's still attached to her belt — something that made her an accomplice and could easily have gotten her fired.
It’s the way James Bond has to find out whether Jill Masterson (Shirley Eaton), Goldfinger’s employee, has had sex with her boss before he will consider sleeping with her.
Jill: He pays me.
Bond: (looking back at her) Is that all he pays you for?
Jill: And for being seen with him.
Bond: Just seen?
Jill: (emphatically) Just seen.
Bond: I’m so glad.
Jill Masterson is later murdered by Goldfinger for her betrayal. Her body is covered in gold as a warning to 007. Bond’s decision to sleep with her had immediate ramifications, and he doesn’t seem to have considered this possible consequence.
Jill was disposable.
And, of course, there is Goldfinger’s personal pilot Pussy Galore (a misogynistic pun masquerading as a name). Galore (Honor Blackman) is a strong-willed woman who has trained countless female pilots to help Goldfinger achieve his dastardly plot. She and Bond meet while aboard Goldfinger’s personal jet, which is staffed entirely by women.
Again, James Bond has to confirm whether or not she has slept with her boss.
Again, she tells this predator-in-a-tuxedo no.
He repeatedly flirts with her, and she repeatedly turns him down.
James Bond finally manages to bring Galore to a barn. He lays on the charm thick, but she rejects him. He grabs her as she turns away, and pulls her close. He asks to get to know her again, and again she rejects him. Again, he pulls her in close; this time she deploys self-defense techniques. A fight ensues until Bond pins her to the floor. She struggles to hold him at arm's length — he manages to overpower her and only then does she finally give in.
Romantic music may be playing in the background, but it's still rape.
JFK did not see Goldfinger. He was assassinated before either the UK or USA release date. It’s safe to say that he would have, though. Kennedy was an avid Bond fan. In a documentary for the 50th anniversary of the Blu-ray collection of the series, he was once quoted saying: “I wish I had had James Bond on my staff.”
He loved the Ian Fleming novels that the movies were based on. He first picked up a copy of the title Casino Royal in 1955 and was fascinated with Bond ever since. His presidential library lists the Bond book From Russia With Love as one of the president's favorites. He even met Ian Fleming at a party at the White House, where the two joked about how to remove Fidel Castro from power.
JFK was also no stranger to the films. In 1962, he hosted a private screening of the Bond film Dr. No at the White House — a film that, like Goldfinger, also had many misogynistic moments.
As with Bond and Pussy Galore, JFK wielded his power to take advantage of women while in office. Did JFK become a rapist because of his fascination with the series? That would be a difficult and unprovable claim to make, but he was undoubtedly influenced by it. You don’t develop a fixation on a misogynist who rapes women as he gallivants across the world if you cannot see something of yourself in the character.
Another fan of the series is President Bill Clinton. He was interviewed in the 50th-anniversary Bond documentary Everything Or Nothing, where he praised the film series’ storytelling ability and foresight in predicting geopolitics. Bill Clinton would have been 18 years old when the movie Goldfinger came out. He would have been learning how to interact with women sexually for the first time, and one of the most popular films in the nation asserted that openly raping women was not just okay, but even necessary to transform them into moral actors (spoiler alert Pussy Galore ends up being “rescued” by Bond).
James Bond was not the only film series in the 60s to have misogynistic characters. This trope was common, and things would change little as we entered the next decade.
The 70s, Presented by Animal House
Initially known for founding the film distribution company Miramax, Harvey Weinstein’s penchant for sexual abuse is now a full-blown cultural meme: to “Harvey Weinstein someone” is synonymous with rape and sexual assault.
Harvey and his brother Bob founded their company in the late 70s. From then to the 2010s, Miramax was responsible for the distribution of Hollywood’s most popular films. The English Patient, Shakespeare in Love, Lord of the Rings: the Weinstein’s had a hand in them all.
Harvey was a Democrat, and a vocal supporter of liberal causes. He donated to Democratic campaigns, and pushed for groups like “Mothers Opposing Bush.”
It was also an open secret that Harvey was a sexual predator. When the New Yorker reported about his abuse in 2017, the author remarked how the paper had been trying to get leads on this story for years:
“For more than twenty years, Weinstein, who is now sixty-five, has also been trailed by rumors of sexual harassment and assault. His behavior has been an open secret to many in Hollywood and beyond, but previous attempts by many publications, including The New Yorker, to investigate and publish the story over the years fell short of the demands of journalistic evidence.”
We have since learned that Weinstein used his power as one of the most influential men in Hollywood to not only manipulate women into having sex with him, but also to conceal it afterward: some were told that they would attend a meeting or casting call with other people only to show up and find Harvey there alone; afterward, some of his victims were paid off, and, in exchange, required to sign highly restrictive non-disclosure agreements.
We rightfully consider his behavior disgusting, but the truth is that this abuse wasn’t an anomaly. As Harvey Weinstein grew into adulthood in the 70s, this type of manipulation was common in the media he consumed.
A controversial example is National Lampoon’s 1978 film Animal House. Directed by John Landis, the film is about frat house Delta Tau Chi as it tries to stop Dean Vernon Wormer (John Vernon) of the fictional Faber College from shutting them down. They are unsuccessful, but they manage to have a fun time anyway, and by fun, we mean being awful, alcoholic messes to everyone around them.
When it comes to portraying gender norms, if Goldfinger is a media dinosaur, then Animal House is a really old fish. None of the women have especially empowering dialogue or arcs; all of the female characters with lines are there to have a romantic or sexual encounter with the male leads.
Women are generally disposable in the narrative, and that is often done very directly. In one scene, frat member Larry “Pinto” Kroger (Tom Hulce) is debating whether or not to rape a 13-year-old girl passed out drunk on his bed. The scene is played out with an angel and devil debating the merits of the rape. Pinto, who is also drunk, ultimately decides not to rape her and brings Clorette (Sarah Holcomb) home in a shopping cart.
Another frat character named John Blutarsky (John Belushi) is a Peeping Tom: he looks up women's skirts and uses a ladder to spy on a girls’ slumber party. He also drinks so excessively that he is often incoherent.
A lot of predatory behavior in Animal House is passed off for laughs, and that makes sense given the cultural realities of the time. The year this film was released, 1978, was the same year that lawmakers extended the deadline for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to 1982. The ERA was a failed constitutional amendment that would have prevented civil rights from being denied on the basis of one’s sex.
It remains unpassed to this day.
The countercultural revolution that had started in the 60s was sputtering in the 70s. While several landmark rights were secured in this decade— including Title IX, which prohibited sex discrimination in education funding; the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade which guaranteed the right to have an abortion; and a 1974 federal law that barred housing discrimination on the basis of sex — it was also the beginning of an intense cultural backlash that arguably continues to this day.
This is the decade that the “New Right,” a movement that started in the 60s, began to crystallize around the ideas of conservatism, “traditional” family values, and an intense distrust of government authority. One of the New Right’s objectives during this decade was to squash the ERA. Opponents led by moralists like Phyllis Schlafly (who, coincidentally, is parodied as Serena Joy in The Handmaid’s Tale) lamented that these new cultural norms would be detrimental to the role of the family. The country started to inch to the right, laying the foundation for the neoliberal policies of the 1980s that gave us Ronald Reagan, and the “greed is good” mentality of Wall Street.
As much as the creators of Animal House wanted to think their perspective was counter-cultural, the humor of the film aligns more closely with that of the 70s’ conservative backlash. The jokes of the text rely on the glorification of predatory behavior, a belittling outlook towards race and queer people (e.g. black characters are depicted as thugs and the word “faggot” is used as a slur), and distrust in institutional authority (e.g. their hatred of the dean).
National Lampoon, the entity that backed Animal House, was not a revolutionary organization, but a spin-off of the prestigious Harvard Lampoon. They may have been considered provocative and “edgy” for their day, but that humor often punched down at marginalized people.
In Animal House, on the walls of the Delta Tau Chi house, we can see the fictional frat’s motto:
“Ars gratia artis.”
This Latin phrase translates loosely to “art for art’s sake.” In many ways, that sentiment was the humor behind National Lampoon and the Animal House film they produced: it was a statement on a group of privileged white people’s ability to say anything.
Anything at all.
Like with National Lampoon, Harvey Weinstein was a firm believer in the right of expression. When the French magazine Charlie Hebdo was attacked because they had republished a controversial cartoon about the prophet Mohammed, Weinstein was so impacted that he wrote an op-ed in Variety about the importance of art:
“Charlie Hebdo is a reminder of the beauty of art and the beauty of language. No one can ever defeat the ability of great artists to show us our world.”
Now that his facade has crumbled, it’s clear that this belief was always about his ability to express his art. His right to say things.
Animal House performed well at the US box office. Some consider it the film that shifted the direction of comedy for the better. Harvey Weinstein would have been around 26 years old at the time of the film’s release. We should not be surprised if Weinstein and the film’s millions of other viewers took its lessons to heart.
Less than a year after this movie’s air date, Harvey and his brother would go on to found their company Miramax. It would be the start of a predatory reign that would last decades. Harvey would have the same conversation Tom Hulce’s Pinto did with his conscience over whether to rape and abuse, except sadly and disturbingly, his devil would win every time.
The devil would, unfortunately, continue to win into the next decade as well.
The 80s, Wished to You by Sixteen Candles
Brett Kavanaugh is an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. He was infamously confirmed to that position by a narrow Republican majority in the Senate in October of 2018. This decision was made despite several sexual assault allegations coming to light that cast doubt on his character.
In September of that year, the New Yorker published an article where a woman (who later came forward as Christine Blasey Ford) claimed that, at a High School party in the 80s, Kavanaugh held her down and attempted to force himself on her sexually. Another victim came forward days later, and Kavanaugh’s nomination soon became about so much more than the Supreme Court.
Would the Senate believe this woman’s story and nominate someone else? Or would this become another case of powerful men not listening to a survivor of sexual assault? Both Kavanaugh and Blasey Ford testified before Congress. Kavanaugh's high school days became scrutinized as the country scanned his calendar and yearbook for clues, but ultimately the Senate decided to not thoroughly examine her allegation, and instead pushed through Kavanaugh’s nomination.
This failure of our leaders may seem horrifying to us now, but the largely older Senate grew up in a time when the media of the day enforced the idea that date rape was okay. We saw in Animal House how drinking culture could correlate with rape. As the 80s commenced, we only saw more examples of this in popular culture.
A classic example is director John Hughes’ coming-of-age dramedy Sixteen Candles. This 1984 film is about high schooler, Sam Baker, and her infatuation with popular senior, Jake Ryan. The movie’s namesake comes from the fact that Sam’s family has forgotten about her sixteenth birthday because her older sister is getting married the very next day. You may remember the scene where Jake brings Sam a birthday cake in a church parking lot, and the two leads share a kiss.
Jake is portrayed in every scene as the pinnacle of 80s perfection. He’s attractive, popular, and, despite having not really talked to Sam throughout the entire movie, falls in love with her because she understands that he’s “special.”
He is also an active accessory to the date rape of his girlfriend Caroline. Caroline is the quintessential evil prom queen of the movie who “recklessly” gets too drunk at the prom afterparty. Jake doesn’t have too much respect for her, in one scene telling Sam’s friend (stalker?) Ted that he could “violate” Caroline if he so desired:
“I can get a piece of ass anytime I want. Shit, I got Caroline in my bedroom right now, passed out cold. I could violate her 10 different ways if I wanted to.”
Jake later makes a “deal” with Ted and allows him to drive a passed-out Caroline home in exchange for Sam’s underwear. The film suggests that Ted has sex with Caroline, though neither of them remembers it. That’s rape, by the way.
In the end, Jake apologizes to Caroline for getting her mixed up with Ted, and Caroline shrugs it off as no big deal because Ted “wasn’t too terrible” — again, she has no memory of having sex with Ted because she was unconscious while she was being raped.
This wasn’t a one-off plot element in the 80s. From Revenge of the Nerds to the disgusting misogyny of the original Ghostbusters, there were plenty of date rape stories passed off as “boys will be boys” hijinks. It’s no surprise that the children of the 80s grew up to internalize these norms. Rape has never been 100% okay in our society, but it has always been flexible depending on how you frame it with your audience.
In the 80s, marital rape still wasn’t against the law across the union — though the exception was starting to be overturned or withdrawn in states such as New York. Most people thought rape was something done by mysterious strangers. The concept of date rape was only just entering academia, and widespread studies of the phenomenon were new. Findings from groundbreaking academics such as Mary P. Koss would not be available until the latter half of the decade. Women may have gained more theoretical rights in the 60s and 70s, but society had not yet come around to the idea that men have to ask for consent before having sex with their partners.
The 80s were a conservative period in American history. The New Right coalition that had materialized in the 70s was fully-formed in the 80s. It started to earn more substantial victories such as the final defeat of the ERA and the election of a reactionary president, Ronald Reagan, who held office for the majority of the decade. Besides a huge Supreme Court victory that allowed people to declare a work environment “hostile” (useful in sexual harassment allegations), there were few legislative or political gains for women.
Consequently, most products of popular culture didn’t reflect new and evolving ideas of consent, but rather, aligned more closely with the mainstream notion that men couldn’t rape their partners. From this viewpoint, Brett Kavanaugh treated Christine Blasey Ford, almost beat for beat, in the same way that Jake treated his girlfriend Caroline in Sixteen Candles (and this is not the first time this connection has been pointed out). Blasey Ford was “fair game,” so the flawed logic goes: she had agreed to come to the party; she had imbibed alcohol; she was on the bed.
Under the norms of the 80s, what other consent was needed?
Kavanaugh was an avid movie watcher during the period of time he allegedly assaulted Blasey Ford. Sixteen Candles would not come out for another two years, but when examining the school calendar he provided Congress to exonerate himself, we can see that he actively saw many of pop culture’s most popular movies, including Rocky III, Grease 2, and Poltergeist.
“For one thing, our yearbook was a disaster. I think some editors and students wanted the yearbook to be some combination of Animal House, Caddy Shack and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which were all recent movies at that time. Many of us went along in the yearbook [sic.] to the point of absurdity. This past week, my friends and I have cringed when we read about it and talked to each other.”
To claim that these films didn’t have an impact would be disingenuous. Kavanaugh would have been around 17 years old when he committed the alleged assault against Blasey Ford, and 19 years old when the film Sixteen Candles aired in 1,240 theaters in the US and Canada, grossing $4.4 million in its opening weekend alone.
The norms these films perpetuated almost seem like they’re from a different world. Decades later, our definition of consent has evolved slightly to (sometimes) value the opinions of the non-initiating sexual partner. What happens when we begin to inch closer to the modern day?
The 90s, Sent to you by You’ve Got Mail
Comedian Aziz Ansari is controversial in leftist circles these days, and not just because of his subversive political wit. His career took a nosedive, albeit a short one, after he became lumped together with other #metoo perpetrators like Harvey Weinstein for an encounter he had on a date in 2017.
In January of 2018, the feminist website Babe.net published a lengthy account from a woman under the pseudonym Grace, who was allegedly assaulted by the comedian (you can read her full account here). In the article, the woman describes going back to Aziz’s apartment after a so-so date, where he tries to have sex with her. She repeatedly tells him “no.” He repeatedly tries to engage with her sexually by only using physical cues.
Eventually, Grace decides to leave, and does so successfully.
Many people have analyzed the acceptability of this event. It has struck a chord with both women and men alike. Grace is so far the only woman to have come forward, and that makes this situation more ambiguous. We don’t have a larger pattern of behavior to draw from, and can only look at this single incident. Was this assault? Every time Grace told Aziz to back off, he did, but he didn’t take a single “no” for an answer either. We are still debating this incident culturally because Aziz and the children of the 90s are just becoming adults now, and don’t quite know what adults they want to be.
When we look at the media that raised Aziz and the other men of his generation, the silent pressuring of women is put into a larger context. Men, especially liberal men, have been taught to respect the idea of consent, but subtler forms of manipulation are a little harder to parse.
Look no further than the 1998 film You’ve Got Mail. The film, like others we have analyzed, was hugely successful at the time of its release, garnering millions at the box office; for a while, it was even considered one of the best romances of all time. In retrospect, the film quite obviously justifies the use of manipulation, in this case, gaslighting, to obtain a romantic partner.
Written by Nora and Delia Ephron, the film is about Kathleen Kelly, the owner of a struggling, independent bookstore, as she unknowingly develops an online tryst with Joe, the owner of a corporate chain that’s opened up a store across the street.
Joe and Kathleen initially do not know each other’s real-life identities. They communicate via usernames and are, in fact, sworn enemies. Kathleen hates everything Joe stands for and rightfully perceives his store as an existential threat to her business. Joe learns who Kathleen is in real life about 3/4ths of the way through the movie, though she is kept in the dark about her romantic pen pal’s identity until the film’s end.
Romantically speaking, the movie doesn’t focus on this more bitter, antagonistic relationship (after all, complexity a good Romcom does not make). You’ve Got Mail instead highlights how “in tune” Joe is to Kathleen’s emotional needs online, divorcing his identity from the predatory business that he represents. In this way, the plot of the film allows Kathleen to feel things for a man she would typically, and pretty justifiably, hate.
Joe is constantly manipulating Kathleen. Before the catfishing even begins, he lies about his real-life identity at the beginning of the film so he can scout out her business.
Kathleen: You were spying on me, weren’t you? You probably rented those children.
Joe denies this accusation, even though he was aware of her business before he came inside.
Later, when he learns that Kathleen is the person he is chatting with online before she does, he uses that information to manipulate Kathleen into falling in love with him in real life. He fools her into choosing him, predatory flaws and all, in a manner that is emotionally abusive (Wisecrack has a fun video comparing Joe to Orwell’s 1984).
His catfishing isn’t harmless fun either (if such a thing even exists). Kathleen is not only his enemy in business, but she is dating a leftist writer named Frank Navasky. Joe is a homewrecker. He effectively tampers with every aspect of Kathleen’s life and only reveals “the truth” well after she has been gaslit to the point of no return.
The scene that highlights the extent of this abuse is the argument that leads Kathleen to ultimately leave her partner Frank. Earlier in the day, Kathleen is talking to her friend about feeling sad that her bookstore has closed (due to Joe’s store offering lower prices). Her friend Birdie consoles her by referencing the time she (Birdie) had a romantic tryst with Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. Franco was an oppressive military leader that allied himself with the Axis powers during WWII, and brutally ruled Spain until his death in 1975. These details are omitted in the film, and the love affair is only depicted from the perspective of her friend Birdie’s nostalgic reminiscing.
Frank and Kathleen get into a fight over this story. Frank cannot understand why someone would be able to fall in love with a brutal fascist, while Kathleen thinks it’s romantic.
Of course she does: metaphorically, the same thing has just happened to her.
Women, in general, are no strangers to being continuously gaslit, demeaned, and threatened on the internet. If anything, You’ve Got Mail was a cautionary tale of the horrors that were to come. Women, especially younger women, are, today, far more likely to be sexually harassed online.
While the leads of the film end up “happy,” how they get there is deeply disturbing. The film is about justifying a lie. This is an ongoing problem in both film and in real life, and again, this film’s message wasn’t a rarity in the 90s. The 1998 film There’s Something About Mary is essentially a comedy about a woman fleeing her stalkers, told from the perspective of one of those stalkers. 1999’s She’s All That, a loose retelling of George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, depicts the story of a high schooler taking a bet to reform a female student into adhering more closely to traditional beauty norms.
The 90s was a time when women had advanced significantly in society. Marital rape was finally illegal by 1993 in every state — though some states still do provide legislative exceptions. The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was passed in 1994, which funded services ranging from rape crisis centers to further funding for investigation and prosecution. America also saw a record number of women run and enter public office in 1992’s Year of The Woman. In 1997, Madeleine Albright became the first female secretary of state.
In other areas, however, losses occurred. The record number of congresswomen that ran in the Year of The Woman was because of the confirmation hearing of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. A woman named Anita Hill came forward and alleged that Thomas had sexually assaulted her. His nomination was pushed through, and Anita Hill endured a brutal confirmation hearing. Her mistreatment prompted women across the country to run for office.
Elsewhere the Supreme Court ruled in Pennsylvania v Casey that states were allowed to impose restrictions on abortions. This decision, itself the product of years of anti-abortion activism, prompted a new wave of abortion restrictions across the country.
And of course, as we have briefly covered, there was the Bill Clinton sexual assault scandal where the President engaged in an inappropriate relationship with his subordinate. The intern, rather than the President, was the person routinely ridiculed during this decade. Late Night host Jay Leno alone made 454 jokes about Monica Lewinsky.
The men that entered adulthood during this time were taught to respect women, but also to sort of kind of manipulate women into sleeping with them. Aziz Ansari was 15 years old when You’ve Got Mail came out. He didn’t pin Grace to a bed, or corner his date against a wall, or in a barn. The sexism of his generation, at least amongst those who are trying to adhere to evolving definitions of consent, is a little bit more nuanced than that. For many Millennial men across America (though certainly not all) “no definitely means “no,” but subtler forms of manipulation are not difficult to justify.
After all, she did text him. She went to his apartment. She was naked. Isn’t sex a given at that point? As New York Times writer Bari Weiss puts it:
“If you are hanging out naked with a man, it’s safe to assume he is going to try to have sex with you.”
You might think that this trend is an antiquated facet of pop culture history — the 90s were almost 30 years ago, after all. Some of us have finally started to sour on what this era represented, but as we shall soon see, this trend stayed very much alive in the aughts as well.
The 2000s, Picked up for you by Hitch
Chase Finley was a principal dancer at the New York City Ballet (NYCB). He has since resigned and two other male dancers — Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro — were laid off after Finley’s former ex-girlfriend Alexandra Waterbury brought a sexual harassment lawsuit against him and the NYCB. She has accused Finlay of sharing nude photos of her with fellow dancers and NYCB donors. He shared nudes of her so that other men would share their own conquests via videos and pictures (which they reportedly did). Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro were allegedly two of the recipients.
The sharing of nude photos in the Internet age has long been a method for bullies to silence women. Sometimes it is done for bragging rights, as was the case with the Fappening in 2013. The Fappening (a portmanteau of the movie The Happening) was when hackers would brag about celebrity nudes they had stolen by publishing them on the website 4chan. They spread like wildfire, arguably due to the sensationalist reporting at the time.
Other times, leaks are done as retribution for a perceived wrong. In 2016, hackers who were mad about the all-female remake of Ghostbusters posted nudes of lead actor Leslie Jones on her website.
In the #metoo era, this type of behavior is rightfully considered abhorrent. Alexandra Waterbury’s case against Finley is being listened to in a way that similar cases have not been previously. The NYCB has a long history of abusive directorship. The former head of the ballet, Peter Martins, also has been accused several times of sexual assault, and retired from his position in 2017 after his own #metoo moment.
The fact that Finlay felt compelled to share these photos and videos with his peers to brag about his “sexual conquest” is plausible, given the norms he was indoctrinated with as an adult. Those same norms have led to photo and video hacks and leaks of nude women, both famous and not, for over a decade now. Men have been conditioned to think bragging about their scores is okay, and we see this in the media they grew up watching.
The popular 2005 movie Hitch is one such example. The film is about professional “date doctor” Alex “Hitch” Hitchens (Will Smith) as he teaches men how to seduce women into becoming long-term romantic partners. In some circles, this is known as being a “pickup artist,” which is the idea that if a guy is charming and confident enough, he can seduce anyone woman into sleeping with him. As pickup artist Niel Strauss remarks in his book The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists:
“It’s not lying, it’s flirting.”
We see this premise expanded in the film. The character Hitch at the very beginning of the movie gives a chilling monologue about how guys need to ignore the “excuses” women give, and figure out ways around them.
Basic principles: No woman wakes up saying: “God, I hope I don’t get swept off my feet today.” Now she might say, “This is a really bad time for me.” Or something like, “I just need some space.” Or my personal favorite, “I’m really into my career right now.” You believe that? Neither does she. You know why? Because she’s lying to you, that’s why. You understand me? Lying. It’s not a bad time for her. She doesn’t need any space. She may be into her career, but what she’s really saying is, “Get away from me now.” Or possibly, “Try harder, stupid.”
The character Hitch enforces a very disgusting dynamic about how to treat women: he may insist on being respectful, but at the core of everything is the belief that a woman’s rejection is a lie. Hitch thinks that he only coaches “nice guys,” and the film pains itself to distance the lovable characters he coaches like Albert (Kevin James) from the open misogynists like Chip (David Wike). This dichotomy, however, assumes that A) Hitch can, from a passing glance, identify the “good guys” from the “bad,” and B) that his ideology itself isn’t toxic. An ideology, to reiterate, that teaches men to assume that women are innate liars who need to be won over, despite their protest.
Hitch falls for a woman, Sara (Eva Mendes), who is immune to his charm. She attempts to spurn his advances, and he repeatedly finds “cute” ways to subvert them. He purposely mistakes her for a waiter so that he can isolate her from a group at a bar. Sara tells him to not call her over the phone, so he gives her a walkie talkie instead. She tells him she doesn’t have time for dinner, and he keeps listing dates until she reluctantly agrees on a Sunday morning.
Troublingly, he doesn’t take “no” for an answer.
The entire time, Will Smith’s Hitch provides voiceover instructions and advice on how to be a more successful pickup artist. It is perfectly possible to walk away from this movie not seeing it as an indictment of pickup culture, but an endorsement of it. As Megan Garber writes in the Atlantic:
“The other message of this otherwise innocuous confection is a more pernicious one: that intention, when it comes to one’s dealings with women, trumps action. That being a good guy — or, more to the point, seeing yourself as a good guy — justifies pretty much all manner of disgusting behavior.”
If you find it strange that less than twenty years ago such a rape-centric viewpoint could be the focus of a major Hollywood film, then welcome to the conversation. Let’s put into perspective what the 2000s meant politically for the advancement of women:
There were some political gains in the aughts: the passage of the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act allowed victims of pay discrimination to file a complaint with the government; Nancy Pelosi became the first female speaker of the House; you could even argue that Sarah Palin becoming the first female, Republican Vice Presidential nominee represents some type of equality (which, I guess).
Legislatively, though, a lot of areas stalled: Abortion restrictions increased; in 2005, Congress passed the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, which bans a medical procedure referred to as intact dilation and extraction; states across the country passed similar restrictions in the form of waiting periods, mandated ultrasounds, counseling, parental consent for those under 18, and automatic triggers to ban the procedure in the event that Roe v. Wade is overturned.
With the current composition of the Supreme Court, that is not a far-fetched possibility.
The fact that retrograde ideas about women took root in this decade, as they have in all previous decades, should not shock anyone. Chase Finlay, if the allegations are true, decided to share nude photos of his girlfriend without her consent because she was a prize. He had “scored” a “target” and was providing proof of that “conquest” to his peers.
Hitch would be proud.
The 2010s, Created by Untitled Project
The future abusers of the 2010s are not yet adults. What norms will the next generation internalize, and thrust upon their female, male, and non-binary partners? What abuses, once considered normal, will become the fodder for scandal and termination?
It’s difficult to say, and any predictions made here would be speculative. It’s as murky to guess what behaviors will be acceptable in the ensuing decades as it is to predict the future financial solvency of Bitcoin.
As we have seen, the norms around consent have shifted dramatically in the last century. In under 50 years, we have gone from thinking that coercive rape is acceptable, to be being outraged by a partner leaking nude photos of their ex. The boundaries are shifting, and, so far, that’s a good thing.
Right now, we are starting to see projects that deconstruct the “abuse-is-beautiful” trope.
One example is Netflix’s 2018 TV show You, which takes the typical premise of a rom-com and portrays it as a horror series. The main character, Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley), is a bookstore owner (a loose parallel to the character Joe Fox in You’ve Got Mail) who manipulates the object of his affection, Candace Stone (Ambyr Childers), into wanting him. He is depicted as a psychopath for doing so.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a show that demonstrates what the norms of this trope would really do to a woman’s psyche. The lead, Rebecca Bunch (the phenomenal Rachel Bloom), spontaneously moves across the country to follow the man of her dreams, Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III). He is not aware of her feelings, and is in a relationship with someone else. Her decision is not depicted as a love story, but ultimately a symptom of her untreated borderline personality disorder.
Time will see if these reassessments of toxic romances and relationships truly stick. For every Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, there is a Jennifer Lawrence in Passengers, or Zoe Saldana in Avengers Infinity War.
We must be critical of these representations, and of the men who are influenced by them. When we take a story at face value and ignore that it is advocating for a particular outcome, then we not only become lazy critics, but we also endorse behaviors that can inflict real harm in our society.
All these films had an impact on the men who grew up with them. When we push back against the necessity of events in a piece of media, and challenge the implicit and unconscious biases of their creators, we open ourselves up to more meaningful criticism and begin to undo the damage these stories have done.
It doesn’t matter if John Hughes or Nora Ephron didn’t set out to make films that encourage gaslighting and, in some cases, active rape.
They still did.
We need to challenge famous creators on what they include in their art. It cannot be stressed how common it is for writers to embrace misogyny (and really, all forms of discrimination) by stretching the plot to make abusive behavior seem okay.
It’s not okay.
People are impacted by the film and TV that they watch, and the stories they grow up with. The exploits of James Bond and Hitch can become just as real as any lived experience; not every individual work may change someone’s mind overnight, but taken together, we are all the result of the stories we’re told.
We must be cautious not to repeat history. The groundwork for the future is being laid now, and if we want to avoid future abusers, then we need to be critical of the stories that will rear the next generation.
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