We live in troubling times indeed. So much has been written in recent
weeks by so many people about the experiences of women the world over. First, there was article after article discussing the long overdue revelations of sexual assault/rape/harassment of many well-known and not so well-known women at the hands of Hollywood arch-abuser Harvey Weinstein. Next, the #Metoo hashtag; account after account of ordinary women’s experiences with rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment, or just a quiet acknowledgement that yes, it happened to me, too, probably many times over.
It is everywhere. It is endemic in every culture. In spite of studious efforts of certain sections of our profoundly unequal and dysfunctional society to ignore the problem that internet trolls and Men’s Rights Activists say does not exist, it has been dragged into the public consciousness like some kind of black, sludgy monster. What we do next with that monster is a matter that should concern everyone. How has rape culture become our normality? Why is it only now that men are finally and thankfully listening? What is at the root of all of this misery?
It doesn’t make for comfortable reading. For women everywhere, it is a reminder of our own experiences, some of which have been buried deeply for the painful shame that they bring, and some that are just part of our everyday experience like white noise - annoying but ultimately commonplace background hum. But we are starting to become more and more aware of this white noise. It is no longer a background hum to be tolerated, but a cacophonous reminder of our ‘inferior’ status. And men too are finally adding their voices, either in acknowledgement that women should be listened to, that this sort of behaviour shouldn’t be ignored, enabled or tolerated, or even more difficult, that they have either abused their position and privilege themselves, or that they have even experienced abuse themselves.
All of this spells trouble for the Patriarchy. None of this plays well into the narrative that women are objects with no real feelings or motivations of our own - that we are fully human and need to be treated decently and be able to move unimpeded through the world without harassment. That we are not merely there for the ubiquitous male gaze. Nor does it support the idea that men are and should be the dominators, the conquerors, the heroes, and the moral arbiters. In the real world, when men get away with abuse of their power and privilege, men as well as women lose. But let’s not be coy. Women lose far more often, harder and worse.
Worryingly, the backlash has already begun, with many men distancing themselves from the likes of Weinstein and turning him into a singular monster, a villain , an aberration in an otherwise fair and functional industry, and by extension, society. Once female accusers are finally given credence for their testimony, once women are believed and by men too, the urge to demonise and isolate the toxic male begins. Far simpler to externalise all of the ills of toxic masculinity in one individual who has been ‘found out’ than to challenge the systems of profound inequality and sense of male entitlement that allowed a man like Weinstein to get away with his horrific behaviour for so long. But this is an industry that exalts the likes of Woody Allen – a man who married his own step-daughter – and Roman Polanski – a child rapist. The sickness runs deep and the monsters are in charge.
It is shocking that so many professed to be ‘shocked’ by the revelations. No woman was shocked. And those in Weinstein’s orbit were not shocked. It was an ‘in-joke’, an insider’s insight into how the industry functions, with men like him acting on their perverted desires for power over the weaker and less influential with impunity. Is anyone really shocked when we hear this stuff anymore? And why should we be surprised when so much of Hollywood’s own output is so profoundly misogynistic?
In fact, television and film and videogames and advertising everywhere relies heavily on the graphic portrayal of (usually) young and beautiful women, very often without the normal amount of clothes, in degrading positions, or having violence done to them. Where is the agency in our female characters on screen? Women are almost always objects instead of subjects, accessories to our heroic or antiheroic male protagonists, side-stage, side-screen, side-billboard, almost always at the side with a pouting curvaceousness that denotes exactly how we are to be viewed. Is it really that much of a stretch, in our over-pornified world where women are routinely degraded on laptop screens everywhere, to consider that this might have some effect on, or at least reflect, the behaviour and attitudes towards women behind closed hotel room doors?
Take Blade Runner 2049, for example. I went to the cinema in keen anticipation of what the early reviews had suggested would be a moving, thought provoking and visually stunning sci-fi epic follow up to an iconic cinema classic, albeit one with its own problems when it comes to female characterisation. I came out feeling depressed. I had seen this movie, with its taciturn, near emotionless but oh-so-violent male protagonists, a million times before. And sadly, I’d seen versions of the wildly problematic female stereotypes presented on-screen innumerable times before as well. There were plenty of shots of female nudity, for no good reason at all, and not so many of nude men. There were prostitutes having violence done to them, helpless innocent naked replicants having violence done to them, ‘tough’ but underdrawn women having violence done to them, and an insipid fake hologrammatic female love ‘interest’ having violence done to her projection unit just after she’d uttered her final line of validation. ‘I love you’, she said, after she’d spent much of the previous two hours uttering lines of ego-bolstering encouragement to K, the hero of the piece, and catering to his every whim - home cooked dinner, dancing, sex, looking pretty, agreeing with everything he said and telling him how great he is – the ultimate in female compliance. The ultimate toxic male fantasy. Frankly, I was relieved when that particular bit of nasty technology was taken out.
I understand that maybe, at an extreme stretch, the film makers may have been making a comment about how technology is likely to distort real male-female relationships. But nowhere was this explicitly addressed in the film and it absolutely needed to be. Instead, they were clearly primarily catering to a crowd of heterosexual men, two thirds of whom according to a recent survey would be willing to buy a sex robot. This would have been far too subtle for the vast majority of people who are used to seeing women as objects every single day, or being treated as objects every single day. All they did was make a film that appeals to the male gaze and the male idea of what it is to be a hero. All they did was reinforce everything most people accept to be true – that men are orchestrators of their own destinies, and that women are mere window-dressing. That men get on with the real business of living their lives as they see fit, and women have to shape their lives, such as they are, around that. Even the mother in this story, given something of an exalted mythologised status as mothers often do, died twice - once off-screen, and once, with little ceremony, on.
What would be truly revolutionary film making, and a story we as a sick society desperately need to see several times over, is one that places the agency in the hands of the oppressed. If we must tell a story of a dystopian future where women are treated even more abominably than they are now, the story must be told from the point of view of women. We need to be seen and heard. Only then will our voices count for something. Only then will we really start to see a transformation in the consciousness that is needed for acts of oppression and violence to be real aberrations, instead of cynically and erroneously portrayed as such by the Hollywood bigwigs who are pretending that Weinstein is an unusual case. Only then will we engender the sort of compassion and empathy for women that we routinely reserve for men.
This is one of the reasons why The Handmaid’s Tale absolutely wiped the
floor with Blade Runner 2049. The Hulu TV show based on Margaret Atwood’s brilliant novel of the same name, tells the dystopian story from the point of view of the oppressed – women, forced into domestic servitude and sexual slavery and surrogacy. It is painfully recognisable and infinitely more challenging a narrative than the vast majority of Hollywood output. With a strong female presence in the production team, the authenticity of the female experience is unquestionable. The performances and the story telling make the cardboard cut-outs stereotypes of BR2049 seem as flimsy, one dimensional and fragile as K’s fantasy patriarchal projection.
So as a parting note, I would say this. Let’s demand more from our entertainment. Let’s start telling stories that reflect the sort of reality we would dearly like to see. Let’s stop demonising the likes of Weinstein and accept that he is just an extreme version of an awful lot of men. If he is a beast, then there are beasts everywhere. And finally, let’s stop demanding that women sacrifice our agency, autonomy and sense of safety for a world where men can rape, abuse, and commit acts of violence without having to face any real consequences for their actions. This will take everyone, men and women, to fight for this fairer and more decent society or any number of dystopias will be our reality.