MCN Columnists
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Mr. Hollywood and the Women

When it comes to the movies, we all know sex sells … but to what extent does Hollywood perpetuate gender stereotypes and the objectification of women?

A couple of disparate things cropped up the other day that got me pondering the role the media in general and movies in particular play in perpetuating stereotypes about women. First up was this Princeton study I read about on CNN about men’s reactions to women wearing bikinis. According to the study, actual scientific proof backs up what most of us knew already: that when men see women dressed in bikinis, they tend to think of them in objectifying terms. Shocking, I know.

What interested me most about this was the assertion that this happens on a subconscious level, which raises some interesting questions about how male audiences react to objectified images of women in movies, why sex sells, and how films that objectify the female gender end up getting greenlit to begin with in a Hollywood where the decision-makers are still predominantly men.

The study, according to the CNN article, also found that for the men in the study who scored highest for “hostile sexism” — meaning they hold the view that women attempt to dominate men — the part of the brain responsible for the ability to analyze another person’s thoughts, feelings and intentions was “inactive while viewing scantily clad women.” The article also references an earlier study that found that after men view highly sexualized images of women, the way in which they react to real women in real situations is negatively affected. Both interesting points, but wouldn’t men who test high for “hostile sexism” to begin with already be more inclined to react to real women in objectifying terms, whether they’ve just viewed a picture of a scantily clad woman or not? And is the part of the brain that would otherwise allow these men to analyze the thoughts, feelings and intentions of others turned off generally for this group of men, or just after they’ve viewed pictures of babes in bikinis?

Later that same day, I finally got around to watching a screener I was sent a while back for a film calledWhat’s Your Point, Honey? This documentary (which is available online at iTunes, Amazon and Jaman currently, if you’re interested in checking it out) is an examination of the myriad ways in which we still have a long way to go, baby, in equalizing gender in the workplace, politics and society overall. For instance, the film raises the points that the percentage of women in high offices in government in the United States is lower than the percentage of women in like offices in Pakistan, and that women in the United States still make 77 cents to every dollar a man earns.

However, some of the filmmakers’ methods are questionable for whether they elicited valid responses from their subjects. They have three young girls zipping around town on Wheelies and scooters, asking kids at a playground to look at a ruler with pictures of all the US presidents on it and asking what their peers notice. When the other kids fail to get the point of the exercise — that all the presidents on the ruler are white men (this was obviously filmed pre-Obama) — the girls helpfully point that fact out, at which point they get a variety of “Oh, yeah … that’s not really fair” responses. And when some of the kids being interviewed do have something to say about why a woman has never been president, it’s hard to discern what’s their actual opinion versus when they’re parroting what they’ve heard at home, though in either case some of the answers are quite telling.

The girls also interview a variety of adults on the street about whether they’d vote for a woman for president, and to a man, the subjects answer “yes” — which makes one wonder if these same people would have responded the same way if they were being interviewed by an adult who they’d consider part of their peer group rather than a group of very cute and charming schoolgirls. Would the male garbage-truck driver respond differently if he was asked the same question by a guy in a bar? Were the answers these men gave their honest thoughts, or were they just magnanimously (perhaps patronizingly?) being “nice” to these sweet-faced young girls in not wanting to hurt their feelings?

The film also follows a group of seven young women who were selected for Cosmogirl‘s 2024 internship program, whose stated goal is putting a Cosmo girl in the White House by 2024. I hadn’t heard of this program, which matches smart, driven young women with tony internships in their fields of interest, and after seeing the film, I’m still of two minds about it. On the one hand, I think it’s great that Cosmogirl has set its sights on targeting young women who might otherwise be reading their magazine for fashion and dating tips with the idea that they can do something smart and career-driven as well.

But on the other, Cosmogirl, like its big sister Cosmopolitan, is a magazine that makes its money off selling girls and women the idea that their physical appearance is paramount and that the primary interests of girls and women should be beauty, fashion and men. If you look at the Cosmogirl home page, the navigation tabs across the front read as follows (in this order): Horoscopes, Beauty, Fashion, Life Advice, Guys, Entertainment, Fun and Games, Free Stuff, and Connect. Careers, politics, and women’s issues generally don’t merit a navigation tab at all. Further, the ads in both magazines regularly depict women in a sexually objectified context. So there’s a certain amount of irony in the Cosmo empire pushing the idea of a woman in the White House — a career path that, one hopes, would require one to focus more on brains, knowledge of politics and an understanding of world events than on what’s hot to wear with your sundress this summer or how to best please your man on a date or in the sack.

While magazines, billboard ads, popular music and television shows all have their role in perpetuating gender stereotypes, the multi-billion dollar movie business plays a starring role as well. Sex sells, as evidenced week after week by the box office charts, in which movies that feature scantily clad or nude women, or women as objects of sexual pursuit, consistently bring in the bank. Is it the fault of the male-dominated studio system for continually churning out films in which women are relegated to subordinate roles within a patriarchal framework? Or is it the fault of the men and women in the viewing audience, who shell out the cash to support such movies at the box office to the tune of millions of dollars in gross, that such films continue to be made? Put more broadly, do movies help determine and perpetuate gender roles, or are they merely reflecting the reality of the world in which they exist?

Whether they’re selling ideas or merely reflecting the world around them, the reality is that movies perpetuate gender stereotypes and the objectification of women consistently (if they didn’t, websites likeMr. Skin, which tracks movie nudity, would soon find themselves out of business). Whether selling women as the objects of sexual pursuit for the male leads (Fired Up), or women as obsessed with fashion and shopping (Confessions of a ShopaholicSex and the City) or their relationships with the men in their lives (He’s Just Not that Into YouSex and the City), or women in peril (TakenFridaythe 13thSlumdog Millionaire), or a career woman learning the importance of love and a good man (New in Town), in any given week’s box office charts you can find abundant examples of the ways in which Hollywood marginalizes the societal role of women.

And when you hear both kids and adults in a film like What’s Your Point, Honey? discussing gender roles, and the likelihood that a woman will ever be president, you have to start to wonder where the ideas being expressed by the subjects have their roots. When one of the Cosmogirl interns has dinner with her family and discusses her experiences there, you can feel her buried frustration as her older family members of both sexes perpetuate this head-patting sense of  “Oh, isn’t that cute, she thinks a woman her age could really be president by 2024,” and yet, in spite of whatever sense of empowerment her internship has given her, she mostly bites her tongue. I so wanted to see her stand up at the table and go off on a rambling rant to her family about how their attitude towards her and her ideas is condescending and indicative of how deeply gender stereotypes are ingrained, even in families that support, generally, the idea that their daughters are smart and talented and able to achieve whatever goals they might set for themselves.

There’s hope expressed in the film as well, in the idea that after 2008, more and more women will run for higher office, and over time it won’t be a novelty, but just accepted fact, and then eventually men and women will be held to the same political standards and no one will even consider the gender of a candidate in making a voting decision. But one also has to wonder if, so long as what boys and girls, men and women see in magazine ads, billboards, television programming and movie theaters continues to sell patriarchal and sexually objectifying ideas about the proper roles of women, we’ll ever reach that day.

I certainly don’t have all the answers here, but I think it’s worthwhile to raise the questions. Movies have a tremendous reach and probably a greater influence over shaping the views of audience members than viewers want to admit or Hollywood studio heads would ever want to accept responsibility for. And while I wouldn’t want to see a world in which movies are subjected to some politically correct feminism film censorship board, it would be nice to see Hollywood reflecting more accurately the realities of the post-feminism world in which we live today — and helping to shape a tomorrow in which the idea of women as subjects controlling their own destinies — not just objects orbiting around men — are the rule rather than the exception.

– by Kim Voynar

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon