Charlotte Scurlock | Managing Editor
CW: Sexual Assault
The film industry is no place for women. As accusations of sexual assault and harassment continue to pile up against men involved in the film industry, Hollywood is finally beginning to recognize the toxic culture it has created for women, queer folk, and people of color. And yet, ousting a few problematic men is just the tip of the iceberg. The film industry was built on a sexist and racist foundation, and minorities have always been excluded from the production process. The very core of the film industry – the way films are made, the way men are encouraged to make films – needs to be dramatically restructured in order to create an environment and product that is inclusive of people other than straight, white men.
Emerging in France in the early 1960’s, auteur theory, the idea that a director is to a film as an author is to a book, has since encouraged directors to assert control and dominance over their films. The very idea of auteur theory is flawed, especially when considering that the average Hollywood set has a crew of 588 people. Yet the idea that one person has complete control over a film still prevails today, and we continue to praise male auteurs like Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, Jean-Luc Godard, or basically any widely praised director of art films.
Hand-in-hand with auteur theory is Laura Mulvey’s idea of the “male gaze,” the concept that women in film are placed as the object of heterosexual male desire. To subscribe to the male gaze is to accept that all of film is a projection of male fantasy. It is evident through the different ways women are shot in film. Take Darren Aronofsky’s film Requiem For a Dream. The older woman, Sara, is costumed in baggy, frumpy clothing. She is shot almost exclusively in close ups. In contrast, the young and beautiful Marion alternates between tight clothing and total nudity, and she is filmed in long shots. Because Marion’s body is attractive to the heterosexual male viewer, it is made more visible.
The problem with auteur theory, especially when paired with the ever-present male gaze, is that it encourages directors to pursue their artistic vision even if this harms women during production or if it results in a sexist product. And, considering that only eight percent of Hollywood movies were directed by women in 2017, these directors are usually men.
By encouraging directors to exert so much dominance over their films, we give them permission to abuse actors. Bernardo Bertolucci has admitted that, while filming Last Tango in Paris, he purposely withheld details about a rape scene because “[he] didn’t want Maria to act her humiliation her rage, [he] wanted her … to feel … the rage and humiliation.” Tippi Hedren has reported abuse by Alfred Hitchcock while shooting The Birds, claiming Hitchcock used real birds while shooting the film without telling her, and Lars Von Trier has flashily discussed the “personal pleasure” he took in watching Nicole Kidman wear a dog collar in Dogville. By giving renowned artists so much slack and elevating their exploitative behavior to edgy genius, all directors are encouraged to abuse the women on set.
The accusations are numerous and extensive. These directors are often praised for extracting such impressive performances, because we still think that exploiting people for a profitable product is culturally acceptable. Indiewire said that, because this abuse from directors can often lead to award-winning performances, “maybe torture has its purpose,” as if the inappropriate behavior of directors can be negated if the finished product is good.
Rampant misrepresentation in Hollywood continues beyond production and into the finished product of a film. While this can range from Quentin Tarantino’s excessive use of the n-word to constant whitewashing, the representation of women in film is appalling. Much has already been written detailing the deficiencies of strong women in Hollywood plots, so I won’t talk about that here. Instead, I’ll focus on just one of the many problematic representations of women in film: sexual violence. So many films depict graphic violence against women, often for no apparent reason. It’s disturbing that an industry so dominated by men gets to control the narrative around an issue that predominantly affects women. Because these stories are often told by male auteurs, the voices of actual gendered violence are usually excluded.
It’s not just the amount of violence that concerns me; it’s also the ways in which this violence is depicted. While violence against men is present in many films as well, it doesn’t look the same as the violence against women. Men fight back against their perpetrator – they are cool and indestructible. Look at James Bond and superheroes and the manly men of Quentin Tarantino’s films. Or, even if men are portrayed as weak and lose the fight, the violence is usually more physical or emotional, as in many action movies. Violence against women is far more often sexual. Look at the agonizing ten minute rape scene in Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible, or almost any women character in a Lars Von Trier film. What are the consequences of viewing excessive sexual violence in every movie? Women are told that they are, before anything else, sexual objects, that sexual violence is the worst thing that could ever happen to them. Men are told that sexual violence is no big deal – how could it be, if it happens in every single movie?
I have to question why these directors feature so much violence against women in their films – they’re not doing it to sympathize with victims of violence. Is it because violence is an easy way to drive the plot forward? Because it can help make male characters look more powerful for saving the damsel in distress? Neither of these reasons is acceptable.
In order to keep women, queer folks, and people of color safe on set, the structures supporting auteur theory must be dismantled, and the culture that praises it must change. This can only be accomplished by opening the studio door to minority directors as well as valuing the hundreds of other team members making the movie alongside them. This is not going to be an easy process: this industry, built from the ground up by white men, will need to undergo dramatic changes before it can be truly equitable.