Hollywood, Step Up!
There was a strong price to pay for being a tough independent teenage girl. Arguably, within the narratives of the films, their independence became the justification for beating the crap out of them. —Kelly Oliver
At Columbia University Press, we have a long history of publishing on gender studies. One of our most relevant publications to current events is this week’s featured book, Hunting Girls: Sexual Violence from The Hunger Games to Campus Rape. Today we have a guest post from the author Kelly Oliver about Hollywood, the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement, campus rape, and activism.
Remember to enter our book giveaway by Friday at 1 PM for a chance to win a free copy!
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Hollywood and the entertainment business are on the forefront of #MeToo and #TimesUp. Hollywood heavyweights like Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., Kevin Spacey, have been accused of sexual harassment or assault and lost their jobs because of it. While the wildfire spread of the #MeToo movement, which didn’t start with, and is certainly not limited to, the entertainment business, demonstrates the scope of the problem, Time’sUp signals that it’s not going to be business as usual for guys who grope. And, seeing powerful men taken down is encouraging, even if they are, for the most part, limited to the entertainment business, and most likely rich enough to avoid jail time.
Judging by recent speeches by high profile actresses Meryl Streep Frances McDormand, Ashley Judd, among others, women are demanding change in Hollywood. While Hollywood is the most visible territory in the battle against sexual harassment and assault, it is also the most visible—and possibly the most influential—cultural contributor to the perpetuation of rape culture. In addition to the “inclusion rider” McDermott proposed at the end of her Oscar acceptance speech, perhaps actresses and actors should vet the scripts/stories their movies tell and the images of girls and women they promote to stop the production of films that explicitly or implicitly justify abuse towards girls and women.
I started research for Hunting Girls because I was intrigued by the surge of tough teens giving as good as they get, particularly those hunting to feed themselves and their families (e.g., Hanna, Twilight: Breaking Dawn, Winter’s Bone, The Hunger Games). But, the more I examined these films, the more disturbed I became. While I found teenage girls breaking stereotypes and besting the bad guys, I also watched repeated images of these same girls being beaten and abused, strangled (Hanna, Twilight: Breaking Dawn, Winter’s Bone, The Hunger Games, Kickass, Divergent) and sometimes almost raped (Divergent) or symbolically raped (Malificent). There was a strong price to pay for being a tough independent teenage girl. Arguably, within the narratives of the films, their independence became the justification for beating the crap out of them.
In Hunting Girls: Sexual Violence from The Hunger Games to Campus Rape, I discuss classic fairytales and blockbuster Hollywood films featuring strong teenaged girl protagonists in relation to the epidemic of campus rape. We live in an era where a known sexual predator can get elected president of the United States even after video-taped comments about his wanting to grope and force himself on women, and even after several women have accused him of sexual assault. And yet, the Trump era has ushered in #MeToo and Time’s Up as women say enough is enough. At the same time, however, Hollywood continues to serve up ambivalent representations of girls and women as deserving, if not wanting, to be assaulted.
Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games), Bella Swan (Twilight), Tris Prior (Divergent), and other strong and resourceful characters have decimated the fairytale archetype of the helpless girl waiting to be rescued. Giving as good as they get, these young women access reserves of aggression to liberate themselves. The problem is that they still get as much, or more, than they give. Filmic representations of violence towards girls anesthetize their abuse in ways that not only normalize violence, including sexual violence, but also valorize it. These films send double messages. On the one hand, they give us heroines for whom “no” means don’t try it or you’ll get hurt. And, on the other, they delight in violence towards girls, as if abuse is a normal part of coming of age. Unfortunately, it is all too true that violence and abuse are part of the lives of girls and young women. Yet, reveling in the assault of girls and young women on film works to further normalize violence towards girls even as it gives us fantasies of feminist avengers who fight against it.
In Hunting Girls, I examine popular culture’s fixation on representing young women as predators and prey and the implication that violence—especially sexual violence—is an inevitable, perhaps even celebrated, part of a girl’s coming of age. To underscore the threat of these depictions, I locate their manifestation of violent sex in the growing prevalence of campus rape and the valorization of woman’s lack of consent.
In an official trailer for the film Pitch Perfect 2 (2015), Rebel Wilson’s character “Fat Amy” is shown dancing at a campus party when the boy she is dancing with asks if she wants to have sex later. She says “no,” but then gives him a suggestive wink. He looks confused and asks whether that means no or yes since she said “no,” but then winked. She responds “absolutely not,” and then winks again, suggesting that she doesn’t mean what she said. What message does this send? When girls say “no,” they really mean “yes”? Certainly, Amy’s “no” is open for interpretation.
A few years ago, Yale fraternity brothers marched around the freshman dorms chanting “No means yes, yes means anal.” Their interpretation of “no” and “yes” is clear. Unfortunately, the Yale case is not an isolated incident. Last Fall, for example, there were similar chants and banners welcoming freshman at Ohio State University, Western Ontario University, and Old Dominion. And, last year a fraternity at Texas Tech was suspended for flying a banner that read “No Means Yes”. Another frat was suspended at Georgia Tech for distributing an email with the subject line “Luring your rapebait,” which ended, “I want to see everyone succeed at the next couple parties.” And, in 2014 at Williams and Mary, fraternity members sent around an email message, that included the phrase: “never mind the extremities that surround it, the 99% of horrendously illogical bullshit that makes up the modern woman, consider only the 1%, the snatch.” Then there was the chant used at St. Mary’s University in Halifax to welcome new students: “SMU boys, we like them young. Y is for your sister, O is for oh so tight, U is for underage, N is for no consent, G is for grab that ass.”
Unfortunately, the list goes on and on. Every fall, on campuses across the country, we see this sort of celebration of lack of consent, degradation of young women, and valorization of rape. These examples suggest an aggressive campaign on the part of some fraternities and some men on campus to insist “No” means “Yes,” and consent is not only irrelevant, but also undesirable. In the St. Mary’s chant, the lack of consent is openly valued, “N is for no consent.” They make it plain that actively seeking sex without consent and luring “rapebait” is their goal. Studies confirm what these seemingly endless examples indicate. For example, one study found that “nearly one-third of college men admit they might rape a woman if they could get away with it.” And another study reports that half of the (college) men surveyed admitted to using some form of sexual aggression on a date.
The prevalence of sexual assault should make us take very seriously any endorsements of “boys will be boys” sexism, or so-called “locker room talk” of grabbing women against their will. The sheer numbers and the outrageous sentiments of chants like that at Yale “No means yes, yes means anal. My name is Jack, I’m a necrophiliac. I F— dead women” are depressing signs that sexism is alive and well. But, take heart. There are also individuals and groups fighting back with various forms of activism and art. And the very fact that this type of sexist behavior makes headlines is a step forward.
I’d like to conclude on a more upbeat note, acknowledging some of the activism and art bringing awareness to the epidemic of campus rape, working to envision alternatives to rape culture, and imagining a future where violence, especially sexual violence, will not be taken for granted as part of a girl’s coming of age.
The promise of true girl power in film may not be Bella, Katniss, or Tris, but rather the heroines of the anti-rape documentary The Hunting Ground, survivors Annie Clark and Andrea Pino, co-founders of EROC, End Rape on Campus, and many other young women on college campuses around the country who are fighting against sexual violence, not with violence of their own, but rather with social media, compassionate activism, and performance art. For example, SlutWalk activist campaigns in countries across the globe raise awareness of victim blaming. Or, Amanda Nguyen who successfully promoted the new Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Act after fighting not to have her own rape kit destroyed and founded RISE to fight sexual assault. Or survivors using performance art such as Emma Sulkowicz aka “Mattress Girl” who, for an entire year carried the mattress where she’d been raped with her; and more recently, Yana Mazurkevich raising rape awareness through her photography project “It Happened.” Or, Lady Gaga’s award winning anthem, “Til it happens to you.” These real life heroines are not afraid to tell their stories, even if it means facing retaliation in order to bring sexual violence out of the shadows and into the spotlight.
For my part, after researching and writing Hunting Girls, as a much needed antidote to the depressing reality I’d uncovered, I turned to writing fiction as a way to address issues of party rape, human trafficking, and other pressing women’s issues. In my feminist novels, Wolf, Coyote, Fox, and Jackal, I attempt to raise awareness of these issues through compelling characters and plot twists, and to imagine a better world where coming of age for girls means strong bonds between friends who work together to overcome the odds, defeat sexism and assault, and flourish on their own terms.
Hollywood could take a lesson from these activists and artists to tell new stories about the bonds that make girls and women strong instead of repeatedly showing tough girls being strangled and beaten.