Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Liv Tyler: everywoman?

I would be the first to warn people about giving too much weight to movie reviews they read on the Internet. I mean, you don’t know what kind of twisted mind is behind the essentially anonymous words that pop up on your computer screen (like mine).

Still, I was intrigued with one of those user reviews that frequently accompany the data page for recent movies on the (indispensable) Internet Movie Database. In commenting on One Night at McCool’s, this particular person (I have no idea if it was a male or a female, only that s/he was from Santa Fe, New Mexico) opined that the film was representative of Hollywood’s “deeply woman-hating spirit.” The author does give the film a validation of sorts by concluding, “This film unwittingly speaks volumes about the dynamics between men and women—or men and their mommies.” (I was amused to see that, immediately beneath this tirade, the IMDB featured one of its apparently computer-generated cross-recommendations, which read, “If you like this title, we also recommend… Snatch,” a film that features not a single viable female character.)

I presume the writer was put off by Liv Tyler’s character, which is seen in rotation strictly from the point of view of the three main male characters. She is, in turn, figuratively a whore, a virgin, and a nag. As with most film critiques, this really tells us more about the reviewer than about the movie (I know the same is true of my own commentaries), but it is not my intention to analyze the psyche of an essentially anonymous contributor. Nor is it my intention to defend Hollywood against the charge of misogynism. No one loves lambasting the institutionalized American film industry more than I. And I myself have pointed out the inequalities in terms of good roles for male actors versus female actors in high-profile movies.

But this review got me thinking, since it touches on an issue that comes up over and over again. What is Hollywood’s (or anyone else’s) responsibility to present fair portraits of the two genders or, for that matter, of various ethnic groups? We regularly hear one group or another complain about the way their community is generally portrayed in movies and on television and make demands that the industry do something about the situation.

As with most controversies, I can see both sides. As someone who fancies himself a writer, I have to defend the wordsmith’s right to create his or her own characters with their own virtues or flaws, irrespective of anybody’s political agenda. On the other hand, I can understand that if one is part of a minority within a society, it can be demeaning to repeatedly see mainly negative views of your community, knowing that these are possibly the only images of your community that the majority culture is seeing. But no matter which way I lean, I have to recognize that our popular entertainment mainly reflects our society; it doesn’t form it. So the solution almost certainly requires more fundamental societal changes than just putting out positive images on television. People know when they are seeing propaganda, and they invariably tune it out.

I am not unsympathetic to people offended by images portrayed in movies and on television of African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Italian-Americans, gays, etc. I just don’t think that trying to inhibit the creative process is necessarily the answer.

The question of women’s images in popular culture is actually more interesting than the ones I listed above. After all, women aren’t a minority. Sure, they generally don’t control the corporations that run the movie and television studios, but they are a (bare) majority of the potential audience. Do we really want to pressure Hollywood to be in the business of manufacturing positive images of women? And why would we do this? Because there might be lots of people out there who don’t know any women personally and might get a bad impression of what they are like? (There are actually people like that, but they mainly work at large software companies.) Or are we worried that the mass media have some power to make their fiction into reality? If women are always portrayed in a negative way, might not the reality start mirroring the fantasy? If that’s the case, then why aren’t men complaining about the frequent negative portrayals of males. Sure the hero is usually a guy, but so is the villain. I mean, we men should be forever insulted over how we were portrayed in Dumb and Dumber, to name just one of a myriad films produced by Hollywood where the male characters are total idiots. Why are these films not labeled as misanthropic, just as our commentator in Santa Fe labeled One Night at McCool’s as misogynistic?

The answer, I fear, is that when someone takes offense at the way a character is portrayed in a work of fiction, there is perhaps at least a small concern that the portrayal may have some truth in it. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have the power to anger us. We would merely laugh at it or ignore it. We wouldn’t give it another thought. And now that I most certainly have gotten myself into a heap of trouble, I will stop there.

-S.L., 17 May 2001

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