3Movies Are Still Weirdly Prudish About Some Subjects
If we say Hollywood is a bunch of prudes when it comes to female sexuality, you'll probably say, "Whaaaaaat? Everyone loves seeing boobies! I'm looking at them right now! Hell, there's a nip slip in Avatar if you know where to pause it!" But we're not talking about showing boobs or sexy ladies. We're talking about female sexuality.
For instance, the MPAA seems way more likely to give a movie an NC-17 rating for sexual content when the woman is shown enjoying herself a little too much. The movie Boys Don't Cry was originally threatened with an NC-17 rating because a female orgasm went on too long, and because a character was shown wiping their mouth after performing oral sex on a female. Meanwhile, around that same time Scary Movie got an easy R despite a woman being plastered to the ceiling by a blast of semen.
A single two-minute scene had to be cut from Body of Evidence to avoid an NC-17 rating. Nobody noticed.
But if you want your sex scene to get the green light? Try making it graphically violent.
Last House on the Left got away with graphic rape and an R, while The Cooler was given an NC-17 for showing Maria Bello's and William H. Macy's pubic hair slapping together for less than a second. American Psycho got an NC-17 -- not for the scene where Christian Bale drops a chainsaw on a women, but for the scene where he has sex with two women at once.
When it comes to abortion, we actually seem to be going backward. In the 1980s, the teen comedy Fast Times at Ridgemont High had a very frank discussion about abortion between two of the main characters. Today? Abortions have pretty much stopped happening in movies. Even when unintended pregnancy is central to the plot and abortion has to come up, the producers get around the issue by simply never saying the word. Remember Knocked Up, when Jonah Hill's character says, "I won't say the A-word, but it rhymes with 'shamshmortion.'" In a movie where the plot revolved around an unintended pregnancy, the abortion talk was too disturbing to include, and that's straight from Judd Apatow. For context, anally raping an infant was a perfectly fine joke to make a beat after the avoided conversation. Abortion, dear lord, no.
So What's the Deal?
The MPAA is under the impression that for moviegoers, the subject of female sexuality, even if it's just depicting women being too into sex, is scary and weird. And for the coveted male demographic, they might be right.
Think about the "femme fatale" (literally "dangerous woman") stock characters like psychopath Sharon Stone showing us her crotch as a form of aggression in Basic Instinct. Or the seductive yet dangerous girls who show up in Bond movies. Or Catwoman, or any of a thousand others. Those characters work because the filmmakers know that sexually aggressive women make a lot of men feel funny inside.
"I wonder if she's wearing un- HELLOOO!"
And then there's the female slasher movie victims again, and that weird rule that says the pretty girl who survives to the end of the movie must not be shown having sex. It's like Hollywood decided that we were all psychotically jealous ex-boyfriends, or strict dads, and everyone just went with it.
2If It's a Blockbuster, the Star Better Be White (or Will Smith)
Quick: name a horror movie where one of the good guys is black. Well, hell, that's easy. One of the ship's crew in Alien was black, and some of the soldiers in Aliens. Danny Glover was the cop in Saw, Carl Weathers was one of the squad in Predator. Lawrence Fishburne in Predators. Hell, there are lots of them.
Now count how many of them survived to the end.
Pointing out that black characters die in movies isn't even clever anymore -- it's the kind of obvious, trite joke that bad movies make about other bad movies. But, inexplicably, it keeps happening. In the original Terminator, every black character shown on screen dies. In Transformers, the "black" robot who speaks in inner city slang dies.
In a scene stolen directly from Boyz N the Hood.
There are some exceptions. You can bet that he won't die if he's played by a superstar like Will Smith or Eddie Murphy, who, not coincidentally, are among the very few black top-grossing actors at the box office. Otherwise, the black guy is there to get killed.
"Go get 'em, buddy. Here, you can borrow my knife."
So What's the Deal?
Even in the 21st century, with a black president and posters of black athletes adorning bedroom walls all across the world, white audiences still prefer to watch white characters.
It would be easy to argue that the box office numbers are skewed because, say, Fellowship of the Ring was simply a better movie than Big Momma's House. But you can get the same results from focus groups with everything else being equal. In this 2011 study, white undergraduates were given the synopses of 12 made-up romantic comedies. Along with the summaries, they got cast pictures and fake IMDB pages, which were manipulated so that each movie had six versions of the cast; an all-white cast, an all-black cast and four different versions in between.
Same plot, same characters, same everything -- just different cast members. And unfortunately, the whiter the cast, the higher the likelihood of the students wanting to see the movie.
So how does this play out in real movies? Black characters end up in supporting roles, instead of being well-developed characters. They're just there so we can "judge the other (white) characters by how they treat them." In other words, we certainly don't root for racist characters, and we'll boo racist stereotypes. But our open-mindedness usually stops at the point of actually paying to see a black leading man. Other than Will Smith.
Look at that list of the top-grossing actors again. Other than Murphy and Smith, the only names in the top 50 are Chris Rock, Billy Dee Williams (because of Star Wars) and Morgan Freeman. How many of them were the stars of their big movies? For Morgan Freeman, in his top 10 most successful films he was the lead in only one (Driving Miss Daisy -- a movie about race relations). Was Chris Rock the lead in any of his top 20 biggest movies?
Let's play a little game we like to call "Guess Who Got the Lead Role."
What sets Will Smith apart is that he's one of very few actors who can get roles that weren't specifically written to be African-American. If the role is an action hero who could be any race at all, Hollywood usually interprets that as "a white guy, or Will Smith." And that's only after Smith became a superstar -- in 1996 he was a long shot for getting cast in Independence Day. In fact, director Roland Emmerich had to fight to get Smith at all. The studio wanted to cast a white guy.
And as that essayist has pointed out, none of our favorite black actors are spring chickens. They're getting old, and they haven't been replaced. And even when black actors are successful, like more-successful-than-any-other-entertainer-in-the-world-successful, white audiences are pretty oblivious. How many white people could recognize Tyler Perry in a crowd? Exactly.
He'll be the one carrying a gym bag full of awards.
When we see Martin Lawrence or Chris Rock or Ice Cube in a leading role, we automatically assume that, like a Tyler Perry movie, it's for a "niche" or "urban" market.*
* "Urban" means "black."