We think of Hollywood as a liberal and socially progressive land of hippies, what with its endless fundraisers and giving awards to movies that teach us that intolerance is wrong. Yet in certain ways, movies are still way behind the times.
We've pointed out before how certain weird movie stereotypes refuse to die, but there are larger, sadder trends that seem like they'll never go away.
For instance ...
Think for a minute about the last time you saw a black guy with a white woman in a mainstream movie. OK, now take away every single movie where they're using that relationship to preach to us about racism. So that knocks out Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Jungle Fever, Save the Last Dance, Far From Heaven and any incarnation of Othello.
In other words, try to think of movies where the relationship is just treated as a normal, everyday thing (keep in mind, in real life one in seven new American marriages are between members of different races). Mia and Marsellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction? Actually, that couple never appears on screen together. We'll give you two: Rachel Getting Married and Love Actually.
Seen mostly by critics and the people who actually made the films.
Now, think about the last time you saw a white guy get it on with a black lady (and again, where race wasn't a major theme of the movie). The list is surprisingly long: The Bodyguard, Die Another Day, The Score, Boiler Room, Mission Impossible II, Austin Powers in Goldmember, Avatar (kinda), The Princess and the Frog, Star Trek the movie, Star Trek the TV show and just about every movie Halle Berry's ever been in.
She's got that vanilla fever.
So What's the Deal?
It's not just our imagination. The "Audiences Don't Want to See Black Men Taking Our White Women" thing is so ingrained that Will Smith claims that Cameron Diaz lost the lead role opposite him in the movie Hitch because producers were worried about "the nation's problem of seeing a black man and a white woman getting intimate." So, Cuban-American Eva Mendes was cast instead. Hollywood has apparently decided that Mendes is a nice compromise to the black man/white woman problem -- she gets those roles again and again and again.
This one goes allll the way back to 1915's Birth of a Nation. Today, it's a punchline about how racist everyone used to be, but it was the first movie shown in the White House screening room to then President Woodrow Wilson. Up until the 1960s, it was widely regarded as the greatest American movie. And the second half of the movie is essentially a slasher flick in which "renegade slaves" (white guys in black face) play the role of Jason Voorhees, and pretty white girls play the role of ... well, the pretty white girls in slasher movies. It even has the standard "TURN AROUND HE'S RIGHT BEHIND YOU!" slasher movie shot as she's stalked by the monster ...
And the part where she throws herself off of a cliff to avoid being raped by a black man ...
"It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true." -- President Woodrow Wilson, allegedly.
D.W. Griffith's movie was a hit because he knew how to strike a chord of terror with white audiences. In today's era of political correctness, it seems pretty telling that Hollywood works so hard to avoid even accidentally touching that same chord.
Think we're making it up? Then how do you explain The Pelican Brief? In the book, the guy and the girl do it, because he's a suave guy saving a damsel in distress and because that's what happens in every single work of fiction ever. In the movie, starring Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts at their most doable, they hugged. They were alone for the night in a cabin, and they hugged!
"Too close! A keep those hands where we can see 'em. We have a white male audience to consider here, people."
On one hand, the "strong woman" character is all over action movies now -- audiences have no problem seeing ladies kicking dudes in the face. So that's one area where we've made progress, right? The fact that women don't need to be dainty little flowers probably died with Rosie the Riveter. So what's the problem?
Well, there's something these tough survivor girl characters all have in common. Take Aliens. There are two main female characters: Ripley and Private Vasquez. One is a hardened soldier with combat experience, a butch haircut and a Rambo-esque bandanna tied around her forehead, and the other is a more traditionally feminine civilian who has no real business being in a combat zone at all. Guess who dies? Here's a hint: It's the one TV Tropes named a section after.
We'd tap that. From a safe distance. With body armor.
Examples are endless. In The Descent, the least feminine character is the first to die, and the grieving mother is the only one to live. The Matrix kills off the androgynous Switch, but leaves (the more feminine) Trinity.
And then we have Michelle Rodriguez, who has built her entire career around this, dying gloriously in Resident Evil, Avatar and Lost, each time leaving room for a more delicate girl to survive.
"I love your smile, Michelle, but I think it would look better with a gaping chest wound."
So What's the Deal?
The best point to make about this whole thing has already been made by Ms. Rodriguez herself:
"... people can call it typecast, but I pigeonholed myself ... Saying no to the girlfriend, saying no to the girl that gets captured, no to this, no to that, and eventually I just got left with the strong chick who's always being killed, and there's nothing wrong with that."
"Man, she's good. Hasn't even read the script ... she just knows."
You read that right: She's limited her roles to interesting, strong characters. For a male actor, that means "action hero." For a woman, it means she has to die -- over and over and over again, each time making way for the petite model to take down the villain with her Waif-Fu instead. That's the phrase TV Tropes coined to describe the martial art that allows a woman to thrash trained soldiers twice her size while having no musculature on her frame at all. It's considered empowering when Joss Whedon includes ass-kicking females in everything he writes, but when he needs a badass kung fu killing machine, he casts the pretty, wispy Summer Glau.
The women who develop careers as action stars are not just pretty, but are pretty in the most feminine way possible: Angelina Jolie, Charlize Theron, Uma Thurman, Milla Jovovich, Michelle Yeoh and Halle Berry. We're guessing that 70 percent of the people reading this article can take each of those women in a fight because we're guessing at least 70 percent of you are not unnaturally thin wisps of humanity. Doesn't matter. The only women we'll consistently let star in action movies also happen to be women so beautiful they get their own cosmetics campaigns, like, all the time. Michelle Rodriguez is pretty, but she's not might-be-an-alien pretty, and so she has to die.
"Gray. Spandex. Smoothie. Covergirl."
We've convinced ourselves that there's such thing as "ass-kicking supermodels" for the same reason female slasher movie survivors tend to spend the last hour of every film running and screaming at the top of their lungs. There is so much psychology behind that concept of the lone female slasher movie survivor that there is an entire book about the phenomenon and what it means (Men, Women and Chain Saws). The author points out that when the last person standing in a horror movie is a man, you never see him screaming or crying with fear (imagine Arnold's character in Predator doing that), but with women, it's required. For the most part, we won't sympathize with her unless she spends a certain amount of time helpless and terrified.
Joss Whedon can pretend like the ass-kicking supermodels were created as a reaction to the helpless victims, but he's just substituting one weird male fantasy with another. It's as if there's nothing in between "beautiful victimized woman crying while splattered in blood" and "beautiful invincible woman kicking people while wearing skintight fetish gear."
"Nah, go ahead and finish the kick. It's kind of a thing I have."
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.