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The Sexual Trivialization of Women in the Media and More on The Woman

By Dustin Rowles | Film | January 25, 2011 |

By Dustin Rowles | Film | January 25, 2011 |

Author’s Note: Each day at Sundance, Seth and I take in 4 or 5 movies apiece, and most of the time in between those movies is spent standing in line, which is where we actually write many of our Sundance reviews (like the one you’re reading). Yesterday, after waking up at 5:30 a.m. to stand in line for two-and-a-half hours to see Red State, I was exhausted and bleary after The Woman. I had planned to discuss it more fully in the context of this movie, but I was also pissed off enough that I wanted to say something about The Woman before passing out and starting it all over again. I touch upon Lucky McKee’s movies more below. — DR

Miss Representation is a documentary about how the mainstream media depicts women, and how that depiction is partially responsible for the reason why so few women hold positions of power in the United States. It says absolutely nothing new, nothing that wasn’t splashed all over the news in the late 80s during the height of glam metal music videos, and nothing that most people with a little common sense and a modicum of intelligence could not conclude on their own. Women are portrayed as catty bitches in reality television and as fuck toys in cinema. And those depictions trivialize women, making it more difficult for men and the old white male social order to respect them, therefore, making it more difficult to take them seriously as potential leaders. Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin are offered as examples — Palin in trivialized because she’s perceived as a sexual object, while Clinton is trivialized because she’s perceived a bitch. In both cases, they’re qualifications, or lack therof, for the respective positions are often overlooked in favor of examining what they’re wearing, how much cleavage they are showing, or how much leg they reveal.

It’s fairly standard stuff, and offers all the supporting statistics common to these sorts of documentaries, interjected with a few personal accounts from the writer. It’s not a very good documentary. It’s generic, nor does it say anything new, but there are a few talking heads, like Lisa Ling, Condoleeza Rice, Katie Couric, and Diane Feinstein, that make it sporadically insightful. It also reiterates what many of us already know: If every journalist on the planet was just like Rachel Maddows, the world would be a perfect place.

Still, Miss Representation does provide a much needed refresher course in feminist politics, a reminder that — as much progress as women have made — men still hold most positions of power in both politics and media, and that things are unlikely to change until we reshape the minds of men and rid the planet of Fox News.

It also provided a disturbing contrast to a movie I saw later in the day, Lucky McKee’s torture flick, The Woman, a film that essentially highlighted the thesis of Miss Representation: The more images of sexualized and subjugated women we see, the less likely things are going to improve. They perpetuate steretypes about women. Lucky McKee’s The Woman is the perfect example of this. It’s about a goofy suburban dad who finds a feral woman out in the woods, chains her up in the basement, and — along with his suburban family — “civilizes” her through torture and rape. The husband also casually beats his wife (for laughs, or at least the laughs of some of the critics at my screening) and then gets in bed and asks, as though nothing had happened, “Aren’t you coming to bed, honey?” I’m certain that, like many rape-revenge fantasies, the men get their commuppance in the end, both the father and his son, who has taken after his father. I wouldn’t know — I couldn’t make it past the scene where the woman is power washed. Power washed. I just don’t understand why the need to depict brutal, agonizing mysogyny to make a point about mysogyny, especially when that point is largely missed by most of the people who would watch such a movie.

To put it another way: What if The Woman were about a gay man, and instead of “civilizing” her, the man was raped and tortured in order to rid him of the gay. Could Lucky McKee then realistically support an anti-homophobic message by suggesting that a gay mean needed to be beaten and raped to prove that point? If I Spit On Your Grave was about a man who was beaten, tortured, and gang raped, would other men cheer when he got his revenge? No. Probably because no man would watch that movie. Most men couldn’t bear the thought of watching another man — straight or gay — being brutally gang raped, but if the genders are reversed, it’s a revenge fantasy.

And that’s what’s wrong with mainstream media: It conditions men to think of women as sexual objects, it trivializes them, and it treats them as objects, so that for enough men, a movie like The Woman perpetuates this triviliazation. But the lighting in The Woman is done well, given the budget, the performances are modest, and the music is sufficiently eerie. Is that review enough for you, or should I describe, in more detail, the beatings that the woman is forced to submit to?