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From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies

In Black & White: The Women (Pt 1)

[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]

FROM REVERENCE TO RAPE: The Treatment of Women in the Movies. By Molly Haskell. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, Inc. 416 pages. $10.

Too often, one of the nicest things about having a Cause is that it provides cookie-cutter categorizations for almost every occasion. Human beings can be swiftly shuffled into suits of fascism, racism, male or female chauvinism, or whatever other convenient –ism lies at hand. Given the proper brand of cookie cutter, one can avoid confronting practically anything on its own terms—or in terms which stubbornly transcend or evade easy compartmentalization. The world becomes a neater place, less cluttered with complexities and nagging ambiguities when the brandished talisman of a single point of view sends all of disorderly reality scurrying into a series of carefully labeled cubbyholes.

Critics of the arts find cookie cutters particularly helpful in their craft. Art, you know, has that nasty habit of bursting the seams of the most rigorously contrived critical straitjackets—so much so that it’s still a sneaking suspicion of mine that the best response to a work of art is an eloquent silence. Film critics are not immune to the cookie-cutter syndrome—quite the contrary. The German film historian and theoretician Siegfried Kracauer was already drawing on a time-honored set of assumptions when he laced his tome on the cinema, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality, with variations on a monolithic theme, that being the motion picture camera’s absolute lust for reality and concomitant abhorrence of the fantastic or surreal, anything but the bare, unvarnished Truth. (So much for Méliès and his successors!) It didn’t require much of a critical leap to arrive at the notion that the masses, the salt of the earth, had cornered the market on reality and truth. Social consciousness, documentary verity, became the sine qua non of the great film for many commentators.

Whatever the theory, the best kind of critic approaches a film with an open mind, a willingness to allow its reality to resist the framework of his critical parameters. The bad critic loves his cookie cutter more than that which it seeks to contain and will ruthlessly shape and name the work under discussion to fit the Procrustean bed of his theory. Example: Several years ago, in The New Yorker, Pauline Kael attacked four films—Dirty Harry, The Cowboys, Straw Dogs, Clockwork Orangefor their unwarranted and immoral use of violence. Once Kael started wielding that cookie cutter of hers, whole arms and legs of cinematic reality were amputated, discarded as irrelevant; plot and character were distorted, reshaped so as to support her point of view.* On the other side of the fence, auteurists are not always exempt from such solipsism: nondirectorial contributions to a film may be lopped off and ignored so that the lineaments of a distinct and all-encompassing directorial personality may emerge in highest relief. God knows it’s an ongoing battle to approach anything or anyone in that state of vulnerability and receptiveness that permits, even invites, the Other to operate autonomously, to surprise us with its own unique reality. So much safer to go armed with a quiver full of preconceptions with which the most recalcitrant of realities may be “fixed with a formulated phrase.”

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