Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Why Compare the Filming of Sex Scenes to Sexual Assault?

It is near impossible to adequately address a controversial topic in one blog post. Take one (fairly) recent entry: A Tale of Two Sexual Assaults on Jennifer Lawrence. There is much I could have said but didn’t. And by leaving many things unsaid, I inevitably left the door open for people to hear things I did not say.

Based on feedback I’ve received, I want to clarify and strengthen my argument by examining three items: 1) the underlying message of the movie Passengers, 2) the controversial language I chose, and 3) human agency—in particular, female agency.

Please be forewarned that the following material contains spoilers for the movie Passengers.

THE MESSAGE OF PASSENGERS

In a work of art, the message and/or worldview of the artist(s) is shown not just in the story that is being told, but in the way the story is being told. The storyteller’s method is part of the message. And the general consensus among critics is that sexual exploitation is the inescapable thematic core of Passengers.

Several reviews have pointed out how the storyline works to dehumanize and objectify Aurora (Lawrence’s character). For example, Wendy Ide writes that the whole story is “predicated on a single act of staggering selfishness” in which Jim, the main character, is “the perv who practically [grinds] himself against a woman’s sleep pod before stealing her life to be his chosen playmate.” Katie Walsh concurs, saying the movie focuses on “sexy space fun times, turning Jim’s morally reprehensible choice into a meet cute.”

The entire narrative, says Robert Abele, is stained by “issues of male captivity fantasy and victimization.” He then adds, “It doesn’t help that [Director] Tyldum frequently shoots Lawrence with an almost fetishistic interest in her curves, to the point that even after the cat’s out of the bag — and Lawrence nails Aurora’s initial distress and rage — he cuts from her screaming ‘You took my life!’ to an ogling shot of her swimming in a two-piece.”

Like the filming of the movie itself, the storyline of Passengers reveals a dangerous subculture at work: one in which women are viewed as sex objects, existing primarily for the pleasure of men. In the words of film critic Steven D. Greydanus:

[There is a] male cultural assumption that women are there for male enjoyment and that men have a right to enjoy them. It’s a reality that women face every day. PASSENGERS is ultimately, in its own way, a reflection of this cultural assumption.

Mr. Greydanus is right. In the case of Passengers, this cultural assumption is evident on several fronts. It’s evident in the story the filmmakers decided to tell, in the way they treated their characters, and in the way they treated the actors who played those characters.

QUESTIONABLE LANGUAGE

Some readers took issue with my labeling of the sex scene as an assault. They thought the language was too strong, especially since Lawrence wasn’t actually raped. If we apply the word (or the idea of) “rape” to everything, it loses its meaning.

I sympathize with that position—and, to a certain extent, agree with it. In order to clarify the reason for my word choice, I’d like to point to the strong language many critics used in regards to the film itself. The references to rape are legion, even though the sex that takes place in the movie is not coerced. Aurora consents to, and even sometimes initiates, her trysts with Jim. Nevertheless, critics responded (rightfully, I think) to the set of circumstances leading to this “romantic” relationship as sexual assault. The sex is consensual, yes, but it involves manipulation. Such consent should not be construed as free.

Similarly, the filming of Jennifer Lawrence’s sex scene was indeed consensual. It also involved societal manipulation, evidenced in large part by the amount of fear, guilt, and anguish Lawrence experienced during and after the shoot. In the face of such cultural duress, her consent should not be construed as free.
                               
All things considered, I think my use of the term “sexual assault” is appropriate—as long as I make distinctions between an actual person-on-person assault and an assault a society makes on a group of people. And, as anyone knows from reading the blog post, I definitely made that distinction.

FEMALE AGENCY

Another critique I have received is that my position shows a disregard for female autonomy. By focusing on the experiences of actresses in particular, I am revealing sexist and misogynistic view of women, as if they are no better at dealing with pressure than children.

I am grateful for this critique. That someone could click away from my blog thinking such things is concerning. I plan on dealing with this criticism more fully in the future. For now, let me give a short response.

My emphasis on the cultural constraints of actors is not meant to imply that actors (and especially women) in these situations are left without the reality or even the possibility of moral agency. I have focused much attention on our culture as a whole because I believe it is a critical factor.

Consider an illustration from a completely separate topic: American obesity. One might ask why we don’t focus more time on issues of autonomy and personal responsibility, rather than on societal issues like portion sizes, aggressive marketing techniques, the prevalence of junk food, and the abundance of sedentary entertainment. The answer is that zeroing in on personal responsibility while ignoring cultural trends is a shortsighted approach to the problem.

So it is, I believe, with the filming of sex scenes in modern entertainment, whether such entertainment is obviously and blatantly pornographic, or subtly and artistically pornographic. In short, although female agency is indeed a factor, it is not the only factor. And I am choosing to draw attention to factors that we as an audience can actually affect.

CONTINUING THE CONVERSATION

I greatly appreciate the feedback I have received from readers, both positive and negative. It helps me pause and consider where I might be wrong. It also helps me refine my language and/or message so that I can more successfully and clearly communicate what I believe in the future.

And even if, at the conclusion of this blog post, you still disagree with me, I hope that you can at least better understand and appreciate my intentions. In any case, thank you for contributing to this conversation.

photo credit: jenlawfilms via flickr, CC