[Content warning: sexual assault]
The film industry today is bigger than ever, and reaches more people than ever before. The recent Avengers: Endgame broke all box-office records and earned a whopping 2.796 billion USD. Taking the average ticket price at $15, at least a 186 million people saw it. This kind of viewership is enjoyed solely by movies, since they are translated into multiple languages and given extensive ad campaigns, and thus reach more people than books or newspaper articles ever could. However, this also means that the social responsibility filmmakers have towards their audience is ever increasing.
Seeing problematic behaviour validated on the big screen, with other people perhaps even praising the work critically, can lead to the normalisation of such behaviour. Coming from a country like India, where the film industry churns out more movies than anywhere else, I have seen the effects of regressive trends in filmmaking on society first-hand. In Bollywood, the hero is more often than not a vindictive stalker character. Instead of vilifying such behaviour, it is shown in a glorified light, with the heroine eventually falling for him after much song and dance. This rosy picture then permeates the social subconscious, and we see such behaviour being considered the norm. These tropes plague Western media too and, even in this day and age, we can find deeply troubling themes like the female lead falling for her abductor or her stalker, male sexual harassment being used as a comedic device, and casual misogyny being passed off as harmless humour.
In action movies like Tom Cruise’s Knight and Day and Jason Statham’s The Transporter, the male lead forcibly abducts a woman, who eventually falls in love with him. Such movies promote blatant sexual harassment and assault, humanisation of clear-cut criminals, and normalisation of repression and silencing of women. A variety of techniques are employed to this end: twisting the abuse into heroic actions, juxtaposition of more violent characters to show the hero in a better light, showing resistance as naïve in that particular scenario, and so on. In such movies, it is also worth noting that it is usually white men who are the abductors or ‘heroes’.
Another example of problematic filmmaking is the use of male sexual assault for a cheap laugh. Everyone has heard the same punchline about bars of soap in prisons and other varieties of crude humour at the expense of assault survivors. It is so normalised and mainstream, in fact, that Neil Patrick Harris made the same drawn-out joke in a song sketch when he hosted the 82nd Academy Awards. We have grown so used to this trope that it even shows up in the 2014 Paddington movie, and in the old The Powerpuff Girls cartoon, too. Movies like Get Hard, starring Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart, are even centred entirely around this. This particular trope seems to be designed to emasculate, degrade, and make light of a very grave situation. This attitude then becomes commonplace and an atmosphere of toxic masculinity is formed, with a subtle air of homophobia added to the mix. This all results in normalisation of ridicule and emasculation of male assault survivors who are brave enough to come out with their stories, and thus silencing many more.
But the question then arises, since films are a form of art, how far does that artistic freedom extend? Should filmmakers just make what they want, from whatever perspective, and expect their audiences to know better? Is it the audience’s fault for being influenced by what they see onscreen, and not the filmmakers’? I feel the answer is a complex one. Films undeniably influence the zeitgeist and, in turn, are influenced by it. Our movies are a product of our times and in our politically charged environment considering your film to be apolitical is audacious and simply unethical. Films cannot help but be political pieces and, in the culture of the #MeToo Movement, while it is not wrong to show scenes of sexual harassment it is simply unacceptable to rationalise the decision of such a character. People who commit crimes of this sort find solace in seeing this behaviour rationalised or sympathised with in a mass media format. Films have always been a very powerful medium, and from socially riveting documentaries like the new Icarus to the propaganda films of old, their impact has always been recognised. Therefore, in an age when we know better, it is our responsibility to act better, and make sure what we show on the big screen doesn’t harm anyone, even inadvertently.
[Gautam Gupta – he/him – @9gcity]