Of all of the reactions to the rise and fall of Harvey Weinstein — from the reasonable to the extreme — the idea that women in movies have to be void of their sexuality to be self-actualized, worthy, or empowered is among the strangest. This pressure might be more understandable if that stance was what women actually wanted. But most evidence points to the opposite being true. While the Kardashian empire has been built on hyper-sexualized images of women with extreme hour glass figures — tiny waists, giant boobs, ample asses, long glossy nails, and contour makeup in layers with glossy lips and long fake eye lashes — films like Terminator: Dark Fate, Charlie’s Angels, Booksmart tried to sell a different portrayal of how empowered women ought to act and look. Guess which side is winning, at least where ticket-buyers are concerned.
The Kardashians are in command of millions, both in terms of dollars spent on what they sell (makeup, shape wear, perfume, jeans, and “lifestyle”) and in terms of the generations of women that they influence (in fashion, aspirations, and attitude). True, there is also a counter example in Billie Eilish – and plenty of other icons who don’t use sex to sell – but more of the power for women continues to be a function of how beautiful and sexy and glamorous they look. This is emphasized by their Instagram feeds and the many millions who mirror them.
Could that be why some of these films faltered, where part of the message was clearly to diminish sexuality and glamour? Remember when Jim Cameron gave the Wonder Woman film so much criticism for turning out such a beautiful, sexy star? He called it a “misguided step backwards.” He then claimed he could do it better by muting that sexuality deliberately. Terminator: Dark Fate may have earned 249,836,693 worldwide — but only $60 million in America? (on a budget of $190 million) Charlie’s Angels has made just $16 million. Booksmart topped out at $22 million.
Meanwhile, TV ads for Hustlers definitely sold the promise of sex and glamour out of the gate, even if the film itself denies that strippers go nude for private lap dances (which is absurd by any measure), earns $100 million plus. There is no way that movie, which is incidentally about empowerment — then refuses to Free the Nipple and squirms away from sex — would have made that amount of money if its marketing had honestly shown how little sexuality the audience would ever actually see.
Then when men balked that the promise of sex (or nudity) was not delivered they were criticized for expecting exactly what the movie promised. The movie was then praised by women for being actually about empowerment and not about sex at all. Booksmart deliberately set out to make a movie that didn’t buy into the usual tropes – pretty girls looking for love at the end. Their fairy tale was not about that but about their brains (one of them was most definitely finding out about her own sexuality but that wasn’t the thrust of the film). What did they have to lure women in to the theaters, or men for that matter? You SHOULD go to see this because this is what movies SHOULD be about when it comes to how we SHOULD raise our girls.
As good as Booksmart is, as progressive and funny and how generous it is to its characters, no one saw it. Why, because movies remain a fantasy escape, not necessarily a place to go to school on how to think. Perhaps that’s it, or maybe, as some suggested, it was simply marketed badly. Many were disappointed that people didn’t flock to see it – after all, this is exactly the kind of conversation that generates likes and RTs on Twitter, and makes everywhere, to the New York Times even. We are in the business, in Hollywood one presumes, of giving lessons on how Hollywood should address the various injustices we see around us every day. So why don’t people – why didn’t teens, for that matter, or women go see Booksmart? Why didn’t they flock to Dark Fate with Linda Hamilton kicking ass?
Of course it certainly isn’t true that sexuality is the only way to make big money selling stories about women. We’ll leave it to the reader to list movies that managed to do so. Little Women is likely going to make a lot of money and that will be as buttoned up as you can imagine, although it still stars women dressed up in finery while they chase their dreams of romance.
Hustlers is particularly frustrating because the film seems to be pulling a bait and switch on men (and before anyone jumps down my throat, I know, I know: not all men.)
I think if you’re going to go to make a movie that takes place in a sex-charged setting like strip clubs, and then show the film’s stars doing private lap dances with chaste bras and underwear on – that is a little bit — how shall we say – “under his eye” for both the filmmakers and the stars. After all, can you imagine a European movie that’s afraid to show that hookers have amazing breasts? Why is it only in America that shame is linked to nudity? Why do modern-day Hollywood movies about sexual power-plays so often depend on dangling sex as something that only men want and something that women must withhold from them? Why isn’t the freedom for women to show off our female bodies and revel in sexual pleasure ever seen as a valid form of empowerment?
Well, if the Kardashians and the trends on Instagram are any indication, that is what defines empowerment for millions of women who want it. Women clearly love having an image-based social network that gives them a way to show off their bodies and be admired for the way they look. If so many women want that, why don’t more movies show women that way? It’s a sea of asses, Instagram. They all want Instagram to allow their nipples to be shown.
When we look back on 2019 we’ll see two versions of the story. The Kardashian, voluptuous, era of narcissism, Instagram version and the buttoned-up, prim, virtue-signaling Twitter version where movies are applauded for making “brave” choices but failing to be the type of women that anyone wants to pay to see.
Sex sells. There has never been a time in history when it hasn’t. It is one of the primary driving forces of our species. To control it, to understand how to use it, is to possess a superpower. Why would anyone want to take that away? Why would anyone want to give that up? And moreover, why would women want to erase such a fundamental aspect of their power? Well, they would tell you that it’s male defined power. But is it really?
Honestly, if you look around at our culture you will see this debate mostly settled. But why then have these films emerged to try to rewrite that conclusion? To say – we don’t want our heroines to also be sexy because that means we have given our control over to the male gaze.
What do women want? And why are so many men part of their target in getting what they want? Why is there so much time spent picking apart films that don’t meet expectations of the hive mind on Twitter? Is it because so people who pay no attention to Twitter want to see those movies — and that’s unacceptable to the queen bees of the hive? The question must be asked why, then, aren’t any the films that are tailor-made to address social media demands almost always completely ignored?
It turns out that the Twitter bubble almost never reflects reality. Not with Oscar movies, not with politics and certainly not with how to cast and promote movies. Does this mean that the empowerment wave as defined by the Twitteratti is over, because Hollywood will look at these films to placate those demands and see how dismally they failed? Is there a place for them on boutique streaming channels? Does anyone care either way? Would they rather just luxuriate in The Bachelor where women pretty themselves up on the hunt for a man and a ring?
I certainly didn’t want to be the one to write this piece. Nobody wants to get hit with the flak that feelings like mine will provoke. And I don’t see myself as a journalist – but I also don’t see any journalists willing to take on such a hot button issue because the last thing they want is to be called out on Twitter. Maybe no one else thinks about it. Maybe it’s just me. But I do think about it.
I, like most of you, would hope that the best films to capture snapshots of modern culture are about something other than promoting what the Kardashians are selling. I don’t want my daughter coming of age in the world of “insta-ass” and I certainly don’t want her value to be solely in how she looks or how sexy she is. But what if the truth is more complicated than that? What if it was about projection and fantasy and not about bad influences? After all, the Kardashians are master of their own domains, with no patriarchal overlord.
But it’s hard not to notice how a few of these films with objectives away from the superficial did so poorly with audiences because the last thing they wanted to show us was women showcasing their power with their sexuality.