Open Thread: sex as a commodity in Hollywood

A couple of weeks ago, DoctorScience said this in comments on Hollywood’s claims of “compassion” for Roman Polanski, but apparently not his victim:

I think what Hollywood puts onscreen reflects their offscreen lives: a world where many (most?) of the women they know are trading sex for something: money, position, access. They’re living in a world where sexual harrassment is not a crime, but a perk — it is accepted by all that a powerful man can do things like make an actress wash his car as her “audition”. They don’t just have casting couches, they have casting *lives*.

For them it is factually true that rape is controversial. They are so embedded inside rape culture that they don’t even realize there could be something outside of it. They keep showing rape as “edgy” because it is, in fact, not a black-and-white issue for them: they do not think of (or experience) sex as necessarily consensual, it’s always a power game. They think rape is “complicated”, emotional, compelling — but not, you know, *wrong*. If I think rape is always wrong, they say I must think sex is wrong — logic which is only logical if your experience of sex is all muddled up with rape.

My response to this was:

I think you’re dead right, and it’s possible that those in Hollywood who have never known anything but the rape culture actually think the rest of us are deluded. Sort of, “Oh, come off it, you can talk pretty all you want and respect and Title IX and that bullshit, but we all know sex is a commodity, and as long as you get something in return for giving it, you have no right to complain.” If that’s true, then of course they would think it’s “edgy” to “tell it like it is.”Reminds me of serial killers who are convinced everyone really *wants* to go around murdering and dismembering and eating folks, and they’re just the only ones with the nerve to do it. Like Polanski saying (in that quote I cited yesterday) “Everybody wants to fuck young girls.”

The more I think about this, the more confident I am it’s true. If you’ve never experienced sex as anything but a power play, but you’re engaged in creating fictions about sex as pure pleasure and/or part of a larger emotional experience, you would probably infer that, in reality, sex is always just a power play and this quaint idea that it can be something nicer than that is just a neat fantasy, like spaceships and talking forest critters. After all, boys are encouraged to think of sex as something you do to impress your friends and elevate your status. It’s hard to become aware of any feelings for a sex partner, even pure physical pleasure, if you’re too busy worrying whether this “score” will be impressive enough to make those mean guys in the locker room stop teasing you.

What do you think? Is this where Polanski’s Hollywood supporters are coming from?

Comments

  1. Eileen says

    Yes, this is very convincing, and could be an important part of a larger book explaining the state of women in film today. It’s hard to cultivate great female actors and artists when, on the business side, you have a bunch of dudes gathered around a table talking about whether they want to fuck established actors and agitating for yearly fresh crops of young women to leer over and exploit.

  2. Anemone says

    This reminds me of some of the debates that used to happen over on the Change.org human trafficking blog. People would argue in favour of legalizing and regulating prostitution (which often involves a horrifying amount of damage to the people who are prostituted regardless of the law), and they’d justify it sometimes by saying that marriage is essentially prostitution, so it’s hypocritical to favour one and oppose the other. One hopes that most marriages are not that bad.

    I don’t think these people who think like this understand the concept of a person, any person (including themselves) as a person rather than a thing. As soon as you start thinking of people as persons, the whole thing falls apart. (By person I mean that there’s a thinking feeling entity in there – not just programming.)

    I’m so far on the outside of the industry it’s hard for me to know what’s going on, but the evidence (film content, number of women in positions of authority) doesn’t look good. My mind just shuts down sometimes trying to make sense of it all.

  3. SunlessNick says

    Reminds me of serial killers who are convinced everyone really *wants* to go around murdering and dismembering and eating folks, and they’re just the only ones with the nerve to do it. Like Polanski saying (in that quote I cited yesterday) “Everybody wants to fuck young girls.”

    Courage and honesty are accounted as virtues, so Polanski’s quote – or the corresponding serial killer justification – is a way of feeling moral when denial of the crime doesn’t work. “At least I’m being honest about what I want, unlike you.”

  4. SunlessNick says

    I don’t think these people who think like this understand the concept of a person, any person (including themselves) as a person rather than a thing.

    Even smart moviegoers can, on some level, mistake the characters they see on screen for real people. It wouldn’t surprise me if those inside the film industry were prone to the opposite.

  5. says

    They certainly have this weird idea that “the audience” is one big borg and “the industry” is another. And specifically, “the audience” borg is stupid, backward, and terrified of new ideas while “the industry” borg is brilliant, progressive and would love to implement new ideas if only the stupid audience wasn’t likely to fling poo at them for doing so.

    If that’s not objectification – with a nice big side helping of narcissistic elitism – I don’t know what is.

  6. Dom Camus says

    How is it right or constructive to generalize about an entire community like this? Particularly when the views claimed on their behalf are so offensive.

    Also, Hollywood keep showing rape as “edgy” because people keep watching the films that do so. It doesn’t matter if someone watches a film and is horrified or disgusted or merely unimpressed, if they watch it at all they’re promoting the production of similar material in future.

    People in the film industry are defending Polanski because he’s a friend. That doesn’t make it right, but I understand the sentiment.

  7. Anemone says

    Some of us would like to avoid films with rape in them, but, unfortunately, even though regulations where I am (British Columbia) require a trigger warning on all films with rape in them, sometimes the censor doesn’t even notice rape even when it’s called rape in the script. So how are we supposed to not pay to see those films when we have no advance warning of the content?

  8. says

    How is it right or constructive to generalize about an entire community like this?

    Well, that definitely wasn’t the intent, and you are correct. We were talking about Polanski supporters in Hollywood specifically, but we were also talking about pervasive attitudes in one of the last industries where “Okay, let’s see your breasts” could be uttered in an audition without being considered sexual harassment under the law. I should’ve clarified that alongside the quotes.

    And to second what Anemone said, how can I avoid rape in films? Unfortunately, the MPAA doesn’t distinguish rape scenes from “sexual themes”, which can be anything from characters talking frankly about sex (which quite interests me when it’s not the usual drivel) to simulated sex (which I don’t particularly like, because it pulls me out of the story) to simulated rape (which I’d like to avoid entirely). So it’s not like we can boycott these movies so easily. Maybe sticking to G-rated films would be safe?

  9. Dom Camus says

    Apologies – in talking about the relationship between seeing a movie and motivating it’s production I seem to have implied that I blame the audience.

    This isn’t my intention. My point is that we have to take a whole-system view of problems like this. Hollywood as an entity is an industry and its aim is to make money. Decisions it makes are either things which are profitable, or which past data has led them to believe are profitable.

  10. Anemone says

    Except when I ran some numbers a couple of years ago it was obvious that sex is negatively correlated with box office, and probably also negatively correlated with profits (however you determine those), or at least not profitable. Plus they’ve known for a while now that R-rated films don’t do well, but they still make close to half of their films R-rated. Corporate culture can be very hard to change even when they know it’s not profitable.

  11. says

    No need for apologies – I took it more or less the way you’re saying. I was just pointing out that, unlike many products, we can’t do enough research ahead of time to avoid just those films containing elements we object to.

    …and even if we could, they wouldn’t know precisely why we weren’t seeing those films, so they would fall back on one of their usual assumptions about which audience members don’t like what. Like, if there was a rape scene and no shoe shopping, they’d probably assume we didn’t see it because it lacked shoe shopping. ;)

    Plus they’ve known for a while now that R-rated films don’t do well, but they still make close to half of their films R-rated.

    Yep, I’ve never figured that one out. Movies that whole families can attend almost without exception make the most money. Not just in theaters, either – when they air on TV, sell on DVD, etc. There may be some logic to it – like niche programming, maybe – but any logic that would support making R movies even though you know they’ll profit less would support making OTHER types of movies that might profit less, and “doesn’t make money” is Hollywood’s reasoning for not making many films about women, films that appeal to women, or films about characters who could’ve been men but happen to be women instead. One way or another, it doesn’t all add up to “logic.”

  12. Anemone says

    I think the studios are trying to shift movies from R to PG-13, by reducing profanity and gore. And when they do the critics complain.

    At the script reading series I go to, the vast majority of scripts are aimed at adults, and I notice a lot of trying-to-be-cool in them. I think this is a big problem: young filmmakers want to be Quentin Tarentino, not Walt Disney. And I don’t know how welcome those of us who’d rather be Disney (or Mary Pickford) would feel in film school.

    Dom Camus, I went to Screenit.com and downloaded descriptions for all the films from 2001-2006, then weeded out documentaries and stand up comedy routines. I got box office data from IMDb. In the end I didn’t include 2006 because when I did this (early 2007), some 2006 films were still in theatres. So it’s 5 years of films. The raw data is on my website. You’re welcome to play with it – just don’t make any money off of it at my expense. :)

    My original calculations were for ranked data, but the final paper (with Dean Simonton, due out next year) uses raw data and log box office (it doesn’t really make any difference). We also culled three more films before the final publication for various reasons.

  13. Dom Camus says

    Ooh, fantastic! Many thanks, Anemone!

    The reason I was asking is I remember reading some analysis by Arthur de Vany on the same topic, which showed that the statistics supported the idea that R-rated movie production was motivated by the numbers (note: absolute numbers, not relative frequency) of what he called “revenue hits”. The theory being roughly that if you’re interested in making a huge pile of money you might not care about averages (because, optimistically, you don’t compare yourself with “losers”) and might not care about the biggest hits (because you know you can’t compete anyway) but do care about how much pie there is to be had overall.

    I’m paraphrasing him – and don’t necessarily support his conclusions anyway – but thought the analysis was interesting.

    I tend to agree with the school of thought amongst modern economists which proposes that whilst people are often [i]wrong[/i] they are seldom [i]irrational[/i] based on the information available to them. It is this concept which makes me wary of concluding that Hollywood have been making the same stupid financial mistake for several decades for no better reason that their own obsession with sex!

  14. Anemone says

    I should read De Vany’s book, shouldn’t I? It’s been on my list of things to do for a while.

    Me, personally, if I have a choice as a writer, and I know that sex/nudity, smoking, profanity and alcohol/drugs all correlate negatively with box office (which they do), I figure why not just leave them out? I still need to write a good story, but at least I know it’s not being dragged down by unnecessary negatives. Unfortunately a lot of writers and critics seem to think this sort of content is cool.

  15. Dom Camus says

    Apologies for the double post, but having just repeated de Vany’s analysis on your dataset (your data being more recent) I thought it worth posting the results. De Vany’s threshold for a “revenue hit” was $50M. Within that category, the sex/nudity breakdown is as follows:

    185 extreme
    307 heavy
    200 moderate
    99 mild
    69 minor
    36 none

    So your dataset does indeed show broadly the same pattern.

    (Note that I am not drawing any conclusions from this or trying to imply that anyone else should. I’ll leave that to those who know more about Hollywood.)

  16. says

    It is this concept which makes me wary of concluding that Hollywood have been making the same stupid financial mistake for several decades for no better reason that their own obsession with sex!

    Wait, who concluded that? I know we’ve discussed both issues here, but I didn’t mean to imply causation (and I didn’t understand Anemone to be doing so either). I agree that there may be logical reasons to make R movies even if they under-perform compared to PG. I just can’t think of any logic to apply that doesn’t belie their failure to apply similar logic in other areas.

  17. Nathan P says

    I’m wary of any explanations that try to assign a rational causal link between “what viewers want to/are willing to watch” and “what Hollywood is willing to make”–it can veer worryingly close to the typical Hollywood defense of “we’re just providing the viewers with what they want to see”. As with things like women watching films and Hollywood’s inexplicable refusal to make more money by including legitimate female characters, it seems that the film industry is entirely willing to make less money if it means they can perpetuate their sociosexual habits.

    That’s not to say that it’s necessarily wrong that audiences are willing to watch films with rape scenes in them (or at least have a hard enough time distinguishing between harmless scenes and rape scenes that they’re incapable of voting with their dollars on the matter)… but I think that a more likely account of sexual objectification in film is rooted in the decisions of the producers and studio executives, rather than the viewing trends of the public.

    (Sorry for the article necromancy–I’m not sure how permitted it is here. I saw a link to a Hathor Legacy article, and have since been reading through it and What Privilege?. Very provoking stuff. Thanks for posting, and helping me recognize elements of my white/male/straight/cis/able/etc. privilege.)

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