Posted by: jt | April 20, 2008

sex, guys and videotape

Around 12:30 last night I was walking home from a friend’s house, just a few blocks away. It was a gorgeous evening – mild and breezy – and after months of winter ickiness, the streets and sidewalks were cluttered with people out reveling in the newness of Spring.

Given the balmy weather, it was no surprise that the taxi that pulled up at the light had its windows down. I stood, waiting for the light to change as the driver tried to make a buck, You need a taxi? he asked. I shook my head and looked the other direction. You’re a great beauty, he called. Very beautiful.

I’m guessing you’d be hard-pressed to find a woman in this country who doesn’t experience something along these lines on a ridiculously regular basis. I walk a lot: past the stereotypical construction workers, the lonely homeless men and the random asshats who take no pause before objectifying my sex. Normally the insulting compliments don’t phase me. I’m jaded enough at this point that, unfortunately, it usually doesn’t occur to me how problematic this is in our culture.

Maybe it was the late hour. Maybe it was discomfort of (albeit mild) solicitation coupled with the childhood-ingrained notion that, You don’t take rides from strangers. Maybe my subconscious picked up on other things and it really would have been dangerous for me to get in that car.

Regardless, for reasons I can’t quite pin down, this particular encounter – so typical in my daily life – pissed me off.

I woke up this morning with questions and frustration still rolling around inside my head. For distraction, I mindlessly flipped on the television as I tidied my apartment. I surfed through the usual Sunday morning chaff and hit upon the 2005 remake of King Kong. You know, the one with Naomi Watts and Adrien Brody. And my frustration spiked again.

I’ve never seen an Adrien Brody movie. It hasn’t been for lack of interest or opportunity. I wanted to see The Pianist and I will, eventually, watch The Darjeerling Limited. I love Jason Schwartzman a little too much not to.

The problem is, I can’t look at Adrien Brody without feeling violated.

I wish that I didn’t – I really do. He’s got that dark, brooding air about him that I find appealing, he seems like a reasonably intelligent guy and, potentially, he’s got some acting chops as well (at least according to the notoriously elitist Academy).

It’s that damn kiss.

Five years later, every time I see his face, I think of Adrien Brody forcing himself on Halle Berry at the Academy Awards in 2003. I can’t put it any better than one of the (now former) co-directors at Men Can Stop Rape, so I’m just going to quote. Massively. You should really just go read the whole thing though:

…rather than respectfully receive the coveted golden statue from Halle Berry, [the previous] year’s recipient of the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role, with some standard version of a handshake, hug, or kiss on the cheek, Brody, instead, grabbed and dipped Ms. Berry, gave her a deep, passionate, extended kiss on the lips, and then joked to her and the audience “Bet you didn’t know that that was part of the gift bag.” While some in the audience chuckled, Ms. Berry was left off-balance, surprised, and silent.

Oh, where do I start to unpack this behavior? Was it sexist? – another example of a man ignoring a woman’s strengths and humanity and treating her as little more than a pretty face and a sexy body, reducing her in front of the very peers who had recognized her just the year before as uniquely talented. Was it racist backlash? – some display of resentment towards the first black woman to receive the Best Actress Oscar, an attempt to put her back in her place, to unconsciously reenact the rape of black female slaves by white slave owners. Was it male privilege? – a demonstration of men’s entitlement to women’s bodies to do with as we please. Was it proving manhood? – an effort by a man who was being recognized for playing the role of the subjugated and powerless to reassert and reaffirm that he was, in reality, a powerful, virile, masculine figure. Was it yet another justification for sexual assault and violation? – a warped wrapping of men’s sexual aggression toward women as a “gift” that women secretly crave…

My answer: Brody’s behavior was, in some way, all of the above, and more. Was it a conscious, intentional attack? Doubtful. Did he get caught up in the excitement of the moment? Probably. Does it mean that Adrien Brody is an “evil man”? Not likely…

However, does his behavior highlight Brody’s failure to understand the links that exist between different forms of oppression? Absolutely. Does it suggest a lack of appreciation for the ways that his own actions toward Ms. Berry are deeply, though perhaps distantly, connected to the oppressive treatment by Nazi commanders that Brody’s character and countless Jews, Gypsies, Gays, and others received during the Holocaust. It seems so. Could the choices he made be perceived as giving permission to those with power to act as they wish toward those with less. Likely. Do his actions run the risk of reinforcing harmful and demeaning cultural stereotypes and silencing those who challenge them. I would say resoundingly “yes.”

Word.

Perhaps I just missed it, but there didn’t seem to be much backlash to Adrien Brody’s inappropriateness back in 2003 – at least nothing of note in the mainstream. The incident seemed to be written off an as amusing anecdote or even, horrifyingly, as a charming moment to be highlighted and revered.

Similarly, my experience on the way home last night can be written off as No Big Deal. It’s harmless, right? Silly, right? There’s nothing wrong with being called beautiful, right? Wrong. And, honestly, I do write off situations like this pretty much every day.

Which makes me part of the problem.

I put it to you, dear readers: How does a feminist respond firmly and unequivocally to this type of innate sexism without escalating a situation? When you cannot (and really should not) take the time to explain the inappropriate and harmful nature of these comments, what is a productive response? I’m at a loss.

Watching this clip five years later, and listening to Adrien Brody’s speech, I want to think that he just had a horribly thoughtless moment. I’m certain, for Halle Berry at this point, this is No Big Deal and it’s time for me to move forward and watch that Jason Schwartzman movie.

Regardless, these are symptoms of a deeply-rooted cultural problem that this feminist isn’t sure how to remedy, in the most practical of senses.

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Responses

  1. […] excerpt from Sex, Guys, and Videotape: Similarly, my experience on the way home last night can be written off as No Big Deal. It’s […]

  2. On a crowded Manhattan street in the middle of the day I would always say something to the hooters, howlers, whistlers. I can’t recall any specifics right now because they just come out. My intention is always to make everyone around them look at them and NOT see them as a person. I doubt I’ve ever been all that successful but I find comfort in trying.

    In other situations where it feels physically dangerous I’ve learned, the hard way, to just move quickly on and wish for them huge anal warts.

    What’s getting to me recently is the mixing of sexism and ageism. I have 20 somethings calling me “sweetheart” and “dear”. A friend tells me it’s better than “Ma’m” but I disagree. I don’t need to feel young or pretty or petted. I am NOT a domestic pet. I see the ageism directed toward men as well BUT by far it’s more prevelant towards women.

    It is all part of the needing to put people into compartments and it appears to be getting worse as our society develops less of an attention span.

    I find Hillary running for office to be an excellent spotlight on how far we have NOT come. All the jokes about her being manly, all the attention and speculation on her every facial expression.

    As a woman who grew up in the 60s and 70s I am so sick of this shit.

    Kudos for such a wonderfully insightful and thought provoking post.

  3. […] “Oh, geez, what stupid sexist thing is he going to yell?” and thinking how apt Jenny’s post […]

  4. Check it out, there’s a Hollaback DC.

    Unrelated: Sex 2.0 will probably be in DC next year. Woohoo!

  5. In other situations where it feels physically dangerous I’ve learned, the hard way, to just move quickly on and wish for them huge anal warts.

    :-) Tell me how you really feel. ;-)

    I think that was what piqued my frustration – that if I had needed a cab, at that point, I would not have felt safe getting in. That sense of security (and/or power) had been taken from me.

    What’s getting to me recently is the mixing of sexism and ageism. I have 20 somethings calling me “sweetheart” and “dear”.

    Interesting! From my experience, I tend to view those kinds of “endearments” as cultural. Growing up in the Deep South, I was surrounded by honey chil’ and baby and such. They fly out of my mouth (and fingers) more liberally than they probably should, especially since I had a co-worker who called everyone (regardless of age) honey. And I think I picked up lovelies from Craig. :-)

    Interesting that you find them ageist. That’s certainly never crossed my mind.

    I agree – Hillary’s run for President has stripped bare the blatant/latent sexism in our culture. (Down to the simple fact that we call her by her first name and Obama by his last…though anti-feminists will say that’s only because Clinton connotes her husband. Bullshit.)

    Which reminds me, I have another post to finish on feminism that’s all about Hillary Clinton v. Barack Obama. And how I think one of them is better for feminism (and quite possibly a “better” feminist) than then other.

    And we all know my political leanings… ;-)

    Too much to write, not enough time!

  6. Interesting! From my experience, I tend to view those kinds of “endearments” as cultural. Growing up in the Deep South, I was surrounded by honey chil’ and baby and such. They fly out of my mouth (and fingers) more liberally than they probably should, especially since I had a co-worker who called everyone (regardless of age) honey. And I think I picked up lovelies from Craig. :-)

    Interesting that you find them ageist. That’s certainly never crossed my mind.

    I think stuff like that is largely cultural. I don’t find “honey” or any of the other Southernisms age-ist; they’re part of what I’m used to in Georgia.

    But when I lived in Texas, and all the kids at the middle school where I worked referred to any female teacher (or really any female authority figure) as “Miss,” it annoyed the hell out of me. I mentioned it to a few of the teachers I was sort of pals with, and said, “Doesn’t that seem disrespectful? Diminuitive?” They had no idea what I was talking about. It was a Texas thing, apparently.

  7. What strikes me most from childhood is how the (all black, all female) custodial staff would all call me “ma’am.” In elementary school. Adult women calling a 5 year old girl “ma’am.” Gross.

    More and more things to blog about…There’s no time!

  8. Since I’m in NJ now (Lord help me!!) I don’t see the “sweetie” and “dear” as cultural. Now if they called me “ho” or “bitch” I’d get it – and I’m only half kidding there.

    I realized as I read these comments that the ageism just recenly occurred to me, and it’s not that I’ve aged that rapidly. It’s a patronizing tone, as though speaking to someone less capable and I do feel these young men think all women are start out less capable and then get dumber.

    Perhaps it is NE suburban syndrome?

    Or maybe I’m getting touchy?

  9. The comments on this post remind me of a conversation I had long ago with a certain one of our former housemates. :p

    I don’t know why (was I feeling masochistic?) but somehow we’d gotten into a conversation about feminism. Naturally, he was against it. Obviously, there’s no reason for feminism to exist, women can do anything men can do in today’s society, and the reason that we don’t learn about women’s accomplishments in our history books is that women haven’t HAD any noteworthy accomplishments! (Glad he cleared that up for me.)

    Ayhow I said something about how it’s evident to me that sexism still exists in our society because women get cat-called and belittled and judged on their looks by strangers, and he said…

    “Can’t you just yell back at them? There’s nothing stopping you from yelling back at them! You can do it too!”

    Fail. Way to miss the point entirely. But then again, I shouldn’t have been too surprised by that.

  10. HELLO MALE PRIVILEGE!

  11. […] example of male privilege, from a commenter on Jenny’s blog: I said something about how it’s evident to me that sexism still exists in our society […]

  12. I thought that kiss was a sweet thing, until I Just Found Out what Adrien Brody said afterwards. I watched the clip before, it looked like he was carried away, and Halle had her arm thrown around him. If he had stuttered afterwards, it can be written off as an impulsive act, but what he said made him seem like he was entitled to it!

    I still think he’s a very cute guy…but not that sensitive. He’s like what Margaret Atwood’s character in Cat’s Eye said, about men being like rocks, that women falls on, or so it seems. They might not mean harm, but INCLUDING our perspective, why do we always have to do 99% of the work in avoiding harm, avoiding misunderstanding, etc?

  13. Thanks for your comment, Georgia.

    As I said in the original post, I’m chalking this up to Adrien Brody just having a horribly thoughtless moment that is rooted in the innate sexism and racism in our culture. Do I think he’s a sexist, racist bigot? Not so much – I have no real reasons to believe that. He just provided us with a horribly perfect example of white, male privilege and how far we still have to go.


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