Why Hollywood Can't Tell a Sex Discrimination Story

Two movies this year dealt with sex discimination. In one, Oleanna, a student used a false charge to destroy her professor. In the other, Disclosure, a woman sexually harassed a man. There has not yet been a Hollywood movie dealing with the everyday harassment of women by men that occurs everywhere in this country.

As mentioned in last month's article on Schindler's List , Hollywood does not like to tell any story straight. We never see people functioning comfortably or creatively at work; they must, instead, quit, be fired, rob their boss, or hold their co-workers hostage. But there is something else at work here: Hollywood cannot tell a story about the sexual harassment of women because Hollywood films are sexual harassment. In a recent interview, the actress Linda Fiorentino complained that when she sought the lead part in Basic Instinct she was told that her breasts were not big enough for the sex scenes in which the lead actress would be poised above the man: "There would be nothing hanging down." Hollywood is the last place in America where this will ever be the criteria for a job.

Liv Ullman said, years ago, that "My breasts are not actresses." Probably many actresses aspire to a day when they will have to stop showing their bodies to millions of viewers in order to find work; but, for every role such as Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs where a woman is a professional and a human being and nothing else, we have a Working Girl in which a completely gratuitous nude scene is inserted for the delectation of the male audience (Melanie Griffith vacuuming her apartment in the nude). The sad thing is that many talented actresses are still disrobing on film at age forty and over, when talent and personality should have freed them from any such dues-paying.

In the sixties and seventies, many actresses passed directly from playing eighteen year old nymphs to playing silly, available, alcoholic forty-year olds (rent some of the movies of Sally Kellerman for a prime example.) The message was that a woman's only identity is in her physical attraction; later on, when she is less attractive, she has no authority over anyone, and is a pathetic figure.

Not much has changed. Hollywood is not really interested in the lives of women; there are only enough roles to keep two, possibly three, actresses over forty working. Most of these roles seem to go to Susan Sarandon, who should be saluted for her intelligence, dignity and talent; but in movies such as Bull Durham she is still offered up to the audience sexually in the same way she was in Atlantic City twenty years ago.

By contrast, Sissy Spacek, also a fine actress, is nowhere to be seen; in JFK, one of her few movies in the last ten years, she had little more to do than smile and serve drinks to everyone.

Men can age and keep working; women cannot. They either disappear from view or, like Bette Davis, play grotesques and witches. Women increasingly head studios in Hollywood, and fill other important jobs, so what perpetuates the subliminal message that women's lives are not as important?

Of course, men such as Mel Gibson appear nude in the movies. Does it matter to them? Are there men who would like to stop doing so, when their career gets far enough along? I don't know the answer, but mutual nudity does not mean equal exploitation, any more than a slave and a slave owner walking nude on a Southern plantation were communicating the same message. As long as men have power in Hollywood, women's nudity on film is likely to be an effect of inequality, and an act of sexual harassment not permitted in any other walk of life today.