Change the Picture compiles moments of violence against women from 10 of the films from the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest Films of All Time. It is not the only moments of violence against women in these particular pictures or the only films that feature such moments from the list as a whole. The images are interspersed with excerpts from film reviews about each of the films and then coupled with the song “Smack My Bitch Up” from The Prodigy (a song that was popular when it was released in 1997, but eventually banned from MTV for the controversial visuals that accompanied it). Together, the piece is meant to heighten the effect of these instances of violence that permeate some of the most critically revered films in cinema history.
This piece builds off the book From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies by Molly Haskell. It is one of the earliest books published from a feminist author on the topic of the cinema. In it Haskell hypothesizes that as women have mobilized in the real world for their own rights their depictions in film have gone from a revered status to something much less than: “As women represented real threats to male economic supremacy, movie heroines had to be brought down to fictional size, domesticated or defanged” (8).
In his work Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History Michel-Rolph Trouillot talks about how the lack of discourse or even mention of the Haitian Revolution in popular culture and academic texts is an act of silencing that produces a racist present: “What we are observing here is archival power at its strongest, the power to define what is and what is not a serious object of research and, therefore, of mention” (99).
My intention with this piece was to contend that the lack of discussion about the parameters by which we judge and create the cinema canon has a similar effect – reproducing issues of racism and sexism which speak more to the present than to the time period in which the films were made. And their continued adoration by critics and scholars alike is not neutral or unproblematic.
The scenes out of context may also spark controversy in how they are being used. Filmmakers spend a lot of time crafting narratives that justify and romanticize the violence in them. Thus, stripping away the synthesized saxophone playing in the background of the “romantic” moment between Rachel and Deckard in Blade Runner frames the way that he handles her in a new light. In the climax to Double Indemnity Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyk) shoots her lover Walter Neff in the stomach before he takes the gun away from her and kills her; thus justifying his violence against her. But the truth remains that he elects to kill her instead of any of the other possibilities one could take in such a situation. In Gone With the Wind Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) takes a swing at Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) which he dodges. Due to the force of her attempt Scarlett then goes tumbling down the stairs. The intent is comedic, but the inclusion of this moment minus the swing from Scarlett, is meant to bring up how women are trivialized in film narratives to the point that their pain is used for comedic effect.
The other thing that is so striking about the films used in this piece are the lack of people of color. Only Gus, the sex-crazed Black Buck, from The Birth of a Nation is remotely close; although Gus is actually played by white actor Walter Long who wore blackface make-up like many other characters in the film to portray an African-American character. In fact, in the whole list of 100 films, there are only a handful that feature actors of color – Pulp Fiction, Do the Right Thing, Westside Story, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, In the Heat of the Night, Gone With the Wind and To Kill a Mockingbird. Even then it is mostly in supporting roles.
Even for me, the piece brings up more questions than answers. Thus, I conclude this accompaniment with a list of discussion questions in the hopes that this work at least sparks conversation, if not easy conclusions:
- What are the parameters in popular culture or textbooks to constitute what is or is not a good film?
- What parameters should we use to judge films as great works of art? By their formal qualities such as cinematography, lighting, sound design? By the quality of their content – the characters, the storyline, the perceived audience?
- Can there be exceptions to this list?
Haskell, M (1987). From Reverence to Rape: The Image of Women in the Movies (Second Edition). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
• The first chapter entitled “The Big Lie” encapsulates her point brilliantly.
This Film is Not Yet Rated. Dir: Kirby Dick. 2006.
• This documentary is ripe with discussion on the MPAA rating system and the differences in the way that they rate sex and violence in feature films.
Trouillot, M-R (1995). Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Boston: Beacon Press.
Maker’s Note: I realize the quality of the titles in this video are poor. I am working to make them better and will upload a newer version when it is available.