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Notes on Backlash Against Feminism in Hollywood Since Reagan

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Tony Kashani

1.      The mainstream American cinema is a complex medium, which is an integral part of a cultural system owned and operated by a handful of conglomerates. I will hereafter refer to this medium as Hollywood. Moreover, I will be looking at a gender analysis. I think gender as a more homogeneous category is clearly more influential than a White-nonwhite racial classification, hence the focus of my inquiry on representation of women in Hollywood cinema.   2.      What is “representation?” Here I am considering representation through cinema. The word representation infers a notion that something was there already and, through fictional Hollywood narratives, has been represented. Following this logic, predicated on Stuart Hall’s work (1988, 1990), and my focus is on the notion of representation as the idea of giving meaning. Therefore, the representation of women in Hollywood cinema is the way in which meaning is somehow given to women’s role(s) which are depicted through the images on screens. Woven into the fabric of Hollywood stories are vivid and consistent lessons about gender roles. There are three men for every woman on the Hollywood screen, and an overwhelming majority of heroes in Hollywood are men (Gerbner, 1972, 1997). For example, George Gerbner’s research has found that after they reach the age of thirty-five, women are unlikely to be portrayed in romantic roles, even though men in Hollywood cinema have no such restriction as they age. By looking at Gerbner’s work, we can deduce that through the cultivation process Hollywood perpetuates unequal sexual expectations for men and women of different ages, and this is reflected in the roles that actors are allowed to play.   3.      How do they do it? While during the 60’s and 70’s various feminist movements made great inroads, the emergence of a neoconservative agenda, ushered in by Ronald Reagan and his cabinet, created a paradigm of backlash against feminism. Much of this backlash has been mediated by audiovisual media, and Hollywood has played its part in all of it. This backlash is not the creation of single individuals or groups. It is the creation of a system of story-telling with deep historical, cultural, and commercial roots. It is a system which allows very few degrees of freedom. They have been doing this with cultivation. Reaganism gave birth to a new media culture that teaches Americans—and by extension to the rest of the world—new gender roles.   4.      Most film historians, scholars, and sociologists would agree that the cinematic experience operates under the principle of “suspension of disbelief.” Furthermore, cinema is polyvalent. In other words, the cinematic experience is uniquely subjective where unique interpretations based on a person’s psychological makeup, personal history, cultural upbringing, and ideological beliefs are possible. Moreover, with media literacy these subjective interpretations are subject to going through dramatic transformations. Secondly, cinema operates with a pedagogical principle. In other words, cinema is a teaching machine.   5.      Edgar Morin’s (1956/2005) concept of “projection-identification” could justifiably be considered the third principle of cinematic experience. We project our desires, obsessions, fears, and anxieties onto things and people. Moreover, our projections determine our perceptions. What kind of cinema enables the projection-identification process to become transformative? Analysis of selected complex films to attain a deeper understanding of the kind of cinema that can be transformative will be helpful in this discourse. Morin (1956/2005) cited concrete examples of projection-identification to support his thesis. One universal example is “love.” Morin called love “the supreme projection-identification.” In building his case he discussed mise-en-scene of cinema,

We identify with the loved one, with his joys and misfortunes, experiencing feelings that are properly his. We project ourselves onto him, that is, we identify him with ourselves, cherishing him, what is more, with all the love that we carry within ourselves. His photos, his trinkets, his handkerchiefs, his house, are all infused with his presence. Inanimate objects are impregnated with his soul and force us to love them. (pp. 89, 90)


An empirical example of the thesis of projection-identification is the genre phenomenon (e.g.,       horror film, war film, and westerns). In seeing a horror film, for instance, a typical audience, for example, a 22-year-old White woman participates in a two-dimensional projection of images that give her the illusion of three dimensions. The characters in the film, which typically are slashed and killed, are young and attractive White men and women. This audience member can identify with these characters. She can also project his dark side or personal attributes onto the characters as they interact within the diegesis of the film. Moreover, the film is also projecting some of these attributes for her. In other words, the horror movie is controlling her imagination. She is able to suspend her disbelief and live through a crisis of murder and mayhem. By the time the film has ended, she is relieved to be alive and thrilled as a result. She feels artificially empowered, because emotionally she feels she has survived a life-threatening crisis. However, when the reality of life outside of the theater permeates her paradigm, once again, she feels ordinary. This can cause a predicament known as cognitive dissonance (Festinger 2007). According to cognitive dissonance theory, there is a tendency for individuals to seek consistency among their cognitions (i.e., beliefs, opinions). When there is an inconsistency between attitudes or behaviors (dissonance), something must change to eliminate the dissonance. In the case of a discrepancy between attitudes and behavior, it is most likely that the attitude will change to accommodate the behavior.

Two factors affect the strength of the dissonance: the number of dissonant beliefs, and the importance attached to each belief. There are three ways to eliminate dissonance: (1) reduce the importance of the dissonant beliefs, (2) add more consonant beliefs that outweigh the dissonant beliefs, or (3) change the dissonant beliefs so that they are no longer inconsistent.

Dissonance occurs most often in situations where an individual must choose between two incompatible beliefs or actions. The greatest dissonance is created when the two alternatives are equally attractive. Furthermore, attitude change is more likely in the direction of less incentive since this results in lower dissonance. In this respect, dissonance theory is contradictory to most behavioral theories which would predict greater attitude change with increased incentive (i.e., reinforcement).

Dissonance theory applies to all situations involving attitude formation and change. It is especially relevant to decision-making and problem-solving.

I posit this cognitive dissonance situation creates an impetus for her to return to the theater to see yet another horror film and duplicate the experience of survival, hence, the success of the genre in creating loyal consumers of fear-thrill projection-identification. 6.      To what extent does the audience of cinema project and identify with the characters and stories of films? Does culture play a role in determining the strength of projection-identification? Before one could answer these questions, one should define culture. In trying to define culture one is faced with a vast array of thoughts and ideas. Although definitions across multiple disciplines could cause confusion, for the purpose of this inquiry definitions offered by some anthropologists would suffice. Edgar Schein (1992) described culture as “a pattern of shared assumptions.” Geert Hofstede (1984) defined it as “the collective mental programming of the people in an environment” (p. 22).Gerbner defines culture as, “essentially stories and messages that create images that govern our conception of life and our behavior.” Given that we live in a media saturated culture, representation of women in movie roles that have definite diminished powers will have potential negative effects. In a screen culture where most young women are reduced to “sexual objects,” and elderly female characters are more likely to be cast as comic characters, to be treated with disrespect and to be portrayed as stubborn, eccentric and foolish, the notion of projection and identification can only serve patriarchy, and not feminism. 7.      The issue of power is paramount in my discourse. Whether we look at power as ubiquitous (Foucault, 1972) or concentrated in particular centers in any given society, it plays a significant role in determining gender roles. Reaganism has utilized Hollywood to expand on a paradigm of violence and power. Dominated as it is by males and masculine values, much of the world of Hollywood cinema—and by extension, prime time television– revolves around questions of power. Who can get away with what against whom? How secure are different social types when confronted with conflict and danger? What hierarchies of risk and vulnerability define social relations? In other words, the intention of Hollywood cinema is to demonstrate how power works according to their “realistic” stories. The simplest and cheapest dramatic demonstration of power, in Hollywood, is an overt expression of physical force compelling action against one’s will on pain of being hurt or killed, or actually hurting or killing.   8.      Predicated on George Gerbner’s theory of cultivation, my discourse focuses upon the impact of representation. To be sure, the effects (i.e., impact) of a pervasive medium (i.e., Hollywood cinema) are always subtle, complex, and intertwined with other media of culture industry. With the advent of neoliberalism the steady flow of images and messages that make up much of the stable symbolic structure of contemporary Hollywood cinema. There are number of patterns in Hollywood cinema’s paradigm in respect to representation of women. I posit that the message system, which is integral to Hollywood narrative-making and storytelling, composes a paradigm that presents a coherent image of life and society. With the backlash against feminism, the central question one must ask may be, “how is this image reflected in the assumptions and values held by its audiences? Given this logic, I will call Hollywood cinema a pedagogical machine, and ask the following question, “How are the lessons of symbolic behavior presented in fictional forms (e.g., romantic comedies, horror films, war movies, and action adventures) applied to conceptions about real life? I argue that for the majority of citizens who regularly consume Hollywood films, the movie going habit serves to perpetuate sex roles.  9.      Woven into the fabric of all programs are vivid and consistent lessons about gender roles. The stories of Hollywood cinema demonstrate to their audiences what men and women are like and that is how our culture vis-à-vis screen culture defines men and women and what fates await them. Through the cultivation process Hollywood perpetuates unequal sexual expectations for men and women of different ages. This systematic storytelling and socializing by Hollywood does not happen in a vacuum, it happens in a social and historical context. After Ronald Reagan became president of the United States, we see a pattern of utilization of Hollywood to create stories that focus almost exclusively on one half of humanity due to a remasculnizing male dominated agenda by neoconservatives—The deregulating “free market economy” government of Reagan preferred what feminist thinker Riane Eisler (1996) has called “ranking,” as in man over woman, man over man, race over race, nation over nation, etc. This became—and continues to be—the primary principle for organizing relations in the United States. Through the process of cultivation, people who consume Hollywood products and other interconnected cultural products (e.g., professional sports, rock music, and worldwide wrestling) become used to the manufactured paradigm as “normal.” This phenomenon comes out of a worldview of ranking which resides in the nation’s psyche where most people do not notice it. Our popular culture, specifically Hollywood cinema, emphasizes values such as aggression, conquest, and violence. These are values that are associated in the dominator mindset with masculinity.   10.  Case Study: Transformation of Laurie and Others?

11.  This narrative involves Laurie, a 20-year-old college student from an affluent (over-privileged) family. During a discussion about feminist films where as a class the professor and the students were deconstructing some “pseudo-feminist” films such as Pretty Woman (Marshall, 1990) and Thelma and Louise (Scott, 1991), Laurie had claimed—with a natural sense of entitlement—that “Pretty Woman is in fact, a feminist film.” She had stated that because she likes the film and since she is a “free” woman and quite self-confident about whom she is and what she can do about her life, as a feminist, she could tell if Pretty Woman was a “lie.”


12.  A few weeks later, as a midterm exam, the professor assigned a number of films for the entire class to watch and write a reflective essay on their experience. The assigned films were the following:

·         Norma Rae (Ritt, 1979): based on a true story about a young woman fighting to unionize a Southern textile mill. Rather than indulging in the usual individualized heroics, the protagonist, Norma Rae (played by Sally Fields) creatively rallies her fellow workers for collective action.

·         Silkwood (Nichols, 1983): a film that presents a woman (played by Meryl Streep) as a bona fide leader. What is more, the movie shows Black and White workers overcoming racial barriers and working together.

·         A Matter of Sex (Grant, 1984): A made-for-television film that realistically deals with women’s rights.

·         Pretty Woman (Marshall, 1990); a Hollywood patriarchal product that portrays women as subservient to men, though shrewdly masquerading as a feminist film by showing the prostitute (played by Julia Roberts) as the protagonist, hence the title.


13.  Social scientists have been studying the influence of media on people. One study in particular has brought about strong empirical evidence that media are the primary influence in shaping children’s sense of sex roles and future aspirations (Katz, 1983). Laurie’s views on gender roles had been shaped by the heavy media influence, hence her initially strong belief in the patriarchal portrayal of women. The authoritative images had occupied and oppressed her mind from childhood. What happened to Laurie after the midterm assignment?


14.  During the discussion about the students’ reflections there were many interesting inputs from various students. However, Laurie’s words were powerful and absorbing. She was dressed in her brand name designer clothes, but her demeanor was absolutely different than in the previous weeks. In an emotional and yet rationally articulate manner, Laurie walked the talk. She admitted that by seeing these “other” films there was so much that has been erased, or kept under the rug in her society. She proclaimed, “Her bubble had been burst.” In engagement with some of the other women in the class, namely African American and Asian students with whom she previously had not engaged, there existed a new shift of consciousness.


15.  One can construe that as a discoverer of a field of mutuality and a collective transformation, Laurie was seeing her reality differently, and the “other” women were seeing Laurie differently. Teaching cinema in this manner had created a framework that enabled these individuals to engage with each other on a playing field that came close to being “level” for all. This was indeed an experience where the self and other had merged and the synthesis was discovery of new dimensions of their respective “realities.”


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