How Have Perceptions of Classic Movies Changed Since the #MeToo Movement?

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Post by guest contributor Frankie Wallace.

Since the rise of the #MeToo movement in October 2017, a shift has occurred in the way the media talks about and addresses sexual abuse allegations. Until the expansion of this movement, the taboo subject went largely avoided by the media and in all industries, except in the most high-profile cases, as it made readers, viewers and listeners uncomfortable. However, the hashtag movement, started by Tarana Burke and popularized by Alyssa Milano, has opened this conversation to the masses as a subject that can and should no longer be ignored.

One of the large and essential consequences of this movement has been the critical reflection on the behaviors we, as a society, deem acceptable and promote through the forms of media we commend and popularize. Those who are affected by discrimination, as well as allies, have begun to speak out about problematic messaging. From songs that promote rape culture and misogyny with their language, as well as some classic, critically acclaimed films whose dialogue and humor has not aged well with the times, our perceptions of media have been refined to notice the dangerous concepts we are reinforcing as the norm in our society.

Perceptions of these classic movies have changed dramatically as a result:

Sixteen Candles (1984)

This classic film by John Hughes is a coming-of-age story about a young girl named Samantha (Molly Ringwald) whose family forgets her birthday. As a true film of its times, it’s filled with casual racism and an abundance of body-shaming jokes on the protagonist’s behalf.

Taking place in a high school setting, Ringwald’s character is constantly harassed by a boy who refuses to accept her blatant verbal disinterest in a romantic relationship with him. However, one of the most obvious and cringe-worthy parts of this film as a modern viewer comes at the end of the film, when Ringwald’s crush, Jake Ryan (Michael Schoeffling) offers his drunk and incompetent girlfriend to that same boy, suggesting that she is too drunk to know who she’s sleeping with and it won’t make a difference.

There is no acknowledgment of this depraved behavior, nor any consequences for their actions — which could make anyone watching the film believe that this is acceptable behavior towards women who have had too much to drink.

High Plains Drifter (1973)

In this Western classic, Clint Eastwood plays a no-named drifter who rides into a small town in need of a hero. Although the film has a standard Western plot that involves a good guy with a gun versus a band of criminals, there’s one minor scene in the film that has some major flaws.

While Eastwood’s character seems pretty quiet, helpful and inclined to keep the peace throughout most of the film, there is one scene where his response to a woman’s insults is to rape her. Although it seems somewhat clear that her insults are derived from a place of interest for him, there is no question that what follows — he grabs her arm and drags her into a barn to “teach her some manners” — is rape.

Regardless of her perceived interest in him, when a woman screams “let go of me” and fights to get away from you throughout the encounter, there is no other way to accept the situation. However, after this situation, rather than show signs of trauma, the victim falls in love with her attacker, and the perpetrator is once again, not held accountable.

This insinuates that there are no consequences to rape, that women simply won’t admit what they want, so you must give it to them. Chances are, according to the film’s logic, they’ll start to enjoy it eventually and fall in love with their rapist. These are extremely hazardous and toxic notions that we have condoned as a society by promoting these films and not giving them the critique we’re capable of giving them now.

Manhattan (1979)

Manhattan is a Woody Allen classic based in his childhood home of Manhattan, NY. The black-and-white romantic comedy maintained the signature humor and dialogue of Allen’s work, while depicting the life of upper-middle class writers and academics.

The protagonist of the film, Isaac Davis (Woody Allen), is a twice-divorced 42-year-old television writer who is working on a novel and dealing with the casual drama of romantic relationships. However, throughout the film, Allen’s character is involved in a romantic and sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl named Tracy (Mariel Hemingway).

Although the age difference is remarked on more than once, the relationship is generally accepted and normalized by every character who encounters the couple. Although Tracy is only a few weeks from turning 18 throughout a portion of the film, she is still in high school and living with her parents, with no real-life experience to support her decision-making.

The concept of old or middle-aged men dating women who are in their teens is not uncommon. However, the law is clear on this one: Teenage girls under 18 years old cannot consent to sexual encounters with adult men, and therefore, adult men who enter into sexual relationships with 17-year-old girls are committing statutory rape. Age differences in relationships aren’t inherently bad, but implying that statutory rape is morally acceptable is far from the kind of messaging that society should be promoting.

Shift in Perception

With each wave of feminism over the last several decades, more people have become aware of the casual sexism and harassment women are subjected to on a regular basis. After American film producer Harvey Weinstein was reported on mainstream media to have sexually assaulted dozens of women throughout several decades, the #MeToo movement revealed to the world the extent to which women have suffered sexual abuse.

On social media, the hashtag flooded timelines and feeds, which was eye-opening for some and simply an expression of solidarity for others who recognize the extent of abuse. People saw their friends and family members sharing the hashtag, which led many to realize that it’s their other friends, family members and acquaintances who are committing the abuse, as 93 percent of sexual assault victims are attacked by someone they know.

Growing Advocacy

As rampant as sexual abuse is among all communities, it’s remained a largely avoided subject until now. There is a lot of shame surrounding sexual abuse. However, after the #MeToo movement pushed it out into the mainstream, more women are coming forward to talk about the sexual abuse and harassment they’ve experienced. Strength comes in numbers, and when we as a society make it known that we will believe victims of sexual abuse, women are more likely to come out and tell their truth. After the backlash abusers like Weinstein have received in the face of these accusations, more women are encouraged to step forward and confront these toxic people.

However, as a society, we must continue to meet victims halfway. This means that when women come forward, we must do everything in our power to help them and to catch their perpetrators. And yet, in cities across the U.S., hundreds of thousands of rape kits remain backlogged, with no steps being taken to analyze the DNA samples and track down the attackers. This is one big way in which we continue to fail women; if the attacks were taken more seriously, thousands of rapists would likely be jailed and/or facing charges.

It’s unfortunate that our perceptions of classic films like Sixteen Candles and Manhattan should be tainted now after realizing the level of inappropriate behavior within them. However, our fight for societal progress doesn’t mean we can’t still enjoy them, so long as we recognize they were a product of their time, and that the concepts within them should not be tolerated in media going forward.

Frankie Wallace is a freelance journalist interested in all things pop culture. Wallace resides in Boise, Idaho and contributes to a variety of blogs across the web.

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One response to “How Have Perceptions of Classic Movies Changed Since the #MeToo Movement?”

  1. […] as it is in modern times (even more so). Today, it’s easy to see how many classic films have helped glorify the discrimination of women and reinforce […]

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