AWFJ Women On Film – The Week In Women, November 28, 2009 – MaryAnn Johanson

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Sex doesn’t sell, as it turns out, sexism hurts everybody, and the end of Oprah

SURPRISE! SEX DOESN’T SELL. Research organization Miller-McCune recently covered the shocking results of a new study by the American Psychological Association, which looked at five years of box-office data and found that nudity and sexuality do not, on average, increase a film’s profitability or prestige. From “Bare Breasts Don’t Beget Boffo Box Office”:

“I have yet to see a way of crunching the numbers where sex/nudity has a positive relationship with box office, even controlling for MPAA rating or budget,” reports co-author Anemone Cerridwen, an independent scholar based in Vancouver, British Columbia. “‘Sex sells’ is a myth, at least for this database.”

“When I presented these results at European Science Days this summer, I was struck by how hard it is to overcome preconceptions about the box-office consequences of highly graphic sexual content,” says co-author Dean Keith Simonton of the University of California, Davis. “But not all truisms are true.”

But “everyone knows” that sex sells! It seems unlikely that this one study will impact that “common knowledge” in any way.

What’s more:

“It is apparent at once that sex doesn’t sell by any of the four box office criteria, including the rough indicator of U.S. net,” the researchers write. (The other criteria are gross receipts for the U.S., U.K. and worldwide.) They add that “the adverse effect of sex is actually greatest for world gross,” which suggests the appetite for sexual content is actually lower outside the U.S.

In addition, they found sex and nudity have a negative relationship with critical evaluations of films (as measured by ratings in DVD guides). “In the case of movie awards,” they add, “sex/nudity does have a small positive correlation with the Golden Globes, an appreciation not shared with the Oscars.” (Insert your own snarky comment about the Hollywood Foreign Press Association here.)

Simonton considers their findings particularly striking in light of the fact that “sex is cheap with respect to production costs. Female actors can be hired for less than male actors, and can be urged (i.e. coerced?) into displaying more sexual nudity/activity; and for various reasons, sex scenes may be less expensive to shoot. And yet, mainstream cinema still can’t get an additional buck out of the practice.”

That last bit is pretty stunning: Hollywood exploits women not for financial reasons but purely because it likes it.

LOOK WHO WON’T BE TALKING. Oprah Winfrey announced this week that she’ll be ending her talk show in 2011, to the consternation of fans and advertisers alike. As The Los Angeles Times notes:

[M]any observers say that the all-encompassing cultural role of “Oprah” is unlikely to be duplicated by another talk show on broadcast TV, thanks to the changes that have shaken society and the entertainment industry since Winfrey first started her talk show on a Chicago station in 1984.

On the other hand:

“Oprah” has been more than just a show; it serves as the cornerstone of a multimedia empire that has transformed books, diets and exercise schemes into instant bestsellers and made household names out of Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz and Rachael Ray. Winfrey has played a key role in encouraging frank and open discussion of such issues as sexual abuse and, with her endlessly chronicled weight gains and losses, body image.

Taking sexual abuse out of the closet? That’s a good thing. But a case could also be made for the fact that Winfrey’s obsession with her own weight plunged the culture into its own new neuroses about body image.

Winfrey is arguably — maybe inarguably — the most powerful woman in entertainment and media today, and her stepping down from the soapbox of daily television is sure to have an enormous impact, for better or for worse.

GAYS ARE A THREAT, WOMEN ARE NOT. Gay male pop star Adam Lambert kisses another man as part of a performance routine on last Sunday night’s American Music Awards. The next morning, his appearance on ABC’s Good Morning America is cancelled. Feministing puts it all in the proper perspective:

Because Adam Lambert doesn’t understand the difference between 11 at night and an hour I don’t want to be awake in the morning? The performance was apparently “controversial” because of some (very theatrically) simulated oral sex and a same sex kiss. Hasn’t Janet Jackson incorporated simulated oral sex into her performances for years? Didn’t Madonna, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera already do that same sex kiss thing? Bondage-themed performances seem old hat at awards shows (except, hmm, they are usually headlined by female performers). Seriously, what’s the big deal?

CBS’s Early Show picks up on the Lambert story, and has the singer on as a guest on Wednesday morning. He tells CBS (as quoted on Towleroad):

I think that if it had been a female pop performer doing the moves that were on the stage, I don’t think there would be nearly as much of an outrage. At all. Like I said, there were other performers doing risque things. I think it’s because I’m a gay male, and people haven’t seen that before.

Towleroad goes on to snark:

And then what did the Early Show do?

They proved Lambert ABSOLUTELY RIGHT by blurring out the AMA footage of his gay kiss, and showing the Madonna – Britney Spears kiss moments later — while at the same time calling out ABC for editing the AMA footage for the west coast.

But that’s precisely what we should have expected — Lambert was right. Back to Feministing for an explanation:

In patriarchal culture we assume a (straight cis) male gaze. The Madonna/Britney kiss is not processed as a threat to straight male supremacy because it dovetails nicely with acceptable straight male desire. Women are seen as objects of male desire, and therefore the culturally acceptable object of sexual desire, period. So a same sex kiss between women is fine – maybe a little “controversial,” but in a good way. Especially if the women kissing are perceived as straight and cisgender – Britney may have kissed a girl and liked it, but it was understood mostly as an act. After all, the kiss is more about male desire than the desire of the women actually involved….

Adam Lambert’s performance, on the other hand, is seen as a threat, enough to have an appearance canceled on him. If audiences admitted they thought Adam Lambert leading a guy around on a leash, getting fake oral sex from a guy, and kissing a guy was hot it would call into question male supremacy as reinforced through heterosexuality. The number positioned men as the objects of male sexual desire, and men objectifying men calls the most simplistic understanding of gender hierarchy into question. I mean, if straight male viewers didn’t let homophobia dictate their reactions, if they actually let themselves enjoy the performance that might make them *gasp* gay! It would at least complicate their understanding of desire. Plus the glam-inspired performance had a male presenting but femmed up Lambert dominating strong, muscular men. And we could never accept femme as empowering, especially for a dude person!

The view of this performance as controversial in a bad or icky way is down to a very traditional form of sexism, in which women can be objectified for a mainstream audience but men can only be objects of desire if it’s in a clearly heterosexual situation (and usually one that reinforces gender norms and power dynamics – Twilight, for obvious example). When folks react negatively to this performance it’s clear something got to them. Hey male gaze, your arousal is showing.

(FYI: If you’re not clued in, cis and cisgender are retronyms necessary with the rise of trans and transgender to indicate someone who is comfortable with and indentifying with the cultural norms of their biological gender.)

Just a reminder that sexism hurts everyone… including straight men, by proscribing the limits of their attitudes and behaviors, too.

EVEN GOOFY KIDS MAGAZINES GET IT. Cracked.com, the Web site of the Mad magazine wannabe, this week shared its list of the “7 Popular ‘Chick Flicks’ That Secretly Hate Women.” (I know: You’re saying, “What, only seven?”) It begins:

Hollywood filmmakers like their women like they like their coffee: shrill, stupid and submissive. And usually not black.

As evidence, all you need to do is look at the “romantic” movies which are targeted toward women, yet somehow embrace every negative assumption about females that males have ever dreamed up. Movies like…

And you’ll have to click through to discover which titles are among the seven, but you won’t find any surprises.

Sure, the article is written by a woman — Erica Cantin — but it’s appearing in a bastion of male juvenile humor. If even Cracked.com is catching on to how Hollywood hates women, that must be a sign of cultural exhaustion with situation. Mustn’t it?

OPENING THIS WEEK. The Princess and the Frog, Disney’s new animated feature, is notable for its heroine: a young black woman in 1920’s New Orleans. Too bad the film itself feels so behind the times as to make the whole endeavor itself almost irrelevant. At least there’s also The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, about the midlife crisis of a woman (played by Robin Wright Penn). It’s about time that women’s breakdowns were treated with the same pathos and humor that men’s are.

See the AWFJ’s regular rundown of new releases for more.

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MaryAnn Johanson

MaryAnn Johanson is a freelance writer on film, TV, DVD, and pop culture from New York City and now based in London. She is the webmaster and sole critic at FlickFilosopher.com, which debuted in 1997 and is now one of the most popular, most respected, and longest-running movie-related sites on the Internet. Her film reviews also appear in a variety of alternative-weekly newspapers across the U.S. Johanson is one of only a few film critics who is a member of The International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences (the Webby organization), an invitation-only, 500-member body of leading Web experts, business figures, luminaries, visionaries and creative celebrities. She is also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. She has appeared as a cultural commentator on BBC Radio, LBC-London, and on local radio programs across North America, and she served as a judge at the first Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Film Festival at the 2003 I-Con, the largest SF convention on the East Coast. She is the author of The Totally Geeky Guide to The Princess Bride, and is an award-winning screenwriter. Read Johanson's recent articles below. For her AWFJ.org archive, type "MaryAnn Johanson" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).