by Josh Dickey, Mashable
Michael Taylor, USCMISC, discusses Hollywood's role as a cultural catalyst with Mashable...
No means maybe. Persistence pays off. And any woman can be “worn down,” given the right combination of charm, tenacity and time.
The "underdog" romance, a popular trope that predates even Shakespeare, is having a very uncomfortable moment right now. Fair or not, the University of California, Santa Barbara, massacre has sparked a conversation about the fine line between romantic pursuit and aggressive "conquest," casting a pall on movies and TV shows past (Revenge of the Nerds), present (Neighbors) and very-near future (The Fault in Our Stars), which comes out June 6.
Yes, even the tearjerking teen-cancer drama includes the story of a successful romantic coup: "All your efforts to keep me from you are gonna fail," Gus (Ansel Elgort) tells Hazel (Shailene Woodley), despite her clearly stated objections to his advances.
His long, uncomfortable stare, wolf’s grin and insistent language might not have widely registered as out of the ordinary — before last Friday's shootings near UCSB. Once we learned that the shooting and stabbing rampage was motivated by a twisted sense of sexual entitlement, the backlash has been loud and unequivocally clear:
No means no. Persistence can be harassment. And women have grown weary of the message that rejection is merely a hurdle.
And as happens with each new mass shooting, it didn’t take long for fingers to point squarely at Hollywood. But this time, guns and mental health issues were eclipsed by the notion of sexual entitlement and its role in modern romance.
First to speak up was Washington Post critic Ann Hornaday, whose May 25 column made examples of Neighbors and “a steady diet of Judd Apatow comedies in which the shlubby arrested adolescent always gets the girl.”
It was merely a line in Hornaday’s piece, a broad examination of how Hollywood’s own deeper cultural inequalities are reflected onscreen:
'If our cinematic grammar is one of violence, sexual conquest and macho swagger — thanks to male studio executives who green-light projects according to their own pathetic predilections — no one should be surprised when those impulses take luridly literal form in the culture at large.'
But by then, the debate was fully engaged. The Daily Beast columnist and Jeopardy champ Arthur Chu summarized it like this, in a column aptly titled "Your Princess Is in Another Castle:"
But the overall problem is one of a culture where instead of seeing women as, you know, people, protagonists of their own stories just like we are of ours, men are taught that women are things to “earn,” to “win” … other people’s bodies and other people’s love are not something that can be taken nor even something that can be earned — they can be given freely, by choice, or not.
So it’s out there now: Any latent distaste for the women-as-conquest narrative that predated our awareness of Elliot Rodger's sick motivations has become front-of-mind. From now on, what some once accepted (mistakenly or not) as a harmless love-story archetype will raise eyebrows.
Hollywood has historically been swift in reacting to mass tragedy, but slow to adopt those sensibilities long-term. After the mass shooting in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, last year, the release of Gangster Squad was delayed. Entire projects were delayed, rewritten, or scrapped altogether after 9/11. Just about every mass tragedy comes with some form of entertainment fallout. It’s usually a temporary problem; as these events recede in our memory, the offending themes creep back onscreen.
So one online social movement isn't going to fundamentally change romantic “underdog” stories. For that to happen, the culture at large will have to evolve first, Michael Taylor, professor and chair of film and television production at USC School of Cinematic Arts, told Mashable.
"What’s coming out of this particular tragedy in Santa Barbara is that we are asking men to speak up finally," said Taylor, who's also executive director of the school's Media Institute for Social Change and still an active Hollywood producer. "Because the role of women in our culture has changed so much, and I think men have a lot of catching up to do in terms of what we expect from women."
But the post-UCSB conversation isn't going to affect stories already in the pipeline, Taylor said.
"It used to be called 'courtship' — ‘I’m going to woo you,’" Taylor said. "If that’s done within acceptable boundaries, that’s always going to be O.K. I don’t personally think storytelling coming out of Hollywood is going to change until the culture changes."
That takes time, but it's been known to happen. When the notion of "sexual harassment" came into the collective consciousness after Anita Hill's testimony in the early 1990s, movies and TV changed, too. "It no longer become acceptable to treat women in the way it was in 9 to 5," Taylor said, referencing the '80s film and its attempt at a comedic portrayal of workplace sexual harassment..
While the backlash against male sexual entitlement won't change films in the short term, it's sure to continue coloring our perceptions.
When The Fault in Our Stars comes out a week from Friday, audiences may pick up on significant degrees of “entitlement” in not just the main narrative, which ends (SPOILER ALERT) with Hazel falling for Gus after his long charm offensive. A secondary storyline begins with a breakup, which Isaac (Nat Wolff) takes so poorly that he begins destroying property in a violent tirade. And his friends encourage the display.
In fact, as Isaac smashes a wall full of basketball trophies — screaming things like “It’s not fair!” — Gus and Hazel carry on a light conversation, acting as though nothing's going on behind. Later, they help him carry out an aggressive egging of his ex-girlfriend’s house and parked car, bullying her mother back inside after her attempt to stop it.
None of this is to suggest that The Fault in Our Stars is, was, or ever could be responsible for any past or future crimes against trophy cases, green Kias, or humanity. The characters are teens with terminal cancer, so a certain amount of irrational behavior is forgivable. The movie is ultimately about embracing love when you have it, then letting go and moving on when it’s gone.
And it's hardly the only current entertainment property out there with a man aggressively chasing after a reluctant woman (and certainly not the worst).
But the film, and all those that come after it, will to some degree be framed in an altered pane of perception. Taylor said he's noticed that it's mostly women driving the current conversation — and that's out of balance.
"The role of women in our culture has changed so much in the past 50 years, but men haven’t really caught up and so the expectation [of women] is there that isn’t always appropriate," he said. "That's taking its toll on our culture. That’s what needs to be changed. That’s what we need to reflect in our storytelling. And it’s up to men to talk about that."