Posted at 12:20 on 26 Jul 2011 by Pandora / Blake
I've seen these adverts on the Tube recently (or very similar ones: the London version has the word "nympho" instead of "maneater".) They're for a film which will be showing soon in the UK, and the marketing campaign is aggressive. I'm even seeing promoted tweets about it turn up in my Twitter feed. So far, every ad I've seen has made me angry. My anger is half at the film itself (which is perhaps not fair to judge before I've watched it), and half at the way it's being marketed.
Perhaps ranting about sexism in Hollywood is shooting at fish in a barrel. It is so endemic in the industry that scripts which don't follow the trend are rejected or edited based on questionable assumptions about what the "audience" wants. These biased, self-justifying expectations remind me of the trend in heterosexual porn not to focus on male bodies or personalities, or male/male eroticism. The "audience" doesn't want to see it. But if only low-budget, indie productions are taking the risk, how can we make a fair assessment? At the grassroots level, most people you meet aren't particularly bothered one way or the other. They accept whatever they are brought up to expect. If we make more options available, the next generation of viewers will probably accept that diversity. And that will have a knock-on effect on cultural expectations which can only be positive.
Which is why I feel it's important to call sexist films and marketing out where we see it. They are everywhere, they are normalised, and people tune them out. Which means they tune sexism out in real life, too. In order to promote a more equal and fair society, we need to get used to noticing it when we see it.
So why are the Horrible Bosses adverts so egregious? Well, off the top of my head...
1. 'Sex-crazed nympho'? This is still a valid category? I thought it went out of date with, you know, the advent of modern psychology and 'hysteria' as a common medical diagnosis. Female sexuality has historically been pathologised and punished. Women considered overly sexually active were institutionalised and tortured. These days, sexually active women are rarely presented as positive role-models. Double standards abound when comparing attitudes towards sexually active men and sexually active women. It is not considered acceptable for women to be sexually forward, sexually dominant or promiscuous. Using this stereotype as the base for a "horrible boss" monsters active female sexuality, presenting it as abnormal, unpleasant and dangerous.
Its assumed abnormality and ridiculousness is also demonstrated by the fact that this is a comedy. Women who actively enjoy and seek sex are HILARIOUS. Can you imagine a comedy which hangs on the image of a promiscuous straight man? No, because there's nothing unusual or strange about it. The comedy arises from the "weirdness", from the fact that this is not a behaviour which is normalised or accepted.
2. Okay, so sexual abuse is funny now, too? I mean, the above point notwithstanding, this isn't a film about a woman going out and getting some hot consensual action, it's about a boss persistently sexually abusing and assaulting their employee to the point of rape. LMAO! Wow, I can't think of anything funnier than having to go into work every day knowing your boss will grope you, sexually humiliate you, touch you inappropriately, constantly make sexually invasive comments, lock you in with them, expose themselves to you, and violate your physical boundaries long after you have told them "no". Funny funny funny!
Let's imagine that the genders are reversed. This wouldn't be a comedy. It would be a dark, distressing, violent story about someone trapped in a situation of ongoing abuse and seeking revenge.
3. It's not like the awfulness of Aniston's character's behaviour isn't acknowledged by the script. But in just the same way that mainstream discussions of sexual and abuse and domestic violence often invisible the experiences of male victims, in the same way that news media handle incidences of sexual abuse or rape by a female against a male very differently than when the perpetrator is male, representations of female sexual abusers in entertainment rarely take the idea seriously. Casting Jennifer Aniston, an actor who has made a career out of playing non-threatening, funny, sexually appealing characters, is perhaps the biggest clue here. The response isn't meant to be "Fuck, that's absolutely horrible, I can't imagine how distressing that must be", but "Phwoar! I wouldn't mind some of that!"
Just as the female boss's abusive behaviour is not taken seriously, neither is the victim's suffering. His constant unhappy faces and scrambling out of the way are framed as just as much a source of comedy as his boss's pushy "seductions". You're meant to laugh at his misery and helplessness, because male victims of sexual abuse are funny. After all, it's not like he's really being mistreated, is it? I mean, who wouldn't want to be locked in an office with Jennifer Aniston dressed like that? "Sexy lady boss" is an old a trope in porn as "sexy lady teacher". Not quite as old as "sexy schoolgirl" or "sexy secretary", perhaps, but still two of the original models for female tops or strong female characters in porn. The film is intended to amuse and titillate, because sexual abuse of men by women is still treated as amusing and titillating.
Rape Is OK When Its Female On Male: It's hard to say what the film's position on this isJulia's actions are clearly portrayed as bad, but they're also Played for Laughs, and nobody takes Dale's situation seriously.
The general audience's position on this seems to be a firm Rape Is Awesome When It's Jennifer Aniston.
4. Contrary to the impression given by the above adverts, the film is actually a story about three horrible bosses. Two of them are male - one a power-hungry psychopath, the other a racist, incompetent tool. If you google, you see plenty of posters giving each of the three storylines equal space. And yet, none of those posters seem to have been used in the UK campaign. I hadn't even realised that the film had three storylines until I started googling for the picture at the top of this post. None of the other two storylines appear in the above video trailer. Why?
Because the sexual assault/rape storyline is the sexiest, with a sexy lady, and as everyone knows, sex sells, regardless of whether it's consensual.