I’ve just spent most of the weekend in bed, recovering from a nasty and sudden bacterial infection, which required antibiotics and painkillers. It did give me the chance to plan out part of our upcoming trip to London, and watch many, many old movies on TCM. And I was struck by some of the films of the late 1950s and early 1960s, at the casual violence in them, and in particular, the many attacks on women. Is this where it really begins, decades and decades ago? The screen is filled with angry young men, slapping their lovers around, and supposedly the women love it, and respond amorously. Seems particularly pronounced in Kirk Douglas movies. In fact the “badder” the girl is—i.e., if she seems to be sexual in any way—the more she seems to “deserve” it. For a long time, Hollywood has been telling us it’s okay to physically abuse women, and I can’t help but wonder—growing up in that era—why hadn’t I ever really noticed this before. And it dawned on me that it’s because, probably, growing up in that era, we accepted it as normal, a kind of truth about life, as we did with a lot of things from the movies.
There were, thanks goodness, some good decent men portrayed: Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. Gregory Peck in a lot of good movies. But certain directors of the 1950s onward seemed drawn to portraying harsh, disturbed men with no respect for women whatsoever. And women are portrayed as either angels or whores, with little middle ground, when the truth is, we’re all in that middle ground.
Where did all that domestic violence, that anger, come from? Was it some remnant of World War II, or the scary early days of nuclear weapons? Did men feel they had to lash out at something and women were fair game?
In those days, we had no Facebook or Twitter to help us figure out our cultural ethics, so there was cinema, and the afternoon movie on TV, and we just gamely accepted the false life they sold to us. Especially when you’re an impressionable kid; you’re watching a film made by an adult and think, this is like the Gospel. This is how life really is: Men are the masters, and women their slaves. This is how modern love really is supposed to be: Not glorious, but miserable, and hurtful and false, better accept it now. And I think some of this emerges in my first, long-ago novel, in which my main male character treats his lover shamefully—not abusing her physically but mentally and emotionally, and then trying to kill her…all under the guise of mental illness. People would ask if the book was biographical—of course it wasn’t, but somehow that idea of the warped male-female dynamic got under my skin, and became something I had to write about.
I’m fortunate that the most important man in my life would put those movie bums to shame, but I have witnessed over the years a lot of bad behavior from some others. And those would be the ones to immediately go on the defensive and say, “You women aren’t perfect, either,” but sorry guys, it is mostly you. You’re the ones with the testosterone. And maybe not so much your fault, but all those hidden cultural cues you grew up with, and maybe some of the snarky mid- to late-20th century films you watched and absorbed. Yet the good news is, despite Trump and Weinstein and other highly visible creeps, things do seem to be changing, and that behavior is finally being called out. And maybe that’s what making the bad behavior of men in old movies especially glaring–and unacceptable–to me today.