Movie violence against females is like wallpaper, but if a woman runs amok . . . it means bad things, man
Part 1: Violence and men
This installment: Violence and women, with some thoughts by George Gerbner, Jackson Katz and two cross-country drivers named Thelma and Louise
Part 3: Violence and children
EDITOR'S NOTE: Women are considered a minority group in the United States, even though they make up more than half of the nation's population. As of October 2000, there were nearly 140 million females living in the United States; the number of males was 135 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Even though women are the majority, they are twice as likely to be victims of violent and sexualized crimes, said George Gerbner of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Not only are women abused 50 percent more often than men in the media, they are also outnumbered by men three to one on the big screen and on television, according to Gerbner's educational film, The Killing Screens.
Three, two, one -- action.
The truck driver flashed a few obscene, sexualized gestures toward the women. That was the first time. The second time the ladies saw the man on the road, he did the same thing. They pulled their baby blue convertible car over, and the trucker followed. He hopped out of the 18-wheeler gas-carrying rig and pursued the women. The women demanded an apology for his crude comments, but the man refused. The women (who had already killed a man, robbed a store and assaulted a cop) didn't like the man's attitude, so they shot holes into the truck's tires. But the man wasn't ready to apologize, and the women weren't ready to give in. Instead of walking away, they shot into the truck's silver center. The truck exploded into mountain-high, red yellow and orange flames.
Thelma and Louise, the 1991 drama that sparked controversy because of its violent nature, contained seven acts of violence in two hours. On the other hand, 2000's Gladiator, which contained nearly 200 acts of violence, received hardly any attention over its bloody deaths and fight scenes. According to Jackson Katz, an anti-violence educator and media analyst, the lack of attention had nothing to do with either film's content. Instead he said the controversy was based on gender and the roles society thinks men and women should play.
"Male violence is the norm. People don't even question it," Katz said. "But when women act violently, it's talked about."
Katz, co-writer of the educational film Tough Guise, said television programs and movies have created an imbalance between the power males and females have. He said men are supposed to be strong. They are supposed to fight other men and not let women get in the way. Women, however, are not allowed to be violent, Katz said. And it was this idea that helped create the controversy about Thelma and Lousie.
"When men are violent toward women, it is a single act," Katz said. "[But] when women are violent, it reflects the entire group."
Katz said people got worried when they saw Susan Sarandon's character blow up a gas truck and a kill a rapist. Some, mostly men, thought the film would make women think it is OK to be violent, he said. Unlike other violent movies and television shows, the women in Thelma and Louise had reasons for acting violently, Katz said.
"In each case [the women] were fighting back against male abuse," he said.
The fact that Thelma and Louise had to be justified shows that today's movies and television programs send the message that men should be the powerful gender, Katz said. And violence is seen as power, he said. This is a contradiction that encourages men to be violent and women to be submissive. Although Thelma and Louise sparked controversy about women and violence, Gerbner and Katz said the movie actually empowered women. Gerbner said the movie was negative because of the violence, but he also praised the film for giving women equality in the media.
"[It showed] women can be as bad as anybody," Gerbner said.
Sarandon (Louise) and Geena Davis (Thelma) showed women toughness isn't reserved for men, Gerbner said. He also said, however, that for every violent woman in the movies and on television, 20 other women are the victims of male violence.
Three, two, one-- action.
The woman dresses in her bedroom. The window, which faces the road, is open and the lights in her private home are on while she changes out of one shirt into another. A man with binoculars sits in his car across the street. He spies on the woman as she throws her shirt on the floor and begins to take off her bra. But the dark-haired man in a polyester button-down shirt is not the only one obsessed with the woman. There are other men who follow her everywhere she goes and watch her every move.
It isn't just in dramas and action movies that make men think they are more powerful than women, Katz said. Even comedies such as There's Something About Mary send messages encouraging male dominance. The plot for the 1998 box office hit revolved around one woman who was being stalked by half a dozen men. Although Katz said even he enjoyed the film's humor, the story was sending the wrong message to men and to women. If the jokes were taken out of the film, it simply would have been a thriller -- a scary movie about stalkers.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 1 million women are stalked every year, and one in 12 women will be stalked in their lifetimes. Even though Hollywood can make an issue like this funny, Katz said people walk away from the film desensitized to violence toward women.
"Men are killing women all over the place in the movies," Katz said. "Is there an outcry about that? No."
In There's Something About Mary, the lead character, played by Cameron Diaz, is a sexy blonde with a killer body. When female victims are seen as sex objects, men are less likely to think about the violence actions, Katz said. Although this movie covers up the violence through sexualized humor, many films make violence seem less severe through sex alone, Katz said. Sometimes women are tied to a bed in their underwear before they are murdered or raped; other times the women wear clothing that reveals just enough cleavage to make men think about the woman as an object and not a victim.
"Sex blinds many people to the violence," Katz said. "It's another way of normalizing male violence toward women."
Katz said being sexually turned on is a positive feeling, and when violence occurs at the same time, the violence doesn't seem as bad. Because of this connection between physical pleasure and violence toward women, Katz said men who have been exposed to a lot of sexualized violence are less likely to believe a rape victim.
Gerbner, however, said there is a bigger problem when violence is geared toward women. Most people who watch lots of television think the world is a scary place, he said. According to Gerbner's research, this should be a major concern. He said the theory, called the "Mean World Syndrome," increases insecurity about the world.
"The situation is that people feel more insecure, not the need to be violent," Gerbner said.
Both men and women, especially those who watch television for many hours each day, are likely to think the world is a more dangerous place than it actually is. Women, who are twice as likely to be victims of violence than men in the media, think the world is more dangerous than most men, Gerbner said. And since minority women are twice as likely to be victims than white women, the average minority television viewer thinks the world is that much more dangerous, Gerbner said.
Melissa Maranda, a 20-year-old student at the University of Maryland, watches between two and five hours of television a week. Although Maranda isn't considered a heavy television viewer (the national average is more than four hours a day), she said she thinks the world is a dangerous place. It is from television programs, the nightly news and movies that Maranda said she based her ideas about violence in the world.
"I, myself, feel safe," she said, "but the world is not safe."
Although women have been fighting back against the media's images through their roles in politics, business and education, Katz said women are still fighting for equality. With every new television season, women begin to lose power to men. As men's bodies begin to get bigger, women's bodies continue to shrink, Katz said. Women are expected by society to be thin, whereas men are expected to be muscular, big and more violent.
"The images of women's bodies that have flooded the culture depict women as less threatening," according to Katz's web page at www.jacksonkatz.com. "They're literally taking up less symbolic space."
Women, usually thin and beautiful, are battered and killed on a regular basis by men in movies and television shows. Generally where there is a thin and beautiful woman, there is a 6-foot man with thick muscles standing above her. But Katz said women can help stop these images by rejecting men who think "real men" fit the description of Rambo, Rocky or any other man who depends on physical strength and violence.
"The 'tough guise' is attractive to men in part because they see many girls and women validating it," Katz wrote on his web page. "Girls and women have to show that they're looking for more in men than bad boy posturing."