Viewing Old Movies and TV Shows from a (Somewhat) More Enlightened Perspective

by Neil H. Buchanan

The sudden wave of social acknowledgement of the ways in which men have long mistreated women is as unexpected as it is welcome.  We are in what seems to be a transformative moment in history, and we can only hope that it leads to a thoroughgoing change in men's behavior and everyone's expectations.

By far the most ink has been spilled recently discussing U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore and his harassment (and worse) of underage girls when he was in his thirties.  I have nothing to add to that discussion, but I will note that Donald Trump's (mis)handling of the Moore mess includes this gem:
"[White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee] Sanders said Thursday that Trump considers the allegations against Moore 'extremely troubling' but does not plan to rescind his endorsement and thinks that Alabama voters should be the ones to pick their next senator."
Now, if Trump truly believed that Alabama voters should pick their next senator and that no outsiders should try to change the outcome, he would never have endorsed Moore in the first place.  But Trump's version of remaining "neutral" about Moore is to endorse him and then not to rescind his endorsement even in light of extremely troubling allegations, so that Alabamians can think for themselves.  Brilliant!

Of course, by Trump's degraded standards of reasoning, that is almost Aristotelian in its nuance.  And let us not forget that Sanders has also said that the difference between Moore and Senator Al Franken is that Moore denies the charges.  Trump is famous for believing people's denials, after all.  Just ask Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

Speaking of Franken, as of this writing we now have two accusers who have put his political career in a tailspin.  In the few short days since the first accusation against Franken became public, there has been an outpouring of very smart commentary on both sides of the question of whether Franken should resign his Senate seat.  It is not an easy call either way, but for the record, my immediate reaction was that he had to go (and that was before the second accuser came forward).  Although this column addresses a different subject, I can say that I continue to believe that he should resign.

But beyond the direct political questions, the first Franken accusation has caused me to think about what counts as funny.  More specifically, the interesting question is how our standards of humor will change because of this turbulent moment in history, and how we will look at popular entertainment from the past in light of our new and (one fervently hopes) permanently more enlightened attitudes about sexual harassment and abuse.

As soon as I saw the now-infamous photograph of Franken mugging for the camera as he put his hands on the breasts of a sleeping woman, I thought of a scene from the movie "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid," a 1982 comedy starring Steve Martin and Rachel Ward.  The movie, directed and co-written by comedy legend Carl Reiner, is an homage to film noir, interspersing clips from classics like "The Postman Always Rings Twice" and "Double Indemnity" with scenes that Reiner produced to look like they fit into those black-and-white treasures.

Early in the movie, Ward's character darkens the office door of Martin's Philip Marlowe-like character.  When Martin opens the door, Ward faints and collapses in his arms.  He promptly carries her to a sofa and, with the look of a naughty adolescent boy, starts to squeeze Ward's breasts until she awakens.

When Ward asks what he is doing, Martin thinks quickly and responds, "Your breasts got all out of whack when you fainted, so I was making them right again."  Later in the film, Ward returns the favor by grabbing Martin's penis and repeating the same line.

It is all played for laughs, and even though Ward's character is initially startled by the assault, she essentially brushes it off without another thought.  It is, in other words, very much in the spirit of what men like Franken think is clever, using women's bodies as sexualized props in service of men's version of comedy.

I have watched that movie many times, with men and women.  During one viewing, a woman expressed disgust at the joke, along the lines of, "Really?  This again?  Ugh."  Otherwise, however, I have never seen men or women do anything but laugh.  But in the aftermath of the Franken situation, I cannot imagine any man or woman failing to immediately realize how bad the scene is.

All of which raises, as I noted above, the interesting question of how people will view other old movies and TV shows in the light of improved understandings about what should be unacceptable behavior.  The short answer, I think, is that it will not be especially difficult for people to disapprove of the offensive elements of the old content while still appreciating it for its other virtues, because we do this all the time with older material in light of evolving social standards.

The same year that "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid" was released, Barry Levinson's autobiographical "Diner" (set in 1959) opened to rave reviews.  One well known scene in that film has Mickey Rourke's character, while at a movie theater with Colette Blonigan's character, putting his penis through the bottom of a popcorn box in order to win a bet with his buddies that she "goes for my pecker on the first date."  When it happens, she is horrified and runs away, but Rourke sweet-talks his way out of it.

"Diner" has always been known as a "guy movie," and I have heard many men say that "women just don't get how great it is."  I continue to think that it is brilliant, but its brilliance is derived precisely from its vivid depiction of how horrible the gender dynamics were in the late 1950's.  Everyone, male and female, was trapped in unhealthy roles and unfulfilling expectations.  The women had it much worse, by far, but the movie shows that the men were often flailingly incapable of understanding what they were doing or why.  They were shown sympathetically, but they were not "Entourage"-like proud pigs.

In any case, no one should (or, I hope, would) watch "Diner" today and think that the popcorn scene was somehow an endorsement of that kind of disrespect for women.  Similarly, I recently re-watched "Pretty in Pink," the 1986 high school comedy about the cute girl with a dorkie best friend who cannot seem to get her to notice that love is right in front of her nose.  This time, however, I watched the movie with a 24-year-old woman (one of my daughters, who had never seen it before), and her first reaction was, "Did people not get how much of a stalker the 'best friend" was being?"

This is all a variation on what has come to be known as "the Woody Allen question," in which people wonder how to deal with the body of work of an artist who has been exposed as a creep/accused sexual predator.  Along similar lines, Michael Dorf recently wrote an excellent column discussing how content providers like Netflix and HBO should handle the movies and shows that feature people like now-pariahs Kevin Spacey and Louis C.K.

No matter what, there will still be old TV shows and movies that depict behavior and attitudes that are simply offensive.  In the classic early 1960's sitcom "The Dick van Dyke Show" (also, coincidentally, a Carl Reiner creation), there is an episode in which the closing joke has one character saying to another: "You know what we should do?  We should both go home and punch our wives."   Yes, you read that correctly.  That was not only a joke, it was the fade-to-black joke that was supposed to leave everyone smiling and giggling.

Of course, pop culture has more recently included works that deliberately confront violence against women, from Adrienne Shelly's 2007 "Waitress" to Sam Raimi's 2000 "The Gift" to 1991's "Thelma and Louise" -- or, in pop music, The Dixie Chicks singing in 1999 that the abusive "Earl had to die."  But what is going to happen now is that movies and other works of art that casually depicted now-superseded norms and expectations will simply be processed by audiences differently.

We also see this in depictions of race.  In the Golden Age of cinema in the 1930's and 1940's, there were out-of-context scenes inserted into films with black characters performing what can only be described as minstrel shows.  I cannot remember which Bette Davis film I saw recently that included such a scene (perhaps "The Letter"), but whichever movie it was, it was hardly unusual in including such blatant racism.

Even worse, the 1942 movie "Holiday Inn" -- which is remembered only for its introduction into popular culture of Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" -- included a scene in which Crosby and Marjorie Reynolds sing a song to celebrate Abraham Lincoln's birthday in full black-face makeup.  My mouth is still agape.  Similarly, Spencer Tracy's depiction of a proudly lazy Mexican-American in 1942's "Tortilla Flat" is so offensive as to be unwatchable.  (I actually turned it off after twenty minutes.)

I hope that it is obvious that I am not saying that everything is perfect now in terms of racial issues in movies, TV, and pop music.  (There is a reason, for example, that South Asian actors currently say that the only available roles have them playing terrorists or convenience store owners.)  There will always be backsliding, and given that Hollywood -- notwithstanding its reputation -- is home to a large number of powerful men with retrograde attitudes, there will be continued rejection in many quarters of attempts to change the old sexist and racist formulas.

It is also true, however, that most filmmakers, if they were to make a movie like "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid" today (by which I mean this week and, one hopes, into the future), would drop the groping-an-unconscious-woman scene.  And when people watch old content that reflects the bigoted and sexist attitudes of the past, they will again be able to process that jarring content in light of current expectations and changed attitudes.

One measure of progress, after all, is that we become uncomfortable with that which was previously comfortable.  By that standard, we are again on the precipice of another moment of genuine progress.