Please note that this article discusses sexual, physical and emotional violence against women throughout. I quote people who say things that could well be triggering to anyone who has experienced these forms of abuse.
There is a weird blurring of fiction and fact between Sean Connery and his best-known character, James Bond.
During a 1987 interview, Barbara Walters asked him about the approval of violence against women he had expressed in a previous interview. He told her he hadn’t changed his opinion, and went on to imply that women had provoked him into hitting them.
Consider, then, Connery’s history as one of the most beloved and iconic actors to portray James Bond.
Bond, as a character, evokes danger and a debonair mystique that women find alluring. He is a ladies’ man, with a new squeeze (or multiple squeezes) in every film in the franchise. He may not have been the first man to trade off the social capital associated with promiscuity with younger women, but he certainly firmed up the idea that it is a marker of success and something to be envied.
He is the cliché – tall, dark and handsome. Traits he shares with the likes of Rochester from Jane Eyre or any incarnation of Bruce Wayne aka Batman. These narratives not only establish a twisted definition of romance, but depict male violence as a socially acceptable demonstration of affection.
In Goldfinger, Pussy Galore, contrary to the suggestion of her name, is more keen on killing Bond than sleeping with him. ‘Skip it, I’m not interested,’ she says, turning to leave. Bond grabs her by the arm and says, ‘What would it take for you to see things my way?’ – an uncanny mirroring of Connery’s personal stance on violence against women.
In many Bond films, including Daniel Craig’s latest, Spectre, the character is sexually forward to the point of coercion. Each of these instances in their own right could be dismissed (by someone who really wanted to excuse him) as either an isolated occurrence or a case of ‘Bond will be Bond’. Both of these arguments leave something to be desired, however, as Bond’s frequent and repeated displays of sexual aggression form a pattern, and cannot be dismissed as isolated incidents.
Aggressive signifiers of sexual prowess are not solely relegated to Bond films or other macho action and spy films; they are also rife in films and popular culture across all genres and forms, from romantic comedies to teen films. They are even seen in children’s films.
People are quick to criticise texts such as Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey for peddling abusive dynamics as romance, but the level of intense scrutiny applied to these stories in particular is baffling. What they do is not new, nor is it isolated.
The idea that violence and control are a symptom of great passion is an association exclusively assigned to romantic couplings. The leniency with which evidence of this sentiment is treated has always perplexed me.
For instance, if someone were to tell me that they had a passion for chess, I would struggle to see how threatening or gaslighting their opponent (or the chess pieces) could be socially accepted as a symptom of that passion. Indeed, in any other context or relationship with another person, these behaviours would never be viewed as redeeming or positive. Parents should never hit or psychologically manipulate their children. Friends are not violent towards each other because of the intensity of their feelings.
The glowing narrative of violent passion, at least in popular fiction, does not even really extend to homosexual romantic couplings. In many depictions of queer relationships, any threatening behaviour is painted as abusive – usually with the intention of coding queer relationships as universally unhealthy.
In many regards, Breakfast at Tiffany’s couldn’t be further from the Bond series. Rather than a male-focused, testosterone-driven action film, it is widely considered a classic, female-focused romantic comedy – yet still the violent restraint of women permeates the film. Instead of being trussed up as ‘boys will be boys’, the trope is depicted as the result of the deep love that everyman protagonist Paul Varjak (George Peppard) feels for mercurial society girl and proto-Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn).
The narrative of pressure as a demonstration of affection is the driving force behind Paul’s treatment of Holly. In the library scene (above), Paul’s affection turns to confusion, then aggression, in a matter of seconds, as he realises that Holly is no longer interested in him. This reality is incompatible with his fanatical delusion that they are in love and belong together.
Paul frequently demonstrates this sort of entitlement and aggression towards Holly. At the conclusion of the movie, he gaslights her, corners her, and violently restrains her – all the while insisting that he loves her. His primary motivation through the film centres around the belief that Holly is, deep down, the type of woman he wants her to be, despite her continually denying and pushing against his interpretation of their relationship. In this light the ending, in which she finally succumbs to him, is incredibly heartbreaking.
Not only is this outcome depicted as acceptable within the film’s context, Paul and Holly’s dynamic is framed as desirable, as though the drastic control exerted by a man over a woman is the epitome of a loving relationship.
For people without any direct personal experience of assault – particularly sexual assault – pop culture narratives are among the only public forums where they can learn how to understand sexual violence. It makes sense, then, that there is a prevalent assumption in our society that if a woman does not actively and vocally resist sexual assault – often even when she does – she secretly or overtly desires the act.
On the Waterfront is among the most knowing example of this assumption, as even the score underlines the tension in the above scene as Terry (Marlon Brando) breaks down Edie’s (Eva Marie Saint) door, corners her, kisses her and then pulls away to see her expression of desire. Only then does the music relent, implying release, realisation and contentment. For over 80 years, our cinema culture has been saturated with this singular message.
Once, when I was in a bar in the UK, a guy offered to buy me a drink. After some banter, he asked whether I had a boyfriend, then became aggressive when I said yes. To him, this exchange was one of sexual promise. When I was suddenly ruled out as sexually viable, he became aggressive, demanding to know why I was talking to him. I left him to return to my friends, but an hour or so later when I went to leave he grabbed me around the wrist. He wanted to talk to me again. His grip was so firm that it gave me a Chinese burn when I broke free of it.
So prevalent are these tropes of sexually aggressive behaviour that seemingly innocuous teen movies are steeped in abusive treatment of women depicted as playful flirtation. In the beloved teen drama 10 Things I Hate About You, Patrick (Heath Ledger) constantly corners, gaslights and controls Kat (Julia Stiles). He steps between Kat and her car door to keep her from leaving when he wants to ask her out. He even stalks her in a way that echoes the Twilight franchise.
At the end of 10 Things, Patrick enacts another sly trope of sexual aggression – the cut-off kiss. This is when a man stops a woman from speaking or expressing herself by kissing her – usually when she is angry with him. It is a silencing technique, one that is supposed to pacify the woman through sexual or romantic validation and is used as a punchline in many romantic comedies.
This sort of pacification of women via sexual means horrifyingly mimics the history that women have with the medical profession. It is well documented that vibrators were invented in order to pacify “hysterical” women. When you consider that, to this day, women are often told by medical professionals that their symptoms are imaginary, the proliferation of silencing, undermining and gaslighting their experiences becomes clear. Art mimics life, life mimics art and the line between the two is thin.
The cut-off kiss even features in children’s films: in Ratatouille it serves as a punchline. Ratatouille tells the story of Remy, a rat with a love for cooking, who seizes the opportunity to work as a chef in a famous kitchen when he realises he can control the garbage boy, Linguini, by pulling his hair like a marionette puppet. Nearing the climax of the movie, Linguini is trying to work up the courage to tell his coworker and potential love interest, Colette, about Remy. As he dances around the subject, he is behaving so erratically that she feels threatened by him, recoiling back over her scooter and reaching for her mace. Using Linguini’s hair, Remy makes him kiss her, resolving the near-disaster of his exposure.
The comedy in this instance derives from the misunderstanding. However, the humour of the scene hinges on the fact that Colette feels threatened, and that women in general are made to feel so constantly unsafe that even harmless misunderstandings can harbour threats. The humour hinges on the trauma of sexual violence. Ratatouille is far from alone in making light of women feeling unsafe – if rape jokes are acceptable content for children’s media, is it any wonder that male standup comedians feel so comfortable making and defending them?
The reality – that possessiveness and jealousy are dangerous symptoms of male entitlement – is not yet reflected in mainstream media (with Mad Max: Fury Road a notable exception). The result has horrifying consequences in real life. Men, in particular, are coded to believe that this is loving, humorous and desirable behaviour.
On a recent family car trip, my brother, as all brothers seemingly have the capability to do, was winding me up. He was humouring himself by Charley horsing my leg; pinching that space above the knee that can make your leg jump due to the weird ticklish spasm. He ignored me when I told him to stop. After a few minutes, I lost my temper. By way of apology, he wrapped his arms around me in a full body embrace.
Contrary to pop culture, this did not pacify me but instead sent me headlong into a panic. I pushed against him with increasing fervour but he only held me tighter. Eventually, I went limp, distraught by the realisation that this act of submission was the only way he would let go. When he released me, I burst into tears.
This was a gendered act, even though it was obviously not a romantic one and that, in its own way, is telling. These tropes have broad cultural ramifications.
The fact that someone who cares strongly about my mental health and wellbeing would restrain me and force me into submission on an impulse leads me to believe that the impact of media on our subconscious is far greater than we give it credit for. The problem is not men’s ability to empathise, but who the media they consume encourages them to empathise with. The sexually aggressive spy, the entitled and possessive everyman, the light-heartedly manipulative love interest – all archetypes portrayed as romantic and desirable. These portrayals in turn significantly influence how men treat the women around them.
It’s important, then, that we scrutinise, discuss and dismantle narratives that are presented to us, in order to build greater understanding and create avenues for empathy. We need to engage openly with creators, pushing back against the lazy, damaging, traditional coding of romance and affection, and teach children critical engagement skills, so that they have the tools to analyse, interpret and make autonomous decisions about what healthy behaviour looks like.