Welcome to the jungle: it gets worse here every day…
The up-and-coming Jumanji sequel (yes, that’s what it is, not a remake, not a reboot) has become big news, for many of the wrong reasons. For one thing, it doesn’t have Robin Williams in it, and if you can’t remake a Robin Williams film with Robin Williams, it apparently becomes as sacred as the Ark of the Covenant, and must not be touched by human hands. As if it weren’t bad enough that Hollywood had decided to revive a popular, crowd-pleasing idea in an attempt to, I don’t know, make money of some sort, they have the audacity to publish a cast photo in which the female character is wearing CONSIDERABLY LESS THAN HER MALE CO-STARS. The Rock (Sorry, I know we’re supposed to call him Dwayne, but old habits and all that) is pictured in sensible khaki, while Gillan looks as if she’s on her way to a cosplay event. This prompted three or four people on the internet to complain about objectification, double standards, and how a single image was ‘the embodiment of all our fears about the Jumanji reboot’. Somewhat predictably, various news outlets reported this as a Twitter meltdown.
Let’s deal with the elephant in the room first (you see what I did there, don’t you?). The official explanation – that we’ll understand when we see the movie, but likely that she plays an avatar of a child who’s playing the game, hence the “child-sized” clothes – is a whitewash, flimsier than Raquel Welch’s loin cloth and more outlandish than Lady Gaga’s meat dress. It is the sort of hastily-assembled gumph you throw together when the negative comments start showing up in the entertainment news. Of course there’s a plot-related reason. That’s no excuse. They put Gillan in the outfit because she has nice legs – she knows it, you know it, and the costume designer certainly knew it. Had they been genuinely concerned about equality there are a million workarounds, and it is pointless to pretend otherwise.
So of course our dear Karen is being sexualised, not for the first time and certainly not for the last. It’s not a question of ‘is this objectification’ – it’s a question of ‘is it a big deal?’.
I’d suggest that it isn’t.
Let’s start with what she’s wearing. I’m no Versace, but if we’re going to explore the specifics of the outfit choice, it’s no worse than most of Lara Croft’s attire, and a good deal more sensible than anything worn by, say, Joanna Dark. “Many women I know,” my friend in California tells me, “wear similar things in summer”. When women do, and someone takes it upon themselves to warn them of potential consequences (a correlation which is in any event utterly false), it is called slut-shaming. You can’t have it both ways. For all my comments about sexualisation, Gillan is covered and respectable. The key complaint, it seems, is that she’s wearing far less than her companions.
And that’s what happens when you create a society with too much free time and too little general misfortune. Information for movies like this is generally drip-fed for maximum impact to keep the trending numbers high, but it seems ridiculous to judge a film so scant on detail on the basis of a single jpeg. Yes, Dwayne Johnson is fully clothed. This is a film about jungle animals running rampant across suburban America. At some point that shirt is coming off. It’s something of a tragedy that Alan Rickman is no longer around to raise a sardonic eyebrow. Daniel Craig’s hot with a Walther but he also looks smashing in a tight pair of swimming trunks (in a scene that directly parodies Ursula Andress’s rise from the Pacific in Dr. No) – when it comes to Bond, the producers do try and cater for the ladies as well as the men.
I got to experience the wrath of the anti-objectification brigade first hand this week when I became embroiled in a lengthy (if fairly civilised) discussion with a woman from Brazil. “Karen is a great and beautiful actress,” she said, “and she doesn’t need to show her body to make a good appearance. But then again, they’re intending to satisfy men needs. While that’s okay for you, it’s definitely not okay for women. I speak as a woman that is quite aware of how TV and films like to portray women and how dangerous this is.”
I probed further. To summarise, this was about idealisation of beauty, which is the road to all ruin. There were nods to Game of Thrones – specifically Emilia Clarke and Lena Headey, both of whom reportedly wove ‘no nudity’ clauses into their contracts. “It’s not a selfish reason,” I was assured, “but an attempt to wake people to the fact that media super sexualise women”. I mentioned Daniel Craig. “I’m not happy with male either,” was the (mildly paraphrased) response. “I care about plot and story”. In other words, it’s not possible to have your cake and eat it: you can enjoy The Third Man or Dead or Alive; you cannot enjoy both. Admiration of story and character is irreconcilable with a tip of the hat to Angelina Jolie’s evening gown as she empties both barrels of a shotgun at Brad Pitt, in a scene that’s no doubt experienced a surge in viewing figures over the last week.
If I were making value judgements, I’d say the whole conversation reeked of Catholic guilt – but really, let’s not go there. Actually, I’m reminded of an early Philip K. Dick novel called Eye in the Sky (written in 1955, in the middle of Dick’s oft-underrated mainstream period, when his stories contained linear, mostly comprehensible plots and epic action sequences). It tells the tale of a group of unconscious tourists in a science lab who endure a series of jaunts through each other’s subconscious minds: thus a religious fundamentalist creates a fearful society full of instant karma and racial stereotypes, presided over by a gargantuan deity hovering above the Earth (the titular ‘eye’). But it’s the second reality – created by an elderly sexually repressed conservative – that is perhaps the most interesting, consisting as it does of a drab, featureless world where human sexuality is not so much repressed as it is non-existent, male and female anatomy having reconfigured itself into inoffensive, formless androgyny, where men and women alike are essentially a series of production line dolls.
The funny thing about this is that this has made the news at all – DOCTOR WHO ACTRESS IN SEXUALISATION SHOCKER, the headlines don’t exactly scream, because just for a change there’s nothing to actually scream about. Gillan may be starring in Jumanji, but she made her name in Doctor Who – a show that has objectified women since 1965 and shows no signs of slowing down. Anneke Wills totters through London, tugging at her hemline and flirting with Michael Craze. The camera pans slowly around the disembodied TARDIS console at the end of The Mind Robber, lingering on Wendy Padbury’s rear end for as long as it can without disgruntling the censors. Caroline John traverses a weir in a miniskirt and heeled boots. Katy Manning presumably got paid extra if she managed to get her knickers on film. Louise Jameson deserves a paragraph to herself, although I don’t have time to write it.
In the ’80s things slow down a little, but that’s partly Bonnie Langford, who (at least while she’s in the TARDIS) seems as far removed from the concept of sexuality as, oh, Ann Widdecombe. (And yes, I’m aware that Ann Widdecombe is an unlikely sex symbol in some quarters, and to be fair to Bonnie, her name is an anagram of ‘Iron Fondle Bang’, which is moderately saucy.) Come post-millennial Who there is a sudden paradigm shift, in that the obvious eye candy in that first series is a thirty-eight-year-old gay man (yes, Billie Piper’s pretty, but she spends most of her time with Eccleston dressed like a chav). What’s even more interesting is how the concept of alluring male characters – something you could never imagine of Turlough, for example – extends further to the Doctor himself. Ever since McGann snogged Daphne Ashbrook under a tree, the Doctor has found ways to exercise his libido: Tennant, particularly in his first series, took Casanova out of 18th Century Venice and into the TARDIS, while Smith’s been naked more times than the Abzorbaloff’s feasted on virgins. (Parental advisory: take my word for this. Please. Do not Google ‘Naked Doctor Who‘, ever.)
Oddly enough the presentation and perception of women in Nu Who seems almost to have backslid in recent years. I’m reassured by various people that ‘the show is growing up’, but I’m yet to see any compelling evidence that this is the case: Amy’s seduction of the Doctor at the end of Flesh and Stone is borderline inappropriate for a family show, Clara’s soaking at the beginning of Cold War is there purely to indulge the fantasies of a million teenage boys (and their slightly older peer groups), and River’s apparent nymphomania would make even Michael Douglas blush. More seriously, we’re still in a place where the comparative worth of a female character is judged, all too often, on the relationships they have with men: Blink is the most obvious example, but there are others, and while the situation is gradually being addressed the uncomfortable truth is that 21st Century Who is far less ‘enlightened’ than it would like to think it is. It’s a contemporary version of the ‘marriage of convenience’ scenario that first reared its ugly head in 1964 and which returns with a vengeance every time (and as recently as 2012) the writers can’t decide how best to get rid of a companion.
Look, I’m sorry if the appearance of a bit of flesh riles you. But I can’t heave my heart into my mouth on this. It is a cheap and effective way of upping the viewing figures; I’m not denying that. I’ve seen a fair amount of movie sex on my travels through the world of cinema, and the truth is that most of it has very little actual bearing on the plot, and is merely there for the sake of gratuity (notable exceptions include Don’t Look Now, The Terminator, and that mildly uncomfortable scene in Watchmen; please feel free to deposit your own ideas in the comments box for review). It’s a running joke, for example, that anyone who gets their kit off in a horror movie will meet a grisly end before the reel is up, and usually while their pants are still down.
But to suggest that the world is going to hell in a handcart because Amy Pond is wearing a short skirt is… well, sorry, it’s laughable. Leela’s ‘for the dads’ reputation goes hand in hand with her Janis thorns and that scene with the yo-yo, but the baffling thing is how many people seem to view it as a bad thing. Dads watch the show. They’re a key audience demographic that respond positively to the sight of flesh. Nobody objects when Colin Firth dives into a lake halfway through Pride & Prejudice: this is presumably because of emancipation (more on that in a moment), and it’s true that there are more naked women on TV than there are men, but that’s partly audience demand. And audience demand – whatever Guardian critics would have you believe – is Mostly Harmless. Audiences also demanded another series of The X-Factor, a show I can’t stand, but an infatuation with disposable mediocrity is not symptomatic of a wider societal problem or the demise of the music industry. There have always been people who avoid anything with substance; it’s just that these days they’re all on social media, so we know about them.
The general critical appraisal of men like me is to assume that we’re still stuck in the dark ages, but the truth is that many of us went through our period of excessive political correctness and found it wanting. If you’d met me at the age of twenty, you wouldn’t have liked me at all. (You may not like me now, of course, but you would be less inclined to rip off my head and defecate down my neck.) I was arrogant, pretentious, afflicted with a kind of deluded sense of omniscience, and full of self-righteous fury, and a lot of it came out in my angst-ridden emails to friends at other universities (I had none at my own, which was partly self-inflicted). “I can’t believe,” I remember writing one Friday morning after a lecture, “that there are websites where you can jack off to the image of a naked computer sprite. It represents a new age of sordidness on the part of twenty-something males. They try and justify their insane lust by stating that ‘she is domineering, independent, resourceful’… all they’re concerned about is a few seconds of her in a bikini”.
Jay was always more sensible than I was, and could see through idiocy. “You come across as though you are talking about some evil James Bond style megalomaniac,” he said. “Since when was lust so insane (well, apart from ancient Christian history)? Yeah, I like to look at semi-clad women, they look good. Most women will agree that a semi-clad woman looks generally more appealing than a semi-clad fella. You are perfectly correct in saying ‘All they’re concerned about is a few seconds of her in a bikini’. And so what? I like seeing women in bikinis. That doesn’t mean that I have an objective sense of women, or that I love my own girlfriend less. Birds look good. It’s a fact!”
There’s a scene in the second Adrian Mole book where Adrian asks his father why he had married his mother. “He explained that he met my mother when miniskirts were in fashion,” the acne-ridden teenager records. “He said, ‘You must realize that most women looked bloody awful in miniskirts, so your mother had a certain rarity value’. I was shocked at his sexist attitude and told him that I was in love with Pandora because of her brains and compassion for lesser mortals. My father gave a nasty laugh and said ‘Oh yeah! And if Pandora was as ugly as sin you wouldn’t have noticed her bloody IQ and bleeding heart in the first place.'”
I’m not saying I’m blind – that any of us are blind – to the transgressions of a male-dominated hierarchy. It’s been hammered into me more times than I could count this past year that catcalling is wrong (no, I’ve never done it), that telling a girl to smile is never a good idea (on that front I must confess to a certain guilt), and that rape culture needs a serious cross-examination. For all our efforts, the glass ceiling is still intact and the pay gap still present and correct, rearing its ugly head. The double standard Hollywood has when it comes to older women is nothing short of ludicrous, although it’s the sort of thing that should come as no surprise from such a superficial, cutthroat industry. Research suggests that over-exposure to pornography leads to unrealistic expectations of sex, which are at best disappointing and, at the other end of the scale, downright dangerous. And on the internet it’s worse. I have an old friend who’s a gamer – a better, more serious gamer than I could ever hope to be – and when it comes to hopping online she keeps voice chat to a minimum and generally tries to conceal her identity. “Because when they find out you’re a woman,” she says, “you’re done for.”
These are all problems, and all serious problems, and all things that we need to work on. But I’m not convinced that there is any value in railing against a short skirt, a gratuitously exposed leggy blonde, a wardrobe ‘malfunction’. If we’re going to fix gender inequality, we need to prioritise, and I have seen no serious evidence – sorry, none whatsoever – that these things matter. Life sometimes imitates art, but that’s the exception rather than the rule. A by-product of increased respect for women and equality may be an increased tendency to have characters keep their clothes on, but I personally hope things don’t go that way.
Sex and sexuality are a part of life and to deny them their place – however trivial the association – in related media is a really rather joyless way to live your life. The Fifth Doctor’s regeneration is renowned for the sight of Peri’s cleavage, dangling over the dying Time Lord’s head, as much as it is for that final swirling companion montage. But oddly enough, I don’t hear Davison complaining. Why should we?