Good Will Hunting in the Me Too Era

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Photo by Felix Mooneeram on Unsplash

Good Will Hunting is a classic for a reason. When I watched it for the first time last week, Sean McGuire’s monologue about his wife’s cancer stirred something in me. Damon and Affleck’s portrayals of low-brow, Boston teens were hysterical and dynamic. Moments of levity punctuated the drama at just the right moments. The relationship between Will, the angsty, reticent boyfriend, and Skylar, the devastated, confused girlfriend, hit close to home and actually brought me to tears. I didn’t even cry at my college graduation.

When the movie ended, I felt it necessary to lock myself in my room and process what I’d seen. I marinated on it for days. At first I thought I was awe-inspired, but after some analysis and frenzied journaling, I realized that my reaction was not a result of cinematic genius but of the film’s treatment of women.

I’ll admit, when I saw Harvey Weinstein’s name on the screen 30 seconds into the movie, I became skeptical. “It’s ruined,” I joked to my two male friends, Bai and Michael, who were watching with me. But did we take a rain check on movie night because the movie’s producer has an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to his sexual abuse allegations? No. We tittered until his name disappeared, sighed uncomfortably, and kept watching.

Perhaps Weinstein’s name primed me for criticism, because I kept noticing sexual harassment throughout the movie. Will recites the iconic line “how about them apples” as he jeers at a man who failed to get Skylar’s number, as if a date with her is a prize of virility. Lambeau makes advances on a female student who is far his junior. When Will calls Skylar and his speech falters, she asks if it’s her professor calling again. Not incidental is the textbook she’s reading: Sexual Dysfunction in Neurological Disorders. McGuire, in an effort to revive an unengaged psych class, says that his motto is to nail female patients while they’re vulnerable. Homophobia and transphobia are there too — Will taunts multiple therapists for being gay, and a trans jiggelo, drugged up and stumbling through prison, is meant as a joke.

What twists the knife is the fact that this is a movie about trauma. Will’s character is inextricable with his abusive past. Damon captures the humor and irreverence that is a common defense mechanism among survivors. His breakdown, though slightly histrionic, is a believable depiction of a boy realizing he’s been a victim. It’s evident that the writers and director, Gus Van Stant, characterized Will with care and nuance. They wanted to emphasize the gravity of childhood abuse. Why, then, did they find jokes about sexual harassment so hilarious?

Digging into the cast and crew gave me some clues. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck wrote the screenplay, Gus Van Sant directed the film, and Harvey Weinstein produced it along with an entirely male production team. The main characters are all men, except Skylar, who’s really there to augment Will’s character arc. She’s not her own person, but a trope of the brainy, rich girl who falls for a delinquent, an amalgamation of every woman who has dealt with a moody boyfriend.

Equally as frustrating is the movie’s ending. On his 21st birthday, Will is no longer obligated to go to therapy and discontinues his sessions. His final au revoir to McGuire is a note revealing he has left for California to win Skylar back. The credits roll over a shot of Will driving into the horizon, towards his ever after.

This isn’t how it works. Survivors spend their entire lives in therapy. Some develop drug and alcohol dependencies or severe psychological disorders, and find themselves in-and-out of treatment. It’s very difficult for survivors to lead normal lives, and its even harder to engage in romantic relationships. This isn’t reflected in Will’s arc — he has a good cry, realizes he loves Skylar, and drives off into a sunset.

Most movies aren’t realistic — that’s what makes them movies. If I wanted to see how childhood abuse really affects someone, I’d walk down State Street and choose one of the dozens of homeless people yelling at a window. No one wants to see that when she’s looking to “escape,” and I get that. But if you produce a movie about abuse, and use sexual assault as a punchline, at least give the audience an accurate depiction of coping with trauma.

Given the way Harvey Weinstein treats women in his movies, it makes sense that he ended up being a scumbag. However, Affleck and Damon’s responses to the allegations against Weinstein were more unexpected. It seems they’ve learned nothing in the twenty-odd years since the movie was released.

Affleck looks back on the film wistfully: “while they were the good old days for me, I know that they were some pretty awful days for people who ran into Harvey Weinstein.” “Pretty awful” is quite a euphemism for 30 years of sexual assault. In an interview with ABC News, Matt Damon posited a spectrum of abuse: “there’s a difference between, you know, patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation, right? Both of those behaviors need to be confronted and eradicated without question, but they shouldn’t be conflated.” He went on to defend men like Louis C.K, reminding the audience that “none of us came here perfect.”

Perhaps Damon has a point — there’s a difference between “patting someone on the butt” and violent rape. But what he fails to understand — what most men fail to understand — is that blow job quips and pervy professor jokes add up to a society where men like Harvey Weinstein can exist; a society that elects a president who jokes about grabbing pussies; a society where one in five women will be raped while only one in 71 men share that fate; a society where women’s experiences are deemed less important and less valid than men’s.

A few days after movie night, I was at a Korean restaurant with Bai. I brought up the movie, but before I revealed my qualms, I asked if any parts had made him uncomfortable. I didn’t want to sway his opinion preemptively. A deep thinker, he asked for more time to consider my question. But I had been sitting on my thoughts for days and they were beginning to fester — I couldn’t hold back. I explained that though I appreciated the movie for its craft, I found it to be sexist, idealistic, and misleading. I cited the scenes and lines that bothered me, and unpacked my disappointment with the final scene. Bai knit his brows and stared at his bi bim bop. We sat in silence for several moments as my monologue lingered between us.

“You’re right,” he finally said. “I didn’t notice any of that. And it’s definitely because I’m a guy.”

I brought the issue up with Michael while we were sitting in my apartment. Like before, I asked him if he had any issues with the film before describing my own. He thought for a moment and said something about Will being an asshole. At that point I had started writing this essay, and I passed him my laptop to give it a read.

“Yeah,” he said when he finished reading. “I could see that. I guess I don’t view it as a movie about trauma, but more a movie about Boston.” Disappointed, I took back the laptop.

My friends aren’t bad people. In fact, they’re some of the most empathetic guys I know. If they didn’t pick up on the movie’s sexism, then I’d bet that most male viewers don’t notice it either.

I became curious and started researching critics’ responses to the film. In a recent article exploring the movie’s 20-year legacy, male critics overwhelmingly commented on its characterization of Boston. Loren King, a freelance film writer and former president of the Boston Society of Film Critics, and the only female interviewee, had a bit more to say: “To me, that movie never would have gotten made if it wasn’t two good-looking white young men who were destined for stardom. Where are the stories that are not being told? Where’s the Good Will Hunting about two young working-class women? Where’s the Good Will Hunting about two black kids in Roxbury? Those films are being made, but they’re not getting the awards and attention…and that’s still the case 20 years later.”

We can’t give Good Will Hunting a pass because it was made in a different era. People still watch, love, and quote this movie, and like King pointed out, these issues prevail. Thanks to “Time’s Up,” sexism in cinema is less flagrant, but sexism can be noxious in its subtlety. Of this decade’s top 10 grossing movies, 7 are androcentric action films with poorly written female characters. Furious 7 features a slew of boob and butt shots — not to mention Michelle Rodriguez, the leading actress, almost quit the franchise because of sexism. In Jurassic World, corporate success and motherhood are mutually exclusive. Claire Dearing, the female lead, is portrayed as an icy workaholic until she embraces maternity and gets herself a boyfriend. Of the 23 Marvel films — 5 of which snagged top 10 spots — only Captain Marvel features an autonomous female lead. Captain Marvel is not among those 5.

Hollywood is largely to blame for sexism. People emulate the movies they watch and the heroes these movies depict. Until Hollywood stops objectifying women and starts giving them substantial, dynamic roles, gender inequality will prevail. And until men can watch movies like Good Will Hunting and think “that’s fucked up,” we’re stuck in a world where a group of men can make a movie about abuse without realizing they’re perpetuating it, and where men can watch this movie without realizing it’s a problem.

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I am a freelance writer, researcher, and journalist with experience covering international news, climate change, LGBT+ justice, and arts and culture.

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