Old Movies Don’t Get A Free Pass On Sexism and Racism Just Because They’re Old
Social context is key. So is accountability.
In media criticism, social context is absolutely key. Media products do not exist in a vacuum — they are created by people who are influenced by many social factors, using technology from a particular era, and delivered to an audience who bring their own experiences to bear on it, influenced by all of those same things. In every way, when we view media products — especially movies — they provide an important snapshot of the social context in which they were created. That’s why the application of a modern critical lens to older movies is a vital and valuable exercise. That’s also why old films don’t get a free pass on sexism and racism, simply by virtue of their age.
There’s a strange attitude regarding sexism and racism in ‘old’ movies — and when I say ‘old’, I mean everything from 1878 to 2006. Even in some legitimate quarters of media criticism, the attitude exists that, well, that’s just how things were done back then. Everything was more sexist and racist in those days, so we can’t expect those movies to withstand any kind of modern scrutiny. It was ‘of its time,’ and these things cannot be judged by today’s standards. Such an attitude suffers from a distinct lack of nuance, however.
Certainly, we cannot judge the technical achievements of, say, 1984’s Sixteen Candles by today’s standards, because every technical department — from cameras to costumes — has undergone massive evolution over time. But misogyny has always been misogyny. It was nauseatingly rapey when, in that 1984 movie, Michael Schoeffling’s Jake and Anthony Michael Hall’s Ted made a deal about the return of stolen underwear and the lecherous Ted was given a man’s permission to drive off with an incapacitated Prom Queen as if she were a Christmas gift — and it remains nauseatingly rapey today. Social context is absolutely key, because so much has changed over the past 141 years — but discrimination has always been discrimination. The only change regarding discrimination has been in accountability.
Since Twitter launched in 2006 and changed the nature of social media, the platform has provided the same people that arebeen discriminated against in society, and in movies, an opportunity to speak their truth on a much more level playing field. Women can call out sexism in film in real time, in a single micro-blog entry, and potentially have that opinion be seen around the world. Black, Latinx, Asian, Arab, and Muslim people — and every audience member impacted by onscreen ethnic discrimination could do the same. People discriminated against on the basis of sexuality, gender identity, disability, or weight could all have their say in a public forum, and potentially be heard. That platform has evolved over time, too, and has inevitably developed bigotry-based problems of its own — but that core function, in broad and general terms, remains.
So, for example, when I hear that 1978’s Grease is harmless fun, because it’s so ‘of its time’ what I hear is that 1978 was still a time of no accountability. Why else would a film about a woman having to change her entire personality to fit in with a man (whose friends are date rapists, by the way) be considered an enduring classic? Yes, some argue that Sandy doesn’t change to appeal to Danny, but rather embraces her ‘true’ self, but isn’t it convenient that her ‘true’ self just happens to dress and behave in exactly the same way as Danny and his clique of Greasers? If you believe that she is throwing off Conservative oppression in her transformation, this is certainly true — but she’s simply swapping one patriarchally approved identity for another, rather than defining her identity for herself.
Instead of giving Grease a free pass because it’s old, it is vital that we apply a modern lens in its criticism because, in 1958 — the historical setting for the plot of the film — abuse and rape were more likely to be endured by women as a grim fact of life, because the framework of patriarchal society actively discouraged reporting. In 1978, when the film was released, the world had seen an uprising in feminism, leading to a greater social emphasis on women’s rights.
When we apply a modern lens to the social context of Grease, then, we can see that the movie represents a sugar-coated, song-and-dance glorification of a time that better suited Conservative America — when women were told they should want nothing more than to appease the men in their lives. It was the age-old story of bringing women under control, disguised as a tale of 1950s teen rebellion. Further, it was released to great and enduring fanfare at the end of a decade that had seen, in America, the birth of the Equal Rights Amendment, the birth of Ms Magazine, Roe v. Wade, the creation of the Combahee River Collective, and a whole host of women-led strikes and protests.
The idea that, because sexism and racism were more blatant, overt and relatively unchallenged in the past then those engaged in that oppression didn’t know any better is demonstrably nonsensical. We have seen throughout history — from media to politics and everywhere in between — that gains made against oppression brings an oppressive response. In film, that’s what Grease represented. In modern politics, for example, that’s what the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S Supreme Court was.
When we give old movies a free pass, and argue that the work of Hitchcock, Kubrick, or Huston, for example, should be criticised only within the limited scope of the era in which they created their movies, we buy into the sexism and racism that’s baked into their product. Just because there was no enduring public backlash at the time, doesn’t mean the sexism and racism wasn’t a problem — it means that calling out sexism and racism publicly was considered ill-advised within the media. It’s not that people didn’t mind being discriminated against in those days, or didn’t know that discrimination was happening, it’s that they didn’t feel able to openly address it within the media. It’s not that we only learned of sexism and racism in the media in the past decade, it’s that the internet has only facilitated a cohesive discussion about it in the past decade, with previously unheard voices finally being amplified, and perpetrators being held accountable.
‘That’s just how things were done back then’ is nothing more than patriarchal apologism, because sexism and racism in the media of any era is fundamentally patriarchal propaganda. This is not a conspiracy theory — it is a simple case of cumulative cause and effect. White men consistently funding projects that place white men at the centre of most films of the western film industry, while using everyone else as facilitator characters or set dressing, is propaganda for white patriarchy, because collectively, it implies that white men are the most important people in the world, and indoctrinates us all into seeing their point of view as the default. When we look back at old movies, we can see some of the very building blocks of the sexism and racism that exists in our society today and, at the time they were made, those studios and those filmmakers who made discriminatory movies willingly added to that patriarchal structure by choosing to maintain the bigoted social status quo rather than challenging it in their art.
“Propaganda: Information, especially of a misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view.”
A century of most western movies being the work of white male filmmakers making films about white men, in which women are, at best, objects to be ‘won’ or owned, or at worst, entirely disposable — has helped secure white male patriarchy in the western world. It has succeeded in this to the extent that a reality TV star can be elected President of the United States, despite a long history of blatant racism, 25 women accusing him of sexual assault, and his confession of serial sexual assault being caught on tape. In the decades to come, when we apply our future critical lens to films like Mission Impossible: Fallout, Alien: Covenant, Avengers: Infinity War, and Joker, that is the social context we will be applying in our analysis. What will our conclusions be then? We didn’t know any better, I guess. That’s just how things were done back then.