Disclaimer: this post has some pretty heavy subject matter. You've been warned.
I recently saw the 1973 film "Soylent Green" starring Charlton Heston. It paints a bleak picture of a distopian society in which the cities are overcrowded and the crowds are starving. Oh, and rich people own concubine women who are literally referred to as "furniture." At one point, Heston's character tells the female lead, "you're a helluva piece of furniture." How flattering.
The funny thing is, supposedly "Soylent Green" is set in the year 2022. That's only a decade from now! How hilariously inaccurate, just like watching the futuristic scenes in "Back To The Future"... except, similarly to what I've noted about a different film recently, I think the scariest parts of that future have already happened, to some extent. Sure, we're not starving and we still eat real food from real farms, and the whole women-as-furniture thing is surely inaccurate, isn't it? We don't objectify women that badly. Do we?
Unfortunately, a quick look at our media says we do.
Take "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" for example. I just watched David Fincher's American remake the other day. And it's terrible. (I'll get this out of the way right now: I haven't seen the original Swedish film, nor have I read the original novel. If that makes my opinions invalid, so be it.)
What's terrible about it, you ask? Certainly not the directing, or the acting, or the set design, or the music. All of those elements are fantastic. But a film is more than the sum of its parts. There has to be something thematically worthwhile underneath it all. And, despite what may have been the best of intentions, all I could find underneath it all was filth.
Let me explain. According to Wikipedia, "[Stieg] Larsson witnessed the gang rape of a young girl when he was 15. He never forgave himself for failing to help the girl, whose name was Lisbeth – like the young main character of his books, herself a rape victim, which inspired the theme of sexual violence against women in his books." So, here we have an author who hates sexual violence and writes a story about a fiercely independent girl who stays emotionally sturdy in the face of unspeakable victimization. In a lot of ways, she's a great character. And the film adaptation did a terrific job showing how she is strong and smart and resourceful and has an unyielding sense of justice. Unfortunately, the film also showed her as a piece of furniture.
It's not just about the nudity. I understand that sometimes people are naked in films. People are naked in real life. It happens. But when it comes to any explicit content in film (whether that be nudity or violence or profanity), there's a difference between plot-driven necessity and pornographic nonsense. "Dragon Tattoo" was, for the most part, the latter, disguised as the former.
David Fincher's film has no excuse, really, for showing as much of its protagonist's body as it does. She bares everything for our other protagonist (played by Daniel Craig) and they become lovers. However [SPOILER ALERT, I'm about to talk about the ending], they don't even end up together in the end. What was the point? Were we supposed to see her vulnerability so that we could applaud her newly found independence as she enters, of her own free will, into a sexually healthy relationship? Apparently not, because there isn't anything emotionally believable about their relationship while it lasts. And the ending, where we learn that it didn't even last anyway, is so unbearably bleak and sexually nihilistic. It seems that it was all for nothing.
In short, "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" is guilty of the very objectification that it pretends to condemn. It wastes its title character (played extremely well by Rooney Mara) and treats her essentially, in the end, as an object.
Films are not about events or things; they are about character changes. The most worthwhile narratives involve characters that change, or at least realize something significant, by the end. But when the curtain closed and the closing credits for "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" started rolling, I felt nothing. Neither of the two protagonists had changed or learned anything. Neither had become either better or worse people, and therefore the audience was not enlightened. Things just happened, and then stopped. I expected a lot more insight from a film based on a book by someone who apparently had a very idealistic agenda. All I got was pulp fiction.
I know I have used a very loaded word in this article ("pornographic") that ought not to be thrown around lightly. I'm trying very carefully not to call good evil here. But, the way I see it, there are two main problems with pornography. The first is a problem for the participants: pornography creates an extremely unhealthy environment in which young girls become addicted to drugs and ruin their lives trying to live from paycheck to paycheck, meanwhile trying to cope daily with diseases and other dangers. The second problem is more sociological: pornography poisons those who view it, and poisons the world itself. It presents an unrealistic and damaging view of sexuality, a distorted ideology of manhood and womanhood, and it desensitizes its viewers to violent sexuality and the objectification of human beings. Studies link its consumption with increased aggression, etc. Basically, it turns our world into a worse place.
Good, professional films, for the most part, are not guilty of the first problem as defined above. You don't often hear of high-profile actresses grabbing a movie role so they can scrape up the money to pay for their next hit of cocaine, the rent of their crummy apartment, or their doctor bills to try to deal with STDs. But no matter how well actresses and actors are treated, films can still be guilty of the second problem as defined above: the problem of what pornographic imagery does to society on a subliminal, psychological level.
I'm not saying "Dragon Tattoo" is the only offender (James Bond films essentially do the same thing, right?). It's probably just the most explicit offender that I've seen. And it stands out so harshly in my mind because of the ideological irony: it tries (or, maybe, just pretends?) to be a film fighting against the objectification of women, but it objectifies its character just as much as its villains do. Certainly this is a widespread problem in Hollywood, in film in general, and perhaps in every art or media format. Books, television, and music are not without sin. I think what this means is that there's a problem with our society in general.
Immanuel Kant once suggested that ethical behavior is based on the maxim that one ought to "treat humanity always as an end in itself, and never merely as a means." In other words, no one deserves to be treated, or even thought of, as "furniture."
People are not things. They are people.