Cute. Comical. Slapstick funny. These are just some of the tricks Hollywood abuses and exploits to mask the sexual harassment of women and appeal to the male gaze. And since men control the beat, tenor and tune of the industry, women’s roles are as thin now as they were then. This is the beauty of checking out old flicks—they help us unmask the new tricks of the trade.
Check out this scene from Which Way is Up, a flick seen by many modern bloggers as kids on cable way back in the day, since the film debuted in 1977. It was on regular rotation on the movie channels in the early ‘80s, and probably never registered as sexual harassment—a term that genuinely came into the American lexicon via the Senate’s confirmation hearing of Uncle Tom. Anita Hill stuck her neck out, but the nation’s leaders failed to go the distance, which is unsurprising given the tacit harassment of women in pop culture. The sitting president could not even bring himself to correctly pronounce the word harassment, as most Americans do, instead rebuffing something more akin to “harris-mint”.
What kind of sick, sadistic shit is this? In Which Way Is Up, Pryor’s main character stalks his love interest, accosts her in the park, lies to her, falsifies information to deceive her, tramples upon her, attempts to rape her, cries after her as she runs away…and within a few magical flashes of silliness later, she’s naked cooking for him, giving into his passive-aggressiveness, and making him promise never to sleep with any other woman again (including his wife). Whew! All that in one fell swoop. What kind of sick fantasy is this? This is some stereotypical male fantasy world where women really do just submit.
To the film’s credit, Which Way Is Up hilarious. Richard Pryor defined comedy for his generation, the evidence being those who followed: Dave Chappelle, Katt Williams, Eddie Griffin and the late Robin Harris to name a few. Of course, we cannot forget our trash talking ladies, such as Mo’Nique, Sommore, Adele Givens, Sheryl Underwood, and self-proclaimed fag-hag, Margaret Cho. Eddie Murphy most succinctly enjoys a direct lineage to Pryor’s work; just check out the many characters he portrays in films such as Coming to America or the Nutty Professor franchise.
Seen years later, this scene from 1977’s Which Way is Up, starring my favorite comedian, Richard Pryor, looks like rape. Indeed, it’s probably a bit unfair that we can now splice and dice films into convenient sound-bites (YouTube, for example, is limited to 10 minute splits), never really judging the body of a single piece of work, let alone the body of work of an artist. Still, this piece of this flick is difficult to watch, almost as difficult to watch as to consider how “normal” these scenes are in Hollywood. Yet, in the mid-‘70s Richard Pryor’s antics were just comical. Sadly, he’s (still) not alone. Too, too often Hollywood makes fun of the fact that “no” really, in fact, means “no”.