Sex Abuse 105: How Hollywood Romances Teach Sex Abuse

Hollywood Romance Movies Actually Teach Sex Abuse!

What do Al Pacino, Clark Gable, John Wayne, Sean Connery, Kristin Scott Thomas, Arthur Godfrey (and too many others to list here) have in common? They’ve all made movies or records which show some sort of sex abuse and/or violence as the path to romantic love.

Sex abuse scandals are in the news daily. There is plenty of outrage but still no one is talking about how to effectively end sex abuse (or at least keep it from being so ubiquitous) other than simply telling the abused to ‘speak up’ (a worthwhile strategy, but limited). No one is asking the right questions. Those who are outraged continually act as if any behavior that they think constitutes sex abuse is obvious, has always been obvious, and everyone knows it’s obvious. Well folks, here on Planet Reality, “It ain’t necessarily so.”

I have been saying for the past weeks that we need to teach each other (at home, in school and in the village) just what we mean by appropriate behavior. My post Mixed Messages shows what my mother taught me, how different people can be brought up differently, and how just watching those around us for behavioral cues can lead to getting the wrong message. My Hollywood Experience is my contribution to the #MeToo movement. Attractive Nuisance and The Chimpanzee Lecture are lessons I teach about where inappropriate conduct comes from and ways to combat it.

But, what if you didn’t have a mother like mine? Or, what if you didn’t have me for a teacher? You could learn about romance from Hollywood movies. But what would you learn? You’d learn that abusing women leads to love.

Differences of opinion

I know that saying that Hollywood romance movies teach sex abuse is a very strong statement so please withhold your judgement until I make my case. Interviewers frequently ask pundits, politicians or people on the street, “Do you believe the accusers or the accused?” I shock people when I say, “I believe them both. I accept that both of them believe they are telling the truth as they see it.” I then proceed to point out a few examples of famous and not so famous movies, media and stars to illustrate the point that it isn’t as obvious as you might think. People can see the same movie (or hear the same song) and come away with VERY different ideas about what they saw, what was sexy, and what was abusive.

I selected the following examples (most are considered classics) based on my own feelings of what was anachronistic, patriarchal, or abusive. I then went to Google and Netflix for an informal tally of the reviews (submitted by ordinary viewers) to see if anyone else agreed with me. Generally speaking, only about 10% of the reviews (and I’m being statistically generous here) even noticed the abuse. Those who did notice tended to seriously zero in on it. Just think… That statistic means if you went to audition for 10 Hollywood producers (who behaved like the men in their movies) only 1 of the 10 could be counted on for gentlemanly conduct (if that). I’m not saying that these entertainments should be banned. I actually like some of these examples (as period pieces). I submit that we need to teach about the anachronistic, patriarchal, and abusive ideals Hollywood movies (and other media) actually portray.

The Three Stooges Ward – A caveat about ignorance!

One possible argument against my point is that most of these movies are either products of their time or they are depicting social mores of bygone eras. I get that, but far too many people don’t.

In his biography, Moe Howard (of the Three Stooges) told of their frustration with their fans during personal appearances. Fans loved the Stooges’ slapstick humor and the funny sounds they heard in the movies when Moe would hit Curly with a hammer or a pipe or when he’d poke Curly in the eyes. Too many fans didn’t understand how movies were made and that those funny sounds were actually what is known in the industry as foley – sound effects added later in the studio. As a result of their ignorance, fans would walk up to the Stooges (most often Curly) and hit one of them, expecting a weird sound or thinking it was funny. This was very worrisome for the Stooges.

The Simpsons have an episode in which the doctor tells of the horrors of ‘The Three Stooges Ward’ in which kids who tried to imitate the Stooges wound up hurting themselves. I grew up watching and enjoying The Three Stooges (particularly their early work when they still did some of their vaudeville routines). My brothers liked the Stooges too. My brothers and I fought like Tasmanian devils but we knew that hitting each other on the head with a hammer or a crowbar wasn’t funny, it was deadly. Sadly, there are those who didn’t or don’t get that. Likewise with romantic movies.

What is romance? And a challenge…

The majority of examples I’m going to discuss are considered romantic or romances. The few others I’ve included are just interesting media examples that happened to cross my path. One of The New Oxford American Dictionary’s definitions of romance is: “a book or movie dealing with love in a sentimental or idealized way.” And they give an historical note which tells us that, “… ‘genre centered on romantic love’ dates from the mid 17th cent.” Please be clear, I am not going to disparage any of these movies or songs. I don’t believe they should be banned (although some reviewers did suggest that). Most are considered Hollywood classics. But it’s the belief that they represent “idealized love” that makes them so dangerous. There are people who need to be told or made aware of the fact that these are period pieces and dramas and NOT considered appropriate conduct in the real, modern world. If not taught, those people could/will wind up in a Three Stooges Ward of their own making.

So I’m making this challenge.

I’m saying that Hollywood teaches sex abuse, particularly abuse of women. You shall see that in my examples, the girl usually starts out rejecting the guy and after he persists, and/or beats her, or forces himself on her, she falls into his arms in romantic ecstasy. There are those who would contend that without conflict there is no drama. I could agree with that. But I still say if we are to entertain ourselves with outdated, bizarre, or abusive notions of romance we need to educate everyone that that is what we are doing.

I challenge you to find a successful Hollywood romantic movie in which the guy behaves himself throughout and the woman doesn’t act mean (the vulgar colloquial term would be ‘act bitchy’) or reject the man from the start or have to be hassled, harangued or forced in any way. And please don’t pick a superhero flick or some extraordinary plot circumstance. Lois Lane falling in love with Superman after he saves her life doesn’t count. Make it ordinary people in ordinary circumstances (like Frankie & Johnny 1991 – more on this later). You can write to me on my contacts page or below in the comments section. I’m ready to hear from you. In the mean time, let’s look at some classic romances.

Clark Gable – sock ‘em!

Mention Clark Gable nowadays and just about any adult has at least heard of him. Many would recognize him as a major Hollywood star and, in particular, a romantic leading man. But in 1934 he was a newcomer and the movie It Happened One Night is generally considered the movie that really launched his career. Wikipedia summarized it like this: “It Happened One Night is a 1934 American pre-Code romantic comedy film with elements of screwball comedy directed and co-produced by Frank Capra, in which a pampered socialite (Claudette Colbert) tries to get out from under her father’s thumb and falls in love with a roguish reporter (Clark Gable).”

There are countless reviews that rave and rhapsodize that this movie is a favorite or classic. But it is a period piece and a product of its time. Very few reviewers looked at it with modern eyes. Those who did (like me) recognized that it showed that a woman had no rights when it came to who she was marrying. That the woman’s only real power in the movie was to run away, or to stop traffic by showing some leg. One reviewer called it, “misogynistic” – another said it, “Literally romanticized Stockholm Syndrome.”

None of the reviewers who thought the movie was romantic or misogynistic spoke of the point in the movie when Clark Gable smacks Claudette Colbert on the ass in an argument about piggyback. Nor did they mention that later, while explaining to her father how he would deal with Colbert’s willful character, Gable says,

“What she needs is a guy that’d take a sock at her once a day
whether it’s coming to her or not!”

And her father not only agrees with him, her father recommends that she ditch the polite but boring rich guy she was going to marry for the penniless but exciting journalist who’d “take a sock at her once a day whether it’s coming to her or not!”

And in the ironic casting and scripting department…

Boom Town is a lesser known 1940 American adventure film starring Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Claudette Colbert, and Hedy Lamarr. In it we find Gable and Colbert paired again. Gable marries his best friend’s (Tracy’s) girl (Colbert). While married to Colbert he has an adulterous affair with Hedy Lamarr. Gable’s character only comes home when he fears that his wife may leave him to be with Tracy. Without explaining or apologizing for his adultery, he lays down the law to his wife and she gladly goes along with it when he says,

Gable: “You’re my girl, see? And you always will be. Even if I have to lick you to prove it.
Colbert: “I’m your girl. You can lick me if it’ll help.”
Gable: “I’ll save it for when you need it.”

The only reviewer who mentioned this line, mentioned it as a double entendre. From what I’ve read and heard of the vernacular of the time I feel certain that Gable was using ‘lick’ as a term for a beating rather than cunnilingus.

I didn’t even bother to look up Gone With The Wind. Because of its popularity, what woman will mention how romantic it is that Rhett Butler gets drunk and rapes his wife, or that when not at home, Rhett can be found hanging out at Belle Watling’s place (the local whore house)?

The Hollywood lesson so far?

Real men beat their women into submission. Real men philander with loose women and don’t have to answer for it. But these Gable movies are products of their time.

Arthur Godfrey: Other media 1947, ’48 – shame ‘em

Have you ever heard of Arthur Godfrey? He starred in radio and television variety shows. Because he didn’t make any movies it’s hard to convey to modern readers just how popular and powerful Arthur Godfrey was in the ‘40s and ‘50s. I include him here because he was a powerful influence during the time of the parents of those who are now accused of sex abuse. What did they teach their children that we now are dealing with? What does Godfrey reflect of his time?

In 1947, Godfrey had a surprise hit record with the novelty song “Too Fat Polka (She’s Too Fat For Me)” which my Mom liked a lot. I know of this song because my Mom used to sing it to me as I was growing up. Rather ironic to hear this lyric coming from a woman who was very conscious of her weight and looks:

“Oh, I don’t want her you can have her
She’s too fat for me. She’s too fat for me. She’s too fat for me.
I don’t want her you can have her. She’s too fat for me.
She’s too fat! She’s too fat! She’s too fat for me!”

In discussing my plans for this blog post I mentioned this song to a lady friend of mine and she said, “I know that song. My mother used to sing it to me!” Go figure!

And the comedy wasn’t only restricted to body shaming. I heard this next song just this year in a retrospective on the swing years. In 1948 Godfrey released Slap ‘Er Down Again Paw in which the mother tells the father to:

Slap ‘er down again Paw. Slap ‘er down again.
Make ‘er tell us more Paw. Tell us where she’s been.
We don’t want our neighbors talking about our kin.
Slap ‘er down again Paw. Slap ‘er down again.

And you thought misogyny in music started with rap? It has been said that Godfrey despised most of his novelty recordings, including “Too Fat Polka”, his biggest selling record. But that doesn’t matter. He recorded them. They are out there. Men and women liked them. Yet they send the message that body shaming of women is funny, and paternal ownership of daughters extends to the right to use corporal punishment at will.

John Wayne – spank ‘em!

If you asked people on the street, ‘Which Hollywood leading man is commonly regarded as a definitive symbol of American manhood?’ you’d get a lot of people answering, ‘John Wayne’. He is best known as an action hero who made a lot of westerns and war movies. He was, believe it or not, also a romantic figure, frequently paired up with Maureen O’Hara. In fact, he made the same movie with her in 1952 and in 1963! Both movies are lauded as romantic classics by film historians and critics. Reading the reviews, one can see a bone of contention as to how to view these films. Do we watch them as period pieces, or do we condemn them from the start for their misogyny?

The same movie with the same actors? Well, the movies take place in different countries and at different times and the details are different but the plot is the same. The movies start with Maureen O’Hara being standoffish, and at times outright hostile and John Wayne puts up with it for a while and then he beats her and she falls into his arms in loving embrace.

The Quiet Man

is a 1952 Technicolor American romantic comedy-drama film directed by John Ford. It stars John Wayne, and Maureen O’Hara. It made money and it was very well received. But to view it with modern eyes and sensibilities is to see the danger in not pointing out the violence against women or the violence against either spouse accepted within marriage.

For example, I found this scene disturbing. While “courting”, Maureen O’Hara’s character takes a swing at John Wayne’s character and Barry Fitzgerald (the matchmaker and chaperone) says to Maureen O’Hara,

“Easy now, easy now! Is this a courting or a donnybrook? Have the good manners not to hit the man until he’s your husband and entitled to hit you back.”

So if you ask yourself why is sex abuse so common? Don’t they know that they are doing something wrong? The answer is, “Not always.” People can see the same circumstance and come away with different conclusions.

The reviews of The Quiet Man on Netflix are revelatory:

The overwhelming majority of the reviews wax eloquent about the beauty of the movie and the great chemistry between Wayne and O’Hara. But some saw a different movie. Which movie do you see?

“The script and acting can almost be called silly. That is nothing compared to the sexual and physical assault of Maureen O’Hara’s character. This movie shouldn’t be shown anymore.”

“I have never seen a man beat a woman on camera the way this man beat his new wife–punching, kicking, and dragging her all the way back to an equally ugly redneck brother because he says the sister has no money. I watched Leonard Maltin’s explication of the film, which carefully sidesteps the violent abuse depicted within it. How can this film be a classic?”

One possible negative lesson this movie could be teaching is: to get your spouse to love you, you have to beat them. Ready for Round 2?


is a 1963 American western comedy film, starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, loosely based on William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Very loosely. I’ve taught the Shrew and I didn’t recognize it in this film so I’m biased against that comparison.

In this romantic comedy, after the same hostile attitude from O’Hara (as in The Quiet Man), Wayne chases her through town while she is scantily clothed in her bloomers and corset, [No judgements here regarding bloomers or corsets.] with the whole town following. When he catches up with her he spanks her with a coal scuttle shovel. Earlier in the film, he has a ranch-hand beat his daughter the same way. And the movie ends with O’Hara cooing lovingly in his arms.

What is even more disturbing to me is the fact that they used the wife beating scene in the promotional posters! And once again…

We can see from the reviews that different people saw different movies and different moralities.

“…parts of this film are ridiculously sexist and downright degrading in places. Yes, there were undoubtedly a few good jokes in there but they don’t make up for the disgusting show of male abuse of women. …Seriously, this is not “men being real men”.”

“Politically incorrect movie? The reviewers who slammed this movie are obviously not cognizant of their history. Considering what could and probably would have happened to a wife in that era, this was tame.”

“Gasp . . . a most politically incorrect film, by today’s standards, one I found to actually be quite funny and refreshing. Oh, the good old days when men were not weenies and women appreciated that.”

Unfortunately, I have no details as to the gender identities of these reviewers. So… what movie do you see?

Sean Connery – kiss ‘em!

I’ve included a favorite actor and ‘Scotland’s Greatest Living National Treasure’ because the example is too good to pass up. In 1964 Connery made Goldfinger the third installment in the James Bond series. The film also stars Honor Blackman as the ‘Bond girl’ memorably named Pussy Galore [Remember author Ian Fleming was British and… See my post about the difference between American and British slang]. The reviews for Goldfinger are all over the place from ‘best thing ever’ to ‘terrible’, but no one commented on the scene where the hero, Bond, uses sex abuse as seduction.

Blackman’s character repeatedly tells Bond to turn off the charm, she is immune. In the book, Fleming comes right out and tells us Pussy Galore is a lesbian but it’s only hinted at in the movie. In the fateful scene Connery and Blackman are touring a barn and they start to fight. At one point Bond gets the best of it and has her on the ground. She pushes him away with all her might, but he is too heavy, strong, persistent? And then, in a move right out of ‘The POTUS 45 Playbook’, he forces himself on her and begins to kiss her. As his lips touch hers she melts into loving embrace, and later she betrays her villainous comrade Goldfinger for the man who forced himself on her. Do I even need to comment on how ridiculous and wrong this is? But even if this were ever okay, some guys would refuse to admit they aren’t as smooth as Sean, as bold as Bond, or as cool as Connery, and they’d end up acting the fool.

Kristin Scott Thomas – slap ‘em!

This one also qualifies to be in the ironic casting and writing file. Like John Wayne, Thomas made two different movies that ironically used the same abusive foreplay for sex. I believe most women, if asked, would consider slapping a man’s face a sign of rejection. In both Random Hearts 1999 and the very popular The English Patient 1996, she slaps her leading man right before kissing him passionately. At least in Random Hearts, when she slaps Harrison Ford and they kiss and later have sex, they are both technically single (just recently widowed and widower). But The English Patient (the far more acclaimed film) breaks all the rules and yet women found it romantic?

The English Patient & The Wrong Song

When Thomas’ character has sex with Ralph Fiennes’ character, she is married to somebody else. The film romanticizes adultery. The first time they have sex is when she slaps him right before kissing him and more. But they have just been out in the desert. She is bathed and clean. He hasn’t bathed, shaved, changed clothes, or cleaned himself up in any way before they make love. The film romanticizes sweaty, grubby sex. Do women really prefer a dirty sweaty partner? Is adultery really romantic – idealized love? As one reviewer put it,

“…one could say that the actions of the main couple are
self-centered and morally reprehensible.”

It’s like an experience we used to have performing as musicians at weddings. Every once in a while, we’d ask the bride what song she wanted for her first dance, and she would say, “Oh, I want that Whitney Houston tune, Savin’ All My Love For You.” And we would gently remind her that Savin’ All My Love For You is a song which glorifies and romanticizes adultery. Some elected to go with a different song. Some wanted what they wanted, and she who pays the piper calls the tune.

Al Pacino – ignore ‘em when they say, “No!”

Frankie & Johnny is a 1991 romantic film with Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer. Although it wasn’t particularly well received I included it because it’s a movie about ordinary people trying to find love. Unfortunately it teaches all the wrong messages. Pacino’s character is a cook at a diner where Pfeiffer works as a waitress. He wants to date her and she continually, and clearly says, “No.” I counted 12 clear statements or reactions that were rejections of his advances in the first half of the movie, yet by the end of the movie they wind up making love. And somebody thought it was romantic – an idealization? It even made it into the trailer voice over,

When it comes to the question of love,
some people won’t take “No!” for an answer.

Even with what seems to me to be a really clear and creepy approach by the leading man, one reviewer said,

“Any woman would love to have Al drop into her life, at her lowest emotional moment in life. It’s great fun to watch him work on wearing down her defenses, with his great charm and sincerity.”

Don’t take “No” for an answer? Wear down her defenses? To that, I suggest, when in doubt about what is attractive due to charm and what is attractive due to looks, substitute someone else in the leading role. Would that reviewer have found it so charming and sincere if Johnny was shorter and bald? Try looking at this conduct with someone like Jason Alexander (5’5” aka George Constanza) as leading man. How many rejections would it take before you’d say, “Give it up.”?

Epilogue: Empathy and reality

So what do we teach if people can see things so differently? How do we mitigate sex abuse through teaching? And I use the word mitigate advisedly. We can create a society in which more women or men can go out into the world or to a job and not have to be subjected to unwanted advances. We can increase the number of people who use empathy in their interactions. But not if we ignore reality.

We can never eliminate all bad behavior. Murder and child abuse are against the law. They run counter to obvious social norms, yet people do them. We need to admit that there are those whose way of interacting is so damaged (either though nature or nurture) no amount of teaching will reach them. For them, we need to protect ourselves with the law.

For those who can learn:

It becomes questions of, who decides the curriculum (i.e. what do we teach)? Is there any agreement across gender and generational/cultural lines? What qualifies a teacher to teach this?

There are those who can’t talk about family, or reproductive, or dating issues with anyone in public or in private, let alone with a bunch of teens. I never had that difficulty. So it got me noticed. I was told to tread lightly in my financial planning class because I tried to point out the difficulties and financial burdens of being a single parent. Can’t say anything negative about being a single parent – because it’s a judgment about family and many students come from single parent homes? What can’t I say about when Daddy hits Mommy?

Until we have a curriculum, we must continue to concentrate on communication. Speaking up and trying to see things from more than one side is the beginning. Just calling something wrong isn’t enough. We require Algebra but we don’t require any course in human interaction, be it, family planning, financial planning, civics as in ‘what can get you thrown in jail or sued’ courses. We need to require specific media courses (not just inserting it into Language Arts as an aside) that point out the positive and negative influences the media can have on our thinking.

Until we have an educational, cross-curricular infrastructure that directly addresses issues such as sex abuse, bullying and all forms of coercion in our relationships, we need to keep lines of communication open. We need to be able to look at classic media as both period pieces and as instructional tools for how to behave or not to behave in our changing world.

If we don’t actively teach
better awareness, clearer communication, and empathy,
we will continue to live with
sock ‘em, shame ‘em, spank ‘em, kiss ‘em, slap ‘em, and
ignore ‘em when they say “No!”

If you liked this blog post, I’m sure you’ll like my book

What Happened to David

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3 thoughts on “Sex Abuse 105: How Hollywood Romances Teach Sex Abuse”

  1. Points well made and very well written. As a kid, my uncles would share stories on how they met their wives by kidnapping them on horseback and forcing them to marry. I always thought they were lying but as I grew up I realized that it was all true. Could you imagine hearing that today?


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