Open Thread: Let’s Talk About Misogyny at the Movies

Over the course of the past few days, I’ve found myself reading a quite a bit of hand-wringing, and even engaging in a few spirited Twitter conversations, with regards to the number two movie of the weekend, Project X — specifically, the picture’s attitude toward women (towards anyone who’s not a young white male, really). If there’s a buzzword for the Project X’s opening weekend, it’s misogyny. “Project X is the male gaze substantiated and concentrated into ninety sweaty minutes,” writes Badass Digest’s Meredith Borders. “The way these guys talk about the girls, the way they look at them, the way Dax’s camera presents them, validates every misogynistic tendency a high school boy may be capable of feeling. Project X celebrates and rewards that misogyny.” The L Magazine calls it “a misogynist fantasy of high school wildness,” while View London says it’s “ultimately let down by some appalling misogyny and a deeply unlikable central character.” The reviews that don’t explicitly drop the “m-word” at least echo these sentiments (The best one-liner comes via the AV Club’s Keith Phipps: “It would be easy to say Project X objectifies women, if the word ‘object’ didn’t imply too much dignity”).

For the most part, your author agrees with these criticisms, for reasons I’ll expand on presently. What’s curious, though, is how thinking through my feelings on this film and these ideas have led me to second-guess some ideas I’ve had about teens and pop culture and “responsibility” for decades, and that’s where I’m curious to know what you think.

The film, which is basically a found footage Superbad, concerns a trio of high school losers who try to attain popularity by throwing a massive party that quickly goes way out of control. Their endgame, as it is for most teenage boys doing most things, is to get laid. This is not controversial material; the details are different, but Porky’s, Fast Times, and American Pie covered this stuff decades ago.

What’s causing, I think, so much gnashing of teeth over Project X is that “deeply unlikable central character” that View London mentioned. His name is Costa, the main character’s sweater-vested douchebag best buddy, the guy who puts the party together and invites the school hotties, instructing them to “wear somethin’ tight.” A loathsome tool whose stated objective for the evening is — and I’m gonna go ahead and paraphrase this — to have sexual intercourse with a woman of oversized bosom (he doesn’t even mind if she’s overweight! So long as she is voluptuous!), Costa is the most hateable movie character in many a moon; when he’s onscreen, you never want to stop punching him.

Does the fact that a film is centered (and make no mistake, it is; though the main character is ostensibly Thomas, the birthday boy whose home houses the soiree, Costa gets far more focus) on a vile, unlikable misogynist make the film itself, consequently, misogynist? Hardly. Plenty of fine films have made protagonists of people we deeply dislike, for a variety of reasons, from The King of Comedy’s Rupert Pupkin to Young Adult’s Mavis Gary; plays and films by David Rabe, David Mamet, and Neil LaBute have presented the interactions of utterly appalling men and the women they psychologically and verbally abuse. Are those works misogynist?

There is a fine line between films that are misogynistic, and films that are about misogynists (and they’re not mutually exclusive). What it boils down to, ultimately, is how the film treats those characters — how the filmmakers appear to feel about these people, and thus aim to make the audience feel about them. And this is where Project X becomes problematic. Whether or not the adults who wrote, directed, and produced Project X know that Costa is a boil of a human being (and I think they do), their film chooses to celebrate him, and present the events of the film as, ultimately, his triumph. That’s the takeaway from the closing scene (spoiler alert), which finds him a minor celebrity, pimped out for an interview with busty TV personality Jillian Barberie, whom he invites to “wear somethin’ tight” to his next party. It’s a catchphrase! (End spoiler.)

Unlike a Rabe or LaBute, who end their tales of male savagery with, at the very least, an acknowledgment of the emptiness at these men’s core, the creators of Project X find Costa a lovable rogue — vulgar and crass, sure, but hey, isn’t he funny? And doesn’t he get the job done for his buddy? And thus, we’re supposed to laugh along with his dialogue, peppered with “bitches” and “hoes” and “faggots” and, once, even a “nigga.”

But the film’s attitudes about women don’t lie solely in the noxious dialogue. There is exactly one female character given any integrity or personality, and though she’s given legitimate reason to snub Thomas, she folds like a card table at the end for no reason other than an apparently weak will (or an awareness of the film’s quickly expiring running time). The young women who come to the party, on the other hand, are slabs of flesh, ogled by the handheld cameras in a barrage of underwater and up-skirt shots (often in slo-mo, for added effect). Project X may not be a movie that hates women, per se, but it certainly doesn’t know how to regard them as anything more than potential conquests.

So, you might retort, how does that make his movie any different from the majority of Hollywood product? And that’s a legitimate question, and one that leads me to open a troublesome can of worms. The answer is that the film is being marketed, R rating or no, directly at teenage boys. And, well, teenage boys are impressionable, no?

Look, I’m not trying to sound like one of those out-of-touch politicians who insists that the morals and standards of behavior in America are falling as a result of movies and video games and hippety-hop music; that’s a stupid argument, and not one I’m trying to make. But as I get older and further out of my teenage defensive crouch, I’m more willing to admit that, yes, sometimes these things do have an effect. Did listening to NWA (ach, showing my age) permanently damage my attitudes about women? Probably not. But it did affect how I felt about them at the time, just a little, and it certainly affected how my friends and I talked about them amongst ourselves. So maybe that’s why I winced when Costa’s “bitch” dialogue is played for laughs, or why I was so particularly bothered by his “faggot” lines — because the kind of 14-year-old guys who’d buy a ticket for The Lorax and sneak into Project X and find that dialogue hilarious are the same guys who are bullying gay teens who end up killing themselves.

I know, I know, it’s a stretch. It’s a dumb teen titty comedy. But does it have to be an all-or-nothing proposition? Can we admit that while ingrained morality and parental responsibility and peer pressure are all factors, the things that people see and hear in popular culture also play some part in how they talk and act? Or am I going off some sort of deep end here?

I’ve talked too much. Help me out. What do you think?