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Flirting, Frowning and Film

Movies, especially influential ones, often serve to normalize behaviors. When outliers are presented in context and without a rush of judgement, people are made aware of things that would make them think twice. That is also representation, which applies not just to race, but to all things human.

I tend to get on the alert whenever I see a woman portrayed as a villain on the big screen - especially when it’s not one of those dominatrices who wear their badness on the sleeve.

You may not call Gracie Atherton-Yoo a “villain”. The plot summary for “May December” uses words like “controversial” instead. But the character broke the law and was punished for it. Todd Haynes’ movie seems to take an impartial attitude towards her. On closer examination, the movie is somewhat like the Hollywood actress trying to probe the psyche of Atherton-Yoo, with polite words of chitchat but only a skin-deep layer of empathy. Well, the pedophile remains an enigma despite Hollywood’s coy effort to unravel it. For one thing, the movie never shows how the couple first got into the groove of mutual attraction.

Gracie Atherton-Yoo, the Julianne Moore character, was 36 when she carried out an extramarital affair with Joe Yoo, who was then 13. In face of the avalanche of social and legal pressure, they remain married and carry on a seemingly normal life.

Twenty-three years pose a big age gap in a relationship. But in many cultures or eras, it would not be seen as too much of an anomaly. The real eye-catching factor is, this time it’s the woman, not the man, who is much senior in age. An older man marrying or dating a much younger woman is usually looked upon with a combination of envy and disdain – envy because you would do the same if you could, and disdain because you want to appear morally superior.

I have to add one condition: the younger one has to be of legal age for such affairs.

To complicate things, “May December” simultaneously deals with two issues: one is the age disparity, and the other the age of consent. If Joe Yoo had been 18 at the time, you’d remove the legal issue, but not the social/moral one.

Half a century ago, Liu Guojiang, a 19-year-old Chinese man, fell in love with Xu Chaoqing, a 29-year-old widow. Since there was no way the two families or society at large would accept them as a 10-year age gap in this case was perceived as more outrageous than the 23-year gap in that movie’s environment, the couple ran into the deep mountains and lived as primitives. To make the mountain passable for his wife, the guy spent decades to carve 6,208 steps. A recent tourist stumbled upon the crude staircase and brought it to light. It has since become a tourist attraction for AMOR. Many descriptions, however, conveniently leave out the couple’s age gap. It’s still a bit too salacious for contemporary taste, or so it seems.

When the powerful behaves badly

Human conditions are fascinating because every norm has its anomalies. Most people are heterosexuals, but a certain percentage are drawn to people of their own gender. Most would date and marry those of their own age group, but some would cross into other age brackets. In most societies, men are supposed to initiate the dating ritual, but nowadays women chasing men have become common and would not as often be seen as frivolous.

Movies are fascinating because they have the prescience to offer early glimpses of the so-called “anomalies”, incidents that do not conform to the accepted ways of the society but may have perfect reasons to exist.

In most sexual harassment cases, it is the male who harasses the female because most societies are patriarchal. That makes “Disclosure” (1994) and “Tar” (2022) so special. The former has Demi Moore victimizing Michael Douglas, famous for portraying the sexually aggressive type, and the latter presents Cate Blanchett as a de facto empress grooming her orchestra into a same-sex harem.

Do these movies negate the fact that women are generally the victim of sexual harassment? No! But they highlight the fact that it’s the power, not necessarily the gender, that is at the core of such incidents. If a lowly male clerk chases a female boss against her will, she would not be compelled to yield. At most, it would be an annoyance for her and she can dismiss him if he crosses the line.

There are people who hate this kind of movies, which they deem as sabotaging the progress of women’s liberation, or to borrow a certain term, “countertrend”. Sexual abuse has been a social phenomenon down the centuries and across the world. But it has myriad manifestations, which are extremely difficult to boil down to a few stereotypes.

It is so simple to use Harvey Weinstein as the poster boy for sexual abuse as he had the ultimate power to thrust women into lucrative and potentially award-winning projects, lacked the personal charm to win them on his own, and most importantly, used the most egregious means to force them into sexual situations. It was a shame that behaviors of such magnitude were ignored in such a high-profile industry for so long.

Things get more complicated when you play with some of the equations. What if the man carrying out the abuse is young and handsome and relied more on personal charm than power? What if, instead of forcing himself on her, he lured her into inebriation and coquetish willingness?

She Said” (2022) gives a detailed account of the two New York Times reporters investigating the Weinstein scandal. It is worth noting that the movie does not recreate any of the harassment scenes that gained much credibility because so many women essentially told the same story. (For a movie producer, Weinstein did not seem to be very creative in luring his victims.) This shows great effort on part of the movie to resist the temptation to sensationalize. However, of all those interviewed by the reporters, there was not a single one who consented to Weinstein (as he claimed they all did), or, was reluctant at the time but acquiesced afterwards for whatever reasons. Logically there must have been people like that. Maybe they didn’t want to go on record. But movies of this nature have the right to fictionalize a little or make composite characters.

I’m not saying this to make light of the crimes Weinstein committed, but to possibly find the cause of his “delusion” that they were all “consensual”. Theoretically, even if 99 of them had concurred and only one had resisted, he would have been guilty.

Where the law does not say

If only all sexual predators were as clear-cut as Harvey Weinstein.

In the broader world, the line between harassment and flirting could be quite blurry. What one considers flirting could be seen as offensive to someone else. If a man having a social hug a little too long and making the woman squirm is lumped together with rapists or the Weinstein type, you would not be making the world safer for women, but more confusing for everyone. About 40 years ago, the Chinese court did exactly that: dealing the harshest possible blow to not only rapists and sexual predators, but all kinds of acts for which men were seen as physically taking advantage of women, such as social dances where the men would hold the women too closely and the light was too dim. Around 24,000 were executed for “lewdness”, a cover-all term for all such offenses and perceived misdemeanors. Among those rounded up were the grandson of a founding father of New China and a big movie star.

Social norms change from country to country and from era to era. I grew up in a country where physical contact between the sexes was taboo, but in no way does not stop the prevalence of workplace harassment, though much of it veiled. When I was first exposed to Latin American movies, I, like my countrymen, was shocked to see a touchy-feely culture and people openly expressing their desires. For a vey long time, it was impossible for me to distinguish a social kiss/hug and one more intimate among South American people. And I also witnessed many Westerners misjudging Chinese intention when it comes to such exchanges. For example, when a man and a woman in a typical Chinese public setting, e.g. a workplace or a group banquet, seem to be flirting, they are least likely to be carrying on some hanky-panky. The reason? Those who do would definitely try to hide it, not flaunt it.

A plethora of cultural tokens and manners exist and evolve, some understood only within a certain demographic group and others embraced more broadly. One should guard against the tendency that one’s own assumption is understood or accepted elsewhere or should be the absolute criteria. This applies both to the one initiating the dating ritual and the one passing judgment on others.

Due to its market prowess, Hollywood movies tend to function as the bulldozer that pulverizes all cultural disparities across the seas. When Hollywood movies portray lovers kissing in public, it is held up as a healthy display of affection even though many Asian countries would regard it as something best left to the private sphere. When Hollywood tells us a certain sexual move is objectionable, on the other hand, it had better take into account all the variations and different perceptions in other cultures.

The Hollywood rulebook seems to dictate that men kissing each other on the face is a sure sign of homosexual behavior, but it essentially ignores a large swath of the world where the act is a social gesture on par with shaking hands, maybe a little friendlier and more intimate, but definitely not of a sexual nature. What is progressive in one environment, another may well see as cultural imperialism, which is imposing one’s cultural benchmarks on another against their willingness or readiness.

Who tells the best story

When it comes to gender dynamics and gender equality, the Me-Too Movement, a corollary of the Weinstein effect, was quite effective in highlighting the rampancy of sexual abuse in workplace. But I don’t trust movements too much. In my country, political movements, all with impeccable intentions, ended up causing more harm than good. In comparison, the law is more trustworthy because a court would require and scrutinize the evidence, and courts are not as globe-traversing as Hollywood movies.

There are dissenting voices that presenting evidence, including the recounting of a rape scene, would be traumatic for the victim. There are already dramatic works that call for the elimination of such technical trivialities, which would basically turn a court of law into one of public opinion – canceling some accused with no need for due process.

Legal prosecution may not make a good narrative. But at least, they are equal and accessible to everyone. The online court, if it can be so called, depends very much on one’s skill of storytelling and the power of the platform. If you are a brilliant writer or speaker and you happen to command an audience of tens of millions, you can turn adverse circumstances into winning ones. In that sense, they are essentially mini-Hollywood filmmakers who excel at transforming a quotidian true story of inequality into a sensational tale of good vs. evil.

When Me-Too first broke out, a collective of 100 French women, including famous actress Catherine Deneuve, publicly denounced it, essentially saying men have the rights to flirt with women. Again, the definition of “flirting” varies widely across the world. There are rules and exceptions. There are delicate situations that even “exception” may not help guide you.

Some complain about the movement’s puritanical tendency dealing a death blow to romantic comedy as a genre. Political correctness is a growing threat to the survival of standup comedy, so why shouldn’t the dating ritual be “purified” for the screen? There would be a goldmine of black comedy in a “ultra-clean” tease scene. Movies have done well in portraying sex in implicit and “clean” images. Take the famous wave scene in “From Here to Eternity” (1953), the chicken eating scene in “The Private Life of Henry VIII” (1933), all the train settings in all the versions of “Anna Karenina”, and the lighthouse in “Casablanca” (1942) and all the phallic symbols that would get a Freudian scholar very busy.

Personnaly, I’d be comfortable enjoying these visual euphemisms. But I’d also miss the directness and even bluntness of Latin lovers and their ways of cavorting, those who do not beat around the bush when their desire gushes out in lyrical or dramatic forms. We all have different personalities, and our differences, within a largely defined framework but given some leeway for trials and errors, should be respected. And movies can do that better than anything else.

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