How Hollywood got us confused about consent

Other | Friday 2nd February 2018 | Hanna

There is a persistent theme in Hollywood movies around the idea that it is inherently romantic for a man to pursue a woman despite her reluctance.

Remember the scene at the beginning of Notebook? Ryan Gosling’s character Noah sees Allie, played by Rachel McAdams, at a fun fair, and goes up to her but she finds him crude and off-putting, or possibly feels that the social situation necessitates her refusal. Noah then climbs the Ferris wheel and blackmails her into going out with him. They play a little game of cat & mouse and finally, her friends set the two up on a double date at the movies and the rest is cinematic history.

Or think of the scene in the original Blade Runner, where the female robot Rachael (Sean Young), tries to leave Rick Deckard’s (Harrison Ford) room, but he slams the door shut and thrusts her against a wall, telling her to tell him to kiss her. To which she obliges as she is pinned between the man and the wall. This is all the evidence we get of their romance that then becomes the premise too the sequel. I’ll leave you guys to judge that one with this clip.

A cruder version of this is Saturday Night Fever, which is hopefully no-one’s guide to romantic behaviour.

Travolta’s Tony Manero falls for Stephanie, a dancer played by Karen Lynn Gorney and after his “pursuit” - him approaching her and then insulting her as she denies the advances - she agrees to be his dance partner for a competition and nothing more. Throughout the movie, Tony goes through a series of hissy fits and eventually an attempted rape as his aggressive, juvenile persistence doesn’t yield the wanted result of getting the girl. The movie displays a toxic logic of dividing girls into “good girls” and “cunts”, based on their willingness to have sex and with whom. However, in the movie “good girls” become “bitches” when they refuse to have sex – a lose-lose situation. 

Both can be viewed as instances of misguided display of attraction and while Notebook comes across as youthful clumsiness that blossoms into romance, Saturday Night Fever shows the dark reality of entitled masculinity.

Nevertheless, both films speak volumes to the idea that a woman is more dignified when her yes is first a no that the man then has to overcome by showing the right degree of willpower to “win over” the girl. This leaves women as the gatekeepers to the prizes that they are assumed to be, rather than equal partners.

In the discussion around consent, it is also important to discuss how women have been punished for displays of sexuality over the years.

As seen in Saturday Night Fever, a too up-front of a “yes” or even a “no” that still leaves friendship an option, can turn a "good girl" into a "cunt" in no time. The movie is, of course, an extreme example of toxic masculinity, one that most men would recognize as abusive and vile. But the seduction of a “no” that the woman might be saying just because she feels she should put up a fight and not "give it up too easy" still runs in modern romance.

There seems to be an inherent distrust of women and how they perceive their sexuality, this assumption comes from the assumed fact that men just want it more and that is why they are left bargaining and negotiating for it.

These are toxic myths, mouldy leftovers from a Victorian world-view. Looking at Hollywood, it is not hard to see where men may have gotten the idea that force equals seduction or that a no is a non-negotiated yes. Change is on its way though and as women take more charge over their own sexuality and become more confident in expressing their needs and wants without the fear of being called a “bitch”, “cock-tease” or a “cunt”, I’m confident this confusion will become harder to defend.