Women: Have you ever been called a bitch or worse – words unfit for print – by a man you don’t know, or a man you work with, or a man who wanted something from you that you didn’t want to give, even something as stupid as a smile on the street? Did he spit the insult in your face? Did he mutter it just loudly enough that he knew you’d hear it as you walked away?
Did you ever tell one of the good men in your life how often it happens, and was he stunned to hear it? (Because he’s never seen a man do it. Because the men who do it, don’t do it in front of other men.)
I’m asking because I’ve just seen a whack of films directed by women in which men hurl those slurs, often accompanied by equally unprintable adjectives, and the way they land seems new to me. As if these directors know too well how violent it feels to be called those things. Like a slap, or an electric shock. Like a threat. Or a punishment.
No matter how “casually” they’re said, those words do not feel casual. They’re weaponized to put women down or keep them down. And it works. The female characters, regardless of how strong they are, flinch. They go still. They make themselves small.
In Woman of the Hour, the directorial debut of the actor Anna Kendrick (Pitch Perfect), a game show host (Tony Hale) uses a compound slur to shut up a female contestant (Kendrick) who’s being what he’d call too smart for her own good. In Fair Play, written and directed by Chloe Domont – it’s her feature directorial debut, too; she’s written and directed television series including Ballers and Billions – a hedge fund kingpin calls a newly promoted employee (Phoebe Dynevor, Bridgerton) a deliberately crass epithet, to drive home the fact that he can. And in The Royal Hotel, directed by Kitty Green (The Assistant), rowdy Australian miners hurl florid filth at two American bartenders (Julia Garner and Jessica Henwick) at an outback dive, because they’re just not fun enough.
“The guys in my film pass it off as, ‘Can’t you take a joke?’” Green said in an interview during the just-concluded Toronto International Film Festival. “Is it a joke, though? Because it hurts when you say it. I’m trying to unpack when women are allowed to stand up for ourselves and say no, and how we assess when it’s a threat versus a joke.” (The film arrives in theatres Oct. 6.)
The male patrons of The Royal Hotel bar figure out where the threat line is, and instead of backing off, stay on it – whether it’s pressing the women a bit too hard to have sex, shaming them with cruel nicknames, rattling their bedroom doorknob in the night or getting one of them into a car and working together to keep the other away. Green shows us how alcohol escalates the danger, as does pack mentality (watch how quickly a Norwegian guy who shows up to help is corrupted).
“They know the line is there,” Green says. “They’re playing. It’s a game for them, and it’s not for us.
“I’m not saying, ‘All men.’ But I’ve been in those pubs or dorm parties where suddenly you feel unsafe, but when you say it, people call you paranoid or crazy. Saying, ‘He makes me uncomfortable’ – that’s still hard to do. Women feel uncomfortable saying we feel uncomfortable. We’re taught to shut up: ‘I guess he’s all right, if you say so.’ But sometimes he’s not all right.”
In Woman of the Hour, which tells a true story from the 1970s, Kendrick’s character senses that a man she meets (Daniel Zovatto) is definitely not all right; in fact, he’s a serial rapist and murderer in the midst of a 10-year spree. The tense nighttime walk she takes across an empty parking lot, with him following – every woman will recognize that fear. At the film’s end, we learn that dozens of women over those years reported suspicions about him to the police, and were ignored. (Netflix acquired the film at TIFF for US$11-million, but hasn’t announced a release plan.)
Domont set Fair Play in the hyper-male world of high finance, “where #MeToo never hit; it went straight to becoming a joke to sneer at,” she said in a separate TIFF interview. “The margin of error for women in those worlds is paper thin. If you don’t go to the strip bar you’re stuck up; if you do go you’re too wild.”
She’s worked in that environment: On Ballers, she was the only woman in the writers’ room, and the first female director of an episode. “So yeah,” she says, with an acid laugh, “I definitely felt like I needed to act like a guy to be included.”
And she’s dated in it: “When I started to have success in commercials and television, my success didn’t feel like a win – it felt like a loss, because the men I was dating were threatened by me on some level. Sometimes it was subtle, sometimes explicit. But always present, and not going away. I wanted to put that feeling into a story, and be as ruthless with the execution as the subject matter itself.” (Fair Play lands in theatres Sept. 29, and on Netflix Oct. 6.)
Dynevor’s character, Emily, begins Fair Play in a loving relationship with her colleague, Luke (Alden Ehrenreich). But when she’s promoted over him, his feeling that he’s been unmanned turns toxic.
“These ingrained power dynamics still have a hold over us, even in a progressive relationship,” Domont says. “Luke adores Emily because she’s a killer, but he also can’t help but feel threatened by it, because of ideas of masculinity that were instilled in him as a kid. We still raise boys to believe that masculinity is an identity, and success is a zero-sum game. I wanted to show that there are a lot of men caught in the middle, who feel left behind. Given our climate with cancel culture, men are afraid to even talk through it. So you get these passive-aggressive comments, subtle and not so subtle insults.”
Green’s film asks similar questions. “If we permit certain words to be said or behaviours to occur, what will happen next?” she says. “If they get away with x, what about y? When do we stop them? What behaviours are entry points to sexual abuse and assault, and how do we stop it before it gets there?
“That’s the conversation I want men and women to have: How can we never let it get there? How can we make sure that everyone is allowed to say, ‘It’s not a joke. It’s not okay”?
Special to The Globe and Mail
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