Women, Sex and Empowerment in Tinseltown

Violet feels powerless. The would-be songwriter is working at New York City dive Coyote Ugly, where scantily clad barmaids amuse patrons by gyrating in step to the music pumping out of the jukebox, and things have gotten out of control. One of the dancers is getting manhandled, a fight just broke out, and the crowd is way over fire-code capacity. So Violet takes control. She grabs a microphone, climbs onto the bar, and starts singing along with Blondie's "One Way or Another." To make sure she catches everyone's attention, Violet runs her hands along her body, swivels her hips and shimmies until every part of her curvaceous figure is in motion. The stunt works, because the crowd shifts its attention from violence to Violet.

The idea behind this scene in the current flick Coyote Ugly seems harmless enough. As played by newcomer Piper Perabo, Violet is crippled by stage fright, so when she defuses a riot by performing, it represents her first step toward conquering her fear. Had Violet truly used music to soothe the savage beasts threatening to fill the bar with bloodshed, the moment would have been a rousing tribute to personal empowerment. But Violet's weapon in this scene isn't music -- it's sex. The only reason men stop fighting is because a slinky blonde starts wiggling like a stripper.

Nearly every scene in Coyote Ugly is filled with a troubling mixture of empowerment and titillation, because the filmmakers want to have it both ways -- they want to be politically correct by showing female characters taking control of their lives, and they also want the T&A appeal of hot chicks shaking their moneymakers. The result of this fast-and-loose storytelling is a disturbing tone, in which women are reduced to their sexuality, and in which that sexuality is so muted that it's made to seem "innocent." Even when several Coyote Ugly waitresses douse themselves in cold water, the camera shyly cuts away before viewers see any wet T-shirts--the idea being that wet T-shirts are exploitative, but midriff-baring bar dances are not. In a way, though, the film's homogenized sexuality is more dangerous than unapologetic T&A.

In a long series of films -- spanning, tellingly, 1983's Flashdance to 2000's Coyote Ugly, both of which were produced by alpha male Jerry Bruckheimer -- the concept of female empowerment has been bastardized by its pairing with glossy eroticism. In particularly odious examples of this trend, underdog protagonists pull themselves up not by their bootstraps, but by their bra straps. Women in these pictures ostensibly pursue self-actualization by setting aside their oppressive pasts, but in reality cheapen themselves by declaring, through their actions, that their most important attributes are their breasts.

Two Demi Moore pictures, Striptease and G.I. Jane, epitomize the empowerment-titillation genre. In the former, the actress plays a single mother who becomes a topless dancer so she can afford to bring up her daughter; in the latter, Moore plays the first woman allowed to train in the Navy's ultra-competitive S.E.A.L. program. The trouble with the first picture is obvious -- and exacerbated by the fact that Moore earned her biggest paycheck to date, $12.5 million, by agreeing to appear nude -- but the sexual politics of G.I. Jane are more subtle. Nominally, the film presents a positive image of a woman succeeding in a male-dominated milieu. The film is mired in sex, however, because Moore does a gratuitous semi-nude scene, appears in clingy outfits that accentuate her breasts, and becomes enmeshed in an eroticized contest of wills with her commanding officer, played by Viggo Mortensen. As with Coyote Ugly, G.I. Jane wastes an opportunity to celebrate empowerment by instead celebrating curvaceousness.

Although Moore is the quintessential arbiter of the empowerment-titillation genre, she appears in neither of the films that represent the apex of the genre: Flashdance and Pretty Woman. In the 1983 flick, Jennifer Beals improbably plays Alex, a welder who works as an exotic dancer by night and nurtures dreams of becoming a ballerina; in Pretty Woman, Julia Roberts portrays a hooker rescued from the street by a handsome millionaire (Richard Gere). Both pictures are filled with post-feminist dialogue about women sticking up for themselves -- and cheesecake shots of babes in their underwear.

In comparison with the films it inspired -- notably Coyote Ugly -- Flashdance seems positively harmless to modern eyes. Part of the reason it seems so tame is that the picture is filtered, Bruckenheimer-style, through preposterous fantasy. Just as the women in Coyote Ugly comfortably dance on top of flames, broken glass and puddles of whiskey, the dancers in Flashdance each have Broadway-style backdrops for their showcase numbers. They also dress with credibility-stretching modesty: not a single woman appears topless, even though the picture is about exotic dancers. While Alex ultimately achieves her goals through legitimate means -- she scores at a ballet audition with a spirited exhibition of freestyle movement -- the filmmakers spend plenty of time leering at Alex on the way to success. It says everything about Flashdance to note that the most famous scene in the picture doesn't involve dancing; instead, it's the moment when Alex casually moves her hands beneath her sweatshirt to remove her brassiere.

While Flashdance has lost much of its power to offend, Pretty Woman is as foul now as it was when it was released in 1990. A misbegotten spin on Prince Charming iconography, the picture begins with rich Edward (Gere) hiring willful prostitute Vivian (Roberts) for a night that stretches into a week. Director Garry Marshall spins cutesy fish-out-of-water humor from low-rent Vivian's adventures in high society, but ignores the fact that Edward is paying Vivian for sex until he needs it for a punchline. The idea is that Edward has communication issues, so he's emboldened by the power of the prostitute-client relationship, and Vivian has self-esteem issues, so she's emboldened by Edward's lavish attention.

In the picture's feeble conclusion, Edward offers to rescue Vivian from her dangerous, impoverished lifestyle -- but because Vivian's spunky attitude keeps Edward's egotism in check, she says that she'll "rescue him right back." Because Pretty Woman made treacly entertainment out of the concept of buying a woman, it towers as one of the most backward-thinking films in recent memory. The recent exploits of pseudo-celebrity Darva Conger -- who wed a stranger on the TV special Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? and then was paid a reported $500,000 to appear nude in Playboy -- proves that the Pretty Woman mentality thrives in real-life as well as in the movies. Like Vivian, Conger used her sexuality as a shortcut to wealth. And like Vivian, Conger has made a lot of brave talk about how she isn't being exploited, because she makes her own choices.

The same brave talk spills from the lips of nearly every public figure who uses sex as a selling point. "The magic of Coyote Ugly is the female bartenders who flaunt new styles of post-feminism," Coyote Ugly screenwriter Gina Wendkos says in the film's press kit. "The Coyotes are all-woman, all-attitude, and instead of burning their bras, these girls hang 'em from the rafters as a victorious statement that they own the room." Moore has given countless interviews in which she says her characters are empowered because they use sex to control men; singer-actress-exhibitionist Madonna has spent nearly 20 years making similar statements in defense of such provocative entertainment as her song "Like a Virgin" and her book Sex.

While no one can deny women their right to use their sexuality however they like, something feels wrong about calling sexualized entertainment a form of post-feminist empowerment -- at least when the entertainment in question is such lowbrow trash as Flashdance, Pretty Woman and Coyote Ugly. Webster's describes feminism as "the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes," and that definition doesn't seem to have much to do with erotic dancers, prostitutes or gyrating barmaids, all of whom make money by reducing themselves to generic sexual icons.

If titillation and empowerment were paired only in a handful of films, it would be distasteful but relatively easy to ignore -- while mass audiences embraced Flashdance and Pretty Woman, it's unlikely that anyone will mistake Coyote Ugly for anything other than what it is. Yet the thinking behind these films permeates pictures that don't seem to have anything to do with feminism or titillation. In the Alien films, Sigourney Weaver plays the definitive empowered action heroine, kicking ass and taking names because men can't do what she does; this positive iconography is cheapened somewhat, however, because Weaver inevitably strips down to her undies in each Alien picture. In the Arnold Schwarzenegger action flick True Lies, Jamie Lee Curtis plays a meek woman with enough nerve to participate in dangerous espionage; again, a positive image is undercut because Curtis' biggest scene is an extended striptease, during which she writhes in a push-up bra and a microscopic thong. And even the most recent rush of films featuring "empowered" heroines -- postmodern horror flicks including Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer -- present cheesecake scenes amid slicing and dicing.

Titillation and empowerment show up in media other than films, of course -- the tradition of "jiggle" TV that began with Charlie's Angels in the '70s continued with Baywatch in the '90s, and singers ranging from Mariah Carey to Britney Spears to Shania Twain use their sexy midriffs to sell songs about "what women really want." Movies in the Flashdance-Coyote Ugly tradition are especially disheartening, though, because myriad filmmakers have proved that cinematic women can be both feminist and box-office friendly.

During the '60s and '70s -- when modern feminism informed such best-selling books as Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique and such provocative publications as Ms. Magazine -- films featuring empowered, intelligent women drew massive audiences even as they made sociopolitical waves. In Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, Ellen Burstyn played a would-be singer who takes a soul-searching trip across America, accompanied by her young son; in An Unmarried Woman and Starting Over, Jill Clayburgh portrayed strong women dealing with the repercussions of divorce; in Norma Rae, Sally Field played a factory worker who risks everything to unionize her workplace. In these pictures, women were revered for their strength, individuality and soul -- not for their ability to wiggle on top of bars or strip in nightclubs. Considering Flashdance and its descendents in the context of '70s women's films reveals what a crock it is for anyone to call Coyote Ugly's dance numbers a "new style of post-feminism." The dance numbers, and the film itself, are nothing but a new style of post-feminist T&A.

Does that mean that any film in which titillation and empowerment are mixed is necessarily demeaning? Of course not. Weaver's character in the Alien films, for instance, is virtually unmatched in popcorn cinema for her strength, resilience and leadership; the exploitative scenes are like false notes in an otherwise rousing symphony. Similarly, Linda Hamilton's tough character in The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day is a vision of empowered motherhood, because she protects her son against a superpowered antagonist even when her male companion, an experienced soldier, fails. Hamilton shows a little skin in each picture, but these flashes don't overwhelm the positive aspects of her role.

As noted earlier, it's relatively easy to spot the exploitative aspects of such pictures as Flashdance and Pretty Woman -- and it's equally simple to spot the positive aspects of such pictures as Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and An Unmarried Woman. Unvarnished titillation and unvarnished empowerment both stand out. So, ultimately, the films that tax viewers' critical faculties the most are those that mix titillation and empowerment in unexpected ways -- 1988's Working Girl and this year's Erin Brockovich being two prime examples.

In Working Girl, Melanie Griffith plays Tess, an undervalued New Yorker who raises herself from her blue-collar background by posing as a high-powered executive. She mostly gets by on her wits, and doesn't apologize for having looks that make men pay attention to her; in the film's most-quoted line, Tess says, "I've got a brain for business and a bod for sin." The film's imagery is neither purely positive nor purely demeaning, because while director Mike Nichols throws in a pointless scene of Tess doing housework topless, he also gives her room to speak her mind. Further muddying the waters is the role of Jack (Harrison Ford), Tess' executive boyfriend; Tess thrives on her intelligence, yet she also benefits from sleeping with a well-placed businessman. Because Working Girl sends such mixed messages, it's more interesting as a conversation piece than as a statement in and of itself.

Erin Brockovich treads through the sexual-politics minefield on stiletto heels. Julia Roberts, diving back into the provocation of Pretty Woman, plays a legal assistant who exposes a conspiracy to cover up dangerous pollution -- and also spends the whole movie in such sexualized attire that a special bra was constructed to give Roberts' chest showgirl-style heft. The filmmakers have a ready excuse for the sexy duds -- the real Erin Brockovich dresses in such clothing -- but that doesn't change the fact that the film's empowered woman uses her body to manipulate men. In one scene, for instance, she leans over a counter to let a male clerk look down her shirt, spurring him to give her access to crucial documents.

Yet Roberts' outing as a bustier-clad legal assistant doesn't leave a bad taste in viewers' mouths the way that her adventure as an upwardly mobile prostitute did. The reason is that in Erin Brockovich, her character does what every other female in a movie that mixes titillation and empowerment tries to do -- she owns her sexuality, instead of renting it, Pretty Woman-style, to the highest bidder. The cinematic Erin Brockovich's attire is, then, not about exploitation but taste: She feels attractive wearing revealing clothing, and that's that. While the makers of Coyote Ugly and its ilk use empowerment to sell titillation, the makers of Erin Brockovich use titillation to sell empowerment. That simple distinction makes all the difference in the world, and separates laudable films about women from reprehensible ones.

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