Thursday, October 10, 2013

Sex and the Sexes: Why Can Women Get Away with So Much More on TV and in Movies?

Picture this: A beautiful female publishing executive stands in the middle of her elegant New York City office, considering a pitch from a handsome would-be employee. Impressed by his qualifications as well as his physique, she removes her expensive designer dress and stands before him wearing nothing but her underwear and high heels. The clear message: You'll probably get the job, but first, come and get the boss!

Now picture this: A handsome business mogul sits at his desk on Wall Street listening intently to a pretty young thing sell herself as the perfect assistant. When she finishes, he stands up, doffs his Armani business suit and stands staring at her wearing nothing but white boxer briefs just below his six-pack. The clear message: You'll probably get the job, but first, come and get the boss!

Which scenario has you seeing a brighter shade of red? In the fictional world of TV and movies, a poor girl who sleeps around to get ahead is tragic, but a woman in power who wields her sexuality with an iron fist is usually seen as a fierce ruling diva. She wouldn't necessarily be risking her fan base by seducing a soon-to-be underling. She might be called a bitch for being tough and demanding, but if she's sexy and she knows it (and occasionally uses it to her advantage), well, good for her.

Consider the 2009 film The Proposal, in which Sandra Bullock's character basically strong-arms an employee (played by Ryan Reynolds) to marry her in order to prevent herself from being deported from the United States back to her native Canada. Laughter and, of course, love ensues, because who can hate Sandra Bullock even when she's coercing someone into marrying her? The success of that movie probably had as much to do with Bullock's subsequent Best Actress Oscar as her performance in The Blind Side, the 2009 film for which she won it.

If the position of power had been reversed and it had been Reynolds' character forcing Bullock to marry him, what would we have thought about their arrangement and of the movie? Would love and marriage have been considered a suitable denouement? Would Matthew McConaughey be rewarded with a $300 million-plus hit for using his status as a professional superior to get Rachel McAdams to the altar?

Here in the real world, considerable inequalities persist between the sexes, usually in favor of men. As Cher pointed out in an old interview that I recently saw on YouTube, for women, it's downhill after 40, while men just keep getting better. When it comes to onscreen sexuality, though, women, if they are careful to limit their number of sexual partners (for it's still far too easy to qualify as a "slut" in the minds of the hopelessly judgmental, onscreen and off), can still get away with a lot more than men.

For one thing, we more readily forgive them their onscreen infidelities. Diane Lane became a symbol of female mid-life sexiness and an Oscar nominee when she cheated on Richard Gere with Olivier Martinez in 2002's Unfaithful. Kristin Scott Thomas's dalliance with Ralph Fiennes behind Colin Firth's back in The English Patient six years earlier had an identical effect on her career. But had Michael Douglas not had the perfect timing to appear in Wall Street (for which he won the Best Actor Oscar) in 1987, the same year he did Fatal Attraction, would he have been the only principal cast member of the latter not to be nominated? My guess would be absolutely.

Over on daytime TV, had Michael Baldwin cheated on Lauren Fenmore on The Young and the Restless other than the other way around, would we still have rooted for their marriage to survive? Would the other woman have become as popular with viewers as the other man, studly Carmine Basco, did?

Also on Y&R, current heroine Chelsea Lawson Newman McAvoy was introduced a few years ago when she drugged Billy Abbott in order to get pregnant by him. In my book (and as far as I know, in most law books, too), that's rape, yet Chelsea, like so many daytime vixens before and after her (including Kristen DiMera on Days of Our Lives, who recently drugged and raped a priest yet remains as popular as ever) continue to get a free pass from many viewers. Chelsea's newly minted heroine status is already so solidified -- even after months of lying to husbands Nos. 1 and 2, telling them that her second-born son belonged to husband No. 2 -- that when Billy now talks about the conception of her first-born, he makes it sound like a traditional fling.

Male rapists occasionally evolve into anti-heroes on daytime TV (see General Hospital's Luke Spencer, One Life to Live's Todd Manning and Days of Our Lives' Jack Deveraux, all of whom committed their sex crimes decades ago in reel and real time), but in this day and age when a man could be accused of rape for having sex with an inebriated woman, I couldn't imagine a male character being let off the hook for drugging a female character and then having sex with her.

When an older woman preys on a younger man, she gets to be called a cougar (as Lauren Fenmore was during her steamy dalliance with Carmine), which is hardly a pejorative slam. Cougars are beautiful felines, and quite powerful, too. Men do it all they time, so regularly, in fact, that we're pretty much desensitized to it, but the only applause they get are from other guys of a certain age who wish they could walk in the same shoes.

On General Hospital, there's a fortyish character (Ava Jerome) who is currently having an affair with the estranged 19-year-old husband (Morgan Corinthos) of her 21-year-old daughter (Kiki Jerome). Interestingly, while Ava's antics have caught her a lot of flak onscreen -- and Kiki's right hook after she caught her soon-to-be ex-husband and her mother in flagrante delicto -- her and Morgan's reviews on soap message boards have been mixed. Fans are torn: The ones who hate the storyline object to it mostly for the familial connection between Ava and Morgan (they also loudly objected to the lip locks between Kiki and Morgan's half-brother Michael, back when Kiki and Michael thought they were cousins), but a surprisingly considerable number of fans consider Ava and Morgan to be the hottest couple on daytime TV right now.

Imagine if it had been Morgan's father Sonny sleeping with Kiki. (In the mid-'00s, Sonny was roundly booed for his affair with the "much younger" Emily Quartermaine, at the time played by Natalia Livingston, who, at 37, is 13 years the junior of Sonny portrayer Maurice Benard.) Who could love a plot twist like that? In the story that's playing out, though, Ava comes off as a sexy femme fatale bedding the hot, young stud. Who wouldn't succumb to Morgan's physical charms? Sonny would simply be a pervert.

That's pretty much how most viewers probably would describe New York Governor Conrad Grayson on Revenge if he were to pull a Bill Clinton and put the moves on a young, beautiful job applicant. The scenario that played out on last Sunday's episode of Revenge, though, was the first one at the beginning of this post, and it involved Conrad's son Daniel, who was the hit upon.

Apparently, I am not immune to the double standard of sex and the sexes, for when Daniel walked toward his nearly nude old friend Margaux Lemarchal at the end of their extended job "interview" before the quick cut to the next scene, I was furious at Daniel for cheating on Emily Thorne, who doesn't give a damn about him or where he puts his penis anyway. I didn't even think of Margaux's abuse of power and sexuality. I just felt sorry for her for being so desperate and not nearly as sexy as she seems to think she is.

Eventually, it was revealed that Daniel hadn't accepted her indecent proposal but had walked toward Margaux to pick up her dress off the ground so that she could put it back on. How lucky is Margaux? If she were a man and had tried that stunt with Daniel's younger sister Charlotte, she'd not only probably be more hated than the murderous villains who populate Revenge, but Charlotte likely would have smacked her with one hand and slapped her with a sexual harassment lawsuit with the other.
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