The other night Chris and I watched about half of the 1964 Elvis (and Barbara Stanwyck) vehicle Roustabout. I had lots of thoughts about this movie (it doesn’t really hold up), but what really struck me was how women are very casually treated as men’s property. Here’s a list from just the first half hour:
- The conflict is set up by Elvis driving his motorcycle alongside a car to sweet talk slash harass a girl riding with her dad. The only one who finds this inappropriate is the dad; Elvis, the girl, and the dad’s employer (Barbara Stanwyck) seem to find it perfectly normal
- Elvis abruptly and aggressively kisses the young female lead without any visible hint from her that she’d like to be kissed
- Elvis and another carnival dude HILARIOUSLY steal towels from two women who are showering
- A carnival game huckster snags a woman with the hook of his cane and forces her to listen to his pitch
None of these incidents is particularly threatening, and they’re all presented as light-hearted hijinks in a movie that, as far as I can tell, isn’t particularly interested in gender–which is exactly what I found so noteworthy. These are all microaggressions against the bodily (and mental) autonomy of women, presented in a completely casual and straightforward way that a mainstream movie today would never attempt. (The towel-stealing scene could easily show up in a teen movie, but the perpetrator wouldn’t be the movie’s protagonist, unless it was some sort of a reforming-the-rake narrative.)
It’s at least a little encouraging, particularly in a bad-news week, to know that, despite rape gifs and Twitter, I generally don’t have to see women pulled around by hooks unless I actively seek it out.