Terror and Tranquility 11

Mount Hood, Maureen Kay's dog

Our dog hiking the trail with us. Mount Hood is in view.

As my husband and I hiked up Tom Dick and Harry Mountain, next to 11,000-foot Mount Hood in Oregon, I struggled with monkey mind. Even the phrase “monkey mind” rebounded in my head along with other jumbled thoughts about violence against women, two movies, and my novel in progress. As I trudged, I mentally composed this, with only vague awareness of my surroundings.

We’d viewed Ask Me Anything the evening before, and the associations inspired by the film had plagued me during the long early morning drive to the trailhead, and as we hiked. Despite the trilliums in bloom along the six-mile round-trip trail. Despite my deep breaths from climbing the remaining 1,700 feet in elevation from the trailhead to the top of the 5,000-foot mountain. Despite lovely Mirror Lake half way up.

Trillium along Tom Dick and Harry Mountain, near Mount Hood


Terror and tranquility. Fiction writers are often advised to include conflict on every page, but also to alternate moments of strife with calm to prevent readers from growing numb to the passages that are meant to be more intense. This too was on my mind, while images of a young woman being savagely attacked interrupted periodically–all the mental chaos crowding out nature’s artistry surrounding me.

No, this murder is not from Ask Me Anything, written and directed by a man named Allison Burnett. But–spoiler alert–it is how the movie Looking for Mr. Goodbar ends. Though they are very different stories, with quite different characters, these two movies have in common with the novel I’m writing that they all feature a young woman who makes some unfortunate choices that result in danger from a violent man. The films were created in different eras, and they reflect strikingly different consciousness about womanhood. Whereas Ask Me Anything, which came out in 2014, does not rely on sexist assumptions, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, which came out in 1977, directed and written for the screen by Richard Brooks, exploits the opportunity of the pervasive double standard for men and women of the time to provide candy to misogynists.

(I have not read the books these movies were based on, so I am only talking about the film versions. Ask Me Anything is based on Burnett’s novel, Undiscovered Gyrl. The novel Looking for Mr. Goodbar was written by Judith Rossner in 1975.)

It is not just that the main character in Looking for Mr. Goodbar, played by Diane Keaton, is repeatedly stabbed (eighteen times according to one website), and that her corpse is raped. It is that there are obvious erotic overtones to the sensory-rich scene. Keaton is attractive and naked. A strobe light flashes throughout the prolonged attack. A pounding beat speeds up and then slows down as if in sync with her heart as she succumbs to an agonizing death.

Just before the man murders her, Keaton invites him into her apartment for sex, but things don’t work out, and she tells him to leave. The lesson seems clear: a woman who wishes to engage in casual sex with men is expendable, and presenting her murder and rape as erotic is justified because she is not only worthless, she gets what she deserves. For many women who viewed the film, including me, watching it was traumatic, no matter how different our choices were from this protagonist, and left us feeling less safe in the world. Keaton’s acting throughout the film as the lead is excellent and nuanced. The story, performances, and cinematography give an artistic, plot-driven cover for anyone who relishes viewing the utter abasement and destruction of another.

In fact, when the movie came out, the “film opened to mostly good reviews and solid box office” according to Wikipedia. I do understand people can appreciate this film for different reasons. However, not many women enjoy this movie, and when it came out, reportedly many parents took their daughters to see it to scare them into more restrained behavior.

I did not feel the movie Ask Me Anything unfairly exploited the main character, played by Britt Robertson. Spoiler alert: when violence comes–and it does, it is presented in a way that encourages audience compassion toward the young woman. The film’s rational perspective, made clear in the final sentences spoken, is that the perpetrator is responsible for the violence. The blame is not shifted to the victim, even though, like Keaton’s character, she engages in sex with multiple men. Although she describes these encounters on a blog (anonymously), the protagonist is not presented as expendable, nor her victimhood as a titillating feast for those who hate women.

I prefer newer films because so many of the older ones have sexist underlying assumptions, with stories rarely expressing a female viewpoint. Presently, there are many movies, television shows, and books being produced with strong or complex female protagonists. The situation is far from parity with roles for males, but it’s improving. When my novel is sufficiently revised, I hope it will add to the stories being created now that validate and show women’s viewpoints, leaving women who consume the story stronger, not weaker.

Tom Dick and Harry Mountain, view at the summit, Maureen Kay, author

At the summit, Mount Hood and Mirror Lake in view.

My monkey mind untangled and dissolved as my husband and I approached the summit of the whimsically-named Tom Dick and Harry Mountain. The trail opened up to a spectacular 360-degree view. Not only was Mount Hood enormous on this warm spring day, but it was only one of several snow-capped peaks in sight, even with this year’s snow drought in the Northwest. Spinning around we could see Mount Jefferson in Oregon, Mount Adams and Mount St. Helens in southern Washington, and even Mount Rainier over 200 miles north. Mirror Lake glimmered half-way down our trail of switchbacks.

View from the summit of Tom Dick and Harry Mountain. Maureen Kay's husband.

My husband (who I keep anonymous on this blog for his privacy) and Mount Hood, from the summit of Tom Dick and Harry Mountain.

The rest of the day was filled with smiles, photography, and throwing sticks for our dog when we returned to the lake. No more disturbing thoughts about how women are too often terrorized.

Mirror Lake, Tom Dick and Harry Mountain, Mount Hood, Oregon, Maureen Kay's dog

Our dog fetching a stick in Mirror Lake.

About Maureen Kay

Maureen Kay has just finished writing a novel called Fracture. She blogs about her personal experiences, bigger issues, other authors, and her writing journey.

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11 thoughts on “Terror and Tranquility

  • Allyssa Axell

    Maureen, you are the master of nuance, especially valued when examining cultural and media portrayals of women being terrorized in volatile situations.

    Juxtaposing terror with tranquility . . . is this a taste of what your novel-in-revision holds in store?

    • Maureen Kay Post author

      I greatly appreciate your generous compliment!

      When I wrote the first draft of my novel, some of the material was so upsetting to me I needed to open the door to let supportive friends of the protagonist walk onto the stage. Some days I can only bear to work on the lighter scenes. I figure if I need this respite while writing it, my readers will also need it while reading it.

  • Rick George

    More needs to be written about how so-called popular entertainment continually juxtaposes violence and sex, even today. I don’t get television, but occasionally I’m a guest in homes where the television is on. The phenomenon is worst during trailers, whether for movies or television…one second flickers sex-violence-sex-violence-sex-violence…yeah, maybe the women now have stronger characters, but the juxtaposition still prevails. It makes me angry…not enough to commit violence, however…

  • Mary Dessein

    Great job, Maureen, thank you for your thoughtful and spot-on observations. As our society seems to grow in violence and mayhem, also growing is a de-sensitizing as it is too much to take in and seems impossible to resolve.
    Thank you, in reminding us of the many levels of this conversation, so importantly the connection between violence and supposed eroticism.
    best to you, Maureen.
    P.S. Beauuuutiful photos ~

    • Maureen Kay Post author

      Thank you! And yes, the dynamic of our culture losing its sensitivity toward the violence–especially violence made relative to eroticism–is an important addition to this discussion, so thanks for bringing that up.

  • Carlo Dream Warrior

    Another awesome article Maureen. I kind of remember this discussion about your views of this film back when it came out. Yes, a very ambiguous message. And yes, I am another struggler with that monkey mind. You can’t get rid of it, you can only quiet it down.