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.
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.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. 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.