Posted on | January 5, 2013 | 47 Comments
Valérie Allain as Mireille Belleau in French in Action (1987)
“Many have criticized the depiction of Mireille as gratuitously sexist. The camera often lingers on the actress’s chest and bare legs. ‘You’re seeing the videotape through a male gaze,’ said one female teaching assistant who asked not to be identified.”
— New York Times, March 4, 1990
Maybe Ace of Spades should teach a course, “Methods of Humor,” because he absolutely killed me with this casual walk-up to the joke:
Anyone keeping to those New Year’s declarations? I’m continuing trying to learn French . . .
Did my left eyebrow arch suspiciously at that set-up? I can’t say that it did, and I certainly didn’t suspect the punchline to which it was leading:
I’m mostly using “French in Action,” an immersion course from the 80s, which used to run on PBS. Anyone remember it? I actually did remember it — seeing it here and there — and it stuck in my mind chiefly because the main actress is gorgeous and has the highbeams on in 30% of her scenes (here, at about 1:40-2:00). I remember actually watching it just for the highbeams.
When the videos were used at Yale, three female students lodged a protest due to “sexism” — because the girl’s legs get featured a fair amount, and, of course, her highbeams. Which, in fairness, are halogen. Blinding.
It’s funny, but he’s not kidding. This French chick is, comment dites-vous? Oui, très érotique. Her name is Valérie Allain, and she was 21 when the series aired on public television. She’s now a 47-year-old mother of two, but thanks to the miracle of film, she is forever the delightful ingénue for students of French — and students of high-beams.
We’re talking high-beams of such startling intensity that you may never fully recover from the acute retinal trauma, my friends.
Permit me to bore you with a few thoughts on “sexism” in show business. The film and TV industries are male-dominated, and you can blame that either on (a) “discrimination” or (b) the inherent nature of men and the organizational dynamics of an industry that incentivizes the hyper-competitive environment in which male savagery naturally flourishes.
While on the one hand, movie-making is an “artistic” endeavor (which might seem to offer some advantage to women), on the other hand it is a big-money commercial endeavor requiring that somebody boss around all those people (actors, set designers, cameramen, etc.) who are being paid good money to participate in the project. This person is the director and the director is a person who wields god-like authority on the set.
Huge egos are ubiquitous in show business, and anyone who expects to boss around a lot of big-money actors must necessarily possess a certain charisma — a command presence — and this is a rare quality, which is why successful film directors enjoy such enormous prestige.
Never mind the technical skills and knowledge and artistic vision involved in making a movie, the successful director must also be an effective manager and possess that hard-to-define personal attribute that enables him to exercise authority in a manner that makes people respond with willing obedience.
The fact that most top film and TV directors are men, which feminists would attribute to sexist discrimination — the oppressive patriarchy! — seems more likely explained by the fact that the qualities necessary to being a successful film director, especially command presence, are simply more naturally common among men.
However, it must be emphasized, these qualities aren’t “common” at all, but are extraordinarily rare, and occur at the extreme tail end of a bell-curve distribution. In a competitive environment where there may be a hundred or so reasonably qualified feature film directors — and many hundreds more aspiring directors trying to work their way up the ladder in lower-tier production jobs as assistant directors and what-not — there are probably a dozen names that would be considered top directors, the elite of their profession. If all (or nearly all) of these top directors are male, this may appear to be the result of unfair discrimination against those women in the ranks of mid-level directors and among the aspiring wannabes working in lower-level production roles.
Feminists in Hollywood may bemoan the seeming unfairness, derogate the “sexist” culture of the film business, and get a sympathetic hearing from women directors who covet the prestige (and money) of the directorial elite, but is there really any prospect that they will make any significant change in the system? Or, if they were to work some kind of feminist revolution in the motion picture industry, would it result in better movies? More profitable movies? Improved working conditions?
Utopian schemes to remake human nature in accordance with egalitarian dogma have a less-than-stellar record, and if feminists were able to shout down Larry Summers at Harvard (or French in Action at Yale) they haven’t yet succeeded in silencing all skepticism toward their ideology. More than four decades after Betty Friedan‘s The Feminine Mystique, which signaled the onset of “Second Wave” feminism, women are still complaining about unfairness and discrimination and other sources of unhappiness that they claim are the result of patriarchal oppression. It is one thing to complain about specific and inarguable wrongs. It is another thing, however, to pursue a fanatical notion of “equality” that turns every isolated grievance into proof of systematic unfairness, to indict all men as evil, and to depict women as their universal victims.
And now . . . let’s talk about nipples.
Any honest person who watches French in Action must acknowledge that the director who cast these instructional films had an eye for talent.
Valérie Allain was an intoxicating vision of youthful beauty and if guys in high school and college French classes needed any incentive to study their lessons, she certainly did the trick.
Was it necessary, however, to have Valérie Allain go braless, outfit her in a white top, set her in an outdoor scene on an evidently cold day, write a script that involved spilling ice water on her lap, and then zoom in on her erect nipples? Play the video from about the 1:20 mark:
Give me a freakin’ break here. Do not tell me that was a coincidence — it insults both my intelligence and my hard-boiled cynicism.
Look, I have always suspected that the whole purpose of the movie Titanic was for James Cameron to get Kate Winslett naked on film. Not that Kate Winslett naked is a bad thing, you understand, but I defy anyone to prove how that scene was really necesssary to the plot.
No, it was a set-up all the way. Cameron spent nearly two years and a budget of $200 million just so he could get Kate Winslett naked in front of the camera, and this was a shameful act of exploitation. What is insulting is that Cameron has tried to justify the scene as symbolizing the liberation of Winslett’s character from “repression,” a disingenuous argument that offends me in a way that mere nudity does not. So if feminists want to organize a boycott of James Cameron’s movies — to drive him out of the film industry altogether — they have my blessing.
Ditto, Anne Goursaud.
Perhaps some feminist film critic can explain to me how it was that a female director was responsible for one of the most shamefully exploitative sex scenes in the history of Hollywood. Having digressed this far from my original tribute to Ace’s clever humor, I’ll digress further.
Longtime readers know that, for 11 months — from October 2009 to September 2010 — I pursued a whimsical quest to be re-Tweeted by Alyssa Milano. What had happened was that she re-Tweeted an article by blogger Mickey Kaus and (speaking of male hyper-competitiveness), I reacted with over-the-top indignation: “Hey, if celebrities are going to be re-Tweeting bloggers, what am I, chopped liver?”
— Alyssa Milano (@Alyssa_Milano) October 28, 2009
Well, it started as a running joke, and my buddy Dan Collins egged me on, so that every so often I’d re-Tweet something by Alyssa Milano and go on for a while about why she should re-Tweet me, and when it finally happened — “OMG! OMG! OMG!”
It was one of those crazy double-dog-dare-you stunts, and Alyssa Milano was certainly a good sport about it.
@rsmccain You’re tenacious.
— Alyssa Milano (@Alyssa_Milano) September 29, 2010
Of course, she’s liberal in her politics like most people in Hollywood, but she seems like a genuinely nice person, and one who conducts herself with dignity, rather than that outrageous egomanical in-your-face style we’ve come to expect from celebrities nowadays. So . . .
Early in my pursuit of that celebrity re-Tweet, a friend more familiar with Hollywood gave me a warning: “Whatever you do, don’t ever mention that vampire movie. She hates that movie.”
In all honesty, when I started chasing a re-Tweet from Alyssa Milano, I wasn’t really a fan. All I knew was (a) she’d starred as a child in the 1980s ABC sitcom, Who’s the Boss? and (b) she had a whole lot of Twitter followers (more than 400,000 when I started chasing the RT in 2009, but now more than 2.3 million followers). I don’t watch a lot of TV other than news and documentaries, and I only follow pop culture insofar as it is of interest as actual news. So while I was working as an assistant editor at The Washington Times, there wasn’t much occasion for me to notice Alyssa Milano’s appearances as Jennifer Mancini on Melrose Place, and the entire 178 episodes of Charmed flew past without me ever once tuning in to see Alyssa Milano in the role of Phoebe Halliwell.
Not only was I unaware of Alyssa Milano’s acting career from the 1990s onward, but I also didn’t realize she had become one of those female celebrities whose bikini posters adorned the dorm-room walls of an entire generation of college guys. The actress whom I’d only vaguely known as that kid on a lame sitcom with Tony Danza (nothing personal Alyssa; 99 percent of all sitcoms are lame) had become the latter-day equivalent of what Farrah Fawcett was when I was in college.
Then there was that awful vampire movie.
If it were reported tomorrow that Alyssa Milano had murdered the agent who got her into that movie, I’d consider it justifiable homicide. There is a scene from The Movie I Will Not Name in which Alyssa’s character does Things I Will Not Describe and, while I do not wish to derogate her skills as an actress, her extreme discomfort with the scene is quite evident. And it is precisely this creepy scene, of course, which is splattered all over the Internet in videos and photos.
You don’t have to be a prude or a feminist to find this objectionable. For example, I am not offended by the famous fantasy sequence from Fast Times at Ridgemont High with Phoebe Cates. That scene is just not gratuitous in the same way as the notorious scene from the awful vampire movie that Alyssa Milano justifiably hates.
What is all the more shocking is that The Movie I Will Not Name was directed by a woman, Anne Goursaud. You cannot tell me that Goursaud, whose primary career is as a film editor, could not have cut that scene down to eliminate its awful creeptastic lingering quality.
If it creeps me out? Yeah, it’s just plain wrong.
So here was young Alyssa Milano, just a couple years past Who’s the Boss? and trying to break out of the dreaded Hollywood child-actor career trap, no doubt hoping for a breakthrough role that would get her noticed as capable of starring roles in serious dramatic films. Instead, she gets subjected to this dreadful exposure — by a female director?
We sort of expect a French dude to display Valérie Allain’s assets. We expect James Cameron to give us Kate Winslett naked. This we can explain either by reference to the ordinary impulses of human nature or (if we are feminist ideologues) as the typical oppression of the patriarchy. But I’m having a hard time understanding how anyone could explain Anne Goursaud’s treatment of Alyssa Milano in that movie.
Maybe those feminists at Yale could explain it, if they’re finally through being indignant about the sexist atrocity of French in Action.
As the morons at AOSHQ say, I’ll be in my bunk, “learning French.”
— Robert Stacy McCain (@rsmccain) January 5, 2013