My wife and I like movies. We rent some, Netflix others, and spend a decent amount of time at the theaters over the summer. One constant we’ve come to take for granted across various genres and ratings is some level of “gratuitous” sexuality. To be clear, this isn’t necessarily limited to full-on nudity, or pointless sex scenes, but can be as tame as a ridiculously dressed character. For instance, I’d be surprised to learn if most female police detectives or lab techs always wear the plunging neck-lines on the job that they do in most films. Just sayin’. Still, half of the time it’s so ludicrous that we just end up laughing at the crass obviousness of what the writers and directors are doing. We’ve sort of resigned ourselves to the fact that this is just the way Hollywood sells it product.
It was rather unsurprising for us, then, during a scene from Star Trek: Into Darkness, when–for mostly no reason–Dr. Marcus (Alice Eve) is seen by Captain Kirk in her underwear as she changes into a protective spacesuit. In prior Star Trek incarnations Marcus’ character has a romance and love-child with Kirk, so apparently this was a set-up to a possible future romance. Of course, it did nothing for the plot that a flirtatious two-line dialogue couldn’t have accomplished, but hey, who needs an excuse for a half-naked lady to show up on-screen? Apparently they expected our suspension of disbelief to extend beyond warp-drives. Being that it was a summer blockbuster, we just rolled our eyes and enjoyed the rest of the film which, with the exception of one other brief, slightly more plausible, bra and panties situation (using the term ‘plausible’ loosely because it implied a tryst with alien twins), was chaste enough (and a blast!)
That’s why it was so refreshing to read about one director actually acknowledging his mistake on this score. After coming under some criticism over the scene, Co-writer/Producer Damon Lindelof actually apologized via Twitter about the short, but amazingly unnecessary bra and panties scene in the recent installment of the franchise:
I copped to the fact that we should have done a better job of not being gratuitous in our representation of a barely clothed actress.
— Damon Lindelof (@DamonLindelof) May 20, 2013
He went on to write that they would try to be more thoughtful about that in the future, but not before defensively pointing out that it wasn’t intended to be misogynistic as they also had Kirk shirtless and in underwear in both films. There were hints that something like this was coming when in an interview the previous week, he was confronted with the question and said:
Why is Alice Eve in her underwear, gratuitously and unnecessarily, without any real effort made as to why in God’s name she would undress in that circumstance? Well there’s a very good answer for that. But I’m not telling you what it is. Because … uh… MYSTERY?
Nice try, buddy. In any case, this gives us an opportunity to make few rather unremarkable, but appropriate observations. In the first place, it’s worth reflecting on the fact that the scene had to go through multiple levels of editing and production to make it into the movie at all. This wasn’t simply a slip of the pen, but rather a scene deemed worthy, not only of including in the movie, but being highlighted in the previews. Apparently nobody in all the string of producers, directors, editors, screen-writers, etc. thought “Eh, you know, this might be a little too unnecessarily sexualized.”
I bring this up because it’s very easy to forget by way of resignation that this is part of the DNA of Hollywood’s culture. As old-school, reactionary, or fundamentalistic as it might sound, we cannot simply be passive consumers of culture. Every piece of cultural production is telling us a story about the nature of the good life when it comes to money, power, and, in this case, sex, that is capturing our affections and subtly shaping our thoughts and desires. It’s not only that our desires are being drawn on, but actually formed. Culture is a school, educating us through memetic reproduction on what is proper to value, feel, and emulate.
Christians need to wake up and not simply walk about in culture like “sleep-walkers” unaware of the stories which they are being invited to inhabit. What vision of the good life are we buying into? What narratives and metaphors have we adopted? Which works and worlds dominate our imagination? The various little texts provided by marketers and other meaning-makers in pop culture, or the works and world of God as found in his Text? In scenes like that, and thousands of others, women are taught, “This is what you should want to be. It doesn’t matter that Dr. Marcus is a genius or has developed a good, moral character, she looks like that in black underwear.” Men, “That is what you want. Any female form that deviates too widely from the one we constantly re-present to you is lacking and falls short. Be dissatisfied.” For those of us naïve enough to think this sort of thing doesn’t affect us simply because it doesn’t provoke an immediate erotic response, that’s likely more of a testimony to the long-term desensitizing effects of living in a pornographic culture.
Which brings me to another point worth noting: misogyny isn’t always intentional. This is something I’ve been picking up from my feminist friends. I don’t have to be trying to demean or denigrate women in order to do it. I just have treat them in a demeaning fashion–for instance, sexually objectifying them for the male gaze. Also, just to clarify, objectifying men doesn’t make up for objectifying women; Kirk’s abs and underpants don’t function as an atonement offering. Better to strive not to objectify either.
Finally, repentance is a good thing; humbly reconsidering and turning from your ways is the hard but necessary work needed both for personal as well as cultural righteousness. As much as I might be beating up on the scene, or critiquing Lindelof’s underpants defense, I’m genuinely grateful that he at least tried own up to it and wrote “I take responsibility and will be more mindful in the future.” I mean, it’s kind of tepid, but it’s a start. Let’s hope that in the future, he really does produce “fruit in keeping with repentance.” (Matthew 3:8)