As so often is the case, what we see in the movies tells us something about ourselves and influences our behavior, for movies reflect our values and often shape them. And while we all have had the experience of seeing a movie that expressed values to which we were opposed, for we do not all think and feel the same way, movies must at least be in tune with a significant portion of the populace or they will not make a profit. In particular, it is interesting to note the way domestic violence is treated in the movies, and how that depiction has changed over the years. This essay will focus on physical assault, especially in the form of slapping, as opposed to sexual assault, which I have written about elsewhere: The Forsyte Saga, Rape and Race in the Movies, and Has No Always Meant No?
Let us begin with the situations in which women hit men. The classic example is that of a woman slapping a man who has insulted her by making a pass, but there are other reasons as well. In Gone With the Wind (1939), Scarlett slaps Ashley for what she regards as a betrayal. We see this slap as evidence of her passionate love for him, and thus we are sympathetic. As for Ashley, he simply leaves the room, thereby showing that he is a gentleman. At a later point in the movie, when Rhett kisses Scarlett against her will, she slaps him too. He laughs when she says he is no gentleman, which only adds to his image as a charming rogue.
Just to name a few of the more well-known films that happen to come to mind in which women slap men, there is The Glass Key (1942), Body and Soul (1947), Scaramouche (1952), The Americanization of Emily (1964), Point Blank (1967), When Harry Met Sally… (1989), and Groundhog Day (1993). The most recent example I can think of is The Butler (2013), where a mother slaps her son for being disrespectful to his father. The slap is presented as an expression of her righteous indignation. In general, when a woman slaps a man in a movie, the slap is typically represented as morally justified, and if the man simply allows her to slap him, he gets points for being manly.
Since women are the weaker sex, it is perhaps not surprising that the movies do not condemn women for slapping men, but actually seem to approve of such behavior. The idea is that she is too weak to do any harm. In reality, we do hear of cases where men are physically abused by their wives or girlfriends, but the movies do not seem to be aware of them. In any event, if we did not know better, we might expect that a man would be regarded as utterly despicable for hitting a woman, owing to his advantage of size and strength, but such is not the case. Although the attitude toward men in movies who hit women is different from that of women who hit men, it is not totally negative.
The most obvious case that comes to mind is that of the gangster, beginning with Public Enemy (1931), in which occurs the notorious scene where James Cagney pushes a grapefruit into a woman’s face. There is a misogynist streak in most movie gangsters, and thus we are not surprised when they mistreat women. What does surprise us, perhaps, is that when the gangster slaps a woman, it contributes to his image as a tough guy in a different way from that of hitting another man. It may take more courage to hit another man, but in hitting a woman, the gangster shows himself to be without any tender feelings or sentiment, something that Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar (1931) dismissively refers to as “soft stuff.”
By the 1940s, this trait on the part of movie gangsters had become so established that in Scarlet Street (1945), Dan Duryea figures that the way he routinely slaps Joan Bennett around qualifies him to go to Hollywood and be an actor. “Why, I hear of movie actors getting 5000 … 10000 a week!” he says. “For what? For acting tough, for pushing girls in the face. What do they do I can’t do?” At another point in the movie, when Joan Bennett’s roommate says she does not understand how Bennett can be in love with a man like that, Bennett says, “You wouldn’t know love if it hit you in the face.” To this her roommate replies, “If that’s where it hits you, you ought to know.”
That hitting women adds to a gangster’s macho persona is illustrated by the contrast between Michael and Fredo in The Godfather: Part II (1974). When Kay tells Michael that she had an abortion, he becomes furious and slaps her. This is consistent with his character as a tough guy. But when Fredo’s wife gets drunk at a party and becomes insulting and obnoxious, Fredo does not hit her, because he is not man enough. If Fredo had slapped his wife, that would have been inconsistent with his character, which is that of a weakling. I hope it is understood that when I say this, I am not speaking of my attitude, but the attitude conveyed by the movie.
Of course, honorable mention goes to The Killers (1964), in which Ronald Reagan slaps Angie Dickenson, thereby letting not only her, but also the men in the room know who is boss. But it is not only gangsters that look tough when they hit women in the movies. Private detectives sometimes do it, as when Jack Nicholson slaps Faye Dunaway in Chinatown (1974). And James Bond even hits one of his “Bond girls” in From Russia with Love (1963).
Toughness is not the only positive trait that is established by hitting women. In The Moon Is Blue (1953), David Niven plays his usual debonair self. At one point in the movie, he mentions that his wife divorced him because he hit her. When Maggie McNamara expresses surprise that he struck a woman, Niven, with a self-satisfied look on his face, says that he seldom strikes anyone but a woman. The movie would have us think of this as part of his charm.
In The Philadelphia Story (1940), Cary Grant pushes Katherine Hepburn in the face, knocking her down. But this movie, like The Moon Is Blue, is a comedy and comedies present a special challenge. On the one hand, it seems stuffy to take them seriously; on the other hand, one has to wonder if they are able to encourage certain behaviors by treating them lightly. In any event, it is interesting to note that in the remake, High Society (1956), this scene was left out, which was probably for the best, because seeing Bing Crosby push Grace Kelly in the face and knock her down would not have gone over well with the audience. I don’t think this is due to a change in audience attitudes in the sixteen years that passed between the two movies as to a difference in attitude toward the stars. Katherine Hepburn had become unpopular with movie audiences in the 1930s, probably because she comes off as being superior, and a lot of people may have enjoyed seeing her get pushed in the face.
The ultimate apology for hitting women is when it is construed as an expression of love, as in Carousel (1956), which romanticizes wife beating and child abuse. In that movie, a man hits his wife and later hits his daughter. But since he really loves them, the mother and daughter both agree that sometimes a slap can feel like a kiss. The last word in this category is Sunrise (1927). In that movie, a man falls in love with another woman, who persuades him to murder his wife. He plans to drown his wife in the middle of a lake, but at the last minute, he finds he cannot do it, but not before she has seen the murderous intent in his eyes. She flees from him when they get to shore, but eventually they reconcile, and the movie would have us approve of her forgiveness, because deep down he really loves her.
When a woman slaps a man in a movie, he usually deserves it, the case of Scarlett’s hitting Ashley being an exception. Men, on the other hand, are usually not morally justified in hitting a woman. An exception to this might be James Bond. If he has a license to kill, perhaps he also has a license to slap. Another difference is that if a man who is slapped just stands there and takes it, he cuts a good figure, but when a woman is slapped, we either pity her, as in the case of Kay in Godfather II, or we regard her as a fool, as in the case of Joan Bennett in Scarlett Street. In that latter movie, Bennett tells Duryea, “If I had any sense, I’d walk out on you.” To this, Duryea replies, “You haven’t got any sense,” as he slaps her back and forth across the face. Of course, some women just like being slapped as part of rough sex, as in Charley Varrick (1973), where Joe Don Baker’s idea of foreplay is to slap Sheree North hard across the face, which she seems to relish. This is one case in which being slapped makes a woman look tough. But most of the time, the woman gets nothing out of it but the slap.
The movies can treat slapping in this fashion because it never causes serious bodily harm, at least not in the movies. Of course, by convention, fist fights in movies never seem to cause serious bodily harm either, so all the more so can they represent slapping as ultimately harmless in its physical effects. Now, a gangster in a movie can show that he is tough by going beyond slapping, as in The Big Heat (1953), where Lee Marvin throws a pot of scalding hot coffee in the face of his girlfriend, Gloria Grahame, permanently disfiguring her. But this makes us dislike him. When a man only slaps a woman in the movies, however, we are still allowed to like him or admire him, and she is still allowed to love him.
At least, that is the way things used to be. Whereas movies still show women hitting men as being a positive thing, the situations where men hit wives or girlfriends do not seem to occur so much anymore. Either men do not slap women at all, or they do more than just slap, as in the movie Enough (2002), so that we will be sure to know that we are not supposed to like them.
An optimist might say that this is progress. Since movies no longer admire or excuse men who hit women, then to the extent that we are influenced by movies, men will be less likely to hit women in the future. Alternatively, the fact that movies have changed in this way may reflect a change in attitude of the movie-going public whom the producers of movies wish to please. We no longer approve of domestic abuse as much as we used to, and the movies have simply followed along.
A pessimist, on the other hand, might say that it is easy to censor the movies, but not so easy to censor life. The tendency to regard slapping women as proof of masculinity, or to excuse it as really being an expression of love, may have been purged from the movies but not from the heart.