Media Review – “Saturday Night Fever”

“Saturday Night Fever”

1977

Director: John Badham

Starring: John Travolta, Karen Lynn Gorney

SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER is the ultimate male pornographic fantasy film.  It has a central character that is young, handsome, and worshipped by his friends.  He has a cocky and suave bravado and oozes cool charisma wherever he goes.  Most importantly, when he struts into a dance nightclub, he is transformed into a swinging, hip shaking,  prancing god.  Men want to be like him and women simply want him.  During a time of hedonism gone wild and of rapid, consequence-free promiscuity in a pre-Aids America, it’s no wonder that the “hero” of FEVER was so easily idolized.

FEVER does a great job balancing comedy and drama.  Re-watching it now the one aspect of it that still is fresh is its frank and brutal honesty at times.  Tony is likeable, but he is undeniably a crude racist (he flaunts ethnic slurs around with his buddies to unseemly levels).  His treatment of women is equally appalling, and a later scene where he fails at making a half-hearted attempt at raping Stephanie is revolting.  Then there is another very difficult scene to digest where Tony’s friends, one by one, proceed to rape the drunken Annette.  Tony does not partake in the sexual abuse, but when his friends are done he puts salt on Annette’s wounds by asking her if she’s finally satisfied with herself.  Oddly enough, it is the unsavory material in FEVER that separates itself away from other films of teen angst.  The time period and culture is different, but it still feels current.” – Craig J. Koban, CraigersCinemaCorner.com

 

“Saturday Night Fever.” It’s got the moves. It’s got the disco. It’s got the rape that NOBODY told me about.

Maybe it’s just me and the people I talk to, but whenever I ask about the classic cult film, “Saturday Night Fever,” the first few things mentioned are John Travolta and his skin-tight pants, that the movie was a voice of a “generation,” and often I also hear that the film has a very special place in the pop culture hall of fame. Why is it though that no one seems to remember / care about the two, count ’em, two(!) rape scenes in “SNF?!” Are we desensitized? Are we embarrassed? Are we turned on? Are we dismissive? I don’t know, but I’m going to try to figure it out.

I like to study editing. Film editing. Editing theory. Non-linear. Compositing. Short-form. Sync-point. If you don’t know what these words mean, don’t worry about it. If you do, congratulations, we have something in common. Long story short, I was always told to watch “SNF” for how it was cut together. Plus, I love disco music (it should never have died…). So one night, after my mother and I get home from work and are ready to pass out exhausted, I find “SNF” listed on cable and in my sleepy stupor decide to finally get around to seeing it. The credits roll and the famous take of Travolta walking down the street with his paint-can swinging to the beat comes up. Nothing too exciting yet. Twenty more minutes in, there’s a conflict; uh-oh, who will he dance with in the contest?! Well, that’s just great. I can’t help but think that everyone who loves this movie must be seeing something I’m not, because it’s really not that fantastic.

And then, BAM! Close to the end of the movie and out of (almost) nowhere, Annette, one of the main characters, gets gang-raped when she’s drunk. She’s literally pinned down in the back of a car while Tony’s buddies take turns. She’s saying “no” in a muffled and pained voice and then Travolta’s character even has the guts to call her a “pig.” WHAT?! WHAAAATTTT!?? Did no one else notice this scene?! Nobody?! Really?! ARE YOU ALL BLIND?! No, we can’t write it off as “boys will be boys.” No, she was not “asking for it.” No, I’m not crazy, I’m angry. And disturbed. I even had to turn off the film to cry for a little bit after that scene. The other rape is an attempted violation when Travolta’s character tries to force sex on his dancing partner after they win. Yeah, that’s how I’d celebrate too, buddy. After he’s been trying to court her throughout the whole film, Tony has an angry moment and pushes her down into the backseat of a car and tries to get his rocks off. She fights and he lets go (wow, ain’t he a good guy?) and they end up becoming friends at the end. Oh, I’m sorry if I ruined the movie for you.

So, back to my original questions….

Are we desensitized?

There is such a thing as rape culture and it’s spreading. Rape culture is the commercialization and perpetuated approval of sexual abuse and violation that is running rampant in our society. Certain types of media encourage it, i.e. some rap music videos and lyrics, some video-games, etc. Certain people and groups encourage it, i.e. bro-culture, etc. And certain mindsets encourage it as well, i.e. “women are objects,” “men must be hyper-masculine and hyper-sexual to have worth,” etc. This is all detrimental to our world and to ourselves. Thoughts of self-sexulization, chauvinism and worse, the acceptance of both, destroys more intellectual ways of valuing each other.

The very fact that no one remembers this scene seems, to me, to really answer this question by itself.

Are we embarrassed?

No, I really do not think we are. “We,” being audiences that absorb content as well as creators that generator the content that the audience absorbs. I think “commercialized sexiness” has become so banal that we wouldn’t know what to do with ourselves if we didn’t have commodified sexuality fed to us all the time. That being said, we live in a world where rape can actually be sold as “sexy” since it’s still sex and, say it with me, sex sells. Seriously, check out half of Dolce & Gabbana’s ads. I think American culture accepts rape as a fact of life without actually examining the consequences.

Are we turned on?

Maybe. The idea of power is a staple in Western culture and patriarchal reality in the East. In “SNF” power extends from showmanship on the dance floor, popularity on the street and talents in the bedroom – all pretty sophomoric if you ask me. So wherein this caste system of status does rape fall? The ability to dominate another seems to be a point of pride or at least a way to release some stress from a long night shaking your tail-feathers, but it’s more than that, it’s the sole fact that the Tony’s friends rape because they can. Because it’s acceptable, because it’s the 70’s, because it’s in the slums of Brooklyn, because no body was saying “no.” (The woman’s “no” doesn’t count, duh.) What kind of a world do we live in where you can take for granted the fact that you can have sex anytime you want it simply because you want it, with or without consent?

What also worries me is the idea of “scripts.” No, not film or play scripts, but dialogues created by cultural phenomenons in the media. Basically, “scripts” are repeated themes shown over and over again in TV shows, in movies, in lyrics, etc. and once they become ingrained, they become reality, sometimes without media consumers realizing it. This is particularly frightening when young people start seeing patterns like when to be sexy, how to be sexy and with whom to be sexy. Behaviors start to be commodified instead of being authentic and this leads to regret, confusion and the need for approval from others participating in such “scripts.” You can read more about “script” research here.

Are we dismissive?

Um…YES. And yet, it’s a movie, it’s not real life! She knew better than to get into their car! It was a different time period! At least women aren’t being raped as much anymore! She could have stopped them if she wanted to! They thought that she wanted it! Kids are young and stupid! ….and, your point? That you’re a dumb-ass? Oh, I got that.

I’ve heard each of those phrases at one point or another and they don’t cut it. I don’t give a flying you-know-what, because the justification of abuse is the beginning to an end of turning your head the other way. It’s seemingly the by-stander affect and that is a miserable excuse…for anything! Open your eyes to what you let slip between your fingers and what’s in front of your nose.

No one has to like every movie (or piece of “art”) ever made. Even I can tolerate most media I don’t like when it is used to start a dialogue on ethics, reality and stereotypes. Not everything is sunshine and fuzzy bunnies, but when there is a slap-in-the-face moment of truth in a work of commerical art, it needs to be used to discuss those realities, in reality. It CANNOT be written off. So in the end, a rape scene shouldn’t ruin “SNF” for me, but it does. And I think it does, because the rape is never used to start the conversation about not raping. The rape is not a plot or character conflict, but more of a tell-tale sign of who the characters are and how they view the world and themselves in it.

Advertisements

7 thoughts on “Media Review – “Saturday Night Fever”

  1. I just watched this film again tonight and I agree with what you are saying about the film. Something that both shocks me yet doesn’t is how easily the two women just accept what happens to them — in one case Stephanie perhaps feels guilty because she just told Tony that she used him in the other I guess the death and her horror at that overwhelms the personal horror Annette is feeling.

    Or perhaps the filmmakers and the period didn’t haven’t the “ability” to truly engage with what happens. Ability is not an excuse but a reflection on the time period in which this was filmed.

    Would a remake of the film today includes the rapes and if so, would it be discussed?

    • TammyJo,

      Thanks for the feedback!

      And…I agree. That’s largely the purpose of my rage-filled deconstruction you read. They do easily accept what happens to them and around them and to other women. Dating the film back, it shows how much our world catered to men and men’s stories, sympathizing with their problems, triumphs and ideas of success. We still encounter this, culturally and in media, a social signifier of norms and mores.

      At FF we believe, whether in discussion or in media examples, that not having the “ability” is more of an excuse. We do recognize, however, that our culture doesn’t help it’s populations find the words to articulate themselves because it instead offers them the chance to be entertained over being critical.

      “SNF” is an important movie because of how it was received, how it is remembered and because of the rapes in it. Besides creating a pop-culture phenomenon, it does highlight the issue of domestic violence and acquaintance assault. All types of media should be used as a “conversation starter” about society, standards, reality and ethics. As a summary, yes, a remake should include the highly sensitive rape scenes, but needs to also include a chance for discussion, for the ability to speak out about cruelty and dated ideas of right and wrong.

      -Darragh

      • *nods* Yeah there are excuses and then there is recognizing the culture around you — they aren’t the same in my opinion.

        I read a few other reviews last night what said most of the car rape scene in the second to last scene has been edited out in some versions now and that made me more angry because then when they go to the bridge scene you have little idea what is going one emotionally with the group.

        I’m glad I found your article after re-watching it last night.

      • The Chocolate Priestes,

        Great username, by the way.

        Thanks for the comment. When I teach media literacy workshops, I always put a great amount of emphasis on the post-production process of editing and reviewing footage before it ever meets the audience. A lot of people do not understand how much gets taken out or put into a piece of art, in this case, a film. The fact that the rape scene is being edited out instead of a bumper being placed at the beginning and ends of the movie addressing a potential trigger warning or offering resources truly bothers me.

        There is another film that I have been meaning to do a review of called, “Strange Days.” It gets very graphic at parts, extremely disturbing in fact, and no one that recommended it to me mentioned this major point of the plot line or seemed to remember it. Is this an effect of desensitization? Or a male-centric culture? Or the fear of making supposed “entertainment” political (when I ask, how can it not be?!)?

        -Darragh

  2. I just watched this movie and was equally surprised. But I disagree with you. I think the rape is supposed to be awful, supposed to highlight the underlying theme…Tony and his friends aren’t great guys, they aren’t going anywhere, and he’s disgusted by himself, them, and his life and longs for an escape from it.
    The escape is symbolized in his mind by the bridge, and by the woman Stephanie. The movie implies pretty heavily that she used sex to “cross the bridge”, and was ashamed of it but felt it was necessary. Tony tries that too..in his crude, unsophisticated, can’t relate to women as anything but sex objects manner. He fails, and revolts himself. He’s clearly disgusted by the rape of Annette (although he blames her, also). He’s got a nagging sense that his approach is wrong, that something’s badly wrong with him and his life…but he’s ignorant and doesn’t know what the problem is or how to fix it.
    Was that scene awful? Yes…but I thought it made the movie.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s