Pretty Hate Machine
December 7th, 2004

Sigh. Andrew Sullivan and others are taking shots at my review of Closer. The main complaint seems to be something which approximates to: “Older men have been lusting after pre- or mid-pubescent teenage girls for a long time; this is no big deal, don’t be such a bluenose; and–not that there’s anything wrong with it–it isn’t Natalie Portman’s fault, get off her case.”

What to say? First off, just because something has a cultural legacy doesn’t make it right. There were generations of precedent for slavery, the subservience of women, and even a general looking-of-the-other-way at rape. As a society, we’ve progressed to a point where these long-standing norms are now frowned upon. If you want to argue that there’s nothing wrong with grown men having sex with 15-year-old girls, go right ahead. But don’t tell me that it must be okay since them-there frontier folk did it way back when.

Even so, my main criticism isn’t about pedophilia, per se (silly me, I thought that was settled law). It’s about the culture which celebrates the explicitly sexual objectification of young girls. Think of it this way: I’m bothered much more by the “TOTALLY raining teens” Vanity Fair cover and the Olsen twins countdown clocks (and the nudge-nudge, wink-wink stories about these clocks in places like USA Today) than I am by Léon or Beautiful Girls (which is a fine film). The problem is that movies don’t exist in a vacuum. If we’re going to be four-square in favor of freedom of artistic expression (as we should be), then we also ought to be pretty rigorous about expressing our concern for creepy cultural trends which result as unintended consequences of this expression.

As far as Miss Portman is concerned, I made it pretty clear that the current state of affairs “isn’t entirely (or even mostly)” her fault. She may have starred in the movies, but she isn’t editing the entertainment press. As I said, she has handled herself in public with dignity and grace and seems like a nice young woman. I wish her nothing but the best.

  1. Anonymous December 7, 2004 at 7:12 pm

    Have you had sex with a female under age 30 and under 150 pounds? If so, then you had sex with a little girl.

  2. REPLY
  3. Seth December 7, 2004 at 7:46 pm

    JVL,For what it’s worth, I liked your review…of course, not as much as I liked Natalie Portman in Beautiful Girls, the memory of which still haunts me…

  4. REPLY
  5. Bizarro Jack December 8, 2004 at 4:09 am

    JVL, I am with you on this one. I haven’t seen the movie so I can’t say whether the artistic merit of the work makes approaching these ethical boundaries “worth it” but I am inclined to take your word for it, and I definitely think people, in general, need to cool off when it comes to their thoughts of young girls. For the part of the population that is young itself, that part of the population’s sexuality is quite overrepresented in media.

  6. REPLY
  7. Anonymous December 8, 2004 at 7:02 am

    You really need to see Garden State for one of Portman’s best performances. Of course, the difference there is that she had something to work with – a great script and a very good director. I realize GS didn’t see wide release, but its a film worth seeking out.Portman also has a significant distinction in Hollywood – unlike many of her rather “dull” peers, she’s quite intelligent.

  8. REPLY
  9. The Iconic Midwesterner December 9, 2004 at 7:29 pm

    I remember walking out of “The Professional” (aka Leon) with a couple of grad school buddies back when it first came out. One of them stated, “Man, I was really disturbed by the undercurrent of pedophilia in that film. I’m pretty sure I liked it.” It was a funny line and we laughed. And we knew exactly what he was talking about. I think you are right as picking that film as the start of a new trend in sexualizing younger girls. Sure, other moments can be picked out (e.g. the “deflowering” of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s 15-year old character by an older guy in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”), but it has become very noticable over the last decade. It’s funny, there was a Spy magazine a few years ago with scantily clad teenagers (including Christina Ricci)on the cover that accompanied an article that made many of the same points as your review. I don’t remember seeing criticism of that. Of course, maybe its just easier for some to call something published in the WS “prudish.”Sigh indeed.