A note to Hollywood: “maneater” and “sexual criminal” are not interchangeable terms

Have you seen the ads for the new movie Horrible Bosses? It looks like the kind of movie that should not have the word “horrible” in the title, because it might actually be a horrible movie, and you don’t want to make life quite that easy for critics who like punny headlines.

The movie stars Jason Sudeikis, Jason Bateman and a number of other white dudes who look so similar on the poster that for a second I thought it was just several shots of the same actor. (Seriously, Hollywood, there are lots of arguments for why comedy should be more diverse and a lot of them have to do with justice and fairness. But there’s also the reality that diversity in casting would at least help us to tell characters apart, if nothing else). It also stars Jennifer Aniston as one of the horrible bosses.

The trailer makes it pretty clear that Aniston’s character, Dr. Julia Harris, is a sexual predator. It shows her repeatedly sexually harassing her employee (which he recognizes as harassment, because he says to his friends, “at least your boss isn’t sexually harassing you”), as well as one of her patients.


Another trailer suggests that at some point in the movie, Harris takes off her employee’s clothes while he is unconscious, gets naked with him, and takes photos of them. So that’s probably sexual assault, with a side of blackmail.

And yet, the posters label this character a “maneater.”

The word “maneater” implies that a woman is sexually assertive, even aggressive, and that she seeks sex with little regard for the emotional well-being of her partners. Which is shitty behavior. But it’s not criminal. What Aniston’s character is apparently doing in this movie is a crime. She’s not a “maneater.” She is a woman who repeatedly sexually harasses her employees and her clients. She is a criminal. To conflate the two is misleading and dangerous.

The only reason it’s considered acceptable, and commercially viable, to make a feature-length punchline out of sexually criminal behavior is because it’s being done by a woman to a man. Which, as we all know, is hilarious, because women don’t ever harass or assault men – the idea that they would is just so topsy turvy that it is laugh-inducing. Except that women do sometimes harass and assault men – far less frequently than men harass and assault women, I’ll grant you. But it does happen, and it’s not funny.

I get sick of saying it, but I’ll keep saying it until people get it, and I don’t care if it makes me sound like a humourless feminist or a nag who can’t take a joke: sexual violence is never funny, regardless of who’s inflicting it and on whom.

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia. She joined the Feministing team in 2009. Her writing about politics and popular culture has been published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, New York magazine, Reuters, The LA Times and many other outlets in the US, Australia, UK, and France. She makes regular appearances on radio and television in the US and Australia. She has an AB in Sociology from Princeton University and a PhD in Arts and Media from the University of New South Wales. Her academic work focuses on Hollywood romantic comedies; her doctoral thesis was about how the genre depicts gender, sex, and power, and grew out of a series she wrote for Feministing, the Feministing Rom Com Review. Chloe is a Senior Facilitator at The OpEd Project and a Senior Advisor to The Harry Potter Alliance. You can read more of her writing at chloesangyal.com

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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  • http://feministing.com/members/timeconsuming/ Alex

    And of course, it’s a victim of slippery-slope syndrome: Once we allow our culture to accept it’s funny if a woman does it, people will doubt why it’s so bad if a man does…..

    • davenj

      Not just that, either. The joke at play with Aniston is that women CAN’T be sexually violent, which of course denies their victims (male and female) of legal recourse, and at the same time disempowers both genders in different ways. It’s why a significant amount of domestic abuse against men goes unreported and unprosecuted: there’s a cultural paradigm that women can’t be violent criminals. It’s paternalistic toward women, and denies men justice, so it’s bad for basically everyone.

  • http://feministing.com/members/easilyenthused/ Easily Enthused

    Chloe, I really appreciate your egalitarian stance here. It is refreshing.

    I would like to point out, though, that in this post, you make a bit of what I like to call “99% Thinking.” You pointed out a glaring double standard but didn’t bring it home.

    We live in a society that DOES NOT SEE male sexual victimization. The women don’t see it when they do it, and the men don’t see when it is done to them.

    For me, personally, I had an ex girlfriend who would threaten me with public humiliation if I didn’t perform sex acts on her – this went on for years while we dated. I didn’t like it, but I didn’t realize I was being sexually assaulted.

    I think that this type of behavior is far far more common than our current research is showing because men who have been victims DON’T EVEN REALIZE IT.

    I agree that violent rape more often happens against women, but look at this trailer – she’s not being violent, she’s being manipulative and taking full advantage of the “no one will believe you that a woman assalted you” stigma. And THIS is the type of “common” method of consent invalidation that women specialize in.

    You should come talk to some male victims of sexual assault by women. I know I was surprised to see just how many of us there are that are willing to come out about it.

    The “far less frequently than men harass and assault women” was just unnecessary. We all recognize that oppression olympics is a waste of time and it hurts people unecessarily – please don’t include that type of language just to keep your credit with less-egalitarian feminists.

    Thanks again for the post. I just wanted to say that.

  • http://feministing.com/members/toongrrl/ Jessica “Jess” Victoria Carillo

    I still think “9 to 5″ is the most incredible movie about bad bosses

  • http://feministing.com/members/thorn/ Jen

    What’s most disturbing for me is that in one of the trailers, while describing their boss’ behaviors, the one complaining about Jennifer Aniston’s sexual harassment is told by his buddies “Yours doesn’t sound that bad”. Because, of course, Jennifer Aniston is hot, and therefore any man should want to be sexually harassed by her.

    I think that men should be especially offended by this stance; it trivializes the crime, and puts the shame on the man, for not taking advantage of what his friends are seeing as a good situation. It allows the crime to be viewed as something funny, something the man ought to enjoy. As you said, it reinforces the stereotype that it’s acceptable for a woman to be the harasser (even desirable if the woman is attractive).

  • http://feministing.com/members/scottmendelson/ scott mendelson

    I of course agree with you in theory. But, for what it’s worth, I’m not entirely sure how the studio could accurately describe Aniston’s behavior in the picture without scaring off general moviegoers. I’m pretty sure a poster with Aniston labeled as ‘sex criminal’ or ‘rapist’ could be considered too inflammatory for a general audiences poster, and it would have been far more likely to incite criticisms in the media circles. Yes, I agree that labeling Aniston’s apparently predatory behavior as ‘maneating’ is indeed a disservice and arguably a sexist double-standard. But I’m not sure what other choices the studio could have made that wouldn’t have offended even more people. At least the trailer is more accurate/honest.

    Having said that, it is always encouraging when a major female star is actually cast as a villain in any major picture. Gender equality in big studio films will only be that much greater once it becomes more accepted to cast women as antagonists in major genre pictures. Say what you will about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but it’s pretty terrific that Spielberg cast Cate Blanchett not just as as the main villain, but as an asexual antagonist to boot. How sad that when she was first cast, everyone just assumed that she would be playing ‘the love interest’.

  • http://feministing.com/members/lisslalissar/ Lissla Lissar

    Isn’t this the same movie that has prison rape jokes in one of its trailers?

  • http://feministing.com/members/crisbcn/ Cris

    I agree with you! This kind of movies shouldn’t be made!
    They just want to get easy money showing a sexy Jennifer Aniston in a movie which has no sense. And the worst is that no one talks about it! These movies are made by men and for men. They don’t think about us and they don’t respect us. I hope it changes someday!

    • davenj

      “These movies are made by men and for men.”

      Clearly not male victims of sexual abuse or harassment.

  • http://feministing.com/members/puffytoad/ Christine

    So I thought of this post as I was watching Conan today. They showed a clip from the show “Children’s Hospital” where a man is raped by a woman and then runs down the hall yelling “Help, I just got date-raped!” The audience laughed and nobody seemed to have a problem with it. Like the idea of a man getting raped by a woman is just so hilarious because it could never happen. It was really disturbing.

  • http://noseriouslywhatabouttehmenz.wordpress.com Doctor MindBeam

    Thank you for sharing this piece. It highlights an important and often overlooked double standard in society that I think ultimately hurts everyone and undermines the struggle for gender equality.

    Constructively, I think your post could have done without the “far less frequently than men harass and assault women, I’ll grant you” line, for a couple of reasons. First, although there may still be a disparity between the sexes in this regard in the end (I don’t know), it’s widely acknowledged that female-on-male abuse (sexual harassment, rape, domestic violence, etc.) is vastly under-reported, so we don’t have good data on it, and I don’t want to see the social stigmas and beliefs that encourage that continued. And second, because I think the post was strong enough on its own (and could’ve been that much stronger) without it, as a simple statement of, “women hurt men too, and that’s not okay to laugh at and dismiss.”

    To me, it doesn’t matter how often an ill occurs; it matters that it occurs at all. We can’t all be free until all of us are free.

    Constructive criticism aside, thanks again! We need more strong voices like yours pointing these things out. :)

  • http://feministing.com/members/alicia/ Alicia

    “The movie stars Jason Sudeikis, Jason Bateman and a number of other white dudes who look so similar on the poster that for a second I thought it was just several shots of the same actor. (Seriously, Hollywood, there are lots of arguments for why comedy should be more diverse and a lot of them have to do with justice and fairness. But there’s also the reality that diversity in casting would at least help us to tell characters apart, if nothing else).”

    I find this type of commentary to be unacceptable. Rather than say each of the actors look alike, them looking similar is a matter of them being “white dudes”. I think few people appreciate the idea that “x-group of people all look alike”, especially when one is a member of said group. Not only does your comment single out white people for looking alike, but others as well. I am a proponent of diversity, but not for the reason of being able to tell everyone apart. You’re effectively saying that without a person from one group standing next to a person from another group, it would be hard to distinguish them from eachother because they all look similar otherwise. Regardless of who it applies to, stereotyping is wrong. I realize it was probably not your intention to send the message I desribed, but I had a hard time interpreting your statement another way.