Around ’60-’70s, second-wave feminism was at its pinnacle. Forthright feminists like Gloria Steinem, Angela Davis, and Susan Sontag would become the voices of the silenced gender. ‘Twas also a time when Marlena Shaw recorded Woman of the Ghetto. It was clearly a time when women just won’t put up with men’s bullsh*t anymore. (No, sir. They’ll make you eat yo sh*t.)
It was also around that time when acclaimed filmmaker Sam Peckinpah would make three of his well-known films: The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs, and The Getaway. Like Sergio Leone, Peckinpah was/is a hero to the testosterone audience, with men being the lead characters in most of his films.
In 1969, he made The Wild Bunch, which is a tribute to the then-fading Western genre. It starred William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, et al. as a group of aging cowboys/outlaws on to their one last hit — this would later become allegorical since The Wild Bunch is one of the last cowboy films who hit it big at the box office (along with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). During the film’s sanguinary finale, there’s a scene that seemed somewhat women-unfriendly: Pike Bishop (Holden) shoots back at a woman who shot him. He shouts, “Bitch!” as he fires a bullet at the woman. (Prior to this scene, Borgnine’s character used a woman as his “shield” — she is eventually sprayed.)
Borgnine in The Wild Bunch
Pike shooting the woman might seem logical since she shot him; I don’t think that’s the main issue here. The thing that would make women (and feminists) burst out with opposition is the fact that they were portrayed as the deceiver (Bond girls, are you there?) — an evil force concealed as a fragile, angelic being; thus labeling her as the bitch. Also, the fact that we were mercilessly used as an object seemed cruel (we’re no shield or sex objects, we’re human beings); but, mind you, this happens in real life. So maybe Peckinpah is merely imitating life?
Peckinpah’s (probably) darkest film is 1971’s Straw Dogs, a psychological thriller about David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman), a harmless man who turns into a violent machine. Majority of the film’s scenes look at women as sex objects. The film’s first scene shows David’s wife, Amy (Susan George), walking around a small town mostly populated by men and children. Wearing no bra underneath her sweatshirt, she pays no mind as men ogle at her hard nipples. Another notable scene is the one wherein Amy, being the tease that she is, removes her sweater — eventually showing off her breasts — as she stands by the upstairs window.
And of course the scene that broke every feminist’s heart is the unforgettable double rape scene. Amy’s ex-boyfriend violently makes sexual advances on her — repeatedly slapping her face and dragging her by her hair — before eventually raping her. The more disturbing aspect of this scene is that Amy seems to like it; resisting at first then fully submitting at the end. And then another assailant rapes her as she lies face down on the couch.
Susan George in Straw Dogs
In this film, Peckinpah (probably) shows that “easy” women provoke men to commit violence. (Jodie Foster in The Accused, is that you?) I beg your pardon, Mr. Peckinpah, but men are human beings capable of self-control; accusing women of “provoking” them to commit crimes is a lazy excuse for immaturity and inhumanity.
But when we look at this film in another way, you’d see that Peckinpah is portraying men as the violent (or maybe evil) ones; showing them in all their violent glory — may it be injuring a bar owner, raping a housewife, or killing your wife’s assailant.
Although quite paradoxical in some ways, Straw Dogs is definitely not the movie that you’d show to your woman, or to any feminist for that matter.
Next film in Peckinpah’s filmography is 1972’s The Getaway, a heist movie starring then real-life couple Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw. One scene shows ex-con Doc McCoy (McQueen) repeatedly slapping his wife, Carol (MacGraw), after he finds out that she slept with Benyon (a crooked businessman) in exchange for his freedom. Allegedly a wife beater in real life, McQueen was unflinching in that scene, as a crying MacGraw takes the simultaneous slap.
McQueen and MacGraw in The Getaway
Now there was a rumor that the slapping scene was not in the script and that McQueen improvised it. Nevertheless, it’s not the kind of scene to show to your son when you’re trying to teach him how to be a gentleman.
In fairness to Peckinpah, he also showed the tender side of Doc; one scene shows him cooking breakfast for his wife. (Seems like Peckinpah was a walking contradiction.)
Another character in the film is Fran Clinton (Sally Struthers), who is quite reminiscent of Straw Dogs‘ Amy; you know, “easy” young woman with an older, nerdy husband; both women eventually “gave in” to their assailant.
So, was Peckinpah really a misogynist? Or was he just trying to show us how the patriarchal society looks at women? One thing’s for sure: it’s hard to be a woman in a Sam Peckinpah movie.
DISCLAIMER: No copyright infringement intended. I don’t own or claim to own any of the photos used.