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What We Can Learn About Sexual Consent From Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous

While watching a favorite film on a return flight from my recent vacation, a thought occurred to me: In film, men are never allowed to not want sex. Even when their characters actively don’t want to be having sex in any given moment, films portray it as something they should want. No matter the circumstances.

The favorite film I was watching was 2000’s Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe’s often heartwarming and inspiring story about falling in love with rock n’ roll in the 1970s. I’ve seen the film a million times, own the director’s cut on DVD, and I never fail to at least tear up during the now-classic “Tiny Dancer” sing-a-long scene.

In the film, a fifteen-year-old aspiring rock journalist named William (played by Patrick Fugit) ends up stumbling into the gig of a lifetime: following a band called Stillwater on tour and doing a piece on them for Rolling Stone. Along the way, he’s exposed to a hard-rocking lifestyle that most fifteen year olds can’t even imagine.

Also way-too-young to be there is Band-Aid (not groupie!) Penny Lane (played by Kate Hudson), the kind of gorgeous, mysterious girl that any red-blooded fifteen-year-old would fall for. It’s clear that William develops strong feelings for Penny. However, despite Penny’s seemingly varied sexual experience, her heart is absolutely tethered to Stillwater’s guitarist, Russell (played by Billy Crudup), who has a long-term girlfriend back home.

This scene happens about halfway through the movie:

In it, as William tries to tell Penny how he feels about her, three of the other Band-Aids (played by Anna Paquin, Fairuza Balk, and Olivia Rosewood) storm into the bathroom where they’re talking, announce that they’re going to “deflower” him and that “Opie must die!” Then, they drag him to the bed, strip him, and prance around as if offering him up for sacrifice.

As this is happening, he is consistently struggling to get away and/or keep his clothes on. The only words he says during this entire thing are: No. Stop. We’re talking. Please. Guys, come on, I have to write. When he tries to keep his shirt close after the girls strip it off him, Balk’s character pulls it away from him, chastising him for wanting to cover up.

Then, William looks at Penny, and he’s very, very confused about what he should do. What’s more, she’s the girl he has feelings for. If he’s going to be “deflowered” by anyone, he wants it to be her. But rather than look out for him, the way she’d been doing for most of the movie; rather than seeing on his face that he actually doesn’t want to be doing this here with these three girls he barely knows, she looks at him wistfully, gives him a wave, and walks away, letting it happen.

But not before a look clouds her facea look that says that she knows he’s losing his innocence in a way that is less-than-ideal. Perhaps in a similar way to the way she lost hers.

I’d never had trouble with this scene before, but watching it this time, for some reason, it hit me that he doesn’t actually want to be there. And yet everything else about the way the scene is shot, from the girls’ nymph-like movement with scarves, to the slow-motion, to the signing-off on the activities by Penny Lane, packs the scene with Cameron Crowe’s nostalgic feeling and says that this is something William would want, should want, if only he knew better.

Perhaps Crowe himself was taught this by the films he grew up watching. And the cycle of accepted truths continues.

Toward the end of the film, when Penny has taken one two many Quaaludes in a hotel room, and William is trying to keep her awake until the paramedics arrive, he “confesses his love” by low-key slut-shaming her (“I love you, and I’m about to boldly go where…many men…have gone before”) and kisses her while she’s barely conscious.

And why wouldn’t he? After all, he’s recently learned that the consent of the acted-upon doesn’t matter. What matters are the desires and whims of those who want to do the kissing, or undressing.

Plenty of people, when they talk about Almost Famous, talk about it as a coming-of-age story, which it certainly is. However, they would never say that it contains anything remotely like sexual assault. But it does. Twice. And that’s not including the trading girls for beer during a game of poker!

This moment in this film I love got me thinking about rape culture, and how little we as a society seem to understand consent, despite it being a fairly simple concept. If someone doesn’t want something done to them, and you do it anyway, you don’t have their consent.

Human beings have a bad habit of making things really complicated by trying to read things into each other’s behavior. And so, even when someone says “No” out loud, a persistent person (or, you know, a horrible douchebag) will think “They don’t really mean no,” rather than take the “No” at face value.

We’re not taught to look for nonverbal cues either when it comes to sex, so things like body language (from active pulling away, to unenthusiastic facial expressions), go right over people’s heads. Or, again, people are douchebags and just don’t care when they see those things, rationalizing to themselves that ignoring those cues isn’t rape, necessarily…because the person didn’t say “no.”

They didn’t say “yes,” either!

Add Patriarchy on top of that, and things are further complicated. If women are forced to be the sexually acted-upon all the time, that means that men have to be the actors…all the time. They’re expected to be “dogs.” Sex fiends. All the time. Even when they don’t want to be.

And if a man or a boy is outnumbered, as is the case with William in the above clip, or for some other reason feels compelled to not fight back or to acquiesce to something he doesn’t want, as is the case in this scene from the Rainn Wilson/Ellen Page film Super, it’s seen by a movie-going audience as “lucky,” even though Wilson’s character vomits immediately after the assault.

I can’t begin to tell you how nauseated I was when Super first came out and I saw no discussion of this scene as rape online, but what I did see was a lot of male commentary about how “lucky” Wilson’s character was to get to have sex with Ellen Page in a superhero costume. It was seen as fantasy fulfillment.

This way of thinking seeps into our attitudes in real life. When you hear about a female teacher having an affair with a male, underage student, it’s inevitable that you’ll hear men talk about how that kid was “living the dream,” or how “lucky” he was. As hesitant as women are to report rape for fear of how they will be treated by the legal system, men are doubly hesitant, because they are taught that not wanting sex, or “allowing” a woman to do something to you that you don’t want done, makes them “less of a man.”

So, is it any wonder that men have trouble wrapping their heads around consent when it comes to women, when they can’t even wrap their heads around their own consent. In the name of maintaining the patriarchal status quo, where men have more societal power, they have given up their own right to say no, their vulnerability, painting themselves into a corner where they have become beings driven by sex instead of nuanced, sometimes fragile people.

People of all genders deserve sex and love on their terms, to be treated with respect, and to politely decline if they’re not interested. Film needs to be better about modeling that, rather than continually selling us the accepted truth that men are nothing but sex-hungry dogs, and if they’re not, they’re somehow dysfunctional.

This, too, is feminism: looking at the ways in which sexism hurts everyone.

(image: screencap)

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