So, my friend Juan has a thing for lesser known movies (his right-now-in-hiatus webseries is focused on that very topic) and I do my best to recommend ones that come to my mind. Today out of nowhere I thought of Hard Candy and immediately recommended it to him over Twitter, only to have one of my followers make a joke summed up as “Run away! It’s a trap!” In many ways I get where he was coming from – “that one scene” everyone remembers from the movie is so intense that apparently actor Patrick Wilson passed out from exhaustion during shooting. But it got me thinking about the reactions I’ve seen about the film, both from online reviews and the opinions of people I know and even people I’ve watched the movie with. In general the very idea of this movie’s story disturbs people in a way that other similar movies don’t. And I’ve realized it all comes down to two often corresponding themes: sexuality and gender (spoilers from here on in).
Simply put, Hard Candy tells the story of a teenager (played brilliantly by Ellen Page) who finds a charming 30-something pedophile (Wilson) and physically and emotionally tortures him. It’s a brutal movie that’s not always easy to watch and the movie is especially known for a very flippant castration scene. It baffles me that this is considered the hardest scene to watch, since I find the first 20 minutes of the movie when Jeff is trying to seduce her to be far more disturbing. I’ve had guys flirt with me like that in the past … but we were both of age. Even knowing Hayley’s true intentions while rewatching the movie, their back and forth made my stomach turn. And I’m not sure why so many people focus on the castration scene, especially since it’s revealed that she didn’t actually cut off his balls.
The Lack of “Sexy Violence”
And as much as people make a big deal about her torturing
him in the movie, how many times have we seen sexualized violence
against women in movies? Because somewhere along the line sexualized violence became glamorized violence which made it somehow more accepted. If this had been one woman torturing another woman,
how easy would it have been to sexualize the situation and therefore make it more bearable to mainstream audiences? It doesn’t help
that I just recently read an article about how even guttural noises
from non-sexual exertion becomes sexualized if they come from women. Unfortunately, torture and violence towards women being fetishized is nothing new … hence women in refrigerators. So we have hundreds and hundreds of examples of violence against women in films and storytelling, but violence by a girl towards a child molester is where people draw the line? I’m not saying Hayley’s actions were ethical or right, but that’s where the line is drawn?
The Male Gaze
So the question is why and I think it all comes down to the male gaze. Essentially, the male gaze is the overwhelming focus on (straight) men as the watchers and women as the ones being watched in various aspects of our lives, but especially when it comes to storytelling and media. Many times this can come in the form of a male protagonist or an all/almost all male cast, but even a movie with many female characters can have the male gaze. For instance, the Charlie Angels movie series has female protagonists and can arguably still be enjoyed by women but the sexy themed costumes that are so prevalent in the movies are there solely to fit with that male gaze. Objectification is obviously a good part of the male gaze, but the basic idea is that the audience (of any gender) is supposed to relate mainly to the male character or characters. There’s far more to this concept, but let’s just say that while ideally movies, television and media should find a nice balance between all genders and sexual orientations across the board, the male gaze is the overwhelming majority of not only our entertainment but our culture as a whole.
So, does Hard Candy break the mold and avoid the male gaze? … Nope.
Oh, but this is where it gets good. The movie doesn’t just have a male gaze – it continually puts you into the only male character’s point of view. Except for a few rare moments, you only know the things he knows about the situation. Hayley’s motives and emotions are frequently veiled, but we almost always know what’s going on in Jeff’s head. Thanks to the really expressive performance from Wilson, Jeff becomes the much more reliable protagonist of the story. Even the lighting and camera work changes depending on his POV. The lighting gets darker when his face is shrink wrapped, the camerawork gets jagged when he’s
drugged or tasered and the camera flat out shakes when he struggles to get free. The movie forces you to literally look through his eyes, which means we’re forced to see things from his point of view. We start to relate to him at least on a subconscious level. So, when she goes to the next stage of her plan and starts threatening to spray bleach down his throat or when he starts crying and talking about his aunt and the stove, there’s at least a small part of us that feels sorry for him.
In other words, the movie takes the male gaze that encompasses so much of modern entertainment and uses it to manipulate the audience into subconsciously condemning a righteous if not morally ambiguous young woman and also tricks us into relating to a horrible, ultimately violent pedophile. Even if we don’t realize it’s happening, this is a rather sickening element of the viewing experience. For one, it makes the first few scenes where Hayley acts hyper flirty and sexual that much more upsetting because you’re seeing the scene through his point of view. For another, it makes us question how we use gender to vilify one person over another and that obviously makes people feel uneasy … for good reason. Our easy acceptance of this gaze is disturbing.
Girls and Violence
So I pose this question: if it had been a teenage boy getting revenge on a pedophile for raping and killing another boy, would the audience (especially the male audience) that feels so uncomfortable about this movie still feel uncomfortable? Would changing the young torturer’s gender allow us to keep that male gaze and relate to that character? Would making the story “boy vs. man” allow us to keep that male gaze but avoid looking through the eyes of a rapist? Considering the negative reviews of this movie on Amazon are mostly of
the “She’s a terrible person and I couldn’t believe she did these bad things so I don’t like this movie!” variety, would these viewers find her any more justified in
her actions if she was a boy fighting a man who preys on boys instead of girls? Do we feel more comfortable with a violent young man expressing rage instead of a violent young woman?
Sexuality and Femininity
This last question is especially important. Earlier I mentioned how easily violence towards women is fetishized. Similarly, violence cause by women can be used to sexualize and objectify the character further, thanks to that male gaze we’ve been talking about – even when a heroine is doing a roundhouse kick on a thug, that lovely gratuitous panty shot just reminds us that she’s there to be looked at by the male audience. Yet unlike so many other female revenge characters in film, Hayley isn’t sexual in her violence. There is no cleavage shot as she leans over Jeff. There is no gratuitous butt shot as she grabs the scalpel. And because she is neither sexual nor demure, she isn’t considered feminine one way or another (even her body language is very neutral). That’s why the first big shock of the movie is when she switches off the persona of the flirting teen to the unyielding creature focused on making this sick bastard pay. And because this persona isn’t sexualized, the torture she brings about isn’t glamorized, which makes it extremely unnerving for an audience used to enjoyable, sexy violence.
Recently I heard Hard Candy compared to Teeth, which is a bit of a false equivalency. Yes both movies involve teenage girls and castration, but Teeth is supersexual, made even more so because the teen girl can’t control her evil metaphorical sexual maturity. In Hard Candy, Hayley is not sexual and is in fact always in control at least from an emotional aspect. Even when things go wrong, it’s always from physical mistakes – Jeff almost strangles her or she’s seen by the neighbor. But when Jeff tries to manipulate her emotionally into letting him go, she never wavers … in fact, she enjoys messing with him about it. Even her tentativeness during the “surgery” is completely fake to give him a false hope that she has some compassion. And when she does use her sexuality early in the movie, it is for a very specific purpose. She is most definitely in control.
Maybe that’s what bothers people the most. That she’s in control. That she doesn’t show compassion and she isn’t feminine and sweet. That it’s easy for viewers to slip into seeing things from Jeff’s perspective and yet it’s Hayley who triumphs in the end with a cruel smile on her face. But the point of the movie isn’t to decide who was right and who was wrong between these two very violent, morally ambiguous characters. The point of the movie is to look at ourselves, what makes us uncomfortable and why. And that’s why it’s such a hard movie to watch. And that’s why it’s important to watch it.