Does a movie like “Bad Santa 2” need Billy Bob Thornton to hit a worse-for-wear Kathy Bates?
The trailer for “Bad Santa 2” ends with Billy Bob Thornton punching Kathy Bates in the face. “You still hit like your fuckin’ father,” she replies, unruffled, implying that both her husband and son are impotent abusers. The joke being, of course, that any man who can’t hurt a woman with a punch is really no man at all.
“Bad Santa 2”?—?Oscar bait, if I’ve ever seen it?—?employs an unsettling trope that Hollywood refuses to abandon: Domestic violence as humor.
There are several flavors of violence against women that Hollywood has put to film in recent years. There’s the out-and-out physical violence witnessed above; there’s the violence of constant belittlement; the violence of control and the violence of sexual punishment. While some of these violences are shown as a damning remark on their perpetrators?—?like the controversial rape of Sansa Stark?—?many others are used (perversely) for humor.
Each method of violence corresponds to a female archetype Hollywood has historically broadcast (and, somehow, has failed to abandon as we enter the 21st century).
Witness the running gag on “Family Guy” that Meg Griffin is an insufferable and worthless member of the family. Let’s call this archetype The Annoyance.
Many sitcoms run the same gag: “Parks and Recreation” has the universally-hated Jerry Gergich, “The Office” has Toby Flenderson, “30 Rock” has Lutz. What sets these male Annoyances apart from Meg Griffin? Well, for starters, they’re men. And they don’t suffer the same level of abuse for their imagined sins than their female counterpart?—?nor does that abuse ever manifest in physical form.
The Annoyance, in its male form, has redeeming qualities: Lutz, for all his slovenly and glassy-eyed dumbness, is a writer for the show-within-a-show. Jerry Gergich has a beautiful family and a rich life outside the abusive office. Toby Flenderson likes to travel and is generally considered one of the gang, despite Michael Scott’s unfaltering hatred of him.
But for Meg Griffin, she’s simply a punching bag. She has no allies, she enjoys no victories, she has no character arc. She’s there to be shoved and hit and insulted.
There is some comedic value in having a character inexplicably disliked by the rest of his or her fictional world. The why me? factor plays as funny, for whatever reason. But that humor grows quickly stale and even harmful when the why me becomes simply why her.
Then there’s the constant abuse?—?both verbal and physical?—?of Sweet Dee Reynolds on “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia.” Much like Meg Griffin, Dee suffers from her congenital femaleness. She is surrounded by narcissistic men who belittle, use, mock and insult her.
Below, her brother threatens to skin her and make her into luggage.
Or how about when Charlie violates their plan (his and Dee’s) to hit an unsuspecting man in the park with a volleyball? When the man asserts his physical strength, Charlie chickens out and hits Dee instead.
The One-Of-The-Guys archetype suffers the effects of the male ego: A woman in a group of men is often seen as the weakest link, rather than an equal.
The apex of Dee’s abuse at the hands of her “friends” comes in the episode “The Gang Broke Dee,” when the men believe she’s hit rock bottom. Pretending to be concerned, they encourage her now-aborted dreams of stand-up comedy stardom. The only dissenter is her brother Dennis, who believes she simply needs to find a man to “take [her] off our hands forever.”
The episode follows Dee from rock bottom through the ranks of the comedy world. It’s an unlikely climb, and the audience is not in on the joke until the very end: The men have orchestrated the whole thing just to prove to Dee that the rock bottom of before was not truly rock bottom. Now that she realizes all her success was an engineered farce, she’s truly at her lowest.
Kind of twisted, no?
And then there’s the classic man-abuses-woman narrative. This is, sadly, a straightforward affair. A woman, whether helpless because of her physical or emotional state, is abused for the sake of humor by a stronger male. Let’s take a look at “Happy Gilmore,” a throwback jam that disposes of dear old Grandma’s dignity for the sake of a laugh.
“Family Guy” or “Bad Santa 2” apologists might claim that the violence is benign because it’s fictional. Meg Griffin is an animated character! they might say. Or, Kathy Bates is actually in a role of power in that scene!
The reality is that most well-adjusted men can watch an episode of “It’s Always Sunny” without feeling the need to belittle their female friends. You can enjoy “Happy Gilmore” without agreeing that elder abuse is funny. But the point here isn’t whether each example taken individually is comedically necessary or artistically forgivable.
The point is whether the pattern of tying abuse to humor should continue. Does a movie like “Bad Santa 2” need Billy Bob Thornton to hit a worse-for-wear Kathy Bates? Does Meg Griffin need to be struck in the face by her father? If yes, what does that say about our collective taste? Is our cultural sense of humor so imbued with misogyny that removing ‘funny’ domestic abuse from the cinematic vocabulary seems frightening? I hope not.