IN HIS NEW FILM Danny Collins, Al Pacino plays a down-and-out songwriter and performer. I haven’t seen the movie (it released March 20), but I saw the trailer a couple of weeks ago, and it stuck in my craw. In the trailer, Pacino meets a confident hotel manager when he checks in. He’s so bizarre a character that Mary Sinclair, played by Annette Benning, asks whether he’s on drugs. Within seconds, he’s asked her to dinner. She responds, “I’m going to have to decline.”
But no doesn’t mean no. Pacino spreads his arms and asks, “You’re not a fan?” Benning reiterates, no. At least, at first. Well, twice, but who’s counting? Then, Pacino waves his hands and says, “But we have good patter.” And Benning smiles. It’s a smile that tells the audience that his charm is so powerful she may not be able to help but fall for him. Within seconds, her no is already a maybe.
As he walks away, he says, “See you at seven.” And she again says, “No, you won’t.” But she’s on the verge of laughing. We can’t take her seriously. We’re thinking her no is going to be a yes before this trailer is over—and so is Danny Collins. Less than three minutes.
Sure enough, soon, Benning is in Pacino’s hotel room telling him not to give up. Though her words refer to his dream as an artist, they imply that he shouldn’t give up on her either. By the end of the trailer, she says, “You know what I like about you? You never give up.” That’s what she told him to do, and he did it, so now she likes him.
Pacino responds, “Some dinners are worth fighting for.” He regains his self-worth and wins the girl’s heart, and when he gets the girl, somehow she wins too. Seemingly, everybody wins when the man doesn’t take no for an answer.
But really, he wins. Even a self-assured woman can be worn down. After all, the trailer suggests, he probably knows what she wants better than she can know herself, probably because she’s become emotionally closed off as she’s ascended her career ladder. That’s a relatively common problem for professional women in films. Luckily, many of them turn out to have hearts of gold and find love after all.
Of course, sometimes the negotiation—the patter—isn’t nearly so complicated or drawn out as in Danny Collins, which features older characters. In the trailer for the recently released movie Entourage, there’s a different exchange indicating that no means yes. The younger generation is blunt and doesn’t waste time. If a woman asks a man if he “wants to bang her hot sister,” and he says no, “Neither one of you really believe it.”
Later in that same trailer, a somewhat different, but equally problematic, exchange occurs. One of the male characters asks a buff female fighter, “Take me for a round. I last thirty seconds, you let me take you out on a date.” Okay, it’s not really a question at all. It’s terms of negotiation. The woman smiles and offers, “Last sixty seconds, I’ll let you fuck me.” The word fuck is pinged out of the trailer, but the audience gets the idea: if this guy proves himself, she’ll give him sex. But we know he’ll probably get knocked down quickly, and who wins then?
In yet a third trailer I saw the same night, the up-and-coming hero of Kingsman (which came out in February) asks the imprisoned woman, “If I save the world, will you give me a kiss?” This one is phrased as a question, and the reward seems humble in comparison to what he’s proposing he accomplish. But he’s definitely using his position—it’s actually his job to save the world—to negotiate sexual favors. Impressed, she offers to give him “more than just a kiss.” It’s her body, but who is she to say no? He assures her—she’s still imprisoned—“I’ll be right back.”
Individually, all these scenes are cute. They’re funny. The back-and-forth is designed to endear viewers to these characters. Something here echoes the old romantic comedies like The Philadelphia Story or His Girl Friday. But something’s off, something’s missing.
We all know how we are supposed to respond: Oh, look how hard he’s trying. Isn’t that sweet? The man’s slightly bad behavior is supposed to be benign, part of the character’s charisma. Had the lines in Kingsman and Entourage not been incredibly similar—if I do X, you will give me sexual favors—I probably wouldn’t have felt a vague discomfort watching one or the other of these three snippets of forthcoming films. I wouldn’t have thought twice about them. After all, these are just trailers.
Because they appeared one after the other, though, I did notice. Individual scenarios can be dismissed: She’s reading too much into it. It’s just a movie. It doesn’t really mean anything. But the same thing kept happening, so I did think about it three times in the span of fifteen minutes. Moviemakers spend a lot of money to construct a story, and thousands of people work to shape every detail of dialogue, props, lighting, editing—all of it. It all means something. Under the individual choices in separate movie trailers lie the cultural attitudes we take for granted, and those attitudes are that no means maybe, that a man can turn maybe into yes if he sticks with his desire, and that sex is a negotiation for which he sets the terms.
Most of us know better—or think we do. I bet many women, however, have other stories to tell about men who haven’t taken no for an answer, who keep laying on the charm, trying to wear us down, zapping energy we could use elsewhere in our lives. I bet many women don’t find it cute when they realize that a guy thinks he’s negotiated his way to dinner, or to the bedroom, when he’s set the terms without her. Maybe he stayed after the party to help clean up, maybe he kissed her and she seemed to enjoy it, maybe he saved the world that morning. And, if she says no at that point in the game, she comes across as a poor sport. He thinks he deserves what he wants, and she knows that. Everyone’s working backward from the inevitable yes.
Does he know what she’s thinking? Does it matter what she’s thinking? Maybe she’s said no. Maybe they want the same thing, or maybe not. Maybe she’s strong and confident like a fighter in the cage, or maybe the cage is a prison. Ultimately, that’s the crux of sexual politics in these movie trailers. What the woman wants, what the woman’s thinking, doesn’t matter nearly as much as what the man wants and the terms—the patter—he sets into motion. In these movies, the men don’t need to pay much attention to what women are thinking or saying. The women struggle to hold their own and to determine what happens.
In real life, women often do hold our own, of course. Though we understand that life requires some give and take, we want to have equal say in what happens in our lives. Many of us actually do determine what happens. Surely, men realize that, right? It’s just a movie, after all.