I decided to rent The Contender this weekend. I’m not usually one much for politics in the movies (or out of them, for that matter) but what the heck, it was up for some Oscars. I nearly ended up turning off the film in the first half-hour because it was so slow, so political, so boooooring. I’m glad I stuck with it, though.
Yes, lots of political and moral and historic themes here, but that’s not what gripped me about the story. What gripped me was that a woman, a political leader, was being put on the spot to confirm or deny her past sexual behavior. Rumours abounded – about a gang bang in college, specifically – and the sharks were circling relentlessly. And yet Joan Allen’s character, Laine Hanson, took a moral stand based on her beliefs; she refused to answer them. Refused to admit to the allegations, or to deny them. Refused to discuss it in any way, shape or form; refused to discuss it with the press, with the hearing committee, with the President of the United States. Because, for Laine, it didn’t matter whether the allegations were true or not. What mattered is that nobody had the right to ask the questions in the first place.
My favourite quote from the film: “Principles are something you stick to even when it’s inconvenient.” Oh, that quote made me love her. It didn’t matter to Laine – and it doesn’t matter now – what the truth really was. Did she have a gang bang? Was the story true, just skewed? Or was it not actually her at all? Doesn’t matter. What matters is that regardless of whether you damn yourself further or exonerate yourself completely by telling the truth, no one has as right to question or judge your personal life, and most particularly not your sexuality. But making the decision to take such a stand, particularly when the most important career move of your life hangs in the balance, is no small feat. It takes incredible integrity and conviction to do so. Would that we all were as strong as Laine.
What fascinated me as well about this story was its (accurate, I felt) representation of the still-pervasive double standard between the sexual habits of men and women and how those habits are viewed by the general public. If a man has been involved in a number of sexual escapades and this knowledge becomes public, they are viewed as accomplishments, or at the very least dismissed as understandable acts of youth, vigor, or masculinity (or all three). If a woman has been involved in a number of sexual escapades and this knowledge becomes public, the very first (and I mean the very first) word to be thrown into the arena is slut.
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I still feel (and, admittedly, this opinion is mine alone and may be erroneous) that sexual escapades like these do not hurt a man’s public image. It holds little or no bearing on his ability to do his job, whatever that job may be. It does not affect the public’s opinion on his ability to have friends, to be a faithful husband and partner, or to conduct himself in his everyday life. Sexual escapades such as these would be an event in the man’s life, one small part. It would not define who he is or what he is.
But given the same circumstances with a woman, it does affect things. It affects people’s perception of her ability to do her job. It brings into question her ability to be a loyal wife, partner, mother. We have allowed a woman’s sexuality to define her. The image of slut comes first and foremost before any other abilities or qualities the woman may have. She is less likely to be seen as able to control her sexuality; rather, it’s often seen as something that runs rampant through her, damaging her ability to live her life as a moral and productive human being.
Why? I think our culture is still afraid of women’s sexuality. Men and women both are afraid of it, tend to see anything above a “certain acceptable level” as rampant and almost as a handicap. Not everyone feels this way, of course, but many do, many do. I’ve seen it firsthand, met men who were very sexually aggressive and active; these same men were shocked and even revulsed by the same level of activity or aggression or even interest when harbored by a woman. I’ve been called a freak, an ice queen, a slut, and more, during the course of my life. All because I am a woman who is interested, open, and matter-of-fact about sex.
And I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that for these people, even if I were to meet them years later, I would be a slut first, and everything else second. These cultural attitudes still prevail, and will continue to do so until it is made absolutely and definitively clear that it is not acceptable to judge a person’s life by their sexuality.Sexuality is your business. You are the only person who may judge. You share it with whom you please. And while it may be a small or medium or large part of your life, it is still only a part, and no one may decide otherwise for you.
Good movie. Rent it. And think.

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Vikki McKay
By Vikki McKay

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