It’s a sight so familiar that it no longer calls attention: a movie poster featuring a group of men framed by a faceless woman’s legs, bust, or any other body part, except the head.
The objectification of women in cinema did not escape the eagle eye of Marcia Belsky, a stand-up comedian, writer and musician. In April 2016, Belsky began a social media project to document the ‘Headless Women of Hollywood’. The project has assumed greater importance amidst the ongoing conversation about institutionalised sexism in Hollywood in the light of the Harvey Weinstein revelations.
With a Tumblr, Instagram and Twitter page (the Tumblr profile is the most exhaustive and doubles up as the project website), Headless Women in Hollywood “seeks to bring attention to the...practice of fragmenting, fetishising and dehumanising the images of women we see in film, TV, book covers, and advertisement”, says the project description.
What drew Belsky’s attention to these faceless women in media? “I had a professor in college, Robert Goldman, point out this advertising trope to me where women’s sexualised bodies and body parts were made interchangeable to one another,” Belsky told Scroll.in. “Years passed, and I kept seeing them everywhere. Before it’s pointed out to you, it’s hard to understand just how often this is used as a marketing tactic. So, I would show my friends, and point out posters on the subway, and they would say ‘Oh, yeah, I guess I can see that, but does it really happen a lot?’ And once I looked through to compile all the TV and movie posters, seeing them all laid out one after the other caused a reaction in people like ‘woah, I guess it does’.”
While the project covers content across media and geography, it gets most of its fodder from Hollywood. Accompanied by hilarious captions, the post draws attention to how viewers are made to believe that a women’s head – “the first and foremost the thinking part of the human body”, as the website says – is dispensable in a work of art.
Belsky has kept the project going over the last couple of years despite a very busy schedule, which includes being the lead singer of the feminist band Free the Mind and co-hosting the Misandry podcast, along with other writing and stand-up work. She also recently concluded performances of her musical parody of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale and its acclaimed Hulu adapted series.
To find material for Headless Women in Hollywood, Belsky trawls through movie and TV archives and also welcomes submissions from vigilant social media users. The posters are not restricted to a specific time period – the phenomenon has been going strong even over the last decade, alongside growing conversations about women’s rights and representation in the media.
However, Belsky did notice some differences in the nature of the posters over the years. “For example, in the ’60s and ’70s, you have a lot of headless James Bond girls,” she said. “In the late 1970s and 1980s, you have this teenage boy comedy genre that exploded with Porky’s (1982) and then the National Lampoon series and eventually Revenge of The Nerds (1983). Those posters have a particularly seedy element to them, as they are often non-consensually ripping a headless woman’s bikini top off of her, or looking up her skirt, or groping her. In these types of comedies, and in society in general, men are taught to ‘go for it’ because a woman having a sexual body is seen as permission in itself.”
There is a resurgence of the raucous all-male comedies in the 2000s, with films such as Hall Pass and Hot Tub Time Machine. “Here, the only roles for women are ‘the naggy wife’ or the ‘interchangeable butt’”, Belsky said. “The women are meant to be props for male- centred action, and their disposability becomes a punchline.”
The culprits include even acclaimed films like Crazy Stupid Love (2011) or Kingsmen: Secret Service (2014) and animated family fare such as The Minions (2015).
Even movies centred on women, such as Wonder Woman (2017), the Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants are part of the club.
What do instances such as these say about the representation of women in Hollywood? “I think a whole lot about women in Hollywood, there’s a lot going on,” said Belsky. “It’s very layered, and the power structure deeply embedded so that actively correcting the completely accepted norm that it is okay for women to be sexualised landscapes for male driven plot is going to be a long, and embattled, process.”
Belsky knows that chipping away at these power structures will not be easy. “I think the boys’ club of Hollywood, and everyone invested in maintaining it, will not fall easily,” she said. “However, as we have more socially conscious people taking on these roles, my hope is we can draw attention to the male gaze, and begin to evaluate how female sexuality is marketed, and who it is marketed for. As of right now, it is still marketed in parts, and it teaches women that not only are our desires not important, they don’t even exist.”
The project’s Tumblr page also has a section dedicated to posters of headless men of Hollywood – ostensibly to silence the naysayers. But as the accompanying descriptor elaborates, such imagery is the exception. “When the men are headless, it’s not mindless, it’s not ordinary, and usually – it is not sexual,” the description reads. “His appeal to the opposite gender is not the focus. They are an engaged, unique and clear part of the joke.”
In the last few months, there’s a growing clamour for Hollywood to change its ways. Movements such as #TimesUp, triggered by the slew of sexual harassment scandals in the industry and beyond, have demanded an end to sexual harassment and sexism. That movement has expanded to demands for equal pay for women and a broader focus on equality and diversity in terms of race and sexuality as well.
“I think it definitely opens some people’s minds to seeing what they may have been fighting to not see, or what privilege may have blinded them from fully seeing,” Belsky said. “A lot of my friends used to think of me as a very angry feminist, and then #MeToo happened and all of the sudden my Facebook is full of private messages from people in my past like, ‘oh you were...right’”.
But she does not believe a paradigm shift will happen easily, or willingly. “The ones who don’t want to change, don’t want to change. Hollywood is still a boys club,” she said. “Advertising is never going to think “how do we better society” unless they are hired to make a commercial for a charity. Men in these industries are going to fight tooth and nail to hang on to the system that maintains their privileges and benefits. However, there are always people who genuinely do want to do the right thing. So, my hope is that as that consciousness changes, Hollywood will be forced into change. But they are not going to do so willingly.”
A fully equal entertainment industry is hard to imagine. “But, we still have to work, in all areas, to make it as equal as we can.”