No Rocking the Boat when it comes to cinematic representation


I love a good pun-based title.

The other night I watched The Boat That Rocked – a 2009 film by Richard Curtis of Love Actually fame. Wikipedia Tells me that it will be Called “Pirate Radio” in the US & have a November release date.  It is a comedy about a Pirate Radio based offshore on a boat,  in ’60s Britain – hence the title(s).

This film is nostalgia. Nostalgia in the music, the clothing (the lovely selection of knits were a personal highlight), the beautifully clear montage shots with immaculate looking cars, clothes (and prominently) radios evoked images of a halcyon, idealised past. That was, as someone who didn’t live it and doesn’t quite buy the hype, a little irritating.

Unfortunately, for me and for this blogs theme, the representation of sexuality, & masculine identity (on the almost exclusively homosocial boat – but more on this later) is nostalgic as well. And the glorification of homophobia, sexism and arrogant masculinity is not what I would call a Good Thing.

The movie valorises a masculinity familiar in the trope of rock and roll. This is not particularly surprising, nor on its own is it a Bad Thing. The casual sexism and homophobia are somewhat more concerning.  There are several scenes which particularly grated with me. Early on in the film the young protagonist, Carl, gets involved in a cunning scheme, instigated by Dave to lose his virginity on the one day a month ladies (with the notable exception of the Felicity the lesbian cook – who’s sexuality is mentioned more often than her name, and doesn’t REALLY count as a woman) are permitted to visit the homosocial realm of the Radio Rock Boat.  And while I understand loss of virginity is a staple of the ‘ol coming of age story, in this particular instance it involves a loss of virginity via deception of the woman involved. Granted, the potential rape never actually eventuate, but the way it was presented and treated reminded me of the worst of Benny Hill.

The treatment of the female cook (hey, what a surprise there) Felicity, is also terrible. She can be summed up in two words: Lesbian & Cook. The exact lines sadly escape me now, but there are several explicit references to her (and I paraphrase) – ‘not being a real woman’, and ‘not counting’ because of her sexuality. Oh, and all the other female ‘groupie’ characters were depressingly homogenous in their beauty. Well done Richard Curtis. This would be more tolerable if it was presented in the context of historical accuracy in attitudes towards women and sexuality, (would a bit of implicit criticism be too much to ask for? Apparently yes) but I didn’t even get a hint of that.

But it’s not just the lesbians who get some terrible and offensive representation. There is a scene where all and sundry are playing “never ever” it emerges that Angus (played by the charming Rhys Darby) has had sexual experiences with another man.  The other characters do not treat this revelation with the respect and open mindedness one could hope for.  At this point in the film I was not particularly surprised by this, but it still disappointed me.

After struggling for a while to find a positive aspect to this films attitudes towards gender and masculinity, I managed to come up with a small point; there is quite a diversity in the male characters physical attractiveness and body types. But even this is minimal, given the forgiving lens of nostalgia and the ensemble nature of the film. And certainly in comparison to the representation of women and femininity it’s nothing to applaud.  But that’s all I could find.  It would have been easy to include some positive stuff about father/son relationships but even those themes were surprisingly superficial.

I have no real objection to superficial and light weight cinema, or nostalgia for its own sake. (Across the Universe comes to mind)What is a real problem here is that The Boat the Rocked does not discriminate with its nostalgia. I’d be quite happy if the film painted a happy and sacred picture of 1960’s music, pirate radio, fashion, and anti-authoritarian attitudes. It’s when rape, sexism, homophobia and normative concepts of hegemonic masculinity are lumped in with the same (excuse the pun) boat that it becomes offensive and counterproductive. Historical representations, of whatever type, say something about the time and place in which they were made,  and nostalgia is not an excuse to represent less rosy elements of our history in an uncritical or even positive way.

Explore posts in the same categories: Film, gender, Masculinity

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3 Comments on “No Rocking the Boat when it comes to cinematic representation”

  1. JNgaio Says:

    Great entry.

    The use of deception in an attempt to help whatshisface lose his virginity bothered me too, but the use of deception to have sexual relationships seems to go largely unexamined and is often celebrated as part of some sort of male mischievousness. A recent Pepsi advert comes to mind:

    I think it’s also sometimes related to the idea that women do not tend to want sex but have to be tricked into it. Although, that’s slightly different to what was happened in this movie which I agree would have been rape.

  2. Wes Says:

    Agreed, the “losing virginity by stealth” scene really pissed me off.

    Nice analysis. You’re right, this is a very strange movie, in terms of how it represents men. It sort of embraces non-traditional counter-cultural male figures of a very lumpy and unassuming variety, which are in many ways not your standard heroic Hollywood archetypes, but then it sticks them in this ludicrous “10 inexplicably horny teenage groupies for each dumpy anti-hero” scenario.

    Very weird coming from the writer/director of Love Actually.

  3. Ionia Ní Chróinín Says:

    I just watched this film and immediately had to go online to see if anyone else had noticed the blatant sexism and frankly disturbing attitude towards women prevalent throughout. Thank God for your blog. I agreed with everything you mentioned and I would like to add that I found it very chilling how Quentin (Bill Nighy’s character) offered up his niece as a birthday gift for his godson. This is a distinctly creepy film that represented women as heartless barbies whose only useful function is sex. As an actress, I find it distressing that so many prominent and respected actresses (Emma Thompson and Gemma Atherton for instance) willingly accepted these roles. If intelligent and independent women constantly agree to play the roles of tarts and bimbos, then women will forever be thought of and portrayed as such in mainstream media.

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