The Thrill of Male Violence

June 28, 1994|By GARRY WILLS

CHICAGO — We do not know whether O.J. Simpson is guilty of murder. But we do know, now, that he is guilty of beating his wife brutally. So all those people shouting ''Go, Juice'' were, in effect, cheering on the sidelines for each blow delivered to Nicole's face.

Why would they do that? Why not? Male violence has been excused, when not glorified, in our culture.

For just one example, take the movie ''Gone With the Wind.'' That film has often been criticized for its patronizing attitude toward blacks. But another scene in it is also objectionable -- the scene where a drunken Clark Gable forces sex on an unwilling Scarlett.

That is rape, even though the two are married. In fact, the producer, David O. Selznick, always referred to the scene as ''the row and the rape.''

Yet the scene has not been recognized as a criminal act. Helen Taylor, in surveys she made of reactions to the scene for her 1989 book ''Scarlett's Woman,'' found that most people believed this episode just made Gable more attractive -- so male and sexy, so imperious at getting his way.

Selznick knew that he was building on an image other filmmakers had fostered around Gable.

Film scholar Joe Fisher traces Gable's rise to stardom as a deliberate creation of glamour around brutality. Gable was known, in his early movies, for hitting women.

As Mr. Fisher writes: ''If you knew Gable in 1931 [before the Hays Office became really effective], you knew him as the man who hit Barbara Stanwyck in 'Night Nurse,' who threw Norma Shearer down into a chair in 'A Free Soul,' or who posed an ever-present threat of physical violence to Greta Garbo in 'Susan Lenox' and to Joan Crawford in 'Possessed.' ''

Mr. Fisher argues that physical abuse was actually a substitute for the sex act at a time when censorship would not allow the depiction of sex in film -- a wonderful example of censorship outlawing tenderness if it involved nudity while fostering violence as a sicker form of sex.

Things were not always this way. Dickens gave a harrowing description of a woman batterer in ''Oliver Twist,'' where Bill Sikes terrorizes and brutalizes the prostitute Nancy before killing her and going into a flight full of denial.

If one wants a psychological picture of the wife batterer not able to face his own nature, read the flight scene at the end of ''Oliver Twist,'' which takes on a new immediacy with the picture of a fleeing O.J. in mind.

But American popular culture has been soft-to-gaga on the presentation of big, strong men showing they are big and strong by beating up on women.

The attitude is expressed by a woman in John Ford's movie ''The Quiet Man.'' Assuming that John Wayne is going to punish Maureen O'Hara when he gets her home, a woman bystander offers him ''a nice stick to beat the pretty lady with.''

That is what we as a society have been doing for decades. When women point to this obvious fact, people like Rush Limbaugh call them feminazis, as if the real aggression were on the female side.

Even to question the bully's rights becomes, paradoxically, a form of bullying. And we keep on shouting, ''Go, Juice.''

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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