Objectification As Desire In The 1960s British Youth Film.

On a recent exploration of several films from the 1960s, some startling realisations occurred.  A change in moral values is pretty easy to distinguish within any given time-frame but the casual representation of the era’s moral values were surprising to behold.  In the 1960s, the concept of the teenager was barely a decade old; a new refreshing lease of life for a generation of people but one that also came with its fair share of baggage.  The demands required to keep this newly founded cultural generation content has had a lasting impact upon today’s society.  Yet, for all of the enjoyable naivety within what this essay calls, the British youth film, there’s a strange set of moral standards towards women that not only seems entirely polar to today’s (at least desired) morality but seems to share enough traits between films to be considered as some form of agenda.

The films in question are all about the partying antics of twenty-something, middle-class men and women.  They are all set and filmed before the sixties had begun to swing properly into the hippy-daze of the counterculture and are mainly set in the midst of the dying days of the beatniks and the heydays of the teddy-boy/Mod amalgamations.  Though this essay is not questioning the quality of these films (visually and cinematically they are stunning and have a casual flare that is somewhat missing from today’s populist British cinema), it is questioning the moral society that they are reflecting and the sociological identity roles of masculinity and femininity.

The first film to question is perhaps the least guilty of mistaking misogyny for desire but is included for its extremely modern portrayal of what is effectively date-rape and because of several general and thematic links to other films as well.  Before Guy Hamilton had become snowed into the objectifying franchise of James Bond (beginning a mere two years after filming our example with Goldfinger), the director had been asking some uncomfortable questions about sexism in youth culture in The Party’s Over (filmed in 1962, released in 1965). Though cashing in on the sociological horror of beatnik culture, a movement that scared the living wits out of the traditional middle class, the film tells of a party gone wrong where an accidental death destabilises the lives of a hedonistic group of art students.

However, the death is not the main aspect of interest to this essay.  The reason for its inclusion is also the reason for its trouble with the censors; trouble that meant a full three year delay between completion of the film and its release.  At the main party in question, Melina (Louise Sorel), falls down the stairs and accidentally knocks her head.  The fall kills her but her fate is unknown and unseen to most of the party except the head of the group, Moise (Oliver Reed), who then has to watch as several girls strip her thinking she is drunk and a young man who fancies her takes advantage, not realising she is actually dead.

It’s a powerful moment but one that also reflects the marred, misogynistic morals of the era; the crime here, which torments the group later on, is not the undressing, the degrading or the rape: it is the fact that the girl was dead.  Moise, who had wanted her sexually but, unlike with every other girl in the film, had failed to “have her”, is a complex creation and seems powerless to inform his friends of what they have done.  It’s telling that his conscience would have been clean if she was alive and simply being assaulted.  The Party’s Over also reflects another general trend within all of the films mentioned in this essay; that masculine social hierarchy is defined in the youth of the 1960s by the ability to sleep with women and the numbers of women clocked up.  Moise as a character is described by a girl in the film as “He always behaves like that with the ones that he can’t have… until he has them”.  “No” doesn’t mean “No” in 1960s youth culture; “no” means “try again later”.

Women are goals in the British 1960s youth film and often the methods of attaining them make up the bulk of the narrative and even the films’ titles.  It is fitting that Oliver Reed, a performer infamous for his sexism (see any number of Parkinson interviews online), is also the star of our second film to discuss: The System (1964) by Michael Winner (also named “The Girl-Getters“).  The “system” in question is a method used by a group of young men at a holiday resort to get as many women as possible before the season is over.  The practice is built around the summer job of Reed’s character, Tinker, who has the rather surreal role of being a strolling photographer, gaining the girls’ holiday addresses to send the photos on to but instead uses them to help his group follow and seduce.

The System as a film does question the moral status of treating women in such a way but ultimately also partakes in it.  The men of the group who eventually grow out of such practices do so because they fall for one particular woman (in Tinker’s case, the example also presents a problem of class, strangely defined because the woman is sexually confident).  Worryingly though, as Tinker gears up to leave the resort in the coming months, his methods of womanising are passed on to the next generation, in this case a young pre-Blow-Up David Hemmings.  The cycle will begin again, hinting that these are values passed down from the tradition obsessed generation of men above them.  The System is littered with examples of a very casual misogyny, as if the only way to actually partner up with a woman was to be deploy a ridiculously complex and slightly unnerving stratagem.  The male identity is again defined by the ability to sleep with women but the practices shown to be jovial in the 1960s British youth film have strong elements of predatory tendencies.  This is the patriarchy in full, pivotal swing.

The last example to look at is perhaps the most obvious, at least judging by its title.  Richard Lester had already made a name for himself the year before with The Beatles film, A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and it is perhaps worth looking briefly at this film before looking at our example, The Knack… And How To Get It (1965).  To consider A Hard Day’s Night in the context of The Beatles is interesting but ultimately shows just how casual sexism was in teenage culture.  This was a period where The Beatles were still being largely portrayed as the perfect, clean-cut good boys of pop culture, in spite of being on the cusp of their transition into drug-taking hippies.  Even with this clean-cut image though, it is still OK for the fab four to want girls in the same way as seaside group of The System.  Any number of sequences could be used as an example (“Lennon put those girls down!”) but the most obvious is in the opening train journey where John Lennon begs his manager for a girl.  It seems tongue in cheek but, in the context of the era, of Lester’s films and the films of this essay, it probably has a far more tangible and objectified reality than its initial whimsy suggests.

This becomes extremely obvious in Lester’s The Knack.  The title of the film refers to a special skill which apparently is required to get women into bed; the young men of sixties seem to require systems and knacks.  Tolan (Ray Brooks) has “the knack” and has women all around him.  Colin (Michael Crawford) hasn’t got it and wants it, if only to define his own masculinity (which throughout the film is generally questioned by his beta-male, camp performance).  Again, the film is suggesting that there are techniques to get women and that the sociological goal in the end is to have as many as possible.  This is also, of course, in the context of being before the “free love” movement so has a strange, urban feel to its inherent sexism.

Perhaps most disturbingly, is the portrayal of a woman who , unsure as to whether she has slept with one of the men, jokingly begins to accuse them of rape.  In a very surreal sequence, Nancy (Rita Tushingham), jokingly shouts “rape!” as if to alert fellow passersby to help her.  It undermines the victims of genuine assault (Melina from our first film for example) as it implies that any woman making an accusation of rape has got it wrong and that it’s the first mental step when a woman is unsure as to what has happened.  Added to this is the strange ratio that is set up (throughout all of the films) that more women notched upon the bed-post is equal to a higher masculine status, a higher sense of power and, perhaps tautologically, means it’s even easier to have more women.  It’s a strange, surreal world without consequences that these films insist on portraying.

Of course, it would be wrong to lambaste any of them for simply reflecting the moral status quo of their era.  As previously stated, all of the films are strong examples of quirky British cinema; they are well made, well performed and, at times, stunningly innovative.  But perhaps what is most startling about these films is how much of today’s misogynistic problems they reflect and comment upon.  From cat-calling to sexual harassment, assault to emotional and physical objectification, these films rather depressingly have much that is recognisable in today’s attitudes towards women, in spite of being made fifty years ago.  It is an uncomfortable thought to finish on.

Adam Scovell

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