Sunday, March 27, 2011

Coffy: Look and Take


A few weeks ago I watched my first Blaxploitation movie: Coffy, starring the one and only Pam Grier. It's hard to believe I've made it in this world this long without seeing one of her popular films. For so long, all I've heard about was Pam Grier's greatness: her sex appeal and reign as a sex symbol, and how her sex symbol status and movie roles broke down barriers for women. She was a feminist too!

So I'm watching this movie and as it unfolds I'm not quite sure what to make of it. I mean, there's no question that this chick is BAD ASS. She kills motherf*ckers at point blank range in the name of family, friendship and all that is just in the world. All while batting her pretty eyes, using a sultry voice and shimmying her large breasts in the face of these no good men. (Shout out to women with really big breasts!) So yeah, conceptually I get it. In 1973 I see how this was ground breaking. I'm sure that never before was there a black woman fighting for her people and for women all at the same time.

However, all the supposed feminist strides this movie made are completely undercut by the obvious fact that this was a movie made by men for men. As much as Pam Grier uses her feminine wiles to get ahead she doesn't have complete ownership of her body. Her body just becomes one of the many female bodies in the film that exists only for men to look at, and for men to take advantage of.

Let's examine for example that 98% of the women in the movie are absolutely gorgeous and their bodies are there purely for display. I don't think a single woman wears a bra in this movie and whenever possible we see breasts. It's a breast party. TITTIES ARE EVERYWHERE! Breasts fall out of dresses and tops. They dangle free in flimsy and form-fitting garments. There's a cat fight scene where Coffy goes after this white chick. As their fight progresses, clothes are ripped off, hair is wild... and the men just stand back and watch. This movie is a man's, namely Jack Hill's, sexual fantasy.

What actually makes it clear that this movie is about the heterosexual male gaze, more than the flagrant display of the female body, is how disgusting all the men's bodies are in comparison. Every time there is a sex scene in which the man's body is revealed, it is fat and ugly. (Note how there is a particular purpose in showing men's bodies, but nonewhatsoever for showing women's bodies.) There are man boobs and belly rolls, and few of the men are handsome in the face. The one that is, King George (Robert DoQui), is dressed covered in a terribly ugly yellow pimp suit complete with cape, hat and sunglasses. Further, his body is rendered ultimately disposable when he is murdered. Goons drag him behind a speeding, swerving car with a noose around his neck. The devaluation of male bodies only further values the female body. Women's bodies are the only bodies on screen worth seeing.

The women's bodies are not just for the looking in this film, they are also for the taking. There are several scenes where men take advantage of women's bodies, but there were three that were particularly troubling to me. In one scene a man attacks a waitress in the backroom of a bar. He pulls back her top revealing her right breast and threatens her by placing a knife to it. In another scene, Grier is sexually assaulted in her car as she pulls into a parking lot. Her window is down and some Joe just walks up, reaches his hand in and gropes her. She is only saved when her male cop friend shoos him away. There's another where Grier is almost raped in the aftermath of the murder of her cop friend. One of the murdering goons decides he could have a little fun, just because her body is present. In all three of these moments, men assert their power and pleasure over the women's bodies because they are there. They take advantage of women just because they can.

Watching this infuriated me. Who are these men that think it's okay to do anything with or to a woman's body without her permission? I think what bothers me more than seeing this in a fantasy-film drama is knowing that some of this is real. There are men who think and act this way, certainly in the past, and plenty in the present.

The actual commodification of Pam Grier's body through the movie medium which eventually becomes VHS and DVD furthers the idea of taking women's bodies. We can now buy or rent Coffy and look at Grier's body anytime we please. The complications of ownership come back into play here. I pray to God Grier is living grand off the royalties to all her films. It is only just.

There is a twisted understanding of a woman owning her own body. In the end of the plot Coffy is a heroine, and in real life so is Grier. But at what cost? Was her body really the only (or best) tool she could use to assert her power and wit? It seems that it is only because Grier, as a film character and a person, makes her body available for looking and taking that she is able to get ahead.

I'm not sure how much creative control, if any, Grier had in the production of this or any of her films. Whatever level of compliance and control she had in the making in the film, I doubt it is to the extent that Beyonce (our contemporary Pam Grier) exerts. Bey controls her image to every last sequin and gets the money for every last sale, yet just like Grier, it is the availability of her body that has made her a star.

Can women really be in possession of their own bodies when they make their bodies readily available to look and take?

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