Something is happening in Hollywood. Something that has everyone asking, “Whoa, how did the treatment of women get so bad?!” But it’s almost like no one has bothered to watch movies ever. Which is why I think it’s important to revisit seminal films to explore how they became so vital to popular culture and what their context at the time meant for women. Art is a reflection of its society and based on this, America is a society where women are used as props and filler.
Saturday Night Fever, which celebrated its 40th-anniversary last month, has been occasionally criticized but has still been repeatedly celebrated throughout the years. In 2001, the Library of Congress designated the 1977 film as culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant. It was also selected for preservation by the National Film Registry for its impact on cinema. The film’s depiction of disco and its soundtrack, not only exposed the culture to America but created the demand for it. However, outside of all the fancy footwork, Saturday Night Fever is also one of the most sexist films I have ever seen and rewatching it after the fallout of the #metoo movement blew my mind.
In case you only saw the PG-13 version of this film on VHS (like I did while growing up) let me catch you up to speed. Saturday Night Fever is the story of a working-class version of John Travolta called Tony Manero. Tony’s life is complete garbage, but so is he. In the film’s opening sequence, he walks around strutting his stuff until he spots a hot babe and he harasses her. But he can’t waste too much time with her though because he has to run to his crappy day job as a paint salesman where he makes $2.50 an hour. After his shift ends he goes home, where he lives with his out-of-touch and abusive parents who call him a loser.
Later, he goes to a disco called 2001 Odyssey which he frequents with his friends who do things like harass homosexual couples and screw random women in the backseat of their friend’s car. All the regulars at 2001 Odyssey treat Tony like a greased up god because of his slick moves on the dance floor. Enter Annette, (Donna Pescow) she’s a mix between Tony’s dance partner and an emotional punching bag. He tells her he doesn’t like her and that she needs to choose if she’s a “nice girl or a c*nt.” Then Tony sees another girl dance and “knows” she should be his without ever pausing to consider she might be an autonomous person with her own desires.
The second woman is Stephanie Mangano (Karen Gorney). Tony tracks her down and wears her out till she agrees to be his partner for 2001 Odyssey’s “big dance contest”. She agrees, but with the caveat that things stay “professional” so Tony tells Annette he has no use for her. After dancing together for a while, Tony and Stephanie become close and she asks him to help her move from Brooklyn to Manhattan. When they get to her new place, the owner is home and he kisses her on the mouth. It’s clear Stephanie has some sort of relationship with this guy and Tony slut shames her over it. She cries and cries, because she has to repent if she wants to be a good girl.
Other than this, things are going pretty well until one of Tony’s friends is beaten up by a rival gang. Like a bunch of idiotic primates, Tony and his pals bust into the home base of the Barracudas and beat everyone up. The driver, Bobby C. (Barry Miller) takes off but circles back and rescues his friends after they flee the fight. Meanwhile, Bobby C. has knocked up his girlfriend and is panicked about it. He asks to talk to Tony, but Tony’s such a narcissist monster that he blows off Bobby repeatedly.
Finally, it’s the night of the big dance contest. Stephanie and Tony dance and they do a pretty good job. But the final team goes up and they’re a Puerto Rican couple who slaaaay. Somehow, Tony wins first place anyways and becomes enraged about this. He gives the Puerto Rican couple the first place trophy and then tries to rape Stephanie. She takes off and Tony is met up by his boys and an extremely intoxicated Annette. She says she’ll have sex with Tony and all his friends. Like a real weirdo, Tony sits in the front seat of the car while Bobby drives around and their other friends take turns raping Annette. Finally, Bobby pulls over on the bridge, rants about his pregnant girlfriend and how Tony has ignored him and then throws himself off the bridge. Then Tony runs off and rides the subway until he gets to Stephanie’s place. She lets him in and they agree to be friends.
How many people need to get raped so that the guys in this film get to feel true machismo. SNF was released in 1977, in that sweet spot after the sexual revolution and before the AIDS epidemic. Any woman who tries to assert herself in this film is punished. The line between being a good girl and a c*nt is drawn so definitively that it reads like a reaction to women’s growing independence. Not one good thing happens to the women that encounter Tony and his friends. Poor Annette gets raped and then has to watch a guy jump off a bridge. Stephanie practices for weeks with Tony and because they weren’t the best on the dance floor she must be punished, so he attempts to rape her. This was such an oddity based on the fact that he never once makes a real move on a woman and when he finally does, it’s to violate her.
There is almost zero way this could be made today. At its core this film doesn’t just use women to help push forward the story of a man, it hates women. This is a film about threatening women to stay subservient to the blue-collar men who eventually settle for them or else they will end up getting violated in the backseat of a car on a bridge.
According to what I saw in this film, 1977 wasn’t fun and games in the disco scene. Instead, I saw that society at large hated women and wanted to celebrate spitting on them when they embrace their sexuality. What I learned from Saturday Night Fever didn’t make dancing or disco more attractive to me. It turned my stomach. The sickness that infected these male characters in 1977 is an ongoing epidemic we’re currently trying to eradicate.
The character of Tony Manero made John Travolta a star, but today it would have ended his career along with everyone else who worked on it. There’s no redeeming quality about Tony. Tony Manero is the prototype for the good guy who turns his head. The guy who refuses to step in and explain to his friends when they’re being horrible or offensive. In Tony’s case, it’s possible he doesn’t realize they’re being monstrous most of the time, but he knew what they did to Annette was horrendous. It’s the motivating factor for his mecca to Manhattan to ask Stephanie’s forgiveness.
If this film shows us anything, it’s how the male of our species doesn’t understand the horrors of being a woman until it affects them personally. Somehow men continue to struggle with this kind of empathy. There’s a sense that they choose to relate to the needs of other men because they cannot fathom how scary it is to be a woman. This likely comes as a result of a society brainwashed by the power of toxic masculinity. Until we attack this, there will just be more women like Stephanie and Annette who are simply background noise for a man who uses their tragedies to grow.
Sabrina Cognata is an award-winning writer, producer and storyteller. During a decade long meltdown, she burned her life to the ground and revamped it as often as Madonna. Sabrina has written or produced for HuffPost Live, CBS Radio, TMZ and XO Jane, and she’s currently producing a syndicated news show for FOX television while tirelessly fighting the patriarchy Every. Damn. Day.