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It wasn’t the fact that the entire movie was structured as Oscar-bait, nor was it the historical inaccuracies. I watched The King’s Speech with increasing frustration because every time Helena Bonham Carter came onto the screen, I thought, “Are they going to let her do anything? Or is she just going to sit on her husband’s stomach and quip one liners?”

  • From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in Movies by Molly Haskell. 444 pages. University of Chicago Press. $21.

Despite the narrowness of her role, Carter was nominated for an Academy Award, and on February 27, we’ll get to see which woman in a category full of girlfriends, wives, and mothers takes the award.

Hollywood is not a woman-friendly place, and the Academy Awards are an annual festival that hammers home that point. Once again there are no women directors nominated this year, and only two screenplays with female writers nominated (out of ten).

Things in Hollywood have been stagnant for so long that a book such as 1974’s From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in Movies by film critic Molly Haskell’s has not faded become a historical document. The book was written during the Golden Age of American cinema, the age of Coppola and Nichols and Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider — and yet women were left out of the renaissance. As Haskell writes, “Here we are today, with an unparalleled freedom of expression, and a record number of women performing, achieving, choosing to fulfill themselves, and we are insulted with the worst — the most abused, neglected, and dehumanized — screen heroines in film history.”

Things have not changed so much that Haskell’s categories for the worst offenders of the female storyline need to be renamed — the dead wife/girlfriend is still used as the primary motivation for the male lead’s torment (see: Inception, The Dark Knight, Shutter Island). Haskell’s scathing review of “women’s weepies” — where one woman’s liberation (usually through the love of a man) is used as soap opera porn for its repressed female audience — lives on in the critically acclaimed I Am Love. And while rape has thankfully stopped being a casual plot point in film (it’s moved on to comic book storylines), you can still find Haskell’s neglected and abused heroine in the superhero film Kick-Ass, where a little girl who watches her father burned alive is two seconds later referred to as “so hot.”

Lest you get too terribly depressed thinking about this, From Reverence to Rape also celebrates the good in film. Haskell takes comfort in Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn. In a growing number of contemporary films directed by women such as Debra Granik (the stunning Winter’s Bone), Julie Taymor (the gender-bending Tempest), and Claire Denis (White Material), we may be seeing an answer to Haskell’s furious condemnation of the way movie men treat women:

Perhaps it is but one of the more common and less endearing manifestations of the eternal adolescence that hangs on in the American male — who, by the time he is mature and confident enough to appreciate a woman, is almost ready to retire from the arena. There are a few good years in which he can both appreciate and operate, but not enough (particularly with the current defections from heterosexuality) to satisfy the female population, which may be why more and more women are turning to each other, or to themselves. • 23 February 2011