Today in Charade: A Spanking! A Spanking!

16 December, 2018 at 10:27 pm (charade)

CHARADE: How would you like a spanking?

Despite the title and the pervasive references to comedies in today’s Today in Charade feature, I’m not making light of this topic. In the ongoing saga of how much CBS apparently needs to change its workplace attitudes, the business section of the New York Times has devoted significant column inches to detailing the recorded circumstances that led Eliza Dushku to seek arbitration about her employment on the show Bull. There is some blurriness about ultimate responsibility and whether Dushku was fired for reporting his behavior — I don’t know the man, but I would be a mixture of disappointed and unsurprised if the former head of Moonlighting, a show all about gender roles and subsequent tensions, was blind to an atmosphere of casual discrimination — but Bull‘s star, Michael Weatherly, does not come across at all well.

Putting aside any easy assumptions one could reach about the gendered expectations of a show that cast a thirty-seven year old woman as the eventual romantic partner of a fifty year old man — a few hours after I started writing this, Vulture did that for me with a pretty salient summary of the pervasive entitled male perspective their shows embody and perpetuate — one can probably safely assume that Bull‘s characters engaged in romantic persiflage. I’ve never seen the show, but the Times‘ description of the show’s strapline and that the relationship between the characters was “flirty” conjures a reliable trope in terms of tone and scope. That the lead in the show would also, therefore lean in to keeping that fun, smarmy atmosphere that is part of the product alive in between takes and behind the scenes also both fails to surprise and disappoints.

Weatherly, in the Times transcripts, refers to three specific instances where sexual innuendo came about because of improv on his part. Twice, he specifically refers to the improvised innuendo as “ad-libbing” on his part, and while the third time doesn’t use that exact phrase, it is specifically couched within a moment when he was trying to jokingly improve a line of dialogue on the fly. In this last instance, he says, “[I]n retrospect, [it] was not a good idea.”

You think?

CHARADE: How would you like a punch in the mouth?

Obviously, the best immediate response to unsolicited
offers of light, non-consensual discipline.

Further to Vulture‘s comments on this likely being a small part of a larger toxic workplace culture, this excuse of Weatherly’s also falls within a larger phenomenon of casual male abuse under the aegis of “being funny”. In England, the behaviour was so prevalent that such male “banter” even became a common enough excuse that the reductive slang dismissal of casual harassment was entered into the Oxford English Dictionary in 2015. “It’s just bants,” is therefore as established as a weak sauce excuse for as long as England has been worried about Brexit, the massive sewer fatberg, or being hangry. And, frankly, I feel like “You wouldn’t like me when I’m hangry” jokes have been around at least as long as 2003’s “You Wouldn’t Like Me When I’m Ang Lee” Hulk headlines.

However, most of this remains outside my sphere of expertise. What I do feel qualified to comment on is Weatherly’s patented old-man contextualization of his “ad-lib”:

WEATHERLY: I ad-libbed a joke, a classic Cary Grant line from Charade or Philadelphia Story...

It’s almost a comprehensible excuse. Not for the behavior, as I am not here to defend that in the least — there are plentiful commenters in the original Times article defending Weatherly’s banter, and I have desire to be amongst them — but for his perspective as to how this sort of thing is acceptable, how he’s trying to maintain the atmosphere and tone of a certain traditional Hollywood product. Y’see, his “bants” aren’t just the result of male privilege and sexism, they’re the sort of arch, urbane witticism that one would have found during the Golden Age of Hollywood, and he’s just doing his part to keep that spirit alive on set, between takes. By referencing spanking.

Jezebel has a pretty fascinating and seemingly comprehensive article on the prevalence of spanking as a dominant (and dominance) trope in classic Hollywood films. And Cary Grant is now fairly well known as someone who spanked his wife, once details came out during his divorce proceedings from Dyan Cannon. So, by channeling Grant’s persona, by cribbing lines from Philadelphia Story and Charade, Weatherly isn’t sexualizing, demeaning, or belittling a female colleague, he’s just calling back to his memories of Cary Grant’s great moments from yesteryear.

However, the claim doesn’t stand up to textual scrutiny. The preceding stills are the only reference to spanking in Charade, and they fall within two spheres of dramatic context: the first is the ongoing reference to the age difference between the two characters and actors — the twenty-five year age gap was marked enough that Grant reportedly didn’t feel comfortable leaving it unmentioned or unchallenged in the script — and so a reference to spanking follows repartée where Grant’s character refers to Hepburn’s character as a child. Whatever our feelings about spanking today, it surely must be acknowledged that such a reference works contextually and doesn’t appear to merely be part of Jezebel‘s wider phenomenon. The second context is established by Hepburn’s response, which dismisses the condescending quality of the Grant’s threat by reestablishing them as equals who could engage in less infantilizing violence. It’s less an escalation than a return to parity.

So while there is a spanking reference in Charade, it’s not the “bend you over my knee” and establish-gender-superiority-with-a-soupçon-of-sexual-frisson kind of spanking that Jezebel has recorded and Weatherly seems to be implying. In The Philadelphia Story, the only reference to spanking is very much along those lines, but comes up only as a reference to the potential mannered relationship between Tracy Lord and her fiancé George, in dialogue between Jimmy Stewart and Katherine Hepburn. Grant is nowhere to be found.

PHILADELPHIA STORY: Or would Kittredge spank?

With all the “Cary Grant spanked his wife” coverage from the time of the divorce, there would be GIFs aplenty of Grant characters having engaged in such peccadillos available on the internet, relating to and commenting on the resurgence of chatter about it after Cannon’s 2011 memoir. But such images don’t seem to be available. I’ve scoured my film collection and memory, and while I have a strong visual memory of Katherine Hepburn being indignantly and undignifiedly smacked on film, it doesn’t seem to be from Bringing Up Baby, Holiday, or The Philadelphia Story (I can’t speak to Sylvia Scarlett, and am not sure who’d want to, frankly). But in absence of that and with Jezebel having not illustrated their photoessay with corroborating evidence, I feel confident that the only other major occasion of spanking in Grant’s career is a mention in To Catch a Thief where, once again, his character Robie is establishing the significant age difference between him and Brigitte Auber.

TO CATCH A THIEF: Professor Robie will conduct a class on how to get spanked in a hurry.

It seems absent even in The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, which a brief internet perusal leads me to believe may have been one of the few films in which Shirley Temple wasn’t “comically” spanked. (Oh, how much I’ve screwed up my search history with research for this article…)

I can’t claim definitively that this is completely correct, but I do feel fairly confident that Weatherly’s characterization about Grant is wrong for the majority of his film career, and certainly with regard to the two films in question. Does Philadelphia Story prominently feature an uncle pinching the ass of his pubescent niece? Definitely yes — I believe only once in the film, but certainly twice in the play — and it’s absolutely that creepy when you think about it. Does it feature comic domestic violence? Again, yes, in a scene that was added to the film’s prologue, and is largely considered to exist to establish sympathy for Katherine Hepburn so as to counteract her “box-office poison” persona. But it doesn’t feature spanking.

Keep your male privileged kink out of my Charade news alerts, Weatherly. And maybe learn to keep that sort of thing out of your “ad-lib”s as well. In order to help other people with their ad-libbing, I think I’m going to go donate in his name to the Detroit Creativity Project. Maybe they could help him with a refresher course.

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