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Towelhead and the Normalization of Sex with Children

At the 1999 Academy Awards, Elia Kazan, the legendary director of On The Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire, East Of Eden, and many other timeless classics, received an honorary lifetime achievement Oscar. As the ninety-year-old took the stage, one-third of liberal Hollywood refused to stand or even applaud, refused to forgive Kazan the four decades-old “sin” of naming names during the blacklist era.

However, just three years later, no such protest was mounted when the Oscar for best director was awarded to Roman Polanski, a man who in 1977 pled guilty to drugging and sodomizing a thirteen-year-old girl. Of course, Polanski wasn’t there to receive his Oscar. He’s still a fugitive from the law for that crime.

Is this just another example of liberal Hollywood values? Hypocrisy? Unfortunately, it goes much deeper than that. There’s a new civil rights push in Hollywood: the right to have sex with your children. And this Friday, with Towelhead, Hollywood releases their next theatrical volley to normalize the very worst kind of sexual deviancy.

During the Q&A, after a sneak preview of Towelhead, writer/director Alan Ball (Six Feet Under) said of child rape, “Society wants us to believe that’s a soul destroying event, I don’t believe that.” The context of such a statement is important and can be found in his film, the story of a thirteen-year-old Arab girl, Jasira (Summer Bishil), who‘s raped by her Army Reservist neighbor (Aaron Eckhart), molested by her mother‘s boyfriend, and sexually manipulated by Thomas (Eugene Bradley), a young classmate. When it’s all over, not only is Jasira’s soul not destroyed but she suffers no emotional or psychological damage whatsoever. In fact, to quote Ball again, the “experience makes her stronger.” The film ends on a triumphant note, with the thirteen-year-old sexually empowered by the abuse and ready to have a relationship with the aforementioned Thomas.

Towelhead is the latest in a years-long Hollywood crusade to make the child molester sympathetic and the act of molestation just another step in the evolution of normal, healthy, youthful sexuality. Which isn’t to say that say that child molesters should only ever be presented as one-dimensional, mustache-twisting deviants.

In both Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 version and Adrian Lyne’s equally fine 1997 remake, Lolita’s Humbert Humbert is a pederast consumed with desire for the fourteen-year-old daughter of his landlady, whom he later marries just to stay close to the young girl. After the wife dies, he embarks on a road trip and sexual affair with his new step daughter. Humbert is no one-dimensional monster. At times he’s even pitiable. But inexorably we watch the affair strip him of all dignity until it so destroys him emotionally he proves capable of murder. Young Lolita doesn’t fare much better. She marries the first guy who asks and winds up pregnant and broke on a dirt farm before her eighteenth birthday.

In 1998, Todd Solondz wrote and directed the indie film Happiness, an explicit but thoughtful look at the sexual dysfunction of an extended family. At the center is Dylan Baker’s memorable performance as Bill Maplewood, a suburban father, husband, and child rapist. Though desperate to stop himself, upon hearing from his son that a classmate has been left home alone a few days, Maplewood rapes the boy and is eventually exposed to both his family and community.

Much in the same way 2004’s Downfall fleshed out Adolph Hitler without mitigating the monstrosity of his crimes, Solondz and Baker present their child rapist as a three-dimensional being without once asking us to feel sorry for him. Admittedly, both Downfall and Happiness polarized audiences with these portrayals, but I would argue that the more realistic the monster, the more terrifying the behavior.

There’s nothing, however, worthy of defense in a spate of recent films that go well beyond the fleshing out of these monsters.

In 2001, the indie industry let loose with the NC-17 L.I.E., a dark, Oliver Twistian look at a troubled, upper-class teenage boy who finds a mentor in the local child molester (Brian Cox). L.I.E. received both rave reviews and won numerous awards. While it would be dishonest for me to say it wasn’t well made, it’s also the story of a relationship between a fifteen-year-old boy and fifty-year-old pederast — a relationship teeming with sexual tension and ultimately portrayed as healthy.

With 2004‘s The Woodsman, this sick genre moved closer to the mainstream. Kevin Bacon plays a convicted and confessed child molester made the sympathetic victim of police officers and loutish co-workers who violate his “civil rights.” That same year, no less than Nicole Kidman starred in Birth, playing a widow convinced her dead husband’s been reincarnated in the form of a ten-year-old boy. Their nude scene together in a bathtub was an especially appalling way to cap off 90 minutes of sexual tension and longing looks between a woman in her mid-thirties … and a ten-year-old boy.

In 2006 Hollywood jumped in with two more, both starring respected actresses. In Kate Winslet’s Little Children, Jack Earle Haley is the sympathetic molester just released from prison and the victim of suburban hypocrisy, prejudice, and harassment. Cate Blanchett would take things even further with Notes On A Scandal. She plays a married teacher involved in a steamy sexual affair with one of her 15-year-old students. Her character is presented as both our protagonist and the victim of Judi Dench’s “fatal attraction.” Worse, the sex scenes between the 37-year-old Blanchett and the 16-year-old actor playing her student are erotically charged, simulated but explicit. At no time does the film stop to examine the psychological damage this kind of relationship might have on the boy.

Liberal Hollywood’s intolerance of smoking (well, smoking that which is legal), anything or anyone conservative, and George W. Bush is absolute, and yet they always manage to somehow find the nuance in society’s monsters — the sympathetic side of terrorists and child molesters.

But there’s something more insidious than just hypocrisy at work here. It is an attempt to normalize, excuse, and promote the worst kind of sexual depravity.