In 2012, filmmaker Lucy Winer provided this update on the documentary Rate It X, which was broadcast in 1988 as part of POV’s first season.
POV: When you made the film, what was the audience response?
It was pretty fantastic. The film had quite an impact — stirring up controversy and inspiring dialogue about the pervasiveness of sexism. Distribution of the film exceeded our wildest expectations. In addition to being broadcast on the first season of POV, Rate It X was released theatrically in the United States and abroad, and presented at festivals worldwide, including Sundance and Berlin. When we were present following a screening, the audience was very forthcoming in their responses — both women and men were surprisingly willing to express their personal insights about sexism and the impact of sexist attitudes on their lives. Above all, I think audiences were disarmed by our humor. In those days, the myth of the humorless “women’s libber” was a common stereotype and although Rate It X is a disturbing film, it’s also a very funny film.
During the making of the movie, we held a lot of work-in-progress screenings with different audiences, because we were still deciding the direction the film should take. We didn’t want the film to simply be about the injustices and one-sidedness of pornography. That was a no-brainer. And we certainly didn’t want to promote censorship as an answer. In fact, early on we came to realize that pornography was profitable partly because it was taboo and controlled within a male domain, so there already was censorship in force for women. It became our goal to make a film that would demonstrate that the principles of pornography were rooted in our everyday, very mainstream attitudes about women and men, and that our commonly held values supported the inequality of the sexes. With humor and creativity, we wanted to show that sexist values are exploited in everything from advertising, to employment policies, to religious beliefs about the differences between the genders.
POV: Do you think anything has changed within the advertising industry? Do you feel people are more vocal about sexist images?
There seems to be more sexual objectification of both women and men in advertising. The industry has found that objectifying men’s bodies can be profitable too. There has also been some (predictable) backlash to the women’s movement of the ’70s and ’80s and mainstream culture has a knee-jerk reaction to being “politically correct” or uptight about explicit sexuality in the media. The industry has exploited these trends, while continuing to use gender stereotypes in their messaging.
POV: Do you think the public dialogue about women and their “gender role” has changed during the past 25 years?
The women’s movement has made great strides in gender equality, from which we all benefit. There has been a real and profound softening of gender roles and the empowerment of women. At the same time there are the painful facts. Here are a few: Women make 77 cents to every dollar men make for the same work; 1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime; 9 of every 10 rape victims in the United States were female (2003 statistics); each year, an estimated 800,000 women and children are trafficked for sexual exploitation across international borders — and unknown numbers are trafficked within countries; every 9 seconds in the United States a woman is assaulted or beaten; around the world, at least one in every three women has been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused during her lifetime — most often, the abuser is a member of her own family; domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women — more than car accidents, muggings and rapes combined.
POV: What would you like the film to say to today’s audience?
Look at the world as compared to 25 years ago and ask yourself how, and if, things have changed. Are mainstream images and messages still communicated that encourage the subordination and sexual abuse of women?
POV:Why did you choose the aesthetic style you did for Rate It X?
Early on, we made the decision to only interview men — men involved in promoting sexist images of women for their businesses. The only women in Rate It X are the images being promoted.
This was an outrageous approach to take — particularly in the late ’70s and early ’80s — only women interviewing only men. So we decided to play with that a little, kind of tongue-in-cheek. Thus the white gloves, and the mock nervousness of the interviewer and the camera-woman in the opening credit sequence. Mind you, 16mm cameras were heavy and film is unforgiving — no room for mistakes! Not like the digital lightweights of today!
How has documentary-making changed in the past 25 years, both aesthetically and narratively speaking?
Changes have been across the board. Documentary filmmakers don’t have the same nonprofit funding available that we did during the ’70s and ’80s. At the same time we have greater access to outreach & distribution today, thanks to the internet and social media. We also have far more access to affordable production and post-production equipment, allowing for a wider range of voices and points of view. Also audiences are way more interested in documentaries than they were 25 years ago, and a lot of viewers are sophisticated about the genre and welcome creative innovations and stretching of the form. We like to think that Rate It X stands as a great example of an innovative documentary in the mid-’80s.