In the iconic opening scene of “Saturday Night Fever” Tony Manero, a 19-year-old Italian American from Bay Ridge played by a young John Travolta, is walking under the elevated railroad in Bensonhurst. He checks out a pair of shoes in a store window, puts a white silk shirt on layaway, and buys two slices of pizza. He also engages in some low level sexual harassment. Seeing an attractive woman in a tight dress, he doubles back, blocks her path, and propositions her. She rolls her eyes, walks around him, and continues on her way. We forget about it almost as soon as its over, dismissing it as just another example of boys being boys.
While it was marketed as part of the “Disco” culture of the mid-1970s,Saturday Night Fever is actually much closer to Bruce Springsteen’s songs about the fall of white, working class America than it is to the dance craze that started in black and Hispanic gay nightclubs and later moved to the mainstream. We are, in 1977, at a very key moment in American history, three years before the election of Ronald Reagan. Vietnam and the draft are over. The easy sex and drugs that were the “privilege” of the upper-middle-class in the 1960s have been thoroughly democratized, available to anybody with 20 or 30 dollars to spend at a local nightclub. Yet what appears on the surface to be “liberation” is actually the crackup of the last vestiges of the New Deal, the final burst of decadent hedonism before the neoliberal hammer came down in the 1980s.
Tony Manero, as it turns out, isn’t particularly interested in sex. The least favored son, the black sheep of a Catholic family in Bay Ridge Brooklyn, he lives with his younger sister, his unemployed and verbally abusive father, his elderly grandmother, and his harsh, angry but pious mother. Tony’s father, a nasty little soul killer of a man, is an unemployed construction worker. “You got a 4 dollar raise,” he says, dismissing Tony’s good news that his boss at his dead end job at a local paint store actually values him as an employee. “Four dollars buys nothing these days. It doesn’t even buy three dollars.” Tony’s mother, in turn, has little respect for her handsome charismatic younger son, openly favoring his dull, plain older brother, “Father Frank Jr.”
Father Frank Jr., however, clearly lacks a vocation. When he returns home, and announces that he plans to leave the priesthood, his parents are devastated. They blame Tony, who’s naturally curious about the genuine reason his brother is leaving the clergy. It’s too bad the Father Frank Jr. character isn’t given more development. “She’s afraid I’m going to say celibacy,” he says, giving us a hint as to why Tony is the family scapegoat, his manhood. Frank Jr., as a celibate Catholic priest, has been unsexed. No longer a real man, he’s no threat to his mother, who’s shown suffocating in her unhappy, oppressive marriage. “Maybe I’ll get a job,” she says, provoking an angry tirade from her husband, who accuses her of taking advantage of his the temporary loss of patriarchal authority that comes with being unemployed. Tony’s sexual charisma is a constant reminder of the hell that she was dragged into by getting married and having three children. She hates him because he makes her remember the squandered promise of her own youth.
A scapegoat and a black sheep at home, Tony is a valued employee at his dead end job. His boss genuinely likes him. He’s a natural at customer service, but where he really shines is on the dance floor of a local disco, 2001. A talented dancer, he’s also a sex object. If Tony later becomes a rapist, it’s not because he lacks the opportunity to get laid. Annette, a chubby, emotionally needy friend, follows him around so relentlessly that, if the gender roles were reversed, it would border on sexual harassment. “Kiss me,” a drunken, horny woman demands, coming up out of nowhere and grabbing his shoulder. “Are you as good in bed as you are on that dance floor?” a young Fran Drescher asks him practically begging him to take her home. She gets nothing for her trouble but snide verbal abuse passing itself off as witty banter.
But it’s not sex Tony wants.
Dancing for Tony Manero isn’t way to get laid. It’s a way to get respect. However superficial and downright ridiculous disco dancing is, it’s something he’s good at. The women hitting on him are only a distraction. As such, the one woman he falls in love with is the one woman he can’t have. Stephanie McDonald, played by a far from beautiful or charismatic Karen Lynn Gorney, is a 20-year-old version of his mother, a verbally abusive shrew who responds to his advances by telling him that “he’s a loser on the way to nowhere.”
But the unpleasant, unhappy, verbally abusive Stephanie, who, as we later find out, is in an exploitative relationship with an older man in Manhattan is, like Tony, a talented, if untrained dancer. Stephanie may be a bitch who makes an outward show of despising him, but as long as he’s with her, Tony can fool himself into thinking disco dancing is more than just a ritual you go through to get laid. By convincing her to become his partner in 2001’s yearly dance contest, he can imagine that disco dancing is a craft, something that will eventually bring him into the meritocracy.
Stephanie is more than just an unhappy young woman. She’s a willing little sheep in corporate America. A typist at a public relations firm in New York, and a ridiculous parody of a striver and a class climber, she spends most of her time name dropping, and mispronouncing, the famous clients who come into her office. She’s contemptuous of working-class Brooklyn, utterly loyal to and identified with the corporate neoliberal, new world order about to be imposed on New York City in the 1980s. Solidarity is a foreign concept. Tony Manero is a threat, someone who might pull her back down into Bay Ridge, into an unhappy, poverty ridden working class marriage. Stephanie realizes, deep down inside, that by dating Tony she will become Tony’s mother. That she’s already well on the way there eludes Tony completely. He’s as much of a willing sheep, ready for the neoliberal sheering as she is.
For all its marketing as the movie that embodied the disco craze of the 1970s, Saturday Night Fever is a clear eyed indictment of the sexual revolution. Dancing, for Tony, is freedom, the pantomime of sexuality the liberation from his repressed Catholic mother. But sex in the world of Saturday Night Fever becomes petty and mean spirited when it stops being a pantomime of sex and starts becoming actual sex. It’s a ten minute hump in the back of an old Chevy Impala, utterly lacking in Eros or a sense of romance. But it’s even worse. The sexual liberation of the 1960s has become the pump and dump rape culture of the 1970s.
Indeed, Tony despises the women who desire him sexually. Disco, as you may remember, started out in the gay black nightclubs of Manhattan. It was supposed to remain a pantomime, not to become a mating ritual. It wasn’t supposed to lead to marriage. In the gay world, Tony Manero wouldn’t have been working in a paint shop. He would have found a Robert Mapplethorpe to turn him into an icon, a rich sugar daddy to pay the bills and set him up in the Village. But Tony is heterosexual, and, as such, he realizes the absurdity of his predicament. His entire life is dedicated to marketing himself to women he doesn’t want, to putting himself in a position where he could fall in love, get married, have children, and, inevitably, become his father, the one thing, above all, that he fears.
I’ve always been fairly dismissive of the term “rape culture,” which, according to Wikipedia “is a concept that links rape and sexual violence to the culture of a society, and in which prevalent attitudes and practices normalize, excuse, tolerate, and even condone rape.” Yet, after watching Saturday Night Fever all the way through after many years, I can’t help but think that the “Second Wave Feminists” who invented the term back in the 1970s might have been on to something. It’s difficult to watch this film without thinking that it both critiques and in a way embodies the “rape culture.”
If rape is part of an actual “rape culture,” and not just a depraved act of a depraved individual, the rape culture has to be mainstream. It has to include normal men, and men who are downright sympathetic, not just the convenient feminist villain, the ugly man who complains about how “women don’t like nice guys.” Tony is not only sympathetic, he becomes a rapist at his finest moment. After he and Stephanie take first place in the dance contest, beating out a far better Puerto Rican couple, he realizes the contest was rigged. So he declines the award.
“You deserve this more than I do,” he says handing them the trophy and the prize money.
It’s a rather stunning moment for a 19-year-old working class boy from Bay Ridge. Yet, it’s exactly at that moment that he turns nihilistic. He’s lost the one thing he values. There’s no meritocracy in the nightlife of 1970s Bay Ridge, only cronyism and racism. When Stephanie protests that they were as good as the Puerto Rican couple, he grabs her and leads her out to the car. There’s nothing sexual about it. The attempted rape doesn’t flow out of lust but out of contempt. Tony looks more like parent dragging a toddler off to be spanked than a rejected suitor. She fights him off and runs away, but the worse is yet to come. Annette, the girl he rejected earlier, has spent most of the night drinking and taking drugs. She’s a ready victim for Tony’s destructively macho friends, who gang rape her in the back of their car while Tony, after making a half-hearted attempt to interfere, watches passively.
“You don’t give a fuck about her,” one of the rapists says.
Horrifyingly, Tony agrees with him. She’s not worth it. He like Stephanie, has become a striver and a class climber. Annette, the plain, overweight working-class girl from Brooklyn, isn’t valuable. She doesn’t have a high enough price on the market in the coming neoliberal world order to defend.
“Are you satisfied now?” he says as she sobs in pain and humiliation. “Now you’re a cunt.”
Stephanie McDonald, on the other hand, represents Manhattan (this was before Brooklyn was cool). She represents upward mobility. So he gets on the R-train and rides up to the Upper West Side to apologize. “You’re a known rapist,” she tells him, but then lets him into her apartment anyway. Stephanie, like Annette, has accepted her place in the rape culture, although, to be fair, she only knows about Tony’s halfhearted sexual assault, not the brutal gang rape that followed.
Once inside Stephanie’s apartment —- Oh for the days when a job as an administrative assistant would get you a duplex on the Upper West Side — Tony promises to “work on himself.” He vows to put the backward sexual morality of working-class Brooklyn behind him, and become an enlightened citizen of the meritocracy. He and Stephanie sit on the ledge by the window.
“Do you think you can be friends with a girl?” she asks.
Tony expresses some doubt. He also agrees to try. It’s clear they won’t just stay friends, that they will get married and become a carbon copy of Tony’s parents. The 1960s are over at last. The sexual revolution has failed. As the sun comes up, the young couple lean against each other, preparing themselves for Ronald Reagan, AIDs, and the long, miserable 30 year neoliberal hangover.