Rocky is Not the Hero We Remember

Still from the film Rocky of Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) and Adrian (Talia Shire)

Trigger warning: rape culture

When Rocky was released in 1976, New York Times film reviewer Vincent Canby panned the movie’s inconceivability. His lone positive takeaway was Talia Shire, who he called “genuinely touching and funny as an incipient spinster who comes late to sexual life” in her portrayal of the movie’s love interest, Adrian Pennino.

Ms. Shire was captivating, I agree, but I’d also argue that the movie’s prominent flaw wasn’t overindulgence in a myopic Golden Era fairytale. It’s the plot of an underlying chauvinistic agenda; a gritty portrait of the female experience shrouded by the garish narrative of yet another underserving man’s rise to prominence.

A lot of movies that left strong impressions on me in my youth are being re-examined in light of the #MeToo movement for their part in the industry’s long history with horrible representations of women on screen, highlighting just how much we’ve gotten wrong for so long. But it also proves that we’re not exactly getting it right, because we repeatedly excuse such films as ‘victims of their times’. Of course, one could argue that it’s unfair, by any metric, to hold a thing that rose to prominence almost a half-a-century ago to current standards – but I’d argue that, by the current standards, it’s actually unfair not to.

“Adrian is victimised by Rocky’s incessant stalking, to which she finally gives in, I can only assume for no other reason than to get these men off her goddamn back about it.”

The protagonist Rocky is introduced as a low-rent thug for the local mob while he wiles away his life in a Philly slum, for all intents and purposes waiting for the good fortune he believes he deserves. His immediate circle of influence is a cut-rate meat packer and a belligerent drunk; a rancorous turd who denigrates with race-baiting, revealing himself later in the movie as nothing more than a spoiled opportunist; and, finally, a lone beleaguered woman among all these ingrates whose obvious natural defensiveness in such environs are constantly mislabeled by observers with descriptors such as “incipient.”

Obviously, then, we should cue the romantic storyline: a primitive twist on an uninspired meet-cute that’s nothing more than an elementary prearrangement on Adrian’s behalf, struck between Rocky and her brother, Paulie, since she had rebuffed Rocky on all previous advances. She’s then victimised by Rocky’s incessant stalking – both at work and at home – to which she finally gives in, I can only assume for no other reason than to get these men off her goddamn back about it.

Now let’s face facts: Rocky Balboa brings nothing to the proverbial table. He doesn’t have any money to take the poor woman to dinner, so they have to settle for a walk. Instead of using this opportunity to win her over, he exploits her natural submissiveness to revert the expectations, attempting to elicit her guilt for failing to see the man he will become. To me, this reveals his acute tendency for self-aggrandisement and an inherent knack for manipulation. Viewing her refusal as a challenge, he repeatedly attempts to lure her into his apartment, an invitation she explicitly declines three times. At one point, she makes a clear attempt to leave said apartment and he physical blocks her.

“The defence for this kiss has always been “but she wanted it all along”… Let me remind everyone: that is a thing that rapists say.”

Now, Rocky is a man with little to lose. He’s a finger-breaker for a criminal organisation by day, and by night, he trains rigorously for a career in boxing. He’s a perceivable threat by any individual or collective standard. Subsequent to this climactic moment, Adrian’s intentions could not be clearer, and yet, it all still leads to the topic of the kiss. This is an unwarranted and, based on all the signals sent leading up to it, unwelcome kiss, and yet the defence for this has always been “but she wanted it all along” … Let me remind everyone: that is a thing that rapists say.

In our current social and political climate, the dredging of past indiscretions of influential individuals are a much-deserved comeuppance, as they’ve all been able to abuse that influence for far too long. Rocky does a fine job proving its misogyny on its own; it was actually its culturally-conscious freshened-up franchise spinoff, Creed – the direct sequel for which hit theatres last November and is due for wide DVD and on-demand release soon – that helped land some of the most devastating punches. Intentionally or not, director Ryan Coogler’s ability to capture and elevate the pomp and circumstance of the bygone Rocky model, while also mining the zeitgeist, makes Creed a cracked mirror for its dated predecessor; a movie that may very well be a victim of its time, but at the same time is also a perpetrator.

“The courtship between Adonis and Tessa Thompson’s Bianca is emblematic of a new modern standard of romantic partnership.”

This is in part because movie’s protagonist, Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis Creed, is fighting for something; desperate to prove his worth to something other than just “the world.” He wants to legitimise himself, get out from the shadow of his late father, Apollo (the other hero of the original Rocky). But also because the romantic storyline in his movie is fire. The courtship between Adonis and Tessa Thompson’s Bianca is emblematic of a new modern standard of romantic partnership. Bianca is a strong and multi-faceted female character (i.e. she can be independent and also seek companionship, can you imagine), and established in her own right to work at overcoming her own adversity. Yes, Bianca is fundamental to the trajectory of Adonis’ journey – but so also is he to hers.

In comparison, Adrian’s character is narrative tool; written only to serve the protagonist. At first introduction, she’s characterised as meek and withdrawn. It’s only until after she finally submits to Rocky that her character undergoes a drastic and unbelievable transformation – she becomes ‘a woman’. In fact, as my friend Mark, a Philly native, points out: “After Rocky and Adrian hook up, she doesn’t even have to wear glasses anymore. That movie posits he f*cked bad vision out of her.”

Speaking of sight, the very lens we’re viewing through changes here, in order to capture and profit off this idea. A deft manipulation by the movie itself to assure that we, the viewers, attribute this transformation to Rocky. The movie further illustrates this misogynistic fantasy with a most unforgettable and disturbing tableau: seated before the TV witnessing his fate and future play out by happenstance, is Rocky, king on a stolen throne, and Adrian, his acquired queen, standing dutifully by his side.

The last time we see the two together together, he had her pinned to the floor.

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