In Lee Daniels' The Paperboy, Zac Efron’s character Jack Jansen jumps into the ocean after an argument with Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman). Bless is an pretty older woman, who wears clothes that are loose and tight in all the right places. Her sexual energy is ever-present and volatile, the perfect concoction to ensnare the teenage boy. Jack was a star swimmer in high school, so the water is a natural place for him to escape, but once he’s in the water he’s stung by jellyfish. He makes it back on the shore, where three young women find him and decide they might need to urinate on him to neutralize the poison. Charlotte gets wind of this and runs them off because, if anyone’s going to do it, it’s going to be her. When Jack comes to sometime later, he finds out that his father, who runs the town paper, published the story of him getting saved by Charlotte and her heroic bladder. Jack is upset - degraded because the woman he wants has saved his life by pissing on him, and the father he wants respect from tells the whole town about it.
Degradation is always related to perception in The Paperboy, and often related to sexuality. Jack perceiving his experience as humiliating, though it was necessary to save his life, is directly tied to his sexual frustration towards Charlotte. Later in the film we’re given an alternate perception of being urinated on through the eyes of Jack’s brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey). Ward is found naked and nearly beaten to death on a plastic tarp by two men that he’d asked up to his room. After Jack kicks them out he keeps asking what the plastic is for, drawing attention to its presence to the viewer. It’s common practice for people who enjoy getting urinated on to use plastic to safeguard the carpet, and it’s because of Jack’s earlier humiliation and the film’s references to “watersports” that it wouldn’t be out of the question to assume this is what was going on in the room. It’s not wrong that he’s homosexual or enjoys urolagnia, but it is sad that he can’t find a way to experience both activities in a safe environment. The humiliation gives him pleasure and the two men severely beating him in disgust makes Ward pitiful because his trust in them in regards to a very personal matter has been violated.
Ward’s desire to keep his pleasures secret is contrasted by Charlotte who is incapable of hiding her sexuality. She’s been writing letters to Hillary Van Wetter (who’s name is in line with the rest of the water themes in the film) and believes he’s been wrongly convicted of murder. She enlists Ward and Yardley (David Oyelowo), his black British writing partner, to help investigate the matter and gladly hands the letters between her and Hillary over to them for their perusal. There’s nothing of any real value in these letters, and at one point Yardley reads them aloud revealing them to be lurid and sexually explicit. Charlotte clearly doesn’t care who knows what goes on in her private life. Later on, when Jack asks her if she had sex with Yardley, she tells him fucking is just a part of human nature and that she used her sex to get him on her side, nothing more. Her sex isn’t just her personality but a tool she uses to get what she wants.
When Charlotte, Yardley, Jack, and Ward all meet Van Wetter for the first time, Charlotte gives her most outward display of sexuality and exhibitionism.The two pen-pals seemingly have sex while sitting several feet apart in front of relative strangers. She sits with her mouth agape while Van Wetter(John Cusack) brings himself to climax, thinking of her performing fellatio on him and calling her a bitch. Even telepathically she has to pleasure herself and him at the same time - their simulated sex reveals everything about their character and relationship. He is dominant and selfish, while she is submissive and pleasing. After it’s over a guard kicks them all out, and Yardley laughs at the absurdity of what he just saw, but for Charlotte this moment is tragic. Her man is being taken from her and she’s not embarrassed by her actions. In Charlotte’s mind this is all just part of being human, the concept of decency is a foreign construct used to restrain us from being ourselves - sexual animals.
In contrast to Charlotte, Yardley creates a false identity of who he is. Late in the film we learn that he's an American who pretends to be British so as to be accepted by racists in the South, taking advantage of this American perception that having a British accent makes you more learned or of a higher status. Yardley’s deception is degrading because he can’t be himself and get a good job at the same time. Ironically, he didn’t get the job he has because of an accent and fancy clothes, but through sexual favors he gave to Ward. Even his harmless deception as a means for social advancement is a lie. His truth is that he degraded himself by exploiting another’s sexuality, and the mask he wears publicly allows him to both hide that truth and openly judge others for their truths.
Anita, the Jansen family maid and narrator of the story, shares Yardley’s frustration with how her race is treated but responds differently. Her employer doesn’t even know she has kids, her sex is indifferent to him, as he and his wife clearly view Anita as property - not as a human employee. Anita silently does her work, even cleaning up broken glass after her day is done and she’s already gotten dressed up for a baby shower. But there are moments, at dinner specifically, where she seems quietly get her revenge. She fills Mrs. Guthrie’s tea so that it spills on her and she apologizes for her clumsiness while also telling Guthrie it’s not really a big deal. In another moment, Anita collects the dirty plates of everyone at the table, each one with piles of uneaten food. She then brings this stack to Mrs. Guthrie’s face, waiting for Guthrie to pick her own plate up and put it on the pile. These small instances clearly get to Mrs. Guthrie and Anita knows it; her disdain for the ugly, vile woman, is justified, but she doesn’t waste her time hating her and being equally vile in response. It’s that restraint that empowers her.
Degradation, by definition, is the is the opposite of progress, and Lee Daniels uses degradation of these characters to show lack of progress not just in the film, but in our own time. The film takes place in 1969, after desegregation and the height of the Civil Right’s Movement, and yet racial discrimination is still prevalent. Passing those laws didn’t suddenly make us “post-racial” any more than electing a black President did. The same can be noted in characters being unable to express their sexuality. Charlotte is a sexual being and unafraid to admit it, but because of that fearlessness the male characters around her only view her as a sexual object. Even Jack, who thinks he loves her, looks at her sexuality as a possession to be obtained and he shows child-like giddy when Charlotte finally gives him an apathetic and pitying green light. Women today haven’t moved far beyond this role. If they exhibit too much sexuality they’re labeled whores, and if they don’t exhibit enough they’re looked at as prudes or uncool. Their identity and place in their community is dictated by only one aspect of their personality. Ward Jansen wants to hide his homosexuality and keep it discreet out of fear for his livelihood, and only just now, 44 years later in 2013, did the first active professional basketball player admit to being gay. Is that progress? Maybe it is, but it’s slow moving and suffocating like the swamps the characters of the film have to wade through.
At the end of the film Van Wetter, who was freed by the foursome, is arrested and executed for the murder of Charlotte and Ward. This will of course ruin Yardley, who had a book deal lined up about his role in releasing the now twice convicted murderer. All their work had been in vain and ultimately lead to their downfall. The only character to come out seemingly no worse off than before is Anita, who, despite her degradation, kept respect for herself. It’s fitting then that she’s the one to tell the story of these people who were damned from the beginning, perverted by their inability to properly deal with their inner truths. Anita is the survivor because she understands the ugly and has found a way to live with it without letting it dictate who she is inside.