(image from a 1960s ad for Smirnoff Vodka- with added text)
CW- sexual abuse, sexual assault, harassment, misogyny, racism, silencing- nothing described in graphic terms, only in outlines
I’ve wanted to write about some happier things for the last few days, but my mind has been very much consumed with the Harvey Weinstein sexual assault scandal. I have never worked in the film industry or had much to do with powerful millionaires but the constant stream of new testimonies of abuse by Weinstein and other powerful media figures that are now coming out are a daily reminder that there are a hell of a lot of men out there in all kinds of settings who absolutely get off on humiliating you and feeling like they have power over you, no matter how small, safe in the knowledge that society always lets them off the hook in the end. It reminds you of the times these things happened to you. I’m not alone, it’s stirring a lot things up in a lot of people.
There’s a lot of pressure to keep silent about these things. As Stassa Edward’s Don’t Make A Scene article states:
“‘Don’t embarrass me in the hotel,’ Harvey Weinstein commanded model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez … ‘You’re making a scene,’ is a phrase that nearly every woman is familiar with. It’s invoked to command a kind of moral authority over women’s behavior, quickly coding it as irrational and veering towards crazy. To ‘make a scene’ is a series of ever-changing images, flexible enough to be used to describe a range of behaviors.”
Rose McGowan was vocal for years about her abuse, and mostly was just dismissed as crazy and hysterical, a washed up star bitter she wasn’t more famous. Terry Crews, a man with a super-masculine public image, revealed this week that he was groped in public at an awards show by a Hollywood executive, but knew that if he reacted or caused a fuss he would probably be the one to get in trouble and labelled with the stereotype of the aggressive or hyper-sensitive black man.
I’m also wondering as well when the Hollywood child abuse scandal is going to come out. Corey Feldman has been talking for years in interviews about how he and other child stars were horribly sexually abused by someone who’s still a big name now, but he didn’t feel able to publicly name the perpetrator because he’d probably just end up getting sued into the ground for defamation. He discussed it on a talk show a couple of years ago and was scolded by Barbara Walters for “ruining” Hollywood and his profession. Cory Feldman is also easily dismissed as a washed up child star.
R Kelly continues to get away with being a sex criminal, because he deliberately targets teenage black girls from poor families, and plenty of people out there just can’t quite bring themselves to be bothered about them. I mean R Kelly has all those songs we know the words of? And he’s kind of funny and kitschy and 90s? Stop bringing me down.
Sarah Polley, a child star who quit acting to become an acclaimed director (you probably remember her from the Ramona tv show) has written another very good article about growing up in the film industry and her run-in with Weinstein- The Men You Meet Making Movies
“On sets, I saw women constantly pressured to exploit their sexuality and then chastised as sluts for doing so. Women in technical jobs were almost nonexistent, and when they were there, they were constantly being tested to see if they really knew what they were doing. You felt alone, in a sea of men.”
“One producer, when I mentioned I didn’t feel a rape scene was being handled sensitively, barked that Dakota Fanning had done a rape scene when she was 12 — “And she’s fine!” A debatable conjecture, surely.”
“Like so many, I didn’t know what to do with all of it. I’ve grown up in this industry, surrounded by predatory behavior, and the idea of making people care about it seemed as distant an ambition as pulling the sun out of the sky.”
Lucy Prebble has also written an excellent article on the topic- Short Cuts.
“Younger, less experienced employees are looking to you to define what their role is, how they should be, whether and how they matter. When you teach them that the way they matter is in how attractive they are to you and the ways they can bolster your sense of power, you don’t only abuse your position professionally and personally, you also alter their sense of self.”
I’m avoiding reading comments on these stories on mainstream media. They’re full of men (and women overcome with internalised misogyny) complaining that the women didn’t come forwards fast enough and are to blame, while paradoxically also complaining that they’re exaggerating and probably making the whole thing up for attention or speculating which slutty slut sluts slept with Weinstein to get their career. Even when Björk came forwards today on Facebook to speak out about Lars von Trier (oh sorry, the “Danish director”), she was receiving the same treatment from people who are apparently her fans.
I remember at the time that Dancer in the Dark came out it was often mentioned in the press how the film “broke” Björk – like it was almost some kind of badge of pride at how it was pushing the boundaries of art or whatever to “break” a person. Lars von Trier is always portrayed as the daring provocateur who is allowed to “break” other people because it’s in the service of his art. A lot of film directors get viewed in that light. You only have to look at a lot of the reactions to the stuff that came out about the filming of the rape scene in Last Tango in Paris- a completely different scene to what was planned was sprung on Maria Schneider without her consent because Bertolucci wanted to get some real humiliation on film to fit his artistic vision, and her body was just the material he could use to get that
I have already got into one online fight today with a near stranger about Woody Allen. He barged in to Well Actually did you know there are technicalities that mean he didn’t technically marry his stepdaughter? Technicalities that wise, neutral, enlightened men must patronisingly explain to you. We must excuse our artistes. They make films we like, and well, other people don’t quite matter, do they?
I think it’s very, very interesting that Ronan Farrow, Woody Allen’s estranged son who hates his father’s guts and calls him out as a child abuser who took advantage of a legal loophole to marry one of his victims, wrote the big takedown article of Weinstein that set the ball rolling. Perhaps Allen will be next.
Farrow’s New Yorker article was the result of nearly a year’s patient detective work, careful building of the victim’s confidence and a positive usage of Ronan Farrow’s impressive family connections and wealth- he was able to persevere with the story even when his employer NBC News wanted to drop it. Emily Reynold’s article An Incomplete List of All the Men Who Have Wronged Me discusses the pressure from “ally” men to come forward with complaints ASAP without any consideration for the precarious position many victims are already in:
“He doesn’t understand this — as he doesn’t really understand his ex-girlfriend’s harassment, and never really will — because unlike me, he has nothing to lose. He’s much older than me, he has a career; a career so much less precarious than mine that he often considers just jacking it all in for a bit. He can do this because he has things I don’t yet have: a reputation, a name, money, experience. Yet somehow, with all of this, he thinks that by failing to stick it to the establishment I’m also failing as a feminist and as a woman. He doesn’t realise that despite his posturing and his endless mentions of female friends and how badly they’d been wronged by men, he has much more in common with my harasser than he does with the harassed.”
The sad fact is as well that in real life a lot of men will say all the right things when it’s some celebrity who is essentially abstract to them, but when it’s their pal (or even just someone who they’re a fan of)? They close ranks.
“He seems genuinely sorry”
“You’re making too big a deal out of this”
“I really like his band, and I want to continue putting on their gigs”
“Oh but he’s so funny”
“Are you not making things difficult for everyone”
There are plenty of women who will do this too. Making the bargain with the devil so they can convince themselves that it won’t happen to them. Only those other women. I have even seen this in action with women who sell a public image of themselves as an ultra-feminist working for women’s protection suddenly being unwilling to take any action against a pal of theirs who had been seen committing serious domestic violence. We have to be “nuanced” about this suddenly. He was in the right cool bands after all.
Even when predatory men can refrain from physically assaulting people, there are still plenty of other ways they can get their fill of humiliating and having petty power. Weinstein used his extensive press contacts to dig up or invent humiliating press stories about people who crossed him. Of course rich people can also suppress stories by threatening to sue you into the ground.
Even people with little-to-no power or cachet can get their spiteful fill via the internet. Revenge porn – the sharing of nude or sexual images without the subject of them’s consent- has become a crime recently in many countries. How do you categorise the verbal equivalent however? I dated someone a couple of years ago (oh, let’s call him Ste Barrow, and say, oh he now lives in Manchester and is 36 years old) wrote a grotesque sex story about me made up of exaggerated real details and made up sensational ones, and then posted it on the discussion section of a national music website because he needed attention and wanted the power of humiliating me (I’m still not sure quite why- I thought we were on excellent terms). I didn’t find out for nearly a day that it existed, so I still have no idea who read it. There was the added humiliation of realising that lots of people I know in real life use the site.
I complained to the website, got it removed, and made that prick write an apology. Rather than being angry with him, the online boy’s club of “sensitive” music fans turned on me. Don’t you know giving the boys club five minutes of laughs or amusement overrides anything else? How dare I make them uncomfortable. The attitude was that I was the problem and the best thing to do was lay into me and humiliate me more to win internet bro points. Even more when I pointed out that a lot of these guy’s real life identities were very obvious and they weren’t safely anonymous.
I got ol’ dickface above banned from a lot of places and gigs he wanted to go to, and good luck to him if he ever wants to be in a band again and get gigs, because people I know in real life were thankfully horrified and appalled by what he did. Once there were suddenly consequences for him, he was eager to apologise and try to make amends.
Alas it turns out that apologies from compulsive liars and manipulators are worthless. He had done exactly the same thing to another woman in another city before and not learnt a thing. After creating yet more mess with his continual lying, I never wanted to see or hear anything of him ever again. Unfortunately I don’t get that luxury, as he pops up like a bad penny, and has his boys who stick with him no matter what he has done.
When I came forward and got him banned from places, so many people I know contacted me to say they had similar stories and had not felt able to make the fuss. I was “lucky” enough that there was solid written evidence- I didn’t have to the run the starting gauntlet of being assumed to be a liar. Even then, I still got the “You’re making too big a deal out of this” and “Are you not making things difficult for everyone”.
Maybe the Harvey Weinstein scandal is the one that opens the floodgates and changes a lot of things. Maybe it won’t be. If it isn’t, we surely can’t let anyone get too comfortable and complacent again. Actions have consequences now, and despite all the negative aspects of social media, it’s much, much harder to make your bad deeds disappear now.
To find out more, including how to control cookies, see here: