As part of the recent Belfast Film Festival, I attended a discussion about sexual abuse in the culture of Hollywood cinema, hosted by Cinepunked organisers Robert J. E. Simpson and Dr. Rachel Kelly and featuring the feminist writer Eliz Nelson as a guest speaker. It was a thought-provoking event, and I have been reflecting on its content and subject matter ever since.
As the talk began, its intention was defined as an attempt to “navigate the ethics of film watching in a post-Weinstein era” and to pose the question of whether or not we can separate art from the individual, in the all too frequent event that a once-beloved artist has become mired in scandal.
As a related issue, it was asked whether or not one should watch films which depict women in a two-dimensional fashion or which seemingly trivialise female emotions and experience.
The word “problematic” was used as a coverall term for a myriad of men in positions of power who were either convicted or suspected of misusing their authority to abuse women; and I was glad of this versatile term, for it provided easier discourse on a murky and potentially traumatic subject. It allowed participants to name famous individuals without having to distinguish between those accused – but not convicted – of sexual abuse (Weinstein, Spacey) and those with convictions (Roman Polanski, Rolf Harris); this point being particularly important to the Cinepunked organisers, as the talk was recorded for a podcast and they did not wish to incur any lawsuits for defamation of character.
Of all the problematic film-makers who could be considered – and there are all too many – Weinstein seems particularly worthy of discussion, and disdain: there are accounts of sexual assault and rape committed by Weinstein dating back to the 1980s; multiple celebrities have alluded to his behaviour on camera (notably Courtney Love in a red-carpet interview in 2005, and Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane whilst on stage at the 2013 Oscar ceremony); and because his position as an industry mogul gave him a far-reaching influence, not only on the lives of those who were unfortunate enough to call themselves victims of his predatory activities, but also on those of the audiences who consume and discuss his films, and on the countless numbers of people employed in creating them.
“The complicated feeling I have about Harvey is how bad I feel about all the women that were attacked after I was… I stand as both a person who was subjected to it and a person who was then also part of the cloud cover, so that’s a super weird split to have,”
These are the words of Uma Thurman, star of the Weinstein-produced hits Kill Bill and Pulp Fiction, taken from an interview with Maureen Dowd for The New York Times. These films helped to crystallise Thurman’s career, and Pulp Fiction is considered to hold enough artistic merit to be enshrined in the American Library of Congress. Do the actions of a problematic man diminish the artistic merit of the piece?
Thurman suffered greatly to bring these films to fruition; firstly from the odious presence of Harvey Weinstein, but she was also permanently injured in a car-crash, supposedly filmed in an obviously dangerous vehicle at the insistence of Quentin Tarantino.
Some would argue – and understandably so – that we should not bankroll problematic men. and boycott their work entirely. Eliz Nelson, for example, mentioned a number of problematic men, including Woody Allen and Roman Polanski, whose work she cannot bear to watch in light of their creators’ transgressions, and Ross Clarke called for a general boycott of Hollywood. But if we refuse to watch these films, is it not a disservice to the other people involved in their creation? Is it unfair to Uma Thurman if we refuse to watch the films she suffered to create?
Thurman alleges that Weinstein assaulted her a number of times – in a pattern which fits the testimony of other women from within Weinstein’s sphere of influence – and that she eventually accepted a “half-assed apology”, in language which would foreshadow his non-apologetic public announcement after the surge of allegations made against him. Some have criticised the actresses who worked with Weinstein for not speaking up sooner and for continuing to work with a reputed rapist. Ross Clark, writing for The Spectator, makes accusations of hypocrisy against actresses like these, admonishing them;
“you ought to be brave enough to report wrongdoing that is going on beneath your nose – and not wait until there is a bandwagon on which to leap.”
Pamela Anderson – no stranger to the lascivious attentions of lusty old tycoons – said that aspiring actresses should know better than to find themselves in a vulnerable situation. She told interviewer Megyn Kelly that,
“It was common knowledge that certain producers or certain people in Hollywood are people to avoid, privately,..You know what you’re getting into if you’re going into a hotel room alone.”
Perhaps, as Clarke suggests, there is a sheen of the vain-glorious about some of the #metoo debutantes, but they are certainly owed the right to speak out; and while it is demonstrably true that women need to be careful and protect themselves, as Anderson says, no professional industry operates in this way; these types of viewpoints place the blame upon the victims of abuse, and oversimplify the issue.
Whilst Weinstein was widely renowned as a sexual menace for years, any attempts to bring him to justice were thwarted horribly. In an article by Jen Roesch, she outlines the sad history of those who attempted to speak out against Harvey Weinstein; these efforts were thwarted without exception, with Weinstein always keeping his job while his accusers were ignored, silenced, or defamed in the media. This treatment, sadly, is not unique to Hollywood. Roesch goes on to describe the sad realities and shocking statistics of sexual harassment, assault, and rape of women taking place in the U.S. Forest Service, Californian agriculture, and even on an Antarctic research facility. These sad sagas all play out like the allegations against Weinstein; with the men unpunished, and the women disempowered.
It can be easy to judge the power-holding elite at the top of the Hollywood food-chain, and to say “I won’t watch any of his films”, but what do we do with all of these inherently sexist industries? Would anyone boycott a life-saving medicine if it was developed by a sex offender?
It is clear, then that Hollywood is but one of many industries in which women are isolated and crushed. In the aftermath of the Weinstein scandal and the wellspring of solidarity brought about by Hollywood’s embracing of the #metoo campaign, some mentioned concerns about false accusations of sexual assault.
Woody Allen (unsurprisingly) said that he feared a “witch hunt atmosphere” where men would be accused of assault for harmless flirtation; Liam Neeson made similar remarks in an interview with Ryan Tubridy on The Late Late Show, and this sentiment came in to force in the now infamous Belfast Rape Trial.
The men involved, I have to say, were found to be innocent in the court room, and were legally declared not-guilty. Nevertheless, the sentiments which the defendants expressed regarding women, used as evidence in the case, bordered on the worst degree of misogyny and showed a dreadful disdain for women, and yet there was a dialogue during the trial which portrayed them as carefree boys, their blatant sexism put forward as “harmless banter” and just a bit of fun amongst friends which unfortunately lead to them getting caught up in a scandal.
Dr. Kelly – not speaking of these men in particular, but to me the words seem applicable – said that
“…if you can’t tell the difference between flirting and sexual harassment, it kind of throws it back and says ‘You’re over-reacting’… [this is] very damaging and disingenuous.”
In an interview with BBC News, Jan Melia of Women’s Aid claims that she has taken calls from abused women saying that they do not want to prosecute their abusers in light of the ordeal of the woman in that case.
“We know reporting of sexual violence is very low. Women do not call police… What this case demonstrates is what they are going to go through. It’s an awful process in which they are just annihilated.”
Jan Melia calls for mandatory education in schools on these matters, and so too does Monica McWilliams, one time Human Rights Commissioner and authority on domestic violence studies, echoing Eliz Nelson’s earnest statement that “There needs to be a much better education in schools, and all over the place.” I wholeheartedly agree with this idea, although what this education should include is a matter of debate.
I sometimes struggle with the responsibility of being a modern man; to find a personal definition of manhood which I can be proud of, one which respects women and embraces the feminine within myself while simultaneously disregarding toxic masculinity. I have much to learn, and I doubt that I will ever finish learning. Having read the exchanges of the accused men in the now-infamous Belfast rape trial, it seems that an increased awareness of the importance of consent, respect for the autonomy of others, and the ability to empathise with a sexual partner should be of paramount importance, for young men and women. But what form should this education take, and when should it begin?
The Depictions in cinema:
Eliz Nelson made the point that depictions of exploitative themes and films featuring scenes of objectification-in which women become fodder for the male gaze – could create a negative environment for women in the real world, saying; “The movies have really influenced our ideas of what consent [and] romance means… it takes a long time to unlearn that”. She referenced an essay by Molly Ringwald, the star of several successful and critically-acclaimed John Hughes films, in which Ringwald considered these films as a mother and a feminist. Having read Ringwald’s essay for myself, she seems to share Nelson’s sentiments. Speaking for herself, Ringwald says that she found obnoxious men to be more attractive than kindly ones for a surprisingly long time, and observed that,
“If attitudes towards female subjugation are systemic… it stands to reason that the art we consume and sanction plays some part in reinforcing those same attitudes.”
Nelson, along with Dr. Kelly, went on to critique some of their favourite films, which nevertheless feature troubling scenes; Blade Runner for its scene in which the character of Rachel is forcibly restrained and kissed by Rick Deckard; The Princess Bride for its stereotypical fairtytale gender dynamic between a dashing prince and a damsel in distress (including a scene in which the princess is slapped across the face); and also Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club, which feature sexual harassment, verbal abuse, and more-or-less date rape. Is there any evidence that John Hughes was a misogynist? Ringwald found his early writing to be deeply unsavoury, and says that Hughes sometimes ventured in to humour which was crass and vulgar, but she enjoyed working with him. She even credits him with a forward-thinking approach to depictions of women in cinema:
“No one in Hollywood was writing about the minutiae of high school, and certainly not from a female point of view. According to one study, since the late nineteen-forties, in the top-grossing family movies, girl characters have been outnumbered by boys three to one—and that ratio has not improved. That two of Hughes’s films had female protagonists in the lead roles and examined these young women’s feelings about the fairly ordinary things that were happening to them, while also managing to have instant cred that translated into success at the box office, was an anomaly that has never really been replicated.”
Although there appears to be no evidence of mistreatment of women in Hughes’ personal life, the treatment of women in his art could hardly be called black and white. Some of the blemishes in Hughes’ work have been attributed to the era in which he began his career (incidentally, this is the same excuse which Weinstein offered for his behaviour in his public “apology”). Is this a valid defence of a piece of art?
Justina Ireland, a New York Times writer and bestselling author, seems to think so;
“I don’t necessarily think we need to dump our problematic past, I think a lot of times when we sanitize the past we overlook the bad parts and it becomes like the ‘good ol’ days’ ideology’. But I do think we need to engage with the past in a way that’s realistic.”
Ireland favours a critical appraisal of aged art; art which does not comfortably align with the morals and ethics of the modern age. Molly Ringwald shares this opinion, saying that,
“Erasing history is a dangerous road when it comes to art- change is essential, but so, too, is remembering the past, in all of its transgression and barbarism, so that we may properly gauge how far we have come, and also how far we still need to go.”
This approach, a “warts and all” appraisal, could help us to see what values of the past we wish to uphold, and which we need to tear down. It could help us create and support wonderful art in the future, which resonates with future audiences. And it does no harm to apply the same approach to ourselves, our culture at large and our personal behaviour- but when it’s wheeled out in a forced apology, it makes for a weak-sounding excuse; a trite pleasantry in the face of condemnation.
But for now, sexism is alive and kicking. Robert Simpson played a recording of an interview he conducted with feminist film-maker Anna Biller, who has seen how deeply ingrained sexism is in the thinking of Hollywood: she is routinely presented with “amazingly sexist” scripts, and observes that people have been indoctrinated by “masculinist culture”, and are “just now starting to see women as human beings”.
This a heart-breaking thing to hear from someone in 2018, so many years after the Women’s Liberation Movement, and from a woman working in an industry riddled with high-powered sex-offenders for much less recognition than them. Regarding problematic people in positions of power, Biller says that, “It’s not a question of who has done wrong… but who has been caught”
This is a sadly astute observation, as there always be people in power who abuse their privilege, and is a prophesy which has proven terribly true: since I attended the Cinepunked talk, Bill Cosby has been sentenced for his crimes. Who will be next?
Eliz Nelson criticised J.K. Rowling’s support of Johnny Depp after he assaulted Amber Heard, and was dismayed when a participant in the discussion informed her that Rowling shared a transphobic tweet revealed by an audience member.
So there are definite problems in weighing a piece’s merit against our personal feelings regarding the artist, as these feelings can change as the artist’s persona changes or evidence of offences come to light. Simpson says that he can watch Polanski films made before his act of rape in 1977, because those films were made by a man who had not yet committed a sex crime, even though that dreadful event would have no bearing on Polanski’s abilities as a film-maker.
Eliz Nelson stated that she does her best to follow her personal integrity and boycott the works of people who commit crimes against vulnerable women, but once found watched and enjoyed Midnight in Paris before discovering it to be a Woody Allen film.
So, the big question… can I support the work of a problematic individual? What should I do when I might appreciate the art, but abhor the artist? What if I realise that there’s one scene in my favourite book or film which seems intolerable in the modern world?
After a fair bit of thought I came to the conclusion that in the discussion boycott was posed as ultimately a personal reaction, and that in my view can’t be dictated. Unfortunately, sexism and misogyny show signs of going nowhere, but by supporting female artists, and listening to women when they speak out about abuse, we can lessen the suffering of innocent people, and learn as individuals and as a culture. Perhaps we can affect change in the Hollywood landscape by boycotting the works of the monsters, but I think that discourse and dialogue and struggle will be the only way to cure our society.
I’ll leave you with one last observation on people in power, courtesy of my Auntie Patricia;
“They either have their hands in your knickers or your wallet”.
So if the worst place I get stung by Hollywood is the rising cost of cinema tickets, I’ll count myself lucky.