Nia Edwards-Behi examines the recent turns in the journey of the #MeToo campaign, and asks if the media is treating the subject with the respect it deserves.
Some weeks ago I wrote an initial response to the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse allegations that were then freshly emerging. In the weeks that have since gone by dozens of men have been accused of similar behaviour, some with a flurry of attention and others with cursory reportage and little else. Figures known to be problematic, such as Woody Allen, have increasingly come under scrutiny. Perhaps most of all, the #MeToo movement – a movement established by Tarana Burke long before it was co-opted by Alyssa Milano and others – branched off to become the Time’s Up campaign, wherein powerful women in Hollywood offered a rallying cry, not only to protect themselves and their co-workers, but to raise money for women in countless other industries who have neither the platform nor the means to defend themselves in the same way.
The moment to shine for the Time’s Up campaign was the recent Golden Globes award ceremony, where famous actresses and female filmmakers dressed all in black, accompanied by women from other industries to highlight the universal nature of such abuse. Men wore pin badges to show their support. There are problems with this campaign, as with any other, perhaps most demonstrably with the many men and women seemingly supporting its aims in words while their actions speak less favourably. The men and women who continue to work with Woody Allen, for example, or men like James Franco wearing their badge and then facing accusations of their own.
In France, 100 women signed an open letter, published in Le Monde, decrying the whole movement of calling out abusers as a “witch-hunt” which goes against all that the signatories hold dear as their ‘feminism’. The majority of the signatories are academics, journalists and artists, though there are some recognisable names on there – one of the most widely reported, veteran actress Catherine Deneuve. It shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, really, given Deneuve’s well-documented and public support of one Roman Polanski; nor, I suppose, should it be too surprising that there are women in France that hold these views – look at the reaction the similarly patriarchal Italy had to Asia Argento, driving her from her homeland. There have been plenty of British and American voices saying much the same, too, though perhaps not to the same, organised, degree – you need only read some of the responses to the recent Aziz Ansari accusation to see evidence of this.
To believe that defending a man’s right to ‘bother’ a woman is feminist is absolute delusion. Many of this letter’s signatories suggest that this brand of feminism is alien to their presumably sexual-revolution feminism, and yet it strikes me that surely the utmost sense of sexual liberation is being able to do what you want as long as it is consensual for all parties. That is basic and ultimate for any and all genders. Deneuve and the other signatories suggest that touching a woman’s knee, stealing a kiss, offering graphic discussions or sending graphic messages are all somehow perfectly acceptable parts of attempted seduction. The signatories even write that “women who did not return their interest” are involved in these examples. They don’t recognise that as being the basic problem of each and all of the interactions being called out, and that is a failure of human rights and dignity, never mind feminism. It’s every person’s right to not be touched or spoken to in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable.
Writing an article like this feels like a never-ending task: Deneuve has since apologised to survivors offended by her letter, and distanced herself from more extreme comments made by other signatories – but she stands by her assertion that a movement like #MeToo is a witchhunt. Brigitte Bardot has emerged, (and, given her recent form, unsurprisingly) criticised the movement. Eliza Dushku has come forward to accuse stunt co-ordinator Joel Kramer of abusing her as a child during the production of True Lies. The website Babe demonstrated how exactly not to go about publishing accounts of sexual assault with its reportage of Aziz Ansari’s utter disregard for the boundaries of consent. As I touched upon above, this has quite significantly managed to derail much of the important conversation that such an article could have started. Others have already written eloquent pieces which sum up many of my thoughts on that matter.
What seems to be lost in these arguments against #MeToo is that calling someone out is not the be-all and end-all. The fact that Woody Allen and Roman Polanski still have careers is surely testament to that. It’s been four years since Dylan Farrow wrote her accusation, and in that time there have been four more films from Woody Allen, including the forthcoming A Rainy Day in New York, which reportedly features a middle-aged male character enter into a sexual relationship with a 15-year old girl. Quelle surprise.
So, while men have indeed been fired from their jobs and companies, that’s not enough to say that this is a witch-hunt nor a definitive end to their careers. Neither is it the end for them if they maybe, just maybe, decided to admit to their crimes and apologise and change their behaviour. Recent demonstration of this involved TV writer Dan Harmon, who used his podcast as a platform to confess his reported wrong-doings toward his then-staff member Megan Ganz, take blame, demonstrate understanding of his crimes and apologise to her. Moreover, Megan Ganz has accepted that apology – and she would be well in her rights to decline it. Some things are certainly unforgivable, and where one draws the line in that regard is surely personal. Painting the victims of abusers’ behaviour as unreasonable, totalitarian or a witch-hunt is in itself puritanical and reductive, and paints over what is a such a hugely complex topic.
This is a moment and movement that should not go away any time soon. Conversations are going to continue to be difficult, particularly as women attack women rather than talk with them, and defend men rather than interrogate them – never mind take into account the way in which there are intersections here being grossly overlooked. No sides of these discussions and debates are clear-cut, and it is vitally important that the complexities are brought to the forefront, not papered over by open letters or bad journalism. We need to lift those voices that are bringing those complexities to light, and continue the discussion if we’re to expect the cultural shift that’s so desperately needed.
Nia Edwards-Behi is a film scholar, columnist, and co-director of the Abertoir International Film Festival.