Exposing Sexual Predators is Good, But…

The only thing that shocked most people in the film industry about the Harvey Weinstein story was that suddenly, for some reason, people seemed to care. That knowledge alone allowed a lot of us to breathe for the first time in ages.
These are the heartbreaking words of writer/actor/director Sarah Polley in her New York Times piece The Men You Meet Making Movies.

Polley continues:

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.

Polley’s testimony, among countless others, has saddened and sickened me, though it also gives me hope. It appears that we as a society may be growing more serious about dealing with sexual violence. Open secrets are becoming more open and less secret, and that is good. I applaud the bravery of women (and men) who have shared their #MeToo stories in an effort to affect change.

At the same time, we must focus on more than just the extreme examples of perversion if we are to see lasting results. We must acknowledge that there are several (shall we say fifty?) shades of sexual violation that need addressing, many of which are considered normal—even socially acceptable.

Because people don’t transition from prudent to predatory in a single bound, we must also discern how these different shades of violation can act like links in a chain. Otherwise, we will remain woefully confused as a culture, condemning the last link in the chain while excusing, or even encouraging, the other links. Or, to use a different analogy, we must not be like parents who teach their teenage drivers how to use an on-ramp (“Speed up to match the flow of traffic”), but then berate them for driving on the freeway (“Why are you going so fast?!”).

SEXUAL VIOLENCE IS A SPECTRUM

Consider the example of filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, who learned from actress Rose McGowan that Harvey Weinstein had both raped and blacklisted her. In response, Rodriguez offered her a starring role in his upcoming Weinstein production, Planet Terror. (This movie was designed as a throwback to earlier grindhouse films, which often thrived on explicit sex and violence.)  “We had a plan,” Rodriguez writes, “and more importantly, we had a mission. . . . Casting Rose in a leading role in my next movie felt like the right move to make at the time – to literally make [Weinstein] pay.”

To an extent, I can appreciate Rodriguez’s desire to somehow right a horrible wrong. At the same time, his actions expose the shallow understanding our culture has of what actually constitutes objectification. You can’t effectively fight the private sexual exploitation of a woman by casting that woman in a movie that utilizes, among other things, public sexual exploitation.

Admittedly, there is a definite distinction between McGowan being the victim of sexual assault and McGowan willingly participating in a sexualized project. With that said, sexual exploitation can still exist even when full consent is given by all parties. And if we truly wish to combat powerful men who treat others as mere objects for their own pleasure, we cannot dismiss other courses of action that encourage us to treat actors as objects for our own pleasure.*

While most of us may not wield the influence of a movie producer, we are far from uninfluential. Just consider the example of former child star Mara Wilson. In addressing the sexual objectification of actresses from her own experience, she said, “The people that were mostly a threat to me as a child were not Hollywood insiders, but grown-up male ‘fans.’” And in a recent tweet, she noted, “It’s not just executives doing sh--ty things. Sometimes, it’s Viewers Like You.” Viewers can have an effect on those in the entertainment industry, for good or for ill.

HOW SHOULD WE THEN LIVE?

So what can viewers like us do to combat the societal atrocities committed by men like Harvey Weinstein? How can we help reduce incidents of sexual predation in our society? Below are four specific suggestions for dealing with several links in the chain of sexual violence.

  1. Don’t evaluate women as possible sex partners. This is what Harvey Weinstein did. It’s what all sexual predators do. Don’t let yourself off the hook simply because you lack the power and opportunity to act out your selfish impulses. Contrary to what much of our pornified entertainment may communicate, women aren’t standing around waiting for you to mentally undress them and/or sexually interact with them. Their worth is not based on the amount of real, potential, or imagined sexual pleasure they can give. If we want fewer people acting like Harvey Weinstein, we need fewer people thinking like Harvey Weinstein.
  1. Don’t prioritize/emphasize others’ physical appearance. Praise movie stars for their acting abilities, not for their hotness quotient. Praise musicians for their artistry, not for how great they look gyrating around half-naked. Praise the women in your life for elements of their personhood they actually have control over—i.e., their accomplishments, character qualities, personal growth, and so on. Judging others first and foremost by their appearance turns a superficial issue into a super-important issue, and it places an unreasonable and unbearable burden on the shoulders of the women around you.
  1. Refuse to excuse, accept, participate in, or promote sex as an entertainment tool. Avoiding pornography and all forms of sex slavery are obvious examples. But there are plenty of socially acceptable forms of sexualized entertainment. To quote women’s rights advocate Caitlin Roper, “In media and advertising, women are routinely objectified and dehumanized, reduced to a collection of sexualized body parts. It is near impossible to escape the ubiquitous representations of women as sexually available and existing for men’s use.” It may be near impossible to escape, but it is not impossible to combat. Be an informed consumer. Interact with popular culture—movies, TV shows, music, videogames, advertising, etc.—in such a way that helps keep money away from products and services that are voyeuristic, exploitative, and dehumanizing.
  1. Similarly, make your entertainment choices pass the “golden rule” test. Novelist Zachary Totah recently wrote the following: “Constantly surrounded as we are by entertainment that shows, even encourages, sexual exploitation, it’s no wonder we live in a society where #MeToo is a sad reality.” You can change that reality. Let a love for your neighbors—including those whom you pay (directly or indirectly) to entertain you—influence what forms of entertainment you invest in. When appropriate, abstain from financially supporting sexual exploitation as entertainment, even if it comes in the package of a summer blockbuster, a chart-topping musical album, a record-breaking video game, or a prestigious Oscar contender. Yes, the “golden rule” test will limit your choices. But someone else’s physical, spiritual, and emotional degradation is a horrible price to pay for your freedom of choice.

HOPE BIG OR GO HOME

Near the end of her New York Times article, Sarah Polley says this: “I hope that the ways in which women are degraded, both obvious and subtle, begin to seem like a thing of the past.”

I hope so too. If that hope is to become a reality, our attention cannot be limited to sexual assault alone. We must fight both obvious and subtle forms of exploitation. We must address the routine, everyday, “normal” ways in which we violate the dignity of our fellow human beings. Then, and only then, will we be better positioned to uproot the shoots of sexual aggression that are growing in society around us—and in our own hearts.

Harvey Weinstein’s downfall was just the beginning. It’s a good beginning, but we still have a long way to go.

* It’s also interesting to note that during the filming of Planet Terror, Rodrigues began an adulterous relationship with McGowan, leading to the destruction of his marriage. Obviously, his view of what truly serves and honors and cherishes women (and, most importantly, his wife) was sorely lacking.

photo credit: Rubenstein via flickr, CC

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