THE WEINSTEIN SCANDAL AND THE SPECTATOR’S COMPLICITY: THE PROBLEM OF SEXUALIZED SELF-PRESENTATION

For the last few weeks, as we all know, top Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein has been accused of criminal sexual misbehaviour, ranging from propositioning to rape, by at least 50 actresses. In all likelihood, the list will increase and Weinstein will eventually land in prison. Countless publications and personal blogs have published articles on practically all angles of this matter and I am aware that it is really hard to add new argumentation.

I have little to say about the need to publicly expose sexual predators in any professional area and regardless of who the victims are: children, women, and also men. I am not worried, like Woody Allen, that this will lead to any witch-hunt, for it seems to me that other powerful male predators will use Weinstein as a smokescreen, or scapegoat, to hide their misdemeanours. That worries me. As for the less powerful predators, hopefully his downfall will make them think twice before they overstep the limits of decent behaviour, outmoded as the phrase is. I insist once more that the loss of the code of conduct once known as ‘gentlemanliness’ has done much harm, and that if men could re-learn to self-regulate their behaviour through a similar code today, we would all be better off.

This, of course, should be accompanied by women also having a clear-cut code of behaviour that did not blur the lines and that we also lack.

Am I blaming the victims of predator Weinstein? No, not at all–they were young, caught unawares in a violent situation, scared for their personal integrity and in fear of ruining their budding careers (he didn’t go, of course, for powerful, well-established stars). What is striking is the variety of the victims’ responses and how the last one of them, the youngest one, instantly knew that she should report the abuser to the police. The others were locked for decades in their appalled silence by the complicity networks surrounding the predator, and, of course, by the inability or unwillingness of the men whom they trusted to stand up and denounce the monster in their midst. I would agree that blaming the bystander is also important, as many have argued. Colin Firth came out to publicly declare his shame that he had only listened to a distressed friend victimized by Weinstein but had done nothing to help her. This is a gentlemanly act but, sadly, it comes too late. Brad Pitt’s threatening Weinstein with his fists if he didn’t stop bothering his girlfriend at the time, Gwyneth Paltrow, may have solved an individual case but brought no justice to the rest.

I would like to focus next on a photo (later I’ll comment on another). The picture shows actress Rose McGowan, dressed in a red strapless dress posing next to Harvey Weinstein; he is encircling her waist with his arm, and you can see his greedy fingers creeping towards her left-side breast (https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4961282/Rose-McGowan-hits-monster-Weinstein.html). The photo was taken in 1997, two months after McGowan was raped by Weinstein, as she has alleged (and as I’m sure happened: she was paid a high amount of money for her silence). It shows a smiling woman, wearing the kind of form-fitting gown designed to market stars on the red-carpet as saleable commodities. The photo is horrifying, for it shows in all clarity that women whose professional lives depend on their bodily appearance are far from being in full control of their bodies. If they’re not directly abused, they are (un)dressed to be sexually appealing, offering glamorous looks that other girls are invited to imitate. And they have to smile to the camera even when posing with a criminal who has abused their body.

There have been, however, a few female dissenting voices in all this sad affair–all of whom later had to backpedal and apologise or downplay their comments. I want to consider them here.

French actress Catherine Deneuve, who refused to comment on whether she had been abused in any way during her career, did express her doubts that the current use of social media to shame the monsters is effective: “Is it interesting to talk about it like this? Does it help? Does it add anything? Will it solve the problem in any way?” (https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/oct/20/catherine-deneuve-questions-anti-harassment-campaign-weinstein). This is in line with French sociologist Gilles Lipovetsky’s criticism (in The Third Woman, 1998) of the American culture of victimhood which, in his view, weakens women’s position by teaching them that the victim status is part of femininity. Instead, he claims, women should be taught to be better equipped to defend themselves, both physically and verbally. I agree: if you’re told that any man can overpower you, you are already half-defeated and paralyzed by fear, which is how the monster Weinstein overcame most of his victims. Some managed to run away, a handful were brave enough to say ‘no’ but most were rendered unable to defend themselves (by his physical strength as much as by his power in the industry).

Then, there’s the thorny matter of self-presentation. Top designer Donna Karan was among the few to make comments in defence of Weinstein, for which she later had to apologise. She declared that we, women, need to ask “how do we display ourselves? How do we present ourselves as women? What are we asking? Are we asking for it by presenting all the sensuality and all the sexuality?” (https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4964380/Donna-Karan-defends-Harvey-Weinstein-blames-victims.html#ixzz4wEOPQDUw). This is a bit rich coming from someone who is part of the red-carpet culture, but she has a point.

The discourse suggesting that women empower themselves by showing their body as their please is a sexist sham and it is about time we deny it. A body presented in public as a sexualized object is a sexualized object, and that’s it. The woman in question might think that she is in control of the reactions she elicits but she is not; it is simply ludicrous to think so. There is, besides, a subtle but important difference between elegant sexiness (see Lupita Nyong’o pale blue 2014 Oscar dress) and sexual vulgarity, of which you may see plenty in the MTV awards gala. Not that Weinstein and the like would notice (he did abuse Nyong’o) but other women might and, thus, earn some self-respect, which we need as much as men need gentlemanliness.

The other woman who’s had to apologize for her words is Mayim Bialik, currently a star in the popular series The Big Bang Theory. She published a piece, “Being a Feminist in Harvey Weinstein’s World” (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/13/opinion/mayim-bialik-feminist-harvey-weinstein.html), which generated much controversy, as she presented a view of Hollywood actresses sharply divided between the less attractive (like herself, she says) and the “young girls with doe eyes and pouty lips (…) favoured for roles by the powerful men who made those decisions.” Bialik narrates how, after being quite popular as a teen actress (in the series Blossom), she abandoned the business, tired of its physical demands, to pursue a doctorate in neuroscience at the University of California: “I craved being around people who valued me more for what was inside my brain than what was inside my bra.” She returned, landing eventually the role of Amy Farrah Fowler, “a feminist who speaks her mind, who loves science and her friends and who sometimes wishes she were the hot girl” but who is not.

What incensed the social media was that Bialik also wrote that actresses who, like her, do not shape their body following absurd beauty models “have the ‘luxury’ of being overlooked and (…) ignored by men in power unless we can make them money.” She also made a point of declaring that she has carefully kept her “sexual self” for “private situations,” that she dresses “modestly” and does not “act flirtatiously with men as a policy.” This supposes, of course, that the ‘beautiful women’ do the opposite. Bialik tells women that in a perfect world they could act freely but that “we can’t be naïve about the culture we live in.” And, yes, she calls the women that Weinstein had been meeting in luxury hotel rooms “ingénues.” Ouch. Still, I believe she is right in all her claims and in her personal behaviour.

Now let me go to the other photo that has caught my attention this week. It’s the first image in a report in Esquire called “The Irresistible Rise of Penelope Cruz” (https://www.esquire.co.uk/culture/film/longform/a17840/penelope-cruz-interview/). The photo shows Cruz in a rumpled up bed, belly down. She’s wearing a long-sleeved lacy black body, which is not really anything to comment on, if it weren’t because Cruz’s slightly bent left knee emphasizes the allure of her cellulite-free thigh and, well, her raised bottom. The photo may have been authorized by Cruz and even concocted by the star herself but its only purpose, clearly, is titillation. The other photos in the article are designed to accompany its main focus: that at 43, Penelope Cruz, is still a very attractive woman that any sane heterosexual man (and lesbian!) would like to admire as closely as possible. The photos say absolutely nothing of Cruz’s ability to act, unless we take them as a performance of sexiness.

Like any other long piece on Cruz, this one also comments on her role, when she was only 18, in Bigas Lunas’s notorious film Jamón, jamón. This sexist movie not only made her famous but also partnered her on screen with Javier Bardem, who eventually became her husband and the father of her children. The journalist quotes an interview with Bardem in which he claims that the film is “like a document of our passion. One day we’re going to have to show the kids—imagine! ‘Mummy, Daddy, what did you do in the movies together?’ Well, my children, you should celebrate this movie as you’re here because of it.” I’ll leave aside the fact that what I remember of gross Jamón, jamón is another actor, Jordi Mollà, avidly licking the breasts of young Cruz, to focus on my complete failure to understand how children can ever enjoy seeing their parents having sex on screen in a publicly available document. Or being told by other children what they have seen.

I will never ever blame Weinstein’s victims, or any other victim of a sexual predator: the monsters should be judged, sentenced and imprisoned, if the law thus dictates. What amazes me is the hypocrisy around the public presentation of female sexual availability. Penelope Cruz’s all too common photos connect with the red-carpet display in presenting beautiful women as bodies you can goggle at but cannot touch. This sexual teasing is designed to elicit the desire that makes you buy the cinema ticket whose benefits are pocketed by producers like Weinstein. We are in this way all complicit. And sexual predators, all of us.

Weinstein has clearly crossed the ‘don’t touch’ barrier but by hypocritically demanding to see, as we do in our role as spectators, that actors show their bodies and mimic sex on screen for our (prurient) entertainment we are also trespassing on their intimacy and their right to say ‘no’ without destroying their careers, particularly the actresses. They, regrettably but also logically, see their self-presentation as sexual objects justified, although it is not. It is just part of a script that can be changed and should be changed by letting more women into the business as screen writers, directors and producers.

I’ll never argue that photos like Cruz’s lead in a straight line to Weinstein’s aberrant behaviour but we need to wonder why images like that are necessary and how they contribute to women’s degradation, rather than freedom. Or empowerment. My view is that they don’t, so, why be complicit with them?

I publish a new post every Tuesday (follow updates from @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Please be warned that I check them for spam and this might take some time. Download the yearly volumes: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

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