Hollywood Must Stop Focusing Solely on the Evils of Predation
Sexual violence is a spectrum
Note: The third and final entry in my series on movie filtering services is still forthcoming. It has been picked up as a feature article for another publication, and I will link to it as soon as it goes live. Thank you for your patience.
So much has improved [in our industry]. . . . I remember being sexually harassed on set and not knowing where to go and with whom to speak about it. And now our union is so switched on and strong. On the membership card, there is a sexual harassment hotline number. There is a definition of sexual harassment on the web page, there are all the protocols: I can take someone to an audition with me. Auditions don’t happen in hotel rooms anymore. They don’t happen before eight o’clock in the morning, or after six o’clock at night.
“It’s lost momentum,” WIF CEO Kirsten Schaffer said of the [MeToo] movement for equal rights and representation for women.
Seasoned film producers often ask their stars to shoot sex scenes on the first day of filming. That way, an actor can’t change their mind about nudity half way through a film when recasting would prove expensive.
That still happens in Hollywood, five years after stories of systemic sexual assault and harassment rocked Hollywood and ignited the #MeToo.
I’ve mentioned before that our society simultaneously condemns rape culture and promotes porn culture—as if the two were not indissolubly linked. Hollywood cannot decry a “women are objects” mindset in real life while at the same time approve a “women are objects” ethos in its entertainment products and practices.
We must focus on more than just the “casting couch” actions of men like Weinstein in order to see lasting results. We must not perpetuate “the myth that the culture of Hollywood would be profoundly different were we to simply ax the rapists at the top.” 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.
Also, because people don’t transition from prudent to predatory in a single bound, we must 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.
McGowan herself came to a similar conclusion during a Rolling Stone photo shoot promoting Planet Terror. In an interview for Elle Magazine, she said how, while waiting to find out what her wardrobe would be for the shoot, she had an awakening of sorts: “There was nothing on the [clothing] rack except for two belts of bullets. I was like, where are the clothes?”
It turns out that the cover photo for the magazine was designed to show McGowan and fellow star Rosario Dawson posing mostly nude, with only the belts of bullets draped over their chests. In a “moment of clarity,” McGowan recognized her culpability in perpetuating male objectification of women, and how it influences women to view themselves and others. As she put it, “I was the thing set to make you feel like you weren’t quite good enough and I was going to steal your boyfriend.” The thought now enrages her.
To be sure, 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 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.1
How Should we then Live?
While most of us may not wield the influence of a movie star or producer, we are far from uninfluential. In addressing the sexual objectification of actresses from her own experience, former child star Mara Wilson said, “The people that were mostly a threat to me as a child were not Hollywood insiders, but grown-up male ‘fans.’” She also noted, “It’s not just executives doing sh**ty things. Sometimes, it’s Viewers Like You.” Through our actions and attitudes, viewers like us can have an effect on those in the entertainment industry, for good or for ill.
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.
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.
Don’t prioritize/emphasize 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 diligence, bravery, creativity, benevolence, 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.
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, as well as your streaming habits, away from products and services that are voyeuristic, exploitative, and dehumanizing.
Similarly, make your entertainment choices pass the “golden rule” test. 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 possible, abstain from directly supporting sexual exploitation as entertainment, even if it comes in the package of a summer blockbuster, a chart-topping musical album, a prestigious Oscar contender, or a popular streaming show. 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
In her 2017 op-ed The Men You Meet Making Movies, writer/actor/director Sarah Polley said this: “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.”
She continued: “I hope that the ways in which women are degraded, both obvious and subtle, [will] 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 fight abuses both behind and in front of the camera. 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.
As the story of She Said illustrates, Harvey Weinstein’s downfall was just the beginning. It’s a good beginning, but we still have a long way to go.
This is an updated version of a post originally published at capstewart.com.
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It is worth noting 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.