A blog about comics, occasionally with some politics and religion thrown in, by Sam Thielman
Stray Thoughts 10/15
Several actresses say the vastly wealthy and influential movie producer Harvey Weinstein raped them. Further reporting by Ronan Farrow, himself something of an expert on sexual malpractice among celebrities, suggests that Weinstein had most of the movie industry help him arrange liaisons, often in hotels, with young women who wanted to act or had begun to act, and then he tried to coerce them into giving him “massages” or watching him jerk off or having sex with him, and when he could, he raped them. Asia Argento and Rose McGowan, two women who, queasily, were 1990’s avatars of the same very particular kind of noirish beauty—dark-haired and -eyed, petite, pale, tattooed—have accused him of forcing himself on them. The details are annihilatingly vile: Argento said that she despairingly returned to Weinstein to give him more sex after he first raped her, because she felt that she had to. Everybody knew, and everybody is shocked; everybody helped, and everybody is concerned. It is a web of complicity and wickedness that stretches through the film and television industries and crosses borders into real world-political power, which, make no mistake, Weinstein had; the details of the fat, wealthy, legendarily crass producer forcing himself on starlet after starlet have a sort of operatic, Dickensian putrescence about them. Weinstein’s professional demise—and he has been expelled from the Academy and denounced by all of his closest colleagues including his brother—is said to be the first of many, but it feels too late.
What are we to do with his movies? One of the dangers not just to his victims but to the world of allowing a voracious sexual predator to carry on unopposed for decades is that his legacy, however tainted, must be reckoned with, because it is so huge. Does he deform the entire canon? It’s a question that is often asked of work by, say, Alfred Hitchcock or Woody Allen or Roman Polanski, but those men are individuals and their work can be isolated and watched with a responsible skepticism. Weinstein had approval over a staggering number of films and he legendarily recut many of them—what does that mean?
Shortly after the Weinstein piece broke, a Buzzfeed article announced the existence of a list of “Shitty Media Men” who had mistreated the anonymous women who contributed to the list. The bar for adding a name was apparently very low; the accusations ranged from “flirting” to “creepy af in the DMs” to anal rape, and choking a woman unconscious, according to multiple writeups by women who had presumably seen the list. I haven’t seen it; I’m told it was expressly forbidden to share the list with a man though some women seem to have done so. I don’t have access to what people have been calling “the whisper network” the way women do but I have good women friends who’ve confided the occasional coded warning about more than one high-level male journalist, and of course I listen to gossip; there are people I’m curious about. A male friend who’s been looking for work for a long time worried to me that he’d done or said something wrong and not known about it and that perhaps this was why he was having such trouble getting hired; I understand his queasiness—the job market in journalism is dreadful right now and if you’re naturally awkward or even inclined to worry that you’re awkward, you’re now terrified that someone mistook your awkwardness for a gross come-on that is being circulated among people who might be looking at your resume with no chance for you to correct the record or even apologize. I also understand that this seems like a perfectly acceptable risk to the people whose physical safety is on the line.
There is a huge clash of cultures going on quietly in journalism at the moment, between, on the one side, the crabby, middle-aged, proudly dysfunctional generation of forty- and fiftysomething men and women—but mostly men—who, now un-rehireable, cling to jobs for which they fought their way through the ranks by being harder-nosed and less shockable and more dogged than all their peers; on the other are the serious, health-conscious, aggressively well-adjusted, perfectly dressed, workaholic, politically sensitive generation of twentysomething women—and they are almost all women—going to absolute war for $30k-a-year jobs covering the open sewers of politics and culture. The former are flamboyant and uncensored in their personal lives and meticulous and dry in their prose and the latter are bomb-throwing opinionators on the page and champions of workplace hospitality in person, and the two groups don’t particularly like each other, largely because of the economic scarcity created by the ongoing slow-motion collapse of the industry. Each group is fanatically idealistic and each rolls its eyes at the other. And the former, frankly, is used to being aggressive and boorish and not suffering any consequences and now it is probably time to pay the piper; if the latter is often prosecutorial, naive and self-righteous, it seems to contain fewer actual rapists and it certainly won’t countenance them when they’re sniffed out. They need older allies, and male ones.
Here is a grotesque article by Adrian Vermuele, a conservative Catholic who holds an endowed professorship at Harvard Law. In it, Vermuele praises the erudition and moral acumen of Carl Schmitt, the chief jurist of the Nazi Reich, while supposedly deploring everything Schmitt’s moral acumen directed him to do, namely support the Nazi Party until 1936. Schmitt’s support was rewarded, as Vermuele notes, with “thirty pieces of silver;” those pieces were hand-delivered by Hermann Goering, who gave Schmitt a position at the University of Berlin recently vacated by an exiled Jewish social-democrat named Herman Heller, among many other tainted honors. Incredibly, Vermuele seems to think Schmitt is a source worth citing on the topic of moral compromise and its limits; he suggests making expedient political alliances based on Schmitt’s 1923 essay about Catholicism.
I’m only going to say this once but I hope anyone reading this will pay close attention: If your church is slowly Nazifying and the chief thinker of your nation’s nascent far-right movement, Steve Bannon, claims to be a member of it to almost no objection, and, rather than devote all your energies to expelling that person and everyone who agrees with him from fellowship, you choose to whine about creeping progressivism, Jesus and I think you would be better off with a millstone around your neck. That is all.
On Thursday while I was listening to CNN play, repeatedly, the recording of Harvey Weinstein trying to browbeat an Italian 22-year-old into fucking him, I suddenly realized that many years ago a slightly older man had made a point of touching me more and more intimately and kissing me surreptitiously at times when I couldn’t object without making a scene, often while we were around other people in our peer group who might have thought it was consensual because he had spread rumors about my sexuality. Or they might have felt too awkward to interfere. Perhaps they didn’t notice. Without ever indicating that he knew what he was doing, he explained to me that he had done similar things as an authority figure and gotten into trouble for it, which made him fear for his safety. I let him touch me because I didn’t want to hurt his feelings and I didn’t want to damage our relationship, which was the key to a lot of other relationships, which he knew; he also knew that I was straight and I tried to remind him of this. I let him kiss me without comment at least once though I certainly didn’t kiss him back and strategized about how to avoid being near him after that (I failed in that). Ultimately he stopped because a woman I was friends with publicly told him to, not because I was brave enough to stop him, because I wasn’t. When I told him privately afterward that yes, I wanted him to stop, he grew very angry with me and spent several months after that pointedly excluding me from things our friends were doing together. Realizing that this was not misunderstanding but some mild form of predation, years later, feels deeply bathetic; what a dumb thing to be upset about. It was unwanted kissing and feeling my leg, and then some unpleasant social consequences; that was all. I wasn’t a child, I was a young man. Nobody raped me. Women I know personally or professionally have been through so much worse, some of them several times. I do know it made me ashamed of myself for a long time and it took many years for me even to identify the behavior. I feel conflicted even writing this much about it; gay men are in much more difficult circumstances by default than straight ones—what right do I have to share even these details? What if they identify him to the few people we still mutually know? What if he reads this and recognizes himself? Will he suffer consequences for something he probably regrets and I doubt he ever did again? I don’t know. Ultimately I do know that it happened to me, so I get to talk about it.
Of course, the question of where to do the talking is a reasonable one. There aren’t really informal networks of conversation around this stuff for men; there are men-only abuse survivor support groups but they tend to be for people who have suffered unspeakable, unforgivable things. Women, much better at this sort of thing, shut men out for understandable reasons. Being male feels inescapably shameful; one thing women have said is that men rarely suffer consequences for sexual impropriety but if you have any sort of a soul there are internal emotional consequences, both for collective guilt at the privilege of manhood, for memory, of mean or badly calibrated jokes, and then of course there is the garden-variety fear and shame that accompanies the memory of being weak or gullible enough to fall prey to another man, which is a peculiar kind of exceptionally humiliating defeat. And then there’s the feeling that it’s wrong to call down another man for doing something like that—what if he didn’t know he’d done it? Do you want every unkind thing you’ve ever said or done trotted out? No, of course not. Better to be silent. These are all emotional consequences, not financial or physical consequences, and perhaps it’s not right to conflate all of them, but they are all weirdly, inescapably a part of the complex and isolating trap of masculine sexuality. Patriarchy, ultimately, destroys everyone, men, women, children.
Actually, men don’t really have a place to discuss sexual behavior at all beyond the conventional truck stop hooting and hollering we’re supposed to perform, more to ward off suspicion from each other than for the benefit of any women who are subjected to (and certainly unimpressed by) it. Luckily for me, I have very good, close male friends these days—not many, but a few—who can serve as sounding boards. It’s been mentioned more than once that the conversation about sexual assault and harassment tends to focus on women, as though it was a disease specific to their sex and not something men do to them. Why don’t men talk about it? Why don’t men call each other down for participating in it? One reason is that we often don’t know. Men don’t brag that they raped someone; they brag that they slept with someone. We are acculturated to spread myths of desirability about ourselves, not stories of cruelty, or at least that’s true in my circles. There do seem to be other circles, like the one in which the president moves, where it’s common practice to proclaim abuses as though they were conquests; men with a predator’s eye for weakness are usually astute enough to spot a potential narc, as well. So that’s the form of the problem.
The form of the solution is to raise our sons better, I think—to encourage them to admire beauty, to value gentleness, to seek comity and peace. I love my own son more than I love my life, and I hope he grows up to rat out Harvey Weinstein.
Sam Thielman is a reporter and critic based in Brooklyn, New York. His blog is samthielman.com, his twitter handle is @samthielman, and if you can't find him you should check The Strand.
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