'Witch-hunt or a great awakening?: Tensions surrounding the #MeToo movement' by Felicity Chaplin

Felicity Chaplin

Felicity Chaplin

Felicity Chaplin is a Scholarly Teaching Fellow in French Studies at Monash University. She also teaches European cinema at the Monash

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Earlier this year, following the infamous Barnaby Joyce affair, Malcolm Turnbull called for a rethink of the parliamentary code of conduct to ensure this ‘shocking error of judgement’ on Joyce’s part did not happen again. New ‘guidelines’ would prevent senior politicians from engaging in a sexual relationship with their staffers, even if the sex was consensual. It was an oddly draconian captain’s call which received bipartisan support, reflecting what Turnbull called the ‘changing values’ of the workplace.

Such a reaction – some might say ‘overreaction’ – is part of a larger cultural shift which can be traced back to the first stirrings of what has come to be known around the world as the #MeToo movement. Of course, consensual sex between two adults from the same workplace may seem a far cry from the alleged abuses that prompted the #MeToo movement. Nonetheless, the underlying assumption of both cases is that what we are dealing with here is not sex at all but power, what Van Badham, writing for The Guardian, called ‘a delectable indulgence not of sex, but of advantage’.

This may seem an old chestnut, one which feminism has held as its central tenet for decades, where even consent can be understood as an effect, rather than an exercise, of power. It may seem like nothing new; but it does beg the question: why now? Why a return to these arguments, to these views of sexuality which some critics of the #MeToo movement have labelled ‘Victorian’? Is the movement an extension of feminism, part of an ongoing project which had, only two decades ago, been declared by many to be ‘finished’, at least in the West? Or is it, to the contrary, a betrayal of the ideals of the feminist movement, of the image of the ‘liberated woman’ who can not only control her sexuality but fend for herself whenever this control is threatened, replacing this image with that of the cringing wallflower terrified of the advances of men? There may be no clear answers to these questions, but one thing that is clear is that the #MeToo movement is very much a debate within feminism itself, not only over what constitutes abuse, but also over the status of women, men, and the entire culture we have for so long called ‘patriarchal’. It is a debate between so-called ‘good’ and ‘bad’ feminists, between those who are ‘with us’ and those who are ‘against us’.

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This debate – if that is what it can be called – is centred around a number of critical distinctions: between rape and harassment, between seduction and coercion, between violence and what the French reaction to the movement called ‘the awkward attempt to pick up someone’, between sex and power, between women as ‘victims’ and women as ‘empowered’, between actresses and so-called ‘real’ women, between experts and laypeople, between political correctness and free speech, and between due process and ‘witch hunts or ‘trial by Twitter’. This list is probably not exhaustive, but it goes some way to demonstrating the complex and multifaceted issues raised by the #MeToo movement, which cut across almost all aspects of Western culture.

Despite these wider cultural ramifications, however, the #MeToo movement is essentially a movement within one specific cultural milieu: the film industry. It was in the film industry, and particularly – although by no means confined to – Hollywood that the scandals which would lead to the movement first broke. These were centred on one man, influential Hollywood producer and founder of Miramax films, Harvey Weinstein. The hashtag #MeToo, which predates the Weinstein scandal, was made popular by Alyssa Milano; its use quickly spread to include more high-profile posts from female stars like Jennifer Lawrence, Uma Thurman, and Gwyneth Paltrow, all claiming to have experienced ‘inappropriate’ advances from Weinstein. One of the movement’s most outspoken advocates, Rose McGowan, claims to have been raped by Weinstein. These accusations quickly culminated in a mass movement within the industry which used red carpet events such as the Oscars and the BAFTAs to promote the cause. Actresses (and some actors) wore black to promote the #MeToo movement, and acceptance speeches became a platform from which to declaim the rise of a new feminism which took aim at a hitherto male-dominated Hollywood. However, not everyone – and more importantly, not every woman – in the industry agrees with the militancy of the #MeToo movement.

Catherine Deneuve during the Berlinale 2017 Wikimedia CommonsCatherine Deneuve (Wikimedia Commons)The main resistance to the movement came from France. In an open letter to Le Monde, one hundred French women, led by Catherine Deneuve, challenged some of the basic assumptions and aims of the #MeToo campaign, claiming that the movement represents a ‘puritanical … wave of purification’ driven by a growing ‘hatred of men and of sexuality’. Michelle Perrot, professor emeritus of contemporary history at the Paris Diderot University, describes the #MeToo movement as a ‘new moral order’ which introduces ‘a new censorship against the free movement of desire’. Director Michael Haneke agrees with this criticism. He sees the more militant strains of the #MeToo movement as a ‘crusade against any form of eroticism’, comparing it to ‘witch hunts’ which ‘should be left in the Middle Ages’. Haneke makes veiled reference to the fate of Kevin Spacey, who was cut from Ridley Scott’s latest film in post-production, his scenes reshot with Christopher Plummer as J. Paul Getty. Both Perrot’s and Haneke’s remarks echo those of the French 100, who argue that the #MeToo movement – along with its French equivalent #balancetonporc or ‘dob in your pig’ – is driving a ‘New Puritanism’ based on the hatred of men rather than directed at patriarchal culture as such. The views of Deneuve and the other signees have in turn been criticised for their anti-women stance. Actress and director Asia Argento described the French 100 as having been ‘lobotomised’ by an ‘internalised misogyny’.

In an op-ed piece for RT, outspoken Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek represents the kind of middle ground taken by many left intellectuals when considering the #MeToo movement: ‘Women’s protests are a great awakening, but with many dangers.’ Žižek views the movement as ‘revolutionary’ and as in ‘every revolutionary upheaval, there will be numerous injustices and ironies’. Thus, for Žižek, while these protests are ‘bringing out the dark underside of our official claims of equality and mutual respect’, they run the risk of turning into ‘just another case where political legitimization is based on the subject’s victimhood status’. It is precisely this notion of ‘victimhood as a form of empowerment’ that is, for Žižek, one of the two main dangers posed by the #MeToo movement. The other is that it remains too obsessively focused on the realm of sexual exploitation within a very narrowly defined milieu, with little or no relevance for, or impact on, the lives of women in the ‘real’ world. This is an assessment of the movement with which Susan Faludi, author of the landmark feminist study Backlash: The undeclared war against American women (1991), agrees. In an op-ed piece for the New York Times, Faludi argues that the ‘challenge today is ... how to bring the outrage over male malfeasance to bear on the more far-reaching campaign for women’s equality. Too often, the world’s attention seems to have room for only the first.’

And what of the film industry itself? Has the outrage over Weinstein et al. become bogged down in a futile back-and-forth over ‘men behaving badly’, or are there more serious implications for cinema? Already the signs are there that this ‘revolution’ has the potential for far-reaching effects within the industry, including the end of the so-called ‘cult of the [male] auteur’, the blacklisting of certain actors and directors, the cancellation of retrospectives and public appearances by actors and directors, and the re-evaluation of films in light of emerging accusations against male filmmakers.

In October 2017 in Paris, a retrospective of Roman Polanski’s films, held at the Cinémathèque Française and attended by Polanski himself, was disrupted by protests. The demonstration was ostensibly against the veneration of Polanski who is wanted in the United States for statutory rape and who faces at least four other accusations of sexual misconduct. In January 2018, also in Paris, #MeToo advocates forced the cancellation of a screening and public discussion of Brigitte Sy’s 2015 film, L’Astragale. Sy, who was scheduled to speak at the screening, is one of the signatories of the open letter to Le Monde. Responding to the actions of the local feminist group who had organised the screening, Sy remarked: ‘I did not think one day I would be deprived of the right to speak, or banned from debate or showing my film, censored only because of a signature.’ Across the Atlantic, Casey Affleck bowed to pressure from #MeToo and declined to present the Best Actress award at the 2018 Academy Awards. Affleck had been accused of sexual misconduct on the set of his 2010 mockumentary I’m Still Here. Many in the industry rallied to defend him. Kenneth Lonergan, who Affleck worked with on the Oscar-winning Manchester by the Sea, called the actor’s treatment at the hands of the #MeToo movement ‘abominable’.

What these cases indicate is the growing tendency to equate the work with its creator, viewing films as an extension of their creators and even in some cases an expression of their sexual politics. Possibly the most cited example of this which appeared in the firing line of the #MeToo movement is Woody Allen’s film Manhattan (1979), in which Allen plays a forty-two-year-old writer involved with a high-school student played by Mariel Hemingway. The film has been revisited through the lens of the child abuse allegations against Allen, and according to Steven Kurutz has emerged as ‘the archetypal work of male-chauvinist art, a byword, for some, for everything that’s wrong with Hollywood and the patriarchy’. Allen’s is a divisive case, particularly when it comes to those who have worked with him. Many actresses who have collaborated with Allen (including Diane Keaton, Kate Winslet, Cate Blanchett, Emma Stone, and Scarlett Johansson) have come out in support of the filmmaker or have at least chosen to remain silent on the issue. Others, like Ellen Page, who starred in Allen’s To Rome With Love (2012), feel differently; she considers working with the director ‘the biggest regret of my career’. (In 1993 a fourteen-month investigation by the New York Department of Social Services found no credible evidence to support the allegations against Allen.)

Woody Allen and Mariel Hemingway MGMWoody Allen and Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan, 1979 (image courtesy of MGM)

 

In a less public – and in some ways more reasonable – case of cultural revisionism, actress Molly Ringwald, best known for her work in the 1980s with indie auteur John Hughes, ‘re-visited’ one of the most enduring of their collaborations, the 1985 cult hit The Breakfast Club. In an article for The New Yorker, Ringwald says that watching some of the scenes today made her ‘uncomfortable’, scenes that, in hindsight, she probably would not agree to again. Despite granting Hughes’s films some cultural currency, Ringwald also suggests that some of his writing, particularly when it came to the portrayal of women, was ‘inappropriate’: ‘If attitudes toward female subjugation are systemic, and I believe that they are, it stands to reason that the art we consume and sanction plays some part in reinforcing those same attitudes.’ Despite what Ringwald calls some of the ‘glaring blind spots’ in Hughes’s script for The Breakfast Club (including, in addition to those concerning women, those concerning race and homosexuality), there is no suggestion of banning the film.

‘Erasing history,’ Ringwald writes, ‘is a dangerous road when it comes to art.’

Perhaps the most potentially significant consequence of the #MeToo movement for cinema is what Ryan Gilbey, writing for The Guardian, called ‘the end of the auteur’, by which he means the end of the male auteur. There are a number of female directors who can be considered auteurs, such as Agnès Varda, Claire Denis, Sofia Coppola, and, more recently, Lynne Ramsay, to name just a few; however, the term itself is loaded and tends to evoke the image of the visionary male director with an indelible personal style. In light of the latest claims – historic or otherwise – against more than one auteur, that which was once a major selling point for a film could become, according to Gilbey, its greatest ‘liability’. The list of auteurs whose work is under threat from the #MeToo movement includes Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Alfred Hitchcock, Bernardo Bertolucci, Quentin Tarantino, Terry Gilliam, and Michael Haneke. The threat to Haneke is not that any accusations have been made against him, but rather that he has chosen to speak out against the #MeToo movement, which adds the issue of freedom of speech to that of freedom of artistic expression.

Haneke’s main concern is that filmmaking in the post-#MeToo world will face a new form of censorship based primarily around funding. Producers and funding institutions would be wary of backing a film which is likely to draw criticism for its use or depiction of sex, or because it is directed by or stars a ‘suspect’ director or actor. Perhaps this is what Žižek means by the ‘ironies’ and ‘injustices’ of a revolutionary movement.

Comments (1)

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    I don't care what Barnaby Joyce does with a consenting, adult female adult. However, if it was before his marriage ended and his wife didn't know, then I think it's a pity that he didn't come clean with his wife when the affair occurred. However, I think the film Manhatten by Woody Allen is sickening. It is about child abuse. it's a middle-aged man involved with a 17 year old school-girl. Adult women in the workplace should be free to decide who they do and don't have sex with as long as there is no abuse of power. Just because someone is senior to you in the work-place does not mean that you are necessarily the victim of an abuse of power, so long as you are over a certain age. I don't know what that age is. I view Monica Lewinksy as a victim because she was so young when the whole affair with Clinton happened, but she was a legal adult. If there's a huge age difference and power imbalance then I think people in the work place should refrain from having affairs (whether the person in power is male or female), but once someone is in their thirties, I think they should be free to say yes to sex with anyone they work with. It's a difficult one, because no one is g0ing to legislate for a new age of consent in the workplace! But since scans now prove that the frontal lobe of the brain (that understands and foresees consequences), is not fully developed until around the age of 25, maybe that should be taken into consideration.

    Thursday, 31 May 2018 18:24 posted by Robert Moore

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