As more people have shared their experiences of sexual abuse in Hollywood, it’s become increasingly difficult to ignore our own complicity as audience members. At some point, many of us have been moved by, or thought deeply about, or laughed along to something with which one or more of these men have been involved. It took Louis C.K.’s admission that “these stories are true” — said in response to several accusations that he’d masturbated in front of fellow (female) comics — for many of us to finally turn the scrutiny on ourselves as consumers.
It makes a sad sort of sense that Louis C.K.’s failings shook us, collectively, in a way some other revelations did not. While rumours have clung to the comedian for years, audiences still largely perceived him as a self-aware father to daughters, even a “nice guy.” With him, perhaps more so than with any other men called out in the post-Weinstein reckoning, there was a sense of not wanting the rumours to be true. His admission marked a shift in reaction from It’s about time he got caught to Oh no, not him too. Few of his (many) fans wanted to have to ask themselves: Should I be still be watching this?
And yet, the question has become almost unavoidable. Can we reconcile an artist’s work with his abusive behaviour? Or, as many have put it to me, and on social media: Are we still “allowed” to watch so-and-so’s stuff? Must we write off these men, many of whom have created things we not only like, but admire?
These are not new questions: society has tried to buff out the abusive pasts of many creators we revere — and not just movie stars. Pablo Picasso, for instance, is said to have brutalized many of the women he was involved with, including his so-called “muse” Dora Maar, whom he allegedly beat into unconsciousness. Fans still defend him decades later. In 2015, the Guardian ran an article, headlined “Was Picasso a misogynist?,” that concluded the painter wasn’t a woman-hater, because he was close friends with Gertrude Stein. The New York Times downplayed his actions with the headline, “Grandpa Picasso: Terribly Famous, Not Terribly Nice.”
When Tippi Hedren came forward last year with details of Alfred Hitchcock’s on-set behaviour, she faced a backlash. Hedren revealed that she’d repeatedly told Hitchcock, during filming of The Birds, that she wasn’t interested in his sexual advances; as a result, she said, Hitchcock punished her by using real birds, instead of mechanical ones, in the bedroom scene in which she was attacked. After she shared her experiences, one of Hitchcock’s biographers — who also described himself as the director’s friend — guessed she was “elaborating memories she feels bitter about.”
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Dismissals such as these might as well be following a script called “How to Undermine Women and Defend Your Horrible Friends.” And, all this is to say nothing of the films in which women have been assaulted as part of the movie — abuse that directors have defended under the guise of “authenticity.” Maria Schneider, for instance, has said she didn’t know the details of her rape scene in Last Tango in Paris prior to filming, including that Marlon Brando would use butter on her anus. She was 19 at the time and later said she’d felt “a little bit raped” by both Brando and the director, Bernardo Bertolucci. In every case the message feels the same: men are artistic geniuses, whereas women are mere conduits, tools, muses.
We are handwringing now because, in the past, we have deliberately chosen to overlook such behaviour. We have willfully forgotten many things about famous men, including: that Sean Connery has said “I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong about hitting a woman”; that allegations against Woody Allen and Bill Crosby broke years before we started wondering aloud whether we could still watch their work; that in 2009, more than 100 Hollywood somebodies signed a petition demanding the release of Roman Polanski, after he was arrested in Switzerland in an underage sex case dating back to 1977; that even Charles Dickens was an abusive husband.
In other words, society has determined — historically, at least — that we should not, in fact, care about the abusive behaviours of those who entertain us. We are afraid of choosing not to support abusive men because we are afraid of losing their work. We are afraid to admit that, by celebrating these men, we helped them get away with it. We are afraid that now, this time, we can no longer slip back into mass amnesia. There have been so many accusations in such a short time that we can’t keep pretending the problem is limited to a few bad men; it is systemic, and we all helped make it that way.
It’s time to stop rewarding these abusive men with your tickets sales. It’s time to stop treating artistic genius (or even mere competence) as a legitimate reason to overlook abuse. Talent does not wash out violence.
Lauren McKeon is the digital editor of The Walrus. She's the author of F-Bomb: Dispatches from the War on Feminism, published by Goose Lane Editions.
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