QotD: “Woman-on-woman pressure isn’t better”

Is sexism even worse when it comes from another woman? And why do some women try to professionally “out-jock” men?

These were my thoughts when I read about how actress Ruth Wilson left the television series The Affair because of what she claims is a toxic, inappropriate culture involving enforced sex scenes. As a fan of The Affair, I’d wondered why Wilson left so abruptly, with only one season to go. The Hollywood Reporter says that Wilson was labelled “difficult” for objecting to relentless nude sequences (demanded of her far more often than her male co-stars). Wilson refused to do a “rapey” scene against a tree. (A body double was used.) During filming of some sex scenes, monitors could be viewed by non-crew members.

There’s more gruesome detail, including a disputed report on Lena Dunham’s now-defunct newsletter and website Lenny Letter, where producer/director of The Affair, Jeffrey Reiner, spoke to Dunham, praising her nudity in Girls (“You would show anything. Even your asshole”), saying he wished she’d encourage Wilson to “show her tits or at least some vag”. Now it is reported that The Affair’s showrunner, Sarah Treem, also pressured Wilson (and others) into nudity, making remarks such as “You look beautiful” and “Everyone is waiting for you”.

Excuse me while I throw up into a bin. Why can’t women such as Wilson be beautiful and clothed – and why should they feel responsible for disrupting filming schedules for nude scenes they find so distressing they leave a hit show?

If this is true (Treem denies it, saying she’s a feminist), it’s grotesque on multiple levels. Like the recent story about Emilia Clarke dreading nudity on Game of Thrones, it seems that actresses who question the validity of nude scenes still risk being labelled “difficult”. (Note the similarities with porn, where women must not only perform but do so enthusiastically or risk disrupting the male fantasy.) With The Affair, there’s the added factor of alleged woman-on-woman betrayal.

I suppose it happens and not just on television sets. In ill-judged attempts to “prove themselves” in high-octane, male-dominated work environments, there are some women who try to outdo the jocks – doing everything from telling coarser jokes and showing bigger “killer” instincts to deriding other women for being “oversensitive/humourless” via, in this instance, badgering them to do nude scenes. Maybe these women justify the grotty sexism to themselves, rationalising that it’s not the same coming from a woman. Too right – it’s worse.

What a shame if Treem was part of this. Women in positions of power have the opportunity to support one another, not make it so that it isn’t just men that women have to worry about. A woman compelling another woman to do nudity doesn’t automatically make it “feminist”. Woman-on-woman pressure isn’t better. #MeToo has to include female behaviour too.

Barbara Ellen

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