I don’t like the films of Quentin Tarantino. I think Woody Allen’s work is rubbish, and Brett Easton Ellis’s books suck. Am I allowed to admit to this now?
For so long, I’ve been held back by the sexist male genius paradox, which decrees that any failure to appreciate the genius of a sexist male artist must be down to one’s own failure to rise above the sexism. It’s a problem many women have, though we’re only finding out about it today.
I know that to some this will sound terribly unsophisticated, but there is a relationship between misogyny in art and misogyny in real life. It’s a complex one, as female writers have been outlining in recent discussions around thrillers and true crime, and it’s obviously not the case that artistic description equates to real-life prescription. Nonetheless, when male artists produce works which consistently prioritise the inner lives and/or fantasies of men, something has gone wrong. There’s a limit to how much women should have to transpose art in order to see a world in which they, too, are human. How good is a book or film when it demands so much on-the-spot correction from the reader or viewer?
Like so many women of my generation, I’ve spent years pretending to laugh at “ironic” sexism, refusing to “stigmatise” extreme pornography and bestowing serious, straight-faced analysis on the useless art of self-styled genius men. Why have I done this? Because I want to be thought of as someone who has a sense of humour, someone who’s open-minded, someone who’s intelligent. I want to be seen as someone who “gets it”, even when I don’t.
Deciding a work of art is irreparably flawed just because the entire worldview underpinning it, the characterisation, the narrative drive, the humour, the whole lot relies on the assumption that women are not fully human – well, that’s a bit naïve, isn’t it? Shouldn’t I be able to get over that?
Well, no. No, I can’t and I won’t. I’ve struggled with this “hang on, is it just me?” feeling ever since I watched my first James Bond film at eight years old and concluded that rape, in some circumstances, must be OK. From now on I will be the little boy in the crowd pointing out that the misogyny-in-art Emperor is stark bollock naked.
Just as the “best” postmodern theory tends to be appallingly written in order to fool us that the difficulty is in the ideas, the nihilism and misogyny of the “best” male directors is so glaringly obvious we end up assuming we’ve missed the hidden message (so we use “hyper-reality” as a posh way of describing unimaginative exaggeration). The real creativity isn’t in Manhattan or Inglourious Basterds; it’s in the imaginative contortions critics have gone through to make these films seem more than the sum of their parts.
There’s nothing unsophisticated in recognising that an industry mired in sexism will produce art that is tainted by sexist beliefs. There’s nothing childish or bourgeois about calling time on representations of the human condition which fail to accommodate half the human race. For too long genius has been defined as male, far removed from such petty concerns as granting consideration to the female gaze. This isn’t just unfair; it’s dull.
“You just didn’t get the irony/humour/bathos/[add your own technique]” is the male critic’s version of that lesson girls are taught from the first time they’re groped in the playground: abuse is flattery. We just haven’t learned to read it correctly. From now on I suggest we don’t even try.
QotD: “Welcome to the age of ‘deepfake’ porn: Your starring role in a sex film is just a few selfies away”
Thanks to an easy to use face-mapping app called FakeApp, Reddit and the rest of the internet are awash with clips of practically any (usually female) celebrity you can think of, engaged in a cornucopia of curious sex acts. What’s particularly unsettling here — beyond the obvious complete lack of consent — is the popularity of female celebrities who first found fame as children. Emma Watson and Maisie Williams are “faves” on the most popular subreddits dedicated to the ‘pretend’ porn.
The celebrity angle is tailor-made to have screen shots of these videos plastered all over the websites of The Sun and MailOnline, all dressed up as public interest (aka the public is interested in masturbating over celebrities they otherwise wouldn’t see having sex). But the bigger issue will be as these technologies are picked up by the kind of people for whom revenge porn has long been an attractive weapon.
For you to be turned into a machine-learning enabled porn performer, starring in clips posted to every porn site on the web, an ex won’t need images of you naked. Every selfie you’ve ever posted will be enough. A few hundred photos and any one of us could be convincingly cast in truly unsettling and upsetting scenes. How do you explain to your employer that you didn’t film a sex tape when there’s a clip that convincingly shows your face mapped on to the body of a porn star who has at least a reasonable resemblance to you?
The law has only just caught up with the selfie culture and the pervasive nature of sexting, revenge porn and smartphones in every single person’s hand. Now, legislators will need to get their heads around the new implications for image rights. Your theoretical disgruntled ex will own the rights to photos of you taken by them, but you own your image rights.
The difference though, between you and I, and the celebrities who will now be spinning up their legal teams to issue takedown notices and get “deepfake” dirty videos of them taken down, is that we don’t have those resources. It’s extremely difficult to get videos pulled down and they spread across sites with frightening speed.
It was presented, at first, as a simple case of injustice in the prison system. The Observer ran the story with the headline “Transgender woman in male prison ‘nightmare’ on hunger strike”. The facts given were these: Marie Dean, 50, is refusing food in protest at being held in HMP Preston on an indeterminate sentence for burglary without access to “hair straighteners, epilator or any makeup”. The report linked to a Change.org petition demanding that Dean be “moved into the female estate as quickly as possible”. Some detail, though, seemed to be missing. If you wondered why a burglar would receive an indeterminate sentence, the answer wasn’t here.
But a cursory Google explained it. Before she transitioned, Dean, aged 42 in 2009, was convicted of over 30 offences including voyeurism, aggravated burglary and assaulting police officers. Dean broke into homes, dressed in teenage girls’ underwear, and filmed herself in their bedrooms engaging in what the court reporting coyly called “sex acts”. “Your victims,” said the judge, “undoubtedly regard you as being a dangerous man within the community and the sort of dangerous person that will give them every reason to be careful or worry when things go bump in the night.” (Dean’s 2003 trial for charges related to an indecent video of children ended in a not-guilty verdict.)
That’s why the crimes came with an indeterminate sentence: because Dean was a sexual offender with an escalating pattern of behaviour against women. After complaints, The Observer updated its report with details of Dean’s crimes, but the fundamental outline of the story remains as it was, while the Pink News version still only mentions burglary. Alarmingly, it was only possible to learn this because Dean had made a relatively minor name change. One unhappy consequence of the well-intentioned taboo against “deadnaming” (using a trans individual’s pre-transition name) is that past actions are able to slip from the record.
At this point, I think it’s OK to ask where women figure in all this. This is someone who presents a manifest danger to women, someone whose victims live in the long shadow of violation in their own homes; yet media outlets have given an uncritical platform to demands for Dean’s transfer into the female estate. If being denied hair straighteners can be presented as a cruel and unusual punishment, one might imagine that housing female prisoners with a voyeur would rate somewhere even higher. But in prison, as everywhere else, the expectation appears to be that women’s safety comes last.
Where trans inmates are housed is, at the moment, a matter of discretion for prison authorities. And simplifying these cases (by, for example, obscuring the sexual nature of Dean’s crimes) does an immense disservice to the pressures on prisons, where resources are sparse, violence rife, and self-harm and suicide hideously prevalent.
Campaigners for prisoner self-identification usually refer to three trans women who died in custody in 2015: Vikki Thompson, Joanne Latham and Jenny Swift. But of the three, only Swift had asked to be moved to a women’s prison. An inquest found that Thompson hadn’t intended to kill herself, and hadn’t requested transfer. Latham had made a request to transfer to another prison, according to the report after her death, which did not record any request of transfer to the women’s estate. The report concluded that the prison she was incarcerated in “appropriately supported Ms Latham’s decision to live as a woman”. It is also uncertain whether such a move would have even been possible, given that Latham had been assessed as exceptionally dangerous and was being held in a close supervision centre, which only exist in the men’s sector.
QotD: “If femininity is so powerful, who do men make no attempt whatsoever to become more feminine?”
If femininity is so powerful, who do men make no attempt whatsoever to become more feminine? Why do men want to remain masculine if masculinity is fragile but femininity is empowering? If femininity is empowering, why are the few feminine men there are being mocked by society? Why would femininity only be empowering for women? That would imply empowerment looks different for women than it looks for men.
This rethoric about femininity being so ~empowering~ is funny to me because the women who use that rethoric fail to see that men try to force femininity upon women (and not on themselves). If something is truly empowering, it cannot possibly be forced upon you. If something is being forced upon you, it is far more likely it is a tactic used for keeping you in a subordinate role.
QotD: “The cliché that when women are liberated men will be liberated too shamelessly slides over the raw reality of male domination”
The cliché that when women are liberated men will be liberated too shamelessly slides over the raw reality of male domination — as if this were an arrangement in fact arranged by nobody, which suits nobody, which works to nobody’s advantage. In fact, the very opposite is true. The domination of men over women is to the advantage of men; the liberation of women will be at the expense of male privilege. Perhaps afterwards, in some happy sense, men will be liberated too — liberated from the tiresome obligation to be ‘masculine.’ But allowing oppressors to lay down their psychological burdens is quite another, secondary sense of liberation. The first priority is to liberate the oppressed. Never before in history have the claims of oppressed and oppressors turned out to be, on inspection, quite harmonious. It will not be true this time either.
This season has seen the phenomenon turned up to eleven however, and me riveted to all and any interaction between India Willoughby, a news presenter, journalist, and trans woman, and the various other housemates. Now I do realise, yes, that trans women are not a monolith, and I don’t doubt there are many in the trans community have been watching Willoughby alienate as many viewers and potential allies as possible from between their fingers, just wishing she wouldn’t. But still, she has, and the uncomfortable truth is that in her behaviour, I can recognise instantly a near perfect microcosm of some of the larger trans activism I have been observing over recent times.
For seven days I have remained glued as a group of adult women, all trying their camera ready best to be as respectful and supportive as possible, attempt to deal with a sulking, bullying, manipulative, and aggressive Willoughby, as she in her turn contrives to continually centre herself and her needs in all things, and ensure others feel obliged to do the same. Even in a mixed sex environment, she has remained at the epicentre of all house conflict, showing next to no interest in the feelings and needs of others, and managing to maintain a steady narrative of victimhood, even as her peers dance desperate attendance in their varied attempts to appease her. One can feel a bit dirty considering this entertainment, but there is empathy too. Willoughby comes across as almost pathologically self absorbed, but at the same time so abjectly miserable, that a want to help ease her distress is only natural. It is in this response to Willoughby, and its fascinating parallels in the way wider society (and in particular women) have responded to the huge and sudden rise of trans ideology, that I am most interested.
For those sensible enough to give a wide berth, I offer an example of an incident occurring with all the women together in the kitchen. The chat is easy, amicable. Willoughby then enters the room, at which they all immediately stop what they are doing and stand alert, looking nervous. Upset and angry at having been misgendered by Amanda Barrie, an actor in her eighties, and having already refused to accept Barrie’s multiple apologies, Willoughby straight away adopts a combative stance, squaring her shoulders and jabbing at the air with a pointed finger: “I am the transgender person here,” she says, “and I am annoyed.” Nobody at first speaks a word, except eventually Barrie, whose one turn at speaking up for herself prompts an immediate accusation of aggression. At this Barrie stands down as others then scurry to try to placate Willoughby and diffuse the situation. The women lower their voices and make soothing noises: of course, they can completely understand why she’s upset. But this appears only to infuriate Willoughby further, who responds by becoming louder and yet more intimidating, air jabbing hard in Barrie’s direction and shouting right at her: “I AM A REAL WOMAN OK? I’M GLAD THAT’S SINKING IN. I’M GOING TO SAY IT ONE MORE TIME SO IT REALLY PENETRATES — I. AM. A. REAL. WOMAN!!” By which point Barrie looks genuinely alarmed. “Yes darling,” she says, far too quickly, her voice pitching at a high octave. Others nod vigorous affirmation: “Of course you are and I totally respect that.” Yet still Willoughby is not satisfied, and still she continues on the offence. As a last, rather desperate grasp, it is suggested that perhaps not talking about it at all might help to make it less of an issue? This is clearly the final straw, and a furious Willoughby storms from the room.
On Friday night India Willoughby became the first contestant to leave the Big Brother house, and I don’t doubt for a minute her fellow contestants all breathed a large sigh of relief. Nobody likes eggshells between their toes. As a viewer I also breathed a sigh of relief. It is painful to watch a fellow human engage in such blatant self sabotage, continually projecting their own lack of self acceptance onto others. Rejection as self fulfilling prophecy is not my idea of a good time.
But considering we are now at a point in our history at which many are pushing for an ill defined concept of gender identity to replace sex as both a protected characteristic, and the way in which we categorise others as either male or female, I believe it is worth exploring how responses to India Willoughby in the Big Brother house might reflect wider societal attitudes. For as Willoughby pointed an accusatory finger at Amanda Barrie and shouted that she is a real woman, so too do transactivists and their supporters point fingers at the masses, shouting that there can be no debate; that trans women are women, and if we do not align with this new idea we can consider ourselves terrible people, dicing on the wrong side of history. To which the general response can be summed up neatly as, ‘Yes darling! Of course you are and I totally respect that.’
The problem is that while you can perhaps legislate for speech and expression, you cannot legislate for conviction. In other words, you might be able to force people to say a certain thing, but you cannot force them to truly believe it. The contestants in the Big Brother house felt bound by enough social pressure to express a belief in Willoughby as female, (as I too feel bound by enough social pressure to concede, as a matter of courtesy, female pronouns to an individual I do not, in fact, believe to be female,) but their true feelings leaked fast out of every interaction they shared. Crucially, it was in this gap between expression and belief that so much of India’s distress seemed to lie.
It is a fact that no natal woman has ever felt the need to approach another, and shout at her that she is a real woman. And in return, no natal woman has ever felt the need to say to another, of course you are and I totally respect that. Such an exchange serves only to reveal that neither party wholly believes what they are saying. And so here lies the crux: trans women know they are not women in any concrete, material sense, which is what has given rise to all the various mental gymnastics regarding sexed brains and souls trumping the bare facts of ones reproductive system. In an attempt to relieve distress and provide a theoretical framework for validation, the truth must necessarily be bent, squeezed, and hammered square into a round hole. But the actual truth of our physical selves does not require endless validation. As a biological woman of average height and blue eyes, I’ve no need to harangue, manipulate, or bully others into confirming my femaleness, or the fact that I am 5’4″ tall, because these facts are self evident. I’ve no need to develop mind bending theories around height or eye colour, and insist that others subscribe to them under threat of being made a social pariah, because I am secure in the knowledge of what is real and true about myself. Nobody has ever once felt the need to say to me, “I believe you have blue eyes and I respect that,” because in the face of an obvious truth, this would be a ridiculous thing to say.
The root of Willoughby’s rage, and that of the trans activists demanding ever more outrageous expressions of validation, lies here. When we are asked to go along with such blatantly false claims as trans women have periods and can get pregnant, it is because any previous acknowledgement that trans women are women simply wasn’t enough to fill the void created by that undercurrent of self doubt. Trans women know exactly what the majority of women (and some men too) are doing: placating, humouring, pitying, and playing along, either due to a belief that it is no skin off their nose, or out of fear, and a self serving need to be seen as right and good. The behaviour of the Celebrity Big Brother contestants is being writ large across the country, as is India’s response. Understand that it will never be enough to state that trans women are women. Instead we must change everything: our language, our social behaviour, and even our inborn sexualities.
The danger of course, as perfectly demonstrated by the conflict in the Big Brother house, is that this level of pretence corrupts human relationships and ultimately causes more distress than it relieves. We cannot get along while lying to each other on such a fundamental level, and legislation that forces us to do so paves the way for more problems than it solves. There is no respect inherent in dishonesty and — more importantly — absolutely nothing at all wrong with the truth: that trans women are trans women; distinct from natal women by virtue of their biology, but entitled to live as they wish, worthy of the same rights, respect, and representation as anyone, simply by virtue of being human beings. There is nothing wrong with embracing the reality of being trans.
What is wrong though (and not only wrong, but a doomed and deeply flawed strategy) is to force people — either by law or social coercion — into pretending to believe something they do not, in the hope that they will eventually come to accept it. That way lies anger, resentment, and almighty, explosive backlash. There is space in this world for everybody, but living successfully with others requires generosity, open discussion, compassion, and honesty.
Forty years ago this week, Roman Polanski went from being one of the most celebrated film-makers in the world to becoming the United States’ most notorious fugitive from justice.
On 1 February 1978, after 42 days in jail, Polanski fled the US while awaiting final sentencing, having pleaded guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor. On these facts, everyone agrees. There are no hazy conspiracy theories – we know exactly what happened because Polanski admitted to it and later wrote about it in astonishing detail in his autobiography, Roman by Polanski, published six years after he left the US and went to France, where he still lives. There are some quibbles about who said what, but the generally agreed facts are as follows: in March 1977 Polanski, who was then 43, took a child, Samantha Gailey (now Geimer), who he knew was 13 years old, to Jack Nicholson’s house to take photos of her for a magazine. There, he gave her champagne and, according to her, quaaludes. He then had sex with her, drove her home and, the next day, was arrested.
The facts have never altered. What has changed is how this case is discussed in the public sphere. For a long time, the simple – and somewhat simplistic – divide was that while people in mainland Europe viewed Polanski as a tragic artist undone by US prurience and corruption, Americans saw him, as he put it in his autobiography, as “an evil, profligate dwarf”. But, in truth, for many British and US actors, working with Polanski never lost its cachet, and arguably had even more once he became excluded from the US mainstream. Sigourney Weaver, Harrison Ford, Johnny Depp, Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Kate Winslet and many more have appeared in Polanski movies in the decades since his conviction, and questions about why they were working with a convicted child rapist were seen as tacky, proof of a rigid mind more focused on gossip than art. When Winslet was asked last September whether she had any qualms about working with Woody Allen, another director accused (but, unlike Polanski, never arrested and never charged) of a sex crime against a minor, she replied: “Having thought it all through, you put it to one side and just work with the person. Woody Allen is an incredible director. So is Roman Polanski. I had an extraordinary working experience with both of those men, and that’s the truth.”
When the Harvey Weinstein story broke last October, the reaction among the movie industry was wide-eyed shock that someone so many of them knew and worked with could be a rapist. “I didn’t know. I don’t tacitly approve of rape,” said Meryl Streep. And yet only a decade and a half earlier, Streep had stood and applauded when Polanski won best director at the 2003 Oscars, not so much tacitly approving rape as explicitly celebrating a convicted child rapist. If only anyone had known about Weinstein they would never – never! – have worked with him, movie insiders say. And yet, for the past 40 years, many of them have been falling over themselves to work with a self-confessed child rapist, even defending him by pointing to his artistic credentials. Debra Winger described Polanski’s arrest in Switzerland in 2009 as a “philistine collusion”. Reactions to Weinstein come soundtracked with the distinct sound of bandwagon-jumping; thanks to the #MeToo campaign, the public mood is firmly on the side of listening to victims, and Hollywood has keenly followed suit. On Sunday night, at the London Critics Circle awards, only months after defending Polanski and Allen, Winslet spoke tearfully about “bitter regrets I have at poor decisions to work with individuals with whom I wish I had not. Sexual abuse is a crime, it lies with all of us to listen to the smallest of voices.” Yes, if only there had been some way Winslet could have known about these decades-old cases before signing on to work with two directors accused of sex crimes! This kind of hypocrisy about Polanski makes you wonder how serious the industry really is about dealing with this problem, as it claims to be.
Women are sexist too. Even avowed feminists are found to be unconsciously biased against women when they take ‘implicit association’ tests. Mary Ann Sieghart asks where these discriminatory attitudes come from and what we can do about them. Evidence for women’s own sexist biases abounds. In one example, female science professors rated the application materials of ostensibly male applicants for a lab position considerably higher than the identical documentation of ostensibly female candidates, in an experiment with fictitious applicants where only the names were changed. The reasons for the pervasive bias seem to lie in the unconscious, and in how concepts, memories and associations are formed and reinforced from early childhood. We learn from our environment.. The more we are exposed to sexist attitudes, the more we become hardwired to be sexist – without realising it. So what to do? Does unconscious bias training help? Or could it make our implicit biases worse? A good start might be to tell little girls not that they look so pretty in that dress, but to ask them what games they like to play, or what they are reading. And so teach them they are valued not for how they look, but for what they do.