Though most of us expected Sunday’s Golden Globes to touch on the recent sexual assault allegations, few could have predicted the degree to which it permeated the usually carefree evening, where we look forward to seeing our favorite stars getting drunk on Champagne and inch toward a bigger gold statue. Instead, we saw a wholehearted effort rolled out that declared we mean business, and we have the visuals to back it up. We had snappy comments from Natalie Portman preceded by shattering applause (both audibly and on Twitter). We had Oprah dedicating most of her time on stage receiving the Cecil B Demille award to rallying us behind the cause. We had the rollout of a new campaign, “Times Up!” whose pin unapologetically punctured $7,000 suits and $15,000 black dresses.
But how much of it was helpful? How much of it was (as Hollywood itself often is) clever branding disguising a lack of real, constructive ideas? What we even need to be looking for, exactly, to assess whether we are making progress or not?
Some of the more boisterous attempts at solidarity last weekend: the black dresses, the pins, and many of speeches were important signifiers of an intention to keep the conversation going. They fortified and intention to not relegate these stories to the “news” pile but to recontextualize them, and the moment, as being part of a real, tangible, historical fight. A reminder that this is a battle that we remain engaged in. However, in order to have a battle, you have to have an enemy, and you have to have an outcome in mind. While answers may differ on both of these, it is safe to say that the enemy, in this case, can be classified as abuse, assault, and the structures that enable both of them to persist unencumbered.
A few films this year tackled abuse and reflected back to us patterns we may recognize on a more global scale. The abuse of an individual and the systematic abuse of an entire demographic often uncannily resemble each other. For victims, being struck or experiencing big gestures of intimidation are often just the tip of the iceberg of a long pattern of minor but regular (often daily) aggressions, dismissals, and restrictions. These small infringements chip piece by piece away at a person’s self-esteem, or a demographics collective power, until the messages of being inadequate begins to feel like fact. Women and people who have been marginalized by those in power have come to understand all-to-well is the fatigue associated with this constant deflation, this daily attack on self-esteem. Eventually, it contributes to an unwillingness to stand up for yourself and acts as a base for taking advantage of someone who does not feel they have any authority to protest.
Abusers and assailants are experts at what they do, it is a misnomer that they do not understand boundaries. If anything, they are foremost experts at them, at knowing exactly at which point they can get away with something without the weight of their actions falling back onto themselves. They know just how far to push to put the other person on their back foot but not so much that they turn on their heel out the door. It is a constant reinforcement, through a series of snide comments, interruptions, overlooks, and dismissals, that there is a person of importance and another who must understand their place. And, this isn’t unique to male/female dynamics either. The powerful cannot exist without the powerless, a dynamic Hollywood in particular secretly thrives on.
Another telling moment from the ceremony this past weekend came from James Franco’s acceptance speech, and namely, his treatment of Tommy Wiseau, the subject for which he won the award for portraying. In that moment, the roles of star and outsider were instantly (and, from Franco’s demeanor) almost impatiently reminded, despite the victory coming entirely off Wiseau’s own life story. The star and the outsider, the very subject that funneled the award into the actor’s hands, was too precocious an institution even to be challenged by irony. We collectively felt what Wiseau must also have felt in that moment, that if you ever forget your place among the powerful, you will be reminded. The difference being, Wiseau’s outsider status comes out of a controlled and intentional departure from the structures of Hollywood that demand him to look, act and behave in a certain way. For women, our outsider status is one that is assigned to us, that we often spend our lives trying to disprove.
Let’s look at another film nominated this year I, Tonya. If we are at least to follow the movie, Tonya Harding lost her entire career, for knowing someone, who knew someone, who committed something atrocious to further a selfish intention. We have in the years following the attack accepted the punishment to fit the crime.
Over the last few months, we have seen this very thing happen to our favorite celebrities. Against enormous cultural friction, people have been losing their careers for being the perpetrator of harassment and assault. But, along the way, their fans are still asking that, if someone is a genius, that their personal faults and professional triumphs be kept separate. Questions still circle if someone’s career should be victimized by their actions.
So, we now live in a world where someone can lose everything for being indirectly involved in an assault (and going to the cops upon learning about it), yet there are people that are proven assailants, who directly (and carelessly) concealed their actions for years for the same crime, who are being asked by their fans to be given second chances.
To level the playing field, I don’t think the solution was to be softer on Tonya Harding’s sentencing. But where does that leave us? While I don’t see us moving to a place where enablers, people who knew about the attacks but did not come forward, are given jail time anytime soon. Instead, I think perhaps when we can begin to close that rift between someone being vehemently indirectly involved in a physical assault being stripped of a career (despite talent) and a widely known sexual assailant being commended in spite of these behaviors, it will be a start.
Another might be to assign the “assault” part of “sexual assault” with the same emotional definition as what happened to Nancy Kerrigan’s legs, as an unwanted infliction of pain and suffering with long-lasting consequences.