Tag Archives: #MeToo

Is it possible to separate the work from its creator?

13 Jun

 

by Linus Ekenstam via flickr

 

For as long as I can remember I’ve been completely disinterested in the private lives of notable creatives. I rarely read magazine accounts of the writer in her study, the artist in his studio, of the non-working lives of actors, directors, screenwriters, musicians et al. I’ve long adored the works of Leonard Cohen, for example, but I will not read his biography. I’m in awe of the narrative and imaginative powers of Hilary Mantel and I don’t have one fig of interest in any aspects of her personal life. I’ve never wanted to meet authors or attend writers’ festivals, though I’ve done both.

For me, knowledge of or engagement with a work’s creator interferes with my own imaginative and intellectual process. For me, the author was dead long before I ever encountered Roland Barthes. For me, “a text’s unity lies not in its origins (the author) but in its destination” (the reader).

I don’t know how to explain this lack of interest. I wonder if I ought to be ashamed to confess it. My gratitude, my admiration and my love for artists who enrich my world is inspired entirely by their creations which are complete in themselves, arriving in my life like jewels. Thank you, I think, for giving this to the world in all its complexity. I do not need or want to know anything else about you, other than that you have produced this work.

I think the first time this distance became impossible to maintain was in 1992, when Woody Allen was first of accused of sexually molesting his daughter, Dylan. I’d enjoyed an ambivalent relationship with Allen’s work: smart, funny, irritating, neurotic, mediocre, astonishingly good, boring, enchanting. After I learned of the accusations and became unwillingly aware of the proceedings that resulted, I could not watch an Allen movie without experiencing intrusive and unwelcome thoughts about its director. This knowledge of Allen’s alleged behaviour created in me a caution, a wariness, a holding back from engagement with his work that was extremely uncomfortable, to the degree that I could no longer enjoy his movies. I could no longer behave as if the author was dead: the author’s life had so vividly inserted itself into my world that ignoring it was impossible.

The work hadn’t changed. The talent and the fraught psycho-sexual ambiguities remained. But the text’s unities acquired a different destination: an audience altered by confronting information about its author. I didn’t find myself analysing the movies in the light of this new information, looking for clues in scripts and scenes. I simply experienced a powerful visceral retreat, a retreat I fought tooth and nail to resist because I didn’t want to lose my relationship with Allen’s body of work. I wanted the familiar partition between the private life and the work but try as I might, I could not maintain the distance.

The personal behaviour of the artist does not, in my opinion, affect the quality of his or her work. Great films remain great, great books remain unforgettable, great paintings are not altered for the worse by their creator’s offences. But once those offences are known, the works or the performance can’t be experienced with the same freedom, the freedom from knowledge and consideration of the artist’s private life.

It is not the works that change, it is their audience. The names of the creators have taken on new layers of meaning: where once Woody Allen signified a particular style of film making, now his name signifies that and sexual offences against his daughter. Kevin Spacey’s name signified a talented, mesmerising actor, now it signifies that and the man who raped and sexually molested those over whom he wielded power. As with Allan, I can’t watch Spacey perform anymore without that new knowledge of him intruding, yet his performance is still as superb as it was before I knew. I have changed as an audience, a reader, and it is knowledge of the artist’s life that has changed me.

Perhaps it is the desire of a child, to want to engage with works of art as if they exist independent of all human crimes and misdemeanours. There is a sense of loss of innocence upon realising that one may no longer enjoy freedom from knowledge. On the other hand, the freedom was an illusion all along, easier to maintain when scandals did not rupture the present, but were lodged safely in the distant past, or entirely hidden from public view.

I catch myself hoping, please let there not be anybody else whose work I love. Please, don’t make me have to lose anymore books and poems and plays and films and paintings to the knowledge of the human crimes and failings of their creators.

And last, but far from least, what about the victims? How can I laud Allen, or Spacey, or Dorothy Hewitt, after hearing the heart-wrenching accounts of those who’ve been so misused by them?

For me, the answer to the question that is the title of this piece is that once I would have steadfastly insisted that the work is separate from its creator, and that in its separateness lies its strength and beauty. Now I understand that there are circumstances that make such separation impossible, and this is not because the work is any the less, but because I as audience am changed by the knowledge of those circumstances. The change is not for the better.

At the same time there is an even bigger change underway, signified by the #MeToo movement that has led to the outing of so many notable creators accused of sexual offences against those over whom they have power and control. Beside this upheaval, my complaints are insignificant. Nevertheless, I sense we are going to have to find a way to acknowledge the disgust and anger we feel at those offenders, without discarding the creative work they produce. I have at this point no idea how this can be done.

 

 

 

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When one woman’s “bad sex” is another woman’s sexual assault.

18 Jan

 

 

You may have read the story published recently by Babe, in which an anonymous woman, Grace, tells of an evening she spent with actor and comedian Aziz Ansari.

The evening did not go well, with Grace leaving in tears after what she alleges was sexual assault. I recommend you read the article before proceeding with this post, but briefly, Ansari apparently repeatedly ignored Grace’s requests to “slow down”, “chill” or maybe have sex on the next date, and behaved in ways that sound obnoxious, uncaring,  & contemptuous of the concept of consent.

This post is not all about whether or not Grace experienced sexual assault. I am struggling to understand the need some women seem to have to police and control the #MeToo movement, a movement that sprang up as a consequence of the Harvey Weinstein revelations, a movement whose goal is to bring to global attention the extraordinary number of women who have experienced sexual harassment and assault at some point in our lives.  I’ve recently written about this, and the disapproval of #MeToo expressed by celebrity women such as Catherine Deneuve and Germaine Greer, at Independent Australia. 

This post is about the willingness of women to judge Grace. The overwhelming opinion is that Grace had a bad date with a man who was not very good at sex, that it was in no way comparable to sexual assault, and that her piece for Babe is nothing better than revenge porn. We need to interrogate these opinions, because they are lethal.

Briefly, Ansari is, according to The Atlantic:  not just a navigator of the culture of the moment, but also an author of it. He has literally written the book about Modern Romance. He has co-created a Netflix series that is in many ways a sitcomic version of the ideas at play in its pages. He has defined himself, show after show, stand-up special after stand-up special, interview after interview, as a male feminist, as a proud ally—as the kind of person who could both wear the Time’s Up pin and actually explain what it means to wear it. He has adopted the guise of a celebrity who is thoroughly fit for this heady moment, at home in a culture that is ever more feminist, ever more diverse, ever more empathetic.

Grace was excited at being invited out by Ansari, and given his reputation, had no reason to expect the evening would play out as she claims it did.

The Babe piece has provoked angry and/or disappointed commentary claiming that Grace’s story has seriously damaged the validity and authenticity of the #MeToo movement,  Some commentators have gone so far as to state unequivocally that Grace’s experience was not sexual assault.  

In this excoriating piece in The Atlantic, Grace is judged by an older woman who compares her experiences of “dating” with Grace’s account, and finds Grace seriously wanting.

There have been appeals for a more “nuanced and precise” use of language in the #MeToo movement, so that the difference between “bad sex” and sexual assault, the so-called “grey area,” is clarified. I would have thought that saying I don’t want this, I’m feeling uncomfortable,  can we do it next time, and “I don’t want to feel forced because then I’ll hate you, and I’d rather not hate you,” as did Grace, is a pretty clear indicator that a woman is not consenting to sexual acts, is in a state of considerable confusion, and that to persist in your demands in spite of her expressed discomfort is a serious matter, rather than just “bad sex.”

The point of the #MeToo movement is that women can reveal on social media, many for the first time, our experiences of sexual harassment and/or assault. This isn’t a legal discourse and it isn’t a literary event: it’s women speaking, frequently from a position of trauma, of our experiences. That anyone should seek to police our language and our tone as we engage with #MeToo seems to me to be an all-too familiar act of patriarchal repression. If you can’t say it “well” you shouldn’t say it at all, is the message.

The call for nuance and precision also alienates women who do not have this skill set, or, in speaking of something so powerfully distressing, are unable to edit their speech to meet these bourgeois requirements. As I said in my earlier piece, #MeToo is basic, in its infancy, and is being used as an alternative to legal systems that consistently and catastrophically fail women when it comes to sexual assault. Yet the minute something gets up that offers all women with access to the internet a platform, somebody is there telling us how we should use it and the manner in which we should speak of our experiences.

Why? Who does this policing benefit?

Many women have disbelieved Grace’s description of her experience as sexual assault. No doubt there are many other #MeToo stories that are disbelieved, however, nobody needs to care whether another woman believes these accounts or not. Another’s disbelief is irrelevant. Women writing opinion pieces based on their disbelief are not police officers recording a report. They are not sitting on a jury. They are not judges and magistrates hearing your case. Their disbelief is their business, it isn’t the business of women who’ve spoken out on #MeToo. The opinionistas were not present. They cannot know the truth of the situation. They cannot contest your subjective truth.

So why, in the name of all the goddesses, do they have such a need to make their belief or disbelief the story?

I see no problem with women writing nuanced and precise deconstructions and interrogations of the #MeToo movement. Language does matter. In fact, it’s important that the movement is theorised and analysed. However, this is a very different matter from demanding that women speaking of traumatic experiences do so in a particular way. This is nothing better than a linguistic colonisation of trauma.

So you may not believe some #MeToo stories. So what? You don’t have the right to decide if Grace or anybody else was sexually assaulted or not. You have the right to your opinion, and that’s all.

Maybe you call it bad sex. Grace doesn’t, and she was there.

By far the best piece I’ve read on the Grace/Ansari evening is this one. The author writes:

If we begin to call all sexual assault what it is, we will have to voluntarily admit more pain into our lives, pain that we have up to this point refused to let in the door. If we call this kind of sexual encounter an assault, then women who have been weathering what they call bad sex will suddenly have justification for the icky feelings and shame that follows them home in the cab.

Could this be why so many women have mocked Grace? Because they’ve called sexual assault “bad sex” and Grace isn’t playing that game?

I don’t know how else to explain it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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