Admitting complicity is not enough: men need to understand and challenge the full breadth of sexism

Peter Jackson was applauded for admitting he played a role in blackballing female actors, but if men wish to be allies, they need to stop compartmentalizing and participating in sexism.

Recently, film director, Peter Jackson, admitted to Stuff that he was an “unwitting accomplice” in Harvey Weinstein’s efforts to blackball Ashley Judd and Mira Sorvino, explaining:

“I recall Miramax telling us [Judd and Sorvino] were a nightmare to work with and we should avoid them at all costs. This was probably in 1998… At the time, we had no reason to question what these guys were telling us — but in hindsight, I realize that this was very likely the Miramax smear campaign in full swing.”

Upon reading these comments, I was immediately struck by the onslaught of gratitude extended to Jackson by actors on social media. On the one hand, it is great to see someone confess to being complicit — albeit “unwittingly” — to a larger system of predation. And it must have given some form of closure to both Judd and Sorvino to finally understand their careers had truly been sabotaged for not having caved to the sexual predation of Weinstein. On the other, I can’t help but call this out of willful ignorance on the part of Jackson: “We had no reason to question what these guys were telling us.” And he is not alone.

It has been just over two months since Weinstein’s harassment and abuse came to public attention, and in these two months we have witnessed the most insane posturing from males in and out of Hollywood who claim to not have any idea about sexual harassment within their field. From men like George Clooney, who looked the other way simply because the rumours he heard amounted to “certain actresses [having] slept with Harvey to get a role,” to Matt Damon who said, “I like to feel that… women have always felt safe in the environments I’ve worked in,” it is clear that men are not seeing the sexism that every single woman I have known in my life has both seen and experienced.

If there is one takeaway from 2017 it is this: sexual predation functions very much like the dead people that only Haley Joel Osment’s character can see in the The Sixth Sense — only it is half the population seeing the “dead” and the other half walking about quite aloof to this “alternate reality.” The only problem with this sci-fi metaphor is that there is no alternate reality and there are no invisible acts of sexism: men are complicit in sexism — including sexual harassment — by willfully checking out, just as Clooney, Damon, and Jackson clearly have done. We know what Judd and Sorvino lost in the deal. Why are we not asking what Jackson and other men gain by keeping the secrets of their brothers?

Damon claims he would have stopped such behaviour had he seen it, but this notion is belied by his recent statement to Peter Travers:

“And we’re going to have to figure — you know, there’s a difference between, you know, patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation, right? Both of those behaviors need to be confronted and eradicated without question, but they shouldn’t be conflated, right?”

Damon may feel like he is an ally to women, but when he comes out with patently bizarre statements like this, it is clear that women cannot feel that he is an ally to them.

The difference that Damon might perceive between these acts — of being tapped on the ass, of rape, and of pedophilia — are not insignificant in their similarity for the victim. They are both very much part of the same system of power. Having someone else inform us which is “better” to suffer misses the point of structural misogyny. If anything, Damon’s comments forgive the very edifice of sexism: the symbolic and real social codes that dictate that female bodies can be touched, grabbed, and raped and that female subjectivity can always be and is perpetually questioned.

Another part of structural misogyny evidenced in attempting to hierarchize “good” from “bad” forms of sexism is how males are trying to co-opt the voices of women by explaining how sexism functions and has affected our lives. This has led to a domino effect of males mansplaining sexism to women daily, over the past two months. Recently, Stephen Colbert deconstructed Matt Lauer’s sexual harassment of women and Andrew Cuomo deftly mansplained sexual harassment to Karen Dewitt, a female reporter, talking over her while she asks Cuomo what he will do differently to address workplace sexual harassment in his government. Laugh or cry, these men miss the forest for the trees. But I would argue that most men do, and these recent months have opened up the eyes of many women to the vast unconscious minefield that is structural misogyny in our society.

Cuomo stating that sexual harassment is not a problem of government but of society belies the question that Dewitt poses him. More interestingly, however, it also reveals the deeply troubling nature of sexism: it is always over there, it’s not here, and it’s never me. Just as Cuomo became very nervous by Dewitt’s questions, spinning the problem of sexual harassment as a social ill (gee, thanks, Andrew), it is clear that males do not know how to address the problem of the systemic oppression of women without explaining to women what is wrong with their political analyses. And I have to wonder why this is so, since the answer lies in male socialization and necessitates that males change how they interact with females and each other, how they raise their children, and how they inform their own subjective experiences in their families and social circles. Men have agency, but there seems to be a willingness to avoid looking closely at some of the issues central to this social dilemma, namely male violence and male sexuality.

After reading Damon’s words, Minnie Driver astutely critiqued his naiveté concerning the sexual harassment of women on Twitter, writing, “Gosh it’s so *interesting how men with all these opinions about women’s differentiation between sexual misconduct, assault, and rape reveal themselves to be utterly tone deaf and as a result, systemically part of the problem (*profoundly unsurprising).” She elaborated in an interview with the Guardian, saying:

“I don’t understand why Matt would defend Louis CK… It seems to me that he thinks that because he didn’t rape somebody — so far as we know — that what he did do wasn’t as bad.”

Driver argues that all forms of sexual harassment and sexism are inextricably linked to one another:

“There is no hierarchy of abuse — that if a woman is raped [it] is much worse than if woman has a penis exposed to her that she didn’t want or ask for… You cannot tell those women that one is supposed to feel worse than the other… The idea of tone deafness is the idea there [is] no equivalency.”

In response to her statements on Twitter, Driver faced more mansplaining,with one “genius” replying, “Minnie, if everyone thought like you we would execute people for jaywalking.” As if women can’t tell the difference between jaywalking and sexual assault…

The reality of the allegations pouring out of Hollywood, network media, and pretty much every single profession is only news to men. Women have lived with this sort of abuse since childhood and have been groomed to accept it and to shut up about it lest they risk their careers and economic stability. They have also been taught to shake it off and normalize it. And there is good reason for women to do so, if nothing other than economic self-preservation. As Driver noted recently when discussing a producer who told her that she wasn’t “hot enough” to be cast for Good Will Hunting, she could not raise her voice about this issue because she too realizes the deft economic repercussion she would suffer. If someone like Driver cannot speak out about specific instances of sexual harassment, what chance have women in far less visibly protected professions?

And we must never forget the capitalist structures buttressing so many social conventions. Follow the money and there is a minefield of various types of business insurance specifically for executives who sexually harass their employees, called EPLI (employment practices liability insurance). Add to this the nondisclosure agreements women are forced to sign in settling out of court, and this amounts to an entire system set up to protect men. The irony here is that it is not men who need protecting, but women. So not only are women subjected to sexual harassment on the streets and in the workplace, but her employer may very well have taken out insurance against her own interests and in the interests of male workers who sexually assault her.

It is that sober reality women need to confront in acknowledging how high the cards are stacked against us. From the economic realities where women are still paid 20 per cent less than men today to the fact that loans for women are still granted 15-20 per cent less than for men, despite their asking for loans far less frequently and being charged higher interest rates than men, women face an economic uphill battle that includes their earning potential in spaces where predatory males are not only statistically paid more, but are economically protected from their predation against female workers.

It is this reality that men like Clooney and Jackson need to confront when preferring to understand that women just naturally attempt to “sleep their way to the top” or that they are “nightmares to work with.” The coding of how men hide their sexual predation is part of the problem. How other men so gullibly believe these codes, time and time again, is the other side of this dilemma.

Driver says, “There is not a woman I know, myself included, who has not experienced verbal abuse and sexual epithets their whole fucking life, right up to being manhandled and having my career threatened several times by men I wouldn’t sleep with.” While she calls out this pattern of behavior, addressing those who attempt to create a hierarchy of sexual harassment and pointing out how such hierarchies are self-defeating for women’s rights, Peter Jackson gets credit for having admitted to taking part in the professional blacklisting of female actors without any greater critique of his actions.

We need to hold the Weinsteins and Lauers of the world responsible for their actions, but we need to understand that these men do not act alone or without the knowledge of a wider berth of people protecting them. All forms of sexism, including sexual harassment, are sadly still integral to male socialization today. The central issue in the aftermath of Weinstein and #MeToo is that, despite this tremendous social problem being highlighted, it is not enough to think of sexual harassment as a manageable social ill while sexual assault and pedophilia are posited as more pressing problems to address immediately.

Sexism is not a bull in a china shop, readily visible and somehow controllable if only we can get rid of the “bull.” Sexism is a constant and steady chipping away of the soul — it is subtle, it is nuanced, and it is pervasive throughout all structures of society, politics, economics, and language. It is this combination of the subtle symbols and messages transmitted to females and males throughout their lives that results in the enormous weight of sexism in all its Technicolor glow. We cannot simply tease out the ass slap from the act of rape, or the predation of Weinstein from those who help ensure that his secret will be safely guarded, while punitive measures for those who do not comply are maintained by men who carry forth his mandate. All these pieces are integral and interdependent in the systemic oppression of females such that even when women speak out, men are still there to tell us that we’re doing it wrong or that we should be grateful that at least we weren’t raped.

Julian Vigo is a scholar, filmmaker, and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development. Contact her via email: julian.vigo@gmail.com.

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  • Rachael

    Brilliant article. Sharing. Thank you!

  • fragglerock

    I don’t think Damon’s statements are patently bizarre.
    I don’t think there is a willingness for men to avoid looking closely at some of the issues.
    I don’t think the reality of the allegations is news to men.
    I think they’re aware and I think comments like Damon’s are just more of the same gaslighting that men have been doing to women for centuries.
    Clooney and Jackson don’t need to confront reality, they need to stop gaslighting women.
    Playing dumb and pretending to accept partial responsibility are forms of manipulation. The endgame is still the same — get women to shut up. Whether it’s lulling women into believing they’re safe or progress is being made, it’s all meant to make women stop speaking up and relax back into their oppression.

    • Jani

      I seriously believe that they think it will all be back to ‘business as usual’ before long —that they can solve a deep-seated problem by issuing a carefully worded press release. As women collectively, we’ve got to make this issue hit hard. If women are being raped the last thing we need is a reaction like “Oh, another one says she was raped. Meh.” Followed by a PR statement that goes something like “… denies all allegations of non consensual sex” A serial rapist/sex offender then hides behind “I’m a sex addict, I was in denial and now I’m in therapy” because it’s easier to come back from rehab having been treated for an “addiction” rather than coming out of prison as a convicted rapist. One outcome means minimal losses and a temporary blip in one’s reputation, the other means no one would have anything to do with anything or anyone ever connected to a convicted sex offender. The answer is obvious. Women need legally enforceable justice against these sex criminals. They shouldn’t be allowed to buy their way out of legal redress.

  • Nice article. Over at Reuters, the word is that corporate shareholders are getting restive over sexual harassment. The issue seems to be that settlements are pushed under the rug, with shareholders and even boards kept in the dark about how much money companies are losing over harassment. In addition to the political and ethical issues, a climate of sexual harassment can also be looked at as poor management. The EPLI mentioned in this article is troubling because in addition to limiting the repercussions for the company for sexual harassment, it’s another way to keep the problem hidden.

    • acommentator

      “The EPLI mentioned in this article is troubling because in addition to limiting the repercussions for the company for sexual harassment, it’s another way to keep the problem hidden.”

      That is true. But there is a lot more that can be said on the subject.

      First, these kinds of claims do typically involve a fair amount of exposure for the defendant company, even when there is insurance. For one thing, coverage for sexual harassment in EPLI policies is often “sublimited” to a smaller amount than other types of employment liability. A large award may exceed the coverage. These kinds of claims also often have a higher “retention” (the amount the insured company has to pay itself before the insurance company starts to pay). Also, coverage is often contested, as the lag time between when harassment occurred and when the claim is made often causes coverage issues. Finally, insurers don’t like paying out on these kinds of claims and they will often charge increased premiums to insure companies that have these kinds of claims.

      The other thing to keep in mind is there is tension between punishing the harasser and ensuring that there is compensation paid to the harassed. It makes little difference with respect to big companies, which can afford to pay. But for smaller ones, the insurance can make it much more likely that damages will be paid. The insurance company wants to do the most efficient thing, and that will often mean settling the claim. Insurance companies do not like to gamble on trials if they can help it. Where there is no insurance, the claim may not be made (plaintiffs lawyers may be much less interested if there is no insurance is available to pay the claim). Or if it is made, it may be defended vigorously, which in many cases may lead to no recovery.

      There are some types of claims that “public policy” will not permit to be insured. However, that policy usually only applies to the actual harasser, not the company he works for. So even if there was a public policy exception to coverage, it would often not bar coverage.

      If there was a strong public policy against insurance paying these kinds of claims, I am certain it would result in a fair number of companies being more vigilant against them. On the other hand, I am equally certain that a significant number of women who have been harassed would not recover any damages. There is no easy answer to this, IMO.

  • As much as I agree with you on Heavenly Creatures and your main idea in general, I have to interject that Arwen was a very minor character in the LOTR books and it was a sexist Tolkien who wrote her giving up her immortality for Aragorn. So many sexists needing so many fingers pointed at them.

  • Jani

    Excellent points. These men are the cultural gatekeepers after all. Weinstein demanded a “lesbian” sex scene in ‘Frida’ in order for the movie to be made, otherwise he would have pulled the plug on the project. It’s so obvious these men are full of such porny shit. I’ve seen similar but disturbing content in music videos (two women performing for one man watching them) and in TV advertisements (two young women dressed in their underwear having a pillow fight …oh yeah as if grown women have pillow fights in their underwear …). Oh, and an all-female infantilised “girl group” pole dancing in short skirts in a recent music video. You have to ask … WHO is making these decisions? And why? My likely guess is it’s the demographic of midlife middle age men in their 40s–50s who start the day off by masturbating to online porn, that is, images of women decades younger.

  • How true, all of it. And how well put!

  • acommentator

    “P.J. actually gave Arwen a much bigger role to play than Tolkien did)”

    He also, in the Hobbit films, invented the character Tauriel, who has no counterpart in any work of Tolkien. Tolkien has powerful female characters but they typically act through magical (or perhaps spiritual) powers. This was done specifically to add an action oriented major female character to the film, as there are no significant female characters in the Hobbit. To do this they made major changes to the plot.

    Whether Jackson had social, creative, or purely monetary reasons for this, I do not know. But it seems worth mentioning, IMO, in the evaluation.

  • catlogic

    Thank you, I was just going to jump in on the matter of Arwen, but you wrote it much more eloquently!

  • Marian

    Apologies for my error re Arwen. I haven’t read the LOTR books, and was going by a film review of the first film, which I’m sure from recall said that the character was invented for the film. However, my memory may be playing tricks. Perhaps the review said the character was expanded for the film. Whatever. I’m sorry for the error.

  • Cassandra

    This comment is true and also A+ entertaining.

  • acommentator

    And for what its worth, Arwen’s two brothers seem to have made the same choice.