Tuesday, 8 January 2013

When we celebrate men like Polanski, what message do we send?

Trigger warning

You would have thought the last few months would have taught us something about celebrity men and violence against women and girls. After forty years, the women who had accused Jimmy Savile of sexual assault and rape were finally being listened to. The rumours that had circulated for years were suddenly, truly heard and those in charge stopped dismissing these voices as ‘just the women’. Initial doubt and disbelief was quickly replaced with justified horror when the evidence was just too big to be ignored. In the end, the only ones defending Savile or questioning the allegations soon found themselves under arrest for alleged sexual offences, or having to justify their own conduct in the 70s. 

You would have thought that after all this, we would have learnt something. And yet, there are some men who can go on the run from accusations of raping a child that seem to escape criticism, justice or even condemnation. Who instead continue to receive adulation and have high profile defenders. I’m talking of course about Roman Polanski who is just about to enjoy an all-singing, all-dancing retrospective at the BFI

There is no doubt of course that Polanski makes a good movie. I’ve written before about how violent men can still make good tunes and films. The issue is that their talents in other areas should not and must not give them a free pass for their violence. And yet all too often that is exactly what happens, at the expense of women’s voices and freedoms. 

What’s the difference between Polanski and Jimmy Savile? They are both accused of raping girls. Children. Of course, Savile is guilty of a greater number of offences. It’s just one of them has won some Oscars and one was responsible for fairly forgettable light entertainment (if we needed any further evidence of the sexism at the Academy we could well remember that in over 80 years they have only awarded a Best Director Oscar to ONE woman, whilst happily handing out three to a child rapist). 

In the New Statesman yesterday I read an incredibly gushing article previewing the BFI Polanski retrospective.  A cursory mention is given to the crime from which he has spent decades evading justice:

He also spent a spell in prison and then under house arrest in 2009 and 2010 on historic rape charges dating back to 1977. A thorough documentary, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, examines the case and its ambiguities.” [my emphasis]

Unless you subscribe to the belief that a girl is somehow culpable in her own rape or follow the Whoopi Goldberg defence that this wasn’t really ‘rape rape’ (bearing in mind what Polanski is accused of was drugging and anally raping a child, one wonders what Whoopi would count as ‘rape rape’), then there are no ambiguities in this case. At all. Polanski may be a great director, he may have had a terribly tragic life but he is also a man who went on the run from this case. He does not deserve our defences, he does not deserve our respect. He does not deserve celebrities and politicians falling over themselves to try and diminish his crime and minimise his responsibility. 

The Polanski case is a classic example of rape culture and the way we simply refuse to believe the horror that across every walk of life, across society, there are some men who rape women, men and children. And these men include those we hold up as our cultural heroes. In order to cope with this horror, we try to justify their behaviour through their other talents. 

It goes something like this. 

“I really like The Pianist but obviously I really hate rapists. But I know that the director of The Pianist was accused of raping a child. But I can’t possibly like something created by a rapist! Therefore the case must be ambiguous, it can’t have been ‘rape rape’.”

We see this twisted, tortured logic occur over and over again. Assange is a good example. Obviously he is innocent before guilty and we simply don’t know whether he is guilty until the case is tried in court. But throughout the media circus surrounding his case we have seen the laudable and important work of Wikileaks used to excuse and diminish the accusations made against him. At best this takes the form of a refusal to accept the possibility that someone can do things we agree with and also potentially do things that are wrong. At worst it has descended into violent misogyny against the women who have accused him of rape and sexual assault. 

Ched Evans is another example. Of course no-one is going to admit to being ‘pro’ a rapist. We all know that rape is bad, that committing this crime is horrendous and cruel and violent. So instead his supporters tried to claim that it wasn’t ‘really rape’, that the woman was at fault and, ultimately, some of his supporters committed a further crime against that woman by naming her online.  

The list is long. The Shit List on Feministe gives you a good idea of how long. 

It matters that our cultural institutions, politicians and icons have decided to ignore or brush aside Polanski’s crime. It matters because it says something very serious about how we view women and girls, and how we view our right to bodily autonomy. The fact that we can still have writers and commentators calling this case ambiguous is incredibly silencing of women’s and girls’ experiences of violence. It re-enforces the belief that women and girls are somehow to blame for the violence committed against us, that we are the cause of this violence. And whilst we continue to laud and celebrate Polanski, then we are making a statement that his artistic reputation is the most important thing, more important than justice. 

Rape Crisis Helpline: 0808 802 9999

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