Saga Jaubert is a final year War Studies & History student, particularly interested in how national security, intelligence, and nationalist politics shape international conflicts. In terms of non war-related interests, she also enjoys literature, theatre, and music, but hates the occasional small talk about Brexit.
[Featured Image: Black and white photograph of an audience in formal attire, gasping while staring at a stage or screen.]
It is practically impossible to have missed the wave of allegations of sexual misconduct and rape against male actors, directors and others involved in the film industry following the onset of the #MeToo movement in late 2017. The Harvey Weinstein affair was amongst the most scandalous ones, culminating with his trial after over 80 women having come forward with claims of having been sexually assaulted by the American film producer, often in the context of an audition for a movie he was producing. Several actresses claimed that when they refused his advances, Weinstein set out to ensure they did not get the role. Simply put, his position within the Hollywood industry clearly confirmed that where you find money, you will find power. However, the vast majority of accusations were directed against men involved in the more creative side of film. For example, several male actors lost important TV-show contracts, but others have mysteriously escaped such a career downturn. Woody Allen and Roman Polanski are two directors whose sex scandals only had a very limited impact on their reputation. Polanski’s example is especially concerning, given that he fled the United States shortly after pleading guilty to ‘unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor’ in 1977 and has been avoiding a prison sentence ever since. While he was expelled from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science in May 2018, the latter’s French counterpart institution caused a major stir in January 2020 when Polanski’s new film J’accuse received twelve nominations for the Césars, more than any other nominated movie. This adds a new dimension to the men-and-money relationship, namely that of men and talent – or ‘genius’.
In the film and entertainment industry, a male director very often acquires a certain nobility when creating movies that come to be considered as timeless masterpieces. An atmosphere of general consensus settles as we hurry to express our recognition for their remarkable and unforgettable contribution to the art of cinema. We sanctify the director as one of the most influential filmmakers of the century – and did you see his latest piece, it was simply breath-taking – and suddenly under no circumstances can we ever hope to question their work, for that would simply be too heart-breaking! Our blatant reluctance to notice any blemishes on the artist’s sacrosanct portrait makes us fear the day the paint will start chipping away and the uncomfortable truth will pierce through. By bestowing upon them the title of ‘genius’, we allow these artists to become untouchable and thereby provide the missing part of the equation: men with ‘genius’ collect power.
Where do these excuses stem from? Journalist Anne Applebaum spoke of ‘mitigating circumstances’ (quite a humorous parallel to essay deadlines) when condemning Polanski’s arrest by the Swiss police in September 2009: her arguments went along the unconvincing lines of ‘it was a long time ago’ and ‘he’s old now’. Another recurrent claim made by Polanski’s defenders is that his past experiences of trauma and repression, from living in Poland as a Jew under the Second World War to the murder of his pregnant wife Sharon Tate in 1969, should induce leniency on behalf of the judiciary and the general public. What this could possibly have to do with a confirmed criminal conviction remains a mystery; but it points to the fact that ‘genius’ acts as a ‘get out of jail free’ card, and that people are ready to find excuses to bail you out.
While it is especially present within film, the habit of sacralising the creator occurs in all artistic fields. When contemplating an artwork, be it a painting, a film, or novel, we have a regrettable tendency to reject anything we consider as having the potential to spoil the art; in fact, it is not the art itself that we seek to protect, but our experience of it. Art sparks off various emotions and pleasure, whether it is when admiring a Gauguin painting or watching The Pianist. And wouldn’t it just be a very unpleasant experience if you kept all the nasty things the artist has done in the back of your mind? A director with a police record simply does not facilitate our experience of his movies, and therefore we wave it aside. Our stubbornness in holding on to artists and creators who should have fallen from grace is an excellent example of selfishness. We do not want a dark cloud of guilt hovering above us while we enjoy an artist’s work: if we exempt ourselves from this guilt, then we exempt the artist from the law. And in order to do so, we maintain an aura of perfection around the creator, often by portraying them some kind of ‘misunderstood genius’. Just because an individual contributes in some way to the wellbeing of society, must we grant them an exemption from the law?
The dangerous habit of forgiving artists for their wrongdoings not only disregards the law, but it also ignores the victims of these wrongdoings. By finding a plethora of excuses (some journalists argued that Polanski had somehow ‘paid’ for his misconduct through his luxurious exile in France and Western Europe – le pauvre!), what we are communicating to the victims is this: not only do we do not listen to you, but we also condone this kind of behaviour when coming from people we ought to respect. How convenient it is to turn a blind eye to the monstrous acts committed by some of the most admired people! It seems especially easy when the topic is sexual assault and when the victims are women. It is the typical ‘yes rape is bad but [insert a mitigating circumstance]’ formula. For Polanski and his victim, aged 13 at the time, commentators pulled a variety of justifications out of a hat: ‘she was almost 14, which was the age of consent in California’, her mother was allegedly keen on pushing her into the film industry, and the classic ‘she was asking for it’…
What I am trying to point out is the sheer hypocrisy of our relationships with creators and artists who have at one point faced serious accusations of some form of misbehaviour. When the #MeToo movement gained momentum within Hollywood, many tweets conveyed a feeling of empathy with the victims, yet also commented something along the lines of ‘shame so much talent is leaving’. Have we really reached a point where our own entertainment and pleasure is given priority over some people’s rights, health, and wellbeing? This is not to say that these artists are not talented, nor is it to vindicate a decisive break with their art. The question of separating the art from the artist is another debate; here, it is simply a matter of whether or not we choose to defend a creator who has committed a crime. Such preferential treatment perpetuates a sense of insecurity for the victims: in an age where women are increasingly encouraged to denounce sexual misconduct, exceptions and exemptions reverse these efforts and bring forward the tragic conditionality of sexual assault prosecutions. We cannot turn a blind eye to artists’ wrongdoings and roll out the red carpet for them to walk on as if nothing had happened, for we are thereby providing full legitimacy and justification for their law-dodging. To pastiche the title of John Ford’s play, ‘tis a pity he’s a sexual predator, but a crime committed by a praised artist is a crime nonetheless; let us not act complicit in their wrongdoings.
Applebaum, Anne, ‘The Outrageous Arrest of Roman Polanski’, The Washington Post, 27 September 2009, http://voices.washingtonpost.com/postpartisan/2009/09/the_outrageous_arrest_of_roman.html.
Cooray Smith, James, ‘Can you ever separate the art from the artist?’, The New Statesman, 4 February 2019, https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/art-design/2019/02/can-you-ever-separate-art-artist.
Lyall, Sarah, and Dave Itzkoff, ‘Charlie Rose, Louis C.K., Kevin Spacey: Rebuked. Now What Do We Do With Their Work?’, The New York Times, 24 November 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/24/arts/charlie-rose-kevin-spacey-louis-ck-art.html.
Michallon, Clémence, ‘As a French person, I’m ashamed of how much my country protects people like Roman Polanski and Woody Allen’, The Independent, 23 August 2019, https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/metoo-france-roman-polanski-woody-allen-sexism-a9076516.html.
Shore, Joan Z., ‘Polanski’s Arrest: Shame on the Swiss’, HuffPost, 27 September 2009, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/polanskis-arrest-shame-on_b_301134?guccounter=1