The tip of the iceberg

Harvey Weinstein is the tip of the iceberg, and whilst men might be shocked about the numerous allegations and the audio recording of him persistently not taking no for an answer when inviting a woman he had sexually assaulted into his hotel room, most women I know are not. Far from it. We’ve all been there and heard that. We find it familiar. Men are socialised to believe that they need to be persistent and wear women down, rather than backing off when she expresses reluctance. There is also so much social shaming of women’s sexuality that people assume the gender norm is for women to play coy and men to have to overcome their defences.

The Daily Mail coverage* implies that any woman who talked to Weinstein, worked for him, or was pulled in for a photograph is complicit in his abuse. I think they are looking for blame in the wrong place. Whether intentionally or unconsciously, they seem to feel the need to misdirect blame as they are complicit in the objectification of women and the idealisation of powerful men regardless of their exploitative behaviour. What about looking at first and foremost at the man who is assaulting and raping women, then at  the staff who set up and cover up such actions for him, the PR and legal team who defend it, and the board who turn a blind eye to it and then finally at the social norms that allowed him (and so many men with power) to do these appalling things over and over again so for so long?

The Daily Mail coverage, and many other articles (and numerous men in the comments sections), imply it is the responsibility of the female victims to speak up, when they are the very people whose vulnerability and lack of power was exploited, and who then carry shame and traumatic memories that they have to overcome to maintain their ability to work and operate in an environment where Weinstein and men like him have all the power. That’s a really difficult ask. Women who speak up about sexual assault are dirtied by association, accused of being liars, have their sexual history raked over, and are then blamed for not fighting back, not speaking up earlier, giving mixed messages, continuing to interact with the person. There is no winning. And they have to revisit traumatic memories and tell shaming and highly personal stories that expose their vulnerability to their colleagues, friends and the general public. Anyone who speaks up is exceptionally brave. Anyone who chooses to stay silent is still not culpable for the actions of their abuser.

There is also this narrative that concerns should have been reported to the police, and that only a conviction shows an allegation is true and all else could have a multiplicity of motivations from revenge to extortion. The problem is that few examples of harassment or sexual assault have witnesses and clear cut evidence, and this narrative acts as if suspicions and personal experiences without witnesses are enough to build a case. Sadly, in my experience, without biological/medical evidence they are not. The examples that were reported to HR departments and the police led to no prosecutions and were never compiled. Even Bill Cosby with 50 allegations has only had one reach criminal charges and that reached a hung jury. Savile had allegations and rumours, and some reports to police and the BBC, yet nothing happened until after his death. The Fox CEO and lead newscaster were only dismissed after multiple allegations and have faced no criminal charges (and in fact got a $40 million parachute in the former case and continued to be endorsed by Fox despite multiple allegations in the latter). I hope things are changing for the better, and clustering of multiple independent allegations can be used as evidence in cases like this, but that has not been the case to date.

The saddest figures are the way that sexual crimes do not reach convictions by comparison to other forms of crime. I’ve read estimates that 90% of rapes, sexual assault and child sexual abuse go unreported to authorities, and that 90% of those reported do not reach prosecution, and that less than half of those prosecuted lead to a conviction. That means that 99% of perpetrators don’t get convicted – and there is bias in which ones do, as richer, more powerful and more intelligent perpetrators are much harder to convict than those facing the disadvantages of poverty, mental health problems and learning disability, who are more likely to leave evidence or confess and don’t have the deep pockets for an expert legal team to defend them.

I think the most telling detail of all in this story, is the terms of Harvey’s contract with the weinstein corporation, which cannot fire him for sexual misconduct provided he pays any compensation to victims himself to keep any costs away from the company. I mean imagine having lawyers write that in, and the board accept those terms of business. To me that suggests he knew he was a serial abuser, and so did everyone else in the company. I like this little snippet from the onion: How Could Harvey Weinstein Get Away With This?’ Asks Man Currently Ignoring Sexual Misconduct Of 17 Separate Coworkers, Friends, Acquaintances. I think it speaks to how common harassment and sexual impropriety is, how it has been normalised as something men do if powerful enough to have the opportunity, and how we are socialised to turn a blind eye to it.

I blogged a year or more ago about rape culture and my own experiences of feeling at risk of being raped. What I maybe didn’t say explicitly is that from personal experience, even without the acute trauma of a violent incident or serious assault, it is incredibly hard to speak up, and incredibly hard to get anyone to take you seriously when you do. You feel responsible for being a victim, confused, ambivalent and shamed about what happened – and, importantly, you often don’t recognise it as assault, abuse or harassment unless it is a violent or traumatic event because it has been so normalised.

Writing this I remembered another example that has stuck with me from the same era of my life. I was sixteen and in an A-level physics lesson, watching a demonstration at the front, when, masked from view by the people sitting in front of us, a boy from my class put his hand on my breast. I was shocked, but I felt like he’d have just claimed it was accidental and I was making a fuss about nothing if I said anything. I was already the only girl in the class, and I wanted to belong and be “one of the lads”. It felt like it would have been prudish to complain about something so trivial, and overreacting to interrupt the lesson to make him stop. Saying even a whispered “stop it” would have caused everyone in the class turn around and stare at me, and would have made a big scene about something small. So I said nothing. And he took my silence as compliance and did it again the next week. He waited until I was seated and stood behind me. He put his hand into my top that time. It turns out it gets harder to speak up once you haven’t the first time. So he kept doing it in every demonstration he could for the rest of the course. He was in a band with friends of mine, and I never said anything to them about it either. I didn’t tell a teacher or even consider reporting him to the police.

At the end of sixth form he and his friends were presenting silly awards at the leavers prom. They awarded me “a pair of jugs for the biggest and best female contribution to science” on stage in front of all my peers. I understood the innuendo, smiled and took the award with good humour, posing for a photo when prompted to do so, with the two measuring jugs held at chest height. Having breasts and doing science was a legitimate target for sexual humour, and not a single teacher or pupil checked in with me afterwards or spoke up to suggest otherwise. I didn’t even think of it being normalised sexism or publicly acceptable harassment. That wasn’t in my vocabulary at the time.

I didn’t speak up about the guy who plied me with alcohol and repeatedly undressed me down at the docks either. I didn’t think he had committed a crime. I think in my teenage mind his behaviour was not that different to my other experiences of persistent sexual approaches, except that I had made myself more vulnerable by being intoxicated and in a private location with him. I was acutely aware that I had kissed him in front of other people, that I hadn’t said no explicitly, and that it would be my word against his. That belief was then socially reinforced – I told several mutual friends what had happened, and the group response was to make us shake hands and pretend to get along. Years later he unexpectedly stuck my hand on his erection at a party, and I didn’t bother saying anything to anyone then either. Somehow that didn’t fit the box for sexual assault in my head either.

I’m quite a confident person, who has strong opinions and would normally speak up about issues. But as a teenager, and in context, I wasn’t able to. I felt I had to continue to allow young men who had been sexually inappropriate to me to be part of my social circle. If I had been an aspiring actress who was auditioning for a role that might kickstart my career, and when I was sexually assaulted it had been by a powerful industry kingmaker of a man with the capacity and reputation to shame me to the media or sabotage my career I can only begin to imagine how powerful the forces at play would have felt. I grew up in a progressive culture, and have the benefits of many aspects of privilege, intelligence and social support. Yet looking back I am shocked at how vulnerable I was, and how normative that is. Men are given the implicit social message that sexual dominion is the reward for status, and that women will show token resistance that they should overcome. Women, on the other hand, are implicitly trained to expect sexual advances, to see them as flattering and to look for a socially acceptable way out. We are taught not to offend men, to be polite when rejecting advances, and to feel responsible male sexual behaviour towards us, and guilty when we did not anticipate risks. The power balance is stacked in favour of the perpetrator and against the vulnerable and those lower down the hierarchy.

Sadly, society is full of powerful men who exploit women, and other people who normalise this, turn a blind eye to it, play along with or facilitate the behaviour, or continue to suck up to them for personal gain regardless of what they do to others. It is a serious social problem, and the fact that a serial sexual assaulter and overt misogynist was elected president of the USA says it all really. I am just glad that people are starting to speak out more against institutional abuse, and that perpetrated by people in power. At least this time the consequences are substantial: he has been fired, kicked out of BAFTA, his CBE is likely to be withdrawn, his wife has left him, and he has been roundly condemned by industry colleagues and public figures. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have kicked him out stating:

We do so not simply to separate ourselves from someone who does not merit the respect of his colleagues but also to send a message that the era of willful ignorance and shameful complicity in sexually predatory behavior and workplace harassment in our industry is over. What’s at issue here is a deeply troubling problem that has no place in our society. The board continues to work to establish ethical standards of conduct that all Academy members will be expected to exemplify.

That statement is so much better than talk of Weinstein as a “sad, sick man” entering rehab as if the cause of his bad choices was some kind of irresistible medical condition. There are other appropriate outcomes too: Police in the UK and USA are investigating rape and sexual assault allegations, and this story has allowed other victims to speak up about other actors, directors, managers and powerful men in many industries. The #metoo hashtag has shown how endemic the problems are. There are encouraging signs that victims are being believed, perpetrators are facing justice or social stigma, and cultural norms are being challenged. I hope that this momentum continues enough to make meaningful change.

And whilst I’m on my soapbox, I must mention the Twitter statement after they suspended Rose McGowan in the wake of her calling out Ben Affleck for denying knowledge of Weinstein’s pattern of sexually exploiting/assaulting women. They said

“Twitter is proud to empower and support the voices on our platform, especially those that speak truth to power. We stand with the brave women and men who use Twitter to share their stories, and will work hard every day to improve our processes to protect those voices”.

What utter drivel. Twitter have consistently failed to act on reports of harassment and have been the tool of choice employed to hound and threaten so many women. They empower hate mobs more often than providing a platform for those speaking truth to power.

Regulating and providing consequences for the content on social media according to the laws that apply to other forms of communication is a step that is desperately overdue. Publishers who profit from users on their platforms should be accountable for their response to inappropriate content that is reported. To motivate this I believe that users who are the victims of campaigns of antagonism, threats or unwanted sexual content should be enabled to seek financial redress where the platforms do not respond sufficiently to prevent such harassment.

*this is an indirect link to an image of the DM coverage, so as not to provide traffic for their horrendous clickbait content

Sherlock jumped the shark

Warning: Contains plot spoilers for series 3 (and for August Rush)

I think Benedict Cumberbatch and Matin Freeman are great actors, and the BBC have made a very stylish production of Sherlock with complex and nuanced characters. Both Sherlock’s use of drugs and the relationship between the two men has been portrayed in an interesting and convincing way. I particularly enjoyed the hint of Asperger’s in the way that Sherlock can use his visual observation skills and visual memory to reason in a way that seems almost impossible to a layperson, whilst struggling with interpersonal relationships. So it was with high expectations that I watched the latest set of episodes, and found them sorely disappointing.

I should say that it isn’t the first time I’ve built up my expectations of a film or show only for the reality to not live up to them. I have long identified a pattern I call “the Total Recall effect” whereby films seem to vary in their quality according to my expectations. The first time I watched Total Recall (the 1990 original, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger) I thought it sounded like a weak premise with a wooden actor, but was pleasantly surprised. The second time I watched it, some years later, I remembered it as a good film and was sorely disappointed. The third time I watched it, after several more years,  I nearly turned it off, remembering it to be dire. However, it wasn’t that bad and I enjoyed it enough to stick with it until the end. I learnt that my expectations influenced my subjective experience; hence naming the Total Recall effect.

I also hate films that mix realism with implausibility. I’m fine with suspending belief entirely for a fantastical tale, or for enjoying the interplay of characters in a different time or place (eg I love Firefly’s futuristic western set in space) but I hate it when stories that are designed to seem within a stretch of reality suddenly take a leap into the impossible. In the film August Rush, for example, I had that experience of a semi-plausible plot jumping the shark. It was a stretch I could just about tolerate for the boy to reject family placements and stay in the care system in the hope of finding his real parents, and to then run away in search of them (despite the fact he’d have been adopted as an infant, would never have known anything but the love and belonging of his adoptive family, and wouldn’t have felt quite the same yearning). His relationship with music was beautifully captured and was the highlight of the film. But the grand finale where everything fell into place, and his parents were both seeking him and each other, and were present in the right place at the right time to hear the concert and recognised it calling to them, then recognised each other and him, made it all fall apart.

That accounts for some aspects of my disappointment with Sherlock but not all. To be honest, whilst I applaud the idea of also including female characters and narrative as a general aspiration for all media, I wasn’t a fan of Watson’s wife being an international espionage expert (it felt a bit like the second series of Heroes, where everyone got superpowers). Likewise I didn’t buy Sherlock having a sister. They felt like a step away from the source material that wasn’t in keeping with the rest. I also found it frustrating that each episode spent three quarters of its time laying out a riddle, and then wrapped it up far too quickly and neatly in the final quarter. I also felt cheated that unlike earlier shows, we didn’t see how Sherlock put together the clues to reach his conclusion. It was presented in an abstract way, a bit like magic. Viewers were left to assume that the song combined with some numbers in the graveyard could be rearranged to lead to a sentence that unlocked the location of the well. But why those graves, and how did it unlock the location – we were short-changed in the explanation.

As ever, huge amounts of trauma were included in the plot, without an appropriate scale of emotional response. The repeated prompts to be soldiers wasn’t sufficient to carry the uneven emotional responses (smashing the coffin because he had upset the pathologist, whilst being unmoved by four murders and recovering from feeling responsible for a suicide in less than a minute). Likewise later scenes showed the repair of 221b Baker Street to its former state, indicating that the explosion that would have supposedly killed Mrs Hudson in the flat below, and threw them out of the windows in bursts of flame had not only caused them no injuries, but hadn’t even penetrated the floor boards of the flat.

However, my main grumble was with the character of Eurus and the plot that surrounded her. The actress playing her was good, and the twist of her being several characters was fun, but the story and back story they gave her was appalling. This woman was supposed to have been born a dangerous psychopath, and to have spent her entire life from the age of around seven in solitary confinement as a result. She was supposed to be lonely, anxious and delusional but to express that by doing nothing for two decades and then engineering plots that skipped continents and killed multiple people without emotional response. Well I call bingo on the theme of propagating negative myths about mental health, with zero points for reality.

First, it reinforced the association between mental health problems and risk of committing crime, when people with mental health problems are much more likely to be the victims of crime. Second, it gave the impression that mental health problems are things that you can be born with, and unrelated to your life experience. For example, we didn’t see that Eurus had been emotionally and sexually abused to create her distress and anger. We saw a highly intelligent child in a highly intelligent family that felt a little left out when her brother had a friend, and as a result decided to kill the friend, then burn the house down, and wanted to kill her brother. She was portrayed as a petty and jealous child, whilst presumably nobody in this highly intelligent family was able to show her affection or to help her regulate her emotions. And nobody recognised the risk or tried to intervene in a supportive way.

Eurus was supposedly unable to tell the difference between laughing and screaming, and was portrayed as being entirely without empathy, yet she had the subtle social insight to see (from her minimal observations whilst supposedly secured in a prison island) that her brother was unable to communicate any affection for the woman who was in love with him. Then, despite the lack of normal human interaction for most of her life it transpired that she had developed sufficient mind control to reprogram others within minutes of conversation. She had never done so as a practise, or in a way that was unsuccessful or aroused concern, however. But after 20 years she had suddenly taken over the entire prison/asylum island sufficiently to get people all over the place to transport her to and from the island, to set up her murder scenarios, to dangle three men in front of the window and cut the ropes to make them fall off the cliff to their deaths. No single person in the entire staff of the island failed to fall under her thrall, or had any moral doubts about her plans that were sufficient to breach her conditioning enough to raise an alarm (whilst the prison governor was able to disobey her to commit suicide in his attempt to save his wife). And she was able to set explosives, procure sedative darts and transport Holmes and Watson to an entire set created at her old family home. And this frightened, lonely girl who had supposedly only killed a child once in a failed attempt to play was suddenly killing many as experiments to test her brothers.

Sherlock, despite his intellect and his “mind palace” of perfect visual memories, was supposed to have entirely erased the existence of his best friend being murdered by his sister, or even of having a sister at all. When he spent the evening with the daughter of the famous serial killer, he could notice the drips of water and the line on her dress from her exit from the taxi, but not the fact that she was his own sister in disguise, putting on a false accent. Likewise he could predict that Watson would be at a particular location in two weeks time, but not see anything suspect in his flirtation with the woman on the bus. Meanwhile, despite the whole of MI6 and the intellect of Mycroft being involved in her supervision, Eurus could come and go from her prison island enough to make a therapy practise that both Watson and Holmes thought to be bona fide. And in the finale, Sherlock could believe that the voice of an adult woman he had been interacting with, communicated from an attic in the rain or a prison island, was that of a small girl in a crashing aeroplane.

In short, once you apply any critical thought, this series was a woeful disappointment, despite the stellar cast, impressive budget and stylish delivery.

 

Happily ever after: Some thoughts on trauma in the movies

I watched a romantic drama this evening in which a man and a woman who has a child from her past relationship fall in love. The ex-boyfriend is controlling, threatening and manipulative and tries to sabotage the relationship. He is shown getting drunk and grabbing the woman’s arm tightly to stop her leaving twice, and at another point he threatens the man with a weapon. Towards the end of the film the ex-boyfriend is drunk and upset. He threatens to take the child, who runs away and falls into a river. The ex-boyfriend rescues the child at the cost of his own life, and the mother and child witness him meeting a sudden grizzly death. Then the couple get together, become a family with the child and the film ends, leaving them to live happily ever after.

Having watched a set of characters for an hour and a half that were portrayed sympathetically and realistically enough to feel invested in, this seemed like a weird ending. I was left with this really disconcerting feeling that the writers, producers and large numbers of reviewers of this film (who gave it respectable scores on Amazon and IMDB) thought that this climactic scene tied up the ends neatly and left us with the uplifting moral righteousness of the baddie getting his just deserts, the couple unimpeded in their romance and a perfect nuclear family.

But how could a child who just witnessed his father’s death (and probably felt responsible for it) not have any emotional reaction to that? Would it not be yet another loss of a close male relationship for this young child, who had already lost others as part of the back-story? How could the mother not have complex feelings about the death of a guy who has been emotionally and potentially physically abusing her for five years? Would her relief perhaps be tinged with guilt that her new romance triggered these events, or at being relieved to see the back of him? Would a mother not feel sadness in empathy for her child’s experience of trauma and loss? Would she not feel echoes of the loss of her own father in childhood, or her brother the previous year? Perhaps their different ways of dealing with grief and loss would challenge the romantic relationship? How about our leading man, who was mourning lost friends and showing signs of PTSD at the beginning of the film. Would it not re-awaken all the unresolved grief he is repressing? And what of the ex-boyfriend’s parents and their stoical thanks to those that tried to rescue him? Does nobody cry for this man, who gave his life up to save his child? Was his inept handling of the relationship that resulted from an unplanned pregnancy in his teens so bad that he deserved to die?

Why couldn’t the film have been one that illustrated the reality and complexity of modern family relationships? Surely the alternative was for the father to have shown his priority was the wellbeing of the child, during the rescue scene, but to have survived and been part of a renegotiated family configuration in which the child was able to have both a positive experience of contact with him and to live in the new family unit with Mum and step-Dad? As I often tell children who feel that any affection to foster or adoptive carers is disloyal to their birth family, love is not like a cake where you have a finite amount to share out between all your relationships, love is like candles where using your fire to light others just creates more brightness for everyone. But if the father had to die, then they needed to show the emotional fallout of that. They can’t have one without the other, any more than they could show a person standing in sunshine without showing their shadow.

As it stood, the film profoundly failed to acknowledge the impact of trauma on the different characters. And this film was far from alone in that. So many traumas occur in films and TV shows that it seems they are very much part of the expectation nowadays. In every vampire franchise I’ve seen the head counts of characters close to the main protagonists who die are extraordinary, and yet they briefly mourn and then move on. In Vampire Diaries, an average of 19 characters shown on screen die per episode, and the main character, Elena, has lost almost every living relative and most of her friends, as well as dying herself, twice! Many other shows track medical emergencies, murderers, serious crimes, drug dealing and power battles, yet they are dealt with in an entirely sanitised, emotion-free way. Sure, a pathologist would be well-used to the physical nature of human corpses, but even in the most hardened professionals some cases creep through the cracks into your psyche. The person that looks a little like someone you know, or reminds you of something in your past. The tragic story that becomes apparent from the cause of death, or the untimely demise of a child. We are not robots analysing data, surely we recognise that people are like us and the people we care about?

The latest Star Wars film showed planet-scale genocide without that even being acknowledged by the cast. It’s a really good film otherwise, and I really enjoyed it, but the scriptwriters chose to show genocide as shorthand to make the baddies bad. It could equally have done so through less wide-scale slaughter, or by showing the snatching of children to indoctrinate as stormtroopers or many other plot devices. Including the slaughter of millions of people was a plot choice, and given that the film is part of a historical franchise that is pitched to the whole family and used to market toys to children, that is a pretty weird choice of plot. To then skim over making light of it makes that more disturbing, rather than less, once you think about it. I’m not saying the main characters should have processed the emotional impact there and then; I’m sure if you are busy fighting for your life or have 20 minutes to save the world and see some planets blow up, that isn’t the moment you down tools, lie down and cry. But even an extra second of footage showing sad faces, one person humanising the loss by mention of having lost individuals there, or an additional comment about how awful that loss was, would have given some hint of the emotional connections of all the people whose lives were extinguished in an instant. In the original trilogy when Alderaan was destroyed they used the change in the force to acknowledge how monstrous it was. I still remember the scale and momentousness given by the line “I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced. I fear something terrible has happened.” And this is what was missing in The Force Awakens.

But I think this lack of acknowledgement of millions of deaths was also illustrating something very poignant about human processing of events; we identify much more emotionally with death or distress at the individual scale than we do at a population level. Think of how the discovery of the body of young Aylan Kurdi humanised the treatment of Syrian refugees in the news narratives, for example. Prior to that point, they were treated like an invading army of ants, but in the weeks immediately afterwards some individual stories were told and people felt more sympathetic and we were shown footage of refugees being welcomed into various European countries. I think that change in response according to the scale of deaths is part of human nature, as is our ability to shut off from suffering and get on with life, if that is necessary to our survival. At the extreme end, people living through wars or in areas of high risk or conflict are probably coping by living in “survival mode” and using more primitive parts of the brain in favour of the prefrontal cortex, which has reduced activity under threat. It makes sense, logically, as we do have to compartmentalise awful stuff to just keep on going sometimes. I think back to all the life events that happened whilst I was pregnant (including a car accident, my granddad dying, a close colleague dying unexpectedly, my job being placed at risk, my babies being born very prematurely) and think I only coped with everything I couldn’t avoid by going into a psychological bubble and putting all that bad news aside to deal with later.

Maybe these fictional narratives of unacknowledged loss that have become so prevalent in TV and film are using this tendency – our ability to put emotional distance between ourselves and tragedy through various forms of displacement. If something awful happens far away, or it happened in the past, or in a different cultural context, or in fiction, then we are able to distance ourselves from it and deal with it at a purely cognitive level. We think about it but don’t feel it. The shame is that this seems to be how many politicians and decision makers deal with the problems affecting people in our day to day lives. Although it is ‘psychologically expensive’ to allow emotions in, it is only with empathy that we can really make informed decisions. So in real life as well as in fiction, I think a bit more feeling would be a good thing.