Belfast Telegraph

Spare us the grandstanding, the Hollywood Dream Machine is built on tired male fantasies

Film stars joining the post-Weinstein protests will do a worthy cause more harm than good, writes Gail Walker

Harvey Weinstein
Harvey Weinstein
Gail Walker

By Gail Walker

Hard on the high heels of the Golden Globes, we had the post-Weinstein Baftas. Cue the symbolically-black dresses and bringing 'heroic' 'ordinary' women down the red carpet. We even had to endure Frances McDormand shouting 'Power to the People' like some leftover from the late Sixties.

Already, there is a weariness creeping into the whole thing, and the idea that what we are witnessing is not a movement connected with real lives but gesture politics, more a fashion statement than a deep current of change.

Why the cynicism? Oh, I don't know. Is it Meryl Streep's support of child rapist Roman Polanski? Could it be the sight of Whoopi Goldberg as a spokesperson - Whoopi of 'rape-rape' fame and defender of Bill Cosby?

Or Scarlett Johansson's working with both Polanski and with Woody Allen not once, not twice, but three times? Allen, of course, was accused of abuse by Dylan Farrow, his adopted daughter with Mia Farrow. Allen denied the allegations and no charges were brought, but his career has been dogged by the claims ever since.

Kate Winslet has vacillated over those same two gents? Her "bitter regrets" over "poor decisions" to work with certain directors followed ringing endorsements of both of them, admitting that, being aware of the Allen scandal, she "put it to one side" to "work with the person".

Or perhaps it's to do with all those who for decades must have been well aware of Weinstein's behaviour but remained silent until he was felled by others coming forward.

Hollywood, in time-honoured fashion, is absorbing Me Too and Time's Up into being just another part of its self-promotion, another opportunity to say 'Look at me - but not too closely'. Look at us, the bastion of all that is decent and true, painfully coming to terms with our own pasts. And this sickly embrace by Tinseltown will, in the end, do those movements more harm than good.

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Let's be honest: the message behind the Time's Up and Me Too campaigns is the right one. Women have to deal with not just sexism but sexual harassment. The exposure of men who misbehave, abuse positions of influence, who humiliate and intimidate women - mainly under the guise of innocent 'flirting' or 'having a laugh' - is a good thing.

At its heart is a simple aim - to tell men that behaving like a bully simply isn't on; that they are not going to get away with it; that victims of abuse are no longer going to enter into a conspiracy of silence; that stories are going to be heard and experiences aired.

Of course, this doesn't mean to say that all accusations are true. Nor does it mean that people have to necessarily take offence at the most inconsequential of incidents or assume a clumsy attempt at a romantic overture or just a well-intended compliment is a matter for public outrage.

But this simple message will inevitably be diluted if Hollywood is allowed to be the centre of attention, if only because the Scarletts, the Emmas et al are locked in a sort of cognitive dissonance. Sexual harassment and abuse comes from denying women (and men) their humanity and individuality and turning them into mere (sex) objects.

But isn't that the point of Hollywood? Hollywood is all about turning women (and men) into objects, designed to fit very specific roles. The very films that appear on our screens are part of the problem. To begin at the beginning, if you were to take Hollywood at face value, it is a truism that, by and large, only good-looking people have adventures, stories and learning curves. Be they detectives, criminals, adulterous partners or surgeons, you can bet your bottom dollar that they will be good looking. Less than perfect? Sidekick or minor character for you, I'm afraid.

And if that's true for men, it is a lot, lot worse for women.

Even half-a-century after Germaine Greer and the first wave of feminism, women Hollywood-style are largely what they have always been - eye-candy (with several subcategories of eye-candy, admittedly: girlfriend, wife, whore, boss from hell, psycho or - if the film is trying to undermine stereotypes - sexy scientist/academic). If they are a handful of years older than the male star, then they're 'mother'.

How do you tell if a Hollywood star is playing 'an ordinary woman'? They don a big jumper, a tad less make-up and carry a bag of groceries to their car. Not for them the washed-out, tired women of Scandinavian dramas where female detectives look as grey and baggy-eyed as their male colleagues.

And it is not only about looks. The dreams of the 'Dream Machine' seem to demand that women are isolated. Rarely in a Hollywood film does a woman exist without a man, or with other women of equal stature. Indeed, 'other' women exist merely to allow them to discuss/vie for the affection of the leading man.

But only as long as they don't keep going on and on and on as women are wont to do. Study after study shows that - even in supposedly 'women' genres like the rom-com - men hog the vast majority of dialogue. Even when you are a Disney Princess you have to be buttressed by male sidekicks doing all the talking. Even if you are pen-and-ink, you'd better know your place. Just look pretty, toots.

And young, of course.

Ignoring Hollywood's Lolita complex, it is a cardinal principle that leading women have to be not just years but decades younger than the leading man. Clooney, Pitt, Cruise, Washington, Ford - even 'everymen' like Tom Hanks and Steve Carell - have to have much, much younger sidekicks. Is that credible? Is that realistic? No, but it seems to be written in the contract - women must not only be beautiful but they must be young.

In other words, the fantasies that are projected on our screens are largely male ones. The medium is the message. That is why the message of Time's Up and Me Too will be diluted.

Tackling the ingrained assumptions of Hollywood and actually changing anything will be a lot more daunting than donning little black dresses and turning the post-Weinstein era into a fashion moment. It is far more difficult than giving large donations to worthy causes.

No, it would involve stars and potential stars saying not just 'No' to the unwanted sexual advances of a slimy producer or director but saying 'No' to scripts, 'No' to the underlying assumptions of mass popular culture, 'No' to trading on looks and (potentially) 'No' to being a 'big star'.

Easier, I suspect, to unmask yet another (alleged) harasser, show more smutty texts and (for some) overlook the past.

And to take those inferior lucrative roles when they are offered, because, sure as anything, some young starlet will step into your shoes, the second you say no.

Belfast Telegraph


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