Applauding Abusers: Sexual Violence and the Problem of the “Golden Man”

This story was originally published in the 3 March 2017 issue of The Reed College Quest.

The 89th Oscars, held this past Sunday, are likely to go down markedly in history for a number of reasons: from La La Land’s mistaken announcement as Best Picture winner when Moonlight was actually victorious, to the fact that all four nominees for the Best Foreign Film issued a joint statement opposing Trump’s travel ban. Not to mention, the eventual winner Asghar Farhadi, would have been barred from entering the U.S. to receive the award under the very same ban.

These are all deeply important topics, and each deserve — and have sparked, in media outlets across the country and the world — their own thoughtful reflections. It would be remiss to write an article about the Oscars and be silent to these occurrences, particularly at a time when political tensions are so clearly played out on its culturally influential stage.

But it would be wrong, too, to be silent about another deeply political tension played out on the Oscars’ cultural stage — especially when it’s one that so much of society is already so silent about, namely domestic violence and sexual assault.

Casey Affleck is many things: an actor, a brother to the more famous Affleck — Ben, and an Oscar winner. He is also a white man who has been taken to court multiple times for sexual harassment and assault.

This is nothing new for the Oscars, or Hollywood. Most importantly, it’s nothing new for the world that we live in.

In 2017, Affleck won the Oscar for Best Actor after being taken to court by two women for sexual harassment in a two week span in 2009. In 2014, Woody Allen won the Honorary Award, twenty one years after he first sexually assaulted his then seven-year-old daughter, Dylan Farrow. In 1977, Joseph Brooks won the Oscar for Best Song, and Roman Polanski was arrested and charged with raping and drugging a thirteen-year-old girl, Samantha Gailey. Gailey had been told Polanski was photographing her for French Vogue and would kickstart her modelling career. Two years later, in 1979, Polanski won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Thirty two years later, in 2009, Brooks was brought to trial for raping or assaulting eleven different women.

In a 2009 article for The New York Times, reporter Ralph Blumenthal wrote that “Lt. Adam Lamboy, the commanding officer of the Police Department’s Manhattan Special Victims Squad, said that a search of Mr. Brooks’s apartment turned up an item some of the women have said Mr. Brooks used to bedazzle them: his Oscar. ‘The Oscar was used as a prop,’ Lieutenant Lamboy said. As the women told it, Mr. Brooks would say: ‘This could be you, this could be you holding this Oscar. If you do what I say.’”

Woody Allen’s daughter, Dylan Farrow, spoke out against the abuse she suffered at the hands of her father, yet another darling of the academy, when she was a child. She wrote in a 2014 letter to The New York Times, “. . . he sexually assaulted me. He talked to me while he did it, whispering that I was a good girl, that this was our secret, promising that we’d go to Paris and I’d be a star in his movies.”

The way that cultural status — and, quite literally, Oscar statuettes themselves — are wielded by famous men like this says a great deal about the power and gender dynamics often employed in cases of sexual violence and assault. Rape, sexual assault, and domestic violence are often related to sex, of course. But they also have a very great deal to do with power and violence, and are often tactics of abuse employed to assert domination or control over women, whether implicitly or explicitly. These power dynamics become particularly important when powerful, lauded men — like Affleck, like Allen, like Brooks, like Polanski — prey on younger women, utilizing their status as famous Oscar winners to enact sexual abuse and violence with little repercussions.

Sexual abuse claims frequently stall and, according to Farrow, “sexual abuse claims against the powerful stall more easily.” Women and children are not believed when they speak up against their abusers; those abusers, in turn, are all too often protected not only from a loss of financial capital (as very few abuse cases are taken to court and even fewer find the abuser guilty), but are also protected from a loss of their social capital too. This is especially true when these claims are made against those we idolize as cultural heroes.

Johnny Depp beat his then-wife Amber Heard so badly that in her 2016 court filing for a restraining order against him she wrote, “there was one severe incident in December 2015 when I truly feared for my life.” At the time, the fifth installment of Disney’s wildly successful Pirates of the Caribbean, was in post-production, in which Depp played the starring role. Depp has earned over $300 million from the fourteen year franchise, and will no doubt earn more with the newest Pirates film, coming to theaters on May 26 this year, and currently being promoted with huge posters of his own face.

Although their fame and fortune are unusual, the violence, abuse, and fear that men like Affleck, Allen, Brooks, Polanski, Depp, and so so many more inflict upon their wives, children, coworkers, and acquaintances are far from it. According to the National Coalition of Domestic Violence, more than 20,000 phone calls are made to domestic violence hotlines across the country every single day.

Domestic violence and sexual assault are not abstract concepts. They exist in places far, far closer to our lives than the gilded stages and sets of Hollywood, whether we choose to see it or not. One in three — one in three — American women have been victims of some sort of domestic violence in their lifetime. One in five American women have been raped. And those are just the instances that have been reported.

“Violence against women is not limited to actual, physical violence,” Heard articulated for a media statement in the aftermath of her experiences. “It is also about how we talk about it, and how we deal with it in the media and our culture.” Or, as Farrow put it in 2014: “Other [survivors] are still scared, vulnerable, and struggling for the courage to tell the truth. The message that Hollywood sends matters for them . . . Woody Allen is a living testament to the way our society fails the survivors of sexual assault and abuse.”

When we put these men quite literally on pedestals, we articulate them as people that we, as a society, consider ourselves proud of. Their behaviour, even when it happens in private, takes on new meaning due to their very public lives. Whether we like it or not, cultural icons are often personal icons too. When well respected institutions like the Oscars endorse men whose list of talents include both acting and evading the law when it is employed to protect survivors of assault — when the Oscars side with rapists, pedophiles, abusers, and assaulters — it does matter. Presenting these men with Oscars often makes them culturally untouchable, as if the golden varnish on the shiny statuettes somehow transfers to their recipients and makes them golden too.

The Oscars, like any cultural institution, have never been apolitical. Who we praise and put on our cultural platforms has very real political repercussions; different presences on the Oscars’ stage have the possibility to change or continue our political and social structures in different ways. When cultural institutions like the Oscars don’t listen to the experiences of survivors, it sends a message that their real life stories aren’t as worth hearing as the scripted tales their abusers play out on the big screen. It’s a lot less emotionally fraught to watch a romantic comedy like Midnight in Paris, or a fantasy flick like Pirates of the Caribbean, than it is to really engage with the narratives of survivors and their experiences. But the last thing we need now is to privilege the million dollar fantasies of wealthy Oscar-winning white men over the women they abuse, assault, and walk away from — with their careers and reputations intact. Survivors of domestic violence and assault don’t have the privilege of hiding behind golden statuettes or Honorary Award film reels — and their abusers certainly don’t deserve that privilege either, no matter how golden these men might look under the lights of the stage.