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Blog | Of Monsters and Bombshells: A blog in three parts

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Of Monsters and Bombshells: A blog in three parts

By Karen Boyle, University of Strathclyde

Content note: these blogs focus on media representations of sexual assault, victim-blaming and sympathy for abused men.

In Scotland, the Rape Crisis national freephone helpline is open 6-12 every night on 08088 01 03 02. If you are in Europe, the Rape Crisis Network Europe, Women Against Violence Europe, and the European Commission provide links to country-specific services across Europe.

On January 5th this year, the film and television awards season got underway with the 77th Golden Globe Awards. Bombshell, the film focusing on the sexual harassment allegations which led to the downfall of Roger Ailes, CEO of Fox News, garnered acting nominations for both Charlize Theron and Margot Robbie. In the television drama category, Russell Crowe won for his portrayal of Ailes in Showtime’s mini-series, The Loudest Voice; whilst both Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon were nominated for their roles in another series focused on sexual harassment in television, Apple TV’s The Morning Show.

As the after-parties wrapped up on the west coast, over in New York, the man who had dominated the awards shows for two decades, in more ways than one, was in court for the start of his criminal trial on sexual assault charges.

And then last week, whilst women took to the stand to give evidence against Weinstein in New York, the untimely death of LA Lakers star – and Oscar-winner – Kobe Bryant prompted heated debate about how to acknowledge his history of (alleged) rape whilst celebrating his achievements and mourning his death.

The performances, the awards, the obituaries and the coverage of the trial raise a number of questions about how the media represents sexual assault and harassment, its (alleged) perpetrators, and the women who report it. Over the next three blogs, I am going to deal with two of these. In this first instalment, I consider who counts as a “real” abuser, and how alleged perpetrators mobilise these stereotypes in their own defence. In the second, I will offer some thoughts on how the revisiting of the Kobe Bryant rape case relates to these arguments. And in the final instalment, I will deal with the “credibility paradox” women face when they speak out about sexual assault.

 

Part One: “I know what people are going to say about me …. Right-wing, paranoid, fat”

This is the opening line of the mini-series The Loudest Voice, spoken in voiceover by Russell Crowe as Roger Ailes, the disgraced former CEO of Fox News.

It is the final word I want to focus on here.

Fat.

Why does it matter that Roger Ailes – like Harvey Weinstein - was fat?

In this blog, I will suggest that in representations of these men and their (alleged) crimes, “fatness” works in contradictory ways to make these men both more – and simultaneously less – credible as perpetrators of sexual violence.

As fat, balding, ageing men, both Ailes and Weinstein were (in Weinstein’s case, is) physically out-of-place in industries marked by very narrow ideals of physical “beauty”. The narrative around Crowe’s transformation into Ailes is instructive. An interview on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert opens with a discussion about how long it took Crowe to get into his Ailes “outfit” every day (six hours apparently). Reviews seem endlessly fascinated with the “tons of latex” necessary to transform a fairly conventional leading man into a grotesque abuser. In a sense, then, the fascination with Crowe’s performance is precisely that he is so patently not Roger Ailes: “you never forget you’re watching Russell Crowe”. This constructs a false – but reassuring – dichotomy between aberrant, instantly recognisable abusers and apparently normal men. In doing so, it stops us asking what men like Ailes might have in common with men like Crowe.

I am not suggesting here that Crowe is guilty of sexual assault. Rather, I want to highlight the way in which Ailes and Weinstein were – for many years – seen as embodying masculine success based on traits (such as dominance and aggressiveness) which are now used to condemn them. In asking what Ailes and Weinstein have in common with other men, we can unpick the cultural values which allowed them to flourish.

We’ve yet to see dramatisations of Weinstein’s story, but in news reports there is a similar process at play where Weinstein functions as the visibly monstrous other against which other men are measured. Of course, the scaleof allegations is significant here (100 women have now spoken out against Weinstein) and can be used to minimise the severity of others’ abusive behaviour in comparison. But that’s not all that’s at stake. The widely-used phrase “he’s no Harvey Weinstein” is more personal than this, it asserts a physical difference, often underlined by the use of photos or video footage. Indeed, this line crops up in The Morning Show in the mouth of accused TV-anchor Mitch Kessler (Steve Carrell). Mitch uses the comparison to assert his relative innocence, but the physical nature of the comparison is also underlined by the use of archival footage of Weinstein. The well-groomed, self-contained Mitch does not look like a rapist - whatever that means.

Feminists have been highlighting the media’s problematic propensity to portray abusers as “monsters” for a long time. Disturbingly, one of the things we are already seeing in the Weinstein trial is how this can be mobilised in the defence of accused men. Here, I want to highlight two interrelated ways in which this works: by creating himpathy for the accused, and by victim-blaming.

The term “himpathy” comes from feminist philosopher Kate Manne. She argues that we are so routinely encouraged to see the world from men’s point of view that, even when they commit – or are accused of committing – violent crimes, we are asked to think about what the accusation means for them.

An obvious example of this was the coverage of Brock Turner’s rape trial and guilty verdict. Infamously, the Judge was concerned about what a custodial sentence would mean for Turner’s promising swimming career. The media coverage set the stage for this outcome. As Chanel Miller – the writer and animator who survived Turner’s attack – wrote in her victim-impact statement:

And then, at the bottom of the article, after I learned about the graphic details of my own sexual assault, the article listed his swimming times. She was found breathing, unresponsive with her underwear six inches away from her bare stomach curled in fetal position. By the way, he’s really good at swimming.

To compare the media treatment of “monsters” like Ailes and Weinstein with this sympathetic treatment of Turner might seem like a stretch. But whilst himpathy is most obvious in cases like Turner’s (or, indeed, Kobe Bryant’s), Weinstein’s defence team have also tried to mobilise himpathy to exonerate him.

Much of this has hinged on Weinstein’s physical appearance, particularly as contrasted with the – typically young, conventionally-attractive – women he is accused of assaulting. This is something Weinstein himself played on. In a recent podcast for the Guardian, writer, model and writer Zoë Brock describes how Weinstein broke down in tears following his (alleged) sexual assault of her, telling her “you don’t like me because I’m fat”. As presenter Anushka Asthana suggests, in this way Weinstein tried to make himself into the victim.

The same logic is displayed in a pre-trial interview Weinstein’s lawyer, Donna Rotunno, gave to Vanity Fair:

They didn’t look at Harvey and say, ‘Oh my god, he’s the most gorgeous guy I’ve ever seen and I want to go to his hotel room.’ They looked at Harvey and said, ‘Harvey can do something for me.’ And so who was using who?

Rotunno is not alone in seeing in this physical contrast evidence of the women’s duplicity. As I have argued elsewhere, red carpet photographs function as something of a scarlet letter for Weinstein’s accusers, sticky with shame not for Weinstein (who wouldn’t want their photo taken with a beautiful woman?) but for the women. The polished, glamorous images undercut their narratives of victimisation, whilst Weinstein’s physicality is read as a warning sign the women chose to ignore. For instance, memes abound in which Weinstein is portrayed as the grotesque, slimy, slobbering Star Wars’villain Jabba the Hutt. Although these representations are clearly not flattering to Weinstein, his monstrosity is their shame and ignorance, as the women pose with arms around him, a signal of their apparent willingness to sacrifice their sexual morality to get ahead in the industry.

That this battle over representation is continuing in the courtroom is highlighted in the prosecution’s submission into evidence of photographs of Weinstein with Bill Clinton, to remind the jury of the power he once held. This is necessary not least as Weinstein’s current physical presentation – hunched over a walker and moving with apparent difficulty – is at odds with claims about his physical might.

There has been considerable media debate over whether Weinstein needs the walker or whether he (and his team) are using his apparent physical decline to generate sympathy. In some ways, though, the answer is immaterial. The question itself has become an advantageous distraction. In an Opinion piece for Newsweek, Rotunno writes:

This 67-year-old man can't undergo surgery without ridicule. He is attacked for his appearance and accused of faking his ailments. He is chastised in public and derided during meals.

In her attention to his age, ailments, appetite and appearance Rotunno perpetuates the very focus she apparently decries, but does so in order to render Weinstein the victim: of ridicule, attack, chastisement, derision and accusation. To establish Weinstein’s innocence, Rotunno seems intent on highlighting his vulnerability, and the endless media speculation about his physical injuries and incapacities is helping her in this pursuit. Even when reports express cynicism, they play into Rotunno’s hands, underscoring her point that her client has been (unusually for a man) singled out for physical scrutiny.

All of this points to the need for caution in using physical description not only of victims, but also of (alleged) perpetrators in reporting sexual assault cases. Of course, there are times when physicality is relevant: for instance, Weinstein’s size relative to that of his accusers is material to how the alleged attacks played out. But Weinstein’s (or Ailes’) girth, appearance and contemporary physical limitations are otherwise irrelevant. Worse than that, lingering on these details may actually play into the hands of his defence.

In reality, what is most monstrous about these men is that they aren’t monsters at all.

In Scotland, the Rape Crisis national freephone helpline is open 6-12 every night on 08088 01 03 02. If you are in Europe, the Rape Crisis Network Europe, Women Against Violence Europe, and the European Commission provide links to country-specific services across Europe.

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