The Art vs. the Artist

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Revelations of sexual misconduct have roiled the entertainment industry, among others, in recent months. The allegations of sexual harassment, assault, and intimidation against producer Harvey Weinstein seemed to have unloosed a dam in Hollywood, and numerous directors, actors, and other entertainers have been accused of using their positions to abuse women.

In light of the accusations, networks have been cancelling TV series and specials, and no doubt the fate of some feature films hangs in the balance. I’m heartened by the change in attitude towards sexual impropriety in the workplace; it’s long overdue. But I wonder how to balance our admiration for the talent and artistry of a person with the ugly reality of his behavior in real life.

For decades there has been debate about such figures as Roman Polanski and Woody Allen and the degree to which we should ostracize their work out of protest at their sexual misdeeds (although in the case of Allen, many people see nothing wrong with his dating and eventually marrying his ex-wife’s adopted daughter. I would not be one of those people.) Heavyweights in Hollywood have always stood up for these men, even though Polanski had to flee the country on a statutory rape charge. But the question is, should we not see Chinatown, The Pianist, or Rosemary’s Baby – or indeed even recognize their greatness as films?

Sometimes the rejection of an artist’s work is based on unambiguous factors. Leni Riefenstahl, for instance, used her directorial talents to create propaganda for Hitler and Nazi Germany. It also doesn’t take much hemming and hawing to denounce D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, a film that glories in the creation of the Ku Klux Klan. But what about the well-known anti-Semite Richard Wagner? His Nineteenth Century operas and other classical music are renowned works of art. Should we protest any productions of his work today, knowing what we know about his bigotry and xenophobia?

Over the years people have boycotted entertainers for political reasons. In fact, it seems like the entire world of the arts is fraught with politics these days. In fact, recently I had to stop and consider whether someone might be offended if I gave their child a book written by Bill Nye, the Science Guy. But short of objecting to the content of a specific book, movie, or other work of art, I’m not sure I want to let my personal opinion of an artist affect my appreciation of their work.

I don’t have the answers here. It seems to me that works of art should be judged on their own merits. Yet I would be hard pressed to attend a Louis C.K. performance these days. And should I finish binge-watching House of Cards or shun the series in protest over Kevin Spacey’s lame excuses and rationalizations for preying upon young men? Do time and distance make an artist’s work more palatable? I just don’t know.

Still, I am glad to see the cult of celebrity being shattered a bit to allow victims the ability to confront abuse and intimidation. After all, actors, directors, comedians, musicians and other artists are only human. They should be held to the same laws and standards as other humans, famous or not.

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The Resonance of Two Tiny Words

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When I was a young teen, I was walking alone on a street in my safe, suburban town when a middle-aged man in a white sedan pulled up alongside me. He stared at me out of his rolled-down window and said, “Would you have sex with me for $100?” I fled. A few years later during my college years, at my summer job in an insurance agency, the boss called me into his office on my last day of work and made me kiss him on the lips.

These unpleasant memories have come back to me as the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment scandal has lit up the news and social media. Weinstein joins a long line of men who have used their power to sexually prey upon women. Thus when actress Alyssa Milano wondered what would happen if all women who had been sexually harassed posted “Me, too” to their Twitter accounts, social media exploded with those two seemingly innocuous words.

It is hard to have grown up in our culture without having experienced unwanted sexual attention from men: catcalls and wolf whistles; boys rating girls’ attractiveness as they walked down the halls of school; groping and leering. In the Sixties and Seventies to which Weinstein alluded in a lame attempt to justify his behavior, treating women as objects was commonplace. A cursory viewing of the TV series Mad Men has such verisimilitude that it’s enough to give women my age unwelcome flashbacks. The workplace was particularly daunting for women. For example, flight attendants were subject to weight requirements, and women could be fired from their jobs for becoming pregnant. Employers openly told their female employees that men were paid more because they had to support families.

While women have made many strides in society, their characterization as sexual objects persists. Although Weinstein’s detractors are many, some noted celebrities have come to his defense. Woody Allen, for instance, complained of a “witch hunt” atmosphere in which a guy couldn’t even wink at a woman (or child, in his case) without getting into trouble. That’s right, Woody. We don’t want your winks – or pinches or whistles or any other demeaning or sexist gestures. You see, we are human beings, not your fantasy objects.

Mayim Bialik also completely missed the point by claiming that unattractive actresses (presumably herself) are not harassed in Hollywood. Bialik clearly thinks that Weinstein’s (and O’Reilly’s and Roger Ailes’s and Bill Cosby’s …) predatory behavior was about sex. But for sexual predators, it’s all about power. Objectifying women and threatening their careers if they don’t “put out” are ways of keeping women in their place. And judging from the “Me too”s all over Facebook and Twitter, women in all walks of life have been subject to this same power game.

There are laws on the books to protect victims (both male and female) of sexual harassment. The problem is that a code of silence often prevails, and those in power buy the silence of their victims. It is easy from the outside to say that these actresses should have gone public immediately to stop the predatory behavior of Michael Weinstein. But in an industry as difficult to succeed in as is the entertainment world, it’s understandable why women would choose not to rock the boat. And it is maddening that in the 21st Century women should need to call men out on this dehumanizing behavior.

I am currently reading a book titled Get Savvy: Letters to a Teenage Girl About Sex and Love by Kathleen Buckstaff. In the book, Buckstaff reveals her own emotional struggles after being sexually abused as a teenager at an East Coast boarding school. Like many victims, she kept her abusers’ secrets, but the emotional fallout led to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in adulthood. Clearly the stakes are high in our culture for victims of sexual predators.

We need a sea change in our attitudes about gender roles, power, and sex. But first we need to break the code of silence and tacit acceptance around sexual abuse and harassment. And maybe it starts with saying, “Me, too.”

Young Women Need Feminism

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Kathrine Switzer made history in 1967 when she participated as a registered runner in the Boston Marathon. Despite rules barring women from competing, Switzer signed up and managed to run the entire marathon, despite an official physically trying to drag her out of the race. Fifty years later, Switzer jubilantly ran in this year’s Boston Marathon, leading a group of 100 women runners.

After the race, Switzer was quoted as saying,  “If young women today take for granted the fact that they can compete like men in the sport of running, that’s fantastic. That’s what we wanted when we began working for acceptance.” (amightygirl.com) I’m not so sure I agree with her.

I think it’s a problem that young women today don’t realize how many rights women gained only through the activism and struggle of their forebears. It has been less than 100 years since women won the right to vote in America. Even in more recent history, women were discriminated against in the workplace and barred from many rights that today’s woman takes for granted.

In the 1960s, for instance, women could be refused a credit card, and married women had to have their husbands co-sign to obtain one. Married women were also listed on passports as simply the wife of a man. Most of the Ivy League schools barred women from admittance until the late Sixties and beyond. And only married women with menstrual difficulties were allowed to purchase contraception in the early Sixties.

Even as women began entering the workplace in greater numbers, they faced widespread harassment and discrimination. In the 1960s, women earned approximately 60% of what men earned, largely due to the occupations that were open to women, but also because men were looked at as the breadwinners and therefore in need of greater compensation. This was quite overt, as evidenced in the comedy The Mary Tyler Moore Show, in which Mary’s boss quite clearly states that she is being paid less because she is a woman.

Aside from salary issues, women were subject to sexist and discriminatory policies at work. For example, a woman could be fired because she became pregnant. Flight attendants in the 60s (called “stewardesses”) were subject to height, weight, and attractiveness qualifications. And stewardesses could be fired for getting married. After all, the predominantly male clientele on flights wanted unrestricted access to attractive single women whom they could sexually harass with abandon.

This week Fox News icon Bill O’Reilly was forced to resign under allegations of sexual harassment, following his old boss, Roger Ailes, who also left the media giant amid such accusations.

Back when I was a young working college student, there was no such concept as “sexual harassment.” Women were routinely subjected to unwanted comments and advances from co-workers. I remember being forced to kiss my boss – on the lips! – on my last day of work at an insurance agency. There was no recourse available to women until Gloria Steinem’s exposé of the Playboy enterprise brought to light the rampant victimization of women in the workplace.

Today many of the rights women take for granted are imperiled by a conservative movement that wants to relegate women to their past restrictive roles as wives and mothers. Particularly in the area of reproductive rights, legislation is intruding upon the rights of women to obtain contraception and other medical care of their choosing. And as indicated by many recent high profile instances of sexual harassment and domestic violence, as well as the current pay gap of 20% between men and women (aauw.org), women still need to fight for our rights, not take them for granted.

Many young women today dislike the term “feminism,” seeing it as a pejorative term for a ball-busting hater of men. What they need to realize is that without feminism, they would not be enjoying the freedoms and rights they enjoy today. And without continued feminism, those rights may slip away in the future.

Lamestream Media Indeed

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On May 15, The New York Times published an in-depth article about Donald Trump’s history of sexism and sexual harassment of women. The article barely caused a blip in the general media. There was some backlash from conservatives, and one of the women in the story said her comments were misconstrued. Trump, of course, declared the Times article completely discredited, and the mainstream media went quietly away, like a cuffed dog with its tail between its legs.

For years conservatives have decried what they call the “lamestream media” for its liberal bias. This includes the venerable New York Times. “Fair and balanced” Fox News was supposedly a reaction to this bias. But from where I sit, all the fawning attention given to Trump shows just the opposite. No matter what outlandish statements Trump makes about women and minorities, no matter what idiotic pronouncements he makes about what he will do as president (the latest: “I will unsign” executive orders made by Obama), the news media go out of their way to portray him as a legitimate candidate for the presidency of the United States.

This morning on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” the pundits spent an outsized amount of time hashing over allegations about the Clintons that date back to Bill Clinton’s presidency, allegations that Trump has dredged up in order to deflect attention from what a horrid candidate he is. They gave legitimacy to Trump’s claims that Bill Clinton was guilty of rape, a serious allegation that is completely without foundation. And apparently the irony was entirely lost on Joe Scarborough et al. when they discussed Bill’s alleged sexual harassment of women. No one brought up the numerous women in Trump’s organization who have claimed Trump said demeaning and inappropriate things to them on a routine basis, not to mention the women who said Trump made unwanted physical advances.

The news media are also spending an inordinate amount of time on polls that show Trump with a slight lead over Hillary Clinton in the general election. It is as if since Donald Trump became the clear Republican nominee, the media have gone out of their way to help him. At the same time, they have escalated their stories questioning Hillary Clinton’s ethics and honesty. They portray her as a heartless shrew and talk about how disliked she is. This thinly veiled sexism is an example of the double standard surrounding the two presumptive presidential nominees.

Even Megan Kelly, who was vilified by Trump and accused of being “on the rag” as recently as last fall, made nice with Trump and sat down to an interview with him in order to reveal his softer side. I’d like to see Chris Wallace chat by a cozy fire with Hillary Clinton and ask her about her role as a grandma in order to reveal her softer side.

While media outlets keep beating the twin dead horses of Benghazi and Hillary’s emails, Donald Trump gets a smile and a shrug from reporters, as if to say, “What are  you gonna do? He has to be himself.” Sure, comedians make fun of Trump, but they’re part of the left wing Hollywood contingent, and as such, their mockery is dismissed as elitism.

I’d say the lamestream media title is well-deserved these days. It’s just not favoring the liberal elite the way the Sarah Palins of the world would have you believe.