Some news stories are just so frustrating that you can’t even be bothered to engage with them, but engage we must, because it’s often through free and open debate that we kill off outdated, misguided views. So, here we are.
On Wednesday, a group of 100 influential French women, including legendary actor Catherine Deneuve, 74, and other writers, performers and academics, penned a letter in the newspaper Le Monde denouncing the wave of accusations sparked by claims that the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein raped and sexually assaulted women.
The letter said men should be “free to hit on” women and criticised a new “puritanism” that has taken hold following feminist social media campaigns like #MeToo and #BalanceTonPorc (Call out your pig), its French equivalent, and painted a picture of all women as “victims”.
The group – which also included writer Catherine Millet, who penned the explicit memoir The Sexual Life of Catherine M in 2002 – claimed the protest against sexual violence had turned into a “witch-hunt” that threatens sexual freedom, for which “the liberty to seduce and importune was essential”, AFP reported.
“Rape is a crime, but trying to seduce someone, even persistently or cack-handedly, is not – nor is men being gentlemanly a macho attack,” they wrote. “Men have been punished…forced out of their jobs when all they did was touch someone’s knee or try to steal a kiss.”
The letter insisted that men’s reputations had been unfairly sullied for “talking about intimate subjects during professional dinners or for sending sexually charged messages to women who did not return their attentions”, and that people are being “intimidate[d]… into speaking ‘correctly’,” with women who “refuse to bend to the new realities… regarded as complicit and traitors”.
We wouldn’t describe this group of distinguished women as “traitors”, but it’s obvious they’ve completely missed the point of #MeToo. We shouldn’t have to spell this out by now, but crucial to the movement is that (often younger) women are seizing back power from (often older) high-status, powerful men, who believe they’re entitled to a victim’s body and/or attention.
This power imbalance is something that Oscar-nominated Deneuve and the other influential French “writers, performers and academics” have likely not had to grapple with for many years, if not decades. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning in the UK, Anne-Élisabeth Moutet, one of the letter’s signatories, explicitly admitted as much.
When asked if she’d ever been in a position where she was unable to stand up for herself as a younger woman, she said “probably not since the age of 13” when a man put his hand on her backside. But she clarified she was “not traumatised” by the incident, implying she believed the situation was fine and dandy, which highlights a gaping generational divide between the signatories of this letter and the woman spearheading #MeToo and the Time’s Up initiative.
What’s more, it’s obviously not up to anyone else – man or woman – whether any sexual harassment or inappropriate behaviour is “bad” or “serious” enough to be worthy of action. It goes without saying that a hand on the knee or a “sexually charged message” shouldn’t be conflated with rape, as the women say in their letter – but who is doing that?
Today’s activists are arguing that if you are made to feel uncomfortable by someone’s behaviour towards you, whatever is is, it’s within your right to call it out. You are not at fault and you no longer need to be a victim, a concept some women in the public eye seem to be uncomfortable with and/or unable to comprehend.
Countless high-profile women have made problematic comments that place the responsibility for sexual harassment, sexual assault and other inappropriate behaviour on victims rather than perpetrators. Angela Lansbury raised more than a few eyebrows recently when she said women must sometimes “take blame”; while Chrissy Hynde even took “full responsibility” for her own sexual assault by a man in a biker gang.
Research has also bolstered the idea that women over 50 conceive of sexual harassment differently from millennials. YouGov found that older British women viewed certain behaviours, such as wolf whistling, as acceptable, while younger women deemed them inappropriate; while the BBC found that women over 50 are less likely to report such behaviour.
The letter implies that because older generations of women had to deal with a certain level of bullshit from men, younger women should have to suffer the same humiliations to earn their stripes. To which we say: thank god for fourth-wave feminism.
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