Academia and the art of abusers

Posted on October 17, 2017 under Thoughts

This has always primarily been a beauty blog, a fun escapist corner for me to explore a low-stakes, creative hobby. But today I feel compelled to share something different. I will be talking about sexual assault in this post, so feel free to scroll past if necessary.

I’ve always been politically engaged – even as a kid, I was interested in what was happening in the world. My parents talked to my brother and I about politics when we were growing up, and as a result I developed a robust understanding of the world by the time I was a teenager. I’ve always been interested in world events. Now, though, I feel incredibly fatigued. I find myself wanting to avoid the news, because I’m afraid of what I might find out. The avalanche of allegations against Harvey Weinstein converging with Donald Trump “joking” that Mike Pence wants to hang all gay people makes for a very upsetting moment in history.

There has been an overwhelming, exhausting amount of discourse about Harvey Weinstein, sexual assault, and complicity in a culture that usually allows abusers to get away with their behaviour. I’ve been conflicted about all of it – on the one hand, it’s gratifying to see my female friends finding strength in sharing their experiences. On the other, we shouldn’t have to open ourselves up, to expose our darkness and our trauma, to make men understand how prevalent and how serious sexual violence is with little to no reciprocation in the form of men publicly unpacking their complicity in the horrendous system that leaves every single woman with the ability to participate in “#metoo”. (Because, of course, for every woman who shares her own experience with harassment and assault, there are plenty who don’t want to or who aren’t safe to but who certainly share with us these experiences.)

While we may celebrate the personal and professional consequences Harvey Weinstein is now facing, a question on a lot of our minds is “So are people going to stop working with Woody Allen and Roman Polanski now?” It seems that the tides have turned so overwhelmingly against Weinstein that it’s not only easy to speak out against him but almost an imperative of performative allyship. But when Ben Affleck posts that we must “condemn this type of behavior when we see it“, I have to wonder… where is his condemnation of his brother Casey, who has faced no professional sanctions for his sexual misconduct and who in fact recently won a fucking Academy Award? And since we’re talking about the Academy, well… they kicked Weinstein out, which is great. But they apparently decided that Mel Gibson – a prominent anti-Semite who physically abused his wife – could lie low for a decade and then receive several nominations for Hacksaw Ridge in 2016. Oh, and what about Woody Allen? His last film was nominated for four Oscars, for god’s sake.

I keep coming back to Allen and Polanski, because they are amongst the most prominent abusers whose work is still celebrated. When are people going to stop working with them? Well, when their work stops being a part of the cinematic canon, perhaps. I’m in film academia and I have witnessed this firsthand, to my utter dismay. The same professors who teach feminist theory in their classes have screened Allen and Polanski films. At the time, in my undergrad, this bothered me but did not enrage me. Looking back at it now, I’m mad.

As a relatively young form of art, film is still in the process of being canonized to the same degree as literature. Allen and Polanski, despite the public knowledge of their sexual abuse of children, are well on the way to being canonized – and academia plays a pivotal role in this. When I’ve had to watch films by these men, the professors introduce them sheepishly, knowing, knowing that we know. But they screen them anyway, because they’re art!

What a myopic view to take! Art is political, art has always been political! Art curation is political, too. Semesters are short; valuable texts are cut because there is only so much a second-year undergrad can read in thirteen weeks. Choices must be made – choices as to what students are exposed to. Apparently, in a class on Marxism a single week about Marxist feminism and Marxist postcolonial theory is sufficient – but god forbid we decide not to screen Annie Hall.

Do these films have artistic value? Sure, yeah. When I took a class on horror in early 2014, Rosemary’s Baby provided a great springboard into discussion of complex horror theory and the role of allegory in the genre. But it’s impossible to watch that film divorced from the knowledge that Polanski raped a thirteen-year-old girl. (I’d wager that the themes of the loss of bodily autonomy are all the more chilling knowing that…) The professor acknowledges this obliquely only because it is less awkward than letting it go unannounced, the ultimate elephant in the room. But I have to wonder – in the rich tradition of the horror genre, surely there are plenty of other films that could illustrate seminal horror theory just as well.

Our academic perspectives are shaped considerably by what we are exposed to in the classroom. My preferred analytical frameworks are Marxism, feminism, and postcolonial theory, and I would probably only have the toolkit for feminist analyses without the specific education I received. Professors make choices about what to omit and include in their classes, and these choices are not neutral. These decisions perpetuate a generation of film students having a worldview based on the work of known abusers, and that is political.

There are so many conversations that recent events have sparked. This is just one. I don’t feel that I have the authority or strength to add my voice to a lot of the conversations happening. As a grad student in film and television, I do feel that this is a niche topic that I can speak about. This seems like a small gripe in comparison to the larger discussions happening, but if there’s one thing I know it’s that oppressive structures are made up of small, tightly-interlocking parts. This is a part that I have witnessed. I would like to see it change.

There are 2 responses to “Academia and the art of abusers”

  • Thank you for writing this. I have long struggled with the canon of literature and the choices made by professors, but am much less familiar with film history. You’ve confirmed a lot of my suspicions and given voice to the concerns I have about the building of canon when it comes to other forms of art.

    • What frustrates me about the trends I’m witnessing in the creation of a film canon is that it’s so avoidable. Film is a young discipline and we really have the power to shape its canon (or to actively push against a canon, but that’s probably too optimistic). Though I’m against canons in general, at least with lit it’s kind of like… well, this is SO ingrained that it requires a real effort to do anything about it. But with film, we don’t have to do this! There is still a fighting chance! Yet professors still make these terrible choices, anyway.

      Funnily enough the only lit class I ever took in university had a super diverse reading list, haha.

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