Following the recent Harvey Weinstein sexual assault revelations, women across the world and industries are coming forward with their own stories. From the sparkling boulevards of Hollywood fame, to the small, independent studios of European cinema, men in powerful positions have been getting away with abuse. If we want to see this change, we must learn to take women at their word, understanding the power imbalance that already amplifies these men’s voices and stories over their victims’.
Director David Yates recently responded to questions about domestic violence allegations against Johnny Depp, who is due to star in Yates’ new instalment of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Yates chose to delegitimise Amber Heard’s claims, stating that Depp’s ex-wife was the only woman who’d “had a pop at him.” Such a use of words both trivialises the allegations, as well as flipping the situation on it’s head, as if Held had been the abuser and Depp the victim. Yet such discourse is often used when attempting to clear the name of a powerful man.
Unsurprisingly, Yates did what he could to distance Depp’s alleged abuse from the ongoing sexual harassment revelations in Hollywood. I say unsurprisingly because it appears that regardless of industry, powerful organisations and individuals only take a stance against abuse if it reflects badly enough on their image. In light of the Weinstein scandal, it looks like enough public pressure has shaken Hollywood into caring, hence Yates’ insistence on differentiating Depp from other recent cases.
Yates and Warner Brothers will continue to get away with this as long as society continues to treat the women brave enough to come forward with allegations against powerful men as delusional and self-interested villains. Unless, that is, they have a swarm of evidence or at least another dozen women coming forward in support with similar stories.
But women have always been suspect of “delusions” and “evil plans.” Think of little old ladies being hunted and burnt alive as witches, just because they lived alone and had a cat. Think of the common 19th century diagnosis of female hysteria – a health hazard of being a woman (but never mind the 19th century, when was the last time in the modern day that you heard a man called hysterical?) Think of women having to suffer years of excruciating pain before being taken seriously and referred for endometriosis testing, just because, surely, they must be over-exaggerating about their fainting, vomiting, and inability to cope with pain. We’re over-reacting, over-emotional, over-the-top. We’ve been hearing this for centuries, and the gas-lighting of victims, the questioning of their reliability, uses exactly these tools to cast doubt and shame over their allegations.
Before jumping to cries claiming a public smear campaign or denouncing the women as gold-diggers, let’s not forget that one party has historically been painted as.
Yet I am still dumbfounded with shock at the refusal to believe young Lithuanian actor Julija Steponaitytė’s allegations of sexual assault, against highly regarded film director Šarūnas Bartas. Steponaitytė became the first woman in Lithuania to take strength from the budding world-wide movement against sexual harassment (the #MeToo hashtag having had a loud presence on Lithuanian social media) and call out a powerful man by name, holding him publicly accountable for his actions against her (you can read Julija’s story here). Soon Bartas was faced with a second allegation from art director Paule Bocullaitė, one for which he had in fact already been fined for, his guilt legally acknowledged.
Cue the on-flow of hateful comments, accusations of fame-seeking and revenge-taking, memes and unflattering collages of the women’s photographs.
“Well what did she expect going to a film director’s studio for an audition? In the evening? On her own? Drinking wine? Outrageous.”
You know – the usual. But did you know that around 50% of Lithuanians believe that in cases of sexual abuse the woman is at least in part to blame? Reactions and opinions like this do not come from a void. They come from a culture happy to deem women crazy and deny them the benefit of the doubt, preferring to grant it to the already powerful. A culture happy to cry over how cruel it is to even question the greatness of these highly esteemed and respected men, based only on the word of a few “silly,” “over-reacting” girls. A culture that isn’t happy to sympathise with those who, knowing full well they don’t have any objective “proof,” are brave enough to come forward and express how they have suffered. One that choses instead to always question the legitimacy of the underdog, not the already privileged.
Innocent until proven guilty they shout, and, yes, imagining a world without the presumption of innocence is scary. But why is the burden of proof put upon the abused party, the one already (“allegedly”) suffering at the hands of the other? Both, most often, have little ways of defending their truths in such scenarios, little to win a court case over. Before jumping to cries claiming a public smear campaign or denouncing the women as gold-diggers, let’s not forget that one party has historically been painted as. Women have been portrayed as neither knowing what is good for her, nor her view of reality taken seriously. Only when we begin to take this history into account can we begin to move towards true objectivity.
Image: Johnny Silvercloud