Wednesday, February 28, 2018


by Sherry F. Colb

In my Verdict column this week, I talk about two of the ways in which African Americans and women have been marginalized: denial and devaluation. Denial refers to the refusal to credit the stories that people on the losing side of racial and gender conflicts tell. If a police officer kills a black suspect, and witnesses say that the killing was unprovoked, they face skepticism and disbelief. And the same is true for women who tell of being raped by a date; listeners (such as juries) choose not to believe what they are hearing and to assume that the woman is lying. Devaluation happens sometimes when African Americans and women manage to actually convince those in power that what they are saying is true. Devaluation consists in minimizing the gravity of the harm in question.

In this post, I want to talk about a movie, because even though movies ostensibly tell one story--and a fictional one at that--the story often represents a narrative about what typically happens. A movie about a white police officer who killed an African American suspect for a good reason would accordingly represent an effort to offer up the narrative that says that when police kill suspects it is usually justified.

To understand what I mean, imagine going to see a popular movie and finding out that the story of the movie is all about how a rich, Jewish moneylender exploits the poor Christians who live in his neighborhood. In the course of the story, the moneylender collects usurious interest rates for his loans, and various Christian borrowers descend into terrible poverty, unable to feed their children, some driven to suicide. At the end, the moneylender sits at the table celebrating the Jewish Sabbath with his family, singing songs and beaming at the heavy gold jewelry around his wife's neck that he was able to give to her after appropriating what rightfully belonged to his clients.

Such a story would be anti-semitic propaganda, and we would all recognize it as such. Does that mean that a Jew has never leant people money? Of course not. Does it even mean that a Jew has never charged excessive interest on a loan or that borrowers never suffered as a result? No again. And still, releasing a film that tells the story of one Jew who does these terrible things is hate propaganda, because the film implicitly says not only that this thing happened one time or may happen sometimes. It says that this is what people can expect from a Jew, that the Jew is a greedy villain. And even as this is obvious to most of us, a Nazi might reply with outrage, "It's just a movie!" or "This does happen sometimes," even as he would enjoy the effect of propaganda that conforms so well to what he thinks about Jews. 

With this introduction, I will say that the film I am about to discuss is one that I have not seen. Therefore, I may be completely wrong about the movie and apologize in advance if I am, although I doubt that I am. The movie of which I speak is called  Submission. At the movies last week, I saw a preview for it. From what I could gather, it is about a female student who feels attracted to her male professor. She submits assignments to him in which she writes very explicitly about a student having sex with her professor (in ways that sound strangely like something a man might find on pornhub). The professor refuses the student’s advances at first (again, from what I could gather), and the student falsely accuses him of sexual harassment.

The preview was dispiriting because it promised to tell such an old and tired story, a version of which David Mamet told us in “Oleanna.” The story, a libel against women who bring accusations of sexual violence, has a woman lusting after a man who refuses her advances. Once scorned, the woman uses false accusations to exact revenge. I am guessing that she gets hers in the end. Perhaps she dies or gets punished in some other way. Or maybe she gets away with her crime. Either way, the message is clear: the real victim when a woman accuses a man of sexual misconduct is ordinarily the accused man. And men should do what they can to avoid giving women the opportunity to make a false accusation, because that is exactly what they'll do if they get the chance.

The story is iconic and even clichéd, not a fascinating departure from the norm. Women who complain of being hurt by a man sound so believable, we are meant to understand, that we naturally feel sorry for them as they cry and make their accusations. We mustn’t allow our sympathy to blind us to the truth, however. They are liars when it comes to matters of rape and sexual harassment, we are told, and believing them is far too easy, though they lie through their teeth.

The reality, of course, is quite different. Many men routinely make advances on women who try politely but firmly to communicate that they are not interested. Women who have been 20 years old know that this is the case. Some of the men, moreover, have a difficult time accepting rejection and become enraged. This irrational emotion interferes with clear thinking and may manifest itself in violence, both emotional and physical. Rape is one kind of violence, and it may both satisfy a perpetrator’s sexual desire and punish his victim for rejecting him. It is, perhaps ironically, the male rapist and not the female victim whose hysteria warps his capacity to think straight. Hell perhaps hath no fury like a man scored. When women say they were raped, moreover, they are just as likely to be telling the truth as any other victim of crime, and we do tend to believe people who say they were victims of just about any other crime.

In a conversation that we see during the preview, a colleague of the professor’s tells him that he, the colleague, never talks to female students alone in his office unless the door is open. The implication is that female students (i.e., women) are prone to lying about rape and sexual harassment and that it is therefore important never to be alone with them. This way, if and when the female student lies about rape or sexual harassment, colleagues can testify truthfully that they walked by the accused’s office and saw that nothing amiss. This entire story, including the “keep the door open” protective measure, feeds the rape myth that women cannot be trusted to tell the truth.

The appeal of movies like Submission—what Susan Faludi might call a “backlash film”—testifies to the reality that we still have serious problems with denial when it comes to sexual violence. But perhaps the film can be taken as a good sign. We are now in the era of #MeToo, when women are finally being believed and, as important, having the content of what they are describing taken seriously. It is doubtless true that there are many people who like discrediting the stories of women who speak of being raped, people who also think we should continue to define rape in a very restrictive way (so that rapists cannot be prosecuted even if people believe their victims). Such thinking is the essence of male supremacy. But maybe the dominance of such people is on its way out. If so, then Submission may be a last gasp in response to an unwelcome change in perception, rather than representing the way people continue to see truth. Perhaps the fear that rape victims might actually be believed is warranted, a fear associated with guilt rather than befuddled innocence.


Shag from Brookline said...

Permit me to relate an incident that was reported in some Boston newspapers around the mid or late 1940s. I was a teenager living in the Roxbury District of Boston. It was a custom for us guys to hang out on corners usually near a variety store, where we might gather before or after playing various ball games in a nearby schoolyard or park. We would shoot the breeze on sports, girls, and various other topics of teenage boys. We would drink sodas, have snacks, and check the many editions of Boston dailies for some news. One day there was a story that a Rhode Island male teenager, maybe 17, filed a criminal complaint that he had been raped by a woman. This excited all of us guys as this was before the sexual revolution and we guys thought of sex. The discussions were mostly to the effect: "Why is this guy complaining?" about something we guys all wanted - not rape - sex. We were aware of rapes of women at the time. We weren't condoning rape. But we had the male teenager perspective of the importance, to us, of sex, something most of us were not having. We couldn't understand why this RI teenager complained. We did not understand well enough the violence involved with rape. Some of the guys thought the RI teenager might be lying, or looking for publicity. Many of us made fun of the guy. Some said if it happened to them, they wouldn't have complained. Some thought it impossible for a man to be raped. This incident was a subject of discussion on the corner for a couple of days. I don't recall the outcome of the case in RI courts. Over a few years after this incident, one of the corner guys would recall it. Thinking about this incident some 7 decades later with the current movements #MeToo, etc, is a reminder of male domination for such a long, long time. I think of my love for my mother, my grandmother, my wife, my daughter. This abuse/assault on women by men in power positions has to stop. Query: If the ERA had been ratified on a timely basis, might this issue have been addressed sooner? If you feel that this comment is inappropriate, do not hesitate to delete it. I appreciate the post.

Joseph said...

I recently rewatched "The Philadelphia Story" and it provoked the thought of how we are meant to interpret what is presented to us in movies. The father blames his marital infidelity, in part, on his daughter Tracy (played by Katherine Hepburn) because of her coldness and lack of affection. His logic is that a man needs to feel young, no less than a woman, and being doted upon by an adoring young woman satisfies that. His daughter is so distant, he says, that he is motivated to find that validation in an affair. The mother is mostly silent, holding her husband's arm, upset at her daughter's anger toward her father.

The overall thrust of the movie is that Tracy refuses to be forgiving of others' faults, that she is cold, distant and inhuman. One may interpret this movie as pushing a misogynistic message. And yet, most major characters are presented as having serious flaws that they accept. I don't think we meant to believe that infidelity, alcoholism, and an act of spousal abuse are okay and women are supposed to accept those things. When Tracy is presented as fundamentally flawed and the father blames his daughter with no complaint from the mother, are we the audience meant to believe that is the truth? Or can we see the father as flawed and making excuses. Can a movie tell a story with characters true to themselves, however objectionable their actions and statements, and leave us to make our own decisions about them? I think "The Philadelphia Story" may be a great example of that kind of movie.

No doubt a film can be designed as propaganda. But I don't think the fact that a film presents flawed characters and socially undesirable messages automatically makes it so. This is not a call to rationalize propaganda. This is about identifying whether something is propaganda.

As you recognize, there is a risk in commenting on something one hasn't watched (or read). I can only imagine how many frustrating comments/criticisms you've received from people who didn't read your book but decided they basically knew what it was about. You may be right about the movie - you and I may never know!

I wonder how much movies do/should impact us. Are we passive observers molded by what is fed to us? "Peter Rabbit," an abominable film I will not see, has been criticized for using food allergies as humorous violence. I think that is a valid concern. However, most people seem to think the concern is overblown and that the scene provides a teachable moment. Traditional-minded people have long been concerned about the depiction of sex and violence in film and television. The consensus (not to suggest consensus is truth) appears to have been that the concern is overblown.

I see concerns for normalization of negative behavior and exploitation of ignorance but I question whether narrative is as powerful as you suggest.

Joseph said...

Shag, surprise of surprises, we both went straight to the 1940s.

Joe said...

That view of women probably popped up in many old films. I recently watched an old B-movie involving a woman prison with Ida Lupino and the prison matron's coldness and lack of affection & overall harshness to prisoners was psychoanalyzed by the supportive doctor (ironically played by the actress' real life husband) as a result of her own faults.

Shag's comment reminds me of various discussions of women teachers' arrested for having sex with students -- many boys and men would have a similar reaction. But, the abuse of power involved and the harm to minor boys is no less real in various cases. As to the ERA, I'm unsure how the ERA itself factors in there, especially how far Ruth Bader Ginsburg and others pushed the Equal Protection Clause. Like with race, it might be the true thing there was cultural and other advancements. But, maybe it would have helped.

I have not even seen the previews of that film referenced by the author but it has an impressive case, including Kyra Sedgwick, who recently directed "The Story of A Girl," based on a book, involving the aftermath of a teenage girl's sexual experience being shared on social media. It was very good. Her daughter had a supporting role.

["Submission" - looking it up -- is based on a Francine Prose novel written in 2000 entitled "Blue Angel," and yes, that is a reference to the classic film.]

Sherry F. Colb said...

Thanks for very interesting comments. I acknowledge that I may be mistaken about the message of the movie, assuming there even is a message. And I agree that characters can be flawed without the message necessarily being to endorse or condone the flaw. Having said that, a quick look at the book on which the film was based, Blue Angel, suggests that I correctly read the movie (at least if it is meant to be faithful to the book). It says that the author skewers such things as "sexual harassment policies" and "political correctness." Again, one could find faults in both of these (as well as other items listed). Yet these are what one might call "dog whistles" (with apologies to dogs) for folks who liked the good ole' days when being able to touch students and employees was a perq of the job. For people have become accustomed to privilege, its revocation can feel a lot like deprivation. Efforts to protect students, both male and female, from predatory behavior by faculty may fall into this category, redistributing power from where it has traditionally rested.

Shag from Brookline said...

Alas, the privileged often (too often) look upon efforts at "corrections" of their powers as a zero-sum game. Masculinity is involved not only with sexual harassment/abuse but with mass shootings in America (almost all involving male shooters). The male culture has long been dominating and involved violence. The feminist movement helped to make women strong, but not strong in sense of masculinity's historic culture of violence. Consider the recent bravado of Trump regarding what he would have done in Parkland even if he were unarmed. America's gun culture going way back involved violence in addressing slavery and Native Americans.

Joe said...

Prof. Leah Litman recommended the Monica Lewinsky piece

"Monica Lewinsky: Emerging from “the House of Gaslight” in the Age of #MeToo"

An op-ed in my local paper wasn't as impressed today but I found the article worthwhile.