WARNING: CONTAINS STRONG LANGUAGE AND GRAPHIC IMAGES. (My mother reads this, and I don't want her, or anyone else of delicate sensibility, to be shocked.)
Posted by Tania Kindersley.
All right my darlings, I am back, and in celebration I am going to go all feminist on your ass. (As a Briton I find it interesting that this particular collocation only works if you use the American version; ‘on your arse’ sounds either incredibly pompous or slightly sinister. Still, it’s one of my favourite pieces of demotic and I am not going to give it up just because I risk confusing British readers who may think I am referring to a hardy pack animal.)
Anyway. I know the Polanski thing is all too last week but I want to talk about it all the same. Thinking about whether to write this or not, I was struck by the stratospheric speed of the news. I know there was always the tomorrow’s fish and chip wrapping aspect of reporting, and in some ways this is why I love and stick up for journalists, because their secret hearts must always be broken: what they write is utterly vital for the public square, but literally disposable. Even when they break a huge story, like the Trafigura scandal currently tearing up The Guardian, it is very soon yesterday’s news.
I once met a very lovely gentleman of a certain age at Hay on Wye, and he spent an hour telling me about the glory days of The Sunday Times Insight team, when he would spend six months working on one story. ‘They just gave you your bus ticket and said Go and get it, it doesn’t matter how long it takes,’ he said, wistfully. That was how we discovered what Thalidomide actually did to babies. But it seems that now, in the age of the global village and the new media and the crushing commercial pressures and Web 2.0 and the Twitterers and the bloggers, that the news moves at warp speed. I am sometimes a bit snarky about the columnists; occasionally even I, with my stern liberal heart, go a bit clichéd and cheap, and talk about the chatterati and the commentariat, and some of them do deserve a big slap upside the head, but they too have an impossible job in these days of high velocity. They must be ready to comment on the scandal du jour right now, this minute, because if they dare to spend two days pondering what they really think about a big subject, their weary editor will just say: ‘What’s the hook?’.
Polanski exploded like a tropical storm coming out of nowhere, a couple of weeks ago, and now, like any unstable weather system, it has moved offshore. Everyone has had their opinion. The papers have gone back to the archives and dredged up the material about the Warsaw Ghetto and the Sharon Tate murder. The great and good of the film industry have signed their petitions demanding that he should be freed. The friends have appeared on the television saying what a marvellous fellow he is, not as others. The commentariat has commented. The bloggers have had their say. Even moral philosophers have given their considered opinion. It’s done and dusted. Everything that has to be said has been said. But it is such a strange and haunting case, and the reaction to it has been so bizarrely unexpected, that it has taken me a fortnight to work out exactly what I do think about it. So here I am, way behind the curve, but through the enchanting self-indulgence of the blog, weighing in anyway.
What seems to me the oddest aspect of the whole thing is that the central facts of the case are beyond dispute. It’s not as if we have to go back and relitigate the thing. In 1977, Polanski, at the time a hugely famous director, lionised by Hollywood, took a thirteen year old girl, hungry for fame, gave her champagne and Quaaludes, performed oral sex and sodomy on her without her permission, and then drove her home. Due to some complicated legal wrangling and the very strange mindset of the judge in the case, Polanski ended up pleading guilty to only one charge, which was having unlawful sex with a minor. It looked as if he would get off with probation, but then the judge went wiggy, seemed as if he was going to cede to public and press outrage, and possibly lock up Polanski and throw away the key, at which point, Polanski fled. He went back to being a very famous film director, got a hugely sentimental reaction when The Pianist won the Oscar for best picture, and everyone forgot about that unfortunate little episode so far in his past, until the Swiss decided to arrest him.
This was when things got really strange. Moving as a pack, the artistic community expressed righteous outrage and fury, not at a man who raped a thirteen year old girl, but at the authorities who dared to arrest him. People I admire, from Bernard-Henri Lévy to Michael Mann, put out livid statements about the inequity of the arrest. Robert Harris told an audience in Cheltenham that the ‘nightmare’ was that Polanski might have to complete his latest film from a prison cell. (As opposed to the nightmare of a forty-three year old man sticking his penis up a thirteen year old anus. I am sorry to be vulgar, but this whole thing is vulgar.) Inexplicably, it seemed that there was an argument to be had here. The argument was amorphous and inchoate, shifting from post to post: it went from a basic leave an old man alone, to a sort of plea bargain he’s had more tragedy than one man should bear, to a sand in your face but the judge was nuts, and finally, to a blatant but he’s so bloody brilliant. As the lovely Miss Whistle wrote on her blog, this last seemed to be: ‘genius trumps child rape’.
It seems to me that if you rape a child, that’s it. I don’t care how many Chinatowns you direct. All bets are off. I think of my adorable sixteen year old niece, and of what I would do if someone twice her age laid a finger on her. But as I listened to all the furious debating back and forth, and spent my days thinking about it, I was, for a moment, caught by the tragedy argument. For a moment, I wondered if there was any mitigating factor here. To be a Polish Jew in the 1940s, to watch your mother killed by Nazis and your father dragged off to a concentration camp, to find some kind of happiness with a beautiful woman and then be woken with the news that she has been butchered while eight months pregnant, is more suffering than most people know in any lifetime. Perhaps I should have compassion for such a man. His friends, possibly rightly, point out that it is a miracle someone could walk and talk after such a catalogue of horror. Maybe that would lead someone to lose their moral compass, and perhaps instead of judging I should try to walk a mile in his shoes.
There are several problems with this line of reasoning. The central bloodless legal one is: if we were to do that, we would let off, say, a teenage boy who has stabbed someone to death because his father beat him and his mother was a crack whore. If we were to do that, as a society, then the rule of law would break down. There must be some absolutes: no matter how drenched in tragedy your life is, you may not stab a human or rape a child. If you follow the tragedy argument to its logical conclusion, then you end up saying Well, Hitler’s father caned him every day until he bled, so no wonder he had to go and invade Poland. I am not drawing equivalence between Polanski and Hitler, that would be crass and wrong, but I am pointing out where flawed reasoning eventually leads you.
Another problem is that such mitigation leaves out all the people who have endured unspeakable suffering and chosen not to stab and rape and transgress societal mores. There are many of those, probably more than we know, and it is insulting to them to make excuses for those who did not exercise their restraint. Finally, I think you can turn this entire argument on its head. You could say: someone who has undergone unspeakable sorrow should have more care and compassion for other humans, not less. Polanski, more than anyone, knew what it was to feel powerless and persecuted; to inflict those same feelings on a vulnerable child is less excusable, not more.
But, and this is the feminist part, it seems that the really crucial point of the Polanski defenders is that the rape itself did not really matter. It was a peccadillo, in the distant past. There is the terrible suggestion, so familiar in all rape cases, that somehow the girl was asking for it. It has been said that she was longing to be famous, as if that makes it all her fault. It is endlessly repeated that she was the child of a pushy showbiz mother, as if that lets Polanski off the hook. There is the recurring subliminal theme that she was some kind of Lolita, luring poor hapless Roman to his doom. He certainly said that she was a willing participant, and frankly admitted to Clive James in a television interview not long afterwards that he loved young girls, and so what.
This is a story as old as the stones: that men, despite ruling the world for thousands of years, are somehow weak as water when faced with designing women singing their siren song, dragging the poor males onto the rocks. It has a nasty little corollary: that women are so devious that they lie to the sad honest men, just to get them into trouble. We females do not mean what we say, so how are men to know what is right? This is why the old feminists had to keep banging the No Means No drum until even they were sick to the teeth with it. In a truly bizarre example of Stockholm syndrome, Whoopi Goldberg, who I thought might have been of the Sisterhood, said the most horrible thing of the whole tawdry affair. ‘It wasn’t rape-rape,’ she said. No, no, of course it was not. It was at Jack Nicholson’s house, not in a back alley. There was vintage champagne, not a knife at the throat. It was adorable talented Roman, not a faceless man in a balaclava. It was a photo shoot for French Vogue, not a snuff movie. Whoopi, it turns out we barely knew you.
But here is the final point: even if that thirteen year old girl had been a sex-crazed little vixen, which she most certainly was not, even if she had stood naked in the middle of the room shouting Take me now, the correct thing for a forty three year old man of considerable power to do would be to say: get your clothes back on, I’m taking you home, go back to your schoolbooks.
And just so you know, this is what the noble defenders of Mr Roman Polanski are so righteously standing up for:
From the Grand Jury transcript:
A. He said: ‘I’ll take you home soon’.
Q. And then what happened?
A. And then he went down and he started performing cuddliness.
Q. What does that mean?
A. It means he went down on me or he placed his mouth on my vagina.
Q. At any time did he say anything before he put his mouth on your vagina?
Q. What did he do when he placed his mouth on your vagina?
A. He was just like licking and I don’t know. I was ready to cry. I was kind of, I was going: ‘No, come on, stop it.’ But I was afraid.
But I was afraid.
I am not going to reproduce the testimony about the sodomy, because it is too much. But maybe the saddest thing about that whole exchange is that the child was so young and innocent that she thought ‘cunnilingus’ was called ‘cuddliness’. Some Lolita.
The always sane and marvellous Libertylondongirl:
The enchanting Allison Anders, whose films I have long loved: http://misswhistle.blogspot.com/2009/10/filmmaker-allison-anders-on-polanski.html
And I wanted to give you a link to maybe my favourite blast of outrage on the whole subject, so lovely to hear coming from a man - my new number one columnist, Hugo Rifkind, writing in the dear old Speccie, but for some strange reason (lawyers? injunctions?) his coruscating piece does not appear online. But just to give you a flavour of what he wrote, the column began with 'He's a paedo, but he's our paedo'. From this tremendous start, Rifkind goes on to slam the weird Hollywood whitewash of Polanski: 'Polanski shags an actual child and they love him. What's that about? Is it because he is European? Do they think it must be an art form?'
If you can get your hands on a copy of the October 3rd Spectator, from a nice librarian or a kindly aunt, do try and read the whole thing. I don't know Hugo Rifkind, but he is now my favourite feminist hero. And that is really not a contradiction in terms.