Polanski and the casting couch


I swear, at some point in the next few days, I will stop posting on Roman Polanski. But it shines so many interesting lights on so much of the sexism in our culture that it’s impossible to ignore it.

I’ve been musing for the past few days on just how it is that so many ostensibly liberal people can be so completely blinkered when it comes to the Polanski arrest. Outside of Anne Applebaum (who has doubled down on victim-bashing), the defenders of Polanski come from the entertainment community, specifically the film community. And those supporters are overwhelmingly liberal.

Jeff Fecke is a freelance writer who lives in Eagan, Minnesota. In addition to his own blog, Blog of the Moderate Left, he also contributes to Alas, a Blog, Minnesota Campaign Report, and AlterNet. Fecke has appeared as a guest on the “Today” show, the Alan Colmes radio show, and the Mark Heaney Show. Fecke is divorced, and the father of one really terrific daughter. His debut novel, The Valkyrie’s Tale, is now available.

Now, “Hollywood Liberal” has gotten such overplay as to become cliché, but no doubt there’s an element of truth to it, just as there’s an element of truth to the idea that most bankers are conservative. It’s not, as some on the right believe, a case of witch hunts and blackballing. Rather, it’s that acting and the arts tend to attract people who are more inherently liberal. Hey, if you’re by nature a conservative person, you’re not going to chuck it all and move out to L.A. in the hopes you can get a gig as Corpse #2 on Law and Order: CSI, just as if you’re by nature a free spirit, you’re not going to become an accountant. There are exceptions to every rule, of course, but the imbalance is an effect of people’s political leanings.

But while Hollywood is a generally liberal town, Hollywood is not a perfect liberal Utopia. As anyone who’s studied media knows, Hollywood tends to be whiter than average, prettier than average, and thinner than average by a ludicrous degree. And it tends to sneer condescendingly at those who are not.

But where Hollywood really falls short is in its treatment of women. Since its earliest days, most starlets have followed the predictable arc from sudden fame to total ruin. So rare is a female star who stays in the public eye for decades that the few who manage — Meryl Streep, Judi Dench, Susan Sarandon — are viewed as almost freakish.

True, Hollywood treats many male stars as disposable, too. But you can name dozens of actors who’ve had staying power — Matt Damon, Johnny Depp, Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, Sean Connery, Sean Penn, Jim Carrey, Will Smith, Morgan Freeman, Tim Robbins…we could name stars all day, but we won’t, because it’s pointless.

Hollywood has different rules for men and women. It treats them differently. It regards them differently. And it recruits them differently.

It’s that last one that is the reason Roman Polanski is getting such fervent defense from fellow artists. Because while Polanski’s transgression is outrageous to most decent humans, it’s really just a short distance away from the way Hollywood once expected its starlets to make their entrances — on their backs.

The Casting Couch, like Hollywood Liberalism, is the stuff of cliché. But like Hollywood Liberalism, it has an element of truth to it. Oh, no doubt the practice is being slowly squeezed out, as trifling things like anti-harassment laws. But it’s still alive and well. Megan Fox has stated that she’s been propositioned more than once while meeting with producers and directors about projects. And Michael Bay had her wash his Ferrari as part of her audition for Transformers – and filmed the whole thing, because he could.

And that’s in this decade, with years of anti-harassment litigation on the books. It was worse in the 1970s. Quite a bit worse.

Which is why Hollywood is, to a large degree, rallying around Polanski. Because his crime was of a piece with the culture of the town. It wasexpected that a woman (or in this case, girl) trying to break into the business would give a famous director some incentives to hire her. It wasassumed that this was just a standard quid pro quo. Indeed, to this day Polanski defenders argue that his victim’s mother understood this trade-off and set her daughter up for it, as if that excuses drugging and raping a 13-year-old.1

Many — not all, but many — of Polanski’s defenders defend him because all too many of them have been on one side of the casting couch or the other. Some have asked for favors, some have given favors, some have been on both sides of the deal. And for them, that fuels their support. Because the casting couch is an integral part of rape culture, a point at which a powerful person can force a weak person into sex. To paraphrase Whoopi Goldberg, it may not be rape-rape. But it’s on the continuum.

And that fuels the impassioned defense of Polanski. Because if Polanski is a criminal for using too much force on a 13-year-old,2 what does that say about every director who’s talked a 19-year-old aspiring actress into similar acts, in the interests of her career? And what does it say about an actress who let herself be talked into it? After all, the need to deny one has been raped or assaulted is nearly as strong as the need to deny one is capable of assault.

And so Polanski’s crime is minimized, because it hits too close to home. Yes, he was guilty of excesses beyond those usually found in Hollywood, but they were differences of degree. He used force when others used coercion, he used drugs when others dangled carrots, he chose a 13-year-old as his target instead of a 20-year-old. His crime is worse. But it is of a kin with the daily transgressions that continue to drive Hollywood’s attitude toward its female actors.

Hollywood, for all its squishy liberalism, is in racial and gender politics a very conservative town. While most of America has accepted at least the basic concept that women and men are equals, that people of all races are equals, Hollywood has not even begun to wrestle with the idea. Instead, it tries to deny that it has a problem at all — and in its denial, ends up defending the indefensible.

1 If you believe this, at best it would make the victim’s mother an accessory. However, you’d have to believe the victim’s mother intentionally pimped her daughter out for a casting couch rendezvous, then took her daughter to the police to press rape charges within a few days — which seems like more than a stretch to me. None of this, incidentally, changes the fact that Roman Polanski raped a 13-year-old; no matter how crappy a parent is, you don’t get to rape their child.

2 As Kira helpfully notes in comments, it should be obvious to anyone that “too much force” is equal to “any force.” But it should also be obvious that rape is bad, and a lot of Polanski supporters seem unable to get that, so I think I’d best footnote this.