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Tribalism, artistic consciousness and Hollywood's reckoning

"Girls" creator, writer and star Lena Dunham came under fire last fall for her defense of an accused rapist.
"Girls" creator, writer and star Lena Dunham came under fire last fall for her defense of an accused rapist.

A few days ago, there was a headline on Vox: “How tribalism overrules progressive tenets like ‘believing women.’” The focus of the story, written by Constance Grady, is J.K. Rowling’s recent statement on the casting of Johnny Depp in “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.” Rowling, a longtime contributor to charities that support victims of domestic abuse, recently voiced her approval of Depp’s casting as the eponymous wizard, despite abuse allegations made by his ex-wife Amber Heard.

Rowling wrote on her website, “Based on our understanding of the circumstances, the filmmakers and I are not only comfortable sticking with our original casting, but genuinely happy to have Johnny playing a major character in the movies.”

The Vox article pieces together the logical implications of that statement, chiefly that Rowling believes Depp did not abuse Heard and, by extension, that Heard lied when she claimed he did — all this despite physical, video and texting evidence. There is a curious dissonance here between Rowling’s personal support of domestic abuse victims and her professional willingness to disregard Heard’s claims. The author of the article attributes the disconnect to this primary factor: tribalism (or believing the victim except in cases where the accused is a friend or colleague). 

In a system so monumentally stacked against a victim being believed — a system in which one in five women experience sexual assault and in which the prevalence of false reporting is between two and 10 percent — the last thing we need is prominent advocates publicly questioning the honesty of women who come forward. It contributes to the ubiquitous sense of distrust surrounding victims of domestic and sexual assault and reinforces a system that has, for ages, failed and vilified those who attempt to come forward.

When actress Aurora Perrineau alleged this fall that “Girls” writer Murray Miller raped her in 2012, co-showrunners Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner released a joint statement defending Miller, citing “insider knowledge.” The statement underlined the pair’s enthusiasm about women coming forward in the entertainment industry but expressed Dunham and Konner’s belief that Perrineau’s allegation was “one of the three percent of assault cases that are misreported every year.”

Dunham has a long and demonstrated history of obliviousness to intersectionality, as well as a growing tally of questionable statements to her name, all of which is well worth discussing. But, for the purpose of this article, I’d like to primarily focus on the dissonance between her work and her public response in the case of her colleague. “Girls” has, as the title would indicate, constantly placed young women at its forefront, confronting issues of consent — perhaps not always with the desired nuance — and examining the power dynamics at work in dating and sex. But no episode of the show feels more eerily relevant now than the season six standout “American B----.” In the episode, Hannah, played by Dunham, goes to the apartment of a well-respected, award-winning novelist, who’s invited her to speak about a recent article she wrote condemning him over allegations of sexual assault. They talk about the accounts of the college-aged women who’ve written about the novelist’s shaky-at-best grasp of consent.

In trying to remember the episode, I re-read television critic Emily Nussbaum’s review. Her analysis is far better than anything I could possibly provide here — or elsewhere, for that matter — but what she highlights again and again is the means through which the novelist slowly, slyly ingratiates himself with Hannah. He uses his power and weaponizes the admiration she feels for his work. He compliments her, makes her feel sorry for him, even. And then, when Hannah feels some sort of kinship with him, after she’s apologized for writing something that hurt him, he wordlessly takes out his penis and puts it on her thigh. The women who came forward and wrote about their experiences were not lying; Hannah’s piece was not ill-informed; the novelist is an abuser. As Hannah leaves and walks down the street, a crowd of faceless women passes by her and walks into the apartment.

The episode speaks clearly to the intricacies of the moment in Hollywood. There is exploration of the power dynamic that ensnares and traps women and then protects powerful men, examination of the means through which women who come forward are discredited as swindlers or fame-seekers. 

Dunham publicly attacked the credibility of an accuser and discredited her experience, despite a consciousness, in her work, of the dangers of doing just that.

Tribalism, when followed to its end, inhibits the creation of a culture that listens to women when they come forward. It is one of the factors that allowed Harvey Weinstein to reign over Hollywood for so long.

In Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof,” a murderous Kurt Russell uses his stunt car to kill young women. Blame for the murders, which look like auto accidents, is not easily assigned. The stuntman survives each but the women with whom he collides do not. Like many Tarantino films, the story ends up following the abused or oppressed as they exact retribution. A trio of women eventually kill the stuntman, who, in the end, turns to a scared, blubbering mess. It’s hard to watch the film now, which features Rose McGowan, and not see the parallels between the story and its writer-director’s role in Hollywood’s current reckoning.

In mid-October, the headline that circulated in every newspaper and entertainment rag was a quote from Tarantino: “I knew enough to do more than I did.” Harvey Weinstein had been the filmmaker’s fervent champion since the 90s, and it was nearly inconceivable that he knew nothing.

“If I had done the work I should have done then, I would have had to not work with him,” Tarantino said. He added that despite his shock at the extent and severity of the allegations, anyone who was close with Weinstein would have been aware of at least one of the “incidents.”

There’s a scene in “Death Proof” in which the sheriff and his deputy talk in the hallway of a hospital, where the stuntman is recovering from a recent collision. The sheriff believes the crash was premeditated, but knows he cannot prove it. In a sense, they are the stand-ins for the directors and actors who continued to work with Weinstein, despite having, at the very least, some cognizance of his behavior towards women. Though, unlike the sheriff who can’t do anything for lack of evidence, people like Tarantino did nothing on account of tribalism. Weinstein won them Oscars and championed their passion projects, and the women he abused were forgotten.

In the film, as in life, it was ultimately a small group of extraordinarily brave women who felled the monster. They are the heroes of Hollywood’s reckoning. The least we can do is believe them.


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