Even though it’s far from the most pressing news story of
the day, it was hard to turn away from the extreme, voluminous response to
Roman Polanski’s arrest in Switzerland and his likely extradition to the United
States to finally face sentencing for a crime he committed 32 years ago, when
he drugged and raped a 13-year-old girl who, according to her testimony to the
grand jury, protested every step of the way and begged to go home. The fallout had less to do with any
question about the details of the case—it seems they were never really in
question—and more about a group of highly privileged wealthy people excusing
child rape while the rest of the country gapes in disbelief.
Initially, it seemed most of the lashing out at the French
political elite, Hollywood movers and shakers, and clueless pundits who
defended Polanski came from feminists, for whom angrily reminding people that
rape is a crime has become routine.
But then I started to see conservatives jump on board the same wagon, creating a weird
alliance. Unfortunately, right
wing bloggers tend to get more up in arms about the rare false rape accusation
than the exponentially more common problem of rape, and what little anti-rape
blogging I’ve seen from them centers around painting Islamic cultures as
hopelessly misogynist (while ignoring the misogyny in our own). So what accounted for the outrage? The youth of the victim?
Then it dawned on me that it was because the people
defending Polanski were straight out of the right wing playbook on who to
demonize: Hollywood liberals and the French being the primary targets. (Never mind that online polls showed
of French respondents wanted Polanski to be sentenced for rape.) This muddled the conservative support for this particular
feminist cause considerably, as it gave Polanski defenders some evidence for
their outrageous assertion that Polanski was being targeted not because he’s a
child rapist, but because he’s a French citizen who makes artful movies, and
Americans are a bunch of philistines.
I would disagree, for instance, that I’m a philistine, but I can’t
dispute that the anti-Polanski crowd had some philistines in our camp. But we had everyone in our camp! Very few people are comfortable with
the idea that a child rapist should elude justice because he’s rich or because
he directed Chinatown.
But even liberals who usually poo-pooh right wing complaints
about the French, Hollywood, and liberal “elites” had to admit that Polanski
defenders were fitting the right wing stereotypes of decadent liberalism to a
Pollitt described the situation as showing “the liberal cultural elite at
its preening, fatuous worst.” Jeff
Fecke noted that Hollywood culture, particularly with the heavy use of the
casting couch, is the dictionary definition of a rape culture, and that makes
it easy for Polanski supporters to just chalk up what he did to a 13-year-old
as normal. No doubt the
proliferation of precocious child stars who have disturbing sex lives and drug
use informs their opinion, as well.
But I’d suggest that the Hollywood rush to defend Polanski
is something simpler: the same apologism you see every time a man assaults a
woman with the same or lower social status that he has. Every time a frat boy rapes a sorority
girl, an athlete rapes a fan, a famous musician beats his girlfriend, a
bunch of rich high school kids rape a classmate, high
school athletes rape a mentally retarded girl, or a Hollywood star takes
advantage of an underage girl, the story is the same: The man or men can expect
friends, family, admirers, and perfect strangers invested in the sexist status
quo to rally around and support him while denouncing the victim as a liar and a
slut who asked for it.
The saddest part of the Polanski defense is how it sounds
like every other rape apologist excuse that gets trotted out every time this
happens. The excuses are so common
that various bingo cards have been made to mock the excuses. Here’s an example of a
bingo card, and it’s easy to match these standard excuses to the Polanski
For this list, I will shamelessly
rip off Amanda Hess.
a role model, not a rapist! As Amanda
found, Polanski’s defenders were willing to say his
artistic genius precludes rape charges.
- He’s rich; we all know what she’s
after, hmmm? As Katha
Pollitt noted, Polanski defenders like Joan K. Shore accused the victim’s mother
of being a grabby stage mom, as if this justifies raping her daughter.
- She was a slutty groupie. In the shamelessly dishonest
documentary defending Polanski called “Roman Polanski: Wanted and
Desired”, friends of his actually lean on the fact that the victim wasn’t
a virgin to justify raping her.
- But the police investigated and didn’t
press charges. The
Polanski version of this is assuming that because he pled down to sex with
a minor, then it was no big deal.
The truth is that he drugged her and raped her over her protests.
this must be so hard for his family. This apologist excuse has been beefed up tremendously
because Polanski, who has survived both the Holocaust and having his wife
murdered by the Manson family, has suffered so much.
I could go on, but you get the idea. We don’t need to believe that Hollywood
culture is unique or that this is a manifestation of these people’s particular
evil to understand this situation. The only thing unique about this round of
rape apologism is that the defenders have an especially loud megaphone.
It’s been remarked upon that this list of celebrities
who’ve denounced Polanski is populated with a lot more B-listers, C-listers
and worse than the list of Polanski defenders. That strikes me less as evidence that less talented people
have more moral grounding (anyway, there are some really amazing artists on
that list) than evidence that Polanski’s friends are all at the top of the heap
in Hollywood. People who don’t run
in his elite circles and have no occasion to meet him or much hope of working with him
aren’t invested in believing that he’s a good guy, and so are free to see the
situation for what it is. Kevin
Smith and Chris Rock obviously can’t be touched by Polanski or punished for
coming out against what he did, and I think that more than anything explains