French actress Adele Haenel walked out of the Cesar Awards last weekend when Roman Polanski was awarded ‘Best Director’ for his movie J’Accuse (An Officer and a Spy). Footage of her exit, including her gloriously continental expostulations, was posted to Twitter and went viral.
You’ll recognise the dynamic of what happened next if you’re a regular on Twitter. As with many acts of defiance carried out by women in the wake of #MeToo, complaints were made about the performative nature of Haenel’s action. This is a recent, if tiresomely familiar, pushback against the movement in general, and women and allies will invariably recognise it from childhoods filled with stern requests for silence and pleas to stop ‘showing off’.
Adele Haenel claims that she was sexually harassed by Christophe Ruggia between the ages of twelve and fifteen. According to Mediapart, Haenel was ‘plunged into a deep emotional crisis, she tried to cut off links with Ruggia and sought help from people in his entourage – but few showed sympathy.’ Having no one to turn to, Haenel remained silent until last year, when Finding Neverland ‘made her understand the mechanisms of control and fascination’.
Anyone familiar with these mechanisms will understand them to mean isolation for the accuser and protection of the accused. The isolation points the accuser towards self-blame and shame, encouraging silence. If these aren’t sufficient and the accuser considers reporting, they will soon learn that legal systems are not their friend, as every facet of their allegation will be dismantled, held up to the light and examined for weakness.
So Adele Haenel had her moment in the sun and we all gloried in it. Why? It’s little more than a gesture by an extremely wealthy white woman in a protected environment. Adele Haenel didn’t rescue a family from a burning building or save humanity from an asteroid accompanied by Aerosmith.
Not all heroes wear capes. And heroism doesn’t only take the form of leaping over a building in a single bound, although people would have been impressed if Haenel had done so in her posh frock. Heroism can take many forms and one of them is using your platform to make a point. Haenel’s gesture might be the first time some people have ever seen a woman cast off the corset of good behaviour into which everyone at these events is firmly strapped, and reject the bullshit head-on. The bullshit, in this case, being French cinema honouring a man who pled guilty to raping a thirteen-year-old girl, then ran away.
There’s a trickle-down effect to these actions that isn’t always immediately apparent or significant enough to generate headlines. No, we’re not all going to end up on stage at the Cesars, nor are many media outlets concerned with the millions of stories of ordinary people, for whom #MeToo remains an abstract with no discernible benefits. But someone might see Haenel and realise that anger is an option too. That anger can propel one forward, unlike shame, which pins one down and never lets us go while it’s in the room.
This is all new, of course. We’re going to make mistakes and some are going to be punished with considerably more vigour and enthusiasm than abusers can expect. It’s important to remember to be gentle if we want to move forward together. We must all be aware of the implications of our actions and ensure we’re not contributing to the problem by adhering to old habits.
An example of this could be Natalie Portman’s appearance at the Oscars. To great fanfare, Portman took to the red carpet wearing a cape embroidered with the names of female filmmakers who had not been nominated for awards. She was initially lauded until Rose McGowan pointed out that Portman was ‘acting the part of someone who cares’. McGowan contended that she was disgusted by the gesture, suggesting that if Portman was that interested in creating better visibility to female filmmakers, she’d do so by inviting more of them to work with her production company.
It’s a fair point, and perhaps a little closer to the idea of a ‘performative’ action that we’re trying to escape. McGowan is entitled to lash out; her story is at the epicentre of the #MeToo movement and a significant proportion of her life ruined by the movie industry, specifically Harvey Weinstein. Interestingly, Portman agreed with McGowan that her action wasn’t ‘brave’ as it had been dubbed by the press.
But while I understand McGowan’s anger, it feels wrong to slam someone so hard for a misjudgement, particularly in this climate. Portman’s gesture was intended to show solidarity to other women in the industry and while I’m sure she’ll be fine, she might be reluctant to put herself out there again. A less seasoned professional might think twice before trying to show solidarity, in case she gets it wrong.
As previously stated, this is all new. The only way real change for everyone can be enacted is if we all try to support each other and move away from the kill or be killed mentality that has minimised us.
We have enough isolation and shame foisted upon us, without manufacturing our own.