The Pervert/Genius Problem

Megan Griffiths on what to do with the art created by sexual predators.

The lack of respect for women — their autonomy, their intelligence, the value of their contributions — is inescapable in our culture. It exists even in the hearts of women, because the same society that shaped the Harvey Weinsteins of the world has shaped us too. Last year, Anne Hathaway admitted that she had not trusted female filmmakers as easily as the men she’d worked with, and that she was coming to terms with the idea that she too was harboring internalized misogyny. All of us are victims of the pervasiveness of this problem, and all of us have work to do to fix it.

To misunderstand the cultural moment that has brought us all of these scandals is to make it about individual men and what should happen to them. Of course personal consequences are necessary, but we can’t let that eclipse the reality that on a larger level this is a moment for deep societal introspection, a willingness to look at ourselves in reflection of these men and their work, and a commitment to change everything.

But part of this path forward is finding some kind of resolution to the glaring question: What about their art? Do we just bury films directed by Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Alfred Hitchcock, Nate Parker, produced by Harvey Weinstein, or acted in by Kevin Spacey, Sean Penn or Dustin Hoffman? Stop listening to Michael Jackson, David Bowie and R. Kelly? Deny the cultural milestone that was The Cosby Show? What about the other artists who contributed to these pieces? Are they just more casualties of these men’s acts?

It’s a debate that re-emerges every time a new perpetrator is unmasked, which now seems to happen on the hour. There are arguments that the two things — one’s art and one’s personal life — should be held apart, and judged independently. And there are those who say, “Fuck these men and the horse they rode in on. They robbed us of entire bodies of work from the women they chased out of the business. Burn their legacies down.”

Alongside this rising tide of accusations of misconduct, there has been a growing swell of voices calling for increased diversity in this industry. Cultivating the number of underrepresented voices behind the camera broadens the scope of the stories we’re exposed to, and by extension broadens our minds. I believe this deeply, because as a filmmaker I know how much of myself is infused into my work. Choices are made — about what the characters do, their reasoning process, the way they dress and the way they treat each other — and the filmmaker’s worldview seeps into all those crevices. And that can be a very good thing.

But what if the filmmaker’s worldview is sexist? Racist? What if the filmmaker, in his personal life, rationalizes his own instinct to masturbate in front of an unwilling second party, or to rape them? What if he has an attraction to underage girls and a lifetime of practice internalizing the accompanying shame, or what if he has no shame at all? What if those justifications and those prejudices and those predilections have been part of their work all along? What then?

I don’t think we can simply hit the Delete button on the legacy of every artist who has preyed upon women. The sad reality is that if we did that, we might not have much film history that would survive. This industry has a deeply rooted problem, and it goes back to the very beginning. But also, if we just erase or suppress these people’s work, we’re failing to do the first thing one must do when one wants something to change: acknowledge its existence plainly and reckon with it.

While I don’t advocate ripping these men’s pages from the history books, that does not, however, mean I think we should continue to celebrate them as we did before their personal lives became part of the picture. The work of these individuals can and should be looked at anew, in the context of their deeds, and we should study, or at the very least note, the impact of their worldview on the art we hold so dear.

Woody Allen has been using his films to rationalize his attraction to younger women for decades. One only needs to watch, to give the most obvious examples, Manhattan or Whatever Works (or read the plot for his upcoming film!) to see that he has, over and over again, provided us the blueprint for how to excuse his behavior. And he’s just the most obvious.

Brett Ratner has spent his career reinforcing homophobia and sexism on a massive scale to global audiences. There is an entire generation of men and women that have been raised on the toxic masculinity that pervades Ratner’s films. They are the same people who chuckled around him when he lied about “banging” Olivia Munn, or looked the other way when he outed Ellen Page. He is a prime beneficiary of the bro culture he helped to build.

Louis CK has made an art form out of confronting his own uncomfortable desires, but in the process, he has also created fictional worlds where he is forgiven for these desires, or at least asked us to laugh at them. In season 4 of Louie, he pushes Pamela Adlon’s character into a wall, kissing her against her will, forcing her to stay in his apartment despite her very clear and forceful refusals. After these protestations, which include her saying, “This would be rape if you weren’t so stupid,” her character admits she has feelings for Louie and the two start dating. It’s a very generous reimagining of non-consensual advances that in retrospect might as well have had Louie looking into the camera saying, “See guys? I’m not so bad!”

Roman Polanski has always been the toughest for me. His film Repulsion was a major, formative influence on my work. Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown exhibit mainstream storytelling at its most effective, and most artful. But Polanski has also raped children. Looking at his work through this lens, his paternal condescension for his female characters feels more visible. In Carnage, a character played by Christoph Waltz gives us a clue to how Polanski feels about a thinking woman when he says, “The women we like are sensual, crazy, shot full of hormones. The ones who want to show off how perceptive they are, the gatekeepers of the world, they’re a huge turnoff.” Does this perspective on women make his filmmaking choices any less effective? Quite the contrary — the strength of his technique allows him to inject his worldview straight into our veins.

This is not about just these men in the headlines. This is systemic. This is everywhere. This is the protagonist of Revenge of the Nerds donning a Darth Vader costume in order to rape someone, and the film treating the moment as a triumph of the underdog; this is Ace outing the antagonist in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective as a transgender person and every male in viewing distance puking in disgust; this is a woman being repeatedly, brutally beaten in The Hateful Eight, and the filmmaker playing it for laughs. We watch, we learn, we perpetuate the cycle.

The world we all exist in now has been shaped by our media and media-makers. Looking at the art of these men with both eyes open, the beauty and the ugliness coexist. One can appreciate the strengths of a piece while acknowledging and challenging its flaws, and also factoring in the harm done — by both the art and the artist, and both the obvious harm and the more insidious. The deification we often bestow on these auteurs can make the process of holding them accountable difficult and painful, but they’re not gods, and we never should have treated them that way in the first place.

While I can’t advocate jettisoning people’s entire back catalogues, what happens to these artists going forward is another matter. Once the veil has been lifted on their transgressions, anyone who continues to provide new opportunities for them to do more of the same kind of work becomes complicit in disseminating the artist’s worldview. But does that mean they should stop creating? Marc Maron, on his podcast, recently described this time as a “fucking massive, turbulent learning moment for men.” In the same monologue, Maron struggles with reconciling his friendship with Louis CK with what he now knows. After acknowledging those who wonder whether he can retain that friendship, Maron arrives at this observation: “It’s probably the best time to be his friend, when he wants to make changes in his life.”

There’s compassion in that. A driving force of my work has always been the idea that behind every villain is a very sad story of a broken human being. Can these men be saved? Can they learn any lessons from this mass public shaming? Surely there’s value to the perspective of a reformed man, who might better reach others who are broken in the same way, and who might actually make work that engenders change. Is it naïve to hope that these men could grow from this, and maybe even consider their future work an avenue for repentance?

Who knows? A big part of me just wants to tell them to go suck it and let the ladies take the wheel for a while. They’ve had their chance, and allowing them to be ejected carves out much needed room for new voices, voices that deserve to be heard, and who have been kept out (or chased out) of rooms for too long.

This shit is complicated. But I guess where I am landing is: Movies and television are a huge part of our education as to how the world works and who we want to be. (If that wasn’t true, I wouldn’t have spent so much of college trying to channel Janeane Garofalo in Reality Bites.) The worlds created inside our movies and television have an effect on the world outside of them. At the same time, a film is not separate from its maker, it is a reflection of its maker. And that context matters too. Let’s hold our storytellers accountable, both for the work they’ve already created and the work they’ve yet to create. And as filmmakers, let’s harness the medium’s power to do better.

Megan Griffiths is an independent director, writer and producer. She has just completed her sixth feature, Sadie (starring Melanie Lynskey, John Gallagher Jr, Tony Hale, Danielle Brooks and featuring a breakout performance from Sophia Mitri Schloss). She also recently helmed two episodes of the Duplass Brothers’ Room 104 on HBO, and an episode of Graves for EPIX. Her other feature work includes The Night Stalker (starring Lou Diamond Phillips as serial killer Richard Ramirez), Lucky Them (starring Toni Collette, Thomas Haden Church, Oliver Platt and Johnny Depp), Eden (starring Jamie Chung, Matt O’Leary and Beau Bridges) and The Off Hours (starring Amy Seimetz, Ross Partridge and Scoot McNairy).