I’ve fought a lot of battles over the past 35 years. But the recent one involving the film “Last Tango in Paris” — which features a real workplace sexual assault that 40 years later continues to be defended as art —was not one I thought would have to be fought in the era of #MeToo (“As ‘Tango’ garners small audience, vocal protesters, Maine Film Center disavows choice of showing,” July 18).

I listened recently to a Scene on Radio podcast from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. It helped me understand why so many men get a pass when it comes to the kinds of behavior women have been working to expose. It’s a tendency the philosopher Kate Mann calls “himpathy.” It lets men off the hook for serious crimes against women, and it’s something extended to men by both men and women. Look no further than the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, in which the voices of women were discounted by both men and women, including our own female senator.

Himpathy is society’s tendency to extend care and sympathy to the male perpetrator at the expense of the female victim. How do we change that? It will take the efforts of women and our male allies to make himpathy unacceptable.

But before we can achieve that change and break that habit, we need to be able to recognize that it is happening all around us.

Seeing it won’t be easy and admitting it will be painful because it means accepting that we live surrounded by “rape culture.” There is a social acceptance of rape and sexual assault — people believe they are going to happen anyway, so there’s no public will to create real consequences to deter them.

That’s not the way we look at other crimes, such as armed robbery and home invasions, and even crimes like animal abuse. We don’t accept those crimes. We prosecute the perpetrators, and put them in jail — we don’t worry about whether we’re going to wreck the perpetrator’s life with a conviction.

It’s also important to understand that in our society’s rape culture, himpathy is almost exclusively extended to white men. Men of color throughout our history have often been jailed, suffered brutally in and out of jail, and even been killed for sexual crimes, real or imagined, against white women. It’s just as important to acknowledge that indigenous women and women of color have even less power to protect themselves than white women.

Sadly, we’re all conditioned from the earliest of ages to recognize our gender-specific roles as natural — men as doers, women as help-mates. We tend to take it easy on men when they punish women for not properly playing their supportive role, and we are harder on women who speak up. It’s truly mind-blowing to realize how committed we can become to upholding a man’s good-guy status, rather than admitting we might have been wrong about that status.

It doesn’t take much looking these days to see how this plays out. Athletes get a pass when it comes to rape and sexual assault because they are “good guys” with their whole lives ahead of them. In the workplace, Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, Bill Clinton, Donald Trump, among thousands of others called out and not, have used their power for their own pleasure with no thought of their victims’ feelings.

And in “Last Tango in Paris, director Bernardo Bertolucci and lead actor Marlon Brando used their power over 19-year-old Maria Schneider for their own end — conspiring to force her into a graphic scene without her consent, for the purpose of making “art.”

“I didn’t tell her what was going on because I wanted her reaction as a girl, not as an actress,” was how Bertolucci rationalized it years later.

Yes, I understand that it’s complicated, but not that much. Yes, the times were different in the 1970s and Bertolucci was a great director, as evidenced by many of his other films. Perhaps he’s even worthy of a tribute. However, but after millions of women around the world have come out to say, “That happened to me, too,” the decision to show “Last Tango” at Waterville’s Maine International Film Festival last week was wrong, and to not admit it shows an astounding indifference to what women still experience.

There may be some who still consider this to be art that pushed boundaries, and it’s clearly a discussion that needs to occur. However, choosing to show the film, without the opportunity for discussion, was wrong — particularly after a female staff member first objected to its showing and then offered the discussion option when her “no” was not heard.

It is an indication of how far we still need to go to understand both what art is and to change a culture that discounts what women have to say in favor of maintaining men’s good-guy reputations and their power over women.

The way to get that change means listening, hearing and believing those with lived experience and standing with them to create a world that will, eventually, be better for all of us.

 

Karen Heck is a resident and former mayor of Waterville.

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