Saturday, Jan. 13, 2017
WHEN the French actress Catherine Deneuve revealed herself this week to be a woman who believed that men had the right to pester – the obverse of the right of women to tell them to get lost – I waited for the return fire. It wasn’t long coming, and of course it came from the flanks, from the ranks of those whose feminism (and their unarguable position that sexual predation is a crime) have turned #MeToo into a distaff crusade. One wonders, peripherally, what is their view of Heloise and Abelard; but never mind.
Deneuve, who is a fine actor and a woman one suspects it would have been fun to bed – the use of the transitive past is a reference to this writer, not the lady – was the leading name among the 100 French woman, of varying degrees of fame, who wrote an open letter to the newspaper Le Monde. Their point was simple and perfectly sound: that the fevered “debate” now taking place over male predation risks costing us – us being human society – much more than it would gain. They suggest it is risks leading us into a new puritanism.
Pester was perhaps the wrong verb. It invited attention to the worst-case scenario, which in today’s social media scene is tantamount to summoning four horsemen and their attendant apocalypse. It comes in various classifications of fault, from mere irritation (including irritating), annoy, bother or worry, to the Full Monty of plague, persecute, torment or molest.
But I would argue for what we might shorthand as the Deneuve Indulgence. She and her sisters in arms presented an argument that has merit, if we wish to sustain humanity in the form with which we are most comfortable and which, let it be said, nature intended.
The critical commentary that she attracted – I’m thinking particularly of that from the Australian scribbler-feminist Van Badham – to the effect that Deneuve was a good actress but that didn’t make her a social commentator worth listening to, was an ad hominem assault where none was needed. Tell Cate Blanchett and all the other actor-seers who use their privileged podiums to put the world to rights according to them, that they should shut up, and see what happens.
There’s no argument here – or anywhere – to support the actions of the world’s Harvey Weinsteins. It’s a shame, literally, that no one ever took them out behind their limousine garages and belted them with a baseball bat to teach them a lesson. There’s no argument for the patriarchy, either; on any analysis that takes account of fact, it has royally buggered the world. And there is certainly never an argument for turning a blind eye to criminality, because that’s what coercive sexual predation is.
But that’s not what Deneuve and the others were saying. They are women who simply suggest – they’re French women, from a culture where sex has never been secretive, or even fundamentally “dirty”, kept behind Calvinist lace curtains, or viewed as something one does only if licensed to perform that socio-religious rite – that human society is … human society. Sex is for reproduction, certainly, but it is also recreational. It’s fun to become, by agreement, sans culottes with someone else who is also insufficiently clad.
Deneuve and others say that the danger in the present situation is that men will be shoved aside, finally compelled by the weight of “feminist” petitioning to recognise their complete lack of utility, because none can be trusted not to pester.
Where to draw that line is presented in some feminist dialectic as problematical, sometimes even unresolvable. That’s tosh and we owe Deneuve and her friends a vote of thanks for saying so. As a woman who is also an actor, Deneuve is familiar with the ethos of the casting couch (whether she ever used it is beside the point). She is aware, as a sentient, worldly and highly intelligent woman, that opportunity is a chameleon. It thrives by design in whatever environment it is in, and like anything else, is kept within appropriate boundaries by good manners and common sense.
We can say without fear of contradiction that many women who wished to be actors began their careers on their backs. That may not be very moral – on either side of the sexual equation – but we’re not really talking about morality. It’s such a subjective question anyway.
The world would be a poorer place if the frisson of la chasse were to be denied us because, in a gender-neutral society, there should be no such thing as prey or predator. It’s very unlikely that we shall reach that poverty-stricken pass, because despite the exponential increase in opportunities to fulminate presented by the new world of social media, people generally (and beneficially) seem intent on carrying on much as they always did.
We do need to encourage men to grow up and to deter unwelcome sexual predation, which as Van Badham and others rightly assert is far more than just a Hollywood thing. I think Deneuve made that point too, with her friends, in her letter.
There’s plenty of room for debate about where consent ends and compulsion begins. It’s not a clear-cut line at all, and it operates both ways in the sexual spectrum. Though these days, perhaps that should be kaleidoscope.