Polanski, rape & justice
By Kathy Durkin
Published Oct 8, 2009
The renowned film director Roman Polanski is being held in a Swiss
jail, awaiting possible extradition to the United States. He was
arrested on a 31-year-old warrant while traveling to the Zurich Film
Festival to receive an award. He faces charges for sexually
assaulting a child in 1977 in Los Angeles.
While the director has garnered support among some celebrities in
Europe and Hollywood, women's rights activists and many in the
progressive movement are appalled. They assert that to let Polanski
off the hook trivializes child sexual abuse, sends the message that
rape is OK, and maintains that those who are rich, famous and
talented need not be held accountable for their actions.
It is clear from the grand jury testimony given by Samantha Geimer in
1977 that when she was 13-years-old, Polanski drugged and raped her.
She protested and said "no" repeatedly throughout the ordeal, but he
ignored her. She feared him and insisted on going home.
Although Polanski was indicted on several molestation charges, he
pleaded guilty only to having "unlawful sex with a minor" under a
plea bargain. A year later, prior to sentencing, when the judge
inferred that he might jail Polanski, the director fled to Europe.
There, he built a multi-million-dollar career and lived the "good
life." Hollywood studios continued to finance his films.
Kenneth F. Face, Polanski's probation officer in 1977, recommended
probation without jail time. The New York Times said that officials
then treated Polanski's behavior as "bad judgment" and not a "vicious
assault," the "usual" way that sexual attacks by Hollywood
celebrities were viewed. (Oct. 2)
Face blamed Geimer and her mother for Polanski's behavior. Face
excused Polanski, citing his European background and past tragedies,
which were held up by his defenders then and are being repeated now.
However, it was Polanski's actions stemming from his sense of
entitlement, power and privilege that were to blamealong with male
superiority. That this terrible act occurred in a sexist culture, in
which disrespect and devaluation of women and girls are reinforced
every day, is not unexpected.
Another double standard
Polanski's celebrity friends are calling his arrest "horrifying."
They say the director should be absolved of blame and allowed to put
this "messy business" behind him, as if he didn't pay traffic fines.
They infer that being a "great artist" exempts him from acting with
basic human decency.
More than 100 Hollywood notables have signed petitions calling for
Polanski's release. Movie producer Harvey Weinstein, characterizing
Polanski's assault as a "so-called crime," said the director "has
served his time." Others say he has "suffered enough" and "atoned for
the sins of his young years"he was 43!
What about Samantha Geimer's suffering and her decades of coping with
the memory of the abuse? What about the media now subjecting her and
her family to sensational coverage of every detail of the assault? No
wonder she wants the case dismissed.
Why aren't celebrities circulating a petition supporting Geimer and
all survivors of sexual abuse and condemning Polanski and his
defenders? In fact, why not call for a women's tribunalmade up of
survivors of sexual assaultto decide his fate?
If Polanski were a poor or unknown artist, would these celebrities
call for his release? Could his lawyer have even made a plea bargain?
Would he have been able to travel freely for decades, build a
successful career, and enjoy a life of privilege? Would he be called
a "martyr" to art whose "art" outweighs his deeds?
Two systems of 'justice'
There are two systems of justice in this country. One is for the
wealthy, famous, powerful and privileged, especially if they are
white and male. The other is for working and poor people, members of
oppressed communities and women. Hundreds of thousands of poor people
are in jails nationwide for lesser offenses.
World-famous performers and athletes who are African American and
members of other oppressed communities are prosecuted, persecuted,
scrutinized and demonized for minor offenses, even driving
infractions, or for no reason at all.
Prosecutors said actor Wesley Snipes should be "made an example of
because of his fame" for failing to file income tax returns. New York
City Mayor Michael Bloomberg called for prosecution of Plaxico
Burress to the "fullest extent of the law." The football champion is
serving a two-year prison sentence for accidentally shooting himself
at a club. Olympic-winning athlete Marion Jones was jailed for six
months because she didn't "tell the truth" to federal investigators
about her alleged steroid use.
Where is the "justice" when Jonesthe mother of two young children,
who pleaded for leniency and who did nothing to harm another
personwas cruelly jailed and demonized in the press, when Polanski,
who preyed upon a child, whose probation officer recommended no jail
time, was then allowed to evade arrest for 31 years and become a
Where were the celebrity petitions calling for Jones' release?
Women's inequality and oppression, along with national, LGBT and
economic oppressions, are intrinsic to capitalism. During this
economic crisis, as women face workplace discrimination, right-wing
attacks on their basic rights in courts and legislatures, and
defunding of vital programs, including for facilities for sexual
abuse and domestic violence survivors, they are also being maligned
in the reactionary media.
It is only through the struggles of womenBlack, Latina, Asian,
Native, Arab and whiteand their fightback organizations that
progress is made and women's rights gained, while acceptance of
sexist ideology and behavior are pushed back.
Roman Polanski sex case arrest provokes backlash in Hollywood
US women have attacked film world's backing for director who again
faces threat of trial for unlawful sex with 13-year-old girl in 1977
4 October 2009
Hollywood stars flock to causes. An A-list name can boost the profile
of a charity, highlight a far-off tragedy or reverse a grave
injustice. So when Oscar-winning director Roman Polanski was arrested
in Switzerland on the way to a film festival, it is perhaps no wonder
that the great and the good of the film world rushed to plead for his freedom.
The list of supporters giving Polanski their impassioned support read
like a Who's Who of the cream of the movie-making world. It included,
among many others, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Harvey
Weinstein, Pedro Almodóvar and Ethan Coen.
But rather than rallying mass public support for the beleaguered
film-maker director of such undoubted classics as Chinatown,
Rosemary's Baby and The Pianist they have provoked an extraordinary backlash.
Led by a handful of outspoken female voices, a rising tide of opinion
has instead applauded Polanski's arrest for unlawful sex with a
13-year-old back in 1977. They have turned the focus on the crime
itself, calling the director an accused rapist who abused a child.
That, they say, should be the focus of the story and of Hollywood's
ire, not defending an old man who pleaded guilty to unlawful sex with
a young girl then went on the run for 32 years to avoid prison. The
backlash not only against Polanski, but also against the Hollywood
clan that rallied round him has begun in earnest.
"Roman Polanski raped a child. Let's just start right there, because
that's the detail that tends to get neglected," wrote feminist and
author Kate Harding in an impassioned column in Salon. That article
then went viral across the internet, gaining tens of thousands of
page views and seeming to herald the reaction to come.
Harding, a liberal feminist, found herself being asked to appear on
rightwing talk radio shows. Soon editorial after editorial, from the
mighty New York Times to the smalltown Lowell Sun in Massachusetts,
followed suit, welcoming Polanski's arrest as a case of long overdue
justice for a serious crime.
It seems that the consequences of the dramatic development could now
spread wider than just Polanski. Already some early supporters of the
director, such as actress Whoopee Goldberg, have had to backtrack and
clarify their positions. More are likely to follow suit in the weeks
to come. Could it be that Hollywood whose very existence rests on
accurately predicting the public's taste has made one of its
gravest misjudgments? "The disconnect between Hollywood and the rest
of the country seems enormous," said Anthony Mora, an author and
founder of a leading Los Angeles-based public relations firm.
There is little doubt that the case is extremely complex. In many
ways both sides are dealing in black and whites and not the shades of
grey that too often more accurately describe reality.
For Polanski's defenders, that has meant ignoring the act that took
place in 1977 and instead focusing on judicial wrongdoings that have
plagued the case and Polanski's own tragedy-tinged life.
They point out that the director pleaded guilty only as part of a
deal, which he then feared was being reneged upon. That is why he
fled, they say. They also refer to his past as a Holocaust survivor
and a man whose wife, Sharon Tate, was brutally murdered by followers
of Charles Manson as evidence that he has already borne much
suffering in his life.
Finally, his sterling record as a film director is held up as
evidence of why he should be celebrated as a leading artist, not
arrested for a crime where even the victim has asked for him not to
be pursued after such a long time. Perhaps it is no wonder that many
in Hollywood have described his plight in terms that make Polanski
himself the martyr. Weinstein said the arrest was a "terrible
situation". Actress Debra Winger said the Swiss had been involved in
"Philistine collusion" in allowing the arrest. Goldberg, in now
notorious remarks, said: "I don't believe it was 'rape-rape'."
But, as the outrage has grown, especially in the wake of Goldberg's
remarks, the sheer scale of Hollywood's misjudgment in rallying so
enthusiastically to Polanski's cause has begun to be exposed. One of
Goldberg's fellow presenters on the ABC TV show The View, Sherri
Shepherd, condemned Polanksi outright. Details of the victim's
testimony in 1977 have been published and widely circulated through
the media and via the gossip website The Smoking Gun. It makes for
grim and unpleasant reading.
The girl graphically described being given champagne and a quaalude,
a popular recreational drug in the 1970s, by Polanski before he had
sex with her. She testified that she repeatedly said no but that he
did not stop, committing numerous sexual acts as she protested.
Not surprisingly, it is feminists and women who have led the charge
against Hollywood's support of Polanski. The Feminist Majority
Foundation is in favour of his extradition. Katie Buckland, chief
executive of the California Women's Law Centre, has pointed out the
difference between Hollywood's attitudes towards Polanski's long-ago
crime and the unearthed pasts of elderly paedophile Catholic priests.
Writer Vicki Iovine has also been outspoken, making the same point.
Even some women members of Hollywood have broken ranks as actress
Kirstie Alley loudly condemned Polanski and those who defended him.
Nearly all have accused him in no uncertain terms of being a child rapist.
The ramifications of that will be difficult to measure. Polanski now
faces a long legal battle that will span two continents. But in the
arena of public opinion his image has been shattered. The words many
people will now first associate with Polanski will be all to do with
the sexual assault of a young child, not his film work. Even if he
goes free, Polanski could now be hurt where it really matters to
Hollywood: the box office. "Sex with children was, and always has
been, anathema to Americans... the 'anything goes' cultural excesses
of the time do not excuse Polanski from society's expectation that
adults should protect kids, not exploit them," said author and
sociologist BJ Gallagher.
The Polanski backlash has spread far and wide. He was never popular
at all on the right wing of America's culture, but now middle America
is firmly in favour of seeing him in a Californian courtroom.
Talkshow hosts, radio commentators and newspaper editorials from
coast to coast have all insisted that the arrest was long overdue and
that Polanski needs to be brought to the US.
"Hollywood people really don't see the world in the same way as
average people... that is why there is a backlash," said Mike Levine,
a Hollywood PR expert.
But it is perhaps no surprise that the gap between Hollywood and the
rest of America has grown so large on this particular case. Because
of his long and illustrious career, Polanski is a friend and
colleague of nearly all the main players in the film world. They are
his confidantes and his peers. His movies have made them stars and
helped them to earn millions. They live in the same rarefied world of
global fame. "Elite Hollywood culture is protecting one of its own,"
said Alexander Riley, a professor of sociology at Bucknell University.
It is also speaks to a certain type of Hollywood culture which
appears to insist that its top stars are in some ways elevated above
the law and should be treated differently to ordinary members of the public.
If Polanski was just an ordinary man instead of a world-famous film
director, the bare facts of his case would be likely to elicit little
sympathy especially from the world famous. Hollywood stars seem to
be arguing, in some ways, that Polanski's talent should allow him
some sort of free pass for his past behaviour. "Hollywood... looks at
the Polanski case and says, 'You have to make allowances for
genius'," said Gallagher.
Hollywood's elite also functions as a kind of club and Polanski, seen
by the elite as a great European auteur director, is a firm member.
That requires a certain degree of success but also a great deal of
ideological conformity. It is a cliche that Hollywood is uniformly
liberal in its politics, but one with more than a dash of truth in
it. It is certainly interesting to see the reaction to Polanski's
case and compare it with the reaction to Mel Gibson, when he was
caught mouthing drunken anti-Semitic abuse.
Gibson, a rare conservative in Hollywood, was brutally condemned by
his fellow stars and sent into virtual career exile. Polanski, whose
crime is far more serious, has seen a vast outpouring of sympathy.
Being a member of the Hollywood club certainly seems to have its privileges.
"The difference between the reaction to Gibson and the reaction to
Polanski has been just huge. Huge!" said celebrity interviewer Gayl
Murphy. "That says a lot about what Hollywood thinks is important to them."
But, more importantly, it has also exposed a huge fault line between
what Hollywood thinks of itself and what Americans think of
Hollywood. No longer is it just the right wing of America lambasting
"Hollywood liberals" for their permissive and overly Democratic ways.
It is Democrats too. And feminists. And conservatives. Polanski seems
to have united the different strands of America in a way that few
other things have.
As Harding blogged after her column exploded across the blogosphere
and she was inundated with emails and requests for press interviews:
"Who knew being disgusted with Roman Polanski would turn out to be
the ever-elusive common ground between rightwing dudes and liberal feminists?"