Mel Gibson: racism isn’t even the half of it

It’s disturbing how easily Hollywood overlooks violence against women.

What an edifying week this has been for those of us who are female. I know it sometimes slips the mind of many, male and female alike, so let me take this opportunity to remind readers that females are more than half the human race. We're not a special-interest group, or a niche category.

But you wouldn't know it from the responses to a horrifying series of stories featuring violence against women that have dominated the news on both sides of the Atlantic over the past week. In ascending order of importance -- measured crudely in terms of numbers of victims and actual physical and psychological harm done -- let's begin with Mad Max. Mel Gibson has been dropped by his agents, and most of Hollywood, for his "racist rant".

It's good to know that Hollywood objects to racism. I trust that the rest of us do, too. What troubles me is that the racism, as disgusting as it was, was incidental to the purpose of Mel's alleged rant, but it's only the racism that anyone seems to care about.

The claim is that Gibson screamed at his then-girlfriend that the way she dressed meant that she deserved to be raped by a pack of "n----rs". The so-called "n-word" is so totemically powerful that no one will even print it, and its use has finally placed Gibson beyond the pale: his own agents issued a statement saying that no one in Hollywood would touch him with a 10-foot pole. Because of his racial attitudes.

But what about the (alleged) threats and assaults against his then girlfriend, Oksana Grigorieva, who claims that he broke two of her teeth, and attacked her while she was holding their baby? Those are mentioned in passing as "misogyny" or "domestic abuse". Objectionable, maybe, but not enough to end a Hollywood player's career.

Using a racist word is, on the evidence, a far greater social crime than a man physically assaulting his girlfriend, or telling her that she deserves to be gang-raped. How is this possible? Let's ask Roman Polanski.

If anyone is in doubt whether punching his girlfriend, or telling her she should be gang-banged, would have been sufficient to cause Gibson's downfall without the casual racism tossed in to underscore the threat, that person need only consider Hollywood's reaction to the US's attempt to extradite Polanski for a rape to which he has admitted. Polanski did indeed rape a 13-year-old girl, after drugging her, but has had a litany of excuses offered up by Hollywood stars -- far too many of whom are female (for shame, Tilda Swinton and Whoopi Goldberg) -- to excuse his conduct.

The most legally cogent of these, of course, is that he's an artist, which apparently gives him licence to sodomise children. Or maybe it's acceptable because it happened so long ago; in those days rape was probably fine, and if not, well, we've all forgotten about it by now.

Attitudes change, according to the novelist Robert Harris. Yes, of course, they do -- like racism, which used to be acceptable, and now it's not. Whereas raping girls used to be unacceptable, and now it is?

Alternatively, Polanski should be free because the victim wants to move on. Of course she does; that's why the state, and not individuals, prosecutes criminals, because it is supposed to be a question of impartial justice and the upholding of the rule of law. Polanski should be jailed to send the message that, as a society, we don't tolerate the drugging and sodomising of girls. Oh, except I forgot. Clearly we do. Especially if we're Switzerland, which cares so little about the rights of half its population that it didn't give them the right to vote until 1971.

Let me ask another rhetorical question while I'm at it. Does anyone think that if it had been a 13-year-old boy that Polanski had pleaded to guilty to raping, Hollywood would be defending the rape on the basis of passage of time? Rape doesn't have a statute of limitations for a reason: because it's one of the most serious crimes our culture recognises -- when it can be bothered to recognise it, that is.

Polanski told an interviewer that raping a girl was both negligible and admirable: "If I had killed somebody, it wouldn't have had so much appeal to the press, you see? But . . . fucking, you see . . . and the young girls. Judges want to fuck young girls. Juries want to fuck young girls. Everyone wants to fuck young girls!" The repentance is palpable, isn't it?

Anyone who thinks that Polanski's comparison of rape to murder was casual, or coincidental, should pause for a minute and consider the appalling reaction on the part of a terrifyingly large group of people to Raoul Moat's homicidal spree last week. A Facebook page called "RIP Raoul Moat You Legend" has nearly 30,000 people who have signed it and said they "like" it, as of the time of writing this.

When I logged on to the page, I found these representative messages, posted within the last few minutes:

R.I.P Raoul..!! I blame your ex..!! Little whore..!!"

and

If my mrs ever does to me what she did to Raoul i hope im brave enough to do a Moaty.

Thus a new expression enters the language: doing a Moaty, otherwise known as "bravely" attempting to murder women who have the unmitigated gall to try to end a relationship with someone who is, in fact, homicidal. How dare we?

All of these stories have a sickening common denominator: they are about men who think that it is permissible, even estimable, to attack women. And they are about the society that so concurs with this attitude that it doesn't even notice. Edifying, like I said.

Sarah Churchwell is the author of "The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe" (Granta Books, £18.99).

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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