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).

Subscription offer: Get 12 issues for just £12 PLUS a free copy of "The Idea of Justice" by Amartya Sen.

Getty
Show Hide image

General election 2017: Why don't voters get more angry about public spending cuts?

In 2012, 61 per cent were concerned about the impact of future cuts. By 2017 this was down to 45 per cent. What happened?

The shape of Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s pitch to the country is clear. The overarching theme is a “rigged” system, a Bernie Sanders style anti-establishment campaign. 

This started with a clear economic focus, but will build out to public services and state support more generally: first, the switch to under-funded schools, and we’ll soon see the NHS emerge as the primary target. As the shadow Health secretary Jon Ashworth said, Labour believes the public has reached a “tipping point” in their concern about waiting lists and accident and emergency services.

And this focus makes perfect sense for Labour. It just won’t work as well as they might hope.

Why does it make sense? Firstly because there is record pessimism about the future of the NHS. Our poll from March showed that 62 per cent of those surveyed expect the NHS to get worse in the next five years, the highest we’ve measured – and by far the most negative outlook for any public service.

It also makes sense because this is one the very few important issues where Labour has a lead over the Conservatives. In our monthly issues index for February, more than half of voters said it was one of the most important issues facing the country, the highest level since 2002. And it’s always in the top three issues that people say determine their vote.

And Labour still have a lead on the NHS: 36 per cent say they have the best policies of all the parties, with the Conservatives on just 23 per cent.

So why will it not work well for Labour? 

First, Labour’s lead on the issue is nothing like it was, even in the relatively recent past. In 2012, 46 per cent thought Labour were the best party for the NHS, and only 16 per cent thought the Conservatives were. In previous decades, Labour was up above 50 per cent at various points. They’ve lost a lot of ground as the originator and defender of the NHS.

Second, while Corbyn is right to claim that issues like public services have more day-to-day impact on people, our relationship with Europe is uniquely dominant right now. Outside a major political upheaval like Brexit or an economic meltdown, there is no doubt that the NHS would have topped concerns over the winter, as we’ve seen it do many times before. We have a special relationship with the NHS, and when we feel it’s under threat it can trump all other concerns - as in the early 2000s, when more than 70 per cent said it was the key national issue. But instead, Brexit tops the list right, with the EU higher in people’s minds than at any point since we started asking the question in 1974.

In any case, it’s not even clear that a real tipping point has been reached in our health care concerns. While our worry for the future is extremely high, current satisfaction and overall ratings are still high, and not declining that much. This is shown across lots of surveys of individual health services: ratings are slipping, but slowly. And this is brought home by international comparisons – we’re the most worried about the future of our health service out of 23 countries, but we’re also among the most satisfied currently. We’re a country-level example of the “worried well”.

And this leads to a fourth point – expectations of public services seem to be shifting. The narrative of the necessity of spending cuts is so firmly embedded now that expectations of the level of service we can afford as a country may have moved for the long-term.

We asked in 2012 what percentage of planned spending cuts people thought had been made. Of course, this is an impossible question to answer definitively, but it is a useful gauge of how long a road people think we have ahead. Back then, people thought 40 per cent of planned cuts had already happened. Now, five years later, we think it’s still just 37 per cent. The idea of semi-permanent austerity has taken hold.

Of course, this could still provide a key leverage point for Labour, if people think there is a way to avoid this future. But the key point is that the cuts are not biting at a personal level for large proportions of the population, rather they are concentrated among quite a small proportion of people. So, back in 2012, 32 per cent said they had been affected by cuts to public services – by 2017 this had actually declined to 26 per cent. No cumulative, growing resentment at the personal impact of cuts - in fact, the opposite. 

And similarly, back in 2012, 61 per cent were concerned about the impact of future cuts on them and their families. But by 2017 this was down to 45 per cent. 

We are constantly scanning for the “tipping point” that the Labour MP Jon Ashworth has identified. It may come suddenly, and if it comes it seems most likely it will be the NHS that shifts the balance. But there’s no sign yet, and that makes Labour’s message that much more difficult to land. 

0800 7318496