How we learn to accept art that hates woman

From Phil Spector to Roman Polanski, we ignore the signs of danger.

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Allegations are always “shocking”. Two words eternally married in journalese whenever an account of violence against women by a prominent man is reported, although “shock” is hardly the right word in most cases. More like a forceful confirmation of the suspicions you never let yourself acknowledge. Because didn’t you kind of, sort of expect it? In the post-Hefner, post-Weinstein roar of women speaking out, I find myself repeatedly thinking: “Oh that guy? But, of course.” In most cases, there was something. Not enough to be certain, perhaps, but enough to have had my doubts.

Maybe I’d previously clocked that this man sure seemed to like imagery of beaten and broken women, or that he showed notable relish when it came to putting women in their damn place, or maybe I’d heard rumours that he had “difficult” relationships with the women he worked with. Maybe he was even an actual pornographer, which, let us be honest, is a great clapping nob of warning sign. But whatever the something was, I’d ignored it; found a way to put the something into the contained environment of suspended judgement.

At the weekend, Janice Turner wrote about the strange facility with which it’s possible to both “‘know’ and yet not know” about horrific things: from Miramax to Rotherham care homes, people managed to arrange their work and their lives to accommodate abuses that they’d never admit were happening. This knowing-and-not-knowing is institutionally toxic, but it doesn’t only happen in institutions, and it takes a lifetime of practice to get good at it. I’ve been working on it since I was at least ten, and surely before that.

Ten is how old I was when my dad came home with a thrilling grey box called Back to Mono, containing a set of CDs with a decade’s-worth of producer Phil Spector’s output on them. Which means that ten is how old I was when I first heard “He Hit Me (And it Felt Like a Kiss)” – the Crystals’ creeping, martial, Spector-produced hymn to the joys of being beaten by your boyfriend. “And then he took me in his arms / With all the tenderness there is, / And when he kissed me, / He made me his,” trills the girlband, teenagers at the time of the recording and commanded by Spector to sing with abject commitment to the theme.

This is information that I had to do something with, but what? At ten, I was old enough to know that men who hit women are very bad indeed, but not old enough to know that sometimes the men who celebrate hitting women also make very good pop songs. Accepting that this song disturbed me (and it really did, enough that I listened to it secretly on headphones in the same sneaking way I read lurid crime stories in the Sunday paper and gave myself nightmares) would have meant jettisoning the whole grey box of teen-girl voices belting their magnificent melodramas, and I couldn’t do that.

So I found a way to isolate my fears about “He Hit Me”, to wrap them up so they couldn’t contaminate everything else in the box. Maybe it’s a grown-up kind of joke, I thought. Maybe in the Sixties people didn’t know better. When I was 21, Spector shot the actress Lana Clarkson dead, the culmination of a 15-year history of pulling guns on women who rejected his advances. After that, I read about Ronnie Spector, the Ronettes singer and Spector’s wife: he kept her in terrorised isolation for four years, hiding her shoes so she couldn’t run away. Was I shocked? Not really, though I did feel like I’d duped myself. I was right to be scared of that song, after all.

Still, by my twenties, I’d exercised my skills of repression to an instinctive polish. The rape scenes in novel that I’d learned to swallow down, and the mean-spirited misogyny of Polanski films that I somehow compartmentalised from the mean-spirited misogyny of allegedly raping a 13-year-old, and the blaring sharpness of the porno aesthetic which I taught myself to tolerate in Terry Richardson’s fashion shoots: he got the vérité look of sexual menace by actually sexually menacing the models.

I knew what all this was saying about women, and I didn't know. Because knowing – really knowing – would have put me on the outside of everything that seem valuable, of this entire world that I wanted to be a part of.

In The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker wrote about how people (and especially women) learn to tamp down their natural sense of danger, often simply out of politeness. Caught between an unnameable sense of menace from an individual, and the potential social disruption of acting on it, most people prefer to take their chances with a person who scares them than to risk being thought rude. Women learn to put aside our entirely reasonable discomfort about men, in order to operate in a world where men have had most of the power and made most of the art (or at any rate, been given most of the credit for the art that we’re told counts).

One of the things to be hoped, after Weinstein, after Hefner, is that women are listened to. Another is this: that women feel able to listen to ourselves. Not to second-guess ourselves or try to talk ourselves into behaving “reasonably”, but to pay attention to that bone-deep feeling of unease when we get it from someone or something. Most of us, for most of our lives, have been trying to square ourselves with a body of culture that, more or less, hates us. One of my favourite things about reading interviews with Ronnie Spector now is how much she shamelessly loves the sound of her own singing. It feels good when women knock the male-gaze trash off its pedestal, and fill our own ears with our own voices. 

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.