October 10, 2017
“The audience laughed.”
This is the sentence I keep coming back to amid the expanding coverage of Hollywood's top creep, Harvey Weinstein, who by now has been accused of sexual harassment, abuse, or assault by more than a dozen women. I would not be surprised to see that number grow to “dozens,” plural, before the week is out.
“The audience laughed.”
Somehow, New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Rachel Abrams manage to pack all the twisted power of the patriarchy into these three words, contained in their latest follow-up to the Weinstein bombshell that dropped last week. The context: Kantor and Abrams are describing the crowd reaction to 2013 Academy Awards host Seth MacFarlane’s one-liner about the best actress nominees, about whom he quips: “Congratulations, you five ladies no longer have to pretend to be attracted to Harvey Weinstein.”
The audience, you see, laughed.
It’s funny-not-funny to be taken back to that particular Oscar night, because at the time, this line largely flew under the radar. MacFarlane’s other material—in which the Family Guy creator sexualized a Black child, mocked actresses for appearing nude onscreen, and turned singer Chris Brown’s history of committing domestic violence into a punch line—was widely considered to be more offensive than what appeared then to be a comparatively tame rib about powerful men and aspiring actresses.
I keep thinking about that laughter. How, for the women in the audience who had been abused or assaulted by Weinstein, it might have been an act of self-defense. How, for the men in the audience who had protected or ignored Weinstein’s behavior, it was an act of aggression. How, for those of us watching at home, it reinforced an odious trope about the casting couch and the inner workings of the film industry.
It was lost, back then, in a swirl of worse jokes. Only in retrospect does MacFarlane’s banal cruelty become apparent.
What does it mean to “pretend to be attracted to” someone? More than that, what does it mean for a woman to “pretend to be attracted to” a man, and for thousands, probably millions, of people to find the premise amusing? It means that most of us understand gender relations in terms of a sexual economy, one in which women exchange their bodies—the only item of value we have to offer, however unwillingly—for the prestige and professional success that can only be bestowed upon us by men.
I have pretended to be attracted to men before. I did it for many reasons, professional and personal. When I performed stand-up comedy for a few years, I pretended not to be repulsed by come-on after come-on from club bookers and dude comedians whose good graces I needed to stay in for the sake of stage time. I pretended for the regular guys—there have been several—who I thought might follow me home from dance clubs if I didn’t let them down gently. I pretended for the snarky creep who told me I looked like I had two “pretty [bruised] black eyes” on a first date because I didn’t want to cause a scene in the restaurant. Mostly, I pretended to protect myself.
This game of pretend is not fun. It’s emotionally and intellectually exhausting, and it can be physically taxing and, in many cases, dangerous. I’m not sure if men understand this, how deeply not fun or funny it is to smile and laugh and pretend to be confused or clueless in the face of unwanted sexual advances, how disgusting it is to be close to a man who you are afraid of, and to grin and equivocate and play coy to save your career or, maybe, your life. To know the smell of his sweat and his cologne and his hair gel and his aftershave and to pretend to find it all perfectly charming when everything inside you is telling you to get the fuck out of there? It’s fucking gross, man.
But that’s the joke, I guess. The joke is that five women a year—maybe three or four, if some get repeat nominations—get to take a break from pretending to be interested in Harvey Weinstein’s atrocious creep-boner. The way the line itself is written even obfuscates the reality of the behavior—sexual harassment, probably sexual assault—that it references. It’s women who are playing pretend, not a man, Harvey Weinstein, demanding non-consensual sexual attention and actions from them.
Congratulations. Harvey Weinstein will find five other women to prey upon next year.
The audience laughed. The audience at the most prestigious mainstream arts awards broadcast in the world laughed. The audience of the most famous people in the world laughed. The audience laughed. The women laughed because they were afraid of what might happen if they didn’t—and the men laughed because this joke, and so many others like it, reminds them that they do not need to be afraid. That this is all just a little pretend between friends, just the way an industry works.
But this is not pretend between friends. This is bigger than Harvey Weinstein. It’s about Donald Trump, who grabs women’s vaginas because he knows they are afraid of what might happen if they deny him. It’s about Roger Ailes and Bill Cosby and Woody Allen and Roman Polanski and Sean Penn and Casey Affleck and R. Kelly and Charlie Sheen and Mike Tyson and Dr. Luke and the next man whose victims will become a punchline at the next big awards show.
But that doesn’t mean we have to laugh.