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"Why we must boycott art produced by men accused of sexual assault"

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Laura Jane Williams
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With more and more men in Hollywood being accused of sexual assault and abuse, do we have a responsibility to boycott their films? Absolutely, says freelance writer Laura Jane Williams.

During the 2016 awards season, I made a decision to go and see Manchester by the Sea.

I knew it starred Casey Affleck, and I knew Casey Affleck had historic sexual abuse allegations against him. Brie Larson had just refused to applaud him for his Best Actor win at the Golden Globes, and I thought that was cool of her, to make her point so defiantly – but I went to see the film anyway.

It wasn’t so much that I didn’t care about the women Affleck may have assaulted, but more that it was an inconvenient truth for me. There was Oscar buzz! Everyone was seeing it! What did it matter when those allegations had been settled out of court anyway!

It mattered.

After I’d tweeted about how much I enjoyed the film, a sexual assault survivor sent me a message to say, essentially, that it made her feel worthless to see somebody she respected praise a film featuring a man with allegations over his award-winning head. My comments made it seem like her experience – and the experience of women like her – were of no concern as long as a movie was good. Didn’t I care about Affleck’s personal life? She genuinely wanted to know how I could separate the art from the artist.

To a sexual assault survivor, this was personal.

Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea

Her message was a punch to the gut. A woman had to open her hurt and pain to me, one-on-one, for me to understand: disregarding Affleck’s alleged behaviour minimised the pain of every single person who has ever experienced sexual assault. Rape Crisis UK estimates that number to be at least half a million adults every year, with the majority of victims being female. That figure doesn’t even take into account childhood sexual abuse.

I cannot say I am a feminist and that I believe women, and that yes, #MeToo, if I will also say, “Except for when it comes to the star of *insert TV show or movie here*.”

If I am going to say “I believe you”, I must also refuse to celebrate the accused unless my stance is, ultimately, “…But I don’t care.”

And it isn’t. I do care.

This is personal to me too, now. This has become a very human issue of compassion, and it’s one that affects all of us.

I went online and took back what I had said. For me, it was powerful to own the admission that I had misunderstood the pain my endorsement might cause. I hoped it set an example: that it’s never too late to say you misspoke. People – survivors - told me they were thankful. I had realised how upsetting my earlier remarks were and I was learning. 

As we enter the 2018 awards season, these lessons have stuck. But, in a post-Weinstein world, as the floods of allegations within Hollywood continue to come to light and it’s more surprising when a man on the red carpet hasn’t misused his power, I find myself having to listen even harder to my moral compass.

And I’m far from the only one. On Twitter, Emily Raymond told me, “I grew up watching - and loving - Woody Allen films. They were in my heart… but now I can’t. I just can’t. It feels terribly selfish of me to feel sad, but I do, I really do.”

I empathise. There is a mourning, a grief, in discovering that our favourite directors or actors are predators. Like so many others, it broke my heart when I learned of the allegations levelled against actor Kevin Spacey.

But I’m a person and I can feel two things at once. I’m not afraid to say that my initial reaction isn’t always the “right” one. Does Spacey abusing his status as a star, to allegedly act predatorily towards boys and men, mean I can no longer watch Claire Underwood kick ass in past seasons of House of Cards? Is that punishing a whole crew and cast for one man’s alleged behaviour, of which they knew nothing about? It’s sticky, and we must be able to unpack it together.

Rachel Ellis, another woman I spoke to on Twitter, said, “I saw The Disaster Artist and now I feel gross because I didn’t know about James Franco’s [alleged] past.” She asked if there was a way of knowing which films feature actors with allegations levelled against them, so she can avoid them.

In theory, there is. If you type the name of a film or TV show into the website Rotten Apples, it will flag any cast member who is, indeed, deemed a “rotten apple”. But the system is flawed: Johnny Depp isn’t flagged for his alleged domestic violence against Amber Heard, while Mel Gibson isn’t noted for the aggressive behaviour that landed him a restraining order from both his ex-wife and her mother. We need more.

“Does Spacey abusing his status as a star mean I should no longer watch Claire Underwood kick ass in past seasons of House of Cards?”

For me, there is no choice but to keep the artist entwined with the art, for two reasons. 

One: because I believe women, and I refuse to minimise their pain by supporting any man who has proven, or alleged, assault claims held against him. 

Two: as a deterrent.

If we can collectively refuse to spend our money on films, TV shows, books, music and any other form of art that features known predators, then they will cease to be employed.

Demonstrating zero tolerance for the history of a current A-lister means the up-and-coming ones will have to think twice, too. It’s sad, but if women won’t be respected because it is the right thing to do, then we can at least contribute to women being respected because not doing so will cost the performers and their studios money. Lots of money. Kevin Spacey’s part in upcoming historical drama All the Money in the World was re-shot, post-production, with Christopher Plummer taking over his role at a reported cost of $10 million. If Spacey had remained in his role, the film would have tanked. Let’s remember: money talks.

Moving forward, I’m working on the “crowding out” theory. I am actively supporting women in the arts by spending my money exclusively on tickets, books and streaming services that have demonstrated integrity in championing female voices. I am mentally noting the actors who acknowledge their role in holding their peers accountable. I will support their work, too. I will spend my money on art that deserves it, which is to say I am consuming art created by artists who treat women with respect.

And I’m doing that because it is right.

I’m doing that because this is personal. 

Images: Rex Features / Netflix