The Maybe not so Murky Dynamics of White Male Privilege

Casey Affleck is all over the news these days. He is an Oscar-winning actor who has been accused of multiple counts of sexual harassment by two female industry professionals, who both worked on his 2010 mockumentary narrating Joaquin Phoenix's decision to pursue a rap career. Both women came forward and filed lawsuits against Affleck. The cases have since been settled out of court. - These are the facts.

So, how do we now view or assess Affleck's involvement? Is he guilty? Should he be denied an Oscar because sexual harassment charges were leveled against him? Is giving him an Oscar sending a message that white male privilege continues to be tacitly approved, that white men exercising their power by wielding their prowess will result in relative impunity, which may mean a apathetic slap on the hand and without a precedent legal remedy in sight? Should Affleck's professional craftsmanship stand trial because of his behavior as a person? In other words, should the private person and the artist be considered separate entities, one not impacting the other, a mutually exclusive domain or realm where someone's trespasses do not infringe on or negatively impact an outlying contribution made in the artistic sphere? 

It is a very serious question to ponder. Should art be in fact judged independently from the artist? We, the readers, are operating on limited evidence. We are restricted to what news outlets are feeding us and oftentimes, allegations of a reprehensible act are sufficient to turn public opinion against the accused person. Thing is, Hollywood represents murky territory. There are precedents of white men using their power and privilege to take advantage, sexual advantage, of women. Names like Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, almost immediately come to mind. It has become more common these days to hear of reports from women coming forward admitting to having been sexually abused or molested by film makers or male co workers in the industry, which in turn make the recent alleged instances of sexual harassment seem more credible. 

It is no secret that white male privilege exists. It has existed for a long time, and for a long time it has been swept under the carpet. There have been hushed reports and the occasional, very widely spaced out, allegation that often brought the accuser more blame and shame than vindication. No wonder, many women decided to keep their mouths shut in order to retain their shot at a career in Hollywood. On the other end of the spectrum are persons, one could call opportunists, who will seize a fruitful occasion to bask in their 15 Minutes of Fame. Not every woman's motive in coming forward has been clean; at least, there is this underlying understanding that being famous comes with its own undercurrent of opportunism grabbed by those power hungry enough to not mind purposely lying and tarnishing a star's reputation. 

So, here we are faced with two different scenarios, one of Affleck as a perpetrator/predator who has abused his fame sexually harassing female co-workers, and a second as a potential victim of someone wanting to gain some media attention and receive handsome monetary compensation. And huddled between these two stark scenarios, there are other variations of part predator mixed in with victim, which muddies the picture. 

Thing is, if you find yourself unjustly accused, wouldn't you climb to the highest rooftop to proclaim your innocence in the matter? Wouldn't you demand to have your day in court to decry the accusations brought forth against you? Would you even consider settling if the possibility existed that by choosing mediation the public came to doubt your innocence? As a reader, I have always frowned on the mediation tactic that usually results in settling out of court. I understand that even in court, the possibility exists of justice not being served, but somehow, I find the word 'settling' to be somewhat tainted. However, there are instances when even the 'most innocent' person may be forced to resort to a mediation process because of possible (plausible) distortions of the case or when a family member may be dragged through the media mud as a consequence of going to trial. There are exceptions that have to be kept in mind. 

I admit, I am guilty of probably judging and condemning Casey Affleck prematurely. I read a more in-depth report by The Daily Beast about the sexual harassment charges, and I was immediately up in arms against Affleck. And yet, when it comes to Roman Polanski's or Woody Allen's trespasses, I seem more docile, more lethargic, and more accepting. Why? I was under the impression that Woody Allen had begun a relationship with his family's nanny once she was an adult, and in what concerns Roman Polanski, what I had read about his having had sexual relations with a minor was that it was consensual, and like my mother used to say: The poor man, he lost his young, pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, to Charles Manson and the Family. Anyone would go bonkers after that. Thing is, we create narratives in our heads about what is permissible and what shouldn't pass muster. We excuse a specific allegation in one person but vilify it in another. I am guilty of it. 

So, once again, is Casey Affleck guilty? Are the allegations enough to lump him in with the Bill Cosby's of the world, who've had to contend with a litany of women coming forward with very specific details about his rabid abuse of white male privilege? In other words, is a verdict necessary to be able to pass judgment on whether Affleck deserves the Oscar for his performance in "Manchester-by-the-Sea"? At what point is Affleck's guilt sufficiently proven to then make a value judgment as to whether accolades for his art should be withheld due to his morally abject actions?

It seems that verdict or no verdict, public voices are making their dissent with the Academy's decision known asking for Affleck to be held accountable for the allegations. Affleck is feeling a certain backlash but will that translate into him becoming a black sheep in Hollywood? Probably not. At least not in the way the media has been reporting the development of the case. Affleck will most likely emerge relatively unharmed from this controversy. Is it fair? Does it set yet another precedent for what is 'accepted' behavior in Hollywood? Will women continue to be the losers in this long-established and uneven power match?

Lena Dunham wrote an episode that aired on the current season of "Girls" which speaks to the power dynamics of famous, celebrated, rich white men, and the women who admire the artist but feel that they've been taken advantage of sexually. In other words, where does 'consent' truly begin? When a power dynamic indicates a truly skewed scale, then, shouldn't the person whose fame and reputation hovers on top use very careful judgment on what is acceptable and sensitive behavior when meeting the eye of a female admirer? Isn't it up to the person in power to gauge what certain actions may provoke in the psyche of the fan? What may appear as 'consent' could be thinly veiled coercion. It could be a coldly calculated approach to guarantee the evening will end in carnal pleasure. This is what murky territory represents. In the "Girls" episode "American Bitch", both sides of the coin are presented with nuance and cautious understanding. According to the famed author, he is the one being taken advantage of by young women who literally throw themselves at him every opportunity they get. He doesn't see how his behavior can be construed as inappropriate and a blatant exercise of what white male privilege has come to mean. The author is appalled that Hannah, in her witty yet incisive literary voice, has taken charge against him when she doesn't know all the facts. They have a very insightful back and forth that indicates that it is not an easy subject to tackle. There are nuances to be considered and there are stereotypes to unveil. The blind spots that accompany such loaded encounters are revealed. Both Hannah and the author agree that they hadn't quite considered all the chess pieces at play. 

Thing is, whether you or I believe that Casey Affleck should experience some backlash and face punishment, the bigger issue is the national conversation around White Male Privilege and the dynamics associated with such privilege. It is important to debate this undeniable occurrence in the public/professional sphere and make sure that this tactic be better scrutinized and that contingencies are put in place for women to have recourse to in the event that they are subjected to unwanted or unsolicited sexual advances. Fame cannot continue to be equated with wanton, coercing behavior that remains unpunished if you sport the 'right' gender and race. What is direly needed is a homogeneity in judging such cases and a uniform way of handing down justice. 

The climate in Hollywood and other power-wielding sectors have to change. The more examples of white male privilege overstepping their grounds come to light, the more pressing the need for change becomes. Maybe Casey Affleck is guilty and yet, maybe what happened in 2010 does not reflect him as the human he knows himself to be most of the time. Maybe what happened on the set of the mockumentary was outlying behavior and he has since reckoned with his actions and become 'reformed'. What Affleck says in public cannot be taken at face value due to the PR wheel that is constantly spinning stories in their clients' favor. One can only hope that the allegations Affleck has faced are not the tip of the iceberg. Now that he has been propelled to mega stardom thanks to a golden statuette, his power wielding influence will further increase. What will he do with it? Does he recognize the privilege he enjoys and does he understand that this privilege comes with responsibilities if one is to act ethically? So much of what is considered sexual harassment is not even recognized as such in the workplace. One has to ask the question why? Why not? Because it's been the go-to behavior for such a long time, it's considered normal, reluctantly accepted. Women just have to brush it off, laugh it off and deal with it. "I didn't mean any harm by it, honey. I just can't help picturing what you are wearing underneath that skirt. Oh my." 

Sound innocuous to you? This is where this conversation needs to start and expand. Maybe Casey Affleck will emerge scot-free, but hopefully, this latest set of allegations will help tear down long-standing, denigrating practices perpetrated by white males in positions of power.