The French actor Catherine Deneuve knew that she would be vilified when she spoke out against the global MeToo movement, claiming that it had changed from a legitimate protest against sexual violence into a puritan witch-hunt that unfairly demonises men.
After all, she said as much in an open letter to the newspaper Le Monde, also signed by about 100 French female writers, artists, performers and academics.
“What began as freeing women up to speak,” they wrote, “has today turned into the opposite – we intimidate people into speaking ‘correctly’, shout down those who don’t fall into line, and those women who refused to bend [to the new realities] are regarded as complicit and traitors.”
Sure enough, Deneuve and her co-signatories were instantly castigated by many feminists, in the strongest possible terms, and in exactly the way that they had foretold in their letter.
They were condemned as “apologists for rape” and “defenders of paedophiles”, accused of despising millions of female victims of male violence and of aligning themselves with men like disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein.
The Italian actor Asia Argento, who was one of the first to accuse Weinstein, wrote: “Deneuve and other French women tell the world how their interiorised misogyny has lobotomised them to the point of no return.”
The Trump-esque tactic of accusing your adversaries of being not just wrong but mentally deranged is now common practice. But while it’s merely depressing and predictable to hear it from the boorish US president, it’s outrageous to see it used against other women by those who claim to be champions of female rights and liberties.
Instead of reacting with knee-jerk absolutism, seeking to discredit Deneuve and Co as perverted Weinstein accomplices, or as terminally brain-damaged victims of “interiorised misogyny” – in other words, as declared enemies of the sisterhood – why not weigh up what they have to say, and then draw a more balanced judgement?
For instance, I disagree with their assertion that to be “touched up on the metro” could be regarded as a “non event”. That’s a bit too much Gallic nonchalance for me. As for “the freedom to importune” – also translated as “the freedom to pester” – well, it depends on the nature and duration of the pestering, doesn’t it? I’m also deeply uncomfortable with Deneuve’s personal support for the film director Roman Polanski, who pleaded guilty to unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl in the US in 1977, but fled before he could be sentenced.
The risk is that the momentum could tip into a puritanical suspicion of male sexuality in general
Yet other aspects of the letter resonate more strongly, particularly the assertion that “the movement chains women to the status of the eternal victim” by framing them as “poor little things who are dominated by demon phallocrats”.
Far from enabling women to be independent, say the signatories, “this serves the interests of the enemies of sexual freedom, religious extremists, the worst reactionaries and those who believe in the name of Victorian morality that women are children with the faces of adults.”
Culture of exploitation
The MeToo campaign has been a valuable, powerful weapon against highly privileged harassers and abusers, exposing a shady – or in some cases even criminal – sub-culture of casual exploitation. Time magazine recognised that fact when it collectively named the “Silence Breakers”, the spontaneous global movement which sought to challenge entrenched sexual harassment and abuse, as its Person of the Year.
The risk, however, is that the feverish momentum generated by that movement could tip from legitimate outrage against sleazy perpetrators into a puritanical suspicion of male desire, or of male sexuality in general. And that isn’t good for women or men.
The novelist Lionel Shriver has highlighted the concern that “sex itself seems increasingly to be seen as dirty, and as a violation, a form of assault, so that we’re repackaging an old prudery in progressive wrapping paper”.
What too many feminists seem to have forgotten is the value of dialogue, even – or perhaps especially – with those you profoundly disagree. It is ignorant and intolerant, not to mention intellectually lazy, to try to win an argument by discrediting your opponents as raving lunatics who are also self-loathing and morally corrupt.
Better, by far, to see Deneuve’s letter as a useful corrective to the wilder excesses of the MeToo movement: the disturbing impulse to style all women as perpetual victims, in need of protection, and all men as potential abusers, in need of restraint.
Too often these days, debate is replaced by crossfire between hostile, polarised camps. But progress generally happens as the result of a conversation, and the exchange of ideas, not by crushing dissent.