Opinion

Wednesday 29 January 2020

A cautionary tale of how the #MeToo battle went from historic to hysterics

Campaigners have lost their way if they think their latest targets are worthy of angry denunciation, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

HENRY CAVILL: ‘They just wanted another villain to strap in the stocks and pelt with rotten fruit’. Photo: Jeff Spicer/Getty Images
HENRY CAVILL: ‘They just wanted another villain to strap in the stocks and pelt with rotten fruit’. Photo: Jeff Spicer/Getty Images

It started with Harvey Weinstein. Dozens of women have now come forward to accuse the disgraced Hollywood producer of a range of serious sexual assaults, up to and including rape.

He denied all wrongdoing when appearing at a court in Manhattan last month, and his lawyer insists the charges are both "ludicrous" and "very defensible indeed"; but it's surely not going too far to suggest that a man who's been accused by over 70 women of sexual misconduct probably isn't a model of chivalry.

The naming of Weinstein as a sexual predator led in turn to the outing of other powerful men, including actor Kevin Spacey, who was fired from House Of Cards when a number of men made accusations against him over his lurid private behaviour.

Celebrities, stand-up comedians, politicians, the CEOs of various companies - all fell ignominiously from grace. It was an exhilarating time. There was a sense, as the #MeToo movement gathered pace, that women were taking back control from predatory men who'd used their positions of influence for decades to exploit vulnerable women.

There was a determination that younger women should no longer have to endure the humiliations and manipulation which the previous generation had come to accept as grimly inevitable.

If 2017 could be seen as an innovative, game-changing movie, however, then 2018 seems to be shaping up as the ropey sequel, with the makers struggling to recapture the spirit of the original.

The latest target of #MeToo is actor Henry Cavill, who plays Superman in those DC superhero films, and whose newest venture, Mission: Impossible - Fallout, is set to open soon. He's in trouble for telling GQ magazine in Australia that there is "something wonderful about a man chasing a woman", and that men now fear making approaches to women because of the danger that their interest might be misconstrued as harassment.

To listen to some of the more hysterical reactions to the interview, one could be forgiven for thinking that Cavill meant "chasing" in the sense of pursuing a screaming woman down the street at midnight with a meat cleaver. The British actor merely meant that he liked the "old-fashioned" (as he freely admitted it was) notion that "a woman should be wooed and chased", and that the pleasure of that ancient romantic game was at risk of being lost.

Everyone who read the interview knew what he meant. Everyone who complained about the interview probably knew what he meant as well.

They just wanted another villain to strap in the stocks and pelt with rotten fruit, because the regular unmasking of predators and harassers has slowed up since the height of #MeToo, and they miss the thrill of the chase too.

The actor has now apologised profusely for "any confusion or misunderstanding". Well, of course he has. The man has a living to make. Certain angry gods must be propitiated. Fingers crossed, that will be the end of it.

But it will still come up every time his name is googled, and once his Wikipedia page is updated, his offence will, no doubt, be immortalised online for ever.

The poor man was even forced to spell out in his statement to the Press Association that "I have always and will continue to hold women in the highest of regard, no matter the type of relationship, whether it be friendship, professional, or a significant other" - a fact which no one ever had reason to doubt until he made the mistake of uttering some self-deprecating remarks about the perils of dating in the public eye in an age of over-sensitivity.

One activist against sexual assault responded to the row by insisting: "If Henry Cavill doesn't want to be called a rapist then all he has to do is... not rape anyone."

If only it was that simple.

It's not necessary to take seriously the concerns that men currently have about how to interact with women in order to accept that they do have them, and that this might be a matter of regret. If every man who admits to sharing that confusion is now to be cast into outer darkness alongside actual rapists, sex pests and harassers, then something has gone terribly wrong.

Not all the men who were exposed in the wake of #MeToo were serious sexual predators. In truth, many of them were little more than creeps, but publicly shaming them was still thoroughly deserved, because the sort of low-level harassment in which they serially engaged can have a detrimental effect on the well-being of women with the misfortune to be the target of their sleazy manoeuvres.

Now, having run out of genuine offenders, it seems that we're down to castigating innocent men for the crime of "wrongspeak". Even if they're only joking. Even if... whisper it carefully... they're right.

It's like bringing back Inspector Morse, only to realise that the actor taking the new role of the detective will now be investigating unpaid parking fines rather than murder.

If all that #MeToo has to worry about it is men like Henry Cavill lamenting that wooing women has become a bit of a headache rather than flirtatious fun, then they should relax, and stand down, and relish the victory, because they've obviously won the war.

Everything must be absolutely glorious in the previously tangled garden of human relationships. But it isn't.

There are still plenty of monsters out there, and the best way of fighting them is to stop making enemies of perfectly decent men along the way. Because there are legions of them out there too, and the battle will be far more easily won with them on side rather than forcing them to hang back for fear that their every word or action will be deliberately misrepresented by gender war militants with too much time on their hands and no sense of proportion.

Sunday Independent

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