While stars of the American entertainment industry were lining up to outdo each other in showing support for the MeToo movement (and perhaps to obscure widespread sexual predation that has long been endemic to Hollywood) at the Golden Globe awards Sunday, Catherine Deneuve, one of the greats of French cinema, joined 100 other French women in signing a letter declaring that MeTooism is turning into a witch hunt and promises to harm artistic freedom.
It is an amazing letter. The opening of the letter was a breath of fresh air:
Rape is a crime. But trying to pick up someone, however persistently or clumsily, is not — nor is gallantry an attack of machismo.
The Harvey Weinstein scandal sparked a legitimate awakening about the sexual violence that women are subjected to, particularly in their professional lives, where some men abuse their power. This was necessary. But what was supposed to liberate voices has now been turned on its head: We are being told what is proper to say and what we must stay silent about — and the women who refuse to fall into line are considered traitors, accomplices!
Just like in the good old witch-hunt days, what we are once again witnessing here is puritanism in the name of a so-called greater good, claiming to promote the liberation and protection of women, only to enslave them to a status of eternal victim and reduce them to defenseless preys of male chauvinist demons.
In fact, #MeToo has led to a campaign, in the press and on social media, of public accusations and indictments against individuals who, without being given a chance to respond or defend themselves, are put in the exact same category as sex offenders.
This summary justice has already had its victims: men who’ve been disciplined in the workplace, forced to resign, and so on., when their only crime was to touch a woman’s knee, try to steal a kiss, talk about "intimate" things during a work meal, or send sexually-charged messages to women who did not return their interest.
This frenzy for sending the "pigs" to the slaughterhouse, far from helping women empower themselves, actually serves the interests of the enemies of sexual freedom, the religious extremists, the reactionaries and those who believe — in their righteousness and the Victorian moral outlook that goes with it — that women are a species "apart," children with adult faces who demand to be protected.
Here is a passage of the Deneuve letter that is likely to particularly offend the U.S. MeToo movement:
Philosopher Ruwen Ogien defended the freedom to offend as essential to artistic creation. In the same way, we defend a freedom to bother as indispensable to sexual freedom.
Today we are educated enough to understand that sexual impulses are, by nature, offensive and primitive — but we are also able to tell the difference between an awkward attempt to pick someone up and what constitutes a sexual assault.
Above all, we are aware that the human being is not a monolith: A woman can, in the same day, lead a professional team and enjoy being a man’s sexual object, without being a "whore" or a vile accomplice of the patriarchy.
She can make sure that her wages are equal to a man’s but not feel forever traumatized by a man who rubs himself against her in the subway, even if that is regarded as an offense. She can even consider this act as the expression of a great sexual deprivation, or even as a non-event.
As women, we don’t recognize ourselves in this feminism that, beyond the denunciation of abuses of power, takes the face of a hatred of men and sexuality. We believe that the freedom to say "no" to a sexual proposition cannot exist without the freedom to bother. And we consider that one must know how to respond to this freedom to bother in ways other than by closing ourselves off in the role of the prey.
Now I must admit that the signers of the letter are probably just a soupcon more open to being–uh–bothered than their slightly more puritanical sisters this side of the Atlantic, including me, a well-known prude. It should be noted that the letter was composed by five French intellectuals, among them Catherine Millet, author of a 20002 memoir entitled The Sexual Life of Catherine M in which Millet definitely exercised her freedom to offend. Having read the book (it was for work!), I assume Millet is the signer referenced as a "dominatrix" in some reports.
New Yorker writer Lauren Collins, who experienced an incident of sexual harassment in Paris, called the French women's letter "another apologia for sexual assault and hysteria." Like me, Collins finds their chagrin that a retrospective by child abuser Roman Polanski was cancelled because of his sordid past misguided.
In the letter, the women denounced the "purging wave" in the artistic and intellectual sphere that led to a poster of an Egon Schiele nude being censored. I am fine with the Schiele nude in all naked glory, as long as it is not placed in a classroom for kids. But Polanski? Yikes. So I am definitely a lot more puritanical than the actress who brought Belle de Jour to the screen and her friends!
While not entirely on board with them, I think they have valuable things to say. And they are willing to be daring in the current atmosphere of censure and self-censorship.