Monthly Archives: October 2014

Renee Zellwegger, Monica Lewinsky: Stuck in the Past

On Tuesday morning my news feed was full of images of Renee Zellweger at the Women in Hollywood awards. A gasp of shock could be heard across cyberspace, and thousands of people went online to note that Zellweger looked completely different.

By Tuesday evening the conversation was starting to turn and op-eds began to appear arguing that Zellweger’s appearance was the result of our culture’s obsessions with youth and beauty, and that actresses who have made their name playing ingénues and rom-com heroines are expected to remain eternally youthful and castigated if they don’t or if their plastic surgery is too obvious. Exceptions may be made for character actresses like Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep or Melissa Leo, but being over 40 — and worse, looking it — has you assigned to the Hollywood scrap heap.

Now I am not going to argue that Hollywood is a meritocracy or that older actresses don’t have a hard time finding work. A 2013 study from the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism found that actresses received only 28 percent of all the speaking roles in Hollywood films in 2012 — a five year low. The film industry has a preference for young, beautiful faces, and today’s “sweetheart” becomes tomorrow’s non-entity. Meg Ryan, once the most bankable woman in Hollywood, has been conspicuous by her absence.

You could argue that actresses, like sports stars and models, have short careers and are richly rewarded for it. And you could also argue that many male stars who made their name as the “hot guy” in their twenties and early thirties are no longer being offered starring roles. You’d get no arguments here. But with Zellweger something different is afoot.

Now I love a good opinion piece with a feminist slant on popular culture, but Zellweger, who is now in her mid-40s, doesn’t look younger — she looks different. There is no getting away from the physical evidence that her face, eyes and cheekbones seem to have radically altered.

Zellwegger has, predictably enough, denied using plastic surgery, claiming her new face is the result of ageing and of being at peace with herself. Whatever the truth, like Mickey Rourke, she appears to have morphed into an almost different person entirely. There’s no getting away from that. But whether or not we, the movie going public, have a right to nitpick over a star’s face and body and subject it to critique is another matter. But in this case, the public outrage, or confusion, surrounding Zellweger is understandable.

While Zellweger was hogging the headlines for all the wrong reasons, you may have missed the news the Monica Lewinsky has reinvented herself as a public speaker tackling cyberbullying. If anyone can relate to what it is like to be the target of ire for millions of strangers, it’s Lewinsky.

The public outrage that still surrounds Lewinsky is a whole lot less forgivable, particularly twenty years after the fact.

Predictably enough, under the articles I read, the content of Lewinsky’s speech was glossed over in favour of jokes about cigars, blow jobs and stained dresses mixed in with comments on Lewinsky’s looks. Like Zellweger, many suspect that she has had plastic surgery because at 41 years old, Lewinsky is presumed to looked “better” than she did at 22 years old.

Has Lewinsky had plastic surgery? Possibly. I don’t know. I’m not sure it matters except that if she has, it is probably a reaction to the sustained abuse she has received over the years. One of the ugliest aspects of the scandal was the constant stream of bile calling Lewinsky ugly and overweight.

The comments proved Lewinsky’s point — in the age of social media, there is no escaping the cyberbullies. Not that you’re likely to have forgotten it, but what exactly was Lewinsky’s great crime? Nearly twenty years ago, she gave someone a few blow jobs — that’s it, but Lewinsky has become such a whipping girl and figure of ridicule that huge amounts of people immediately react to her with derision or anger.

Piers Morgan — himself no stranger to social media flame wars — blamed Lewinsky of the her own downfall and summed up what many people were thinking.

“If you’re a 22-year-old intern working at the White House and you embark on an affair with your married President, then most people would probably say the shame-ometer probably starts right there and then.”

Yes, Bill Clinton was definitely married, but if you believe in the sanctity of marriage vows then it was up to him to keep them. Lewinsky wasn’t breaking any solemn promises of sexual fidelity — Clinton was. Besides which, Lewinsky was just 22 years old, and Bill Clinton was the most powerful man in the world, and a well-known rogue in the mould of JFK to boot. That a young woman was dazzled by his Southern charm, good looks, and most particularly, his position, is complete understandable.

Despite the huge coverage the scandal received many people think that Lewinsky broke the story herself, which is factually incorrect. She was betrayed by her colleague Linda Tripp who taped their conversations about the affair, and gave the evidence to Kenneth Starr, who then kicked off the presidential impeachment nonsense.

There was no way Lewinsky could have predicted what came after. Most people who have affairs with married men or women do so in secret, and they certainly don’t expect to become the target of the world’s media or a political witch hunt. Unlike someone like Rebecca Loos, Lewinsky initially tried to distance herself from the affair and went into hiding. She gave a rare interview to Time magazine in 1999 hoping to rehabilitate her image, but she has turned down several offers, and millions of dollars, to write a book about her indiscretion. While Clinton has gone on to be a respected elder statesman and beloved public speaker, Lewinsky has spent the past twenty years trying to dodge the scandal but no-one is prepared to let her forget it. From her Vanity Fair piece on shaming earlier this year, it seems she has decided to embrace the scandal and turn it into a cautionary tale about cyberbulling and slut shaming.

Although very different women with very different public personas, Zellwegger and Lewinsky make an interesting comparison. While Zellweger cannot escape the star image we have of her as the fresh faced chubby cheeked twenty something of Empire Records and Jerry Maguire, Lewinsky cannot escape the image of the fresh faced chubby cheeked twenty something intern in a stained blue dress.

Why won’t we allow them to grow up?

John Grisham thinks viewing child porn is fine – as long as it’s not boys…

John Grisham, the best-selling author of legal thrillers The Firm and The Pelican Brief, took on the American judicial system in a recent interview. Grisham argues that American prisons are full of people who shouldn’t be there, such as black teenagers on minor drug offences, white collar fraudsters like Martha Stewart and “sixty year old white men” who look at child porn.

His views seems to be largely based on the conviction of an old friend who was jailed for looking at child porn.

“His drinking was out of control, and he went to a website. It was labelled ‘sixteen year old wannabee hookers or something like that’. And it said ’16-year-old girls’. So he went there… He shouldn’t ’a done it. It was stupid, but it wasn’t 10-year-old boys.”

First off, you are extremely unlikely to accidentally stumble upon child pornography. Porn producers are very, very careful about the age of performers; hosting services and search engines automatically scour the web looking for anything dodgy and most child porn is hidden in the deep web.*

Secondly, why are sixteen year old girls seen as less problematic than ten year old boys? They may be teenagers, on the brink of adulthood, and legally allowed to have sex with other teenagers (in most American states as well as here) but they are still very young girls who cannot legally consent to perform in porn. Therefore it is impossible to know under what conditions the images or films were produced, or if coercion or force were part of the equation.

Finally, Grisham seems to think that child porn is a victimless crime, since the person viewing it did not touch anyone. He overlooks the fact that the child in the image was hurt, and anyone who views child porn creates the market for more and more of it to be produced – which means more and more children are harmed.

Grisham argues that people who look at child porn are not pedophiles. That may be true in the sense that anyone viewing child porn may never have touched a child, nor have any intention of doing so. But it is hard to square that with the fact that when most people search for porn, we search for the scenarios, images and people that we find sexually exciting, not the ones that leave us cold. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t leave a child alone in the company of someone whose porn preferences were for children.

You could certainly make a case that the US government is far too fond of locking up its citizens, particularly young African American men – and since Grisham is a lawyer as well as an author, he would have been in an ideal place to open up the conversation since he is on the road promoting his new book Gray Mountain. Unfortunately, his bizarre views on child porn are sure to make any nuanced discussion impossible as well as dodge his new novel. What a pity.

*It is possible some images of underage people were part of the “Snappening” – an unauthorised release of stored Snapchat photos.

Hackergate: Is it a sex crime?

Jennifer Lawrence recently spoke out about celebrity hackergate. In an interview with Vanity Fair, the actress called the release of her private naked images a “sexual violation” and said that, “It is not a scandal. It is a sex crime.”

Lawrence makes an interesting point. On the one hand, technology has given us new ways to interact sexually with one another. Whether you send a nude image, engage in long-distance sex play over Skype or make a porn at home, we all recognise that this behaviour is sexual. Therefore, the theft and distribution of sexual images could be seen as a sexual violation. On the other hand, you could argue that seeing this as a sex crime does a disservice to victims of sexual assault. After all, Lawrence’s images – not her body – were the target.

Just after Lawrence’s interview became public, trolls defaced her Wikipedia page, replacing her picture with one of the stolen naked images. Luckily Wikipedia caught that and the page was returned to normal within 20 minutes. Someone, it seems, was not happy about being called out on their behaviour.

What do you think: is stealing, distributing and using someone’s sexual images a sexual violation or just a privacy violation?

Consent? There’s an app for that…

I am a big fan of sex, and a big fan of technology, but there are times when the two don’t mix. A case in point is Good2Go, an app designed with the idea of curbing sexual assaults on American college campuses. Lee Ann Allman, who created the app, was apparently inspired by a discussion with her college-aged children.

You may be aware that California recently introduced a “Yes Means Yes” consent law on college campuses. This is partly in response to a number of high profile reports on the extent of sexual assault at American universities. College authorities have been ignoring the problem for years. It seems an institution’s “brand” is more important than their students. While any measure to reduce sexual assaults is a good thing, I am at a loss as to how Good2Go could help. If anything, it puts users in a more precarious position than before.

First off, consent can be withdrawn at any time – even if you are naked and in bed, you are allowed to change your mind and your partner has got to respect that decision. If he or she doesn’t, it is sexual assault. If you’ve answered Yes with Good2Go there is a greater chance you may feel pressured into continuing; or your partner may think he or she will be able to force you without any consequences since they have a record of your initial consent. This means that victims would be less likely to speak up for fear that they would not be believed.

Secondly, who the hell would this appeal to, other than rapists? I can see the point in the Good2Go app if sexual assault is your thing. You could steal a victim’s phone before the assault and answer Yes; or you could force them to download the app and “consent” at knifepoint. Good2Go might not be legally binding, but the courts will take any evidence of consent into considerations, and this may be enough to convince a jury that a rapist is innocent.

The only people this app could reasonably protect is students afraid of being falsely accused of rape. While there is a lot of discussion about this online, the chances of actually being falsely accused are slim. Various studies suggest 1 or 2 percent of all reported rapes are false, but these very, very unlikely to make it to court due to lack of evidence and the accuser recanting.

As far as I can see, the only people who need be worried about a “false” rape accusation are rapists – not jump-out-at-you-with-a-knife rapists, but those who target victims who are too drunk to consent, or who pressure an unwilling partner into sex. These rapists may kid themselves that what they do is fine because they don’t use force, but it is sexual assault. Giving them any tool, such as an app where they can protect themselves is madness.

In the US, sexually assaults on campus are generally investigated by the university instead of the police. This is supposed to protect students because the university doesn’t have as high a bar for evidence as the courts, but even when a student is found guilty, the university generally won’t expel the rapist, withhold transcripts or enact any real punishment anyway. The sad fact is that in a closed community like a campus, a rape victim is more likely to become the target of malicious gossip than a rapist.

And finally, if you find discussing sexual consent so icky that you have to do it via an app, you are not Good2Go because you are in no way emotionally mature enough to have sex. End of.