In a new web series, Intimacy, a woman facing a difficult situation and trying to fight back, is told by an older colleague that she put up with sexual harassment too in her time, but back then women never reported it, because the man would be portrayed as the victim, whose life was ruined by the b***h.
Even after the #MeToo movement that encouraged women to speak out against harassment and abuse, the situation is not very different. The blame and the shame is very easily deflected onto the woman.
The cameras attached to cell phones have their uses, but have also become a tool of intimidation, blackmail or just voyeurism. In the Spanish series, Malen Zubiri (played by Itziar Ituño), is an ambitious politician, and is taunted for it by her husband and father. She is the deputy mayor of the town and plans to take over as mayor soon. Then, a video of her having sex with man on a beach in France surfaces on the net, and her life comes crashing down.
The man, whose face is not seen in the video, is obviously part of a blackmail plan, but Malen refuses to admit to the townsfolk that she is ashamed or apologetic. She does not want to report the matter to the police to stop it from escalating, but argues with the party seniors, who want to expel her, because of the ‘dishonour’ she has brought upon herself. Malen demands to know what gives the party leaders the right to decide on her personal life?
After the scandal, there is a ridiculous level of damage control imposed on her, like changing the manly perfume she wears to a more feminine one. If it were a male politician caught committing such an indiscretion, people would perceive him as charming or romantic; but a woman who is impulsive is seen as mentally unstable, and who would vote for her? A man having an affair might even win the admiration of male voters for his libido, a woman would be judged harshly even by other females.
Never mind conservative societies, even in the liberal west, a different set of moral standards are applied to men and women, especially those in power. If a man cheats on his wife, it must be her fault for not being able to hold on to her husband; if a woman strays she is a shameless hussy who does not value the sanctity of marriage. Scandal barely dents the image of male politicians, but female politicians or even the wives of male leaders have to maintain saintly levels of virtue.
Malen’s teenage daughter is so traumatized by the mockery of her classmates, and the relentless pressure of the media, that she goes off the rails. Of course, her mother is blamed for her condition, first for putting her career before motherhood, and then for causing such embarrassment to the vulnerable girl.
Her estranged husband, whose mother is goading him into dating other women, is nevertheless outraged, because people are calling him a cuckold. The female equivalent of the word – which is cuckquean—is never used. Because a wronged wife is a figure of pity maybe, scorn definitely, but seldom ridicule.
When the man in Malen’s video is killed, his father blames her, even though she had nothing to do with the murder. To his mind, it was her promiscuity that led to his son’s death.
The real tragedy, however, is that of factory worker, Ane, whose intimate videos are shared on the phones of her co-workers by a vengeful ex-lover. The management is unwilling to take her complaints seriously, because she is seen as a ‘slut’ who had multiple partners; the violation of her privacy does not matter. Unable to bear the humiliation, she kills herself, leaving her grief-stricken sister to seek justice for Ane.
As a cop tells Malen in the series, what happened to her was a crime, she is a victim, and deserves justice. Sadly, justice is not always delivered by courts. Malen’s story ends on a happy note, because she has money and power, but for Ane, there is no hope. In this tech age, revenge porn is a real threat to women—the photos and videos leaked need not even be real, they can be morphed, and the woman can be put through a hell of shame.
The concept of a woman’s shame is examined in quite a different context in the much-acclaimed film, Good Luck To You, Leo Grande, in which a retired school teacher, Nancy (played with dazzling brilliance by Emma Thompson), who led a sexually repressed life with her uncaring husband. After his death, she wants to find out, just once, what she missed in all those years of indifferent sex and faked orgasms. She is an attractive woman, and men are interested in her, but they are old—because to young men, older women are invisible. So, she hires a high-priced gigolo, who turns out to be the physically gorgeous and intelligent Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack).
Nancy is ashamed of her desire, of her aging body, certain that Leo cannot possibly fancy her. She asks permission to touch his shoulders and arms, and her hands tremble when she reaches for his smooth muscled skin. If the situation were to be reversed – and it is much more common for men to hire hookers—would the man be ashamed of his flabby body, worry that the woman might not find him attractive, or seek permission to touch her?
Tomris Laffly gets to the core of this dichotomy in her review of the film in The Playlist, “The complexities of female sexuality are still frustratingly misrepresented in mainstream cinema. In one corner, we have the eruptive rise of a certain type of one-dimensional badass feminism, featuring often straight, go-getting women who can win a fistfight, have it their way and enjoy great, consequence-free sex. On the other, there’s been a discernible decline in overall on-screen sexuality, with everything in popular film seemingly downgraded to PG-level eroticism. In both senses, women lose. How can our intricate sexual lives be accurately characterized if notions around female agency are still trapped in such limited, all-or-nothing packages?”
Of course in a film, written by Katy Brand and directed by Sophie Hyde – both women— Leo is not a foul-mouthed lout who does not respect women, but a warm, patient and kind man, who, over a few meetings and much soul-searching talk, teaches Nancy that desire is nothing to be ashamed of, and seeking pleasure not a sin. Also because it is created by females, it is not a Pretty Woman (1990) kind of fairy tale in which the hero saves a hooker from an inglorious life. Maybe because a woman who has liberated herself does not need to be rescued.
(This piece first appeared in The Free Press Journal dated June 2, 2022)