A few weeks ago, it was alleged that Asia Argento paid former child actor Jimmy Bennett (her “love” and “son”) $380,000 after he claimed they had sex in a California hotel room when he was only two months past his 17th birthday. She was 37. The age of consent in California is 18.
That alleged payment was supposedly made in October. The Italian actress and director was among the first women in the movie business to publicly accuse the producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault. She became a leading figure in the #MeToo movement, and was such at the time of the alleged payment.
One of the interesting aspects of Bennett’s statement was that he says that he was triggered to make his claim by Argento’s defence that he was the one who assaulted her, a strand of victim shaming denounced by #MeToo.
As I was driving to work earlier this week, I was rather surprised when I heard about the controversy over Roxanne Pallett’s accusations against Ryan Thomas on Celebrity Big Brother. Thomas was shadow boxing in Pallett’s direction, and has caught her. At the time, she laughed it off, but then started to see the incident in a different light and reported the case under the spectre of domestic abuse, calling him a “woman beater”.
The bit that surprised me on the radio piece was the presenter’s assertion that he had met both Pallett and Thomas, and Thomas was a lovely guy, while paying no such compliment to Pallett. Probably aware of where the limits needed to be, nor did he criticise her, but one knew all too well the inference.
I read a bit more, and a lot of what I found was people vouching for Pallett’s poisonous character. It’s been reported that as many as 21 former colleagues of hers have said that this is typical behaviour for her. She has alleged similar abuse in the past. Even in her apology in a couple of TV interviews on Monday, many were quick to criticise.
Pallett has previously been a victim of domestic abuse herself in her personal life. Even in her career, her Emmerdale character, Jo Stiles, was abused by husband Andy Sugden, played by Kelvin Fletcher, in 2007. She has a good idea of what it’s like to be on the receiving end.
Pallett’s actions have been widely criticised for undermining genuine victims of domestic violence. However, charity Women’s Aid has supported her. The charity released a statement saying that play fighting may trigger memories of abuse and can be frightening, even if that is not the intention of the other party.
The anomaly that I’m seeing is that, while many have been quick to attack Pallett for what would appear an obvious exaggeration of the true circumstances, there are few that are actually querying why she did what she did other than her being “evil”. Only Lee Ryan, of former boyband Blue fame, has commented on possible mental health issues. This is, after all, a woman pictured in tears in the middle of York weeks before entering the relative isolation of the Big Brother house.
What the news of Asia Argento and Jimmy Bennett showed was that abuse can occur anywhere. The circumstances between Roxanne Pallett and Ryan Thomas show in an extreme way that we can all frame abuse in different ways.
This has raised two interesting points for me, and the first is the role of the entertainment industry. While it isn’t necessarily easy for me (although it seems to be for others) to see the true motive in Pallett’s actions, the inference is that she is driven by fame and fortune which can also be said to be behind, directly or otherwise, the crimes alleged against Weinstein. Power imbalances, perceived or otherwise, can be used to achieve something.
Celebrity Big Brother played a significant role in what happened between Pallett and Thomas, and that has not really been spoken about. The theme of this year’s series was “Eye of the Storm”. The contestants were chosen because of past public controversies and in the hope, presumably, that they will generate more when they are in the house. After Pallett made the allegations against Thomas, producers have done little (at the time of writing, but I believe that that is going to change) to quell his emotional distress, presumably because they see it as creating good TV.
Marina Hyde in The Guardian has also noted that another thing that supposedly makes good TV nowadays is the argument and apology cycle. Dragging Pallett on to TV shows after the events of Big Brother to tell her side of the story / maybe apologise will increase viewing figures. Of course, that is the point of news and current affairs programs, but the fact that whole sections of airtime can be devoted to discussing the sincerity of an apology shows quite how far we are moving from what is actually in the public interest.
The second point of interest was around the empowerment of women by the #MeToo movement. The vast majority of the abuse addressed under #MeToo was perpetrated by men. Weinstein’s lawyer labelled Argento’s statement about Bennett as a “stunning level of hypocrisy,” given that she attempted to undermine the credibility of her accuser. Even Rose McGowan, another #MeToo campaigner, asked people to be “gentle” with Argento as “none of us know the truth of the situation,” while previously suggesting that we should “grab a spine and denounce” those accused of sexual predation.
Argento’s lawyer released a statement on Wednesday announcing that his client is launching “Phase 2” of #MeToo campaign. Even here, Argento is possibly, although one would think not intentionally, removing the true first phase of the movement launched in 2006 by Tarana Burke – a non-celebrity woman of colour. Burke’s own suffering has been somewhat deleted by the white celebrities who evolved her original campaign in to bring it in to the hashtag era.
However, Burke has spoken most notably about where the next phase of any movement against sexual abuse should go next, and that is to not talk about gender but to talk about power.
Sexual violence is about power and privilege. That doesn’t change if the perpetrator is your favorite actress, activist or professor of any gender. And we won’t shift the culture unless we get serious about shifting these false narratives.
I would venture that we should not limit the violence spoken about to sexual violence, but that we should talk about a blanket term of abuse which is still sourced in how we choose to use a position of power. There are levels of abuse that are all dependent on how we frame it, as has been highlighted by Roxanne Pallett both in what happened to her and how she sought to use it. However controversial Rose McGowan’s change of stance seems to have been, it only reflects the humanity, empathy and subjectivity that we should use when judging that level of abuse. Two wrongs do not make a right, and nor should abuse dealt be mitigated by abuse received. Nor should we be engineering situations in which that abuse can occur for our own interests at the expense of other.