Thursday, January 14, 2010

Spot the empowered role model

‘I eat quite healthily. I'll have oats in the morning, or rye toast with avocado; a wrap for lunch; and maybe a chicken salad for dinner. If you eat a balanced diet, you're so much happier ... but I couldn't not eat, I don't know how.’

'I'm not a stick figure.'

'I like to delude myself that I'm in the old-Hollywood mode. I just tailor my clothes well and try to keep my skin clear. While it would be great to work out an hour a day, there is something inherently sort of selfish about it. I can't do it.'

Having always enjoyed sport, Jen runs three times a week and does the odd session of yoga and pilates; she keeps her skin glowing by diligently cleansing and moisturising every day.

'I did it for the experience ... it felt quite sensual and sexy. I felt empowered.'

She has thought about yoga, even done it a couple times. 'But,' she notes, 'even yoga classes go on 80 or 90 minutes.' Not for Tina the ethos of Gwyneth Paltrow or Madonna, with their two hours plus of bendiness a day. 'You will still die,' she observes. 'I'll do grave yoga. Someone can come and stretch me in my grave.'

What she'd really love is a lifestyle show – 'everything that incorporates my lifestyle now'.

Also on Tina's plate is an upcoming humor book for which she signed a rumored $5 million-plus deal with Little, Brown last year. 'It's full of incredibly angry ranting,' she says. 'Actually, it's recipes, photographs of doors. And then, more recipes.'

And did boyfriend Jake Wall, a fellow model, like the idea, too? Definitely, says Jen, adding that during the shoot, she was texting pictures of herself to him between takes. 'He's excited.'

'That is why L.A. is so bad, because they can take your picture from any side. That is why people in L.A. maintain 360-degree fitness. I don't have that kind of time.'

Main claims to fame: Miss Universe, hosting spots on The Great Outdoors and Make Me a Supermodel

Main claims to fame: Writes, produces, stars in, created 49-times-Emmy-nominated TV show, 30 Rock, former head writer on Saturday Night Live, where she guested during 2008 presidential election doing a killer Sarah Palin imitation

Hmmm ... which of these women on a magazine cover would send the message to women and girls that, in the words of The Butterfly Foundation: 'Have fun with the way that you look, but don’t let it rule your life. Putting your energy into living & doing fun things is much more important.'

I have nothing against Jennifer Hawkins. (And nothing particularly for her either.) But honestly, to put her naked on the cover of a magazine in order to promote a healthy body image and for women to feel good about themselves ... spare me. And talking about how brave she is? She's not brave: she's a model doing her job. For which she was handsomely paid, I imagine. Her fee for the shoot didn't go to The Butterfly Foundation. Marie Claire isn't donating a percentage of magazines sold to The Butterfly Foundation. The photo is being auctioned off and proceeds from that will go to the foundation. Very nice; but nobody is sacrificing anything.

And I am going to scream the next time I hear a woman talking about how empowered she felt when she took her clothes off for the camera. If being naked on the cover of a magazine makes you empowered, I guess all those women on the covers of porn magazines must be the most empowered examples of womankind there are.

Sunday Age journalist Michael Bachelard stripped off last weekend to make a tongue-in-cheek point about 'real' men ('We're hairier than you might expect, except on the head'). I found it pretty funny, as readers were supposed to.

But it also made a beautifully clear point - intentional or not - about how empowering it's NOT for women to strip off to show their 'real' bodies and the very real and enduring gender gap between the expectations of men's and women's bodies. Because the first thing that sprang to my mind when I read the line about men being 'hairier than you might expect' was: 'so are we'. Or, at least, we would be if we didn't pour hot wax on our bodies and rip it off to remove any skerrick of body hair that might see the sun (or even, these days, parts that definitely won't).

Women, even those who will never be on a magazine cover, are held to standards that men simply aren't. The sad thing is that instead of those standards on women easing off, the same standards are slowly, slowly being opposed on men too. And no professional woman could get away with posing nude in the way Bachelard did - without first having her body, face and hair groomed to the best possible standard.

Which way forward?

What do I think the Butterfly Foundation could have done if they wanted to use a magazine cover to promote a healthy body image for girls?

De-emphasise the body, for a start. Our culture's obsession with and fetishisation of the body - particularly the female body - is surely a massive contributor to the rise in eating disorders.

I think the US Harper's Bazaar cover story (from November 2009) featuring Tina Fey is far more likely to empower women - and to do good for women with eating disorders - than the Marie Claire cover story. Both being fashion magazines, both discuss health, diet and looks. Tina Fey talks about these things as being secondary to all the other things she has to do and wants to achieve in her life; Jennifer Hawkins solemnly shares her diet (which made me hungry, just reading about it) and exercise routine and says that these are 'the things I love to talk about'.

There is much less chance of a girl developing an eating disorder if she has other things to do and to think about than how she looks.

I know The Butterfly Foundation has said that this was intended to be about highlighting the issue of airbrushing photos, as Hawkins had agreed to go naked and unbrushed. But really, as some have pointed out, drawing attention to 'flaws' like the crease in her skin near her thigh has the opposite of the intended effect. Seeing tiny details like that described as 'flaws' is only likely to make girls and women more critical of themselves. And to make them look longer and harder at their bodies.

If we're serious about using women's magazines to influence healthy self-image (which I doubt), let's have more covers featuring women who DO things, women who are funny and smart, who channel their hard work (and Hawkins doubtlessy works hard) into something other than carrying off a swimsuit. I'd rather see a glamourised Tina Fey than an equally glamourised, though unclothed, Jennifer Hawkins as a stated role model for a healthy body image any day.


Oh ... and slightly off-point, I have to ask, if this is a role model exercise aimed at teenage and twentysomething girls, is it a good idea to include the role model sexting nude pictures of herself to her boyfriend? I thought that was the sort of potentially fraught behaviour we were supposed to be discouraging.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Shock revelation! Single man has sex! Sack him!

Okay, it’s not quite that simple, but it’s not far off either. South Australian Premier Mike Rann, before he was engaged to his current wife – and many years after his divorce from his first wife – had, it seems, a racy affair with a foxy blonde Parliament House waitress. Michelle Chantelois was married at the time.

About six weeks ago, her estranged husband hit Mike Rann in the head with a rolled-up magazine at an ALP fundraiser in Adelaide. Since then, gossip has been rife as to his motives. And today, an interview with Chantelois was published in New Idea, following an interview on Channel Seven’s Today Tonight last night. In the interviews, she goes into great detail about where and when they had sex, how many times, what he did and said to her. I won’t repeat it here because I wish I’d never read it. I just don’t need to know – and neither does anyone else.

Rann seems to have gone into Clintonesque lawyer mode. He has admitted a ‘friendship’ with Chantelois, yet has not said what that means. Interestingly, he has not outright denied a sexual relationship with her, though he has said that the television program contained false allegations. (Presumably, not the basic fact of the relationship.)

Richard Phillips, the cuckolded husband, is calling for a parliamentary inquiry into the matter. He said: ‘Based upon what's been said, it is my opinion that Mr Rann has taken advantage of my wife's youthful naivety and vulnerability during a very difficult time for our marriage and our family and has shown that he lacks the personal qualities and character to remain in the office of the Premier.’

I hope – and suspect – that we have learned from the American experience. Bill Clinton’s ‘bimbo eruptions’, most notably the one involving a blue dress, DNA testing and Kenneth Starr, didn’t kill his presidency, but wounded it badly. When his anointed successor, Al Gore, ran against a reformed alcoholic and failed businessman with far, far more money than sense, the public humiliation of the Clinton era contributed to his only just failing to win the vote.

Because they were was sick of listening to descriptions of the president’s penis and semen-stained dresses, Americans chose a man now known for mangling the English language, starting the most ill-conceived and ill-starred war since Vietnam, and widening the gap between rich and poor to an extent that triggered the next world depression, over a man who has won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work to fight climate change. (Which the man who beat him for the top job doesn’t even believe in, incidentally.)

Mike Rann’s sex life has no bearing whatsoever on his performance as Premier. And at any rate, having sex with a married woman while single himself – while not the best behaviour – is more a reflection on the person betraying their partner than on him.

‘I knew it was wrong but I was attracted to him,’ she has said. ‘I don’t want people to feel sorry for me because I have made my bed and I have to lie in it. But Mike Rann used me to stroke his own ego and pride and unlike me he has suffered no consequences … ‘I don’t think he should be premier, it’s time he took responsibility for his actions.’

Generally I would agree that it’s unfair that the woman has to bear the brunt of the misbehaviour of two people. But in this case, she has suffered the consequences because she’s the one who was married and thus had more to lose. That’s the way it goes, surely. She says she lost her administration job at an Adelaide high school over the incident. The SA Education Department says that had nothing to do with it – her contract wasn’t renewed, as many contract workers’ jobs aren’t. In a time of economic crisis – a crisis that has been particularly pronounced in SA – this sounds plausible.

And I find it interesting that a woman who has detailed her sex life in excruciating detail in exchange for a great deal of money from the media can talk about using someone to stroke their ego. It sounds like revenge for a relationship gone wrong to me.

Both the public and Rann himself can learn from Bill Clinton. The public should judge their politicians on their politics. And Rann should take note of the fact that Bill Clinton’s real trouble was his dissembling – the tricky definitions of what ‘sexual relations’ meant, for instance. If Rann admits the truth and moves on, hopefully the public will, too.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Moving up in the world

Overheard on the Swanston Street tram, passing the corner of Queensberry Street on the way to Melbourne Uni: “I’ve had enough of this winter. We’ve been wearing ski jackets inside to stay warm. Ski jackets!” He was a student type, in his very early twenties, sporting fashionably skinny jeans, artfully scruffy haircut and Converse sneakers, drawling his woes into his mobile phone with a complete lack of self-consciousness. “We’ve been wearing scarves around the house. That’s not right.” Pause. “But I guess that’s what you pay for character. Character! Huh.” A wry, defeated laugh. “I fucking hate character. When you move down here, let’s get a two bedroom place. I mean, I like share houses and all, but ... it’s time to move up in the world.”

I generally hate it when people broadcast their lives to train- or tram-loads of trapped fellow passengers, but when they’re as entertaining as this guy was, I kind of like it. I was on a Saturday morning run to work, having briefly stopped at the State Library cafe for a rushed meeting first. I was armed with a laptop backpack, a shoulder bag stuffed with books I should be reading, and the Saturday newspapers. At the end of a long work week, I was snatching a few hours while my son was being dressed by his stepfather, then dropped at a birthday party, to flee to the office and finish a job.

Glancing surreptitiously at ski-jacket-guy as he talked, images of his student life flashed through my brain – a crumbling Victorian two-storey terrace in North Carlton with couches on the balcony and rust in the bathtub. Literally surrounded by the baggage of my thirty-something life, I looked at him and was hit by two conflicting waves: envy and relief.


Almost exactly ten years ago, I lived in a two-storey share house on Elgin Street, Carlton. There was no rust in the bathtub, though the taps didn’t work. And while there was no couch on the balcony, there was a tapestry-covered armchair on the roof.

I had recently moved from Adelaide and shared with a houseful of backpackers who’d followed me from the hostel that had been my home for my first two weeks in Melbourne. Two English boys shared a bedroom, sleeping on mattresses on the floor and living out of their enormous rucksacks. Another English boy, who had a one-year job contract and was sharing the lease with me, had somehow snaffled the double bedroom with a balcony overlooking the Housing Commission flats. Oh, and there was a fourth, interchangeable English-backpacker-boy who slept on the sofa bed downstairs. Every time one moved on, a new one from the hostel would replace him. I had a boxy room with chipboard walls that barely contained my double bed, wardrobe and Apple Mac (which sat on a kitchen chair at the foot of my bed).

There was one really cool thing about my bedroom, though. If you lost your keys and had to break in (which I often did), the only way of letting yourself into the house was to scale the corrugated iron fence into our courtyard from the back alley, heave yourself up onto the water heater, make the calculated jump-and-wriggle onto the roof, and climb through my bedroom window. This was how I discovered the armchair on the roof, and occasionally I’d climb out of my window to sit in it and smoke a cigarette, looking over the rooftops of Carlton towards the city towers in the near distance.

I had a melodramatic crush on one of my flatmates, who’d had a fleeting crush on me until we slept together (back in the hostel, days after we met), but he'd then explained to me that he couldn’t have a girlfriend because he was “on holidays, you know”. Then he fell for a girl from the Housing Commission flats, who we met during Happy Hour at the Tankerville. But she was seduced by the charms of one of our other flatmates – the one who shared his bedroom. Then, after I fell into a relationship, my flatmate started speaking of me in wistful tones when I wasn’t around (bless those chipboard walls – I could hear them talking in the kitchen when I was in bed) and offering to paint my nails while we watched television.

Brunswick Street was a block away in one direction; Lygon Street was a block away in the other. I would walk to work in North Melbourne past Readings and once a week, on the way home, I would allow myself to buy a book from my paltry junior-publishing-person salary and thrill to any titbits of conversation with the bookseller who handed me my paper bag. It was the mid-90s. Grunge literature was impossibly hip, and living in my own grungy share house within walking distance of the Punter’s Club, wearing black and buying The Virgin Suicides at Readings, was my version of a storybook life. (Hey, I’d come from Adelaide.)

Then the backpacker boys moved off, one by one, and I ended up with the one who shared my lease; the one I liked least, to tell the truth. We advertised in the Readings window for a replacement when we no longer knew anyone at the hostel, and the crop-haired girl who answered the ad sat in the courtyard with us for half an hour, making conversation and drinking beer. She seemed nice enough. While I was in Adelaide for a week, she took my one good piece of furniture (my bookshelf) from the lounge room and moved it into her bedroom, moving my books onto hers instead. She also replaced the light bulb in our front room with a red one, meaning that from the Elgin Street footpath, our house resembled a brothel, and from the couch, it was impossible to read through the angry red haze. She once explained to me with the solemnity of a Nobel candidate that it’s really, really hard to get a job at Dangerfield because “it takes a lot of skill to assemble those outfits”.

Soon, it was time to move up in the world. I moved out with my boyfriend, into a two-bedroom flat. (It took a month and multiple threats to get my fridge back from Dangerfield Girl.) A year later, I had a child.

And now, I’m living a pretty sensible life nowhere near Carlton. I would love to walk down the road to Readings and Brunswick Street; to have nothing to do on a Saturday than plan my night at the pub. These days, catch-ups with friends are planned in a series of emails or texts, days (sometimes weeks) in advance. Back then, they were as inevitable and regular – and necessary – as brushing your teeth, and required as little thought or planning.

But ... I also have work that I find absorbing, a long-term relationship that requires no melodrama (and no games!) and a child who amuses and delights (and yes, often annoys) me every day. I am very attached to all the baggage symbolised by my busy Saturday and litter of bags and books – and I’ve worked hard to amass it.

So. Envy and relief.

I wish ski-jacket-guy the best of luck with his move up in the world. Although I feel nostalgic for the mess and excitement of my early twenties, when the simplest things were new and special, I wouldn’t give up what I have for it. And the mere thought of doing it all again is exhausting.


I’m typing this on my verandah, at my laptop, my bare feet and presence on the wrong side of my study window testament to the first burst of summer. Children from the school a few doors down from me straggle past as I type; daisy chains of fluorescent blue and navy uniforms, sunhats on heads. Eventually, the small boy glimpsed through the screen of trees and bushes is my own.

“Hello!” I call and watch as he spins wildly, looking for me on the footpath.
“I’m here! On the verandah!”
“Oh!” He laughs and runs to meet me, backpack trailing at his feet and falling at the front steps as he moves to peer at my laptop screen and hug me hello. “Look at you, outside! Ha! Are you enjoying the weather, Mum?”
“I am. I thought we could go for an ice cream. What do you think?”
“Yes!” he squeals and throws his arms around me again, squeezing me tight this time. He lets go and throws his arms open, embracing the afternoon. “You are the best Mum in the world! Ice cream!”

Simple things. New and special.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Wild Thing! I think I love you ... (after all)

I am, my husband tells me, a contrary person. (In fact, his phrase is, 'The most contrary person I've ever met'. Surely untrue.) Maybe it's contrariness that makes me instantly wary of any project - book, film, TV - that is ridiculously hyped. Or, seeing as I'm obsessed with The Wire and love True Blood, perhaps I should say, any project that is ridiculously hyped before I discover it.

So, I was wary of the Spike Jonze/Dave Eggers outing Wild Things, the film of Maurice Sendak's gloriously tempestuous picture book, Where the Wild Things Are. But I've been doing some online reading over the past couple of days, and I have to say I've warmed to it, mostly due to Sendak's warm endorsement of the project and cranky comments on contemporary portrayals of childhood, the enormous attention garnered by Where the Wild Things Are over the decades, and ruminations on what Max would be doing now.

If you'd like a sneak peek at Eggers' novelised version of the book, there's an extract at The New Yorker.

The Newsweek interview with Sendak, Jonze and Eggers is where I first fell for the project - and Sendak. Asked what makes a good book for children, he said:

"How would I know? I just write the books. But I do know that my parents were immigrants and they didn't know that they should clean the stories up for us. So we heard horrible, horrible stories, and we loved them, we absolutely loved them. But the three of us — my sister, my brother, and myself — grew up very depressed people."

I was a lover of fairy tales as a child (what 'children's' genre is darker?) and I'm a great believer in the power and attraction of 'horrible stories'. It depends on how those stories are told, what the outcomes are, and how and why the characters meet their fates, but scary stories for children can be cathartic, not to mention instructional. My brothers and I also loved Where the Wild Things Are. It was a bedtime favourite, along with Bears in the Night (where the small Berenstain Bears sneak out of bed in the middle of the night, tiptoe through the woods and UP SPOOK HILL, where they are frightened by an owl and run home to bed).

We enjoyed being scared, just like kids enjoy gravity-defying rides at the Show. These books take you to the emotional brink and deliver you safely back on the ground, to get on with your life. Catharsis.

In Where the Wild Things Are, Max, dressed in his 'wolf suit', has a naughty temper tantrum, is sent to his room, and retreats deep within his imagination, where he roams and roars and lets all his anger and mischief out, in the company of the primal Wild Things. It was, these interviews remind me, a revolutionary book for its time (1963) in its honest depiction of childhood, as opposed to the whimsical depictions popular at the time. The film could well break similar ground - in fact, Sendak told Jonze: "You have to just make something bold and not pander to children and make something that's as dangerous for its time as the book was in its time."

Talking about the difference between the European and American approaches to making art for children, Sendak says: "We are squeamish. We are Disneyfied. We don't want children to suffer. But what do we do about the fact that they do? The trick is to turn that into art. Not scare children, that's never our intention." Asked if he thinks Disney is bad for kids, he says, "I think it's terrible." And what would he say to parents who say the film is too scary? "I would tell them to go to hell. That's a question I will not tolerate."

Jonze told that he was attracted to Sendak's book because it "doesn't talk down to kids". He compared the experience of Where the Wild Things Are to the the original Charlie and the Chocolate Factory film, starring Gene Wilder. "He's compelling and I want him to like me but I'm also scared of him. I want to be Charlie and I want him to give me the factory but I'm also really scared of him and charmed by him and he's mysterious." An intriguing comparison.

So, I still don't know what I'll think of the film, but I do like the idea of it a lot. And it's already reminded me how much I loved the original book. Which can only be a good thing.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Look over here!

I wanted to be at the Newcastle Young Writers Festival and the Ubud Writers' Festival in Bali, but instead I'm in my lounge room, juggling deadlines and drinking plunger coffee from my trusty Great Gatsby mug.

If you'd rather hear from people who did make it out of their lounge rooms this week, look here at the lovely Estelle Tang, 3000 books blogger, who is interviewing authors and generally soaking up the atmosphere in Newcastle right now. I really like her pithy little Q&As. Recently she started interviewing APA publishing interns about their jobs. Now she's cutting a swathe through the cream of the young writers and editors at Newcastle.

I quite like this exchange with comedian Lawrence Leung:

ET: Hi Lawrence. I hear you're appearing on the NYWF 'Funny Business' panel. So you think you're pretty funny, do you?

LL: You run a blog called 3000 BOOKS. So you think you can read, do you?

She also interviews Ben Law by putting titles of his own articles to him as questions, inspired by an interview he once did with Tori Amos in which he put her song titles as questions. And asks editor Dion Kagan, 'Do you, Dion Kagan, feel irritated, as I do, that the National Young Writers' Festival is not called the National Young Extremely Good-looking Editors' Festival?' (And yes, the photographic evidence proves that Mr Kagan is not unattractive.) I like her sense of cheekiness and fun, and her passionate enthusiasm for books and bookish things.

Of course Angela Meyer, Australia's equivalent of Bookslut, is the name that springs to mind when you think of tireless enthusiasm and passion for books. In her first post from Newcastle, she confirms my suspicion that the girl doesn't sleep (how else can she do everything?) by declaring three hours' sleep the night before. That's one hour less than Kevin Rudd! (Who apparently sleeps four hours a night, in case you can't be bothered doing the maths.) She's also going to Ubud, so watch Literary Minded if you're interested in following that festival.

Me, I'll be at my laptop looking out at the seemingly neverending Melbourne gloom, plugging away at those deadlines. With little detours online ...

Monday, September 28, 2009

Poor little child rapist: the trials and tribulations of Roman Polanski

‘Government ministers, movie directors, writers and intellectuals have expressed shock and outrage after the detention of Oscar winning director Roman Polanski in Switzerland on three-decade-old child sex charges,’ begins an AFP article run by the Sydney Morning Herald and The Herald Sun.

Three-decade-old charges? How dare they! Just because he raped a child doesn’t mean he should be persecuted for it, should he? I mean, it’s yesterday’s news. The victim (or according to some reports, ‘victim’ - note the quotation marks) has moved on with her life, so why shouldn’t we? And he’s an Oscar winning director – isn’t that what’s really important here, not some past misbehaviour back in the hedonistic free love 1970s?

Of course, the official charge is statutory rape – that he unlawfully had sex with a 13-year-old aspiring actress in Jack Nicholson’s Mullholland Canyon mansion. What happened, according to the girl’s 1977 grand jury testimony, is that he took topless photos of her, ostensibly for French Vogue, followed by naked photos in a hot tub. He then stripped off and followed her into the hot tub. ‘That’s when I realised something was wrong,’ she later said. When she got out, inventing an asthma attack and asking to go home, he followed her into the bathroom, where she was wrapped in a towel, lured her into the master bedroom (where she told him she didn’t want to go), performed oral sex on her (while she repeatedly asked him to stop and asked to go home), had vaginal sex with her (while she asked him to stop and asked to go home), then anally raped her (while she – that’s right – asked him to stop and asked to go home). When asked why she followed him into the bedroom, why she went with him, why she didn’t call for help or more forcefully resist, she said ‘Because I was afraid of him’.

He was a 43-year-old world famous film director who was guest editing French Vogue. He’d shot some of the most celebrated films of the 1970s – Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown – and had taken her to the mansion of the star of one of those films. As she pointed out in her testimony, he had the car and was her only way of getting back home. He had plied her with alcohol and Quaaludes. (She was drinking champagne during the photo shoot.) She was 13 years old. The gap in this power relationship was an unbridgeable chasm.

In court, where he was charged with rape, he pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of statutory rape in order to save himself jail time. When it seemed that the judge might not honour the deal, he decided not to come home from Europe, thus becoming a fugitive from justice and a citizen of France, which has no extradition treaty with the United States.

French Culture Minister Frederic Mitterand has called Polanski’s arrest “absolutely horrifying” and calls the case “an old story which doesn’t really make any sense”. British writer Robert Harris, who is collaborating with Polanski on a film version of his thriller The Ghost, says “I'm amazed this should happen now, and I cannot begin to fathom what reason lies behind it.”

Well, the answer may partly lie in fresh appeals by Polanski’s lawyers to have his original case overturned, based on evidence from the 2008 documentary, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired that the original judge improperly colluded with prosecutors. In May, a Los Angeles judge refused his bid to have the charges dismissed, after he failed to appear in court. Hmmm ... perhaps he might have prompted the renewed focus on his long-outstanding arrest himself?

Reviewing the documentary for in February this year, Bill Wyman made an excellent point: “The issue here isn't Polanski being left alone; he's the one trying to get his case dismissed. The movie tries to drum up sympathy for Polanski by playing up the media firestorm he was at the center of; but that's Polanski's fault, too. (Before they rape children, celebrities should consider how the media attention sure to result will have adverse consequences for their victims, as well as themselves.)”

Which brings us back to the victim and her much-trumpeted wish for Polanski’s case to be dismissed – for the judicial system to forgive him as she has. I understand her wish, which is about her desire to avoid the publicity that has long followed her (and destroyed the dream of being an actress that had led her to the disastrous photo shoot in the first place). In a written statement to the court this January, she said: “Every time this case is brought to the attention of the Court, great focus is made of me, my family, my mother and others. That attention is not pleasant to experience and is not worth maintaining over some irrelevant legal nicety, the continuation of the case.” In other words, her main reason for wanting the case dismissed is so that she can move on with her life – not, as some media reports seem to suggest, because it wasn’t such a big deal, or he didn’t do the wrong thing.

Geimer told CNN’s Larry King in 2003 that ‘I tried to take a girlfriend along because I was feeling uncomfortable. But he kind of at the last minute asked her not to go. So actually when I left, my mom didn't realize I was going alone.’ After the rape, she went straight to the car, and was crying by the time he joined her there. She says, ‘So he asked that, you know, you shouldn't tell your mom. We should keep this secret.’ A week before the King appearance, she authored an LA Times opinion piece in response to all the journalists calling asking her if she thought Polanski should get an Oscar (her answer: judge it on his film, not on what he did to me). She summed up the experience: ‘It was not consensual sex by any means. I said no, repeatedly, but he wouldn't take no for an answer. I was alone and I didn't know what to do. It was scary and, looking back, very creepy.’

Her attorney explained the decision-making process behind his plea-bargaining, allowing Polanski to plead guilty to the lesser charge of unlawful sex with a minor and commute the more serious charge of rape, to Larry King. ‘This was - this courthouse, with cross examination about these sort of delicate events was not the place for a recovering young girl ... My job, I thought, was to try to keep her out of the courtroom, try to keep her to getting back to her life.’

Much has been made of Polanski’s tragic past – his childhood as a Holocaust survivor, the murder of his pregnant wife Sharon Tate by Charles Manson. This is juxtaposed with the achievements of his career as a director – Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, his Oscar for The Pianist – to paint a portrait of a tragic, tortured genius. ‘This is somebody who could not be a rapist!’ exclaimed one or his friends and supports in the 2008 documentary. He sure sounds like one. And neither his tragic past nor his artistic achievements excuse his behaviour.

Whether Polanski should be brought to trial when the victim would prefer the case dismissed is a valid – and thorny – issue for debate. Why should she be made to suffer more than she already has? But to suggest he deserves a presidential pardon from Barack Obama, as Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski plans to request, ‘for his services to Polish culture’, is not just ridiculous, but deeply insulting – to the victim, to all victims of rape, and to the basic tenets of our culture. Have we gone so far as to suggest that celebrity and high achievement are more important than the most basic laws of behaviour that govern our society? And let’s not fool ourselves that we’re debating the issue of sex with a minor – it’s plainly obvious from the victim’s testimony that we’re dealing with rape.

In the final analysis, I can’t help but think that the legal process should be followed – that Polanski should return to the US to face trial. It’s very likely that his sentence will be commuted to time served (he was in jail for 45 days for psychiatric assessment back in 1977), or serve an extra term to bring it to 90 days, as was negotiated in his initial plea bargain. (A plea that the judge – who is now dead - had threatened to overturn, causing his flight.) Not that that’s the point.

I think he should be tried as would anyone facing such a charge because a clear message needs to be sent that power and privilege are not a force field that allows those who possess it to behave with impunity. Powerful men need to know that it’s not okay for them to sexually abuse or intimidate women – particularly underage girls, who are even more vulnerable to abuse – because of their positions. Letting Polanski go or ignoring the international warrant for his arrest sends the opposite message – that there’s one rule for ordinary people, and another for the elite. And that’s a dangerous message.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Anxiety and (self) R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

The crickets chirping in the emptiness over here at Jabberwocky has been the flipside of an incredibly busy life lately. Deadlines piling up – and, mortifyingly, sometimes shooting past. New projects taking up too much space in my head, let alone hours in the day. Too many nights sleeping on the couch – because I can’t turn down the volume on my brain enough to allow sleep in bed, but I can trick my body into dozing off if it thinks it should be awake.

I’ve had some wins in the work sphere, which is great. But every win seems to make me more anxious about the next task or goal, the potential for failure more loaded. Which makes it harder to concentrate on that task. Which makes it less likely I’ll complete it well. And I keep taking on too much work because I’m afraid to say no, afraid to miss out. Worse, I’ve been chasing work when I should be planning a rest, because I need to have done it. Because I need the adrenaline rush of a 'yes'. Each commission is another cotton-bud balm on my anxiety.

And the less I sleep, the harder it is to think and work efficiently; thus the more frantically my brain whirs through its to-do list at night. Depriving me of sleep. Making me more anxious.

Yes, perversity rules.

Over-concentration on every detail is obliterating the big picture. The pinpricks of every task and every associated worry dance before my eyes and merge into a gauze of anxiety, blocking my internal access to the machinery of analysis and action. An afternoon is wasted fixating on an imagined slight. An evening passes with a tape of a recent social occasion running in the background of my brain, scanning for slip-ups. I am poised to take offence, my skin dangerously thin, nerves pulsing too close to the surface.

I need to press control-alt-delete. I need to reboot. I can’t.

I reached for a self-help book this morning. We all have our own version of self-help, I guess – the Bible, the Koran, Oprah Winfrey, psychotherapy. Different horses for different courses.

Something about my manic vulnerability today reminded me of an essay in Joan Didion’s Slouching to Bethlehem, ‘On Self Respect’. It provided the right kind of salve for me – a mixture of comfort and admonition, understanding and rebuke. The symptoms she described seemed to fit, so perhaps the definition did, too?

She writes:

To do without self-respect ... is to be an unwilling audience of one to an interminable documentary that deals one’s failings, both real and imagined, with fresh footage spliced in for every screening. There’s the glass you broke in anger, there’s the hurt on X’s face; watch now, this next scene, the night Y came back from Houston, see how you muff this one. To live without self-respect is to lie awake some night, beyond the reach of warm milk, the Phenobarbital, and the sleeping hand on the coverlet, counting up the sins of commissions and omission, the trusts betrayed, the promises subtly broken, the gifts irrevocably wasted through sloth or cowardice, or carelessness. However long we postpone it, we eventually lie down alone in that notoriously uncomfortable bed, the one we make ourselves. Whether or not we sleep in it depends, of course, on whether or not we respect ourselves.

So, I thought, re-reading it. There’s my symptoms, pretty much. Or some of them. Maybe that’s my problem; maybe I should snap out of it, like Joan Didion would. Do what I can do, accept my failings and my achievements equally as my due, and move on from both. Rely on my own opinion instead of worrying over others’. Let my vision of myself be based on what I know I'm capable of, rather than how I'm performing in the outside world.

People with self-respect have the courage of their mistakes. They know the price of things ... In brief, people with self-respect exhibit a certain toughness, a kind of mortal nerve; they display what was once called character ... Character, the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life – is the source from which self-respect springs.

So I turned off all the internet-based social networking I was mechanically, joylessly surfing, put on a CD, cooked myself breakfast, then sat down to do some serious work. I thought about everything Joan Didion has achieved and how much more I could achieve if I was disciplined and focused and self-contained and able to block out the outside world. I did a very reasonable and thoughtful few hundred words before the anxiety kicked back in. And then I fled back to Didion's words for comfort, followed by writing this, in an effort to purge my anxiety by putting it on paper (or on screen).

To have that sense of one’s intrinsic worth which constitutes self-respect is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference. If we do not respect ourselves, we are the one hand forced to despise those who have so few resources as to consort with us, so little perception as to remain blind to our fatal weaknesses. On the other, we are peculiarly in thrall to everyone we see, curiously determined to live out – since our self-image is untenable – their false notion of us.

... It is the phenomenon sometimes called 'alienation from self'. In its advanced stages, we no longer answer the telephone, because someone might want something; that we could say no without drowning in self-reproach is an idea alien to this game. Every encounter demands too much, tears the nerves, drains the will, and the specter of something as small as an unanswered letter arouses such disproportionate guilt that answering it becomes out of the question. To assign unanswered letters their proper weight, to free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves – there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect. Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home.

I’m going back to work now; internet off. Really. I believe in my ability, if not to immediately move on, at least to lock my neuroses away for an afternoon - and an evening - and get on with life, meeting it and my deadlines head-on.