El Goes to Elle

Okay, I guess I’m really back, because I’m delving into morality, philosophy and politics. With the revelation of Harvey Weinstein’s staggering abuse of his phenomenal power to coerce his employees into undesired sexual situations, Hollywood’s floodgates have opened. It seems everyone being accused, from Louis C.K. to George Takei. And one question that keeps coming up for the public to munch on is, “Are these people, alone, to blame?” After all, along with the accusations almost always comes the statement, “And everybody knew all about it.”

So, when behavior that’s been accepted, even encouraged, for decades is suddenly revealed, and finally recognized as the problem it always was, who’s to blame?

Mara Wilson, former child star and current left-wing social activist (her Twitter presence is self-dubbed “Mara ‘Get Rid of Nazis’ Wilson”) has an answer:

We all are.

Actually, that’s not quite accurate. If I’m reading Ms. Wilson’s (no relation that I know of) essay correctly, she considers Hollywood’s denizens less culpable for the objectification and victimization of actors, particularly (and this is her concern in the article in Elle) the sexualization of child actors.

“Is Hollywood inherently corrupt,” she asks, “hostile to women and young people? Possibly. My position, as someone who grew up in and near Hollywood, has always been that it isn’t necessarily immoral, but amoral. When actors are dehumanized, objectified, seen as bankable resources rather than people, this makes for an extreme imbalance of power. And no one loves an imbalance of power more than a predator.”

Ms. Wilson further nails down her point: “What’s really at play here [sic] the creepy, inappropriate public inclination to sexualize young girls in the media.”

My translation: “Hollywood just kinda accidentally creates sexualization. They don’t really know what they’re doing. You can’t hold Hollywood accountable. But the fans of their films do know right from wrong, and are all responsible for the actions of a few who react inappropriately.”

What got me involved in this? I just wanted some promo art for Stranger Things 2 to go with my review of it yesterday. I got my promo art, but was also treated to the blaring headline that Mara Wilson was outraged by the sexualization of 13-year-old Millie Bobby Brown, who plays Eleven on the show.

More to the point, what got Mara Wilson, as opposed to Steve, involved in this? She was outraged by a comment by a retired TV executive on Twitter. Accompanying a photo of Ms. Brown at a red carpet opening, it said, “Millie Bobby Brown has grown up before our eyes! (She’s 13!)” As indicated in the title of her essay, Ms. Wilson disagreed that Ms. Brown was “grown up,” and, further, she found that this remark “sexualized” and objectified Ms. Brown. Ms. Wilson went on to say that people who asked why Ms. Brown was dressed the way she was in the photo, and that her parents were at fault if she was drawing inappropriate comments, were saying that Ms. Brown as “an acceptable target.” She finished by placing the TV exec who made the tweet, and fans in general, in league with John Hinckley and the killer of Rebecca Shaeffer from My Sister Sam.

So let’s talk about Ms. Brown’s red-carpet photos. I’ll admit her look raised this middle-aged father’s eyebrows. I thought it was a provocative contrast to the innocent image of her character on Stranger Things. Had this been my 13-year-old daughter dressing that way in public, she and I would have had a conversation. I am not an authoritarian parent, and was never the type to say, “You’re not going out of this house dressed like that!” But I think I might have said, “That outfit and makeup are sending the message that you are no longer a little girl, and that you are far more sophisticated than the character fans have seen you play. You might not be an adult yet, but you’re going to be seen by some people that way.”

I would have gone on to ask my daughter if she thought she was prepared for that reaction, and to let her know that, whatever she decided, I would be on her side. I don’t have a daughter, of course, but I do have a son who wore a Rainbow Dash onesie to his first day of school in high school one year, so I’ve talked to a kid about reactions to mode of dress. I endorse neither the belief that people who dress a certain way deserve to be harassed (no one does!) nor the belief that I should be able to wear whatever I want and never hear a single opinion about it. We most often dress specifically to send a message.

Now, I don’t know if Ms. Brown picked her outfit, if her parents approved it, or if it was designed by a PR team. I think a girl has every right to look and feel pretty, especially if she’s doing it out of a strong sense of self-esteem, because she thinks she deserves to look good. I think reasonable parents understand that their teen children want to step into grown-up shoes, and it can be a hard task picking which steps are the right ones for them to take. In short, I condemn neither Ms. Brown nor her family.

But I also do not condemn an older man (he is described as “retired”) making the grandfatherly remark that a girl looks suddenly grown up. If Ms. Wilson or anybody else sees that as creepy or oppressive, based solely on the comment, then I would say that the creepiness and the oppression are in the eye of the beholder.

And I simply can’t endorse Ms. Wilson’s apparent accusation of all fans of anything as being responsible for the mistreatment of stars—be they young, old, female or not. I’ve been active in organized science fiction fandom since before Ms. Wilson was born. Are fans sometimes inappropriate? Yes. Do fans sexualize celebrities? Yes. Do fans have expectations of celebrities that seem to deny that those celebrities are people and thus entitled to privacy? You bet. I’ve been on the front lines of making sure fans don’t cross the lines of good manners when dealing with celebrities, and of handing out consequences when they do.

But I’ve worked celebrity appearance events for decades, ushering thousands of people at a time through autograph and photo-op lines. I have maybe a half-dozen stories of inappropriate behavior out of tens of thousands of encounters. I have more stories of celebrities who have been fed horror stories and are actually afraid of their fans.

And, yes, the social media world is different. There’s a distance there that can make us forget that we’re talking to and about real people, and some of us say some goofy shit. But social awkwardness and a sense of empathy starved for the light of an atmosphere outside our narrow little worlds is just not the same thing as murder, rape or sexual assault. And it’s not the reason that the Harvey Weinsteins of the John Hinckleys of the world commit their crimes.

So, Ms. Wilson, when you sling the blame, narrow your circle. You cannot absolve Hollywood of blame for selling sex and shift the responsibility to everyone who directly or indirectly consumes their product.

And Ms. Brown, you do look quite grown-up in those photos. I trust that’s the image you wanted to project, and I hope that your fans see that grown-up appearance as a sign that what they’re looking at is a very talented young woman who’s well-earned their admiration. I also hope that you are never treated with anything but the utmost respect, which a performer of your caliber deserves. And I say with confidence that I believe that is what the overwhelming majority of your fans hope too.

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