Tag Archives: Harvey Weinstein

The Venus Flytrap: The Vocabulary of Violence

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Somewhere near the end of a marriage, a well-regarded author had an initially consensual sexual encounter which turned violent. She looked this truth in the eye in an essay published a few years ago, when she perceived the encounter in a way that was complicated, but cathartic. Time passed, and she seems to have found herself still triggered by news about the other person, who continues to thrive in the world. She looked more of the truth in the eye, saw more of the ugliness that remained despite her will to narrativise her experience in a nuanced way. Last week, she tweeted and deleted and tweeted and deleted, finally saying that she chose “a peaceful life” over this struggle.

As Harvey Weinstein, notorious sexual predator from the cinema field, finally goes to jail, there are all kinds of thoughts swirling about what we’ve learned in the last couple of years, how we’ve reckoned with our experiences, and about the limits of language. Most of us will never know the vindication of having those who destroyed us, or tried to, have justice meted out to them. Some may have pursued due process, and found that the system is designed to fail them. Many more won’t or can’t. I am speaking not only of abuses of a sexual nature, but of all violations that become unspeakable because the consequences of revelation are too high.

But let us return to the topic of only those grim events that some say fall under a “grey area”, where consent, pleasure and violation (and even love) were all present to different degrees. Concepts of justice that come from rigid or punitive frameworks, which require cleaner experiential demarcations, may not give us release. The “peaceful life” of not being forever known by someone else’s wrongdoing is preferable.

The Me Too era has helped many privately reframe and understand certain experiences differently. I know that I have. This kind of excavation takes courage. The feelings and the words for them get jumbled like alphabet soup. Some of those words cannot be walked back. I do not want to freeze myself into them. The point of the grey area is that it is not either/or. Where events were complex, and where we resist simplifying them, it can be powerful to keep the knowledge that one’s feelings are tidal.

There’s no statute of limitations on trauma. The whisper network is not only about warnings, as is commonly understood. It’s about being able to see one’s truth whole, and process it meaningfully with those one is close to. Some silences are not suppressions, but ways of retaining power or peace. They aren’t necessarily silences at all, but allow for holding experiences and healing from them.

“The vocabulary of sexual assault is not always enough to communicate our experiences of violence,” decolonial feminist scholar Dr. Anjana Raghavan said to me in a personal conversation. “Often, our stories are cut short by responses of outrage or defensiveness. It will not suffice as a long-term strategy.” I quote her with permission; in the messiness of forming and unlearning strategies, among the silences and incompleteness, her words are succinct.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 27th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Salma Hayek & So Many Working Women

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There is a peripheral debate that’s raging now in the fields of arts and entertainment, the question of whether one should separate the art and the person (usually, the man) who made it. Whether, for instance, Woody Allen’s movies, Derek Walcott’s poems or Pablo Picasso’s paintings can be loved decontextualized, without having to take into account the moral failings of their creators. I have mixed feelings about this, and enjoy reading the opinions of those who are able to take principled positions either which way. For me, it’s usually on a case by case rather than wholesale basis. This is a problematic position, obviously. The first time I really had it challenged was last week, when I read Salma Hayek’s powerful op-ed in The New York Times in which she detailed the abuse she faced at the hands of the Hollywood tyrant Harvey Weinstein. Hayek’s revelation came after many others, at a time when I did not think anything further about Weinstein could shock me.

What shattered me was that the abuse had taken place during the making of a film that is very special to me, Frida, on the life of the painter of the same name. I’d followed its making and release in 2002 with the kind of devotion only a teenager is capable of (Kahlo is the foremother of so many of us), and to this day I believe it’s a magnificent, heartfelt work of art. I could watch it over and over – except I may not be able to again without having to close my eyes, like a child is asked to if a sex scene suddenly comes on while she’s watching TV with her parents.

In her piece, Hayek wrote that the film’s nude scene between Frida Kahlo and the Parisian dancer Josephine Baker had been coerced by Weinstein. I knew Hayek had struggled to make this film, and that it was a true labour of love, but this was the first time she had talked about this particular kind of sexual abuse during its production.

Hayek’s sexual rejection of Weinstein brought consequences. First, he attempted to replace her entirely as producer and lead actor, which she countered by meeting a list of nearly impossible tasks he set. At one point, as detailed in her essay, he even threatened to murder her. After all this resistance, Weinstein finally found a way to deadlock her: a full frontal lesbian sex scene, or the film would not be finished.

She fought that monster in secret for the project that made her career, something women do in workplaces all the time, giving in to his blackmail but biding her time.

To me, Frida is not – never has been and never will be – Weinstein’s film. It belongs to and is unequivocally the creation of the producer and protagonist, Salma Hayek; the director, Julie Taymor; and the composer Elliot Goldenthal. But in this film is a scene which bears the stain of a monster, extracted from the humiliation of a woman forced into a compromise. Frida has always been a feminist film. If only its making hadn’t also had to be – so painfully, so familiarly.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 21st 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.