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Menace Too Society

Cancel culture suggests we can change the world from the outside in, but the misogyny and racism are coming from inside the house.

Illustration by Homestead Studio

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | January 2020 |  10 minutes (2,378 words)

It’s taken two years for #MeToo to wake up France, but at least it did. The country appears to finally see the men it has created, which is more than can be said of North America, trapped in the cancel culture stage, calling out everyone except itself. That lack of self-awareness is easy to miss, though. There’s a lot of wokeness floating around these parts — we even have a “woke” princess, although Meghan Markle’s self-appointed royal defection alone could never really loosen the monarchy’s grip on Britain. And for all the hand-wringing by Hollywood stars over diversity, there is once again an established structure above them that resists the change they represent, one that inevitably rears its head in heavily white male awards seasons. France appears to know this now, but only because it was told so by a woman it nearly destroyed.

“I’m really angry, but the issue isn’t so much me, how I survive this or not,” French actress Adèle Haenel told Mediapart in November. “I want to talk about an abuse which is unfortunately commonplace, and attack the system of silence and collusion behind it which makes it possible.” The 31-year-old Portrait of a Lady on Fire star was talking about her alleged abuse from the ages of 12 to 15 at the hands of her first film director, Christophe Ruggia, who was in his 30s at the time. In a follow-up sit-down interview with the same site, Haenel emphasized that she wasn’t canceling anyone; this wasn’t about censoring individuals, but about calling attention to an entrenched society-wide ill and the culture that upholds it. It was this depersonalization that seemed to free up France to reflect, something still largely missing from U.S. conversations — from #MeToo to inclusivity in entertainment to royal affairs — that are all rooted in a foundational hierarchy the entire population is complicit in preserving. “When we come up against the control of the patriarchy,” explained Haenel, “we talk about it as though it were from the outside, whereas it’s from the inside.”

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Barely a week into the new year, two of the most celebrated members of the most prestigious institution in the U.K. turned their backs on it. On January 8, the Sussex Instagram account dropped a shot of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle with 195 words that defied centuries of British tradition. “After many months of reflection and internal discussions, we have chosen to make a transition this year in starting to carve out a progressive new role within this institution,” it read. “We intend to step back as ‘senior’ members of the Royal Family and work to become financially independent.” The announcement, which also stated the couple plans to split its time between the U.K. and North America, came not long after the airing of an emotional ITV documentary in which Markle admitted, “I never thought that this would be easy, but I thought it would be fair.” Anyone who watched her say that, who saw the same defeat in her face that they saw in Princess Diana’s decades prior, who saw Harry’s frustration at the thought that it could all happen again, who saw the royal family barely ripple in response to Prince Andrew’s association with a registered sex offender, would not only understand this separation, but expect nothing less. How else to exercise your opposition to a patriarchal empire than to forsake its number one emblem?

But the media took it personally — it was a door slammed and shut tight in the face of their badgering, which had become as much of a presence as the royals themselves, a constant reminder of British society’s supplication at the feet of an outdated overlord. Piers Morgan expressed his preference for the old prince, the fratty drunk who cosplayed a Nazi, amid reports that Madame Tussaud’s had swiftly relocated the royal couple’s wax figures from its esteemed collection. The local response reeked of personal injury, as though the duo had turned its nose up at the greatest gift the country had to offer, rather than what they actually did: kicked off a long-awaited internal confrontation with the colonial inheritance of a populace that insists on running on its fumes. As Afua Hirsch, author of Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging, told NPR, “Instead of taking this as an opportunity for introspection as to what is it about the upper strata of British society that is hostile for a person of color like Meghan Markle, what we’re seeing now is the British media just lashing out again and blaming everyone except themselves.” “Everyone” being “non-aristocratic, non-white interlopers,” which is to say, the people who actually populate Britain. 

If Prince Harry is the future, Prince William is the past, and it’s fitting that he not only presides over the kingdom (or will, one day) but its version of the Oscars. The day before his brother’s adios, the BAFTAs announced that for the seventh year in a row, no women were nominated for best director, and in addition, all 20 of the acting nominees were white. In an internal letter, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts’ chief executive Amanda Berry and film committee chair Marc Samuelson called the lack of diversity “frustrating and deeply disappointing,” as though it were entirely out of their hands. Yet the 8,000-member committee is chaired by Pippa Harris, who cofounded a production company with Sam Mendes nearly two decades ago, which may explain why 1917, the war epic Mendes directed and coproduced with Harris, was the only nominee for both best film and best British film. This sort of insularity may be unspoken but it is not inactive, it has repercussions for which films are funded and how they are marketed and ultimately rewarded. 

“BAFTA can’t tell the studios and the production companies who they should hire and whose stories should get told,” Samuelson told Variety, deflecting the blame. But the academy’s site claims it discovers and nurtures new talent and has a mission that includes diversity and inclusion, so why does its most recent Breakthrough Brits list appear to be three quarters white? As former BAFTA winner Steve McQueen observed, there were plenty of British women and people of color who did exceptional work in film this year — in movies like In Fabric, The Souvenir, Queen & Slim, and Us — and were nonetheless overlooked, implying a more deeply ingrained exclusion, the sort that permeates British society beyond its film industry and keeps the country from actually perceiving non-white, non-male stories as legitimate art. Snubbed Harriet star Cynthia Erivo confessed to Extra TV that she actually turned down an invitation to sing at the BAFTAs, evoking Markle’s absences from a growing number of royal engagements. “It felt like it was calling on me as an entertainer,” Erivo said, “as opposed to a person who was a part of the world of film.”

Awards as a whole are representative of industry-wide limitations, which, as ever, are tied to the dominance of a particular group in the larger society. The Oscars, dating back to the ’20s and established to garner positive publicity for Hollywood (while extinguishing its unions), seem to persist in the belief that that is tied to white male supremacy. I probably don’t have to tell you the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences just elected another middle-aged white man as its head (David Rubin) and has a member base that is 84 percent white and 68 percent male. And that’s an improvement after April Reign’s viral 2016 #OscarsSoWhite outcry. “It’s not about saying who is snubbed and who should have been nominated,” Reign told The Huffington Post at the time, “it’s about opening the discussion more on how the decisions were made, who was cast and who tells the story behind the camera.” And yet the response, as always, has been tokenism — one black nominee here, an Asian one there, a one-for-one reaction to cancel culture which provides momentary relief but no real evolution. The individual successes of Moonlight and Black Panther and BlacKkKlansman and even Parasite, not to mention Spike Lee being named the first ever black Cannes jury head, can’t ultimately undo more than 100 years of white male paternalism. The Oscar nominations this year, dominated by four movies that are very pale and very violent — Joker, 1917, The Irishman, and Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood — encapsulate the real soul of Hollywood and the society in which it was forged. It is no mistake that, as The Atlantic outlined, the ceremony neglects “domestic narratives, and stories told by women and people of color.” Harvey Weinstein, who turned awards campaigning into a brutalist art form while allegedly brutalizing women behind the scenes, may no longer be the Oscars’ figurehead, but his imprint endures.

À propos, Les Misérables, a gritty drama about a bunch of men facing off with a bunch of other men (oh, and some boys too) in a poor neighborhood in Paris, was the French submission to this year’s Oscars instead of Haenel’s critically preferred film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a lush period romance about two women in love. It was that film’s director, Céline Sciamma, for whom Haenel returned to acting in 2007 with White Lilies (and with whom she had a romance off-camera) years after her experience with Ruggia drove her from the industry. Though she opened up to Sciamma about being sexually abused, Haenel didn’t go public until she was firmly established with two Césars (the French Academy Award equivalent) to bolster her legitimacy — she knew that otherwise society, French and otherwise, sides with men. “Even if it is difficult to fight against the balance of power set out from early adolescence, and against the man-woman relationship of dominance, the social balance of power has been inversed,” Haenel told Mediapart in November. “I am today socially powerful, whereas [Ruggia] has simply become diminished.” This was a crucial but deemphasised aspect of the shift in America which took place after a slew of A-list white actresses — women who were held up by society and thus listened to — accused Weinstein of abuse, a shift which did not take place after a slew of lesser known women, many of them women of color, accused Bill Cosby. (That the latter is black no doubt also played into the country’s lingering racist belief that all black men are latent criminals, so obviously he was a predator, right?) With none of these longstanding prejudices addressed, however, they risk being repeated, as the system which permitted these men to abuse their power prevails.

“What do we all have as collective responsibility for that to happen. That’s what we’re talking about,” Haenel said in her sit-down interview. “Monsters don’t exist. It’s our society, it’s us, it’s our friends, it’s our fathers. We’re not here to eliminate them, we’re here to change them.” This approach is in direct opposition to how #MeToo has been unraveling in the U.S., where names of accused men — Woody Allen, Michael Jackson, Matt Lauer, R. Kelly, Louis C.K., Weinstein — loom so large on the marquees that they conveniently block out reality: that they were shaped by America, a place that gives golden handshakes to abusers, barely takes them to trial for their alleged actions, and sometimes even cheers them on. It’s not that women here have not been saying the same thing as Haenel, it just seems to be that their message is lost in the cacophony of proliferating high-profile cases themselves. Haenel’s resonance sources from not only the relative anomaly of a French woman of her stature making such claims, but also the fact that she is so much more famous than her alleged perpetrator and that her age at the time makes it a clear instance of abuse. Perhaps it also has to do with her disclosure coming amidst the ongoing yellow vests movement, which has primed France’s citizens to call for all manner of accountability.  

Haenel’s alleged abuser has since been charged with sexual aggression against a minor, though she initially refused to go through the justice system, which she saw as part of a deeper systemic bias that resulted in her abuse. UniFrance, which promotes French films internationally, has openly backed the actress and is in the process of creating a charter to protect actors, and, in a historic move, the French Society of Film Directors dropped Ruggia, its former copresident. Meanwhile, Gabriel Matzneff is also being investigated following the publication of a memoir by Vanessa Springora in which the publishing head describes her teen sexual encounters with the then-50-something-year-old French writer who has always been open about his affinity for underage girls and boys. And the same country that supported Roman Polanski in the aftermath of child sexual assault allegations several years ago is now protesting him in the wake of Haenel’s disclosure. As she said when asked about the Oscar-winning filmmaker on Mediapart, “the debate around Polanski is not limited to Polanski and his monstrosity, but implicates the whole of society.” The French media calls Haenel’s #MeToo story a turning point, one which highlights not the individual — even she expressed regret that it fell on one man — but on a society which believes victimization is in any way excusable. 

* * *

“It’s possible for society to act differently,” Haenel said. “It’s better for everyone, firstly for the victims but even for the torturers to look themselves in the face. That’s what being human is. It’s not about crushing people and trying to gain power, it’s about questioning yourself and accepting the multi-dimensional side of what a human being is. That’s how we build high society.” Up until this point we have been primarily concerned with identifying the bad seeds and having them punished and even removed, without really wrestling with the environment in which they have grown — doing that means facing ourselves as well. We name names and call out institutions — like Hollywood awards and the British royal family — and then what? What remains is the same system that produced these individuals, these same individuals simply establishing new institutions with the same foundations. Identifying what’s wrong doesn’t tell us what’s right. It wasn’t until Haenel was introduced to a filmmaking crew that was entirely female, that listened to her and supported her, that she could identify not just what shouldn’t be, but what should. “What society do we want?” she asked. “It’s about that too.”

* * *

Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.