There are much more important things going on the world than the Academy Awards—but considering his sexual harassment allegations, I’m still trying to slowly wrap my head around the fact that Casey Affleck is a Best Actor Oscar contender this evening for his work in “Manchester By The Sea.” I’m still trying to interpret what that says (or actively doesn’t say) about the safety of and respect for women in Hollywood. What it seems to say, or loudly indicate, is that sexual misconduct and harassment are acceptable. Acceptable enough to ignore, forget, or sidestep, anyway, so as not to disturb Affleck’s chance at one of the highest honors in the entertainment industry.
It has gotten much media attention, but for those not in the know, Affleck was accused of sexual misconduct in two lawsuits by Polish cinematographer Magdalena Górka and producer Amanda White respectively. Affleck denies the allegations, which purportedly took place on the set of his Joaquin Phoenix mockumentary, “I’m Still Here”—the most significant example in recent history of why famous brahs shouldn’t theatrically release inside jokes. Here is a particularly thorough collection of information on the cases, and the court documents are here. I suggest reading through for oneself.
I suppose the only people who know the whole truth are Górka, White, Affleck, and their respective gods, but I personally can’t imagine why two female film professionals would risk concocting such specific stories to go up against a Hollywood powerhouse’s little brother in such a male-dominated industry. (Even the badass Constance Wu, when speaking out against Affleck’s Oscar nod on Twitter, mentioned she had been “counseled” not to comment on Affleck for “career’s sake.”)
Affleck maintains he feels no responsibility for the case, adding that people think “it’s perfectly fine to say anything you want” about individuals in the public eye. While such a response seems appropriate for a tell-all in Us Weekly, it seems rather dismissive and unrealistic for court cases like these. Such processes hold no promise of an outcome, are expensive, time-consuming, and deeply draining. Both cases were eventually settled out of court “to the satisfaction of both parties.”
As wholly grossed out as I was when I initially read the court case about a year ago, I must say, when the acclaim and eventual awards buzz began gathering around Affleck’s “Manchester By The Sea” performance, I found myself, rather unconsciously at first, giving him the benefit of the doubt. I acted as if I had forgotten about the case all together. While I buffed up here and there on all the 2016 awards contenders, I went on reading Affleck interviews while ignoring a small pang of guilt. I listened to him on talk shows to hear about his “process” and nodded like a fellow traveler when he mentioned being three years sober. I laughed at his Dunkin Donuts skit on SNL. I didn’t Google or read any more about his allegations.
But there was something about seeing Matt Damon speak about Affleck on the red carpet at the Golden Globes (where Affleck won for Best Actor) calling him “one of the best people he’s ever known” that yanked at my passive attitude. Then Damon said in the New York Times, of Casey’s film choices, “He agonizes over these decisions because he’s got a lot of integrity. Way more than either his brother or me.”
It reminded me, despite being the recipient of harassment and sexual misconduct at different points in my life, despite considering myself to be a (hopefully evolving) believer in and advocate of intersectional feminism, I’m a product of a deeply sexist culture. There are still moments I operate with an underlying understanding that this kind of behavior from a man is normal. And that I believe what they say about and want from my body.
Maybe no subconscious is exempt from these messages, but it’s a dangerous example of white male power at one of it’s many peaks, one that communicates pretty clearly, in silence as much as in action, that treating women like shit is “no bigs.” Most especially if one is white, has money, renown, a stellar PR team, and a fraternity of powerful movie stars on surround like a flock of tuxedo clad geese. Casey Affleck, unlike Nate Parker, (though both cases are unique and singularly unacceptable) is given a major pass. It’s enough to make a person puke blood all over their teen bedroom’s “Good Will Hunting” poster.
Awards, and even nominations, are almost entirely symbolic, right? They often aid in giving their recipients more power, rank, and opportunity. They are given by those with power and voice in a particular system to those they deem particularly excellent. Public figures become symbolic, too. So when Affleck gets recognized, his image and all he symbolizes, good and bad, get recognized also. And it says something that the allegations in question took place on a film set.
While I’m sure he’ll go on making films, developing as an artist, and hopefully, as child of the universe, critically challenging himself to be the best Casey Affleck he can be―he sure as hell doesn’t need a nod or a statue representing professional excellence when his behavior in such a setting drastically and irrevocably proved otherwise. There are too many other worthy actors who could change the discourse and climate of the entertainment industry.
To quote Constance Wu again, “Art doesn’t exist for the sake of awards but awards DO exist to honor all that art is trying to accomplish in life. So context matters,” and that awards “shouldn’t reinforce the industry’s gross and often hidden mistreatment of women.”
There is a conversation going on about Hollywood and the attempts both successful and thwarted to dismantle the deeply and traditionally white, sexist, racist, ableist, heteronormative, male dominated structure of it. How is that done? I’m no expert by any means, but a start is to continuously open and extend opportunity and power to those with traditionally and systematically marginalized voices. By representing extremely varied stories and bodies. By recognizing work by good artists who deserve to be recognized. And by never, under any circumstances, accepting or normalizing unacceptable behavior in the professional settings of those structures. Not even if they’re part of the family.
I’m reminded of what writer Ursula Le Guin said when being honored at the National Book Awards when she spoke about profit before art—that resistance and change often begin in art, and that any human power can be resisted and changed by humans. “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable,” she says. “but then, so did the divine right of kings.”
And don’t even get me started on Mel Gibson.