The 2017 Oscars celebrated two men famously accused of hurting women.
One of them was a superstar when the accusations against him went public eight years ago. Since then he’d been on a fame hiatus, but now he’s making a comeback. The film he directed was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, and he grinned through the handful of mild jokes that were made at his expense during the ceremony.
The other man hadn’t been all that famous when the accusations against him went public, so he’d never been on any sort of hiatus. No one made any jokes at his expense at all. He had tears in his eyes when he accepted the Oscar for Best Actor.
The redemption tours of Mel Gibson and Casey Affleck are no shock. Instead, they serve as a reminder that our culture frequently does not punish wealthy, privileged white men who hurt women — although, as the case of former Oscar hopeful Nate Parker reminds us, we are occasionally willing to punish nonwhite men.
Gibson and Affleck are a reminder that when we say, “Women who accuse men of hurting them are lying in order to ruin the men’s careers,” we are not only victim blaming, we are also engaging in a myth. Because hurting women often does not hurt men’s careers — not if they’re rich enough and white enough.
Mel Gibson, whose Hacksaw Ridge won two Oscars, told his wife she deserved to be raped
In 2010, Mel Gibson’s then-wife, Oksana Grigorieva, filed for a restraining order against him. She alleged that he punched her multiple times, breaking a tooth and giving her a concussion. Gibson denied punching her but admitted to slapping her “one time.”
That’s a he said/she said situation, so we may not know for sure whether to believe Gibson or Grigorieva. But what’s inarguable is that Gibson a) at the absolute minimum hit his wife, and b) also launched a profanity-laced tirade at her in which he told her she deserved to be raped. In a set of tapes leaked to the public after the incident, Gibson says:
You look like a fucking bitch in heat, and if you get raped by a pack of ni**ers it’ll be your fault. All right? Because you provoked it. You are provocatively dressed all the time, with your fake boobs, you feel you have to show off in tight outfits and tight pants (garbled) you can see your pussy from behind. And that green thing today was enough. That’s provocative. OK? I’m telling you. I’m just telling you the truth!
In another leaked tape from 2006, Gibson went on a drunken anti-Semitic rant in which he declared that “Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world.”
At the 2017 Oscars, Hacksaw Ridge, which Gibson directed, was nominated for six awards and won two, for Sound Mixing and Film Editing. Those awards often go to war movies, so they’re not necessarily proxy votes for Gibson. But the fact that he was nominated for Best Director, and the telecast’s frequent close-ups of his affable, smiling face at the front of the crowd, indicate that he’s not on the outs with the cool kids of Hollywood anymore. He’s back in the clique.
Casey Affleck, who won an Oscar, was sued by two employees for sexual harassment
Also in 2010, Casey Affleck was sued for sexual harassment by two members of his crew as he directed I’m Still Here.
One of his accusers, Amanda White, alleged that Affleck instructed another crew member to flash his penis at her and routinely referred to women as “cows.” She also alleges that Affleck tried to convince her to stay in a hotel room with him, and when she refused, he tried to intimidate her by grabbing her, later sending her a stream of angry and abusive text messages.
The other accuser, Magdalena Górka, described waking up in the middle of the night to find Affleck in bed with her: “He had his arm around her, was caressing her back, his face was within inches of hers and his breath reeked of alcohol.” According to the lawsuit she filed against Affleck, he left the room after she told him multiple times to do so, “slamming the door in anger” — but “she did not know where he had touched her while she was sleeping.”
Both lawsuits were settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.
“Man, I wish I had something bigger and more meaningful to say,” Affleck said at the 2017 Oscars, as he accepted the Best Actor trophy for his performance in Manchester by the Sea, “but I'm just glad to be a part of this community.”
Nate Parker’s career ended after old rape charges surfaced. Nate Parker is black.
There is one filmmaker who was initially expected to be in the running at the 2017 Oscars, until previously buried sexual assault accusations ruined his career. His name is Nate Parker, and for the first half of 2016, he was an early awards favorite for his leading role in The Birth of a Nation, which he also wrote and directed.
Then a single story started to dominate the press around Parker and Birth of a Nation: Parker was charged with rape in 1999. He was found not guilty, but from a 2016 perspective, the evidence against him looked more damning than it apparently had in 1999. (A key part of Parker’s defense depended on parsing the difference between “blackout drunk” and “unconscious.”)
Parker’s Oscar hopes faded away. He drifted gently out of the spotlight. As of now, his career appears to be all but over.
Parker’s case is not identical to either Gibson’s or Affleck’s: He was not accused of assault or harassment, but of rape; he wasn’t the target of a civil suit that he settled out of court, like Affleck, but a criminal trial.
However, the biggest difference between Parker’s story and Gibson and Affleck’s stories is that Gibson and Affleck are wealthy, well-connected, and white. Gibson has been a Hollywood superstar for decades. Affleck isn’t as well known as the other Affleck, but the other Affleck is his brother.
Nate Parker was a relatively unknown actor on the cusp of making it big. He didn’t have the connections or the wealth necessary to make his scandal disappear. He was also black, and his alleged victim was white. Parker’s story fit neatly into that old American horror story of the pure and innocent white woman menaced by the sexually aggressive black man — that story that so neatly combines misogyny and racism — which imbued it with staying power.
It stuck around in a way the story of a rich and wealthy white man hurting a woman couldn’t. That story doesn’t fit into our cultural scripts, so we made up a different script to get rid of it, one that says the woman probably made up the story, for money or attention or revenge. That’s a story with staying power.
The Oscars like to claim they divorce art from politics. They don’t.
In the leadup to the Oscars, multiple Academy voters made the argument that a nominee’s personal life shouldn’t matter more than their work. “I look at each piece as just a piece of art, and whether it speaks to me,” said Zootopia director Rich Moore. “We’re all human, we all make mistakes, we all have our weaknesses, but that’s not to say that a person can’t produce a real piece of art.”
It’s the same argument that gets trotted out when Woody Allen wins a lifetime achievement award or Roman Polanski gets an Oscar: Sure, these men have been accused (and, in Polanski’s case, convicted) of doing monstrous things to little girls, but after all, art is art, right?
And certainly, by all accounts, Casey Affleck gave a very affecting performance in Manchester by the Sea, and Hacksaw Ridge is a reasonably well-crafted movie. In and of themselves, divorced from their social contexts, they may very well be award-worthy.
But the case of Nate Parker makes it clear that people haven’t divorced his work from the social context. Meanwhile, Affleck and Gibson’s social contexts happen to include the key facts of white and rich and well-connected, and that, apparently, carries more weight than hurt women.