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Sexual harassment in the movies: When ‘no’ meant ‘maybe’

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Movies like “Gone With the Wind” have reinforced the idea in generations of men that they can force women to do what they want. (Courtesy Selznick International Pictures/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

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Years ago, Hollywood re-released “Gone With the Wind,” an epic movie set against the backdrop of the Civil War. My mother remembered it fondly as a great romance she had loved watching as a young woman, with charismatic actors Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable playing the star-crossed lovers. It is considered one of the best movies ever made.

Personally, I prefer science fiction and action movies. But I can enjoy a well-made, well-acted romance, and, given its reputation, I expected to enjoy “Gone With the Wind” when I went to see it with my mother.

I hated it. I was bored, didn’t like any of the characters and really only enjoyed the scenes of the burning of Atlanta (the action parts).

But mostly I hated one particular scene. A drunk Rhett Butler (Gable) angrily confronts his estranged wife Scarlett O’Hara (Leigh). He refuses to take “no” for an answer and carries her up to the bedroom, while she struggles to get away from him. The next morning, we see a deliriously happy Scarlett.

Essentially, Rhett raped Scarlett. She clearly says no, but he goes ahead anyway. Not only was the scene portrayed as “romantic,” but Scarlett was also depicted as happy after it was over. I was appalled.

Decades later, I remember talking with a friend about this scene. My friend, a long-time feminist and movie-lover, had always considered the scene to be a romantic encounter — anger turning to passion — between the two characters. But after I told her the way I saw it, she had to admit the scene did indeed show a rape.

Too often, movies have shown a man move in to kiss a woman while she resists, saying “no” and trying to push him away. Then, after being kissed (against her will), she gives in to the “passion” and becomes a willing participant. The movies have, unfortunately, taught generations of men that when a woman says “no,” she may really mean “maybe.”

And some of those men ended up in powerful positions, where they felt they could force women to do what they wanted. And some of them continued to make movies with scenes, like the one in “Gone With the Wind,” that perpetuated the false — but enabling for harassers — idea that “no” sometimes means “maybe.”

The current spotlight on sexual harassment in the workplace began with newspaper reports of accusations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. On “The Daily Show” recently, host Trevor Noah asked Jodi Kantor, one of the New York Times reporters who broke the Weinstein story, why the story had blown up, leading to so many firings and resignations.

Kantor responded, “[T]his was the rare sexual harassment story in which the accusers were actually more famous and had more cultural capital than the accused.” The public felt they knew these women from seeing them on the big screen and were, therefore, more sympathetic to their allegations.

Indeed, it is sad that it took famous actresses talking about their harassment to bring this issue to the forefront of public discussion, while women who work low-paying jobs have faced harassment for decades while few people seemed to care. But at least people are now finally talking about it, and harassers are facing consequences for their actions.

At last week’s Golden Globes awards show, nearly every female star wore a black gown in a show of support for efforts to push back against sexual harassment and assault. The fashion statement was promoted by Time’s Up, a new anti-sexual-harassment initiative, backed by Hollywood A-list actresses and working-class groups fighting for safer, more equitable workplaces.

Putting its money where its mouth is, Time’s Up has raised more than $16 million for a legal fund that will help women in low-paying jobs throughout the country fight workplace sexual harassment and violence.

But Hollywood also needs to take a serious look at the way its movies portray interactions between men and women, especially “romantic” interactions. We should never again see a scene like the one in “Gone With the Wind,” in which rape is portrayed as somehow “romantic.” When a woman says “no,” she means “no.” And that should be the end of the story.

Sally Stephens is an animal, park and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area.

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