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This article was written on 25 Sep 2018, and is filled under Actualities, Film & TV, Media, Sexualities.

#Me Too at the Movies: Précis

And no more turn aside and brood

Upon love’s bitter mystery

William Butler Yeats

One of the surprising, but in the end most consequential casualties of the #MeToo movement may well be secrecy itself. Secrecy as the code of discretion and privacy under whose cloak sexual transactions take place. Silence as the prophylactic under which the business of the sex-drive, consensual or not, gets conducted, whatever the setting.

We are only too familiar with the “manifest” sociological justifications for the deeply entrenched conventions of sexual discretion: avoidance of conflict and recrimination fueled by jealousy; protecting the partners’ offspring, assuring children’s social recognition and tangible support, whatever the circumstances of their procreation; shielding them from ostracism, shame, and abuse; indemnifying the sexual partners’ ongoing affiliation to their respective social milieus. There are indeed strong elements of a characteristic delicacy and discretion with which “sex positive” individuals, of whatever ”persuasion,” conduct their affairs. #MeToo, though, has chosen to engage, in an intervention with decisive long-term consequences, at the point where the very same code of silence, both in its latent and long-term impact, ends up reinforcing aggravated sexual aggression by affording it an open horizon. This is the locus of the entrenched perpetrator’s sexual phantasmagoria, the imaginary Sirens in the hands of whose fetching song he is but jello. The code, and its legal tool, the “confidentiality agreement,” ends up sustaining the vulnerability and susceptibility of such aggression’s targets and victims.

As galvanizing and “viral” a media phenomenon as #MeToo has been, its upshot is simply far more deep-seated, systematic, far-reaching, and enduring than that alone. What convened the movement has been an unbroken sequence of highly publicized sexual abuses of power going back (here simply in the interest of narrative focus) to the Presidency of William Jefferson Clinton. But also encompassing, among the very most blatant and compelling, the pervasive atmosphere of sexual exploitation at Fox News, Bill Cosby’s chemically enabled acts of “living necrophilia”; and Matt Lauer’s reported “no exit” lair for his conquests—all somewhat paling before the scale and intensity of Harvey Weinstein’s predatory rampage.  To this pervasive atmosphere of sexual entitlement, exploitation, and competitive flaunting on the part of the putatively unassailable, #MeToo has responded in the dual roles of an archivist and a public transcript. The simple act of tabulating the victims of the major perpetrators and their multiple, cumulative performances of sexual coercion has had the effect of transforming a pervasive–but vague as dissipated over time–climate of inappropriate sexual aggression into a ledger of traumatic acts and hard facts.

Seemingly an impromptu social happening, #MeToo has in a reasoned way recalibrated dominant sexual contracts prevalent in the West at least since the late-Medieval “Courts of Love” and no doubt far earlier.

The man who wants to keep his love affair for a long time untroubled should above all things be careful not to let it be known to any outsider, but should keep it hidden from everybody; because when a number of people begin to get wind of such an affair, it ceases to develop naturally and even loses what progress it has already made. Furthermore, a lover ought to appear to his beloved wise in every respect and restrained in his conduct, and he should do nothing disagreeable that might annoy her. Moreover, every man is bound, in time of need, to come to the aid of his beloved, both by sympathizing with her in all her troubles and by acceding to all her reasonable desires. . . . And every man ought to be sparing of praise of his beloved when he is among other men; he should not talk about her often or at great length, and he should not spend a great deal of time where she is. When he is with other men, if he meets her in a group of women, he should not try to communicate with her by signs, but should treat her almost like a stranger, lest some person spying on their love have opportunity to spread malicious gossip. Lovers should not even nod to each other. . . . (Andreas Capellanus, The Art of Courtly Love. New York: Columbia UP, 1960, 151-2)

Striking in the above canonical instruction in the ways of sexual discretion is the (male) lover’s assumption of near-total agency within the love-relationship. Blackout is the basic, indispensable informational condition for the conduct of any and all offshore sexual commerce. The primary “sweetener” thrown into this rather austere protocol is a feigned accession to female will; strategic complicity in the fullest consummation that life offers is the ennobling preoccupation with the female beloved’s overall well-being—implemented with chivalric flair: “Even if he knows sometimes that what she wants is not so reasonable, he should be prepared to agree to it after he has asked her to reconsider” (Capellanus, Art of Courtly Love, 151).

#MeToo has shown the audacity to treat sexual behavior and intercourse less as a private act, profoundly interwoven with metaphysical constructs of personal essence, identity, and freedom and with the connubial right to active (public) sexuality and the composite (family) identity that monogamous marriage confers. Sexual behavior, under the purview of the archive founded and stewarded by #Me Too, becomes far more a public act—irrespective of whatever salacious conditions may surround it—with irreducibly political implications. In effect our politics, in the modified protocols socially inaugurated by #MeToo, begins with our conduct of sexual transaction. This radical transvaluation of values may seem itself traumatic and overly abrupt for the majority of us who thrive amid only the most gradated modulations of socio-cultural change. But confronting gridlock in a sex-system affording predation and its obfuscation an irremediable foothold in the workplace, #MeToo made the following choice: so entrenched and toxic was this atmosphere; so egregious the techniques of sexual violence and the legal evasion of their consequences that the price of change would be worth the collateral metaphysical damage: to deep-wired codes of secrecy and presumptions of sexual essentiality, individual uniqueness, freedom, and privacy—the “planks” serving as the coercion’s enabling legislation. Indeed, the virtually impenetrable metaphysical overlay both defining Western marriage and the climate surrounding its defilement, evasion, and illusory “escape” willy-nilly makes the adaptation effected by #MeToo a compelling instance of deconstruction in action, “the deconstruction of everyday life.” It will be a long time, at least from the perspective of this observer, before a new radical transformation of conventional idées reçues of this magnitude lumbers down the turnpike.

It is crucial that our culture begin to deliberate whether the climate of sexual coercion, abuse, and violence into which #MeToo intervenes is more the symptom of sexual repression, in keeping with how this phenomenon was adumbrated by Freud; alternately, of a pervasive atmosphere of immoderate license and indulgence—or, perhaps, of both. It is clear to this reviewer that in the wake of the tabulation, publicizing, and politicization of the sexual act—and surely #MeToo is not the only arbiter of these trends—the public at large will need to divest no small measure of its sanctity and squeamishness with respect to the conventions of connubial behavior: particularly as invested in the bonds of marriage. Implicitly, then, #MeToo brings us closer, in the public sphere, to the extremely diverse and disorderly, not necessarily edifying, and in some instances outright raunchy spectrum of sexual inclinations and behaviors for which Freud, the impresario of modern sexuality, already made accommodation in his 1905 Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (rev. 1924). Above all, for Freud, in the expression and fulfillment of the “sexual aim,” there is no firewall, distinction, or separation between some hypothetical widely sanctioned “all-American” (if not “all good”) sexuality and its manifestly perverse and not so secret sharer. The most elementary, everyday, “standard issue” sexuality is already a free-for-all in which aesthetic exaltation and disgust merge indistinguishably:

But even in the most normal sexual process we may detect rudiments which, if they had developed, would have led to the deviations described as “perversions.” For there are certain intermediate relations to the sexual object, such as touching and looking at it, which lie on the road towards copulation and are recognized as being preliminary sexual aims. On the one hand these activities are themselves accompanied by pleasure, and on the other hand they intensify the excitation. . . . Moreover the kiss, one particular contact of this kind, between the mucous membrane of the lips of the two people concerned, is held in high esteem among the nations (including the most highly civilized ones), in spite of the fact that the parts of the body to not form part of the sexual apparatus but constitute the entrance to the digestive tract. Here, then, are factors which provide a point of contact between the perversions and normal sexual life and can serve as a basis for their classification. (Sigmund Freud, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, trans. James Strachey. New York: Basic Books, 2000, 15-6)

Erogenous zone after erogenous zone, as Freud goes on to fill out his polymorphously perverse inventory of standard sexuality for a new century, offers its own unique cocktail combining erotic elevation with a laxity often intertwined with debasement.

Untidy as the urgings of the modern sex-drive may be, a vast and growing literature of sex-abuse cases, deliberated in the courts, on campus, and in the governing bodies of organized religion, has shed crucial light on the at times obscure boundaries separating consensual behavior from sexual miscommunication (or sexual acts gone wrong) and illegal acts of violence and coercion. With this harrowing body of deliberations as precedent, in which sexual abuse victims have often doubled as the scapegoats of deliberative processes, we may need to become a bit more inured when what Freud might term “the sexual transgressions of everyday life,” show up at our doorstep—among family members or people with whom we are familiar. In the course of untold abuse and suffering, the threshold between mischief and transgression in the sexual sphere has become somewhat clearer and more operational. If criminal, even in a surround of increasing legal conservatism, such abuses can hopefully now be expedited with far greater decisiveness, legal clarity, dispatch, and sympathy than before #MeToo and the conditions that galvanized it. And surely the playful zone of consensual transgression, what amounts to shared sexual mischief, the stuff of the Freudian drive’s involuted, zigzag, on-again/off-again, and unpredictable digressions, continues unabated. Indeed, in a context where face-to-face (i.e. analog) encounters and dating have been supplemented by digital capability, assuming it is deployed wisely, the volition and security of sexually active people has only increased.

Is a culture of rape the figment of sexual repression, as set out by Freud among others, or of self-indulgent license? Flagrant as unbridled sexual aggression clearly is, I’d have to give the nod to the Old Master and the complex dialectics of the drive at the outset of psychoanalysis. While no slack can be extended to the incels, who spin their non-access to fulfilling sex into warranted aggression against their potential partners, the misrecognition of sexuality, the a priori application of unbending taboos and restrictions to intimacy does more to spawn sexual violence than the explicit public acknowledgment and delimitation of sexual possibility–and some of its less common variations. The decisive role played by drugs and alcohol in so many cases of sexual harassment that colleges, universities, and other institutions are left to adjudicate testifies to the alienation and incomprehension prevailing between today’s hard-pressed students, at undergraduate and advanced levels, and the complex “vicissitudes” of the drive.

As we confront a global crisis in ethics and morality itself exacerbated in all camps by apocalyptic scenarios of resource shortage, environmental despoilment, and devastating stress faced by what were considered the fundamental perquisites of civilized society, we are in #MeToo’s particular and ongoing debt. In the increasingly visible and explicit domain of sexual politics, #MeToo has set limits on what was never tenable; for having deployed the social and technological means available in the political realization of what a vast and distinguished body of feminist film criticism has discerned for more than two generations. As feminist film criticism has taught and exemplified, there is an ethics of seeing embedded in cinema’s profound empathic appeal, even in its technological conditions of verisimilitude and representability. Even as these techniques and criteria have evolved throughout cinema’s long and fabled run, the medium has exploited its inherent affinities to “intrapsychic” process—dreams, daydreams, and fantasies—in furnishing a vast and frank transcript–with “editing out” at most a belated and futile option. Cinema, in other words, has long held a rapt camera-eye on the predicaments in which #MeToo decisively intervenes. A deep, inherent elective affinity prevails: between the medium, in all its varieties and mutations, and the political movement.

In the wake of #MeToo’s complex intervention, as a growing list of contemporary films makes clear, it will be possible to throw the male position in sharper focus: the position that performs the bulk of the abuse and crime; the position traditionally disproportionately laden with the perpetuation (and therefore also the violation) of sexual metaphysics. A spate of contemporary films highlighting the male role in a surround of presumed sexual liberation consolidates the sensibility receiving a critical update from #MeToo. Cinema persists, at the present juncture, in opening a zone of deliberation in which people recalibrate sexual possibility and meaning as they wake up from a Joycean historical nightmare—one where, whether in the role of participant, victim, or bystander, they were party to excess.

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