A strange thing happened to me here in the Bagel last week. Having read the recent review of a biography of Susan Sontag in these here pages, my plan was to compare her with another feminist, Simone de Beauvoir (I have just finished an opus about Beauvoir, Paris and the Left Bank après la guerre).
My money was on Simone, an extremely promiscuous and beautiful woman who was the first to raise the feminine flag against men’s oppression of the fairer sex. Beauvoir’s Second Sex, published in 1949, made her lots and lots of enemies, but it also established her as the number one female icon of the time. Her argument was that men confined women to the role of the other while they remained the subject. When the book came out, there was hell to pay. The great François Mauriac wrote a note to a younger male friend of Simone saying: ‘I now know everything there is to know about your boss’s vagina.’ Simone had gone into great detail about the two ways in which a woman can reach climax, via the clitoris or the vagina. Many deemed the book obscene, but it sold like hot cakes.
I thought that Susan Sontag had nothing on Simone. My problem with Sontag was that I didn’t like her three gods: success, money and fame. But then Jimmy Toback, who knew her intimately, came for dinner and changed my mind. Sontag viewed morality, personality — reality itself — as tenuous and perpetually fluctuating approximations. She decreed that morality is just a form of acting, another soundbite that sounds hollow after a minute’s thought.
So it turns out that I had Susan all wrong and that she was not the ogre I had made her out to be in my mind. The thing that I really regret, though, is not having met Simone on a Parisian night when she was out hunting.
What, I wonder, would the French existentialist have made of the present — a time when women everywhere are demanding their due and taking the lead. But are they? Will guilt by accusation stand up for as long as innocent until proved guilty has? Men, and some women, are saying that this cannot go on. Guilt by accusation, that is. I’m not so sure. The media folded long ago, and rags such as the New York Times aid and abet a charge, however wild and inaccurate it is, as long as it’s a woman making it.
Outraged feminists are using men’s unacceptable past behaviour in order to achieve equality in the workplace and at home. So far so good. But not all men are Harvey Weinsteins, and I am obliged to defend some rather unpopular men against what appear to be flimsy or false allegations of sexual abuse.
The French, needless to say, have always treated the fairer sex with gallantry and the beautiful Catherine Deneuve was among the first to call for a halt to excessive hatred of men. A couple of weeks ago, a French court ordered a female journalist, Sandra Muller, to pay €15,000 in damages to French TV executive Eric Brion, ruling that she had ‘surpassed the acceptable limits of freedom of expression, as her comments descended into a personal attack’.
La Muller had exposed Brion as a pig on social media. He was a pig because, she tweeted, the first time he met her he said she had big breasts and that she was his type. Brion was hardly a gentleman, but did his approach amount to harassment or verbal rape? Hardly, says the Solomon-like judge Taki. In America he would have been given a couple of years, but the French were wiser. Women in the land of cheese claim the #MeToo movement has created a totalitarian climate by publicly prosecuting private experiences. As the non-gentlemanly Brion said: ‘You can’t destroy a man’s life just because one evening he spoke to you inappropriately without going any further.’
Well, you can do precisely that in America and in Britain. In those two countries, men are accused of being part of a rape culture merely for being men. Books written by both sexes, and of course ghastly Hollywood, are not helping. Excavations by writers into the history of manhood and its propensity for violence are a dime a dozen. Tiny women now beat up enormously large men in movies and on TV, while bookstores are full of unread examinations of masculinity, race and sexuality in which men confess to horrors. The self-recriminations are for profit — what else? — but they’re also a safety valve.
What I miss most, of course, are American girls the way they used to be: bright, clever, sweet, full of energy, resourceful, blonde, beautiful and with perfect teeth at a time when few people flossed. But that was long ago. Now we have screeching, high-pitched voices, hard looks, and ugliness à la Harvey Weinstein, God rest his soul.
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