Taylor Swift announced on Wednesday that her sixth studio album, coming out November 10, will be called Reputation. That got me thinking that if I were a pop star dropping a new album, the most appropriate name for it would be Procrastination. I could schedule my album for the 10th of Never.
My next thought was, “I really need to force myself to finish that post I started writing on March 3.”
So welcome to my March 3 post! It was inspired by another big star, Halle Berry, and I began it five days after the 2017 Oscars. Despite that starting point, this post isn’t pretty. I don’t normally do content warnings, but I’m so bothered by the photos here myself that it’s only fair to tell you that this post includes images of women being subjected to unwanted touching by men. If you want to avoid seeing that, click on this photo of my cute cat ASAP!
As I was starting to say, I was clicking through Getty Images on March 3, looking for funny photos of me and MrB sneaking past famous people at the Vanity Fair Oscar party we attended on February 26 (hello, Kyle MacLachlan!). I was still on the hunt when I found these photos of Halle Berry with 90-year-old film producer Arthur Cohn.
My heart started racing when I saw these pictures, because they seem to show a situation that I know all too well. Take a look at Halle forcing a smile, like we women do to protect ourselves — from everything from embarrassment to potential violence — when we’re subjected to a man’s inappropriate behavior in public. That exaggerated laugh that looks like a scream in a still photo? I know that too.
Even so, for a moment after seeing the pictures, I tried to excuse them: “Cohn’s 90, maybe he doesn’t know what he’s doing, he’s not in control.” But there’s so often a “reason” for a man to “lose control.” Look at Halle Berry’s 2003 Oscar-night experience, when actor Adrien Brody dipped and kissed Halle without her consent after she presented him with his award for best leading man, in front of tens of millions of television viewers. His reason? He was happy, maybe he didn’t know what he was doing, he wasn’t in control.Those are my words, not his! His exact words immediately following the kiss were, “I bet they didn’t tell you that was in the gift bag.”
I was at that Oscar ceremony, thrilled to be in the nosebleed seats of the theater. Seeing that kiss on the stage, from far away, I could barely register what happened. When my mind finally caught up to my eyes, my main reaction was that I’d just seen some great live television. Having worked at CNN, I always feel it’s great live television when something headline-worthy happens, as long as I can’t be blamed for it: For instance, as miserable as it was for everyone involved, this year’s La La Land/Moonlight best-picture mix-up was must-see TV.
As a bonus, Adrien Brody was a young, attractive Oscar winner. Having grown up with the notion that the iconic V-J Day Times Square kiss photo was somehow romantic, I speculated that receiving a surprise kiss from a suddenly famous actor might indeed be an exciting addition to the “gift bag.” But I figured there were big drawbacks too. What if I fell out of my dress? Or he accidentally dropped me on the floor? What if my lipstick ended up all over my face? What if MrB decided to defend my honor by punching Adrien Brody in his already distinctive nose, and was then sued for ending the actor’s career just as it took off?
Fourteen years later — 14 years of unwanted comments, visuals, hugs, and kisses (fortunately, on the cheek) later — I’m under no illusions that there’s anything desirable about an unsolicited kiss, especially one that is shared with the world and becomes an inescapable part of your biography. As recently as this month, Halle was asked about the 2003 incident, this time by TV host Andy Cohen, who wanted to know whether or not she enjoyed the kiss. She said her primary thought at the moment was, “What the fuck is happening right now?” (She previously described the kiss as “wet,” which isn’t exactly a rave review.)
When it comes to invasions of personal space, the last straw for me and — and many other women — was the Oct. 7, 2016, Washington Post scoop about a 2005 Trump recording in which he said about women that not only does he, “Just kiss. I don’t even wait,” but that he also feels free to “grab them by the pussy.” This country has overlooked meaningful presidential qualities before. We’ve elected other incompetent presidents who’ve ridden on daddy’s coattails and other racists. But one thing that previously couldn’t be tolerated in a presidential candidate was a creepy, desperate-seeming moment. No way. Looking like an asshole was something the electorate took seriously! Ask Howard Dean. In 2004 — one year before Trump was recorded talking about groping women — Dean, a Democrat, helped tank his own run by awkwardly yelling into a microphone. Those were the days, eh?
Last year, despite the uproar, Trump’s presidential run survived what he dismissed as “locker room talk.” What’s more, a mere two days after the Washington Post broke the news of the “pussy” tape, Trump epitomized a desperate creep — normally the ultimate disqualifier! — by freakishly hovering behind Hillary Clinton during the second presidential debate.
Yesterday, the Morning Joe television show aired an audio excerpt from Clinton’s new memoir that dealt with that debate. Clinton said:
“This is not OK, I thought. It was the second presidential debate, and Donald Trump was looming behind me. Two days before, the world heard him brag about groping women. Now we were on a small stage and no matter where I walked, he followed me closely, staring at me, making faces. It was incredibly uncomfortable. He was literally breathing down my neck. My skin crawled.”
Take out the words “presidential debate” and “Donald Trump,” and I swear I’ve had identical thoughts and feelings, including Clinton’s doubts about her own reaction:
“It was one of those moments where you wish you could hit pause and ask everyone watching: ‘Well, what would you do?’ Do you stay calm, keep smiling and carry on as if he weren’t repeatedly invading your space? Or do you turn, look him in the eye, and say loudly and clearly: ‘Back up, you creep, get away from me! I know you love to intimidate women, but you can’t intimidate me, so back up.'”
“I chose option A. I kept my cool, aided by a lifetime of dealing with difficult men trying to throw me off. I did, however, grip the microphone extra hard. I wonder, though, whether I should have chosen option B. It certainly would have been better TV. Maybe I have overlearned the lesson of staying calm, biting my tongue, digging my fingernails into a clenched fist, smiling all the while, determined to present a composed face to the world.”
Hell yeah, it would have been better TV, and, like I said, I appreciate great live TV no matter how cringe-inducing is. But I would never argue with Clinton’s decision, because we women learn early that appeasement is typically a safer choice than on-the-spot confrontation. Therefore, we remain stoic or we laugh it off. Clinton remained stoic. Halle Berry laughed it off. Irish reporter Caitriona Perry laughed it off this June when Trump — during a call with Ireland’s new prime minister — called Perry over to say, “We have all of this beautiful Irish press. She has a nice smile on her face so I bet she treats you well.”
My jewelry-writer friend Barbara opted for stoicism last year when she was grabbed between her legs by a man while getting her picture taken with him at a major industry trade show. It was in a busy room — that I was in! — and I spoke to Barbara minutes later and was none the wiser.
As for me, I laughed it off this April when a man I didn’t know insisted on getting into the photos that my right-hand woman Eryn was taking of me for an outfit post.
I saw this man watching us from a few yards away before he came over to me. Later, when I told a male acquaintance about the encounter, he asked me, “Did you say no?” to the photo. Indeed, I did say no, though I didn’t understand what I was refusing because when the guy asked me a question, I thought he was offering to take a picture of me and Eryn together. This sometimes happens when MrB takes a more casual outfit photo of me for the blog. People want to help us out by taking a “couples” photo, but I always smile and decline with gratitude because that’s not the kind of picture I need for a post. So I gave the guy on the street the benefit of the doubt, but I still said no without hesitation. I had no idea he’d be at my side in a matter of seconds. This was the expression on my face when I comprehended what was happening.
After the photo with him, he insisted on hugging Eryn and kissing her on the cheek, which she allowed because that’s what you do for your own safety when a man is that physically close to you. Hey, a wet, unwanted kiss is better than a punch in the face. Then Eryn and I immediately walked away, looking for a new place to take photos, even though we liked the mural in front of which I had been standing. I kept saying to Eryn, “I don’t understand. Didn’t he see we were working?” Okay, we didn’t have a crew and lighting, but my makeup was done and Eryn’s camera is more serious than a typical point-and-shoot: Passersby usually sense that something professional is going on. Lots of people — men included — have taken long, curious, not-at-all offensive looks when they’ve come upon us on the sidewalk, especially when I’m wearing a statement piece. The funniest gawker so far has been a toddler, being led by the hand, who did a triple-take followed by an over-the-shoulder backwards stare when I walked by with my big Castelbajac bell-bottom sailor pants flapping in the breeze.
It didn’t occur to me until the month after the first interloper that the work-related vibe of the photo shoot might be the very thing that tempts some men to interrupt and turn the attention to themselves. That realization came after a different man interfered with my Ossie Clark snakeskin-jacket shoot.
That’s when it hit me that this kind of unwanted participation doesn’t happen when I’m taking a quick iPhone photo. Of course, in public, with an iPhone or a point-and-shoot, there’s always a chance one will encounter a merry photobomber, either of the accidental or intentional persuasion.
And I love a good photobomb! The thing is that photobombers don’t engage you in conversation. They keep it moving because it wouldn’t be a photobomb if it wasn’t a fast, funny surprise. In contrast, during the snakeskin-jacket shoot, everything came to a halt. Eryn says:
“The guy actually put his hand around your waist and, while extremely close to your face, told you you were very beautiful. It was in gross incoming unwanted kiss zone … I stopped taking photos until he ASKED for one because he was making you and me as the onlooker also uncomfortable.”
As we posed for the requested photo, I answered his question about whether I was a movie star (yes, action-adventure genre). Then Eryn took a picture of him and his friend. After that, she and I walked away as quickly as we could (“I thought we were going to need to change locations faster,” Eryn says). We found a new spot to shoot even though — once again — we had been so pleased to find a colorful background wall. As with the purple-jacket shoot, the photos with the colorful background where we were interrupted didn’t make it into the blog post they were intended for, because we didn’t feel good about them anymore.
Anyway, getting back to Taylor Swift — remember her from my first paragraph? — she really did inspire me to get around to this long-planned, ever-growing post, but not entirely because of her album. I was more interested in her court victory this month against a photo-participating groper. In case you missed it, in 2013, Swift said that a Colorado DJ named David Mueller groped her ass as she posed for a photo with him at a meet-and-greet fan event. Two years later, Mueller took Swift to court in Denver, charging that he was fired from the radio station and unable to work in his industry because she “defamed” him.
Swift countersued Mueller for a token sum of $1 in civil court, charging assault and battery. She asked the judge to seal numerous documents and exhibits, including the photo with Mueller, but the photo wound up leaking last year. One outlet that ran it did so with text that implied that the photo showed a whole lot of nothing. (Poodle that if you want. I’m not linking to it.) The tone foreshadowed what Mueller’s lawyer, Gabriel McFarland, eventually said in court: “Is that the face of someone who’s in shock, who is upset? There’s nothing to suggest in Ms. Swift’s face that anything inappropriate is happening,” he said. However, as I hope this post has made crystal clear, women are damn well capable of smiling through a violation that takes place in front of a camera yet isn’t captured by a photo.
Swift slammed this point home in court. I was so gratified when she put the blame on Mueller, where it belonged. “I’m not going to allow you or your client to make me feel like this was my fault, because it isn’t,” she told McFarland, calling “the unfortunate events of [Mueller’s] life … a product of his decisions. Not mine.”
When the lawyer tried to dissect the photo, asking her why it didn’t show the hem of her skirt pushed up in the front, Swift retorted, “Because my ass is located on the back of my body.” Then there was the predictable “Why didn’t you say/do anything at that moment?” question, to which the singer replied that she didn’t want to ruin the event for her fans. She described herself as going on “autopilot,” and said, “… it was like a light switched off on my personality.” Yeah, girl! I know exactly what you mean.
Ultimately, the judge threw out Mueller’s defamation suit, and a jury found him guilty of sexual assault. (For more detailed coverage, check out Buzzfeed’s reporting from the trial.) Remember, this was a civil, not a criminal case, so Mueller only has to pay Swift that symbolic dollar. After, Swift issued a statement in which she thanked the judge and jury, as well as her lawyers “for fighting for me and anyone who feels silenced by a sexual assault.” She added, “I acknowledge the privilege that I benefit from in life, in society and in my ability to shoulder the enormous cost of defending myself in a trial like this. My hope is to help those whose voices should also be heard.”
We’ve all heard people say things like that before: They’re fighting for everyone, not just themselves. I confess that there have been times when I’ve been skeptical, inwardly questioning whether the greater good is any part of the motivation, and, if so, if the actions taken really do make anyone feel better. This time, I can state for the record that, yes, I do feel better, thanks to Taylor Swift. Earlier this year, I desperately wanted to write about a particular kind of unacceptable harassing behavior, but I couldn’t bear to revisit my pictures, or the Halle Berry photos, or the images of Trump attempting to physically intimidate a better-qualified presidential rival. When the Swift verdict came down, I thought, “Finally! I can do this now that there’s some good news.” I couldn’t deal with 100% misery; a positive outcome for a single woman means the world to me.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’m going to say that this isn’t changing me into an all-around Taylor Swift fan. MrB will remain alone in that enthusiasm. But the way I feel about Swift’s testimony is the same way I feel about the 1980s AIDS activism of Madonna and Princess Diana — there are some good deeds whose shine can never tarnish in my eyes. I will forever give Taylor Swift credit for saying what I haven’t been able to say myself.
Oh Wendy. This is such a compelling, aggravating, bitter, and beautiful piece. My whole life, I’ve been painfully aware of the fact that my appearance generally protects me from lechery and catcalls. I mean, most of the time I’m dressed in men’s jeans or shorts and a men’s shirt (men’s clothes are easy to buy without having to try on!). So many times, I’m grateful I’m not a beautiful woman and I don’t have to deal with this bullshit. But I’ve still gotten the catcalls occasionally when assholes figure out there are 40-Ds under the shirt. It’s still so gross and makes me so angry and uncomfortable. I can’t even imagine what I’d do in your place during these incidents you’ve described, where they just assume they can grope you and invade your space. It makes my stomach lurch just reading and thinking about these things happening to you and to all women.
Thank you so much for sharing this perspective! <3
Calla Gold says
I love the pictures and your parsing of how we women deal in public with inappropriate touching. Taylor Swift has done a very good thing here keeping the attention on what he did to her. It was unwanted touch and his casual assumption that he could cop a feel because she was there is the kind of attitude that needs to change and change fast.
If I got to take picture of some hot actor who I admire for his physical beauty, I wouldn’t take the proximity as licence to grab his ass. Because I’m a woman and I was raised to keep inappropriate thoughts in my head where they belong. Many women raised as I was wonder how a man thinks this type of ‘do what I feel like’ behavior can be assumed.
I didn’t raise my son to feel he has the privilege to grab ass because it’s near.
I wonder what this DJ’s mother thought when she found out what her son did, and how he tried to whine about being a victim and to get out of his guilt by blaming Taylor for calmly showing a fake smile for her fans.
What, if we don’t scream and cry and melt down clearly we are not damaged?
NO. We women are strong. We have to be, to dodge the inappropriate speech and touches and creepy affection of family members. Unfortunately too many of us have been polite and fake faced when put in uncomfortable positions.
This is no excuse for a man to be inappropriate with our bodies. Thank you for knocking off the procrastination and writing this!
This, exactly: “Because I’m a woman and I was raised to keep inappropriate thoughts in my head where they belong.”
Men feel it’s a-okay to act out their inappropriate thoughts on the street.
Thanks for raising your son right!
Why dont you wonder what his father thinks about his actions?
Sounds very much like you are putting the blame on his mom
Well, his father probably wouldn’t have experience being molested, would he? It’s the mother who would have personal experience with sexual harassment, and would then see her son do it to someone else.
Based on this DJ’s behavior, I’d say it’s obvious that the father was no gentleman. But then, even some very nice men breeze through life completely oblivious to what women go through.
Yes! This. I usually come here for jewelry eye candy but I really appreciate the thoughtful, well documented political stuff.
My guess is you’re not alone in feeling safer now. Just as we weren’t alone in feeling the hairs rise on our arms when Donald stalked Hillary:(
I want to get together a bunch of women and have them just follow Trump around, way too close, for like a month.
Peggy Jo Donahue says
Incredible reading, Wendy, and it enrages me as much as reading about Swift’s trial did. The combination of images and stories you posted here really made me think – all the years I spent awkwardly trying to “complete” unwanted hugs sideways because I knew men in the industry just wanted to press into my chest. This assault on our physical beings is truly disgusting. My comfort is this: during my nubile years, I had so many respectful men in my life – MOST of them, really (after all, it WAS the Alan Alda era!). My biggest regret was spending too many years trying to make my chest concave by bowing my body, so men wouldn’t look at me. What a waste of the perfectly beautiful body I had. Thanks for writing this. XOXO
I smiled at the “Alan Alda” era– I miss that!!!
Very thought-provoking post Wendy. Thank you…
Thanks for reading!
This was so painful. Not just because of the truth and the AWFUL AWFUL photos. But because of the pain of all the times I never said anything. I specifically think of two deeply unwanted back rubs I received. You can get up and get away as fast as you want but you still gotta work there. Because you need the money and that dude isn’t going away no matter what you say. UGH. PAINFUL. Thank you for writing this. I’m especially pained and disturbed for your jewelry colleague who was grabbed Trump style. I read her account whenever it was you must have first linked to it. I can’t ever forget it. You and Eryn be careful out there. Ok, so finally I will agree that Taylor should have just made a song called “Ass is on the BACK”. But her testimony is forever gold.
I just physically shuddered remembering one of my unwanted at-work back rubs.
I’ve got to quote your Taylor song title in the post I’m working on now!