On Saturday, March 24, I went to an event at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights called “Acting Out: Women’s Rights and the #MeToo Movement with Mira Sorvino.”
For those who’ve never been to the Center, it’s a fairly new addition to the skyline. Opened in 2014, it’s housed in an oddly shaped building perched on the edge of Centennial Park. It shares grounds and a parking deck with World of Coca-Cola and the Georgia Aquarium.
It’s a museum, mostly commemorating the civil rights era of the 1960s, but its mission includes paying attention and homage to later struggles by other disadvantaged people.
I went to the Center for a Lambda Legal event a year or two ago. I had the pleasure of meeting Gene Robinson, the famous gay Episcopal bishop. It was quite a night. It’s inspiring to visit a place with so much memorabilia and information relating to that necessary era in U.S. history.
This event was a panel discussion, one on one, between Mira Sorvino and Dr. Alix Chapman, a Women and Gender Studies professor at Spelman College. I decided to attend because I hadn’t been following the ongoing #MeToo story or the Harvey Weinstein story very closely, and I felt a little guilty about that. But also, Mira Sorvino has been one of my favorite actresses for a couple of decades now.
This talk was after hours, so the main part of the museum was closed. The first floor of the Center, which is below the level of the Park and the main entrance, was the only part that was open.
Attendance was free, but attendees were encouraged to sign up ahead of time, and I had done so via Facebook. When my name was crossed off the list, I was given a red wristband, which someone helped me affix to my right wrist. I think some of the wristbands may have been yellow. I don’t know what either wristband signified; there was an open bar in the lobby, but nobody asked to see my ID and no one looked to be too young to drink.
In the lead-up to the evening on the Facebook page for the talk, I saw that some attendees were disappointed that this event would be held on the same day, and therefore conflict with, the “March For Our Lives” protests against gun violence, sparked and led by survivors
of the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School, that were taking place all over the country. Others were frustrated that Tarana Burke, the founder of the #MeToo movement, wouldn’t be in attendance.
As to the first concern, the organizers of this event responded that it was planned many weeks ago, long before the grassroots gun control marches were conceived, and possibly even before the Parkland shootings happened. Everyone’s at the mercy of the unforeseen sometimes; I would hope no one would fault the organizers for being unable to predict the future.
As to the second complaint, Tarana Burke had commitments elsewhere this past weekend. I have no doubt she’s in high demand in recent days, and no one has yet mastered the art of being in two places at once. It’s a pity that anyone would think having Mira Sorvino come talk was not a good enough “get.” Her bona fides on this issue, as one of the objects of Harvey Weinstein’s unwanted attentions, are as solid as anyone’s.
The talk took place in a room that looks like it’s designed for just such occasions. There was seating for around three hundred people, and from where I sat, I think there were maybe two hundred fifty. It was well attended, but not standing room only.
Dr. Chapman and Ms. Sorvino talked for about an hour and a half. You can see the whole thing here, if you’d like.
They began by discussing details of her life, both in and out of Hollywood, then moving on to discuss her connection to the Weinstein scandals and the #MeToo movement, and how she thinks they have affected her career.
She’s quite an accomplished woman. She attended Harvard in the 1980s and received a degree in Asian languages and culture, then did post-graduate studies in mainland China. She saw racism in China of a sort that might be puzzling to an outsider; for example, there was a prejudice against Africans in China that didn’t extend to African-Americans. They seemed to love all Americans, black and otherwise.
After Sorvino’s time in Asia, she returned to the United States and became an actress. She won her Oscar early in her career; according to the IMDB, she had only been acting for about four years when she made Mighty Aphrodite.
After Mighty Aphrodite, Mira made a couple of films for Miramax, which at the time was Harvey
Weinstein’s company. She had two unpleasant casting-couch sorts of encounters with him, which have been well reported as part of the #MeToo narrative. She had a third which she has not previously made public, but which she shared with Dr. Chapman and the audience.
Ms. Sorvino skillfully generalized from the current moment to talk about all discrimination, at all times, and everywhere, and about the importance of Dr. King and the civil rights era in beginning the process to make America a better place for all of its citizens and residents.
She discussed how pervasive and taken for granted the “casting couch” and the commodification of women is in popular culture. She cited several movies of the recent past in which these attitudes are presented as so normative and ordinary that they don’t even impact on our memories of them; for example:
- In the John Hughes movie, Sixteen Candles, Anthony Michael Hall’s character is implied to have had sex with a girl with the consent of her jock boyfriend, while she’s passed-out drunk and cannot consent.
- In Revenge of the Nerds, one of the “nerd” college students (who were presented as the heroes of the movie) has sex with a girl while dressed in the college’s mascot costume, so she thinks he’s her boyfriend, who usually wore the costume.
- She mentioned the scene in Animal House where a young woman, as a result of a complicated Rube Goldbergian gag, is hurled through the window of a house and into the bed of a pubescent boy. “Thank you, God!” the boy exclaims. There are many other problematic moments in that movie.
While she was talking, I thought to myself about the old expression, “wine, women, and song,” used to describe the lifestyles of people who’ve reached a certain level of wealth or leisure. The expression takes it for granted that the high-achiever is a straight male, and then women—half the human race—are utterly commodified, reduced to the same level as distilled spirits and music.
Mira Sorvino said she was blacklisted for spurning Harvey’s advances, but she didn’t know it for a long time. She hasn’t attained the career success one might expect an Oscar winner to have; most of her later career has been in low-budget, low-wattage movies that had a modest box office take or went straight to home video.
For a long time she attributed mundane reasons
to her career fizzle—she figured that she wasn’t pretty enough, or didn’t have enough luck, or that some other arbitrary reason was the cause. But it’s easy enough to see how it really went down by returning to the IMDB. After her salad days in soap operas and guest roles on primetime shows, there’s a long string of blockbusters and prestige pictures in the middle to late 1990s. Then after around the year 2000, she’s mostly making movies that very few of us have ever heard of, and/or that sank without a trace at the box office (if they were even released cinematically).
After she spoke, the event was thrown open to questions from the audience. I don’t think anyone asked live questions with a microphone; all were encouraged to tweet their questions to the Center’s Twitter handle using the hashtag “#ActingOutCCHR.”
Since Ronan Farrow has been so involved in the #MeToo movement, and since Mira won her Oscar for a role in a Woody Allen movie, I was a little surprised nobody asked her to talk about that. But I guess no one wanted to make her feel uncomfortable.
It looks like the #MeToo movement has legs, to coin a phrase, and that sexual harassers and rapists are finally going to be called to account, and real change will take place in the world.
But it’s still an early moment in this new paradigm. Maybe it won’t last. I’d like to think it will, but I’ve been around a while, and I’ve learned to be cynical. Time will tell.
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