This week’s arrest of Roman Polanski felt weirdly unsurprising. It fit somehow with all the flashbacks to 1969 the media’s treated us to this year — as that TIME cover put it, “From the Moon to Charles Manson.” What will the 1970’s reminiscences be like, one wondered? Maybe like this.
But who really remembers 1977? And what does anyone really remember about Polanski’s arrest?
I actually remember that time pretty vividly. I was fifteen years old, and in some circles at my high school, relationships with older men were all the rage. They meant we were cool, outre, too daring for dating. (Not for me, mind you, though I still hoped to grow into it.) When the tabloids shrieked about Polanski’s statutory-rape conviction, I even blithely wrote an op-ed in my high school journalism class about how such “relationships” shouldn’t be illegal, even if the girl in question was 13 years old.
Of course, like most opinion writers then and now, I didn’t know what the hell I was talking about. I certainly didn’t know that the girl had told a grand jury that she was given Quaaludes and then raped, that she’d said no and asked to go home, that Polanski pled guilty to a lesser charge and then fled before final sentencing.
My main excuse now for my blitheness then is that I was fifteen, and that it didn’t last long. I’ve never been able to see a Polanski film. and cringed every time he won another award. Knowing the traumatic facts of his life, from the Holocaust to the Manson murders, plays differently with me: it can explain, perhaps, but it’s the opposite of an excuse.
This week, I was floored as news reports kept saying that Polanski had been arrested “for sex with an underage girl,” without explaining what had happened; at the sudden movement to “Free Polanski,” giving the perp what Slate’s Elizabeth Wurtzel calls “a genius exception for rape.” Even Whoopi Goldberg made my old mistake: “Things are different in Europe,” she said, and besides “It’s not rape-rape.”
I have no doubt that Goldberg has since been shown the grand jury testimony, but what’s her excuse for talking before she’d done the research? It’s on TheSmokingGun.com, for godsake.
Or she could have paid attention to Kate Harding on Salon.com’s Broadsheet column. In “Reminder: Roman Polanski raped a child,”
Harding observes that
Everyone makes a bigger deal of her age than her testimony that she did not consent, because if she’d been 18 and kept saying no while he kissed her, licked her, screwed her and sodomized her, this would almost certainly be a whole different story — most likely one about her past sexual experiences and drug and alcohol use, about her desire to be famous, about what she was wearing, about how easy it would be for Roman Polanski to get consensual sex, so hey, why would he need to rape anyone? It would quite possibly be a story about a wealthy and famous director who pled not guilty to sexual assault, was acquitted on “she wanted it” grounds, and continued to live and work happily in the U.S. Which is to say that 30 years on, it would not be a story at all. So it’s much safer to focus on the victim’s age removing any legal question of consent than to get tied up in that thorny “he said, she said” stuff about her begging Polanski to stop and being terrified of him.
Second, Polanski was “demonized by the press” because he raped a child, and was convicted because he pled guilty. He “feared heavy sentencing” because drugging and raping a child is generally frowned upon by the legal system. [Who] really wants us to pity him because of these things?
Harding’s piece, now justly famous, reflects an awareness of the change that’s evolved since those loosey-groovy 1970s. The years exemplified by Warren Beatty’s 1975 film Shampoo, when for some people protest was replaced by Primal Scream therapy, and when those who resisted sexual harassment were chided for being “uptight.” Harding, like many of us, knows that our culture is still confused about sex and young girls — but that fewer and fewer Americans are willing to give someone like Polanski a free pass.
That’s why Lisa Bloom, whose mom is iconic feminist lawyer Gloria Allred, describes the state of the case in such stark terms:
The latest: Polanski has hired lawyers who are close to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. They’ve appealed to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to try to stop his extradition to the United States, saying that the 76-year-old man has “suffered enough.” It’ll be interesting to see what happens. Personally, I hope Clinton says no, if only to signal yet again that the smooth cruel guys no longer run the show around here.