We need to talk about Casey Affleck.
The actor, 41, just took home Best Actor in a Leading Role, the most prestigious award an actor can win, at the 89th Academy Awards Sunday. He’s taken award season by storm, with his performance in “Manchester by the Sea” earning him a BAFTA, Golden Globe, and Critic’s Choice Award. In fact, the only big award Affleck didn’t win this year was the Screen Actors Guild award for Best Actor, which went to Denzel Washington for “Fences.”
Affleck’s performance in “Manchester by the Sea,” which follows the story of a man who becomes the guardian of his nephew after his brother’s death, is, admittedly, striking. So striking, it would seem, that the allegations of sexual harassment against him did little –– nothing, actually –– to slow his career’s momentum, which culminated in winning the Oscar Sunday (Brie Larson, who presented the award and won an Oscar last year for “Room,” in which she portrayed a victim of rape, refused to clap for Affleck after handing him the award.)
Two women who worked on “I’m Still Here,” the mockumentary Affleck created with Joaquin Phoenix, filed lawsuits in 2010 accusing Affleck of harassment. Court documents detail their claims against him, which are troubling at best, criminal at worst, and absolutely disgusting no matter what. According to the lawsuit, Affleck talked at length about his sexual exploits while working with the two women, made repeated advances on them, forced a friend and fellow crew member to expose his genitals to one of them despite her repeated protests, used physical force to attempt to intimate one of them to stay in his hotel room, and crawled into bed with one of them while she was sleeping, putting his hands on her body in “an unwanted sexual advance.”
Affleck denied the claims and threatened to countersue, though Mashable reports the cases were settled out of court to the “satisfaction of both parties.”
Let’s be clear here: The accusations against Affleck were never brought before a criminal court. He was not, and will likely never be, convicted of sexual misconduct.
That doesn’t mean we can ignore it. It doesn’t mean we can pretend it didn’t happen, just because the accused happens to be a good actor, or because he didn’t have to serve jail time. If we let this slide without talking about it, we normalize abusive behavior and continue to send the message that, hey, don’t worry, harassing and assaulting women isn’t actually that bad.
Let’s talk about harassment “not actually being that bad,” for a second, because it’s an argument I’ve actually heard used to defend Affleck.
Can we dispel the myth that women would lie about assault in order to ruin a man’s career or advance their own?
In the lawsuit, Affleck’s misconduct is labeled as “harassment” instead of “assault.” The people (all of whom, funnily enough, are men) I’ve heard come to Affleck’s defense are quick to point out this distinction. Well, excuse me, if I woke up with a man in my bed I did not invite there, touching me in an “unwanted sexual advance,” you can sure as hell bet I would categorize that as assault. Perhaps people shrug off the word “harassment,” because to them, it doesn’t actually sound that bad. It might even be all in good fun, like whistling at a woman on the sidewalk. (Which you also should never, ever do. Just don’t.) People seem to be justifying Affleck’s behavior because it wasn’t categorized as a violent crime, which baffles me. If anything on that long, long list of accusations happened to any woman I know, I’m certain it would feel pretty damn violent to her.
Powerful men have managed to get away with harassing women beneath them on the proverbial totem pole for as long as there have been proverbial totem poles. It’s happening right now, as we speak, at companies like Uber and Tesla. The problem is so pervasive it even shows up in TV show plotlines: In this week’s too-timely-for-comfort episode of “Girls,” Lena Dunham’s character Hannah is invited to the apartment of the rich and successful “troubled memoirist” Chuck Palmer, played by Matthew Rhys, after she wrote an article online condemning him for sexually exploiting his fans.
Hannah arrives at the apartment well aware of the type of man she is about to interact with, but her guard weakens as Chuck begins to lather her with compliments, all while layering in tidbits about his life to make him seem human and well-intentioned.
“I’m not perfect, but I’m not saying I’m perfect,” Chuck tells Hannah. This is a man who’s been accused of forcing blowjobs of college girls, but it took mere minutes for Hannah to begin seeing him as “complicated” and “misunderstood” instead of a sexually-deviant scumbag. That is the society we live in: A society in which men can do just about anything and get away with it, as long as they’re successful, artistic, and “flawed.” It’s an umbrella excuse, under which Affleck, too, is taking shelter. His performance was too good, they say, for a silly old harassment allegation to get in the way.
Affleck’s other defense is one that is used so often for people accused of sexual misconduct: That his accusers are simply lying to ruin Affleck’s career. After all, Affleck vehemently denied the claims against him, and since the civil cases were settled out of court, we’ll never really know what happened. In the motion Affleck’s lawyer filed to seek an out-of-court venue, Affleck claimed one of his accusers “concocted this fabricated sexual harassment lawsuit over a year after she failed in her devious attempt to extort a better production deal.”
First of all, can we please dispel the myth that women would ever lie about harassment or assault in order to ruin a man’s career or advance their own? The statistics are clear: Only about 2 percent or fewer of sexual assault accusations are false, which is on par with accusations of any other crime. Beyond that, what could ever lead someone to believe a woman would report harassment or assault with the intention of bolstering a career for themselves?
If Affleck’s accusers’ case, the opposite is true. Here’s an excerpt from the initial filing:
During her 16 years working in the entertainment industry, [the Plaintiff] has never accused anyone of sexual harassment. She has never filed a lawsuit against anyone for any reason. And she has struggled with her decision to file this lawsuit — she is justifiably concerned about the effect this lawsuit will have on her career.
The sad truth of the matter is that we live in a world where reporting sexual assault is a far riskier career move than actually committing one.
Woody Allen’s been honored by the Academy Awards despite accusations of sexually abusing his adopted daughter. So has Roman Polanski, even after he pleaded guilty to raping a 13-year-old girl. Mel Gibson pled no contest in 2011 to punching his ex-girlfriend repeatedly in the face, but he landed a Best Director nomination at the Oscars this year.
Meanwhile, actress Constance Wu (“Fresh off the Boat”) said even speaking about the accusations against Affleck would negatively impact her career, thanks to the Affleck family’s far-reaching Hollywood connections.
“I’ve been counseled not to talk about this for career’s sake,” she tweeted. “F my career then, I’m a woman and human first. That’s what my craft is built on.”
So, yes. As women and as humans, we need to talk about Casey Affleck. We need to stop side-stepping conversations that make us uncomfortable and instead get angry and vocal that so many people can commit heinous crimes and not just get away with it, but be publicly glorified and honored. We need to demand studios stop making films with actors accused of assault, and put our money where our mouths are by refusing to pay to see those films until they do.
If we don’t, assault and harassment will continue to be normalized, and this won’t be the last time we see someone like Affleck climbing up onto that stage to be handed a golden statue.