Behind the Screen: #MeToo Panelists Discuss Sexual Assault & Rape Culture

On January 28, The Film Institute At Montclair State and Montclair Film hosted their annual Behind the Screen event, which featured panels and conversations between film and television professionals about their careers. The last panel of the day was titled, “#MeToo: A Conversation about Harassment and Empowerment”, moderated by MSU film professor, Susan Skoog. Throughout the discussion, Skoog played the David Schwimmer-produced, “That's Harassment,” short films that featured cringe-worthy, uncomfortable, but necessary dramatizations of sexual harassment in the workplace. The panel featured filmmaker and professor Nicole Franklin, attorney Leslie Farber, actor and professor Kathryn Rossetter (who recently came forward about Dustin Hoffman’s inappropriate behavior while the two worked together), and New York Women in Film and Television (NYWIFT) board member Rosalind Murphy.

Photo credit: NorthJersey.com

The questions that follow were asked after the panel and have been edited for conciseness.

HCM: What needs to change about how we talk about sexual harassment? What needs to change about how we listen?

KR: The conversation is about the listening because we aren’t really listening to each other. In the news, the men are jumping in and trying to exonerate themselves or each other. We’re all talking so fast that we aren’t listening and breathing around the topic. That’s how we learn to relate to each other. No one wants to be the one that is quiet and then have to go consider that maybe they were wrong. It starts with looking at each other with respect and then listening when it’s your turn to listen. Then going away to consider what the other person said, then talking again.

LF: From a legal perspective, those who are willing to be cooperative are afraid to come forward because are afraid of what might happen if they do come forward. They are protected in New Jersey under a whistleblower statute so that in a court proceeding or investigation, they are protected against retaliation. That is one thing that people should be comfortable about. Often when people sign contracts for employment, they are signing away their rights to a open court proceeding and forced into arbitration. Then no one can find out what they endured. We are trying to get these outlawed in New Jersey.

RM: When it comes to listening, especially with tough things, sometimes we try to explain it away. I’ve been in a situation where it was difficult and people try to explain it away but you have to be willing to listen so you can have a conversation around it. Don’t explain it away. Give that person a platform to speak and be able to take a step back afterwards to empathize and sympathize with them.

NF: Listening is a skill that needs to be practiced and we need to be open to different opinions. I see this whole issue from various angles. I can champion the victims and the #MeToo movement but I see it as where is my responsibility in this and how can I empower young women as far as their responsibility. But sometimes I walk into a picture and feel completely shut down. Even though the big picture might help us in court later. Without anyone listening we go nowhere. We need to listen to women and men, because sometimes men feel shut out but want to provide us with a safe space.

 

HCM: How quick are you to defend people, who have been accused of assault or women who have come forward, that you know? What do you say to women/people who do defend people they know?

RM: Harassment accusations are very serious and I don't take it lightly or jump to defense or accusation without an understanding of what happened. I personally understand the difficulty of coming forward. For those in the news recently, I listen, read, researched and have conversations with colleagues and friends. I have found the discussion around harassment can be spirited and heated. However, it is necessary to continue the conversations to uncover, educate, create awareness and share support to move forward. To those who defend people they know, if you did not witness or experience that behavior,  I understand it may be hard to comprehend. Take a moment to listen to the allegations. Be open to hear the other person experience and don't  just deny or explain it away.

KR: Defending women mostly comes in the form of support for them and listening. Then offering resources: lawyers, counselors, (journalists if that's what they want.) You cannot force a woman to come forward and you cannot come forward on her behalf. They must take agency over their own story. Everyone is different. One must be careful not to turn someones story into a cause for you without their desire to fight that cause. Sometimes good intentions can hurt more than help.

Friends of mine who have survived harassment don't all come forward. I lead by example. If they come forward and are attacked, I will stand with them in whatever way then need so that they can stay strong. If they choose not to come forward, I respect their wishes and provide the support they need behind the scenes.

NF: Harassment comes in many forms. Knowledge that it will most likely exist in a multitude of workspaces and wear many, unsuspecting faces is key. I have stepped up to defend a young man accused of rape before because he confided in me his story that was about to come to light and wanted to make me aware of how much he was prepared to profess his innocence and would work to make things right. The first thing I noticed is that he may be fighting this alone. I told him immediately I was on his side. I had not known him that long, but I’ve known abusers, molesters and monsters and he was not that person. When he then told me what he was up against with the accuser I knew he had a case—we had a case if he needed me to be vocal about it. She was clearly up to no good and I was embarrassed and appalled by her behavior. You’re talking about a young man—and in this case, a young man of color—and his future. He does not have the luxury of being presumed innocent. Luckily for him, he had strength in knowing that a few of his superiors, such as myself and another colleague, had his back. He went on to a supervisory position, fully aware that even though he has years ahead of him he now sees how easy it is for him to become a target.

Now let’s take this example into a situation where the young man could have already been in a supervisory role and the young woman was a solid worker of exemplary character. If I do not have a bias—which is very important in all of these cases coming to light—I start with the facts from both sides. And then I examine any history of the behavior coupled with the culture of the workplace or industry. Usually before too much time has passed, I now have a gut feeling as to who is in the wrong and in the right. And if I can prove someone is lying, manipulating the truth or threatening the weaker party, I must warn that person this hits very close to home as I was a very young victim—a preteen—of a predator. I do not take any of this lightly and it is never okay to enforce a degree of silence of an act so vile. If we’re going to defend someone we know who has been accused, we have to put ourselves in the shoes of both parties, and ultimately—and swiftly—give our full support to right over wrong, no matter the relationship to the accused.  

 

HCM: How can women know their legal rights? What nonprofits or websites make this information accessible?

LF: There are several places and organizations providing useful information.  Focusing on civil rights in general and employments right in particular

  • Government resources:  
  • Private organizations:  

 

HCM: If you teach, what spaces have you created or encourage your students to create in order to show solidarity?

KR: I teach in an acting program so students are always encouraged to discuss these issues as they apply to text's we are working on. We also have a devising component and it is always a place where artists can explore and create projects that shed light and understanding on this and many other complicated issues of our society. This often brings them great insight and understanding; both men and women.

The more we can openly discuss harassment and the role of women and men in our society, the closer we can come to changing the narrative, which will affect real change and not just offer grand statements. Strides are made in baby steps and the real solidarity comes with compassionate listening, patience and persistence.

 

HCM: Does the current #MeToo movement also encourage LGBTQ+ people to come forward? Has a space been made for them? Does same-sex assault have the same space and amount of victims coming forward?

LF:  I have worked on lot of civil rights issues for LGBTQ people, and have seen a small increase in LGBTQ people feeling encouraged by the #MeToo movement to come forward or to come out.  One public example is those who have accused Kevin Spacey of bad same-sex behavior as encouraging more LGBTQ people to come forward or assert their rights, notwithstanding Kevin Spacey’s officially coming out and admitting to the behavior (sort of).  There also was an article in The New York Times on January 13 detailing same sex harassment by at least one photographer in the male modeling world.  But LGBTQ people working in the film and television world still stay in the closet for the most part because of discrimination and harassment if they come out.  This is especially true of those working in the production part of the industry.

 

HCM: What advice do you have for young women who want to be in media, journalism, theater, and film?

RM: Embrace your power and enhance your talent.  You are already great the way you are.  You have a voice, share your perspectives and opinions. It's okay to not have all the answers. Continue to build on your knowledge and talent. When challenges arise, speak up and stand your ground. Find your tribe - friends, colleagues, organizations, companies that value and support you.  BE FIERCE AND BOLD!

NF: Through almost three decades of my career, my answer has steadily remained the same:  Be the best you can be at what role in the media industry you wish to play, and find a mentor.

Remember that being the best involves striving for more knowledge, more education to improve your skill set and more experience that leads to building a network of colleagues who will support your dream and refer your talents to the team next in line to succeed. A mentor who inspires you and noticeably reaches back to bring other women filled with enthusiasm and commitment into the fold will open doors for you first and foremost by providing an introduction to even more possibilities than anyone could have imagined. That’s only the start of a successful career. The rest is up to you to be aware of your surroundings and notice that despite how well the industry maintains a reputation of discrimination, nepotism and extreme competitiveness, there is  a unique quality you have to be willing to unleash as a storyteller. Only you know what that truly is, and only you are responsible for being courageous and vulnerable enough to make it work in your favor. When you’re confident enough in your abilities, those who set out to destroy your spirit at any level will not have a chance.

 

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