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Tavis Smiley & Ian McKellen Don’t Understand How Power Affects Consent

Tavis Smiley/Ian McKellen

Ian McKellen said something hella ignorant concerning women in Hollywood, which is tragic because he’s an icon and just one of my favorite actors, but when they f-up you have to call it like you see it.

During a talk at the Oxford Union, according to the Daily Mail, McKellen made comments saying that some women are responsible for exchanging sex for roles and therefore shouldn’t be seen as victims since they have helped to create the culture we are living in.

 ‘I hope we’re going through a period that will help to eradicate it altogether. But from my own experience, when I was starting acting in the early Sixties, the director of the theatre I was working at showed me some photographs he got from women who were wanting jobs. . . some of them had at the bottom of their photograph ‘DRR’ — directors’ rights respected. In other words, if you give me a job, you can have sex with me.

‘That was commonplace from people who proposed that they should be a victim. Madness. People have taken advantage of that and encouraged it and it absolutely will not do.’

This and the Tavis Smiley accusations, which he says are unreasonable because they were consensual relationships, all surround this larger issue of power and consent and what it means to engage in any type of relationship that exchanges sex for power directly or indirectly. As in all discussions surrounding sex and, to a degree sex work, it is a complicated issue and people have the right to have their own feelings about their personal experiences.

If a woman who dated or exchanged sex for an opportunity and that was their choice, they have the right to choose their narrative for themselves. If they don’t want to see themselves as victims or felt fine about doing it, then they have to ability to do so. However, that does not erase the reality that women felt like this was their only way to get ahead in an industry that cared more about how you looked than if you could act. Nor does it wash away the systematic issues of power and sexism in Hollywood and other industries.

Jean Harlow, one of the original blonde bombshells, got her big acting career break because Howard Hughes wanted to sleep with her. Hollywood was notorious before and during the 60s’ (the era McKellen is talking about) for cashing out on the sexuality of its actresses and then spitting them out when they were no longer viable. People can say “women signed up for it” but if getting ahead in a business means having to be sexually available for men, is that a choice? Especially when women who denied having sex for roles or giving out favors lost rolls?

Hell, we even saw in Selma Hayek’s op-ed, that her refusal to give in to Weinstein’s demands hurt her career by him contracting her to do small-movies after her post-Oscar nomination. Not to mention all the threats he made to rip her project out of her hands if she didn’t do a lesbian nude scene. Peter Jackson confirmed that Weinstein helped stall the careers of Ashley Judd and Mira Sorvino. There are consequences for not complying with the whims of men in power.

That is what Smiley doesn’t understand in his interview with Tucker Carlson when he tries to make the argument of “where else would I meet women?”

 I certainly understand that there are persons who believe that there is no such thing as a consensual relationship in the workplace. I hear that. I can respect that point of view. But there are other opinions on this. In my employee handbook we do not encourage inter-office relationships but we don’t forbid it either because I don’t know how things are going to turn out in your life and you start hanging out with our company. I don’t know who you’re going to meet. And let’s face it, nobody’s working 40 hour weeks anymore. We are working 40-, 50-, 70-, 80-hour weeks. Where else are you going to meet people in this business?

As someone who previously worked retail, of course when you are working long weeks and insane hours for low-pay, you end up dating co-workers–even though it hardly ever ends well when it’s someone on the same level as you. But even in retail jobs, if you start dating a manager that can get both people in trouble because it creates power dynamics that have the potential to cause trouble for upper management. Which, in the best cases, is why they end up relocating that person to either a different floor or department if they don’t have a policy against it.

PBS’s statement also makes it clear that their investigation is not just about Smiley dating employees, but more creating an environment where employees feel like sex and forcing employees to sign non-disclosure agreements.

 “First, today on ‘Good Morning America,’ Mr. Smiley acknowledged he has had multiple sexual encounters with his employees, then struggled to recall the number of current employees with whom he has had sex. This contradicts his Facebook post from last week, where he cited only one previous relationship with an employee. Mr. Smiley even told viewers, ‘I don’t know where your heart’s going to lead you.’ PBS is certain that it should not lead to multiple sexual relationships between the owner of a company and subordinates over many years, particularly where employment decisions may be linked to sex.

“Second, Mr. Smiley claims he applauds women who have come forward, yet his company requires former and current employees to sign nondisclosure agreements. Witnesses who have bravely come forward to speak with the independent investigators retained by PBS report a fear of retribution for speaking out. PBS stands by its decision to respect the anonymity of those who are afraid to come forward publicly. Additional allegations are continuing to come to light since last week’s announcement.

“In contrast, PBS has been consistent: PBS stands by the integrity of its investigation, which has been conducted by an outside firm with expertise in such matters. Mr. Smiley’s own words today, coupled with the information discovered during the investigation, confirms PBS’ decision to indefinitely suspend the distribution of ‘Tavis Smiley.'”

What McKellen and Smiley misunderstand is that when power structures exist to allow men to have authority over subordinates, and cause massive damage to their careers when their needs aren’t met, it creates a flaw in the system. Actresses, women, shouldn’t feel like sex will give them a leg up in their industry and the fact that it works only reinforces that it is a problem and that it is not a black-and-white consent issue.

Finally, there is this issue that McKellen brings up that people will probably be falsely accused. I feel like people are waiting with baited breath for some massive false accusation to happen so that all of this can end. Not to make the system better. Not to make a system of “due process.” They just want it to end, and for it to do that some woman has to be a liar. Which is the worst part, because as has been discussed over and over and over: the rate of false rape accusations are low.

As of right now, no one has been proven to be falsely accused. When that happens we can talk about it. Until then, ask yourselves why you are so desperate to think women are liars.

(via, Deadline; image:Albert H. Teich/ magicinfoto /

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Princess (she/her-bisexual) is a Brooklyn born Megan Fox truther, who loves Sailor Moon, mythology, and diversity within sci-fi/fantasy. Still lives in Brooklyn with her over 500 Pokémon that she has Eevee trained into a mighty army. Team Zutara forever.