It is impossible to see one’s own privilege, we can only learn about it from others. As a white man my privilege is as constant as my shadow, as trusted as running water in a developed nation. My privilege, like the rings in a felled tree, ripples out from my very core and mingles indifferently with the surface that touches the world. I adorn it with more privilege, layers and layers of it: my education, my functioning senses, my able body and let’s not forget my country’s colonial history. But most of all it is in my alternating powers of visibility and invisibility. I blend in when things get difficult/awkward/dangerous, I stand out when things are interesting/fun/profitable. I am provocative only if I want to be, controversial only when it suits – I can take breaks between statements, I can rest between battles. If I choose to be a misfit or an outsider I do so through my own agency.
Every time I stand on a stage I wrestle with my insecurities, but I don’t have to wrestle with anyone else’s. That is another privilege. Forging a career in the creative industries is exhausting, fraught with setbacks, self-sabotage and intense competition but at least I was allowed to begin at the starting line, plenty of talented people don’t even make it to the track. I have a relatively strong control over how I am perceived because I benefit from a legacy of acceptance compounded over multiple generations. My band was never once described as male-fronted. Our drummer was never once referred to as a male drummer. When I walk through the stage door the crew assume I’m in the band, not with the band. My female friends in this industry all too often do not have that privilege.
When the Weinstein scandal happened plenty of men in Hollywood said they never saw any evidence of abuse. They didn’t say this in defense of Weinstein but in defense of themselves. We’re all familiar with the casting couch cliché, we know how power can be exploited, but if we don’t see it happening it’s not our responsibility. I believe the words of those men who personally saw nothing because I too have personally seen nothing. That is another of my privileges: I don’t have to see the ugliness if I don’t want to. I’ve worked with so many promoters/agents/managers/artists all over the world, so probability suggests I must have worked with a few abusers and harassers, I just don’t know which ones they were because I never needed to know. They are not visible to me because I am privileged. And when my twitter feed is half full of women saying #metoo and the other half is men saying how shocked they are, I am inclined to believe the reactions of those men (even if the knee-jerk response of my ever-ready cynicism is to label it as virtue-signaling) because men’s knowledge of the problem tends to be academic and rarely factors in the sheer scale, or indeed the proximity of what is happening. Just as in most cities you’re never more than a few feet away from a rat, it seems in the film industry, the music industry, media and politics you are never more than a few feet away from a sexual predator. For me as one of the privileged, the thought is chilling and compromises the integrity of the industry in which I work, but work in it I still can. My career is not derailed, my mental and physical health is not in jeopardy, my life is not at risk. Privilege again.
And now we’re at the point where many men are getting bored of the story. As if some newspaper editor printed yesterday’s front page by mistake for the third day in a row. What, again? Really? You’ve probably noticed Matt Damon digging himself a hole after saying we should concentrate a bit more on all the nice men who aren’t abusing people, as if that deserves a medal. I’m glad he said it though because it demonstrates just how deep the problem goes – we know Matt Damon is “one of Hollywood’s good guys” yet even he can’t see past his privilege, can’t see that it’s not a story that’s getting repeated, not an isolated case to be judged or dismissed, but a glimpse at a situation that exists in a state of hideous permanence running parallel to his own version of the world. A situation that needs the combined effort of everyone to remedy.
And there’s the difficult bit. The sense that it’s a story. We’re a story-telling culture, we make everything into a narrative. We construct our very lives from the myths on offer but when those myths are challenged there’s uproar among the establishment – among the privileged. Our stories reflect how we’re going wrong, like the media spotlighting a queue of villains for us to boo and hiss at rather than outing the systems that continue to nourish them and many others still at large.
And the rot seeps into the very fictions that entertain us. Netflix has a sub-category titled “Featuring A Strong Female Lead” but one could argue such creations are more symptom than solution; we all know that so many of the really meaty characters are the ones women aren’t even considered for, characters who are weak with power not strong with intent, who are festering in positions of easy achievement, eaten up with concentrated selfishness, disintegrating in a complicated way. Privilege again. But this time the privilege not to always be an ambassador for one’s sex, the privilege not to be morally watertight, the privilege not to always be strong. Of course, one looks at the top layer in many areas and it seems okay. Adele and Beyonce are the biggest names in music. Star Wars is now led by a woman, Star Trek Discovery is led by a woman, Doctor Who is about to be a woman. Strong Female Leads. But women have had to be strong ever since our species squelched out of the primordial soup, they’ve never had much of a choice in the matter. At the moment it’s hard to imagine a female equivalent of King Lear, struggling to keep a grip on an unravelling mind after a lifetime of unchallenged power. It’s hard to imagine a female equivalent of a crumbling Graham Greene protagonist, exhibiting years of gradual embitterment after falling into an easy colonial job after a few backhanders and the blessing of the old boy network. Human weakness holds all sorts of artistic treasure but if you constantly have to be strong, always punching through walls and deflecting blows then when do you get the chance to sample those treasures? When do we get to hear those stories? The terrible imbalance evidenced in every sector of our creative industries is not only a matter of fairness or justice or human rights, our entire culture is so much poorer as a consequence.
I did not publicly comment on the Weinstein allegations (or indeed the endemic sexual discrimination in my own industry) for a long time simply because, as a man, I felt like I had nothing to add; that as a man the worst thing I could do is that irritating man thing of saying “well here’s what I think…” when all around me women were contributing points of actual value based on real experiences. But men do need to be involved in this discussion, even if it’s only to show they’re listening. There are artists out there – both known and obscure – sharing terrible experiences that have robbed them of the career/life trajectory they deserved, experiences that need to be aired if we are going to see any progress (Salma Hayek’s account is particularly moving/disgusting). There are also countless non-experiences that exist in a state of abstract thwarted potentiality because of the constant white noise of latent prejudice that results in so many great talents not even stepping into the ring (I’ve seen many female singer-songwriters I’ve not enjoyed but none that I would class as incompetent or deluded – contrast that with the deluge of male performers who can’t play their instruments but are happy to inflict their half-baked verses on anyone polite enough to humour them – privilege again).
The fact that I have not been subjected to abuse or prejudice does not make my experience irrelevant to those issues, but rather casts a light from a different angle. For it exemplifies my privileged state, and to understand inequality we must also understand privilege – not just the extreme end embodied by institutions like the Bullingdon Club, but the every day invisible privileges that many of us don’t even register in ourselves. For these privileges can all too easily blind us to so many of the problems shaking the very foundations of the creative industries that we hold dear, not to mention society itself.