Last week, Tatler Magazine, a UK glossy, previewed a cover story on Penélope Cruz. In quotes given to outlets a week before release, the primary topic was MeToo’s impact on men’s ability to give women unsolicited compliments. In the condensed, teased conversation, here’s how they portrayed Cruz’s thoughts on sexism and the MeToo movement:
‘For us to be commenting, “oh, no, in 2019, you cannot say a woman looks good?” Are we f**king crazy?’ This, Cruz considers, diverts from the central issue – she’s not afraid to make that clear.’
Ahead of the issue’s release, I expected that the full interview would provide more context to what read, in the initial excerpt, like Cruz’s bizarre framing of the much larger social changes that have taken place in the last two years. And it did: the full exchange occurred at Cannes, where Cruz was promoting her upcoming Pedro Almódovar film, Pain and Glory. As the story details it, while Cruz was posing with the director—her friend of 20 years—Almódovar exclaimed: “Oy! Ah! Penel!” The interviewer, Tom Lamont, then asked Cruz, a Times Up supporter, if she would “correct” Almodóvar for his behavior. According Lamont’s profile, Cruz bristled and asked, “What did he do wrong? He didn’t do anything wrong.” Lamont writes:
I don’t know if it was wrong. I say, it’s just that, by the standards of 2019, the comments sounded out of place. “See, this is the problem. How we deviate…this makes me furious. Constantly I see this happening. We deviate from the important things which really need change and improvement, into things that don’t matter. Pedro was courteous, Kind. He’s been my friend for more than 20 years. He loves me and I love him. He can give me all the compliments he wants. Its the way he does it, the words he uses.” It feedback to what she was saying earlier, about the larger problems of gender inequality. She thinks we get sidetracked in arguments about whether a man should compliment a woman’s appearance. Cruz sees this as a distraction from the base issue.”
At its core, Lamont’s line of questioning seems to reflect the shallow but surprisingly common concern that the lives of men have been disproportionately affected by MeToo. (In the interview, Cruz herself claims that entertainment media has exacerbated such misdirections.) We’ve heard plenty about these “fears” and counterpoints before: Will I be punished for compliments?; I was just joking; Boys will be boys (will be men). Consider this survey of 1,227 employees by HR consulting firm Randstadt. They found that 46 percent of male employees “no longer know what compliments are ok to give a coworker, because they fear the remark could be potentially misinterpreted as sexual harassment.” Spoiler: the same percentage of employees also held “negative views of feminism and the MeToo movement.” Nationally, surveys by NPR and Ipsos found that 51 percent of men think #MeToo has “gone too far.” (Thirty-six percent of women responded the same.)
But what exactly is “too far”? The teased excerpt, and Lamont’s framing, suggest that it’s the death of compliments. Others who use the same talking points believe that MeToo has shifted the social order beyond their control—their understanding of a perceived male dominance that allowed for undefined boundaries around sexual harassment and gendered violence.
Those who hold such beliefs, and the claim that certain rights have been stolen from men, are generally led by conservative pundits (many of whom happen to be women). In a 2017 segment on Fox News, Tucker Carlson spoke with men’s-rights “feminist” Christina Hoff Sommers, who claimed women have “rewritten the social contract” and warns of the risk that we’re “quick to judge” men’s romantic gestures. Sommers also suggested that feminists “exaggerate” their fear of men entirely. Unsurprisingly, in 2018 similar views were later echoed by anthropomorphized skidmark Ben Shapiro. The overlap here should worry us; while it’s almost expected that a celebrity puff piece might trivialize MeToo into a concern about desirability, it begs the question of what, and whose, purpose is served.