In the flood of stories about sexual harassment this bad October, here’s one recurring theme: men using “photo opportunities” as chances to touch women without their consent. Heather Lind and Jordana Grolnick reported earlier this week that former president George H.W. Bush, wheelchair-bound, played the role of “David Cop-a-Feel” (his terrible joke) while taking photos with them. On Thursday, a third woman, Christina Baker Kline, said in a first-person piece in Slate that Bush had done the same to her. Jenny Listman wrote that Elie Wiesel touched her during a photo op when she was 19. Emma Cline remembered an older writer “put[ting] his hand on my back, then drop[ping] it lower to grab my ass” after “someone gestured to us to stand together for a photograph.” And though it feels like it happened a hundred years ago, recall that Taylor Swift filed a lawsuit, which she won in August, after a man named David Mueller put his hand up her skirt as they smiled for the camera.
“There is an aggression implicit in every use of the camera,” Susan Sontag wrote in 1977 (an insight derived from, and since amplified by, a whole body of historical and cultural academic critique). In its relatively short history, Sontag observed, photography has been “enrolled in the service of important institutions of control,” like the police, the military, the colonial state, and the family. A photograph poses as reality, but is inherently the product of a whole lot of social interaction; in turn, a photo can serve to reinforce patterns of dominance and hierarchy in the social world.
In each one of these cases, the alleged male harassers took advantage of a setting in which women are forced to smile no matter what’s going on out of view of the camera. Listman’s memories of her encounter with Wiesel—how he waited until the exact moment the photo was taken to move his hand from her back to her buttocks—show how a predator can abuse the mutual understanding that nobody will disturb the image. Women are socialized not to ruin the work that goes into making a photograph: to stop moving, to smile at the right time, to control unruly children or animals. It’s a testimony to the strength of this social imperative that even Mueller, who is much less socially powerful than Taylor Swift, felt he could score a butt grab while the camera flashed. (He didn’t get away with it. But we’re not all Taylor Swift.)
Stassa Edwards wrote on Jezebel about the command “Don’t make a scene,” often leveled against women and girls to manipulate their behavior. Edwards’ essay came in response to the audio recording, published on the New Yorker’s website, in which Harvey Weinstein can be heard telling model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez, “Don’t embarrass me.”
“The phrase ‘to make a scene’ purposefully conjures up the theater,” Edwards wrote. “It implies that ‘making a scene’ is inauthentic and unnecessary.” (Perhaps the woman in question is “just looking for attention.”) A woman who tells a man “no” in public, and in front of a camera, is making the ultimate “scene,” one that will be recorded for posterity. We are conditioned to believe that even an act of assault doesn’t necessarily warrant such a disruption.
All of this needs to be said now, because of the way assumptions about the “reality” conveyed by photographs are coloring the conversation about sexual assault. In an interview that ran on Good Morning America on Thursday, Ashley Judd looked at an old photograph of herself and Weinstein, in which she’s smiling while he holds her hand; Weinstein had submitted it to the show as evidence of their friendly relationship. Judd diagnosed the photo as disgusting: “Ick.” She explained that, for her, the more significant photograph from that evening shows her wearing a look she describes as “abject terror.”
Depending on who’s the beholder, some photos of women with creeps—even the ones where the creep is in the very act of creeping—won’t look much like images of abuse or assault. It’ll come down to this: Do we believe photographs, or believe women?