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Roman Polanski and Jewish "anti-heroes"

I am fascinated, as well as outraged, by the Roman Polanski rape story.  As all high profile media stories do, this case has evolved and mutated to touch on a number of really interesting and really important topics, primarily about rape culture and the culture of fame.

Last week celebrated filmmaker Roman Polanski was arrested at a film festival in Switzerland  for the 1977 rape of a 13 year-old girl.  Polanski admitted to drugging the girl and having intercourse with her, which is rape by any stretch of the imagination, not to mention pedophilia. Take a look at Feministing's roundup for more background information.

Two important discussions came out of this story.  The first was about the numerous members of the film industry that came out to support Polanski. Most notably, this list includes Jewish filmmaker Woody Allen. Amanda Hess wrote a great post citing the different reasons people have given to support Roman Polanski, including "He's already paid his price because now everyone knows he's a rapist and he'll never get work in Hollywood again," and "But he made such excellent films!"

Some other reasons people are using to defend Polanski concern the nature of the rape itself, arguing that 13 is old enough to consent, the girl has forgiven him so why can't the law, or the kicker - it was "rape," but not "rape rape."

Video originally posted on the Sisterhood

The "rape vs. rape rape" is the second discussion to come out of this mess.  I have always been a little uncomfortable with the concept of a "rape culture."  This is usually because I, personally, disagree with those who blame violent TV shows and S&M. But the idea that Whoopi Goldberg is arguing there is a difference between "rape" and "rape rape" on national television is a pretty clear indication of rape culture to me.

Adding a value judgement to rape is to go down a dark, dangerous road in which any rape accusation can be reasoned away.  Do we let rapists go free just because their victims do not want to press charges?  Do we let rapists go free because they were not as violent as other rapists?  Do we let rapists go free because they are important, celebrated Hollywood directors?

This brings us to the second important discussion generated by this story.  Why do we, and why should we, forgive famous people for doing bad things?  Last week, Eve Enlser, author of the Vagina Monologues, wrote an excellent piece in the Huffington Post, asking: "Does the brotherhood of fame endow you from a lifetime of accountability?"  This week, Jewish filmmaker Aviva Kempner weighed in at the Sisterhood, wondering why more female directors aren't speaking out about this issue. 

Today I saw this post about the idea of "Jewish anti-heroes." It argues that anti-heroes are not villians, but people who "have made important contributions to the arts, culture, politics or society. And yet, they are too obviously flawed to be heroic. Still, to varying degrees ... we honor their accomplishments which are inseparable from their flaws." 

I understand the point being made here, but it brings up some important questions.  Can anyone who has made significant contributions to the arts, culture, politics, or society be considered a villian despite their accomplishments?  Or do they automatically deserve the less-evil, "anti-hero" status?  I fear that if we, as a society, choose NOT to villanize these supposedly brilliant people, we eventually forget their evil deeds.  Just take a look at this article on Cracked.com about 7 beloved celebrities who have done horrible things we chose to forget.  

The Jewish anti-hero idea is both brilliant and terrifying. The Jewish community takes such pride in the accomplishments of its tribe members, even when they are secular, unaffiliated, or even "half-Jewish." We create "halls of fame" and organizations (wink) just to celebrate these accomplishments. We kibbitz and share stories about how anything from jazz music, to the mafia, to eggplant parmesan, has its roots in Jewish culture.  How many times have you watched a film with a Jewish actor and said, "He's Jewish, you know!" even though his Jewishness is irrelevant to the story.  The truth is that to Jews, Jewishness is never irrelevant. 

So how should we, as a community, react when one of our own does something embarassing, shameful, or heinous?  Do we dub them anti-heroes and call it a day? Or is it time to take a stand and disown these big-shots like we would any non-famous evil Jew?  And does the responsibility to speak out on the issue of rape lie only with Jewish women like Eve Ensler, Aviva Kempner and myself?  Do men get a free pass on this because rape is considered a women's issue?

What would your favorite Jewish hero, or anti-hero, have to do in order for you to think of them as a villain? What would your Jewish neighbors have to do before you condemned them? What about your non-Jewish neighbors?  

Are we willing to live in a world where morality is relative based on one's affiliations or fame?  I really hope not.

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5 Comments

Josh- I absolutely enjoyed your post, and am really glad to hear that the Encyclopedia was helpful to you! It is great to know that folks are consciously thinking about including women when they make lists of Jewish figures.

I apologize if I took your tongue and cheek "anti-heroes" idea and stretched it a bit to serve my own argument. You argue that Polanski is both a villain and an anti-hero, and I agree. However, I think the problem lies in the fact that many Jews are unwilling to admit he is a villain, because they prefer to keep their claim on him as an anti-hero.

I guess what I want to know is what would it take for us to decide that someone has passed the limits of the "anti-hero" and truly become a villain, someone the Jewish community should disown. Where is the line? I think the Polanski case shows us where that line should be.

A man who rapes a 13 year old girl and then evades the consequences of that action for 30 years without a doubt crosses that line. A man who drugs and rapes a 13 year old girl is evil, and it would be "better for the Jews" to disown such a person than try to retain him as an anti-hero, no matter how prolific his movies are.

I am a big fan of Jay Smooth, a video blogger with a truly gifted and reliable perspective. Check out his video about the Polanski case.

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Thanks for linking to our post on Jewish anti-heroes, which was originally intended more as a tongue-in-cheek comment on the culture of self-congratulation that is endemic to Jewish organizations these days. In composing my list of nominees for anti-hero status, I tried to avoid out-and-out criminals and hew closer to the literary definition of an anti-hero: someone not classically admirable or generally accepted by the mainstream, but whom we admire anyway. I can't imagine any of the people on my list ever winning a Jewish Community Hero vote like the one being held right now by UJC, but try to imagine our world without them? (By the way, the http://jwa.org/encyclopedia was indispensible in making sure I had great Jewish women on the list.) Jewish villains are another topic to my thinking and not at all synonymous with anti-heroes. Polanski is a fascinating figure because even if he had never been accused of rape he would still have been an anti-hero for his aesthetic and body of work. But unavoidably, Polanski is both villain and anti-hero. More to the point, anti-hero status should exempt no one from facing the consequences of their actions and being held accountable before our system of justice. It is one thing to consider Polanski's art in context, but not his crime.

Ah, the tricky question of whether artists should be judged for their art or for their personal convictions and behavior ... In a Jewish context, this issue is often posed the other way around: i.e., what do we do with anti-Semites like Wagner (whose operas became the soundtrack of the Nazi party), Ezra Pound (whose radio broadcasts during WWII were both anti-semitic and treasonous), and so on? Both Wagner and Pound are considered extremely influential on their respective art forms ... but we continue to wrestle with whether we should discredit the art because of the abhorrent beliefs of the artist. Are those beliefs part of the makeup of the art? or should the person and the creation be viewed independently of one another? I personally take the former view, but in academic circles, there's often a push for the latter ...

I found this out when I looked up details on one of the few names I recognized (besides super-jew Woody Allen) to come out in support of Polanski, Deborah Winger.

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How to cite this page

Berkenwald, Leah. "Roman Polanski and Jewish "anti-heroes"." 6 October 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 20, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/anti-heroes>.

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