Photo: Rex Features

OPINION

Uma Thurman’s words expose our toxic confusion over love and cruelty

The actress recently spoke out about sexual abuse in Hollywood. And she’s raising crucial questions about men, women and power, says Marisa Bate

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By Marisa Bate on

This was the one we’ve been waiting for. We knew she was angry. We could infer she was another victim. Now, Uma Thurman has finally spoken to Maureen Dowd in The New York Times.

It has all the hallmarks of Weinstein’s abuse: robes, hotel rooms, apologies, threats. Yet, this time, there’s also a pretty big role played by Quentin Tarantino – who allegedly forced Thurman to drive an unsafe car, which crashed and left her with permanent injuries. This isn’t the only incident that Thurman claims took place during the making of Kill Bill. The actress also alleges that the director personally choked and spat on her, in place of actors, during two separate scenes in the movie. To the world, they are a triumvirate of the Hollywood elite – the gods in the clouds of the industry: muse, director, mogul. In reality, like so many women in Hollywood, Thurman was powerless. For both men, she became little more than a rag doll, a plaything over which to exert power, driven to what she says in her own words was “dehumanization to the point of death… When they turned on me after the accident, I went from being a creative contributor and performer to being like a broken tool”.

As conversations around power, assault and men and women continue in the wake of countless revelations, Thurman nods to an interesting dynamic in the interview. She says, “Personally, it has taken me 47 years to stop calling people who are mean to you ‘in love’ with you. It took a long time because I think that as little girls we are conditioned to believe that cruelty and love somehow have a connection and that is like the sort of era that we need to evolve out of.”

 

We must reiterate that love and cruelty are opposites, not inherently linked. And we’ll only do that by continuing these complex conversations

 

Thurman’s assertion sounds familiar – it’s one we’ve read in books and seen in films, perhaps even endured ourselves. Somehow, along the way, we’ve crafted a narrative that tells us that extreme love, a love so passionate and true, is one laced with agony and torturous feelings. That “bad boys” or jaded men or, well, just men, will treat you badly – but that’s just part and parcel of the experience of being in love. Listen to any country and western song. Or, indeed, a lot of Beyoncé's early solo stuff. In great tales of love, women endure pain and rejection until they are “rewarded” with real love – “Finally,” sings Beyoncé, “you put my love on top.”

Yet Thurman is also nodding at something much darker. The word “cruelty” does encompass the dynamic that sees too many women let their love interest show disrespect and lack of kindness – but it also hints at something else. Cruelty suggests manipulation, control, mocking. It’s a deliberate attempt to belittle, hurt and scar. Cruelty is nothing short of abuse. If associating love with cruelty is something we learn as children, as Thurman suggests, no wonder as adults abuse is so rife.

The revelations of the acts committed by powerful men are shocking and upsetting. But what Thurman mentions is another progression of a more nuanced conversation – much like what the Aziz Ansari incident forced. We know the scheming ways of Weinstein; we know our misogynistic society puts power firmly in the hands of men. We’re very good at recognising the black and white. We’re not so good in the grey and we need to probe further: how did we get here? Why do women confuse cruelty with love and attention? And, even, why did Thurman mention Weinstein and Tarantino in the same breath? (“They are two different things!” I’ve heard men on the radio say.) The more complicated these situations become, the more time we spend in the grey and the closer we come to understanding this harmful, toxic and often cruel power dynamic between men and women – the bits that aren’t technically illegal; the bits that have been mislabelled as “normal”, silently endured, internalised and passed on to next generation too many times; the bits that have put abuse and love in the same basket. 

Thurman’s story reiterates the point that Rebecca Traister eloquently made in This Moment Isn’t (Just) About Sex. It’s About Work. By putting Tarantino and Weinstein next to each other, we can recognise this is an issue of Thurman's value in the workplace. Both men tried to undermine that – each in their own way. But that’s not the only problem. Before we can expect a healthy working relationship between men and women, first we must fix the more fundamental one that exists outside of an office or a film set. We must, somehow, begin to make sure that love and cruelty are no longer in the same basket; we must reiterate that love and cruelty are opposites, not inherently linked. And we’ll only do that by continuing these complex conversations.

@marisajbate

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Photo: Rex Features
Tagged in:
harvey weinstein
Sexual abuse
Hollywood
gender equality

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