By Jane Christmas
A £600,000 bronze statue that was erected in London, England, last year to honour Mohandas Gandhi stirred outrage when the idea for it was put forth. It turns out that the peace activist was a prolific swordsman, joining the likes of Martin Luther King, John Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Philip Larkin, Lord Byron, and Silvio Berlusconi. All were known for their charisma; all were serial womanizers.
Charisma is a lovely innate quality that gets burnished by public relations consultants attempting to elevate a client to god-like stature. Remember the fawning over Bill Clinton’s oratorical skills? Did you actually attend one of his talks? I did, several years ago, with a work colleague (also female), and ten minutes into it the two of us looked wide-eyed at one another and mouthed, “We paid a hundred bucks for this?”
Charisma reels in chumps like me into believing that Clinton is a fantastic speaker, that Gandhi is a humble agent of peace, that King is a great statesman, which is a great coup if you handle the public relations for such people. But should it matter that these men seduced, raped, and otherwise abused women? Yes, it should. If your favourite politician, actor, musician, doctor, gas station attendant was a known pedophile you would not think twice about jettisoning him or her from your Favourite People list because you would rightly peg him as unworthy of whatever glory he had garnered. So why do we let men who rape women off the hook?
Another media personality who was said to have charisma up the wazoo was Jimmy Savile. Adored by young and old in Britain, honoured by the Queen with an OBE and a knighthood, Sir Jimmy was a blend of eccentricity and philanthropic goodness. When he died in 2011, there were calls for statues to be erected in his honour until word seeped out about his perversion: raping girls in his dressing room, and sexually groping the very hospital patients whose burdensome lives he was supposed to lighten. A few courageous women had reported Savile’s aberrant behaviour to the police and to Savile’s employer, the BBC, but they were dismissed as lunatics and liars. The tide has since turned big time with police documenting a shocking litany of more than 200 criminal offences, of which 34 were rapes.
Jian Ghomeshi is said to possess charisma though to meet him in person is to wander into a stench of eau d’arrogance that so overpowers that you want to gag. Still, he used his celebrity-induced charisma to prey on his admirers. He was hailed as talented (true), tuned-in to the cultural zeitgeist (likely true), and a perceptive interviewer (I flatly disagree). It is the latter that most people gush over. That and his aw-shucks smile and good looks. The same traits that drew women to Ted Bundy. The trick of a true narcissist And now Ghomeshi has arrogantly tried to turn the tables claiming that it is us—provincial, home-loving, Horton’s drinking, uncool women (and men) bound up by our comfortable missionary-style sex who are the problem, who are so out of touch with the world around us that we have no clue that bashing, choking and bullying the opposite sex is the new sex. That he freely played his CBC bosses his sex tapes and could not believe how offended they were gives an indication that he was breathing his own charisma-infused air on Planet Jian.
For those of us who worked in media and the arts in Seventies- and Eighties-era Toronto the Ghomeshi scandal resurrects gut-wrenching memories.
Women had come through a vociferous period of modern feminism, and political pressure was now being applied for companies to open up more opportunities to the flood of women graduating from universities. The rolled-eyed acceptance of employers changed dramatically when the benefits became clear: the newbies on their doorsteps were young, compliant, and cheap—we would be paid much less than our male counterparts and no one would be the wiser. We women didn’t care so much: we were simply keen to get on the ladder. The underside revealed itself in short order: our naïveté coupled with our eager-to-please attitude was like catnip.
The arts and media had a high concentration of men with predatory appetites. Not all of them had charisma, but most adopted a sort of droit de seigneur. We women had not learned the value of networking at that point but gradually we learned and we gleaned and shared intelligence. There was the national news anchor who chatted up and seduced each new young female staffer; the radio host, the TV news executive, the publishing house editor, the gallery owner, the current affairs producer, the reporter, the author, the record company executive, all of whom regarded the brave new world of gender parity as some sexual open season. Meanwhile, the female recruits, wanting to appear collegial, gave them the benefit of the doubt. And so, at the end of a shift the newsroom intern would be pleasantly surprised to be invited by the news anchor to share a cab home only to wind up in his bed. The publishing house editor would flatter and promise career advancement and the young staffer, dizzy from the attention, would acquiesce to his unwanted advances. I remember a female colleague arriving at work in the morning just as the CTV grapevine was spurting out details of her previous night’s “date”. Invariably, these women ended up with hushed-up abortions, soul-destroying shame, suicidal thoughts, and job loss. The predators, however, ended up with the Order of Canada.
I did not escape unscathed. In a file in a vault in the bowels of 52 Division in Toronto is a videotaped statement of me recounting being raped when I worked as a publicity manager for a major record label in the early 1980s. It happened the night of the Juno Awards when our department was put up at the Harbour Castle Hotel, where the event was hosted. For some reason I feel it necessary to mention here that I did not drink that night: my colleagues (all male) were drug users and I wanted to be stone cold sober in order to make a quick getaway to my room and avoid their shenanigans. Just before midnight I did just that. A few hours later I was awakened by one of the senior executives hammering at my door. It was urgent, he said. I immediately thought of my job and the expectation that I would be needed to write and disseminate a news release. Baffled by what calamity could possibly merit a news flash at that hour, I stumbled half awake to the door and opened it a crack. My parents had always taught me to defer to authority, to trust my bosses, be nice, do as I was told. When I opened the door the executive barged in, bolted the door, shoved me onto the bed and raped me. So much for my parents’ advice about deference and trust.
Nothing prepares you for such things, but women should not have to be constantly on rape alert. Ghomeshi’s antics illustrate that not much has changed in 30-plus years. To paraphrase the philosopher George Santayana, any experience that is not absorbed and retained is destined to be repeated.
The shrapnel from the Ghomeshi scandal will be absorbed into the body of humanity; the hash-tagged outrage will dissolve into the ether, the flag of charisma will attach itself to another man under whose spell we will fall, and the cause of feminism will hunker down in the trench and await its next Groundhog Day appearance. Unless we bang our fist on the table and say, “This stops now.”
Jane Christmas is a bestselling author whose 2014 work, And Then There Were Nuns, was shortlisted for the Leacock Medal for Humour and the Word Awards. She now lives in England.