14.11.2019

Everything wrong with Angela Lansbury’s claim that women are to blame for sexual assault

Speaking today (Nov. 28) in an interview with Radio Times, the onetime star of Murder She Wrote and recently the voice of Mrs. Potts in the Disney remake of Beauty and the Beast, 92, pulled a Donald when asked about the post-Weinstein wake of Hollywood sexual-misconduct revelations. 

Angela Lansbury just joined the harrowing crew of fools who believe that women are to blame for sexual harassment and assault.

“There are two sides to this coin,” she said, before devolving entirely:

“We have to own up to the fact that women, since time immemorial, have gone out of their way to make themselves attractive. And unfortunately it has backfired on us—and this is where we are today,” she continued. “We must sometimes take blame, women. I really do think that. Although it’s awful to say we can’t make ourselves look as attractive as possible without being knocked down and raped.”

The irony of Lansbury, an Oscar-nominated co-star of the 1944 film Gaslight, quite literally gaslighting an entire gender is profound. Unfortunately, she’s probably not the first, or the last person you’ll hear blaming conventionally attractive women for the prevalence of sexual harassment.

So, to give you some talking points for the next beauty-based victim-blamer you confront, we document the major reasons why Lansbury is totally and completely off-base:

It utterly disregards women’s agency and safety

Lansbury’s claim that “we can’t make ourselves look as attractive as possible without being knocked down and raped,” essentially translates to: Your clothing and physical presentation are an invitation for sexual violence, which exists on a scale that you alone control—the more you attempt to look beautiful, the more you are asking to be raped. On the opposite side of this scale, Lansbury’s statement implies that the only way for women to protect themselves from rape and harassment is to make themselves look unattractive, covering their bodies as if their skin was raw meat that men cannot help but pounce on if exposed.

The counter to these outrageous lies is simple: Women are never asking to be harassed, or assaulted. “But sometimes they might be,” Lansbury might protest. No. Never. Like all human beings, women have the right and the agency to present themselves however they please. We have the right to get ourselves done up, because it makes us feel confident and happy. We have the right to forego makeup entirely, or wear sweatpants and baggy T-shirts every day, because it makes us feel confident and happy.

Also, “since time immemorial,” as Lansbury would say, many women have had no option but to make ourselves look conventionally beautiful: Countless studies prove that conventionally attractive people are hired and promoted more often, treated more kindly, and paid more generously. But we don’t need studies to prove the obvious: Beauty is social currency, and women have every right to capitalize on that currency when, and how they please.

It is objectifying, demeaning, and potentially criminalizing to conceive of one’s appearance—whatever it may be—as a plea for sexual transgressions, be it a cat call, an unwanted touch, a violent assault, or anything in between. Full stop.

As Ashley Vascellaro explains in Odessey:

“My clothing is not an invitation. My clothing is a reflection of my confidence and comfort. I wear what I am comfortable in, I wear what I think I look good in. I dress for myself, to express myself. Do not shame me for my clothing. Do not try to ruin my self esteem. Do not make me think I am the problem because I wear a certain outfit. I am not the problem. My clothing is not the problem. Those who blame pieces of material for the actions of others and to excuse others’ inability to control their actions are the problem. I should not have to defend my clothing choices. I should not have to be defending myself. My clothing is never an invitation.”

It treats harassment and assault like a justifiable “punishment”

By saying “women, since time immemorial, have gone out of their way to make themselves attractive. And unfortunately it has backfired on us,” Lansbury implies that beauty can, and in some cases should, be punishable. And that rape is a reasonable punishment. Let’s be clear: Sexual assault is a crime. In no circumstance will sexual harassment or assault ever be a justifiable, or acceptable punishment for anything—especially not as a penalty for the way someone dresses, applies their makeup or wears their hair.

It fundamentally misunderstands what drives sexual assault

Lansbury’s statement demonstrates profound ignorance of the reality that sexual assault and harassment are driven by a need to assert power and control—not by an attraction to beauty or an expression of sexual desire.

As Gail Saltz, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at New York Presbyterian Hospital, recently explained on CBS This Morning, people who commit sexual assault and harassment, feel that “the only way I can feel more powerful, which I needto feel, is to exert this upon someone else—to humiliate and shame them, to make them less than me, to push them down, to control them, to prove [to myself] that I am the most powerful.” Often, the people who commit such crimes experience sociopathy, and experience lower than average levels of empathy (or none at all). They are driven by the selfish desire to gratify themselves, assuage a narcissistic obsession with control, and ensure that other people know they are less-than.

What’s more, sexual harassment and sexual assault are the outward manifestations of skewed sociocultural power dynamics, says Jasmyn Story, a restorative-justice facilitator in New York City. “As we continue to have these pertinent discussions about sexual harassment and assault, it is important that we focus on the power dynamics that forge and often sustain these abuses. This particular violation occurs when one individual observes, acknowledges, and abuses the power they have over another individual. Age, class, professional standing, race, or communal respect are examples of the power relationships that have created conditions for abuse to occur,” Story tells Quartz. Responsibility for this abuse lies with the individual who has unjustly exerted power, and those complicit in their misuse of power, not the individual surviving the skewed dynamic.

It minimizes sexual assault as a “pretty-people problem”

Lansbury implies that traditionally beautiful people are the only victims of sexual assault. This implication is moronic, and patently false: One out of every six American women has been the victim of attempted or completed sexual assault. In the US, there is a sexual assault every 98 seconds. In countries where misogyny, sexual harassment, and sexual assault are more socially and legally permissible, the numbers are even higher.

What’s more, the implication that beauty is an invitation for assault gives perpetrators an automatic defense. As Donald Trump, candidate for president of the United States, stated when accused of trying to forcibly kiss journalist Natasha Stoynoff: “Look at her. Look at her words. Tell me what you think. I don’t think so.” AKA, “She’s not hot, so why would I assault her?”

It treats men like impulsive animals incapable of restraint

Lansbury’s statement that “we can’t make ourselves look as attractive as possible without being knocked down and raped,” deeply insults and misrepresents men as Pavlovian beasts incapable of exercising restraint when presented with the stimulus of female beauty. By degrading male sexuality into an animalistic, uncontrollable reaction, Lansbury suggests that men are both incapable of consciously respecting women, and to be pardoned for their bestial urges, regardless of their consequences.

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