A new documentary called Rocking the Couch is set for release and, despite the seemingly endless revelations about the film industry, the public may be surprised by what they see in this film.
Hashtags like #MeToo and #TimesUp have dominated the public discourse on sexual harassment and assault in the film industry for over a year. But behind the hashtags are real people. The humanity of those individuals, both the accused and the alleged victims, should not be lost in a sea of general outrage.
While the documentary opens with a barrage of images connected to recent, explosive cases of accused celebrities it quickly moves into a more nuanced discussion of what leads to the kind of sensationalized abuse that has dominated the headlines. Notably, the film points out that it’s not just men who are “rocking the couch.”
The accounts of exploitation and outright assault featured in the film are compelling and harrowing. At the same time, the filmmakers open up the conversation to address the complex question of why this behaviour was considered “normal.” Notably, women and men speak out about how often they observed aspiring actresses offering sex as a career transaction.
While the problem of exploitation is often dictated as if men are the only ones complicit in the situation, Rocking the Couch also addresses the role women have played in the cone of silence. The problem is not just that unsuspecting women found themselves in the midst of a badly scripted nightmare, the problem is that a lot of women offered that script and helped create the problem.
There are two genders who are “rocking the couch” in the film industry and this documentary doesn’t sanitize the truth.
There is no dispute that someone who commits a sexual assault is responsible for their own actions. The message is quite clear on that point. That said, the film industry is unique in that actors have contracts that sometimes involve nudity in the workplace, but these contracts are meticulously negotiated in advance.
Basically, acting is not like a normal office job.
The whisper networks, often described as the way women pass along warnings about men, has another side. Quite often women are whispering about other women and the gossip is “she slept her way to the top.” This is a reminder about why gossip networks are pernicious and it doesn’t matter who the target is.
The main focus of the film, in terms of blame, seems to be the failure of the actor’s union.
An historic case from 1992, featured in the documentary, should have resulted in policy change after a number of female actors filed complaints against an agent. In hindsight, it seems outrageous that the union didn’t implement strict policies that auditions required a third party witness to protect both the actor and the agent.
At the same time, the complexities of human sexuality are never so simple.
As one subject in the film states, after only producing one film he was shocked at the number of women who offered him sex for a role in his next movie. Some of these women were married and almost all of them were complete strangers. He didn’t take them up on their offers but simply can’t view the current #MeToo movement without knowledge of how easy it would be for someone with less self-esteem to get caught up in the rush of attention.
These questions of nuance never undermine the seriousness of the many stories of shocking violation recounted by the victims who are featured in the documentary. Every personal account of assault or indecent behaviour shared in the film is credible and the women are brave for sharing their stories.
One of the things that makes this film outstanding is that the filmmakers only name people who have been criminally charged or convicted in a court of law.
While the history of Hollywood sexual abuse begins in this film with mention of “Fatty” Arbuckle, who is now widely considered a victim of a false accusation, and then moves to a mention of the unsolved murder of Natalie Wood, Rocking the Couch is probably the most balanced discussion about Hollywood sex scandals since the #MeToo movement was popularized in October 2017.
Producers Andrea Evans and Jerry Sommer seem to have taken a risk for a noble cause. While some who watch this film may seek to reframe some of the interviews as “victim blaming” and others may try to attack the film for saying actors have an active role in negotiating the nudity they agree to in a film contract, the message of the film is clear to rational thinkers.
Human sexuality is a bit too complicated to fit on a single couch.