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Film How social media cuts through the cult of celebrity

Last Saturday, millions of women protested the inauguration of a U.S. president who has boasted that his television celebrity allowed him to make a habit of grabbing female genitals. On Tuesday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences unveiled a refreshingly diverse Oscar slate – that did not include a single female nominee for best director and only recognized one female co-writer in the two screenplay categories. Meanwhile, on the same day but on the other side of the Atlantic, director Roman Polanski was forced to decline an invitation to preside over France's César awards when protesters threatened to organize a boycott of the ceremony.

Things have changed a lot since 1977, when Polanski drugged and sexually assaulted a 13-year-old girl, plea-bargained his way out of jail time and then fled the United States when it looked like that deal was going to collapse. Society is less tolerant of the sexual exploitation of children and young women and more respectful of victims' stories. But the movie business is still fuelled by a potentially toxic mix of male privilege and female beauty, and shows few signs of righting the nasty power imbalance that creates.

Meanwhile, the cult of celebrity that permits the famous and the talented to escape the repercussions of criminal behaviour only intensifies its grip on us. Polanksi's victim, Samantha Geimer, reflecting on the failure of her parents and those of Michael Jackson's victims to protect them, wrote in her 2013 memoir The Girl, "They just wanted to believe that being famous made you good." Today's parents might correctly believe that being famous is its own good. In Trump's case, admittedly an extreme one, it seems sufficient replacement for intelligence and morality.

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You might hope that in 2017, Geimer and her parents would not be shamed and harassed the way they were in the 1970s – and yet you know that today the trolls would be all over the story. The paradox is that those same social-media platforms that are used to bully and insult women are also a great way for women to call out abusers.

French feminists took to social media to express their outrage over the choice of Polanski, who has long fought extradition to the United States, for the Césars. They quickly organized an online petition, which garnered 62,000 signatures, asking he be removed from what is largely an honorary role presiding over the awards. Alain Rocca, a member of the six-person board that oversees the academy, defended the choice, telling Le Monde that the anti-Polanski campaign was part of the post-truth dynamic that led to Trump's election.

On the contrary, the effective protest shows social media at their best. Twitter hashtags and Change.org petitions can be blunt instruments, even unfair ones based on misunderstandings or simplifications, but, on its good days, social media are remarkably effective at speaking truth to power. People cossetted by their privilege can be quickly forced to recognize what it feels like at the bottom of the heap.

Canada's literary set got a healthy reminder of that last month, when young women took to social media to inform prominent writers that placing their signatures on a petition supporting author Stephen Galloway, dismissed by the University of British Columbia for an unspecified "breach of trust," suggested that his well-being was of more importance than that of the UBC complainants in the case. Sexual harassment, abuse and assault thrive in the dark, and social media can provide a comparatively safe and easy way to shine some light on the situation.

Perhaps, at 83, Polanksi is out of touch with these developments and that is why he allowed his name to be announced by the César academy in the first place. He might want to look to Casey Affleck for another way to handle difficult situations: In 2010, in a matter of a few months, the actor settled out of court with two female colleagues who alleged they were grossly sexually harassed on a movie shoot he was directing.

Despite renewed discussion in recent months because of Affleck's remarkable performance in Manchester by the Sea, the controversy feels like it's dead in the water and unlikely to hurt his chances at an Oscar for the role. What you hope is that this kind of case will make the next guy think twice.

Polanski has said he regrets the 1977 episode and belatedly made a modest financial settlement with his victim in 1993. But a culture of transparency and zero tolerance will only make his ability to appear publicly more difficult in the future. Why can't we turn the page, as his supporters in the French film industry often ask? Well, we could if Polanski would ever return to the United States and face sentencing. At his age, you have to figure he wouldn't be asked to do jail time.

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