In the friendly banter scene from Notting Hill, several men are sitting at a restaurant having a lewd and boisterous conversation about Meg Ryan and then Anna Scott, the fictional world-famous actress featured in the romantic comedy and who coincidentally is sitting out of sight but nearby with William Thacker:
The scene is intended to match the mostly humorous but semi-critical subtext of the film about the pressures of being a celebrated actress in Hollywood: being famous isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, especially if you are a woman.
However, the scene isn’t funny at all, but it is a reflection of how men talk—of the normalized culture all Western men have been raised in and tolerate and/or participate in, which is the male gaze and the objectifying discourse that is an extension of the male gaze.
This has allowed Donald Trump to brush off his 1995 hot-mic bragging about physical and sexual assault (we have no way to know if he is exaggerating, but he has never disavowed his story) as “locker room talk”—it’s just how men talk.
However, like much of the 2016 presidential campaign, allowing this excuse is yet more false equivalence.
Trump’s language and the behavior it represents are rape culture, not merely objectifying discourse from the male gaze.
This distinction proves to be as unsatisfying as the false equivalence because the male gaze/objectifying discourse as normal is the context within which rape culture thrives.
Many men sit just as the men in the Notting Hill scene do—with a jovial tone no less—sexualizing women, especially women who are famous, and women who dress in a way that men have deemed sexual.
The male gaze and the objectifying discourse grounded in that gaze, probably, rarely extends to assault—but even among men who consider themselves good people, many men, if not most men, have also coerced sex with women they considered just an opportunity for sport sex, a one-night stand, and even with significant others, lovers, and spouses.
And even among men who consider themselves good people, many men, if not most men, have also made women feel uncomfortable, threatened, because all women live with the prevalent awareness of not only the male gaze but the capacity for male physical and sexual aggression.
And thus, it is a real but ultimately pointless line between “friendly banter” (male gaze, objectifying discourse) and rape culture because it isn’t a line; rape culture is a very real and very horrible subset of friendly banter.
As in all situations within which some have power over others, it is the responsibility of men to confront and end both the male gaze/objectifying discourse and rape culture.
Those men who participate cavalierly in the male gaze and “friendly banter”—most if not all men—have an urgent responsibility to name and reject the uglier rape culture represented with disgusting glee by Trump and by serial celebrity rapists such as Bill Cosby.
But men must also begin to disassemble the falsely characterized “friendly banter” culture as well.
It is entirely valid for those men who believe themselves to be good men to claim they are not Trump, his bravado and predatory behavior are not them, and to admit their own culpability in the culture that has bred and allowed Trump and other predatory men to exist.
Trump’s language and predatory behavior—that is not just how men talk and act, but in the grand scheme of things, that distinction really doesn’t matter because how men talk does create a world in which women’s lives too often do not matter beyond their being objectified, sexualized, and reduced to their relationship statuses.
Most men, I hope, do not want to be or be considered a monster, a predator. Trump has outed himself as a predator, a part of rape culture, an active and cavalier aggressor.
Among many other examples, these facts of his true self disqualify him for being a serious candidate for any credible position in society.
Men must and can distance themselves from rape culture, but that must not be used as a shield for the many ways in which men are uncritical and unconscious participants in the male gaze and “friendly banter.”
Yes, it is urgent for everyone to reject rape culture, and the newest face on that, Trump, but it is well past time to admit that the male gaze and objectifying discourse strip women of their human dignity and sully every man’s humanity as well.
Emily Ratajkowski: Baby Woman