what the moby/natalie portman drama says about gender power dynamics
And the wider male insistence on beauty (and youth) being a form of power used over them.
Getty Images, Natalie Portman at 18
This article originally appeared on i-D UK.
Moby has a new book out. You’d be forgiven for having missed the release of his memoirs, given that it is 2019 and a long time since the American singer last made the charts, but Then It Fell Apart was recently published. In it, a detail raised some eyebrows; he mentioned in passing having dated Natalie Portman, who is 16 years his junior, for a brief period of time in the late 90s.
The actress quickly shot back, telling Harper’s Bazaar: “I was surprised to hear that he characterised the very short time that I knew him as dating because my recollection is a much older man being creepy with me when I just had graduated high school. He said I was 20; I definitely wasn’t. I was a teenager. I had just turned 18.”
Moby responded on Instagram, insisting that the pair did have a fling, though pointedly did not mention their age gap and how wide it really was at the time.
This is especially telling because the way he chose to describe their encounter in his memoirs is an interesting one, and perhaps goes some way towards explaining why he is yet to address the questions about his behaviour. In it, he wrote: “I was a bald binge drinker and Natalie Portman was a beautiful movie star. But here she was in my dressing room, flirting with me. I was 33 and she was 20, but this was her world."
"The most obvious detail is the fact that he describes himself as a 'bald binge drinker' but Portman as a star, thus blurring the lines of where the power lied in the duo."
(To briefly set some facts straight -- assuming that this happened in around 1999, Moby was by this point an internationally famous musician; Portman certainly was well-known as well, but she wasn’t the only one.)
So, what is wrong with this paragraph, and what does it tell us about the way (some) men see (some) women, and why two parties can seemingly have such different recollections of an interaction? The most obvious detail is the fact that he describes himself as a “bald binge drinker” but Portman as a star, thus blurring the lines of where the power lied in the duo. If he simply saw himself as a broken and not very attractive man faced with someone whose beauty and fame outshone his, it would make sense for him to not see his behaviour as one that could be viewed by others as that of a predatory older man, standing in front of a teenage girl.
There are two things we can deduct from this way of thinking. The first one, which may be obvious to anyone who has ever talked to straight men or consumed any popular culture, is the important role physical attraction plays in the interaction. Moby is not attractive; Natalie Portman is attractive; so according to this line of thinking, she holds all the cards. It doesn’t matter that she is barely out of school and he is a man well into his thirties; if there is power to be had, she has it.
This is also because, for the aforementioned straight men and the popular culture they create and consume, female beauty is intrinsically linked to youth -- the closer a woman is to the age at which it is legally allowed to court her, the more desirable she is.
If this sounds like feminist claptrap to you, rest assured; there are figures to back it up. In 2015, OKCupid released data on who people found the most attractive on the dating app. For women of 21, it was men of 23; for women of 32, men of 31; for women of 42, it was 39.
On the other hand, men of 22 favoured women of 21; men of 32 went for women of 20, and men of 42 preferred women who were... well, 20. On top of this, there is obviously the fact that a lot of men are quite likely to judge a woman solely on the way she looks, and whether they would have sex with them. If you look at things through that prism, it suddenly becomes easy for powerful older men to make passes at much younger women but not see the issue with it; Moby is our main example here, but it is something that kept cropping up during the #MeToo scandal.
Though some men will absolutely pursue women they have power over precisely because they have power over them, there were also numerous examples, both in the press and anecdotally, of men simply not understanding why their behaviour was wrong.
This conveniently brings us to the second point. What do we mean when we talk about power and who gets to wield it, especially in the context of one person trying it on with someone else?
Power can be straightforward; if your boss hits on you while letting you (subtly or unsubtly) know that he definitely won’t hand you a promotion anytime soon if you say no to that drink, he is wielding his power over you.
More broadly, seniority can be used as power; even if someone from your industry is not strictly speaking in direct control of your work, he may well talk, dissuade his peers from hiring you, or start telling others that you’re a nightmare to work with, knowing that his position means he is likely to be believed. This, in turn, is linked to age; the older you are and the longer you have been in an industry for, the more able you will be to influence a junior person’s career, positively or negatively.
"If it just so happens that you have never been negatively impacted by any aspect of your identity, there is no reason why you would have ever learnt to place your interactions within a wider, societal context."
Then there are more direct forms of power, on a basic human level. Men rape and assault women at a rate incomparable with figures the other way round. Countless studies have shown that most women have, at a point in their life, been sexually harassed, and more have been assaulted and raped than men seem to ever realise.
If you are a woman who turns down a man, he can damage your career, but he can also decide to physically force himself onto you, and you may not be able to fight back, and you may not be believed if you tell people it happened.
This is what we mean when we talk about the power dynamics of relationships, and the complicated nature of consent; sometimes a woman says yes because she wants to, sometimes she does because she fears what might happen if she doesn’t.
With this in mind, let’s get back to the wider male insistence on beauty (and youth) being a form of power used over men. It might well be the case that men find themselves intimidated and stuttering in front of an attractive woman and likely to do some silly things if asked to. Still, it is worth taking this way of thinking to its logical conclusion. What is the worst case scenario for them in that situation? It is that the attractive woman they want to have sex with does not have sex with them. That’s it. The worst possible endgame, the nightmare come to life, is that they do not get to sleep with an attractive woman they want to sleep with.
This conflation of personal woes and structural issues shouldn’t be too surprising, especially coming from straight white men. “Identity politics” might have become a controversial phrase, but it is a useful one. If you are, say, a woman, you are very likely to have experienced something negative based not on your own person, but your gender; similarly, people of colour can and do receive abuse not because of who they are but because of their ethnicity, and so on.
If one of your traits means that you have at some point been treated differently by someone else, you will then, often without thinking, be able to differentiate between what happens to you at a personal level, and what has more systemic repercussions. If it just so happens that you have never been negatively impacted by any aspect of your identity, there is no reason why you would have ever learnt to place your interactions within a wider societal context.
In short: if someone is very attractive and you think you’re not very attractive and you really care about how attractive people are relative to one another, it’s going to be pretty easy for you to blind yourself to all the other dynamics at play. You will then merrily and freely admit to behaviour that is undeniably creepy, then be seemingly puzzled when the attractive person in question tells you that you were being creepy.
This is about Moby but it also isn’t; it is about all the men who were stopped in their tracks when informed that they had done wrong but did not get why, and it is about deciding to give these men the benefit of the doubt, because the alternative is too depressing and enraging to countenance.
You may think that the world largely revolves around your erection, but it tends not to; ignore this at your own risk.
This article originally appeared on i-D UK.