5 min read

Russell Brand and the bystanders: how to say enough is enough

When calling out misogyny, low standards are expected of men. Tiffany Bluhm assesses the ‘Say Maaate’ campaign and explores bystander intervention. Part of the Problem with Men series.

Tiffany Bluhm is a speaker and the author of Prey Tell: Why We Silence Women Who Tell the Truth and How Everyone Can Speak Up. She speaks and writes at the intersection of justice and faith for conferences, churches, and companies.

Three young men sit on a couch. One is leering at a phone while the others look on hesitantly
The 'Say Maaate' interactive video encourages users to pick a moment to act.
Mayor of London.

 In the wake of headlines filling our news feed reporting a story, yet again, of a pop culture icon taking advantage of women, be it Russell Brand or “That 70’s Show” star, Danny Masterson, we’re quick to say “enough is enough,” but perhaps the question to ask is “how do we stop it?” What standards are we expecting of men as individuals and as a collective whole? How will they self-edit their interactions with women? What do we expect of men in the workplace, at the gym, at church, or in the public square? We know what we don’t want them to do, leverage their power, privilege, or platform at a woman’s expense, but that’s an undeniably low bar. What could they do to stop each other before their actions get out of hand? 

Before heinous stories of sexual violence are aired on the BBC or CNN, we’re holding the communal line of what we’ll accept from men. 

After learning of the ‘Say Maaate’ campaign—a public information campaign inviting male mates to call each other out when they witness misogynistic tendencies toward women without jeopardizing the friendship thus jeopardizing the influence on each other—I recognized its brilliance lies in its interception of misconduct before it gains momentum or is considered high stakes. Before heinous stories of sexual violence are aired on the BBC or CNN, we’re holding the communal line of what we’ll accept from men, be it sexist jokes or public harassment. This endeavor, which includes bystander intervention, where those within eyeshot or earshot will attempt to distract and intervene in a potentially hazardous situation when men assert unsolicited dominance or advances toward women, is so successful that it’s employed by the United States military and countless higher education universities and colleges in the States. It puts the onus not on the woman impacted during the encounter, but on those around her, to step up and intervene at the first sign of a power imbalance, ranging from a man standing too close, to a woman darting her eyes to avoid eye contact, to outright sexual and verbal harassment. 

Bystander intervention invites the bystander to disrupt the moment, and after the moment has passed, confront the antagonist with either the benefit of the doubt, “maaate,” if deserving, or a “Man, she didn’t like that, read the room.” Lastly, it beckons the bystander to check on the woman who was the recipient of unwanted harassment. Bystander intervention provides much-needed boundary reminders of what we will and won’t accept in a society where the moral arc of the universe desperately needs to bend toward justice. This practice refuses to normalize women’s subjugation or sexualization, it offers a lifeline where there hasn’t been one before, with women left to their own defences against men with no intention of respecting them.  

I feared the ramifications of speaking up against a man with more clout than I. 

Interestingly, men with power—financial, organizational, political, celebrity—perceive themselves to be more attractive, assume women want them, and sexualize interactions with women. In a world where women are often playing by men’s rules, this makes for disastrous outcomes. Far too many women fear they’ll lose access to their place of perceived or actualized power if they speak up for themselves, or other women, who’ve been maligned, even slightly, by men with power and poor intentions. In my own experience, I feared the ramifications of speaking up against a man with more clout than I. How would this affect my social and professional standing in my community? Would others perceive that I have an axe to grind when that wasn’t the case? Would they frame me as prudish? Would they assume I asked for it? Would they assume I’m trying to unnecessarily take down a “good guy.” Instead of speaking up when the stakes were small, after an off-handed comment, sexist joke, or a lingering hug, I assumed this is just how it is, boys will be boys. If I want to get by in this world, I must put up with it. 

If only the men listening would have thrown him a “maaate.”  

Research shows that this pompous approach men exhibit toward women starts on the playground in primary school, gains steam in the locker room in secondary school, cements itself in university culture, (what Americans refer to as “frat culture”) and before we know it, twentysomething men are carrying this toxic idea of what it means to engage women into adult life, and further, it’s celebrated, as was the case of Brand’s public persona. Too often harassment and misogynistic tendencies of any sort equate to validation of masculinity. In this line of thinking, the subtext is that women exist to be dominated, harassed, or taken advantage of for the sheer pleasure of men. This is the genius of bystander intervention; it swiftly reckons with the subtext of a culture hellbent on letting men get away with whatever they want and whoever they want. 

He addresses her harassers, beckoning them to examine their own lives rather than fixate on hers. 

While the Christian church is no stranger to sexual trysts or infractions by men of the cloth, the ethos of Jesus regards women as worthy not of subjugation nor sexual harassment, but respect and dignified engagement. He modeled this respect and casts a vision for women to find solace and safety in men, never harm. 

A great example of bystander intervention in history starts with pious religious leaders attempting to trap the counter-cultural rabbi Jesus by throwing a woman at his feet, alleging she engaged in adultery, a crime, at the time, worthy of public stoning. A clear imbalance of power, with a woman’s life as collateral for trapping Jesus, the religious leaders wondered if he might keep allegiance to the law or break from it. They made the encounter about Jesus; Jesus centered the encounter on protecting the woman who’d been dragged to the public square. Jesus first intervenes by writing in the sand as his answer to the question posed by the leaders. Her physical safety is of utmost importance as evidenced by his actions. Then, he addresses her harassers, beckoning them to examine their own lives rather than fixate on hers. Finally, he checks in with the undoubtedly traumatized woman, a mere prop in an attempt to trap a man who modeled equality and respect between the sexes. 

If bystander intervention was effective 2,000 years ago to protect and uphold women’s dignity and safety, and has modern success in the military and on university campuses, maybe there’s room for the men in our community to prevent harm before it happens? Maybe we can right cultural wrongs? Maybe before learning of Brand’s misconduct, we’ll learn of a bystander who stepped in before a sexist slur was accepted in everyday conversation or intervened when a woman was uncomfortable. Since the issue is not weak femininity but toxic masculinity, maybe men can learn to say, “Enough is enough.” 

Film & TV
5 min read

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: 20 years on

Memory and the meaning of suffering.

Beatrice writes on literature, religion, the arts, and the family. Her published work can be found here

A coupe sit on outdoor steps against a blue sky. One holds a plate and the other looks towards them.
Carrey and Winslet as Joel and Clementine.

Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind came out in 2004. Twenty years on, its stubborn insistence that the memory of pain gives meaning to our lives is as relevant as ever.  

I first watched Gondry’s cult classic earlier this year, in the midst of recovering from postnatal PTSD. When we are faced with heartbreak, it can be easy to wish that we could retreat from painful memories, hiding them away until the initial pang has seemingly died down. That was my experience, at least. But I quickly learnt that the traumatic memory of my daughter’s birth would continue to resurface until I processed it and accepted it as part of my life. Just so, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind teaches us that being vulnerable to suffering is a gift, that suffering itself is necessary to our moral growth, and that our ability to remember the past is an invaluable faculty of the human mind.  

The film begins simply, with a meeting between its protagonists, Joel Barish and Clementine Kruczynski. As Joel and Clementine start making small talk, they seem immediately comfortable, almost familiar with each other, and yet the atmosphere is eerie. Soon enough, we discover that Clementine was a patient at Lacuna, a clinic which erased every memory of Joel from her mind after their two-year relationship ended in a painful breakup. When Joel finds out, he asks Dr. Howard Mierzwiak, the director of Lacuna, to do the same for him. As viewers, we now start to wonder: was that meeting we witnessed their very first, or have they met again after their memories were erased, unaware that they loved each other in a ‘past’ life? 

This tone of disorientation continues throughout the film, and that’s what makes it so special. As Joel’s memories of Clementine are erased one by one, he realises that the removal of one’s painful experiences is in itself a kind of trauma; what promises to be a relief, turns out to be nothing more than loss.  

We experience this sense of disorientation and loss alongside Joel as we jump through snippets of his and Clementine’s happiest and saddest moments together, trying to piece together in our minds a linear narrative of their relationship. While this is happening, the film’s subplot focuses on Stan, Patrick, and Mary, three young people working for Lacuna. As Stan and Patrick, the ‘technicians’, work on Joel’s memory removal, Mary, Lacuna’s naive receptionist, muses on the beauty of their mission. She begins quoting aloud the passage of poetry which inspires the film’s very title, taken from Alexander Pope’s verse epistle Eloisa to Abelard (1717): 

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot! 

The world forgetting, by the world forgot. 

Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind! 

Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d. 

Mary has an idealistic vision of her work: she believes she is helping suffering people experience the kind of ‘eternal sunshine’ that only a ‘spotless mind’ can achieve. But the human mind is not so simple. Joel’s desire for forgetfulness quickly turns nightmarish. As he realises he has made a mistake, he starts fighting to retain the memory of his love for Clementine, but his is a hopeless quest. Dr. Mierzwiak’s intervention ensures that the procedure is completed.  

Left alone without Stan and Patrick, Mary confesses to the married Dr. Mierzwiak that she is in love with him. It is at this point that her idealism crumbles down. He reveals that they’ve already had an affair in the past and that she agreed to let him erase its memory from her mind. Mary is devastated. She decides that what Lacuna is doing is unethical - even if Mierzwiak technically has the patients’ consent to the procedure - and releases the clinic’s files back to the patients. It is this decision which leads Clementine and Joel, just a few days after they ‘meet’ again, to discover that they’ve already loved each other in the past.  

Accepting suffering and holding it in our hearts, not with bitterness, but rather with courage, requires endless patience and infinite hope. 

Although the script of the film doesn’t spell it out, Mary’s story emphasises that the absence of painful memories is in itself experienced as a painful loss. What’s more, it shows that, without the memory of the suffering which we have inflicted on others, and which others have inflicted on us, we are incapable of moral growth. Thanks to the knowledge of the past, Mary is able, this time around, to resist having an affair with a married man. Just so, the final scene of the film, which sees Joel and Clementine vow to renew their relationship, is hopeful not in spite of the fact that they have regained the memory of the ways in which they hurt each other in the past, but precisely because of it.  

Accepting suffering and holding it in our hearts, not with bitterness, but rather with courage, requires endless patience and infinite hope. But that is what we were made for. Each one of us is called to endure pain in imitation of Christ, and, out of that pain, to discover a greater capacity for sacrificial love. We make meaning out of pain: that’s what human beings do.  

The very last lines of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind perfectly express the fruits of this Christ-like acceptance. As Joel reassures Clementine that he can’t see anything he doesn’t like about her, she expresses her doubts and anxieties: ‘But you will! But you will.’, she repeats, ‘You know, you will think of things. And I’ll get bored with you and feel trapped because that’s what happens with me.’ Joel and Clementine look at each other, and, after a pause, they simply say to each other: ‘Okay’. Their ‘okay’ is not an indication that they are doomed to repeat old mistakes. Rather, it signals a new choice: this time, when their relationship becomes difficult, they won’t just run away; this time, they will face discomfort, heartbreak, and disappointment, armed with the knowledge that seeking a sense of permanence by loving another person completely is an inherently valuable pursuit. In accepting the most traumatic parts of our past we grow closer to God; and in bravely deciding to look ahead to the future with hope, we catch a glimpse of the unadulterated joy which we will finally experience in God’s eternity.