PORTLAND, Ore. — Three days before The Times published its story detailing Arnold Schwarzenegger's alleged groping of six women, a friend of mine who works in the movie industry was sitting in my kitchen asking the question, "Why doesn't anyone seem to care about Arnold's reputation for sexual harassment?" She was puzzled and frustrated. "Everybody in the business knows about it," she said, noting the several cases that she was privy to, "but it doesn't even seem to register."
Now that it's made the press, will it matter? Probably not. So late in the game, the revelations are easily dismissed as last-minute dirty politics, much the way the eleventh-hour report of George W. Bush's drunk-driving arrest never got any traction. And with the hours running down on the preelection clock, Schwarzenegger was quick to acknowledge that he had "behaved badly sometimes" and to say that what "I thought then was playful" he now recognized had "offended people."
But who are these people? Who, besides the specific women who had to endure an unwelcome paw up their shirts and under their skirts, is offended — and why are so many not offended?
Even before The Times' piece, Schwarzenegger's bad behavior toward women had made the rounds. Premiere magazine offered chapter and verse on Schwarzenegger's molesting tendencies two years ago, and the Oui interview in which he bragged about nailing that babe in a gang bang has been endlessly recycled. None of it seems to have had an effect on the very constituency that expressed the most disgust over reports of Bill Clinton's philandering: American men.
Tarred with the same sexual-harassment brush, Schwarzenegger and Clinton emerged with mirror-opposite gender gaps. Clinton rode an ever-larger female gender advantage to election in both campaigns (a whopping 17-percentage-point gap in 1996), while Schwarzenegger owes his lead in the polls to a lopsidedly male following, with 45% of men supporting him in the latest survey, compared with only 36% of women. Why the difference between the two pols with the wandering eyes?
Given that Schwarzenegger owes his fame to Hollywood, maybe it's only fitting to find the answer on the silver screen, in Neil LaBute's acute dissection of American gender pathologies, "In the Company of Men." The 1997 movie told the story of Chad, the gotta-be-on-top corporate striver, and the pact he coercively forges with his more sensitive and flabby co-worker, Howard, to compete for the honors of seducing and then humiliating a deaf woman.
Howard identifies with the woman's plight and falls for her; Chad, meantime, goes in for the kill, humiliating both the woman and — maybe more to the point — Howard. "Never lose control," Chad tells Howard. "That is the total key to the universe."
Clinton was perceived by men as having lost this control, and worse, lost it to a series of women. He may have been the aggressor, but as a seducer he really meant to seduce, thus exposing an almost feminine sort of desire and vulnerability. For this, he was humiliated, held up like Howard for ridicule in male eyes. No wonder so many women empathized with Clinton: He was essentially shamed like a fallen woman.
Schwarzenegger, on the other hand, is Chad the "playful" cad, going after women, sniggering frat-boy style, for the score. Sex isn't even the prime object here: The women in the Times story were manhandled, not seduced. There is no warning, no courtship (unless you count such romantic come-ons as "I'd love to work you out"); the hand darts into their underclothes like a bolt from the blue, a preemptive strike. "Did he rape me? No," one woman said, recalling the time Schwarzenegger allegedly grabbed her breast. "Did he humiliate me? You bet he did."
Humiliation so often seems to be the theme in these tales of Schwarzenegger's conquests, humiliation not just of women but — perhaps even more notably — of the men these women "belong" to. One woman said she was groped by Schwarzenegger when she went to Gold's Gym to watch her husband, Schwarzenegger's bodybuilding rival, the former Mr. Universe Robby Robinson.
"What he did was uncalled for, but I couldn't say nothing," Robinson said; fear of exile from the bodybuilding business kept him mum. A similar dynamic was at work in an episode recounted in an earlier Times story, where Schwarzenegger was said to have used the wife of Don Peters, another bodybuilding competitor, to shame her — and him.
According to the article, after Schwarzenegger had bedded the woman, he picked up a phone and, claiming he was dialing his lawyer to reschedule an appointment, asked her to take the receiver. It turned out the number he dialed was her husband's, and while she held the phone, Schwarzenegger yelled into it these words, cleaned up by The Times' censors: "I just [made love to] her! I just [made love to] her!" As Tina Turner would say, what's love got to do with it?
A Schwarzenegger spokesman told The Times that the episode with Peters and his wife was just a case of "locker room humor." Which actually explains a good deal of Schwarzenegger's appeal to male voters. He comes out of the testosterone-ruled world of weight rooms and action movies, where women are the designated observers and adorners, and where men find their place in the wolf pack through a well-established ordeal of hazing and humiliation.
The men who don't make it to the top in that world still have the compensation of identifying with the one man who does, as long as they don't identify with any of the women, as long as they don't "say nothing." They still belong to the pack, by virtue of being male.
No matter how much sand gets kicked in their face, they still can fantasize that one day they, too, like Charles Atlas, will do enough leg lifts to rise in the ranks. At a time of deep economic and international insecurity, the easy power of the bully boy is a siren call to the American male populace, as evidenced by President Bush's continuing allure to the very men whose interests are least served by his domestic and foreign policies. The locker room game works as long as only men get to play, and only as long as they agree to play by certain rules. One rule is that sensuality is verboten, but aggressive jocularity is not. Humiliating women in a "playful" way can signal a powerful rejection of "the feminine" and a powerful reinforcement of male bonding.
That rejection of the feminine explains why, in the gubernatorial debate, Schwarzenegger seemed inordinately fixated on shutting down Arianna Huffington, (whose poll numbers barely registered in the contest). ). When all that interrupting and haranguing didn't work, he resorted to a veiled threat of physical humiliation, implied in the remark, "I have a perfect part for you in 'Terminator 4.' " As much as Schwarzenegger denied it later, it's hard to imagine what part he had in mind but the famous one assigned the uppity female robot in "Terminator 3," whose face he buried in a toilet bowl. And even that fate he evidently found to be insufficient degradation; as he told Entertainment Weekly, "I wanted to have something floating in there."
Funny, right? Not to Huffington. "It's a continuum of a lack of respect," she remarked to me a few days after the debate, "from not putting a single woman on your economic team, to bullying a woman at a debate, to treating women in such a humiliating way in the course of your daily life." Now Huffington is out of the race and we're back in the all-male locker room of American politics. Indeed, Schwarzenegger's public drubbing of his female rival may have only elevated him in that boys-only arena.
Women's anger about rape and harassment is exacerbated by the knowledge that their attackers are after power, not sex. In American politics, it's the opposite. Harassment is deemed more acceptable if it's not about sex but is part of a locker room power dynamic between the boys. The gender gap is really between those afraid of bullying and those afraid of intimacy. Women will forgive a politician's lapse if it at least seems motivated by a susceptibility to desire or emotion. Men afraid of sensuality will forgive the same act (and actor) as long as the behavior can be laughed off as winner-take-all sport.
Susan Faludi is the author of "Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man" and "Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women."
Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times