Louis Theroux, Jimmy Savile and the failure to recognise the obvious: misogyny

Cross-posted from: Young Crone
Originally published: 05.10.16

On Sunday night, I watched the Louis Theroux documentary ‘Savile’, which investigated why he (and by extension, others) hadn’t realised who and what the thankfully deceased serial rapist and abuser Jimmy Savile was, back when he interviewed him in 2000. In it, Theroux recognises and acknowledges that he missed certain signs, etc., as did so many others, but at the end, when he finally concludes that we will probably never truly know how Savile got away with so much for so long, he is completely mistaken. Because it’s totally obvious why he did – misogyny. And Theroux, for all his soul-searching, for all his sense of guilt and shame, for all his willingness to research the topic and hear difficult things from victims, including insulting things about his own past involvement with Savile, never stops to analyse the most obvious reason for why he also failed to spot the truth – his own misogyny. As a liberal, lefty guy, he probably doesn’t think he’s sexist at all, and I imagine that if you met him, he probably would come across as very nice and less sexist than a lot of men. Like so many men, because he’s not an out-and-out leering chauvinist pig who thinks women should only exist to attract and service him, he thinks he’s not sexist. BUT. BUT. His misogyny and male entitlement and participation in patriarchy are glaringly obvious in the documentary.

In old footage of him hanging out with Savile, we see him laughing off at least three occasions where Savile sexually harasses, is creepy to, and inappropriate with, much younger women. One of them is a teenage girl. Because she seems to know him, Theroux thinks nothing of the elderly Savile pawing a teenage child right in front of him. In fact, the two men are later seen tumbling out of the restaurant where it occurred laughing and backslapping in full-on male bonding mode. On another occasion, he lightly chastises him for being sleazy with a young woman in a shopping centre, but this seems more like Theroux being embarrassed to be seen in such a public place with a creep as opposed to caring about the woman. He seems, like so many other men do when the other men they are with behave sleazily, more concerned about his companion’s behaviour making him look bad or spoiling a nice time, as opposed to really caring about the affect on the woman.

Then we have the fact that Theroux reveals that he had spoken to three women in 2001 who revealed they had had “relationships” with Savile when they were young. Savile had initiated sexual activities (rape) with one when she was only 15, but Theroux didn’t seem to think anything of this, admitting that he’d excused it in his mind as things being different in the past (except that that was still paedophilia when it happened, Louis, and you knew that at the time of interviewing).

Furthermore, all the people he interviews who still struggle to believe that Savile was a sexual deviant and predator are women. To me, this comes across as the only way he can find to depict and analyse people being taken in is to use the sexist trope of gullible, silly, too-tender hearted women being taken in by a charismatic man for scraps of his attention. And then the sexist trope of a ‘hardened’ female journalist who he tries to insinuate didn’t care enough about other women and children to pursue rumours she’d heard about Savile as a junior reporter. It’s quite obvious why these women never experienced the creepy side of Savile: because they were older, working women, with their own money, with husbands and supportive families and employers, etc. They were safe because trying to harass or abuse them would be more difficult, be harder to explain away and would offer less taboo thrills than other potential victims. They were safe because the psychopath Savile correctly identified that it would be safer for their use to him to be as fawning employees instead of victims. It’s also obvious why, as a young woman starting out in what was (is) a notoriously macho industry, the journalist didn’t keep pushing at a topic that all her male bosses refused to take seriously or publish anything about.

It’s as though Savile got away with it because of women: because women didn’t speak out, because vulnerable, abused teenage girls weren’t vocal enough, because women who worked with him deliberately blinded themselves to his true nature and because female journalists were traitors to their sex. I’m sure that this is not Theroux’s conscious belief, but it is how he has portrayed the situation in the documentary. Part of his own internalised patriarchy is only being able to understand, view, and present the situation using the tropes of gender and misogyny common in our culture: that we look to women for where the blame lies when a man’s behaviour becomes criminal, and even more so when that criminal behaviour is sexual or violent and specifically directed at women and girls. Even for crimes of this magnitude, people’s default misogynist reaction is to cherchez la femme, however tenuously. In his defence, Theroux would no doubt say that he chose those individuals because they too were people who had worked with him who’d be taken in and that was his angle, but why, then, had he not interviewed some of the numerous men who had worked closely with Savile for many years?

It was telling that all the other interviewees were women – it gave me the impression of a man being a tourist in the world of women, where men can get away with doing whatever they want to women and girls, because no-one will listen, no-one will care, because there isn’t sufficient language or social conventions to describe and to speak out about the crimes men commit against us, and because no-one (and I mean men) will take them sufficiently seriously to accept the reality and do anything concrete about making the huge changes required of men to stopping these crimes and problems.

And as a tourist, Theroux obviously seemed shocked, saddened and angry at what he discovered. He refused to let his failings or gullibility be compared to the suffering of Savile’s victims, or claim that his own gullibility had been any less than that of the women who had known and adored Savile. He did sincerely grasp at some sense of his own part in the matter, not letting himself off the hook, wondering briefly at one stage if there might have been fewer victims if he had managed to expose him in 2000, for example. The only problem is, he didn’t grasp the real, deeper problems, which he himself is part of, the real problems which allows and even promotes everything committed against women and children, day in, day out, sunrise, sunset: masculinity, misogyny, patriarchy. He could grasp at his having some culpability in this matter of one man, yet ironically, the much bigger issue of his culpability in the misogynists patriarchy that made Savile’s crimes possible and hidden for so long didn’t even register with him. That is actually the more pressing problem than a youngish, impressionable man being hoodwinked by a then-well-loved celebrity 16 years ago.

As a tourist, Louis Theroux can leave, and he did, without any real, useful grasp of why Savile did what he did, or how he managed to get away with it all (I will concede that the sheer scale of his offending, the long time period, the breadth of his perversions, from alleged necrophilia, to groping paralysed children, to exposing himself to young women who came to his home for professional reasons, etc., do give him and his crimes an air of seeming like a ‘one-off’, which they thankfully – or hopefully – are in terms of their enormity). He is, like so many men, even the nicest and best men we may personally know and be related to or romantically involved with, blind to the system of patriarchy that makes these things possible, because the privilege he receives for being part of it comes precisely from learning to be blind to, or to excuse, minimise or normalise, the violent and misogynist behaviour of other men. Of denying their own part too: beta males like Theroux grinning awkwardly while an alpha creep like Savile speaks sleazily to a member of Theroux’s own staff, culminating with “now walk away slowly” so he can admire her rear, gives out the clear signal that Savile can get away with that behaviour and that Theroux won’t offer protection or respect to his female staff if it involves not putting another man first. Such small actions are the foundations on which the monoliths of misogynist crimes against women are built and the supports that keep patriarchy and its crimes strong and ongoing. Men refuse to see or accept that not being like that themselves does not equal not being part of the problem or that not reacting is, in fact, complicity.

As a tourist to the world of women, Theroux seems to have come to the conclusion that virtually all men who venture close enough to appear to care come to – that to be a girl then a woman means being at near-constant threat of abuse, rape, violence, exploitation, death, and more, and that this is sad, and bad, and wrong… but that they cannot see why it is that way, or what can change. Their ultimate summary is always the same, always so woefully lacking in any real analysis or soul-searching: that a few random men – let’s ignore the fact that at least two women a week are killed by men in the UK, or that there were 800,000 reported rapes alone last year (the true figure is way higher), or that the official figure (again, much higher in reality) of women who suffered domestic abuse last year is 1.4 million, so possibly sliiiightly more than a few random men – seem to pose a threat to women, and no-one really knows why, or how to stop them, or how we can spot them, or why they get away with it, or why people refuse to believe they are guilty. They do not understand that they cannot see them because they are looking for monsters instead of looking in the mirror or at their friends, family and colleagues. And they keep insisting that they cannot see, because to do so would be painful.

It is as though this is somehow the natural state of being a woman (and therefore violence and abuse is that of being a man, except #notallmen, sigh), that it exists innately and has not been made thus (because that would mean acknowledging that it can be unmade, which involves them giving up their privilege and entitlement) and all society can do is try to ameliorate things in some vague way, even though, by their analysis, no-one knows how to identify the problems, the problem men or what to do about them, so in what form that amelioration would take is never explored. Possibly because men like Theroux are just decent enough to know deep down that this is a cop-out, a failure, an insult. But more likely that they think just seeing that all that is wrong and needs to change is enough of a contribution to a solution on their part. After all, the sad truth is that even by recognising these things, they’ve already done more than most men. In this sense, Theroux’s guilt is more of an emotional self-indulgence than any real lesson learnt.

In the end, it is a form of grief tourism, nothing more. One more be added to the list of liberal men assuaging nagging feelings of guilt about or complicity with more monstrous examples of masculinity by thinking that acknowledging a problem at all solves anything, or by thinking that they are the first people to identify this problem or to investigate it or speak out. It is a modern chivalry: acting as though men are the real humans and own women and must protect them somehow, but, if they can’t find a solution, then there isn’t one, and if they can’t identify the real reason why a solution is needed then there’s no point in one at all. It is a game, a game to make them feel good, and if they can’t do that, they give up and move on to what will. The idea that women already know the problem and could have the agency, voice and power to do something about it doesn’t really occur to them, or at least occur to them as a good or workable idea. No, they conveniently decide that there is nothing to be done, but feel briefly sorry for women when they get a glimpse of their world. Then move on. Nothing to see here, nothing to be done. Onto the next right-on subject, liberal men. Godspeed.



4 thoughts on “Louis Theroux, Jimmy Savile and the failure to recognise the obvious: misogyny”

  1. Above comment is exactly what I put when sharing post on social media. I hope Theroux reads it too. The kind of wholesale cultural shift necessary for the child abuse enquiry to succeed (Beatrice Campbell Guardian article) has its roots in this analysis.

  2. I’ve just started watching this (after reading commentary about it – including Theroux’s – all week). It’s very interesting that the first interview references this fact – she talks about how this is what she expected from men; this is how men treated her and so she didn’t know any different. You couldn’t really ask for a clearer statement of the fact that this is a systemic, not an individual problem.

    1. (In case it’s not clear, I’m agreeing with people here, not claiming that he is highlighting the influence of patriarchy.)

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