TW: domestic abuse
The passing of actor Sean Connery, best known for his on-screen portrayal of super-spy James Bond, has made headlines in seemingly every major outlet.
It has also led to an outpouring of tributes by many, from fellow James Bond star Daniel Craig to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Predictably, obituary pieces have mainly been comprised of glowing, play-by-play breakdowns of Connery’s life and career. The Associated Press, for instance, gushed that he was “a lion of movies” and that “writing an appreciation of [him] feels inevitably inadequate compared to experiencing the real thing.”
To be clear: Connery’s acting achievements were substantial and they merit recognition. I have no intention of disputing that. Additionally, his loved ones and friends are of course entitled to grieve, while anyone who worked with him or with whom his work resonated is well within their rights to appreciate his talent and professional achievements.
Speaking as a woman, a feminist and a human being, however, it is disturbing to say the least that so much media coverage of his life at best merely pays lip service to, and sometimes completely ignores, this widely-admired celebrity’s not-so-admirable features. As consumers, moreover, we cannot and should not ignore the fact that Connery’s life and career were dogged both by his publicly expressed misogynistic opinions, and by allegations suggesting that he acted on them.
Connery set the problematic ball rolling in a 1965 interview with Playboy. In it, for reasons known only to himself, he was quoted as saying that, “I don’t think there is anything particularly wrong about hitting a woman […] If a woman is a bitch, or hysterical, or bloody-minded [i.e. argumentative or difficult for no reason] continually, then I’d do it.” Because, of course, nothing bad has ever come out of a man calling a woman difficult, hysterical or a bitch.
In 1987, he elaborated that slapping a woman was acceptable “if you have tried everything else” — which could happen because, after all, women just “can’t leave it alone” sometimes. This was followed by a 1993 interview with Vanity Fair, in which he claimed that his previous words had been taken out of context—before saying that “sometimes there are women who take it to the wire […] they want a smack.” What a gentleman.
In 2005, the world first became aware of the possibility that Connery might have followed through on his words when, in her autobiography My Nine Lives, actress Diane Cilento alleged that he had both physically and psychologically abused her during their eleven-year marriage. This isn’t mentioned at all in Associated Press’s gushing obituary, funnily enough.
It’s an omission inescapably reminiscent of the recent trailer and press release for a BBC documentary on athlete and convicted murderer Oscar Pistorius. Both lauded his accomplishments and sensationalized his trial; the name of Reeva Steenkamp, the woman he killed, wasn’t mentioned once.
A year later, Connery responded to the growing controversy by stating that “I don’t believe that any level of abuse of women is ever justified under any circumstances,” conveniently sidestepping the obvious reasons why this clarification was necessary in the first place.
Naturally, to insist on drawing attention to the above is to take a divisive stance. Russia Today, for instance, lamented that “it used to be a thing to not speak ill of the dead”—to which I’d reply that a person’s ‘flaws’ (to put it mildly) don’t just evaporate after their passing. Assuming that her allegations were truthful, the instances of abuse described by Cilento would still be very real to her today, had she not predeceased Connery in 2011. Equally immaterial are the protestations of some that Connery should be left alone, since having passed on he can no longer defend himself. The problem here, as we’ve already seen, is that Connery had multiple chances to defend himself and each time, save for his U-turn in 2006, he came out with something equally dodgy.
And no, I don’t care that ‘it was a different time’ either. The fact that sexism was more widely accepted back then probably didn’t make women feel any better about having to put up with it. To paraphrase Stephen Fry, to say “Well, [he] couldn’t have known better because nobody else did” is not a good enough excuse.
Whatever your opinions on him, the fact remains that Connery was a prominent and often celebrated public figure, and public figures need to be held accountable both during and after their lives. To fail to do so risks invalidating and trivialising the experiences of the vast numbers of women who have had to deal with men doing everything from expressing similar opinions to committing acts of violence, domestic or otherwise. For those women, and for any other abuse survivors (regardless of their gender or the abuser’s), it doesn’t help to list reasons why they or anyone else shouldn’t tarnish the (proven or alleged) offender’s good name. Because he’s a good doctor. Because she gets on fine with her colleagues/friends. Because he raised loads of money for charity. I’m not a survivor of abuse and I’ve been relatively sheltered from sexist men, but does ‘because he won an Oscar’ really soundly better?
Untimately, in the future, any examination of Connery’s life and achievements needs—in the interests of accuracy and balance (if not of respect for Cilento’s memory and, you know, basic ethics)—to acknowledge both his documented prejudice and his alleged violent actions. We can’t pretend that their wrongness is lessened by his talent, and we can’t just brush them aside and forget. Women—and domestic abuse survivors, of all genders—deserve better.
Words by Emma Curzon
See this list from BBC Action Line for organisations that offer support to anyone affected by domestic violence.
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