Actors, as a species, tend to be dramatic, so I wasn’t particularly surprised by Charlize Theron’s hyperbolic faux pas in comparing her experiences of press intrusion to rape.
The actress made her remarks in an interview with Sky, saying she didn’t Google herself as she wouldn’t want to see internet gossip about her private life, because, she claimed: “When you start living in that world, and doing that, you start feeling raped.”
The backlash was immediate and predictable. Sky invited Jill Saward, a campaigner and survivor of the infamous “vicarage rape”, to admonish Theron for her insensitivity, and she was also criticised by several victim support groups, who accused her of trivialising the effects of the crime.
It was an ill-advised analogy, but in the grand scheme of crimes against womankind, Theron’s choice of words is not worth getting worked up about. Theron was talking about her own experience, and if that is how she perceives things, does anyone have the right to demand an apology?
The actress has been involved in several anti-rape campaigns in her home country of South Africa, highlighting the fact that a woman is raped there every 26 seconds. She has also played a rape victim in the film, North Country, so it seems unlikely she could be completely ignorant of the impact of the crime, or indeed, of her words.
Theron is certainly not the first celebrity to come under fire for misappropriating the word in this way. Kristen Stewart and Johnny Depp both apologised after comparing paparazzi intrusion to rape. Politicians are not immune either, with a Tory councillor recently hitting the headlines for likening land development to a sex attack.
Whilst it is easy to deride Theron as a spoilt woman who is paid millions to do enjoyable work, she hasn’t always led the most charmed of lives. Her mother shot dead her alcoholic father in front of the 15-year old Charlize in 1991, after he attacked both his wife and daughter, so we know she has significant experience of domestic abuse, if not sexual violence. She may have grasped the wrong word in seeking to convey the intensity of her feelings – many would prefer it if she had settled on “violated” instead - but I do not believe her intention was to denigrate the crime or to diminish its seriousness.
Words are important, but so is freedom of expression. There is nothing worse than a reluctant apology being dragged out of someone who doesn’t mean it, like a naughty school kid saying a sarcastic “sorry” to the teacher. Public anger should be directed towards the perpetrators of the crime, and towards rape apologist judges who hand down lenient sentences. The utterings of a Hollywood actress are the least of our worries, and policing one woman’s words won’t give a voice to the millions who have none.