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Conan the Vulgarian

October 05, 2003|Susan Faludi | Susan Faludi is the author of "Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man" and "Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women."

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?

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