In 1961 a Lillian Hellman play (circa 1930’s) was adapted to film. It raised eyebrows and hackles as it slipped into neighbourhood movie theatres across America. Polite people didn’t openly say the word lesbian as a rule back then much less make it the focus of a movie and more than one religious-right group had it banned from their town. Thing is, the movie wasn’t about lesbians – it was about how quick the public is to embrace hearsay as truth and the ensuing collective knee-jerk reaction that causes permanent damage to those accused before the facts are ever brought to light.
As actresses, Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine took a lot of flack for their portrayal of two single teachers wrongly accused of being lesbians by one of their students. The fact of their characters’ innocence made no difference to those offended by the topic. The movie itself was actually falsely labelled perverse before movie-goers had a chance to see for themselves it was neither sexually explicit nor about lesbians – ironically reinforcing the entire moral of the story.
Regardless of a person’s defense of or offense taken, the movie made a strong statement about the manipulation of public opinion: Once an accusing finger has been pointed there will be those who forever believe the accusation in spite of any evidence ultimately pointing to the contrary. It is the epitomy of the old adage – Once a bell is rung it can never be un-rung.
Karen and Martha are longtime friends who open a school for girls. They are hard-working, good teachers and the school attracts many affluent families. Karen has a boyfriend, Martha does not but Karen and her boyfriend include Martha in everything they do. The women’s strong bond and warm personalities contribute to their success as teachers.
Enter the mean girl, Mary, who’s punished for telling a lie and gets even with her teacher by beginning a rumour that the two schoolteachers are lovers. Before the rumour can be disproved, parents pull their daughters from the school and the two women are shunned by the town.
The disgrace and violence the women endure as a result of the false accusation is sadly no different from what happens today. As a society we are every bit too quick to pass judgement now as we were 60-70-80 years ago. Especially when we feel our children may be at risk.
If this is a movie you’ve never seen, I strongly recommend it. The acting is superb and the story is gripping.
This is my head’s up to you because over the next few days I’d like to open a discussion about last month’s events at Penn State. It’s not a happy story – not for anyone – but certain contradictory facts are beginning to bubble to the surface and I’d seriously like to be able to talk about them with you.
Here’s a bit from tomorrow’s post: