By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
It was “an open secret to many in Hollywood and beyond,” writes Ronan Farrow in the new piece at The New Yorker on revelations about the Harvey Weinstein scandal. “Nondisclosure agreements, monetary payoffs, and legal threats [were used] to suppress these myriad stories.”
The article includes allegations of rape and “forcibly performing or receiving oral sex and forcing vaginal sex.” Farrow writes, “Sixteen former and current executives and assistants at Weinstein’s companies told me that they witnessed or had knowledge of unwanted sexual advances and touching at events associated with Weinstein’s films and in the workplace. They and others describe a pattern of professional meetings that were little more than thin pretexts for sexual advances on young actresses and models.” In statements to the New York Times and other media, numerous actresses and models have now spoken out. Angelina Jolie wrote: “I had a bad experience with Harvey Weinstein in my youth, and as a result, chose never to work with him again and warn others when they did.” The BBC reports “In a statement, [Gwyneth] Paltrow alleged that, after Weinstein cast her in the leading role in Emma, he summoned her to his hotel suite, where he placed his hands on her and suggested massages in his bedroom.” The accusations and reports will likely get worse as more women come forward. Already other actresses are coming forward, including Jessica Chastain. Lee Smith reminds us that this story is even worse than we’ve initially been told. “Manhattan’s district attorney knew, too. In 2015, Weinstein’s lawyer donated $10,000 to the campaign of Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance after he declined to file sexual assault charges against the producer.” Journalists were often targets of threats, one quote from Rebecca Traister in Smith’s Weekly Standard piece notes “there were so many journalists on his payroll, working as consultants on movie projects, or as screenwriters, or for his magazine.”
The full story that is emerging is not just one predatory man but a whole team of men and women who helped set up meetings and enabled the behavior. One employee recalled “You just feel terrible because you could tell this girl, very young, not from our country, was now in a room waiting for him to come up there in the middle of the day, and we were not to bother them.”
Toxic masculinity, rape culture and Hollywood
We hear a lot about “toxic masculinity,” often from the kinds of journalists and popular culture figures connected to Hollywood and entertainment circles. We also hear about “mansplaining” and “rape culture,” but rarely in relation to the milieu around Hollywood. These are, after all, ostensibly the good parts of the liberal culture. It is a cliche that the entertainment industry is at the very liberal end of American culture. These are the people who are supposed to be at the forefront of progressive causes, not just fighting racism and against chauvinism, but for equal rights and gay rights and feminism. So why is it that at the center of Hollywood is very real toxic masculinity and rape culture?
The question we must ask is when a culture is underpinned by rape and harassment and women are expected to keep quiet about it in exchange for fame or access to places like Hollywood, how many actresses and women would have been famous had it not been for the rape culture? How many potentially excellent actresses have not made it in Hollywood because they refused to take part in being harassed, groped, forced to come to a room for a “massage”? When we watch films we should consider the missing women, the many thousands, tens of thousands, who refused to be groped, who refused to meet executives in bathrobes in their hotel rooms, refused to give oral sex, and had their careers stymied because of it? If men who wanted to be scientists were often sexually assaulted at the beginning of their career track, how many men would drop out of that career and choose a profession where sexual assault was not par for the course? We would ask this question if it was routine for men to be harassed and “massaged” while working on a cure for diseases, so let’s ask that question about film.
How many excellent actresses have not continued in their careers because of men like this and the culture of silence, bullying, threats and enablers around it? How many performances have not happened because women refused to take part in Hollywood’s rape culture? If the ticket to enter Hollywood is to be sexually assaulted, groped, and asked to put up with men like this, how many women have decided not to continue or had their career’s stymied by the revenge of the powerful entitled men? These are questions we must ask. How has Hollywood’s natural talent been harmed by this, growth stunted due to this behavior?
The most disturbing question that this case reveals is how widespread this phenomenon is. It illustrates that some people, including powerful women, were willing to still shame the victims, accusing them of dressing “sexually.” Many women say that they don’t come forward because this behavior is so common, and because they don’t have allies and don’t feel safe coming forward. Despite what seemed like decades of telling people that sexual harassment is not acceptable, the reality is that even in the most “liberal” or progressive circles in the US, it is not only common but there is active work to silence the victims.
So the question we should be asking is not just about what happened, but more deeply why it happened in the first place; not just why it took so long to come to light, but also what our society lost in the process and how many were victimized unknowingly, victimized by not being able to succeed because they refused to even step into the position of being victims. We need to ask how it is that the same culture that talks so much about “rape culture” and “chauvinism” allows so much rape and chauvinism. It isn’t just a question of hypocrisy. It’s deeper than that. It is people knowingly gives us self-righteous lectures about sexual harassment and then enabling and being part of a culture that increases harassment, that protects assault, and which insulates its own. It makes movies like Spotlight but then allows Spotlight-like behavior. It makes movies about “empowered” women and even depicts men harassing them but then harasses the same women behind closed doors. It makes excuses, claiming its just a few dirty old men who don’t know how to behave in this era, when it knows very well this behavior is unacceptable.
How many women suffered in their careers because they refused to be victims? This is the question people should ask and demand answers to. Maybe its time for Hollywood to have the same requirements of affirmative action and diversity that other institutions and professions have? If we can diversify faculties and judgeships, boards of directors of major companies and staff in federal bureaucracies, why isn’t the entertainment industry more diverse. Is it because rather than being at the forefront of diversity, it is actually one of the last bastions of white privilege and toxic masculinity? Does it make movies and TV series pretending to be diverse to protect itself? Did the “Oscars so white” scandal work to bring diversity or is it simply some lip-service and a facade?