Caroline Colvin discusses the social implications of sexual assault allegations against famed Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.
Trigger warning for mentions of sexual assault
From the #MeToo’s solemnly lining your Facebook feed to investigations launched by Scotland Yard, it seems once again the issues of sexual assault and gender-based violence are at the forefront.
Journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey blew Hollywood open last month by revealing how Harvey Weinstein, a renowned Hollywood television and film producer, has been paying off those who accuse him of sexual assault. This doesn’t just concern a one-off incident: this has been taking place since the early 1990s, in the U.S. and U.K., over and over and over again.
Most notably, Weinstein reached a settlement with actress Rose McGowan in 1997 and model Ambra Battilana-Gutierrez after a 2015 incident. But those encounters are just the tip of the iceberg. Most of the people Weinstein sexually harassed and assaulted did not even get to the point where they could take legal action. And herein lies the problem: a culture of complicitness and a strictly enforced “code of silence.”
In 1997, Asia Argento also experienced unwanted sexual advances from Weinstein. So did Ashley Judd. So did Mira Sorvino a few years before. So did Emma de Caunes in 2010, Jessica Barth in 2011 and Lupita Nyong’o, too, when she was still a student at Yale University. So did Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie. So did Lea Seydoux.
Every survivor’s story follows a similar pattern. As a bright, young actress looking for a breakthrough, they leap at the the chance to meet with a powerful Hollywood producer like Weinstein. He invites them to his hotel under the guise of talking roles, and suddenly they find themselves alone at dinner or alone in his hotel room. He switches the script from business to personal, exposing himself to the person in question and pestering them to give him a massage.
Sometimes, after a tense exchange, they’ll leave unscathed. But many survivors will be forced to endure more from Weinstein, much to his almost unbothered delight.
There are some variations. In her Weinstein encounter, Cara Delevingne was subjected to both invasive questioning about her sex life with female partners and derision for her sexuality.
Of course, the way they “suddenly” find themselves alone isn’t so sudden. Many executives at Weinstein Company, particularly women, were enlisted by Weinstein to be a trap for his targets. They would sit in on the first half of meetings to help put actresses at ease. It’s clear that Weinstein had this process of ensnarement and coercion down to a science.
The Weinstein story and its details all point to a bigger truth: that gender hierarchy is still alive and well today, and permeates every aspect of our lives. Elevated to a god-like status by his peers, Weinstein felt he could get away with whatever he wanted. With an immense amount of social, political and financial power at his disposal, he could.
We live in a world where no matter how talented a woman is in her field, her body is considered first. Sure, there is a certain aspect of physicality crucial to some arts, acting among them. But the way Weinstein objectified these women is uncalled for. He abused the fact he held their futures in his grubby hands. These sexual assault allegations speak to the sense of entitlement men in positions of power feel toward women’s bodies.
Weinstein is addicted to abusing women, to humiliating women, to violating women. Weinstein is addicted to power and his ability to abuse it
— Ijeoma Oluo (@IjeomaOluo) October 11, 2017
Don't allow the dialogue around Weinstein to perpetrate the harmful belief that sexual assault is about sex. It never is.
— Ijeoma Oluo (@IjeomaOluo) October 11, 2017
Over the past two decades, business associates of Weinstein’s have aided and abetted sexual assault – if not directly, then by maintaining the “open secret” of Weinstein’s behaviour; and if not by covering for the acts themselves, by creating a culture of fear where no one at the company or in Hollywood felt as if they could speak out.
Some of the ways rape culture is perpetuated in the arts community aren’t so subtle. According to reports from McGowan, Ben Affleck knew about Weinstein’s behavior and did nothing. Quentin Tarantino knew and did nothing. Lindsay Lohan has come out to defend Weinstein. Fashion designer Donna Karan has asked if the survivors coming forward were asking for it. Woody Allen, who has been accused of child sexual abuse, likened pursuit of Weinstein allegations to a “witch hunt.”
Weinstein’s legal team is known to be ruthless and relentless. It’s no surprise Argento, Sorvino, de Caunes, Barth, Nyong’o, Judd and many others all reported feeling as if they couldn’t say a word against Weinstein’s reputation. Retaliation in the form of blacklisting was surely in store. As young actors looking to break into that tight-knit, cut-throat circle called Hollywood, that was a risk they could not afford.
Many of these actors did go on to find great success, but at what cost? As cinephiles, we claim to value these artists. But from the pervasiveness of Weinstein’s mistreatment of women, it’s clear we do not value these actors as people. It doesn’t matter how talented or beloved these women are. As a woman, your personal excellence will not erase the gender-based violence you will come up against. The concept of shattering a “glass ceiling” is a myth. If anything, that ceiling is lined with polycarbonate to catch bullets: it’s impenetrable, if not completely shatterproof.
Deep-seated issues like this one don’t go away overnight. The main way we can start stripping away the layers of misogyny and violence hanging over our communities is by holding people accountable. This means legal action as well as social action.
The burden of defending a workplace from sexual predation cannot be carried alone by women and our whisper network.
— Helen Rosner (@hels) October 6, 2017
It seems the film industry has already started to stand up in small ways. Judi Dench, as well as Kate Winslet, Meryl Streep, Mark Ruffalo and Judd Apatow, have publicly condemned Weinstein. BAFTA revoked his membership. Shortly after, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts did the same and the Television Academy are looking for proper punishment to fit allegations against him.
First and foremost, as lovers of the arts, we must also stop supporting abusers and their enablers moving forward. In Weinstein’s case, this doesn’t mean forget that you ever loved “Arthur and the Invisibles” and “The Great Debaters” as a kid. This doesn’t mean that now “Project Runway” or “Inglorious Basterds” or “A Single Man” or “Django Unchained” or “The Butler” or “The Imitation Game” or “Peaky Blinders” can’t make your heart sing as an adult. But it does mean we have to think critically about what we put our love toward and our money into in the years to come.
Weinstein has since been fired from his company and has resigned from its board. At the very least, this means the hex Weinstein has cast over Hollywood and adjacent film industries has been broken. But there are countless other sexual predators who still haven’t answered for their abuses and remain on our artistic pedestals. It’s through taking a stand (long-term, not just when fresh allegations are on a front page) that we can follow through on the conversations about gender hierarchy and sexual assault.