As more and more people speak out and distance themselves from Harvey Weinstein, it has become obvious that it is not a single incident or limited to a single person; and that Weinstein paid off accusers for decades. The Hollywood casting couch is legendary, and a documentary in 2014 extensively investigated teenagers being exploited in the industry.
The accusations against Harvey Weinstein are certainly not new as Ashley Judd hinted about her ugly experience in 2015 and this terrifying audio recording also from 2015 has Weinstein pleading with a model telling her he is famous, and asking her not to ruin her ‘friendship’ with him for five minutes.
Weinstein is immensely powerful and probably getting fired from your own company is more a shrewd business move than an admission of guilt or regret. His movies have racked up several Oscars and are cultural phenomena like Pulp Fiction and Good Will Hunting. His clout was such that though these allegations pursued Weinstein for years, it was nothing more than an “open secret”.
This year accusations of sexual abuse and assault against many high profile men such as Bill O’Reilly and Roger Ailes have brought discussions of workplace culture to the fore in the US, even as people wonder why such sexual abuse is condoned, accommodated and not immediately reported. Gawker invited women to report against Harvey Weinstein in 2015 but nothing came out of it.
As another actor, Terry Crews has opened up about being sexually assaulted by another Hollywood executive his tweet is telling:
Who’s going 2 believe you? ( few) What r the repercussions?(many) Do u want 2 work again? (Yes) R you prepared 2b ostracized?(No)(11/cont.)
— terrycrews (@terrycrews) October 10, 2017
He knows who he is. But sumtimes Uhav2 wait & compare notes w/ others who’ve been victimized in order 2gain a position of strength. (13cont)
— terrycrews (@terrycrews) October 10, 2017
Seth McFarlane even joked about it in the 2013 Oscars and everyone laughed and groaned.
Indeed in 2010, a journalist described it as Harvey’s Girls where, “Every few years, Harvey picks a new girl as his pet. He puts her in a picture or two, takes her to an event, and not unlike Cher Horowitz, makes her a project, an attempted creation. The Harvey Girls are easily spotted. They are all very pretty, often in a rather generic sense. Their instant fame and the push behind them comes seemingly out of nowhere and without any justification in terms of resume or skill set…. But the most telling sign, if you’re looking, is the Want. These girls, each of them, has the look of desperation, of need. They WILL be famous. They WILL be stars.”
Exploiting this desire to be famous or be rich or to simply have a job, the casting couch has entered our cultural lexicon as an inherent risk of the job. As a practice that vulnerable women and perpetrators partake in for their mutual benefit, we pass it off with this unhealthy attitude – she was willing and he was ready, ignoring the balance of power that makes this ‘part of the job’ in the first place.
And Weinstein is hardly the only powerful person in Hollywood to face sexual assault allegations but what can be done to ensure that the victims are believed and the perpetrator gets his comeuppance? Is there a mathematical formula [less number of films+ rivalry with brother+ company unable to ignore stink] or a magic number [no, there is no magic number] that has to be reached before it will be addressed?
How can we begin to ‘fix’ the system when our understanding of entertainment industries is premised on promiscuity and sexual favours? In choosing a career at such a wanton place, should women be aware of the ‘risks’ and ‘sacrifices’ they have to make to get to the ‘top’?
It is hard to “make” it in Hollywood and competition is intense and coming forward with an accusation can label you as a ‘sexual victim’ or a false accuser, effectively killing your career. It is also incredibly difficult and scary for survivors to come forward. Other than the fear that no one may believe you, people will also judge and ridicule you and every statement is a wager for credibility and a reliving of that memory. The repercussions of this ‘drama’ on your career will almost certainly be disastrous.
Open secrets are so obvious semantically, but the complicity that it demands is baffling. Prominent men in Hollywood continue to be silent about it as on other issues such as the infamous pay gap. In an era of celebrity culture, we see actors and directors as more than entertainers; they are cultural icons who shape our beliefs and opinions. How then do we explain the intellectual cowardice of some of the most famous stars in the world? Meryl Streep who thanked Weinstein profusely at the Golden Globes in 2012, said she was appalled by these accusations and condemned him, yet why did she defend the child rapist Roman Polanski?
If these accusations were met with support from the film fraternity, would he have been so brazen for so long? Hollywood’s ‘worst kept secret’ where Weinstein’s ‘bad’ behaviour was concerned, was public knowledge.
An open secret is a type of Foucauldian discourse where an intersection of culture, sexuality and power continue to tilt the balance of power in favour of men in workplaces. Everybody knows about it but looks the other way. The open secret reverberates with immense meaning; as it is passed around it establishes power in terms of the effects it can have.
If every member in a community becomes slowly convinced of this power, then use of that power becomes a necessity: a gateway to more power or better jobs or fame or money. Slowly it is institutionalised as part of the system- a minor flaw. Thus it is reinforced from multiple points and the complicity of the community allows the perpetrator the audacity to repeat and repeat and repeat again.
Open secrets are so obvious semantically, but the complicity that it demands is baffling.
Closer home, a cruder pattern can be observed in reactions from the film fraternity when Dileep was arrested for sexual assault. Dileep is described as the most powerful man in the Malayalam film industry also controlled film bodies such as AMMA(Association of Malayalam Movie Artistes) and Film Exhibitors United Organisation of Kerala (FEUOK). The discourse asserted itself: prominent actors who are cultural icons in ‘progressive’ Kerala remained silent.
After getting bail he was quickly reinstated as President of FEUOK. Film fraternity then voiced their support for the ‘mental agony’ that Dileep must have suffered. Many consider the case closed; with the actor out on bail, any remaining evidence including the notorious ‘memory card’ is likely to be buried considering his friendship with top cops and politicians.
Dileep has already started working on his new movie; even as there have been reports that his clout ensured that his ex-wife did not get any good offers. Dileep is definitely not ostracized by what many thought was a ‘fall from grace’. He is still very much in the public eye and ready support from colleagues and powerful men will see to it that he remains powerful professionally.
The victim has since gotten married; did she have to resort to another institution of marriage to uphold her ‘honour’? Unlike Dileep, it remains to be seen if and how she will be welcomed back in the film industry. This is also an essential ingredient of this discourse: any kind of sexual violence leaves its mark on the victim, never the perpetrator. Why else would we not shun the perpetrator immediately?
Such a discourse can be challenged most effectively from the inside. The recently formed Women in Cinema Collective have consistently supported the actress and raised very important questions about treatment of women in the film industry. We don’t have to wait for a certain number to be reached or a stink to be big enough, to discourage sexual assault in any form.
What it takes is to acknowledge and address the issue instead of victim blaming and shaming. The missing stair is a powerful analogy: there is a missing stair in the new house you moved into and though everybody in the house knew about it, they ignored it and remembered to jump over it. In a patriarchal society, the discourse is to normalize sexual abuse as glitches in an otherwise fine moving system. It is only in a rejection of such a dangerous complicity that we can abnormalize it.