Allegations of harassment, assault, rape; rumors of sexist comments, misogynist attacks and demeaning work environments. Suspensions. NDAs. Lawsuits. Behind all those words is damage. So much damage, destruction and pain.
Harvey Weinstein’s history of allegedly sexually harassing actresses and assistants and many others finally cost him his job, the Weinstein Co. announced Sunday night, due to pressure created by the New York Times’ explosive report on settlements reached with at least eight women going back decades. As more victims came out of the woodwork during the weekend, the Weinstein Co. board finally decided that the company’s business was threatened enough to take the step of firing Harvey from the company he founded with his brother, Bob Weinstein, in 2005.
So that’s one powerful man who has lost his job. But then there’s our president, whose national reputation was cemented in NBC’s primetime block, and who boasted of his aggressive sexual behavior with women to another television personality. Who laughed.
One year ago, it wasn’t just Trump’s comments on the “Access Hollywood” tape that made many women feel hopeless. It was the giggling complicity of the well-paid TV anchor, then “Access Hollywood” host Billy Bush, beside him. Bush lost his job as a co-anchor of “Today” over his half of an infamous 2005 conversation with Donald Trump that was caught on a hot mic. Trump won the presidential election in spite of its disclosure just weeks before the 2016 presidential election.
How? What can be done to combat the malignant behavior that has been part of the fabric of the entertainment industry since its earliest days?
Let me be clear: There is a powerful toxicity at the heart of the media and entertainment businesses, which are so competitive that those seeking entry are ripe targets for abuse and cruelties of all kinds. For those with no power or little influence — and those people are mostly women, but also people of color, the disabled and LGBT individuals — the prospects for positive change often look elusive at best.
Despite a few evolutions regarding representation, so many depressing questions and exhausting doubts remain. Will the industry ever let go of its willingness to turn a blind eye to gross behavior, harassment, rape, and assault? In their pursuit of access to power and the next big hit, will those who could change the culture — most of them men — put themselves on the line to eradicate or reduce the abusiveness that, at times, seems baked into the DNA of the entertainment industry?
Those core strands of DNA could be decoded thusly: In order to create or tell compelling stories, storytellers and those who support them need to be able to break the rules. Not just on the page or on the soundstage, but in real life, they should be allowed to violate the norms of civil society and common decency.
I know plenty of gifted artists who’ve created valuable work and who have somehow avoided assaulting, harassing and demeaning the less powerful. There are award winners, executives, writers, producers and actors who have resisted and refused the propagation of a sexist, racist and homophobic entertainment-industry culture, and their careers have done just fine.
So when it comes to changing Hollywood culture, it’s quite simple: If you’re not an active part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.
I’m not writing this for the men who treat women as inanimate objects. I don’t think this piece will change the actions of the predators in this industry. Do I think it’ll change the ways of companies that employ or fund men like Ailes and Weinstein? Do I think it’ll change the behavior of the agent who told a Vulture reporter that the reaction to the New York Times article on Weinstein was “much ado about nothing”? Not really.
But maybe, just maybe, I can get some bystanders and enablers to change their ways. Maybe some of the men who need to hear this will listen. This is what I want you to remember and print in large letters and hang on your office wall:
If you tolerate abusive words, sexist actions and the violation of women’s boundaries in your presence, you are letting misogynists and assaulters think their behavior is normal and acceptable.
You either improve environments in which the less powerful — most of them women — are demeaned, derided, harassed, assaulted, and attacked, or you allow the toxicity to spread and grow.
Think about the women you work with, the women you talk to in meetings or on set. Have you seen someone put their hands where they shouldn’t? Have you seen a woman who is clearly uncomfortable being loomed over or intimidated by a man who will not let up? Have you said nothing when a man talked about the bitch who wouldn’t go out with him? Are you silent when someone talks about a woman’s body parts as if they weren’t attached to a human being?
Have you tolerated situations in which women are talked down to, shouted down, patronized or relentlessly hit on? Have you done nothing when women who set clear boundaries and call out unacceptable behavior are accused of being unable to take a joke and ostracized? In those situations, do you say nothing?
Have you heard about someone who “has a reputation” for behaving inappropriately and just shrugged your shoulders? When women talk about the exhausting and demeaning verbal and physical incursions they endure, do you believe them? Do you lecture them on what they should do differently? Or do you listen, show compassion, and call out the men who do these kinds of things?
Do you see men repeatedly refusing to hire or promote women in various professional capacities, and say nothing? Are you silent when a storyteller proposes rape or violent assault as the main method of character growth for a fictional female, or the death or rape of a woman as a key motivator for a male character?
Not all men have the same amounts of power (and sometimes it’s powerful women who are complicit — or not). But if it does not jeopardize your mental health or physical safety to take action, do something. Say something. Do your bit to tear down the entertainment-industry culture that has continued to nurture, cover for and explain away the destruction perpetrated by monsters — and by their lackeys, acolytes and enablers.
If they are open to the conversation, ask the women around you what they’ve experienced. What they tell you might surprise you — or it may not. Either way, you can’t call yourself an ally of women, much less a feminist, unless you’re willing to listen, educate yourself and take constructive action.
Listen to TV writer Carina MacKenzie, who was just one of many women writing valuable advice on Twitter in the wake of the New York Times’ story on Weinstein.
“Harvey set a tone in this industry and there are a thousand men who have been taught it’s OK to follow in his footsteps,” MacKenzie wrote. “But you know who is also complicit? EVERY man who sees it and laughs. Or shrugs it off. Or says, ‘You know he’s kidding, right?’’
Listen to “Better Call Saul” writer Gennifer Hutchison, who wrote: “The best way for men to help is to use their privilege to support women. Take action against the abuser — don’t cover it up. Don’t make excuses. Don’t say stuff like ‘But what about his career?’ He’s responsible. Believe women when they tell you this happened. The biggest thing though? Confront other men when it’s just you dudes alone talking and they say shit like ‘grab em by the p*ssy.’”
Don’t simply express shock that these kinds of things occur and leave it at that. As columnist Melissa McEwan wrote, “maintaining veneer of perpetual shock inoculates [men] against expectations to hold other men accountable.”
One more thing: “Don’t blame victims for not coming forward,” Hutchison wrote. “Blame the powerful folks who knew and helped cover it up. The ones who had little to lose.”
Jessica Chastain was one of a number of women in Hollywood who went on record supporting those who came forward in the Times piece (in contrast to silence from many men in the entertainment industry). She summed up the terrifying power dynamics well: “It’s never easy to be the first to go on record.”
It is not. The entertainment industry is a small town. Women in it, whatever their ages or experience levels, must frequently depend on the opinions and recommendations of powerful men. The tight-knit networks of professional contacts that lead to jobs are hard to break into — and if the men who dominate most of them decide to put a woman in the “troublemaker” category? Good luck.
If women don’t keep quiet about unwanted advances, toxic cultures, sexist behaviors and questionable hiring practices, they know they could be throwing away everything they have achieved and everything they want to do in the future. It doesn’t take much for a powerful man to stymie or end a woman’s career.
Trust me, the women around you know this. They have done the calculus. I have heard dozens of stories like the ones leveled against Weinstein, tales that are not mine to tell. Every one of them makes me feel sick, demoralized and angry.
Unless change is promoted and sustained by powerful, connected people in the industry — and the majority of those with the greatest influence are men — more aspiring artists, writers and producers will be harmed. Those who have experienced misogyny, bias, and various forms of physical aggression and mental assault will continue to suppress their suffering. And some of them will leave.
We’ll never get their stories; we won’t get to enjoy their creative output. And the patterns have allowed so much transgression, abuse, and assault — the dynamics that have led to some powerful men hurting women with impunity for years on end — will be perpetuated indefinitely.
I’m not OK with that. I’d bet you aren’t either. But no one gets to sit this out. Unless everyone pulls together, and unless men commit to decisively altering the ways of Hollywood, the toxic a–holes will win.
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