After Harvey Weinstein, It’s Time to Ask: Can the System Change?
The most telling piece of symbolism from Harvey Weinstein’s appearance at a Phoenix restaurant late last week, where he disguised himself in a blond wig and orange makeup, can be found in the inscription of the black baseball cap he wore, which reportedly read “2:24.” It was a subtle, if self-absorbed, reference to biblical verse Acts 2:24, which begins: “But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.”
There is little subtlety left, however, in the story of Harvey Weinstein, the disgraced studio executive who, per detailed reports from the New York Times and The New Yorker, has been exposed as a serial sexual predator (of the more than 50 accusers, three women said Weinstein raped them; the NYPD has opened investigations into the claims). Even with the myriad of allegations stacked against the Miramax co-founder and former co-chairman of The Weinstein Company, Weinstein’s allusions to righteous fortitude tell us everything we know about men like him: that the powerful will unfailingly measure the immensity of the self, and the belief in one’s own influence, against the smallness of others, no matter how much suffering it may cause.
It’s a bleak way of looking at the devastation that Weinstein wrought, but not an untrue one. For decades, he preyed on the vulnerability of women, a network of abuse so complex that multiple reports identified the lengths to which he’d gone to suppress his virulent crusade of sexual assault; it involved hiring private security agencies such as Black Cube and Kroll to spy on possible accusers, including actress Rose McGowan, as well as reporters from the Times and New York who were investigating the claims. Those who wield power are crafty in the mechanics of distortion—be it of reality, or of another’s standing.
In speaking with The New Yorker, one woman recounted the time Weinstein forced her to perform oral sex. “I just sort of gave up,” she said. “That’s the most horrible part of it, and that’s why he’s been able to do this for so long to so many women: people give up, and then they feel like it’s their fault.” Of late, the horrors of the world have echoed with a familiar loudness: sexual predators who long basked in the light of public favor have been exposed for their repeated, even calculating, mistreatment of women. Their unveilings are necessary and important, if harshly overdue—a sure symptom of the little power women are bestowed with in film, TV, media, and society at large.
Parallel to Weinstein’s history of sexual abuse is his rise as a formidable film executive, one with real sway and the success to back it up. Though he may be one of its most prolific, Weinstein wasn’t Hollywood’s lone deviant—directors James Toback and Brett Ratner, former Amazon Studios head Roy Price, and actors Casey Affleck, Dustin Hoffman, Andy Dick, and Kevin Spacey, have all been accused of subjecting others to undue sexual advances, with more names likely to be aired in the coming weeks and months. Outside of Hollywood, NPR senior VP of News Michael Oreskes, journalist Mark Halperin, and longtime New Republic editor Leon Wieseltier were also publicly condemned for sexual misbehavior. Men of power must now reckon with their sins, and so must we. And in the aftermath, the ensuing questions are as apparent as they are complicated: Can a system as entrenched as this actually change? And if so, what might that look like?
“I’m wary about being too optimistic because powerful white men always find a way to rebound and Hollywood is chock-full of powerful white men,” says one TV writer, who works on a new cable sitcom and spoke with WIRED on condition of anonymity. “The fact that the Mel Gibsons and the Woody Allens are still working continues to prove that history is not on the side of the victims. If anything, the only way the Weinstein scandal will lead to real change is with the continued diversification of Hollywood.”
For men like Weinstein, Toback, and Spacey, the moment and its fallout arrived with a shocking suddenness: agencies ditched clients; colleagues publicly spurned the accused. All over “town,” as the entertainment industry still insists on referring to itself, movie studios, streaming platforms, and brands abandoned projects and severed ties—stalling careers, if not effectively sidelining many of them for years to come.
A truer reality, though, is that discrimination and sexual harassment have knowingly endured in such institutions for some time, and may likely persist. History has made plain the ways in which abusers are met with varying degrees of shame and scrutiny. The careers of Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, and Bill O’Reilly were derailed, while Donald Trump’s insolent attitude toward women somehow transmogrified into a badge of honor during the campaign cycle, his defenders shrugging off his infamous “grab ’em by the pussy” comments as mere “locker room talk.” For a time now, celebrity culture has diminished the carnivorous habits of men. Despite multiple reports of sexual misconduct with minors spanning decades, R&B singer R. Kelly still enjoys the trappings of music stardom. One certainty of American life has surely worked in Kelly’s favor: the reality that young black women hold little to no authority in a society governed by men.
In the last few weeks, much of the chatter that has played out in the public has been centered around solidarity. On Twitter, #MeToo was used as a unifying force to communicate the enormity of the epidemic. Facebook and Instagram posts, too, detailed the horror women faced at the hands of sexual predators, yet more proof that the social dehumanization of women is not just a problem confined to the boulevards and studio sets of Hollywood.
In this particular case, to answer if a system like Hollywood can change is to ask just how much women are valued on every level in the industry. It’s about the recalibration of power. But just how should that be done. A recent roundtable discussion among five female TV and film executives unearthed a roadmap to what writer and creator Mara Brock-Akil described as “reprogramming what we have allowed”—which is to say, the old, patriarchal ways of the entertainment business. The women agreed that it boiled down to representation in boardrooms and in corner offices, in director chairs and leading roles, in writers’ rooms and production studios.
“Now that we’re seeing real consequences, I think men in power will be less likely to abuse that power and, more importantly, I think women will be more empowered to speak up when they’re being put in inappropriate situations,” says Tracy Oliver, co-screenwriter of Girls Trip. “I feel empowered for the first time because there’s a loud and vocal community here and ready to offer support.” I think, too, there is a simpler starting point for the rest of us outside of the industry: that we simply believe in the truth of these women’s stories, and find ways to put action behind it.
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