Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood mogul, has taken an indefinite leave of absence from his film company following a front-page expose in The New York Times claiming he had conducted himself horrendously in encounters with actresses and employees over several decades. Weinstein, one of the most powerful figures in the industry, repeatedly invited women to his hotel room for business meetings, only to sexually harass them. Eight of his victims complained about his transgressions, forcing Weinstein to reach monetary settlements with them.
Of late, the actresses Ashley Judd and Rose McGowan have told their stories of sexual harassment at the hands of Weinstein, and I commend them for their spunk and courage. But why have ardent feminists like Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama failed to speak up in their defence? And why have Hollywood celebrities, from major actors to heads of studios, remained so conspicuously silent? And why is the Screen Actors Guild missing in action?
Weinstein’s behavior, while reprehensible and unacceptable, is anything but new in Hollywood, a place defined by pretentiousness, greed, hypocrisy, self-interest and fear. He’s simply the latest in a long line of Hollywood predators who took advantage of the gross imbalance of power between producers and casting directors and actresses, some of whom were naive and powerless.
Weinstein is an arch practitioner of the “casting couch” method of seduction, which has been documented in detail by countless actresses from Jane Fonda and Gwyneth Paltrow to Charlize Theron and Goldie Hawn. Julia Phillips, in her 1991 memoir, You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again, elaborated on this loathsome phenomenon, writing that the “casting couch” mentality was alive and well in Tinseltown.
Stripped to its essence, it’s transactional in nature, a disgusting form of barter trade. In exchange for a promise of a role in a movie or a chance to land a job in the industry, a woman provides sexual favors for a man. I don’t know how many women have been placed in this uncomfortable position. Nor do I know how many have availed themselves of this “opportunity” to advance their budding careers. What I do know is that no man, however influential, has the right to demean and humiliate women (or men) so crassly and exploitatively.
This kind of sexual misconduct, an open secret in male-dominated Hollywood since its earliest years, persisted due to its disgraceful culture of silence. Actresses who were sexually harassed and/or assaulted invariably kept their mouths shut to preserve their careers. If they complained, they were ostracized.
An army of enablers, from spineless talent agents and mangers to ambitious journalists eager to feather their nests, were complicit in this sickening conspiracy of silence.
Weinstein exploited this corrupt system to the hilt.
He’s apologized for the “pain” he’s caused, though he and his lawyers claim that the Times story was “saturated with false and defamatory statements.” Self-servingly, as always, Weinstein maintains he “came of age in the 60s and 70s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different.”
This is sheer nonsense.
If what he says is even remotely true, virtually every man of his generation, including yours truly, would have been a serial sexual molester like him — which, of course, is not the case.
If he had been a person of integrity whose ethics were beyond reproach, Weinstein would not have stooped so low so often. At the very least, he would have altered his behavior. But for Weinstein, the temptations were too strong, too alluring. He assumed he was invincible. He thought he could nonchalantly greet women in the nude, casually ask them for a massage or crudely invite them for a shower. This was Weinstein’s modus operandi, according to the Times, whose account I wholeheartedly believe.
Being clever and manipulative, Weinstein tried to cover up his tracks by showering dollar bills in all directions. He contributed to a feminist studies program in honor of the iconic Gloria Steinem. His company distributed a documentary, Hunting Ground, about sexual assault on university campuses. He raised funds for the Democratic Party and posed for pictures with influentials like Bill and Hillary Clinton.
And in one of his devious ploys, he hired a prominent women’s rights attorney, Lisa Bloom, to be his advisor after the scandal broke. Bloom conceded her client was an “old dinosaur learning new ways.” What she conveniently neglected to mention was that Weinstein had decided to produce a television series based on her book. Having been compromised by this embarrassing revelation, she left his defence team in ignominy.
Weinstein should pay a tangible price for his pattern of depredations. He has crossed every red line of decency and should not be allowed to get away with his crimes. The outcry prompted by this scandal must lead to meaningful and lasting reforms in Hollywood’s entertainment industry. It must be a teachable moment for years to come.