So the famous Hollywood producer, Harvey Weinstein, has been exposed as a sexual predator who seemingly has a penchant for inviting young, attractive actresses into his hotel room to discuss ‘business’ before appearing in either a bathrobe or his birthday suit and suggesting they may like to give him a massage. And those are the less serious allegations – more serious allegations of rape and sexual assault are currently under investigation in both New York and London.
I mean, seriously? Are we seriously supposed to be surprised at this news? For as long as I have been alive, the Hollywood casting couch has been a thing of legend, both inside and outside the industry. No blockbuster novel set in Hollywood would be complete without a fat, rich, powerful middle-aged director promising fame in return for sexual favours – and a heroine who either stands true to her principles and refuses to indulge him, eventually, through hard work and talent alone, making it big on her own merits, or who cynically decides that a few minutes of revulsion are a small price to pay for fame and fortune.
Weinstein’s behaviour has clearly been an open secret in Hollywood for years. Seth McFarlane’s quip at the 2013 Oscars ceremony, in which he stated “Congratulations, you five ladies no longer need to pretend to be attracted to Harvey Weinstein” – and the knowing laughter from the audience in response – point to an industry that was well aware of, and complicit in, Weinstein’s treatment of young actresses. And even prior to this, in 2012, actress Jane Krakowski, in an episode of the comedy show “30 Rock”, quipped “Oh please, I’m not afraid of anyone in showbusiness. I turned down intercourse with Harvey Weinstein on no less than three occasions… out of five”.
So let’s stop pretending that what’s notable about this story is what a shock it is. No, what’s notable is the fact that finally the tide of public opinion has clearly shifted sufficiently to enable Weinstein’s accusers the confidence to go on record about his behaviour, where previously nobody would. The New York Times, who initially broke the allegations a week ago, admit that they had the story in 2004 but couldn’t publish it because nobody would go on record. So what has changed now?
The reason Harvey Weinstein – and, let’s face it, doubtless many other powerful media executives – got away with such behaviour for so long, was because he was protected by an industry that has always favoured fame, fortune and success above all else. And because that same industry has traditionally treated women as glamorous appendages – from the beautiful Bond girls who provide a brief distraction for James Bond, before, in most cases, being killed off by the villain, to Princess Leia in a gold bikini, chained to Jabba the Hut, to endless Hollywood romantic comedies in which a girl stumbles through various disastrous relationships before finally being rescued by Mr Right – Hollywood, more than any other industry, has always thrived on traditional gender stereotypes.
But gradually, the weight of public sentiment has forced Hollywood to question those stereotypes. From “Private Benjamin” in 1980, to “Working Girl” in 1988, “Shirley Valentine” in 1989 and then the huge success of the 1991 movie “Thelma and Louise”, gradually it became clear that audiences were more than ready for movies starring strong female characters. More recently, with Kathryn Bigelow becoming the first female director to win the Oscar for Best Director, and the movie “Bridesmaids” winning critical acclaim and box office success with an all-female cast, it is becoming increasingly clear that the days of female actors having to flatter the egos of powerful male directors in order to make their way in the industry, are numbered.
The other thing that is slowly changing, is society’s tendency to blame the victim, or to dismiss the seriousness of sexual assault claims. The casual sexism of the 1970s and 1980s, when women were expected to just put up with men casually groping their breasts or fondling their buttocks, knowing that to complain about such behaviour would see them branded as prudish, has gradually given way to an understanding that such behaviour is completely unacceptable. And the constant reminders from the feminist lobby, that no matter how scantily a woman may be clad, that does not mean she is “asking for it”, are slowly permeating the general consciousness.
Weinstein’s behaviour has clearly been well-known in Hollywood for years. And while many around him have evidently spent years trying to cover up his indiscretions, and prevent the publication of any allegations, the resistance movement has been slowly growing, gathering strength, gradually chipping away at Weinstein’s defences, until the balance of power shifted sufficiently for those people to feel confident in going public. Jane Krakowski’s quip on “30 Rock” and Seth McFarlane’s comment at the Oscars are not so much indications of Hollywood’s complicity in Weinstein’s behaviour, but rather are proof that individuals have been trying to blow the whistle for years. It is only now, when the shifting of public sentiment in favour of women’s rights has aligned with the waning of Weinstein’s individual power, that those voices have been heard.
As Emma Thomson has remarked, Weinstein is just the tip of the iceberg. It would be naïve to think that this scandal will mark the end of Hollywood’s “casting couch” culture, and that young actresses will no longer find themselves propositioned by older, successful directors promising to make them famous in return for sexual favours. And we will likely read further allegations in the coming weeks about other stars who either aided and abetted Weinstein in his exploitation, or have themselves been accused of sexual harassment of young women (and possibly young men, too). But the tide of public – and Hollywood – sentiment has clearly turned.
Which brings me on to the biggest irony of this entire story. This is only a theory – and it’s not even mine – but according to this article in the Weekly Standard, if Hillary Clinton had won the US Presidential election, the story about Harvey Weinstein would likely never have been broken. The reason being that the ties between Bill Clinton and Harvey Weinstein are so strong, that had the story been broken during a Clinton presidency, it would have been too embarrassing for the president – and the media and political powers-that-be would never let that happen, and so would have continued to protect Weinstein as they have done for years. With Donald Trump as president, on the other hand, no such worries existed – even if Donald Trump were proved to have a strong friendship with Harvey Weinstein, it would be impossible for these allegations to hurt Trump any further than the “grab them by the pussy” comments already have done. The fact that all of those actresses who have publicly declared that they despise Trump for his comments about women, in the end, in some small way, have his presidency to thank for the truth emerging about Harvey Weinstein, is almost too ironic for words.