Harvey Weinstein, sexual bullying, and why we need to call it out
There is no escaping the ever more lurid allegations coming out of Hollywood and the American Media about Harvey Weinstein’s stomach turning assaults on young actresses and other women in his empire. We all have heard tales of the casting couch in which fat, balding, never-to-be-fancied men, use their power and the woman’s desperation for success as a vile cocktail for abuse.
Many like to think that these tales fizzled out in the fifties. No. Old Harvey has been using his ‘weiner’ in a decades long litany of abuse ranging from demanded massages from Gwyneth Paltrow to chasing Angelina Jolie around a hotel room and many more lurid advances.
So why did a man worth millions, so prominent in society and the media, manage to lead a double life? Why did nobody say anything (except the redoubtable Angelina Jolie who made it her business to warn other women and Brad Pitt who protected his then girlfriend, Paltrow)? Why the bloody hell did Dame Judy Dench have this arse of a man fake-tattooed on her own derriere? Why was Weinstein able to hob-nob with the great, the good and the political elite and never be called to account?
Today, they all have their hands in the air proclaiming their horror and disgust. The Obamas and Clinton, having taken thousands in fund-raising now make honourable statements about being ‘shocked and appalled’. The men of Hollywood – George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon – have claimed to be horrified. Same of Judy Dench and Meryl Streep. But are we really to believe that they were all so close and yet so very blind?
I think not. I think there was a complex psychological web of power, fear and by-standing which protected Harvey Weinstein.
As a movie mogul, Harvey Weinstein could create careers. He is accredited with kick-starting the movie careers of many actors including George Clooney, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. When someone has given you such a chance, it is easier to adore than to admit that there is something very disconcerting about your ‘creator’. A reputation for making movie careers gave huge power to Weinstein who would have had a constant flow of wannabe stars flocking to him in the hope of being noticed and nurtured. There is little doubt that there are many women out there who subjected themselves to the humiliation of being a sexual plaything in the hope that a few minutes of self-loathing would put their hand-print on Hollywood Boulevard. Some of the tales are tragic in their depiction of women who were shamed, bullied, demoralised and then kept going back.
Power is like a drug – it makes people heady and happy. To those who have power and who use it – just as Weinstein used his power to promise success and threaten downfall – it becomes hallucinogenic. They believe they have the right to do as they want and that they are invincible. The more they use their power and never get called out the more they believe they are untouchable. When questioned, they violently deny and say it was all OK – just as Weinstein is now claiming through his spokesperson (sadly a woman) that it was consensual. Well, Mr Weinstein, take a look in the mirror – at the risk of being a body-shamer – it was not!
The drug of power also affects those who surround. When a powerful figure pulls you into their web it is easy to join the chorus of adoration. Being on the inner circle makes you special, makes you feel part of that power, makes you turn a blind eye and, most of all, makes you fear being pushed out of it.
All sexual bullies use fear. It is a fundamental tactic in controlling your victim. Weinstein screamed at people that he would break their careers and would ensure they never had another role. To the hopefuls, he created a culture of dependence saying only he could get them on the screen or their movies made. When you live in a precarious world such as the movies, where you can be blacklisted and see your potential blighted by spite, it is easy to believe that your silence or subjugation is the best course of action. Look at the picture of Gwyneth Paltrow with her arm around Weinstein in The Times
More worrying is that this fear led to such long-term silence. Hugely powerful stars are now coming out of the woodwork to say what happened to them – after years of silence. The Oscar winners – Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie, Mira Sorvino and other Hollywood heavyweights are all now speaking up. Did they believe the fear – or did they fear speaking up and naming the shame? Which brings us to by-standing.
In 1964 a young woman called Kitty Genovese was brutally raped and murdered in a carpark, within earshot of apartments and a retail unit. Many people heard her screams and pleading for help. There was only one call to emergency services and, more telling, no-one went to her aid. Were the people who heard her and shut their ears monsters, psychopaths or moral degenerates? No. They were following the alarming psychological process of by-stander syndrome which leads human beings in a group to believe that a threat or incident will be dealt with by somebody else. Every person who heard Kitty’s cries thought someone else was probably running to her aid.
There is evidence that the American movie industry did, indeed, know of the Weinstein alter-ego. They knew that behind the chubby grin was a wolfish leer towards any vulnerable young woman he could ensnare. There is a collective cry of ‘I never knew.’ I doubt that. Actors are sensitive, instinctive, they have a gut-feel for persona – that’s what makes them great actors. The sad thing is that there was a collective cover-up fuelled by adoration of power.
That said, some have at last had the strength and steel to call it out. Asia Argento and Lucia Evans have stood up and spoken out in an article in the New Yorker – suddenly they are two in a crowd. But let us not forget who led the investigation and carried out the expose. It was a man – Ronan Farrow, son of Mia Farrow, who maybe having witnessed another Hollywood sexual transgressor in his father Woody Allen, had the moral fortitude to stand up and say ‘no more.’
We should take a lead from Ronan Farrell and - when we see it – shout it out and shame the sexual bullies.