Thursday’s report about decades of sexual harassment perpetrated by the revered and reviled movie producer Harvey Weinstein felt less like a bombshell than a land mine finally going off.
Weinstein’s alleged misdeeds — demanding that young actresses, interns, assistants and would-be executives meet him in hotel rooms, greeting them in his bathrobe and asking for massages — have long been whispered about within the film world, where Weinstein is as famous for hyping films like “Shakespeare in Love” and “The King’s Speech” to Oscar wins as he is for re-cutting the films he produces. Not many people are known by one name in Hollywood, but everyone knows who you mean when you say “Harvey.”
Now, thanks to an impressively in-depth New York Times investigation, the name will mean something far more troubling than ego trips or meddling in the editing suite. Indeed, Weinstein has become simply the latest in a string of men whose toxic behavior points to how structural inequality plays out, not just among the people who make movies, but in what the rest of us see on screen.
Sexism is endemic to just about any profession. But the sleazy ethos epitomized by the Weinstein story permeates an industry whose legend and lore has long mythologized the “casting couch,” whereby female actors got breaks in the business by sleeping with influential men. In a medium predicated on objectifying the human form and dominated by men with money, power and needy egos to burn, it’s long been assumed that a young woman trying to make it in Hollywood will need to brave a gantlet of ogling, suggestive comments, propositions or worse.
Those rituals, and the values that inform and support them, are reflected in the movies themselves. For nearly the entire century that American cinema has been a dominant mass medium, it has trafficked in imagery that sexualizes women to a gratuitous and sometimes degrading degree. Even in movies that don’t explicitly feature women as objects of male desire, audiences are subjected to a steady diet of superhero fairy tales of unchecked potency, vigilante violence and limitless powers — wish-fulfillment fantasies of male desire and grandiosity that would be laughable if they didn’t have such distorted, disgusting analogues in the real world.
It turns out that the brave actresses and executives who went on the record in the Weinstein story are part of a critical mass of women who are speaking out about men behaving badly within what is loosely, if not always lovingly, called the “film community.” In August, Joss Whedon’s ex-wife, Kai Cole, bitterly shared the beloved filmmaker’s self-justifying confession of his on-set affairs; Cole’s revelations coincided with sexual misconduct accusations against the film writers Harry Knowles and Devin Faraci.
To be clear: No one is suggesting a simplistic cause-and-effect relationship between movies and misogynist acting-out. But it’s worth pointing out that content inevitably reflects the culture that creates it, from the corporate executive suite to the geekiest fanboy blogs.
The Weinstein revelations lay bare the screaming hypocrisy at the core of Hollywood’s storied liberalism, which loves to pay lip service to equal rights and feminism but has remained impressively impermeable when it comes to representation of women, who directed a paltry 4 percent of the top 100 films last year, and accounted for only 29 percent of mainstream-movie protagonists.
It’s the same hypocrisy that allows Weinstein, in a bizarre statement issued in the wake of the Times article, to announce he’s giving his “full attention” to the National Rifle Association, while neglecting to mention the millions he’s accrued from the trigger-happy bullet-ballets of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. Or insisting that he “so respects all women” — presumably including the ones he is accused of abusing over the course of 30 years, while his male colleagues watched and did nothing but greenlight another action thriller about a man avenging the rape of his girlfriend/wife/daughter, or teen sex comedy featuring a bevy of nubile young “starlets.”
Weinstein, who founded the indie studio Miramax and later the Weinstein Co., has admittedly earned critical and artistic respect with award-worthy literary adaptations and high-minded dramas (he has such well-mannered titles as “Good Will Hunting,” “The English Patient” and “The Imitation Game” to his credit). But he is also part of a Hollywood ecology in which studios are happy to pursue prestige, but earn their money in pulp that, more often than not, relegate women to roles as victims, femmes fatales or scantily clad eye candy.
In academic circles, the monotonously sexist, objectifying perspective through which most movies are made is called the “male gaze,” which men and women alike have been asked to internalize as the norm virtually since the medium’s inception. But that gaze has begun to wander lately: The most successful movies of 2017 include such female-centric stories as “Beauty and the Beast,” Wonder Woman” and “Girls Trip.” Weinstein’s own personal and institutional power has waned in recent years — which probably accounts for why his accusers felt emboldened to come forward — but that also reflects a collective shift away from the kind of leering, dehumanizing perspective he will now embody forever.
In the Times story, one of Weinstein’s lawyers, Lisa Bloom, called her client “an old dinosaur learning new ways.” Coincidentally, in “Battle of the Sexes” — a movie that’s directed by a man and a woman, and that reflects that egalitarian point of view — Emma Stone’s Billie Jean King makes a similar comparison, chiding her anti-feminist opponent Bobby Riggs that “dinosaurs can’t play tennis.” That’s true, of course: Their arms are too short. Which makes it difficult for them to keep grasping at the power that keeps slipping away despite their most desperate efforts. And which makes it impossible to keep their fingers on the pulse of the changing tastes and expectations of an audience that’s 50 percent female, and increasingly unwilling to pretend otherwise.