A black SUV pulled to the curb, and as Harvey Weinstein emerged from the passenger side, his metal walker was fetched from the back. An assistant hastened it over to the disgraced movie mogul, who then began his hunched shuffle past photographers. The walker’s legs were inserted into yellow tennis balls, which — and here seems like an appropriate place to mention that Weinstein’s films were often celebrations of costume design and attention to detail — looked dingy.
Weinstein had back surgery last month. It’s entirely possible that the walker was necessary to his recovery (before the surgery, critics noted that he used the walker for public court appearances, but appeared to walk unaided when privately shopping).
And, yes, tennis balls are common, helpful walker accessories. But there are other, more subdued options that also offer aid, such as coasters or glides, and if you were a multimillionaire on one of the most solemn, important days of your life, you might have sprung for a pair of those rather than a couple of Wilsons. If tennis balls worked best for you, you might have opted for a less ostentatious color than neon yellow — heck, you could probably get them custom-dyed to match your suit. At the very least, you might have popped open a fresh can.
Instead, when Weinstein arrived for the opening of his highly anticipated trial, he’d assembled a meticulous wardrobe for a specific character: a weakened man. An ailing man, a man to pity. Those dozens of stories of Weinstein allegedly raping women: How could such a frail man do such a violent thing?
And even if he had, did he look like a person capable of doing it again?
Weinstein’s career was about accruing power. His alleged crimes were about abusing it. And his defense is about erasing it, a special effect communicating that he’s either too broken to punish or, possibly, to have committed the crimes in the first place.
In December, Weinstein gave an interview to the New York Post from a hospital room — a plainly strategic move, because why not reschedule the interview if you’re hospital-bound? In accompanying photographs, an IV jutted from his hand. “I feel like the forgotten man,” he complained. His contributions, he said, “all got eviscerated because of what happened. My work has been forgotten.’’
Anyone who’s ever watched an episode of “Law & Order” knows that anyone subjecting themselves to judgment in a courtroom would do well to pay attention to their appearance. A burglar takes the witness stand in a suit jacket, a meth dealer covers her tattoos with a sweater set. The goal is to make the jury relate. They, too, shop at the Banana Republic outlet.
With disgraced wealthy men, the goal isn’t relatability, but a powerful overcorrection to their own power: They are not the same as the viewing public, they’re actually more pathetic. They were mighty, but now they’ve fallen.
A few years ago, Bill Cosby — accused of drugging and assaulting more than 50 women — arrived for his own court proceedings in varying states of disarray. Sometimes the comedian was unshaven, sometimes disheveled, with two of his attorneys hoisting him by the armpits as he stumbled over the curb. At one point a cane appeared. Cosby had recently completed a nationwide standup tour, but representatives said that he was now legally blind.
“He’s a 78-year-old blind man who they’ve chosen to charge,” said his attorney — an odd turn of phrase implying the justice system could simply ignore crimes committed by elderly blind men.
Michael Jackson famously showed up his 2005 molestation trial in pajama pants, limping, his attorneys claiming he was really too weak to be there at all.
Was he actually sick? Maybe. Is Weinstein actually hurt? We can’t judge his medical needs from afar. Certainly nobody has back surgery for the fun of it. Cosby’s sight issues had been referenced in documents going back several years. And it’s reasonable to assume their falls from grace might have taken real physical tolls on their bodies.
But is it possible that these men are actually sick or hurt, and also highlighting their ailments in a way designed to evoke pity? Yes, unequivocally yes. Plenty of blind people are neatly groomed, after all, especially for important legal events. Plenty of frail adults can manage to pull on normal pants.
As for Weinstein, think about this: The night before his Monday court date, the Golden Globes were held in Los Angeles — an awards ceremony at which Weinstein would have once been an honored attendee. Imagine we’re in a parallel universe in which Harvey Weinstein was recuperating from back surgery but still invited to the Globes.
You can easily picture Weinstein, a man of exorbitant financial resources, employing hair and makeup artists to give him the appearance of good health. He might wear a discreet back brace underneath his formal wear. He might be leaning on a custom, elegant cane — he might require a chic black walker. This Harvey Weinstein would be in an identical medical situation. But in that parallel universe, he presumably would want to tell a different story about himself, one in which he could still swan through a room, glad-handing Reese Witherspoon and Martin Scorsese — a mogul of a certain age, but still a mogul, still powerful. Can you for one second imagine him showing up with neon tennis balls?
What’s fascinating about watching these celebrities’ public appearances — their “sympathy campaigns,” as Megan Garber referred to Weinstein’s in the Atlantic — is how much they reveal about these men. What does Weinstein think it means to be strong, and what does he gain from now appearing weak?
His new look says, I am not powerful. Harvey Weinstein, a man who allegedly used his weight to pin women down, now appears gaunt and enfeebled, as if this is both a solution for his misdeeds and a punishment.
See, he is imploring us, I am no longer a threat because I am no longer mighty.
As if his alleged offenses were ever just about physical strength rather than professional clout, the power to decide which stories get told and which ones don’t.
His latest story is about an eviscerated man, prejudged by an unfair world, his good works forgotten. We open on a rumpled figure approaching a courthouse with a walker, sliding along on tennis balls.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.