Update: This column has been updated to reflect additional details about Harvey Weinstein’s support for Planned Parenthood.
The news that movie producer Harvey Weinstein is accused of sexually harassing a bevy of women and then paying them off to keep quiet about it has set off a flurry of debates about sexism in Hollywood, Weinstein’s relationship with the Democratic Party and why so many powerful older white men still seem to think it’s okay to behave like utter pigs. At the heart of the many arguments about Weinstein’s conduct and the apparent complicity of his industry lies a question with broader implications: what does it mean to be a feminist?
Part of the grotesqueness of Weinstein’s alleged conduct is the way it contrasted with at least parts of his public image, as a man who championed older actresses like Meryl Streep and Judi Dench, joined a Woman’s March, donated to Democratic candidates, was photographed with Hillary Clinton at Planned Parenthood’s 100th anniversary gala (though a spokesman for the organization said he didn’t make a donation there) and publicly venerated Gloria Steinem. But the thing about feminism is there isn’t a formula where you can plug in good acts like these and calculate the number of times you’re allowed to greet a woman naked or ask her to watch you shower. Being a producer of good movies who helped advance the careers of some women is not incompatible with behaving like a loathsome creep; the former doesn’t depend on the latter at all, just as doing the former does not magically erase any suggestion that you are the latter.
By contrast, there’s been something disturbing about a second stage of this conversation, which has implied that women who had some contact with Weinstein are suddenly in danger of having their own feminist cards revoked if they don’t condemn him with a speed or vehemence deemed appropriate by the nebulous voice of the Internet.
I think it’s wise for Democratic politicians of all genders to consider giving back the money that Weinstein personally donated to them: there are some circumstances in which it’s just not prudent for a politician to allow him or herself to be beholden to a donor. There is, however, a difference between acting promptly, when you learn something about a supporter or one-time collaborator, and demanding that all powerful women everywhere possess some sort of omniscience about conduct that Weinstein seems to have taken steps to cover up.
This formulation, which has been bizarrely common in recent days, ignores the fact that, while rumors about Weinstein’s conduct circulated for years, there are plenty of reasons that actresses like Streep and Glenn Close, who were already powerful when they began working with Weinstein, might not have known anything for certain. It also shoves aside the uncomfortable thought that even if powerful women in Hollywood had some sense that Weinstein acted inappropriately, speaking out about him could have posed serious risks to the women he had already victimized, putting them in a position where they could be accused of violating non-disclosure agreements and in danger of retaliation.
Certainly, women like these have spoken out forcefully now. If letting Weinstein buy his way out of sexist pig status with political donations is setting the bar for feminism too low, asking Streep to be a time-traveling sexism avenger is a way to set the bar so high that no one can reach it. Placing a particular burden on women, rather than, say, on the Weinstein Company’s all-male board, to have done something about him suggests this isn’t really about feminist credentials at all: it’s about making women, rather than men, responsible for male misbehavior.
And just to forestall any attempts by Weinstein’s remaining business partners to claim that firing Weinstein was an affirmatively feminist act, let’s be clear. You don’t get credit for firing a serial sexual harasser only once that person’s behavior becomes a highly public problem for you company. Making that sort of decision is often necessary for damage control, but it doesn’t even get you up to the baseline for decent corporate behavior. Acting at a late date is better than nothing, but it still leaves you in the sub-basement of decency, staring longingly up at the light that shines on people who conduct prompt and thorough investigations of sexual-harassment claims and terminate offenders, as the Weinstein Company could have done in 2015, when the Weinstein Company’s Lauren O’Connor wrote a memo about Weinstein’s behavior. Handling things this way makes you Fox News, which fired CEO Roger Ailes, host Bill O’Reilly and co-president Bill Shine only when the network absolutely had to. It doesn’t make you brave.
But perhaps there’s one, minor redeeming light in all of this mess. You could not find a clearer example than Harvey Weinstein that men can buy themselves all sorts of status, including feminist credibility, while nothing women do will ever be good enough.