The sexual harassment and abuse allegations against Hollywood’s most prominent film mogul have shaken both the entertainment and political worlds. As a prominent fundraiser for the Democratic Party and supporter of causes ranging from gun control to health care, Harvey Weinstein has been a key figure in making Hollywood a powerful source of financial support for the left.
Indeed, conservatives pounced on Weinstein’s former beneficiaries, notably Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, for taking five days to condemn his actions. They charged that liberals applied a double standard: Purported defenders of women’s rights (and critics of President Trump’s sexism) suddenly clammed up about a sexual predator because he was one of their own.
And yet the incident punctures the dominant myth that conservatives have constructed about Hollywood political activism more broadly. The right may condemn Hollywood as a lefty enclave, but the Weinstein scandal reveals that the entertainment industry is not the bastion of liberalism most people believe it to be.
In fact, it shows that Hollywood’s liberalism is frequently only skin-deep. Yes, Meryl Streep and George Clooney have used their star power to rail against the president, and Weinstein himself has been an important ally for liberal politicians and causes over the last two decades. But for all of its left-wing political advocacy, Hollywood remains, at its core, a business run overwhelmingly by white men. And it was in this male-dominated, money-driven culture that Donald Trump built his own celebrity. Then, like Weinstein, he believed that his star status entitled him to sexually conquer any woman he wanted.
Nor are Weinstein and Trump products of a new Hollywood culture. Weinstein’s alleged acts are part of the entertainment industry’s long history of exploitation of women and minorities that has too often left them captive to the whims of powerful studio moguls who use their stranglehold over celebrity to accrue power, wealth and conquests. Indeed, the only thing new is that Weinstein has tumbled from his exalted perch because of his misdeeds.
Since the early days of Hollywood, the glamour and promise of celebrity has combined with the reality of oppressive labor, especially stoking concerns about the potentially dangerous treatment of women. During the 1920s, progressive reformers worried that both the content on the silver screen and its celebration of youth and beauty threatened to corrupt the morals of children and lure young women to the streets of Los Angeles.
Although these stories were sensationalized, the promise of fame did attract aspiring actors to move West, lured by the glittering stories manufactured by a powerful public relations industry within the movie business. They, too, could be an overnight success like Dorothy Lamour, who operated elevators in a Chicago department store, and Frances Farmer, who ushered at a Seattle theater, both plucked out of obscurity (and menial jobs) when they caught the eye of casting directors. Valuing youth, beauty and personality over traditional Victorian values of character, diligence and patience, this “waitress-to-movie-queen pattern” inspired millions of young women to dream of instant wealth and fame.
The film industry perversely dangled independence in front of young women — but achieving it required dependence on the men who ran studios, developed contracts and made casting decisions.
Middle-class reformers feared the underbelly of exploitation, drug use and sex that came with such potential promises. Stories about sex-filled parties in which young “starlets” turned up dead, such as the notorious San Francisco party of actor-comedian Fatty Arbuckle in 1921, generated moral panics over the growing popularity of the new industry. Such controversies motivated the first effort to “clean up” Hollywood’s image with a self-censorship campaign.
Worried that negative publicity hurt the box office, moguls such as Jack Warner and Louis B. Mayer ruled their studio fiefdoms with strict control over productions and contracts that regulated the public persona of individual stars. These executives became gatekeepers because of their ability to create new idols to generate box office sales, which then translated into both money and power. As a result, their office couches frequently became a place where sexual favors got traded for professional promotions.
But the exploitation wasn’t just sexual. The studio system created a pervasive, exploitative labor system that forced actors to work grueling days with long contracts and oppressive work conditions. While wealthy stars dominate the public perception of Hollywood, for the majority of its employees, the reality of the labor system was characterized by low pay, minimal benefits and high pressure.
That’s why unionization has been so important in the industry, something that even Ronald Reagan celebrated in his 1964 autobiography, “Where’s the Rest of Me?” In 1933, prominent actors such as Robert Montgomery, Will Rogers, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford organized the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) to protect movie stars and unknown actors alike from studios’ attempts to slash wages and terminate employment at a whim. Even today, the number of struggling actors far exceeds those who command seven-figure salaries.
With so many people struggling in this system, who were the big winners? The male executives at the top. The intoxicating allure and power of celebrity they helped create propelled Hollywood’s economic power. Actors’ sex, beauty and youth may have sent audiences scurrying to theaters around the world, but it was the studio executives who maintained the ultimate control to define who and what was sexy.
And yes, this growing economic power and their publicity savvy did translate into political opportunities for many moguls. After all, aspiring politicians saw how such money and marketing could help them sell their campaign messages. But at the end of the day, these executives cared far less about partisan loyalties than about the green of the almighty dollar. When forced to choose between making money and politics, studio executives chose money. Warner quickly abandoned his New Deal loyalties when Harry Truman agreed to international trade deals that infringed on his profits. And savvy politicians such as Richard M. Nixon researched the economic incentives — from tax breaks to copyright agreements — that would translate into political and financial support from Hollywood.
So it is not a surprise that Weinstein could routinely donate thousands to socially progressive causes and candidates and use his very wealth and power to exploit women. Central to the economic structure he built with Miramax and the Weinstein Company is the very culture of celebrity that values fame above all else, which allows stars such as Trump, Bill Crosby and Bill O’Reilly — and star-makers such as Roger Ailes and Weinstein — to feel entitled to grab women by the p — y. They know their victims will remain silent because of fears that these powerful men could snuff out their careers.
Yet Weinstein’s firing, like that of O’Reilly and Ailes, signifies a growing intolerance toward violence against women. Politics isn’t driving this change, though. Once again, it is all about the bottom line. Corporate leaders recognize that protecting their pocketbooks means responding to public demands to condemn sexual harassment.
Making Hollywood a real bastion of liberalism would require much more than statements from A-list celebrities disavowing Weinstein or even acceptance speeches with political messages at the Academy Awards. It would require these stars and the public to demand meaningful changes to studios’ institutional structures — bringing women and minorities into leadership roles on and off the silver screen, providing equal pay for equal work and, significantly, combating sexual harassment before it makes headlines.
Such changes, however, would require the very studio executives who have accrued such economic and cultural power from the current system to sacrifice some of it in the name of reform — an idea that may be too fantastical even for a town that runs on dreams.