Growing up, the 1988 movie “Working Girl” was my boilerplate for the workplace I dreamed of taking by storm one day. Never mind that I wasn’t even sure, as a teen, of what I wanted to do: After a high school debate in which the local newspaper dubbed me a surefire future candidate for an executive corner office, I believed I’d figure out some way to strut my Tess McGill wannabe self into a successful career.
There’s a scene in “Working Girl” where, under the guise of helping Tess in her career, her bosses orchestrate a meeting with a young Kevin Spacey. They’re in a limo, he’s snorting cocaine, popping champagne and pretending he wants to talk business with Tess as a ruse to get her to a hotel room. He gropes her and tries to get her to watch porn with him. Even as he’s inappropriate, even as the dismay on her face is apparent at the mention of a hotel, she still tries to steer the conversation back to business, still intermittently exhibits a tight smile as she tries to salvage the meeting. I wouldn’t realize until later how painfully, excruciatingly accurate this scene was, and just how long and how happily women often end up smiling alongside the men who abuse them, because they have no other choice.
I recalled all this as I’ve watched countless attempts to discredit the women coming forward about Harvey Weinstein arise this week. Pundits and commentators are trying to poke holes in their stories by blaming them for not speaking up sooner and crucifying women like Meryl Streep and Hillary Clinton for old photos where they’re standing next to Weinstein smiling at press junkets, on red carpets and during parties even though they denounce him now. Weinstein even cites the smile as his defense against McGowan’s accusations in the Hollywood Reporter, prompting tweets invoking people reading the news to question “why are they smiling with him?” and calling Ashley Judd, another victim, a liar for waiting so long to come forward.
The answer is that sometimes smiling is our only option. I’ve smiled because I’ve wanted to project to my harasser that he hadn’t broken me. I’ve smiled because the rent was due and the economy was bad. I’ve smiled because insurance had run out on my therapist and if I didn’t smile I’d likely be jobless, broke and absent a 50-minute appointment once a week to clear my head.
A man I worked with once in finance used to go on my computer after I left for the day, read through my emails and try to use information he found to sabotage me with clients. So long having been the employee with the highest revenue stream, it irked him that I was considered by clients and our boss to be a threat to that title. He later casually planted rumors with clients that I was actually incompetent but sleeping with my boss, and that was the only reason why I managed so many accounts. When I complained about him I was met with a shrug because he brought in so much revenue for the company. And his tactics worsened. Speaking up does not magically fix a toxic environment when there’s an imbalance of power. So I came to the office, smiled and worked hard every day, pretending I was fine, while I snuck out to interviews until I had secured a job somewhere else.
Even though I lied about where my new job was when I gave notice, my former co-worker somehow found me, called my new boss and asked for me, pretending to be a client. He would then hang up when the call transferred to my desk. When my lawyer friend faxed him a cease and desist, he laughed it off and told my friend I was delusional. I ended up having to explain to my new boss who the calls had come from and give a copy of the cease-and-desist letter to HR to keep in my file. All the while, the expression on my new boss’s face all but screamed, Did I just hire someone who is … difficult?
I smiled through that meeting, too.
Another man had been given the responsibility of streamlining a company where I worked — that is, laying people off. During that period, when we were all worried about our jobs, he remarked on my legs and clothes, and demanded I not wear an engagement ring to client meetings because it gave clients the wrong idea. He would interrupt presentations I was giving to make sexual comments or jokes and I always smiled away, hiding my discomfort, knowing that if I didn’t I’d be on his hit list.
This is why Rose McGowan smiling next to Weinstein in old photos does not warrant even the slightest scrutiny. I can’t speak for her or the other women who have come forward to accuse Weinstein of abusing them, but current statements from several victims suggest that, at the time, smiling through it felt like their only option. And that’s not something McGowan or anyone else should be punished for: McGowan, like anyone in any field, wanted a successful career, and it was understood that Weinstein was someone who could easily propel an actor to stardom or, just as easily, crush them. When the person abusing you has so much control that even if you try to meekly sidle away, everything you do going forward will be affected, there is no other option. You stand there, you look at the camera, and you smile.
After the attempted assault, Tess McGill angrily calls out her boss for facilitating it. “Wasn’t my fault,” she says, and she was right, and it’s a travesty that anybody would suggest otherwise in cases of workplace sexual harassment and assault. Rose, Asia and all the other brave women who came forward: It was not your fault. And I hope your courage is what marks the beginning of the changes we all need in every industry.