Hollywood and politics have always been as famous for sex scandals as they are for winning hearts and inspiring dreams.
More than in most businesses, in Hollywood and in politics, personal attraction matters. Charisma and sex appeal play a role in people’s decisions to buy movie tickets and cast ballots. Entertainment and elective office are also industries where a relative few hold great power, giving those who toil for them strong incentives to protect their images.
As more women detail aggressive sexual behavior by Harvey Weinstein, who was for many years one of the most powerful men in the movie business, Hollywood is being singled out, as politics has been, as fields in which sexual harassment and assault are especially rampant. But from the retail business to college campuses, harassment is a commonplace in the lives of many Americans. What may be distinctive about the worlds of Hollywood and politics is the level of hypocrisy involved when fields that are so dependent on their public images turn out to be protecting bad behavior in their own ranks.
“There’s a universal issue of males in power, whether in academia or business or anywhere,” said Burton Peretti, a historian of the connections between the film industry and politics, who is a dean at Northern Virginia Community College. “But both Hollywood and politics had an expectation for decades that the media would not report on indiscretions, and both industries have leaders who are treated like they can do no wrong because they wield so much power.”
Some expect that new revelations about sexual misdeed, as well as continuing shifts in who gains power in major U.S. institutions, will lead to lasting change.
“This is a tipping point,” said Eddie Glaude Jr., a professor of religion and African American studies at Princeton, who has written about pragmatism and power in American public life. “With more and more women saying that this kind of behavior is not acceptable, and you will be held to account, we are seeing from the likes of Weinstein, Cosby and Trump a last gasp of an old understanding of who we were.”
Glaude said that both Hollywood and politics “have experienced radical change in recent years,” as women and racial and sexual minorities gain a foothold on power. With that shift comes new light on those who have abused their power, making it harder for them to continue their abuses.
But others argue that especially in institutions where power still resides in a relative handful of powerful men, the incentive remains to keep protecting abusers.
In Hollywood and in politics — but also in fields such as college sports, where people stayed quiet about reports that a Penn State football coach had molested boys, or in medicine, where University of Southern California officials said nothing publicly after learning that the dean of their medical school led a secret life of drug abuse and partying — people at various levels had a vested interest in protecting powerful miscreants.
Sexual misbehavior becomes public in other fields as well — prominent recent examples have been revealed at Silicon Valley companies and on college campuses. But some argue that scandals in Hollywood and politics blow up particularly spectacularly because of the public nature of those fields.
“If we were told that the head of Wachovia Bank was doing this, it wouldn’t get nearly the same attention,” said Joe Pichirallo, a longtime movie producer who teaches at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
In any field, Pichirallo said, successful leaders can come to believe that they can do whatever they want. In Hollywood, it’s easier to actually get away with misdeeds: “If you wanted to disagree with Harvey on the cut of a film, he would swat you away like a fly and you’d be done,” he said. “People have become more sensitive in the last few years to the need to root out this kind of abusive behavior, but still, when you’re in a place where your job can go away with a flick of a finger, you often have to make decisions like ‘Do I take care of my family and advance my career, or do I tell a reporter that my boss is a scoundrel?’ ”
Once called out in public, some powerful figures have maintained that their abusive behavior was merely a product of a time when sexism was rarely called out.
“I came of age in the ’60s and ’70s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different,” Weinstein said in a semi-apologetic statement after the New York Times reported on allegations against him. “That was the culture then.”
Last year, when Trump was confronted with the "Access Hollywood" recording of his own account of grabbing women's genitals, he dismissed his comments as "locker room talk," the kind of rough banter that provoked little protest when he was young.
Through the first decades of the sexual revolution, when Victorian-era reticence about sex fell away, some Americans felt a sense of liberation. But others concluded that the new freedoms also gave wide berth to abusers, whether at fancy prep schools, in the Catholic church, on college campuses or in workplaces of all sorts.
In the last few decades, however, activists have raised awareness of sexual harassment, promoting a new set of expectations and tighter legal and social regulation around issues of consent and victims’ rights.
Still, in some fields, the rules don’t seem to have changed quite as clearly.
“In Hollywood, they haven’t really had incentives to change,” said Emilie Raymond, a historian at Virginia Commonwealth University whose work has focused on the intersection between the movie industry and politics. “It’s one of the most male-dominated industries in the United States and it’s one of the only fields where it’s perfectly okay to discriminate — when you’re casting a movie, you can say ‘I need someone fatter,’ or ‘I need a white person.’ ”
But even beyond that quirk of the business, what distinguishes Hollywood and gives abusers freer rein than they might find in other lines of work is the extraordinary power granted to the people in charge. “It’s an industry where it’s easy to exploit your power because of the desperation for work,” Raymond said.
“Hollywood has an amazing asymmetry in power between the producers and the actor, especially the beginning actor,” said Edward Jay Epstein, author of several books about Hollywood and politics. “The person doing the hiring has the power to create a career and the actor has no power at all.”
Similarly, in politics, young people entering the field are often so eager to get started that they will work without pay.
In both lines of work, once people get inside they are determined to stay there, which leads to a willingness to hide unacceptable behaviors from the people in charge. “In both fields, there’s a tremendous effort to maintain the illusion that everything’s squeaky clean, and to hide anything sexual, especially,” Epstein said. “Both institutions protect themselves with layers of public relations people who create illusions.”
Secrecy is a passion in both industries. In Hollywood, many workers must sign nondisclosure agreements before they can commence work on any project. In Washington, an intricate system of classification and persistent threats of punishment for leaks pervade many areas of government and campaigns.
Part of that push for secrecy is about hiding from the public the gap between illusion and reality. For decades, Hollywood studios concocted “girlfriends” for gay stars such as Rock Hudson so that ticketbuyers would believe they were heterosexual. In politics, in the era before Gary Hart and Monica Lewinsky — the sex scandals of the 1980s and ’90s that made clear the rules had changed — the news media cooperated with politicians to shield the public from knowledge of their extramarital affairs.
Although standards have shifted and the news media have grown more aggressive about reporting scandals, the tolerance for misbehavior remains markedly different from other sectors of society.
In Hollywood, "they think they're ahead of the times and more progressive than much of the country, but at least on this issue, they're really behind the times," Raymond said. She noted that when then-Fox News executive Roger Ailes and the network's popular then-TV talk host Bill O'Reilly were accused of sexual harassment, "the company shut down that behavior very quickly. But in Hollywood, Roman Polanski still gets a standing ovation at the Oscars and Arnold Schwarzenegger still had a great public image even after the revelations about his secret son." The actor and former California governor fathered a child with a longtime member of his household staff. Polanski, who won an Oscar for Best Director in 2003, pleaded guilty in 1977 to unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old.
Now, with the drumbeat of revelations accelerating, will those in power be scared straight? Skeptics argue that the men who’ve been exposed as serial harassers were relatively easy targets because they were, like Cosby or Ailes, in the twilight of their careers; or, like Weinstein, no longer nearly as powerful as they’d once been.
But others see evidence of lasting, structural change as the makeup and mores of the American population shift.
“In moments of profound transition, there are always head winds,” Glaude said. “Power seeks relentlessly to secure its position. So the fact that there are Weinsteins and Trumps and Cosbys ought not to surprise us. Powerful men will still exercise their power, but other people aren’t taking it anymore. The United States is changing.”