The Harvey Weinstein verdict is at once gravely disappointing and grimly satisfying.
Until the verdict, the only sliver of satisfaction came from the fact that the legacy he built had been destroyed. Now, though, because he’s been convicted of two out of five counts — rape and criminal sexual act — the first line in his obituary won’t be about his Oscars or “alleged” acts, but about his felony convictions. His name will also forever be synonymous with the worst excesses of the entertainment world, whose power brokers have too often acted as if they were above the law. Harvey Weinstein is going to prison, and that is profound. (He faces other, similar charges in Los Angeles.)
So, Weinstein is no more. Yet there are no silver linings here. Women were hurt and traumatized, and their lives and careers irreparably damaged. The verdict doesn’t change that. Yes, there was a surge in activism after news of his abuse broke in October 2017, but women were already angry, already organizing. The African-American activist Tarana Burke launched #MeToo in 2006; the first Women’s March took place in Jan. 2017, the day after Donald J. Trump became president. In the end, Weinstein is part of a far larger story about contemporary feminist activism, including in the entertainment industry, where women have been fighting sexism for decades.
That sexism is both systemic and symptomatic of the industry’s history of acting as if it is above the law. This has led to a wide range of exploitation including racism and on-set fatalities, exploitation that has been habitually rationalized as the cost those without power pay for doing business in a putatively glamorous industry. It’s hard to think of another business, outside of sex work, that has sexually exploited people so openly and whose abusive practices — emblematized by the casting couch — have been trivialized, at times with leering giggles. It’s well-known that the industry is a grossly exploitative of both men and women — why have we tolerated this?
During Weinstein’s decades-long career, for instance, I occasionally heard accusations about his egregiously offensive, even threatening behavior: the male director he bullied, employees he screamed at, the journalists he tried to get fired. (I was one of the latter when I was a film critic for The Los Angeles Times.) Since the sexual allegations surfaced in 2017, I have often wondered why I never considered that his exploitation included sexual assault. For one thing, I found him too physically repulsive to even consider that sex — or, more rather, the sexualized abuse of power — was part of his modus operandi. It was easier not to think about it.
Even so, I should have assumed that the abuse extended to sex. One reason that I didn’t is that sexualized violence by powerful men has often been strategically dismissed as unsubstantiated gossip. Gossip is where the private, deviant and forbidden circulates, true or not. To borrow a metaphor from the sociologist Erving Goffman, gossip belongs backstage, out of sight from the public. The front region, by contrast, is where we put on a show for the world, which in Weinstein’s case meant playing the role of the old-style film mogul who was fueled by “passion, not profit,” as an unnamed executive once told Variety, presumably with a straight face.
It may seem puzzling that many bought Weinstein’s charade. Yet mainstream journalism often operates under the assumption that there is an obvious division between the private and public spheres: the business section largely sticks to profits, losses and deals; the style section looks at families, wives, husbands, exes; the arts covers the creative output. Yet Weinstein himself demolished the divide between public and private by having business meetings in his hotel rooms and turning those meetings into sexual transactions. The nondisclosure agreements that some of his victims felt compelled to sign only reinforced this division, which gave him cover. What happened in his hotel room stayed in his hotel room, until it didn’t.
The history of American cinema is punctuated with similar outrages in hotel rooms and studio suites, one that is inseparable from its history of routine racism and sexism, structural discrimination, individual affronts and even criminal assaults. One of the significant differences between many of the wrongdoings in the past and those done by Weinstein is that he was put on trial. In old Hollywood, trespasses and illegal offenses were regularly cleaned up and hushed up by fixers like Eddie Mannix, an executive and enforcer for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer back in its glossiest, outwardly glamorous heyday when any whiff of scandal, any ostensible deviance, was quietly concealed.
For much of its so-called classical age, the film industry simultaneously embraced a cultural puritanism onscreen and a happy, shiny front for the public lives of its starry personnel, who were packaged as being as ordinary, domesticated, middle class and white as its targeted audience, just with fancier clothing, swanker cars and better teeth. The industry presented one vision of itself on its front stage and kept tight control of its backstage, where men and women lived their lives, drank until they passed out, overdosed on drugs, cheated on spouses, had illegal abortions, attempted suicide, were forced to hide their desires and identities as well as deal with predators.
Navigating abuse could be tough for women in old Hollywood both because they were generally excluded from power positions in the industry and because their on-camera value was sometimes contingent on their perceived desirability. When it came to actresses, the director Elia Kazan said, the studio bosses had “a simple rule”: Do I want to have sex with her? Like women in the outside world, women in film nevertheless worked and some thrived. They stuck around because they needed the work, because they loved the work. You can, after all, be a victim and flourish. Yet without power or legal protections, they had to submit, ignore, dodge or fight back.
That women continued to fight or submit — and still do — makes it clear that, post-Weinstein, we need to rethink how some stories about the industry are framed, and who benefits from certain kinds of framing and why. Like journalism, American film history tends to be rather too neatly divided between sober, apparently disinterested chronicles and gossipy counter-histories, some persuasive, others fantastical. The sober side likes to package the past into biographical portraits, production practices and technological innovations; sometimes, they nod at the more unsavory stories and use words like womanizer when they really mean rapist. The gossipy accounts, by contrast, repeat unsourced or unconvincing dirt about abusers and victims.
I assume that some historians and journalists omit certain of these appalling stories because they dismiss them as mere gossip and perhaps tantamount to fake news. Yet like Weinstein’s assaults, this behavior — Twentieth Century-Fox’s longtime boss Darryl F. Zanuck had a well-documented habit of flashing his penis at women — is as much a part of American film history as the organization of labor, the invention of new lenses and executive decisions. These abuses are, in turn, part of a larger, complex and contradiction-filled story about women, men and power, one that involves every aspect of American cinema and which created an overwhelmingly white, male-dominated business that has remained stubbornly resistant to change.
Not long after the recent death of a movie star, my colleague, the critic Jessica Kiang, sent out a tweet stating that “We’re going to have to get better at memorializing great men with astonishing, unassailable professional legacies who also did, or were credibly rumored to have done, awful things.” I knew the story she meant involved a now-dead teenage starlet who, in the mid-1950s, had been allegedly raped by the dead male star. I won’t identify either here because I haven’t found a convincingly reported account.
Like Kiang, I am not sure what we should do with gossip. Yet I agree that we need to figure out what to do with the shadowy corners. “The rumor mill,” as Kiang wrote in follow-up tweets, “is the only way that many real stories of rape/abuse have been recorded, because of the silencing mechanisms of 20th century sexism, and that to ignore them wholesale on the basis of their unverifiability is to perpetuate a broken system.”
Before Weinstein’s fall there were several attempts to see if the rumors of sexual predation were true. David Carr, of The New York Times, and Ken Auletta, of The New Yorker, both tried to get that story. People were too afraid of Weinstein or had signed NDAs. That said, this doesn’t explain why so many other reporters continued to run flattering profiles of him, to solicit his opinions and quotable commentary, and helped turn him into a boldface name. Journalists described him as “brash” and “aggressive,” predictably referred to his swagger and belligerent business practices, fawning over him to secure the access that, in turn, helped secure their own reputations. He made for good copy. He was “a star,” as one reporter told me.
Even when Weinstein publicly crossed the line — almost coming to blows with a rival at Sundance in the 1990s, for instance — the nastiness faded, becoming part of his roguish public identity.“He’s a Hollywood legend of the old school,” one 2003 article cooed. A year later, I wrote a jokey story in the form of a letter (“Dear Harvey”) about missing Weinstein in that year’s Oscar race. It wasn’t funny then, it’s excruciating to reread now. That kind of blithe attitude, however ironically couched, helps the industry continue its self-protective culture of secrecy.
That culture needs to blown up. That doesn’t mean we should risk destroying lives based on rumor, to be clear. But if the same stories keep circulating attention should be paid. Maybe those rumors deserve a closer reported look or at least skepticism about power, rather than cheap jokes and cynicism. Power brokers who behave as if they are above the law depend on that cynicism, with the winks and jaundiced shrugs that help maintain the status quo. The Weinstein story, it is worth remembering, wasn’t broken by entertainment journalists who need him to fluff up their copy. Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey broke the story in The New York Times; Ronan Farrow followed up soon after with his own revelations in The New Yorker.
Simply wishing Weinstein away would be too easy; it would also be in keeping with the industry’s history of erasing its wrongs with plastic smiles and dissimulating public relations. If anything, we need to keep telling — and retelling — the story of what Weinstein did and how he did it, to see it as part of the complicated, intertwined legacy of Hollywood history, entrenched misogyny and the dangerous fetishization of powerful men. We need to keep reminding ourselves of the mind-blowing measures that some extremely wealthy, seemingly untouchable people will take to protect themselves. Because if we do, we will also remember that power can be destroyed.