The tsunami of outrage that has washed through Hollywood over the past two weeks is staggering in both its scope and its implications.
First, the scope: Megaproducer Harvey Weinstein, wined and feted despite his well-known proclivity for brutalities sexual and otherwise, was kicked out of the Academy; other Hollywood stars are running scared as Twitter fills to the brim with accusations of sexual harassment and assault.
Next, the implications: Hollywood has long been accused of depravity, but has spent the past two decades attempting to establish feminist bona fides. All of that collapsed this month. No longer can Hollywood pretend to be a forum designed for female betterment; no longer can many of Hollywood’s most burnished elites proclaim their love for female empowerment. They stood by and did nothing because Harvey Weinstein was powerful. And now, too late, they proclaim their mea culpas.
All of this reeks a bit of Queen Gertrude: Hollywood doth protest too much.
Let’s not be coy about Hollywood’s history: It was built on sexual peccadillos and, in particular, the casting couch. It has long peddled flesh, and its leading lights haven’t been shy about participating. Louis B. Mayer allegedly sexually assaulted teenage Judy Garland; Arthur Freed allegedly exposed himself to then-twelve-year-old Shirley Temple; Harry Cohn and Daryl Zanuck reportedly solicited prospective starlets on a routine basis.
This was a running joke in the industry for decades. In All About Eve (1950), early-career Marilyn Monroe — who later advised a young Joan Collins that producers were like “wolves” — played an up-and-coming actress attempting to sleep her way to the top. In one of her scenes, theater critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders), who has been squiring Monroe’s character around town in exchange for fringe benefits, directs her toward producer Max Fabian. “Now go and do yourself some good,” he tells her. “Why do they always look like unhappy rabbits?” she pouts. “Because that’s what they are,” he says. “Now go and make him happy.” (Monroe would later write in her autobiography about producers who treated the town like an “overcrowded brothel.”)
Decades later, in The Godfather, megaproducer Jack Woltz (John Marly) informs Corleone family lawyer Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) that singer Johnny Fontane (Al Martino) won’t be cast in a particular role because Woltz has designs on a star with whom Fontaine has been sleeping. “Johnny Fontane ruined one of Woltz International’s most valuable proteges. . . . I was gonna make her a big star. And let me be even more frank, just to show you that I’m not a hard-hearted man, that it’s not all dollars and cents. She was beautiful! She was young, she was innocent. She was the greatest piece of a** I’ve ever had, and I’ve had ’em all over the world.”
Let’s not be coy about Hollywood’s history: It was built on sexual peccadillos and, in particular, the casting couch.
And herein lies the problem: Where does “mutually beneficial” Hollywood quasi-consent stop and sexual assault and harassment begin? After all, we’re hearing from actresses such as Ellen Barkin that Weinstein’s evils had been an open secret for years, and yet rich, famous actors and actresses said nothing. Nor will they about others: The power imbalance between producers and talent is simply too great. If you’re a young, aspiring star, and you’re invited to dinner by a rapacious producer with the ability to toss you a juicy role, what do you do? Do you turn down the dinner and risk being badmouthed around town? Do you go to dinner and demurely protest when he tries to go to bed with you? Or do you sleep with him in hopes of receiving that part, which could end up being worth millions in future earnings?
Unfortunately, the logic extends even to those big stars who no longer need rapacious producers. The only people who could stop the chain of brutality would be those who have already made it — but those people still need the producers who exploited them to continue getting parts. It’s far easier for an actor to drop out of circulation than a producer.
So, what can be done?
First, we as a society can stop treating sex as transactional: We can train men and women to value it as something more than pleasure given and taken. Men in power have always exploited objects of their desire. The only constraints, historically, have been societal taboos against such exploitation — the unwillingness of the broader public to wink and nod at sex-for-power relationships. If its customers won’t stand for such behavior, the industry will be forced to take steps toward change.
Second, we must encourage those who are already successful in Hollywood to speak out. The casting couch is alive and well, and only those who survived it have both the credibility and the career safety to break the cycle. We need figures such as Barkin to name other names, if they have them. It’s not bravery to confirm the atrocities of a confirmed criminal; it is bravery to expose those who continue to engage in predatory behavior.
Finally, we must look to our own communities. Whenever scandal erupts in a public institution — be it schools, churches, synagogues, or Hollywood — the temptation for those loyal to the institution is to close ranks. Sometimes, that’s necessary in order to prevent the destruction of that institution’s ideals, if those ideals have been betrayed by the sinners. But when the sinners are baked into the cake — when the institution prizes, treasures, rewards, and even jokes about them — it may be worth looking more deeply at the values of the institution itself. Not every institution’s sinners mirror its existential sins — but we should ensure that our institutions’ existential sins don’t enable more sinners.