We Need to Talk about Harvey (and Hollywood)

Harvey Weinstein's gross sexual misconduct has sent shockwaves through Hollywood, but cinema's glib depiction of workplace sexual harassment, from 9 to 5 to Disclosure, shows the industry has a history of trivialising these issues

Feature by John Bleasdale | 12 Oct 2017
  • Harvey Weinstein

A couple of years ago, I found myself walking behind Harvey Weinstein on the Lido at the Venice Film Festival. He was marching full tilt, a young woman running at his side to keep up and holding a mobile as he relayed his orders through her into the phone. As we approached the security, she rushed forward ten paces to show their passes so Harvey could sweep through without breaking pace. It was a cartoonish display of power: ostentatious, brazen and dehumanising. And also, funny. Like Michael Lerner’s monstrous studio head in Barton Fink, or Tom Cruise’s turn as Les Grossman in Tropic Thunder. But on reading the allegations in Ronan Farrow’s New Yorker exposé and before that the New York Times investigation, it’s quickly apparent this abusive, powerful man is as funny as cancer.

With Miramax and the-soon-to-be-renamed Weinstein Company, Weinstein fostered talents, produced some of the best films of the last three decades, garnered Oscar nominations by the hundreds. Consequently,  as Farrow writes, at the Academy Awards Weinstein “has been thanked more than almost anyone else in movie history, just after Steven Spielberg and right before God.” Emboldened by the outing of high-profile celebrities such as Bill Cosby and Bill O’Reilly, women are coming forward and speaking out, shedding the NDAs and the guilt and fear that was a result of the systemic abuse and harassment that Weinstein allegedly perpetrated.

The list of actresses testifying to harassment grows longer by the day. At the time of writing, Asia Argento, Rosanna Arquette, Rose McGowan, Romola Garai, Cara Delevingne, Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie and Léa Seydoux have all accused the mogul of inappropriate sexual behaviour and abuse.

Reaction from those who have been beneficiaries of Weinstein’s undoubted influence and talent as a producer has been stilted. Some have issued statements. Meryl Streep protests she knew nothing; Kate Winslet confesses to naivety. But Ben Affleck’s expression of revulsion at Harvey’s behaviour was met with a curt “Fuck Off” tweet, by Rose McGowan. The actress has gone on to claim the actor personally knew about the abuse. Affleck has since been forced to apologise for his own groping behaviour. Others, like Matt Damon, bring up the entirely irrelevant point that they have daughters. Quite literally, patriarchs using patriarchy to condemn patriarchy.

But there is a sense that the tipping point might have finally been reached. As the Jimmy Savile case led to an avalanche of accusations and in some case criminal trials in the UK, so Hollywood awaits the-other-shoe downpour that could lead to a flood of revelations.

And to some extent we all knew. Down and Dirty Pictures by Peter Biskind was published in 2004 and outlined not only Miramax’s dodgy accounting practices and creative interference – earning Weinstein the moniker Harvey Scissorhands – but also revealed temper tantrums, spittle-spraying rage, bullying and the callous mistreatment of employees. Recall the young woman with the telephone on the Lido. It doesn’t help that Weinstein looks like a man whose head is stuffed with a pornographer’s underpants. Rumours abound. We say we’re shocked but we’re not surprised. We all knew. The difference is: now we know we know.

Politically, Weinstein’s downfall serves as ammunition in the revival of the culture wars led on the Right by the amnesiac pussy-grabber-in-Chief. The bastion of elitist liberal values Hollywood has been shown to have feet of clay, we are told. But Hollywood has never been as liberal as its detractors would like you to believe.

Hollywood's history of trivialising sexual harassment

Let’s look at Hollywood’s depiction of workplace sexual harassment specifically. Not rape, or domestic abuse, but just this. According to a recent survey, one out of three women have suffered sexual harassment at the workplace. With such frequency you’d imagine there’d be a tonne of movies about this, right? N’huh. There’s North Country, where Charlize Theron plays Josey Aimes, a real life pioneer who suffers horrendous harassment when she takes a job as a coal miner, but stands up for her rights. Her court case was a landmark in the fight, but it isn’t exactly typical. You don’t have to go into a male-dominated hostile environment to be the target of abuse.

Despite the seriousness of North Country – made by New Zealand director Niki Caro – Hollywood usually treats sexual harassment as comic. In Zoolander, Maury Ballstein grabs the ass of a passing female employee at his fashion agency and is rewarded with an appreciative “Oh Maury!” from the unseen (but for butt) woman. From the 1980 comedy 9 to 5 to Mila Kunis being hit on by her boss Joel McHale in Ted, harassment is seen as routine and sleazy but no big deal. The writer and star of Ted, Seth MacFarlane has since revealed that a joke at the 2013 Oscars nominations aimed at Weinstein was based on his own knowledge of a inappropriate sexual advance made by Weinstein on a friend of his, Jessica Barth, who also worked on the film.

The joke, MacFarlane states, “came from a place of loathing and anger”, but doesn’t the joke actually normalise the behaviour? In Wolf of Wall Street Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort sexually assaults two air hostesses and the film plays it as a gag – another example of giddy excess. Ironically perhaps, Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine features Cate Blanchett’s fairly robust no-nonsense response to harassment from her dentist boss, though that response basically sees her walk out of the job.

But the funniest joke about sexual harassment is obviously the one where the gender roles are switched. Horrible Bosses (2011) does just that, with Jennifer Aniston as one of eponymous employers, a sexually predatory dentist (a dentist again!?) This man-bites-dog reversal also plays out in arguably the most famous film to take on workplace sexual harassment: Disclosure, in which Demi Moore forces herself on the unwilling Michael Douglas and then – get this! – accuses him of sexual harassment. Of course, poor Michael Douglas was constantly being attacked by women: if it wasn’t a mad women stalking him in Fatal Attraction, it was a bi-sexual romantic novelist trying to kill him in Basic Instinct.

The treatment of women and the abuse that they suffer on a regular basis – the kind of behaviour Weinstein and others of his slimy ilk perpetrate – is portrayed by Hollywood with the same levity and topsy-turvy perspective as Native Americans used to get in westerns. When it isn’t a joke, women are made the aggressors and men the victims. Weinstein didn’t do this in a cultural vacuum. Just as the Bechdel Test reveals the marginalisation and frequent invisibility of women in film, so the tendency of Hollywood to trivialise abuse, harassment and rape means that victims can be told to lighten up, and the most dangerous sexual predator can look like Glenn Close or Sharon Stone.

And don’t count on this being the last of Harvey Weinstein. Aside from Fatty Arbuckle and some notorious lefties, Hollywood loves to forgive the powerful and male. Woody Allen, Roman Polanski and Mel Gibson all have their careers intact with a stream of actors willing to work with them. Casey Affleck – remember him Ben? – not only survived accusations of sexual harassment, but managed to win an Oscar, reluctantly presented to him by Brie Larson, who’d won hers the previous year for portraying a rape survivor.

But actresses – such as Larson, Argento and McGowan – who are breaking the silence should be encouraged and supported. Men need to check their own behaviour and call out what they see and know is wrong. And we need female voices behind the camera to produce films which speak to the full spectrum of female human experience, from Wonder Woman to the most vulnerable survivor.