News broke this morning in The New York Times that Harvey Weinstein had sent a last-minute pleading email to some of his friends in Hollywood, begging them to protect him from the dismissal he knew was coming. “My board is thinking of firing me,” he wrote, according to people who said they had read the email. “All I’m asking is let me take a leave of absence and get into heavy therapy and counselling… A lot of the allegations are false as you know but given therapy and counselling as other people have done, I think I’d be able to get there… Do not let me be fired. If the industry supports me, that is all I need.”
How true that final sentence is.
Weinstein was well-acquainted with the fact that so long as enough influential people continue to support you in the Hollywood film industry – so long as they rally around at the opportune moment – then you can be protected from almost anything. Indeed your star can continue to rise: consider the serious allegations of child abuse made against Woody Allen, which made headlines but didn’t prevent him from continuing to make films with the industry’s great and good. Kate Winslet is currently collaborating with him on his latest film (“I don’t know anything, really, and whether any of it is true or false,” she said when asked if the claims about Allen’s conduct with his daughter had given her pause for thought. On Weinstein this week she said she’d heard things in the past but “I had hoped that these kinds of stories were just made-up rumours. Maybe we have all been naïve.”)
Weinstein wasn’t a fool to believe that the help of his well-connected friends could quash the scandal. It’s been claimed that a 2004 article exposing multiple sexual harassment allegations against him was prevented from running in The New York Times after pressure from Hollywood stars including Matt Damon and Russell Crowe. The journalist who says she was writing the piece, Sharon Waxman, said this week that she had travelled to two countries and overcome “immense challenges to confirm at least part of the story”, but then was contacted “directly” by Damon and Crowe and had her article spiked shortly after. If what Waxman reports is true, it’s certainly not the first time we’ve seen Hollywood stars close ranks to prevent damaging news from leaking and potentially destroying another industry heavyweight’s career.
Why would people like Matt Damon and Russell Crowe protect someone like Harvey Weinstein? Possibly because they feared the consequences if they didn’t. It’s no secret that Weinstein, a powerful executive behind films such as Shakespeare In Love, Pulp Fiction and Gangs of New York who co-founded Miramax, had the power to make or break careers. The reasons why men may have worked to keep allegations of Weinstein’s sexual harassment out of the media – or at the very least remained silence on issues which clearly crossed a moral line – are most likely the same reasons why so many women who have now shared their stories didn’t do so before: fear, and the knowledge that the problem was systemic rather than individual.
If you work in an industry where accepting sexual harassment is part of the landscape, you stop remarking on it. Read just a few of the accusations against Weinstein and you get the picture: the one made by Zoe Brock, for instance, a model from New Zealand who was 23 when she claims a naked Weinstein asked her for a massage and she had to lock herself in a hotel bathroom to escape; or the one made by Romola Garai, who was 18 years old when Weinstein made her do a private audition in his hotel room while he wore only a dressing gown. This was “Hollywood normal”. People had heard about it; people knew it was happening. At the same time, highly successful fashion photographer “Uncle” Terry Richardson was telling models to strip naked and simulate handjobs for Vogue shoots, and making statements such as: “[To make it as a model] it’s not who you know, it’s who you blow. I don’t have a hole in my jeans for nothing”, publicly, at the height of his career, with no consequences.
If the problem is systemic, of course, you have a lot to lose from calling out one individual – you run the risk of the whole system turning against you in punishment.
The question comes up every time multiple women make allegations about a man being a serial sexual predator: how could he really have gotten away with being so brazen? Private hotel room auditions, naked massages, sexual favours for parts – surely if it was really going on, everyone would have known and someone would have said something.
But everybody did know, and people did say things. They just weren’t the right people – they were women, they were young, they weren’t big players in the industry. And the men higher up the ladder – the ones who had already unwittingly collaborated with Weinstein, perhaps, and the ones who continued to depend on him for roles – had nothing to gain from corroborating the rumours. In some cases, their own reputations might have been sullied by association if they did.
Then there are the other points of view, like the ones put forth by fashion designer Donna Karan in the Daily Mail: “I think we have to look at ourselves… How do we present ourselves as women? What are we asking? Are we asking for it by presenting all the sensuality and all the sexuality?” She has since claimed that her words were taken “out of context” during the red carpet interview (personally, I find it hard to imagine when ruminations about women “asking for it” might be appropriate in context), but they are nevertheless a good summary of the victim-blaming misogyny which is still a steady undercurrent throughout society and Hollywood in particular. I’d need a whole other article to address the irony of an industry pointing the finger at women for the “sensuality” they had to employ to get recognised by Hollywood in the first place.
There is one thing Donna Karan mentioned in that extremely confusing interview which rang true. “I don’t think it’s only Harvey Weinstein,” she said with a tight smile. “I don’t think we’re only looking at him. I think we’re looking at a world much deeper than that.” Of course, we must be – because if it had only been Harvey Weinstein, it wouln’t have taken us so long to see it.