How the Weinstein Sex Scandal Began a Movement Against Silence

October 18, 2017
FILE PHOTO: Film producer Harvey Weinstein attends the 2016 amfAR New York Gala at Cipriani Wall Street in Manhattan, New York February 10, 2016. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly/File Photo

‘You Need to Decide’

I used to consider it a badge of honor that Harvey Weinstein once threatened me. By some twisted Hollywood calculus, it sort of meant you had made it.

It was during the awards season of 2012, after I had written a profile of Michel Hazanavicius, the director and screenwriter of the silent film “The Artist,” which Weinstein was peddling for the Academy Awards (it later won for best picture). Not long after the story appeared, I was surprised to receive a note from Weinstein.

“You are a poet of prose,” it read.

It struck me as an absurdly hyperbolic compliment for a 1,200-word newspaper story. But I was delighted that one of the most powerful producers in Hollywood seemed to like my work.

But then came another email, this one from his publicist: “Saw the piece! It’s great,” she wrote, adding, “One smallish thing … can you call me?”

It turned out Weinstein was bothered by one of the quotes I used from Hazanavicius, and he wanted me to take it out of the story. I explained to the publicist — repeatedly — that I couldn’t change the piece.

Then my phone rang. It was Weinstein.

“Danielle,” he said firmly, “this is the first time we’ve worked together. You need to decide if you want Harvey Weinstein to be friend — or foe.”

For 20 minutes, he enumerated the reasons why this one quote would be ruinous to the film, the filmmaker and its chances at the Oscars. I reiterated what I had told his publicist — that I wouldn’t change the quote or take it out. If Hazanavicius wanted to clarify the comment, I said, I could add an editor’s note.

Weinstein became angry.

“Danielle,” he said firmly, “this is the first time we’ve worked together. You need to decide if you want Harvey Weinstein to be friend — or foe.”

I held my ground, citing the demands of journalistic ethics. But that incensed him even more. “You’re a stubborn Jewish girl,” he finally said, “just like all the other Jewish girls I’ve dated.”

Then he hung up.

That mild episode came to mind earlier this month when allegations were made public that Hollywood’s notorious, Oscar-decorated mogul reportedly had spent three decades abusing his power to sexually harass and assault women — most of them colleagues and employees. It surprised no one in Hollywood that Weinstein was a bully — he’s been using his power to intimidate and coerce industry colleagues, from reporters to studio executives, since he first started in the business. Not even Michael Eisner, the former CEO of the Walt Disney Co., was spared Weinstein’s legendary wrath. The reported lengths to which Weinstein would go to get what he wanted were illimitable. No one was immune.

But the revelations of alleged extreme sexual misconduct over decades revealed the extent to which Weinstein’s expectation of complicity and compliance had subsumed an entire industry. Either you were one of his many alleged victims, sexual or otherwise, or you were indifferent to the machinations of a tyrant. It’s only Hollywood, many thought. Anything goes.

Not anymore. The public response to the stunning accusations against Weinstein was swift and nearly unequivocal.

Through the media, long pent-up rage and outrage exploded into cultural consciousness, and a suffocating silence around the oppression of women in the film industry turned into a symphony of comeuppance.

Within days of the initial report published by The New York Times, the Weinstein Co. suspended him indefinitely, and half of the company’s all-male board resigned. When The New Yorker published a second, more detailed and damning report, Weinstein was fired.

In the days that followed, the floodgates burst open, as more and more women — including famous and powerful celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie — stepped forward with their allegations of abuse. An industry whose constitution depended on an “open secret” policy of ignoring and condoning the exploitation of women had finally reached a crescendo: Would it regress into defensiveness or start pulling out its rotted root system?

The reason Harvey Weinstein allegedly was able to get away with his abhorrent behavior for so long is because the perception of his power cowed others into submission and silence. His mythic status in an industry that prides itself on pandering to human fantasy further reinforced the powerlessness of his reported victims. Everyone wanted what Weinstein was selling: dreams, access, wealth, fame. His power was individual, but it also was industrial, supported by the belief that Hollywood’s prevailing patriarchal system would protect the engines of its own existence. And so for too long, his alleged victims and collaborators internalized a sense of helplessness in the face of crassness and corruption. They chose to preserve a poisonous status quo, whether out of ambition, resigned complacency or fear.

Now we can see that Weinstein’s accusers weren’t the only ones “crushed” under the weight of transgression: An entire industry acquiesced to an unspoken rule that what matters is human achievement, not human dignity. Not everyone committed a crime, but everyone sinned. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Indifference to evil is worse than evil itself; in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”

Weinstein, through a spokesperson, issued a statement “unequivocally” denying “[A]ny allegations of non-consensual sex … ”

From Complicity to #MeToo

“I know that everybody — I mean everybody — in Hollywood knows that it’s happening. He’s not even really hiding. I mean, the way he does it, so many people are involved and see what’s happening. But everyone’s too scared to say anything.” — actress Emma de Caunes, accuser

“Everything was designed to make me feel comfortable before it happened. And then the shame in what happened was also designed to keep me quiet.” — Lucia Evans, accuser

“I wish I could have done more. I wish I could have stopped it.”  — executive at the Weinstein Co.

When it comes to encapsulating the most appalling part of the Weinstein debacle, New York Times columnist Bret Stephens put it best: “Of all of the dismaying and disgusting details of the Harvey Weinstein saga,” he wrote, “none is more depressing than this: It has so few heroes.” And maybe none.

In an age of social media self-aggrandizement, it is astonishing how many consciences shrank from the courage to intervene. For three decades, Weinstein’s reported bad behavior ensnared everyone — from his accusers, to his boardroom, to the famous actors, directors and film executives with whom he worked, to reporters who were eager to do his will in exchange for access to his world.

It is a fitting irony that in an industry where everyone tries so hard to look good, so few had the guts to do good.

Weinstein’s reported behavior has been described as “an open secret”: the subject of an Oscar joke, red-carpet interviews, even late night TV. Everyone knew, we’re told. It was “a conspiracy of silence,” as actress Glenn Close put it. So it seems even more unseemly that an industry associated with championing causes and giving charity would abet systemic corruption and then play dumb.

Yet here’s George Clooney on the subject: “I’ve known Harvey for 20 years. He gave me my first big break as an actor.  … He gave me my first big break as a director. … We’ve had dinners, we’ve been on location together, we’ve had arguments. But I can tell you that I’ve never seen any of this behavior — ever.”

Perhaps in a horror story without heroes, the least you can do is act clueless. But with no one to save the day, the burden of truth telling falls to the damsels in distress. Although it is too much to ask to flout fear, trauma, helplessness — someone has to go first.

The reason Harvey Weinstein allegedly was able to get away with his abhorrent behavior for so long is because the perception of his power cowed others into submission and silence.

It took 30 years for enough brave women to break their silence about Weinstein and share their stories with The New York Times and The New Yorker. Our country has a history of brave, lone voices erupting from time to time — from Anita Hill to the women who accused Donald Trump of sexual misconduct while he was on his way to the White House. Now the long-sleeping giant is awake. And for the first time, it isn’t one or two or a dozen women accusing one individual, but a rising chorus of women’s voices determined to end the “conspiracy of silence” around sexual assault.    

What the “MeToo” hashtag phenomenon reveals is just how commonplace the experience of assault and harassment is for women in the United States. By press time, the #MeToo campaign spilled over from Twitter to Facebook, where it was tagged 12 million times. Countless people shared their stories of alleged rape, assault and harassment, whether it occurred at work, school or home, during childhood or adulthood, among the famous or not-so-famous. Celebrities America Ferrera, Debra Messing, Lady Gaga and Anna Paquin used the hashtag, as did some men in a show of solidarity.

The outpouring was intergenerational. Even women who came of age in earlier eras finally felt this was the moment to speak up. The Forward’s editor-in-chief, Jane Eisner, told a story of alleged sexual harassment that took place early in her career and the toll silence took on her conscience.

“What if that editor preyed on someone else after me? What if my silence translated into complicity, and what if that enabled harm to continue? What if I’m somehow guilty, too?” Eisner wrote. “That’s the insidious aspect of sexual harassment. The victim becomes isolated in a prison of her own making and unwittingly allows the exploitation to continue.”

Now that so many of these stories are meeting the hot glare of the spotlight, will anything really change?

Philosopher Edmund Burke famously said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” But it is a failure of imagination to imbue only men with moral will. To right the wrongs in our society and in our world, women also must be elevated and empowered to live in accordance with their conscience.

From Trauma to Teshuvah

I felt trapped. … I was very afraid of him. … I opened the door terrified. …

The most excruciating and uncomfortable hour of my life. … I was so horrified. … He overpowered me. … I was disgusted with myself. … I had eating problems for years. … I have nightmares about him. … Just talking to you about it, my whole body is shaking. … I’ve been damaged.  — statements from Weinstein’s accusers, cited in The New Yorker

“I think now is the right time, in this current climate, for the truth.” — former executive, the Weinstein Co.

The reign of Harvey the Great is over. And to the others just like him: Beware. Hell hath no fury like millions of women scorned.

As Hollywood stories go, the Weinstein saga is by every measure a tragedy.

Today, tomorrow, the next day will bring another news cycle, perhaps a new alleged predator unmasked, but this story will never be over for the women who lived it; their suffering is irreparable. The feelings of pain, violation and helplessness inflicted upon them is something they must live with. It is no small triumph that an alleged abuser of power has been brought low, but Weinstein is one accused perpetrator in a world of many. Just because he finally was outed doesn’t mean the trauma ends for his reported victims, or change the fact that the world these women inhabited was unsafe and unfair.

What the public revelation of Weinstein’s reported pestiferous behavior brought into harsh relief is that he is not alone.

“Mr. Weinstein may be the most powerful man in Hollywood to be revealed as a predator, but he’s certainly not the only one who has been allowed to run wild,” writer and actress Lena Dunham wrote in The New York Times. “His behavior, silently co-signed for decades by employees and collaborators, is a microcosm of what has been happening in Hollywood since always and of what workplace harassment looks like for women everywhere.”

Actress and director Sarah Polley wrote that she gave up acting nearly 10 years ago because she grew tired of feeling “humiliated, violated, [and] dismissed” on set.

“It wasn’t worth it to me,” she wrote in the Times, “to open my heart and make myself so vulnerable in an industry that makes its disdain for women evident everywhere I turn.”

Hollywood, as an industry, is culpable. But so are we. And it on us to ensure that Weinstein and Hollywood do not become the sole scapegoats for a more pervasive problem, one that cuts across industries, communities and political aisles. If our whole society is sick, then our whole society must atone and reform.

Calls for institutional change are beginning. Some are urging Hollywood’s talent agencies to institute policies forbidding professional meetings in hotel rooms; others are calling on the guilds to defend and protect industry workers who come forward with accusations of harassment.

Most notably, however, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences board of governors voted to expel Weinstein from the academy, citing a new no-tolerance policy.

“[T]he era of willful ignorance and shameful complicity in sexually predatory behavior and workplace harassment in our industry is over,” read the academy’s statement.

It is now up to those who averted their eyes from this problem to end the dark legacy of “the casting couch” in all of its ugly iterations. There should be no impunity for those who flout the rules of basic human decency. The epidemic of bullying and intimidating women; of using sexual violence to diminish or suppress them; of extracting sexual favors in exchange for career advancement needs to end not only in Hollywood, but in all halls of power.

It is time for a cultural cheshbon ha-nefesh (accounting of the soul) to account for the state of our soullessness.

“We need to look at ourselves,” Polley wrote. “What have we been willing to accept, out of fear, helplessness, a sense that things can’t be changed? What else are we turning a blind eye to, in all aspects of our lives? What else have we accepted that, somewhere within us, we know is deeply unacceptable? And what, now, will we do about it?”

The reign of Harvey the Great is over. And to the others just like him: Beware. Hell hath no fury like millions of women scorned. 

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