It seems that the only thing outpacing the furious spread of the California
wildfires this month is the growing claims of sexual harassment on movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. A growing number, over sixty at the most recent count, have come out claiming Weinstein had a pattern of inappropriate behaviors – everything from harassment to rape – over the course of a few decades. There is plenty in the news that I won’t bother to recount here. But what’s interesting about it is that this latest tragic flameout from one the most powerful producers in the history of Hollywood comes on the heels of the downfall of other badly behaved men recently – Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, and Bill O’Reilly.
Apart from the reprehensible conduct of these men though, is something a little more troubling that is a field day for social psychology. How is it that these men got away with these behaviors for so long and how multitudes of others became complicit in maintaining a conspiracy of silence and compliance? It suggests that these were not “lone wolf” bad actors, but rather men who manifested the abuses of privilege and power. When the harassment scandals struck at the heart of Fox News over the last couple of years, what was revealed was a disturbing trend where the network paid out millions of dollars in settlements to harassed women to protect their news stars. This whole game of secrecy, buy outs and gag orders ended when Gretchen Carlson, formerly on Fox and Friends, didn’t agree to the settlement and decided to take the case to court. It was a risky move, but it made the scandals public. Carlson became an unlikely hero. Ailes and O’Reilly were fired in disgrace, while the network, admitting fault, has had to finally examine its own work culture.
Something similar and even much bigger has happened with the Weinstein scandal. A lot more people are involved over a longer period of time. What started as a trickle of information has become a downpour as revelations about Weinstein’s massage and shower habits are served up like hot cakes. It’s funny how fast the trajectories change though, as if the energy expended to keep Harvey’s secret has how been used to cast dispersion.
Weinstein has become a piñata for those both personally affected and those morally offended from a distance, everyone lining up take a whack at the disgraced Hollywood player. Those who were once too sheepish to smack the Weinstein piñata, like SNL or James Cordon, late to the party, are now emboldened, finding new permission to make jokes about a man who was only a month ago lionized as the Miramax indie film barrier breaker. Hollywood breaks as much as it makes stars with equal energy.
A lot about our culture is about displacement, distorted around the contours of power and privilege which warp the social fabric. It’s enough to make people feel really crazy. Therapists used to call abusive people like Weinstein, O’Reilly and Cosby “crazymakers” because dealing with these abusive people can make one feel mad themselves. Abusers lack the self-awareness and empathy to work through their behaviors. So the people around them manifest the symptoms of anxiety, self-doubt, self-blaming. It’s the same logic behind the “blame the victim” trends.
What’s changed now, if anything? Gretchen Carlson recently told the Washington Post that she thinks culture is at a tipping point to challenge this secret culture of sexual harassment. As reports about various movie producers, directors and movie stars continue to pour in, this indeed might be a watershed time to bring awareness. The #metoo is a virtual analog to BLM and the #takeaknee which aims to bring attention to police brutality and racial profiling. Yet this cultural moment seems to owe itself also to the context of occurring in Trump’s America. Trump himself is one of these men – rich, powerful, privileged, with dozens of women who accuse him of harassment and assault. Yet despite a presidency filled with chaos and controversy, has developed Presidential Teflon. Could it be that Weinstein and O’Reilly flamed out now because in a way, in some kind of grand cultural balancing act, Trump was unassailable?
I think it was Martin Scorsese who said that film directing was about choosing what to show and not show. That pretty much describes the fault lines between the public and private in Hollywood. For all the red carpet success and endless promotion of the film and television industry, there is a shadow Hollywood that is nearly as successful, lucrative and influential as Fox, Paramount, Universal, Sony and Disney put together. Los Angeles is the capital of porn – the unofficial movie business. With all the attention on the startling abuses that have come to light in the above ground industry, porn remains a hidden realm where the consumption of drugs and the blunt sexual exploitation of people in general, but women in particular, is rampant. Imagine all the Weinsteins of porn, where the “couch audition” is familiar.
Whether the recent harassment revelations will influence the porn industry is uncertain if not downright unlikely. More and more, however, it’s the omnipresent world of porn that has inched its way closer to the mainstream. Once inhabiting magazines and musty movie theaters and video stores, the internet has lent itself to an enormous data space of pornographic availability, blurring the line between legitimate and illegitimate. Porn’s fetishes have crept their way into mainstream entertainment. Some celebrities, like Kim Kardashian, have deliberately used porn as publicity. The women of Fox News all have the same look, this kind of ultrahygenic façade of a costume with their cake icing makeup and short skirts, some kind of hybrid between the models of Robert Palmer videos and blow up dolls. There is something of a pornographic gaze with Fox News, carried over from pornogazing male chauvinism and toxic masculinity that runs throughout their propaganda network.
If Gretchen Carlson is right and this is a watershed moment, a turning of the tide as the Academy has seemingly put their foot down on Weinsteinism, the self-examination has to delve much deeper into the social complexities of exploitation. It’s not just about motion pictures, but about an entire toxic society with deep structures of misogyny and biophobia, as Susan Griffin would note porn as “culture’s revenge against nature” itself. But that is another chapter …