Harvey Weinstein in 2008. Photo by Anders Krusberg, courtesy the Peabody Awards.
All over Hollywood, women are trading in pussyhats for shower caps to protest the exploitive behavior of disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and the industry culture that enabled it.
No, not really. While actress Ashley Judd and other less famous women are being celebrated as heroes for going public about Weinstein’s efforts to sell them a script that included shared showers, groping and whatever might follow, people with genuine power in the movie colony – ranging from Weinstein’s brother Bob and other members of the Weinstein Company board to A-listers like Meryl Streep – say they knew nothing about his reportedly long history of piggish behavior. A whole lot of other people in the entertainment industry are choosing to say nothing at all, which itself speaks volumes.
Grant that nobody else at Weinstein’s company witnessed their co-founder stepping naked into a shower in front of a dismayed young actress or would-be director seeking his backing. That’s credible. But they never heard about his assistants being asked to provide “turndown service” at his hotel rooms? Or that he was taking business meetings with young women in his hotel suites in the first place? They never noticed that young women working for Weinstein did their best to meet with him in pairs, or that their wardrobe sometimes included parkas in the dead of winter – in Los Angeles? That’s less credible. Not impossible, especially if we assume that ignorance was a matter of choice rather than circumstance, but less credible all the same.
Even if “not everybody” knew, certainly a lot of people did. And all of this does not even touch on the far more serious allegations that have subsequently come to light.
Meryl Streep is nearly three years older than Harvey Weinstein. A graduate of Vassar and Yale, she received her first Oscar nomination in 1978, when Harvey Weinstein and brother Bob were just getting their first film company – Miramax – off the ground by promoting films shot at rock concerts.
In the 1980s, the Weinsteins raised their profile in liberal Hollywood by backing Amnesty International and other popular causes. They had their first commercial hits late in that decade with “The Thin Blue Line” and “Sex, Lies and Videotape.” By then Streep had long since established herself as the film industry’s biggest female star, and one who had major acting and intellectual chops.
I fully believe Harvey Weinstein never tried to cross the line with Meryl Streep. He was probably terrified of her.
The kind of behavior described by Judd and the others in the New York Times expose is more about power than about sex. (The New Yorker, which published its own investigation a few days after the Times, included even more disturbing allegations against Weinstein, up to and including assault and rape; a spokesperson for Weinstein issued a denial of those additional claims.) Men, and I suppose a small number of exceptional women, who are emotionally stunted in a certain way seem to convince themselves in some cases that coercion actually is cooperation and consent. In other cases, they probably don’t care. Either way, they will pick the targets that they deem least able to say “no” and least likely to make trouble in the event they do.
The really clumsy ones start too soon or pick the wrong victims. They get stopped early. More highly skilled manipulators seem better able to judge their situations. They wait to achieve a certain level of power before their behavior strays too far outside the norm. They have access to targets whose personal goals or insecurities make them more controllable, or who have the most to lose from resistance.
Ashley Judd is something of an outlier. Her mother Naomi and sister Wynona were a top-tier country music duo in the 1980s and early ‘90s, which gave Ashley a higher profile than most Hollywood newcomers. Although nowhere near the luminary of a Meryl Streep, or Julia Roberts or Gwyneth Paltrow, Ashely Judd has a solid list of credits in her own right. Even in 1997, when she says Weinstein harassed her during filming of “Kiss the Girls,” her family name made her the sort of target who was a higher risk for someone like Weinstein.
Even so, it took a long time – long after Judd made her name as an actress, long after her political activism (particularly high profile in her denunciations of Donald Trump) gave her renewed prominence – for her to name him publicly. As recently as two years ago, Judd withheld Weinstein’s name when she told an interviewer about the harassment. Weinstein’s prominence as a backer of feminist causes may have made it more difficult for Judd to denounce him on the record, as she finally did to the Times journalists. (Consider, too, the allegations against “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” creator and self-proclaimed feminist Joss Whedon earlier this year and their fallout.) But ultimately Judd did denounce Weinstein, and he finally lost his gamble on her.
Now many prominent Democrats are falling all over themselves to create some space from Weinstein by “returning” some of the millions of dollars he gave in contributions to their campaigns. In most if not all cases, however, they are not offering to send the money back to Weinstein, who isn’t poor but could use the funds to defend against the lawsuits that are surely coming. They are re-gifting the money (and publicly taking credit for doing so) to nonprofit groups and even some allied politically active organizations, like Emily’s List. So the Weinstein money still ends up serving the Democrats who say they want nothing to do with him. Cynicism rules.
If there is any lesson to be drawn, it is that piggishness is its own ideology. You can be a self-proclaimed feminist like Harvey Weinstein or Bill Clinton and still behave atrociously with the young people who, due to your station in life, look to you for mentorship and support. You can be a self-described conservative advocate of traditional values like Bill O’Reilly, who has been accused of similar bad behavior; he denies the accusations, but his employer paid millions in settlements in connection with them. You can be a longtime political operative turned media mogul like Roger Ailes, who in some ways was another Weinstein from the other side of the ideological fence. You can be an apolitical “nice guy” like Bill Cosby.
Piggishness is pure selfishness; it doesn’t have any ideological preference. But we do, so it is worth remembering that the most dangerous predator is the one we choose to trust.