All that glitters is not gold in Tinseltown. Just by taking a glance at the film industry’s history of sexual assault and violence against women, Hollywood has dark dynamics that continue to perpetuate rape culture. And Harvey Weinstein embodies this.
Renowned producer, movie executive and political activist Harvey Weinstein has been accused of multiple accounts of sexual abuse by several women, including Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie. The news has left Hollywood, and the world, shaken – but why are we surprised? As more stars speak up, it seems that Harvey’s predatory behaviour was widely known (though not openly talked about) and long-standing. Reports of Harvey’s reign of sexual terror stretch back as far as 20 years ago. As The New York Times reported: ‘His alleged behaviour became something of a Hollywood open secret: when the comedian Seth MacFarlane announced Oscar nominees in 2013, he joked, “Congratulations, you five ladies no longer have to pretend to be attracted to Harvey Weinstein.” The audience laughed.’
So why now are women breaking their silence? Because the case studies of Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Casey Affleck, Nate Parker and Bill Cosby have sent a message that rings loud and clear: affluent and influential men will drag your name through the mud for speaking out against gender-based violence, while they remain largely unscathed. And because powerful men still dictate the careers and success of so many women – regardless of how talented these women are. Gwyneth’s description of her experience of Harvey’s putting his hands on her and trying to coax her into his room for a massage when she was 22 says it all: ‘I was a kid, I was signed up, I was petrified.’
The ripe conditions of the patriarchy allow men to inflict trauma while absolving all accountability for their actions. Other men will defend them, rape apologists will have us convinced that these advances were consensual, and the voices of these women are drowned in a sea of gas-lighting and scrutiny. The likes of Ben Affleck and Brad Pitt have been reported to have been well aware of Harvey’s’s alleged crimes – yet they continued to star in his films, hug him at awards shows and pose with him on red carpets. It’s the patriarchy propping up the patriarchy – and those complicit in maintaining the oppressive system are just as guilty as those using it to abuse their victims.
Women who speak out against assault are put under a microscope. Their narratives are dissected and torn apart as victim-blaming and slut-shaming take precedence over condemning men who rape or assault. Take designer Donna Karan’s shocking interview when asked about the claims levelled against her friend Harvey. Instead of defending her sisters, she blamed and slut-shamed them: ‘To see it here in our own country is very difficult, but I also think, how do we display 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?’
Men are protected by the inconsistencies of justice; and they almost always seem to centre themselves in the trauma they create while women are silenced through shame, guilt and intimidation. And tragically, like Donna, some women are complicit in this toxic patriarchal dialogue.
Harvey reportedly intimidated, harassed and threatened many of his victims if they spoke out. His power? Crushing their career hopes in Hollywood. Ronan Farrow reported in The New Yorker that over 13 women have feared retaliation from Harvey and his accomplices, with a former employer of Weinstein saying, ‘If Harvey were to discover my identity, I’m worried that he could ruin my life.’ And we wonder why unreported rape and sexual assault remains high. The gruelling process of calling out perpetrators costs the victim – who has already suffered – too much.
Then there’s the reality that Harvey is rich – mega-rich – meaning he can buy silence, like he did when he settled a sexual-assault case out of court with Rose McGowan. Harvey paid her $100 000 in 1997, including a clause that meant Rose couldn’t speak publicly about her abuse. Until now. This example echoes how Hollywood – and so many industries around the world – operate. Take Dylan Farrow, the adopted daughter of Woody Allen, who came forward to tell her chilling story of child sexual abuse at the hands of one of the most significant figures in the history of film. Woody wasn’t charged, adding to the statistic of men who get away with sexual assault.
Dylan wrote a letter to The New York Times about Hollywood’s complicity in her rape – ‘That torment was made worse by Hollywood… All but a precious few of (my heroes) turned a blind eye. Most found it easier to accept the ambiguity, to say, “Who can say what happened?” to pretend that nothing was wrong. Actors praised him at awards shows. Networks put him on TV. Critics put him in magazines. Each time I saw my abuser’s face – on a poster, on a T-shirt, on television – I could only hide my panic until I found a place to be alone and fall apart.’
Then there’s Casey Affleck, who was accused of sexually harassing two women on the set of his film, I’m Still Here. Despite the allegations of violence and abuse and the $2-million lawsuit that was settled out of court in 2010, Casey was warmly recognised by the Academy and won an Oscar this year for his performance in Manchester By The Sea.
Roman Polanski famously pleaded guilty for raping a 13-year-old girl on shoot, still went on to win an Oscar and then fled America to avoid persecution. He still evades justice today.
There are plenty of stories of violence against women and even more that we’ll probably never hear. Yet these men are remembered for their work, praised for their contributions, continue to win awards, and can rebuild their lives. The women who risk everything to seek justice are persecuted years afterwards, known for being ‘that’ woman who dared to defy rape culture, are called liars for refusing to remain silence, and have to live with the trauma of being violated and never seeing a damn thing been done about it. Just look at the legacy of Khwezi aka Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo on our own shores, and it’s clear this horrifying reality is really far beyond Hollywood.
I hope these women get the justice they deserve and that Harvey doesn’t just lose his job or a few thousand in settlement fees – I hope that he is criminally charged and sentenced. I hope that his name is erased from Hollywood. I hope that his awards are revoked and his legacy permanently tarnished. I hope that Hollywood can send a message to all survivors of sexual assault that it doesn’t matter who you are: we believe you.
Have you been the victim of sexual assault or abuse? Get help and get out of danger with these resources: