This week Variety has released its seventh annual Power of Women issue, celebrating women who are using their celebrity clout to champion specific causes. Anna Kendrick, Oprah Winfrey, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, Salma Hayek Pinault and Gwyneth Paltrow are all featured. But the issue also contains a story from another strong female celebrity, about a time when she wishes she had been stronger. Ashley Judd told Variety a story that she’s never told publicly before, which begins,
I was sexually harassed by one of our industry’s most famous, admired-slash-reviled bosses.
The story here takes place in the late ’90s, when Ashley Judd is already an established star, close to 30, and, as she puts it, “a declared feminist.” She considered herself “empowered.” But, still, in this encounter with a powerful mogul of her chosen industry, she didn’t realize what was happening to her.
I had completed a minor in what was then called women’s studies, which we now call gender studies. And yet I did not recognize at the time what was happening to me. It took years before I could evaluate that incident and realize that there was something incredibly wrong and illegal about it.
As she sees it, this wasn’t a problem unique unto her. The abuse of power is systemic, as is the tendency of women to not see it right in front of them.
And I think that’s what’s happening in Hollywood with regard to female crew members, above-the-line and below-the-line talent, and pay disparity. We’re individually and collectively coming to a realization and acceptance that this is an entrenched part of the reality, and I think that talking about it is essential to the process of becoming aware, accepting that this is reality and then ultimately taking action.In the late ’90s, while she was filming Kiss the Girls, Judd was invited to have a meeting with the head of a rival studio. (She doesn’t name names, but it’s not too hard to speculate who this might be about.) This wasn’t a cut-and-dry casting couch situation. He wasn’t offering to put her in a specific project; they were just meetings.
He was very stealth and expert about it. He groomed me, which is a technical term - Oh, come meet at the hotel for something to eat. Fine, I show up. Oh, he’s actually in his room. I’m like, Are you kidding me? I just worked all night. I’m just going to order cereal. It went on in these stages. It was so disgusting. He physically lured me by saying, “Oh, help me pick out what I’m going to wear.” There was a lot that happened between the point of entry and the bargaining. There was this whole process of bargaining—“Come do this, come do this, come do this.” And I would say, “No, no, no.” I have a feeling if this is online and people have the opportunity to post comments, a lot of the people will say, “Why didn’t you leave the room?”, which is victim-blaming. When I kept saying no to everything, there was a huge asymmetry of power and control in that room.
And Judd says she’s not the only woman this has happened to. She’s heard the same story from a number of other actresses. She blames, in large part “retaliation and ridicule” for the fact that every single one of them kept this story secret for so long.
This will be familiar to all the women to whom this has happened. I have a feeling we are a legion. I was with a bunch of other actors, and it was critical that it was actors: The exact same thing had happened to them by the exact same mogul. Only when we were sitting around talking about it did we realize our experiences were identical.Identical stories about the same abusive, powerful asshole. Complete with super creepy sexual details, including him asking Judd (and the rest of them) to watch him take a shower. It’s clear that this is not an individual incident, and this producer is not an outlier among powerful men. The hope, I suppose, is that every story told about this man, or about Bill Cosby, or about anyone abusing their power and public status to take advantage of women, gets us one step closer to breaking down those systemic protections that have been built up around such people. As Judd puts it, “This happened to be a man who did this to a woman. But this system is one that all of us participate… We’re all part of the problem, but we’re all part of the solution.”
Read Judd’s story in full over at Variety.