Harvey Weinstein, The Casting Couch and The Poison of Powerful Men
I don’t exactly remember the first time I heard the rumours about producer Harvey Weinstein’s sexual harassment towards women in the industry. What I can recall, albeit rather hazily, is browsing an old forum I frequented, dedicated to the film industry and awards season predictions. The conversations were heated in that way only something as delightfully low stakes as who’s going to win a sound editing Oscar can be, but it was my first exposure to Weinstein and his myth. People talked off-handedly about his bullying tactics, and the infamous means through which he strong-armed the films of Miramax to Best Picture gold. They also talked about the so-called casting couch, and Harvey’s alleged frequent use of it. Being young and naïve and not up to the industry lingo, I googled the term alongside his name after seeing the jokes made so frequently, and I came across a now infamous Lainey Gossip blind item.
It was a familiar story: The rising starlet whose surrounding buzz seemed at odds with her lack of significant projects or critical acclaim; the producer pulling the strings to success, and the exchange of sexual services for professional gain. Even by blind item standards, it’s a sleazy tale, but given Lainey’s keen eye and the reliability of her previous tidbits, a lot of stock was invested in this, and the same two names appeared repeatedly: Gretchen Mol and Harvey Weinstein.
When I discovered this story, it felt like everyone else had already done so years ago. Forums I visited cracked jokes about the bevvy of beauties who threw themselves at Hollywood’s king-maker to secure that Oscar statuette. Whispers of less consensual behaviour trickled into the mainstream. Indeed, his intimidating behaviour towards people in the industry and press were hardly kept secret either. None of this was secret, and as recent revelations show us following the New York Times investigation into his sexual harassment and improper behaviour, everyone already seemed to know about it.
I knew about it, and I’m nobody. What did people who matter know?
Descriptions of Weinstein’s alleged behaviour are exactly what you’d expect when you conjure up images of Hollywood power players forcing women to play their game: Actress Ashley Judd talked of the arranged meeting between the two in his hotel room, where he appeared wearing a bathrobe, offered her a massage and then asked if she would like to watch him take a shower. The Huffington Post reported that former news anchor Lauren Sivan had accused him of trapping her in a restaurant hall and masturbating in front of her. The New York Times piece alleges no fewer than eight cases against Weinstein were settled out of court. While Weinstein’s power in the industry as a guaranteed awards maker has greatly diminished over the past several years, he has a solid two decades of work and badness behind him where his screaming matches, bullying and intimidation tactics were on full display, and basically everyone either kept their mouth shut, aided him in his efforts or wrote them off as just being silly old Harvey. It was such a normal part of the industry that it became a running joke on forums. Never at his expense, of course, just the women who may have been forced to deal with him.
Over the course of the past few days, I’ve heard the casting couch stories re-emerge. Any woman in a Miramax or Weinstein Company movie who won or was nominated for an Oscar has fallen under a vile spotlight of rumour and misogynistic assumption. It’s undoubtable that the oft-replicated awards season tactics of Weinstein and Miramax played a hand in getting actresses like Gwyneth Paltrow their much coveted awards, but it doesn’t take long for the chatter to decide that their respective talents as actors had no impact. It’s easier to imagine women are just so desperate for fame that they’ll go to the casting couch for it than the reality that some men treat women like objects to get what they want. Men will be the king-makers, but the women will never be queens: They’re commodities to be disposed of once their time has expired.
These stories hid in plain sight and people did nothing. Journalists ran scared or couldn’t get people to talk to them; Hollywood turned a blind eye and let him play the upper hand; The women were forced into silence, speaking only in code when they could. Rose McGowan tweeted last year that ‘my ex sold our movie to my rapist for distribution’, and it didn’t take a genius to put the puzzle pieces together. The same goes for Ashley Judd, who talked about being sexually harassed in 2015. I’ve heard of many women in media and entertainment who warned one another to stay away from Weinstein, never saying in so many words why they must but the message being as clear as day. Women are used to this safe-speak method of communication. It’s one of the only tools we have in a world where we’re blamed for our own harassment and our pain is used as a ping-pong ball to bat back and forth on unrelated issues.
The casting couch gaggle has stung - even now, the chatter remains insistent in various circles that some women are just sad all that ‘hard work’ didn’t pay off as Harvey promised - but the whataboutism has been especially insidious. Regardless of the context or circumstances, there will always be the same opportunistic hypocrites who use women’s suffering as an excuse to bash their favourite pariahs of politics. The Democrats never should have taken Weinstein’s money, but the speed with which accusations of sexual harassment became ‘proof’ of supposed liberal hypocrisies surprised even me. Watching Hillary Clinton once again be blamed for a man’s actions sadly did not.
The case of Harvey Weinstein is one of power. That’s not the sole driving force behind misogyny and sexual harassment, but it’s tough to ignore the distinct methods with which Weinstein exacted his wrath. This is a man infamous for shelving films or ruining careers simply because his demands were not met. He’s a documented bully but one the industry could still crack jokes about in regard to the casting couch. Women feared the repercussions of speaking up against his behaviour but that didn’t stop people like Seth MacFarlane making gags about Oscar nominated actresses no longer having to pretend to find Weinstein attractive. Power poisons. It doesn’t just make the world inhospitable for those it crushes: It turns their suffering into a pithy one-liner for the powerful to laugh at. The joke was on the victims, never Harvey Weinstein.
It seems too much to hope that this will continue the minor exodus of abusive men we’ve seen in the film and entertainment world, from Devin Faraci to Harry Knowles to Andy Signore of Screen Junkies. People are speaking out and the media is amplifying that to the necessary degree. Change may come, but it would be a mistake to assume that Harvey Weinstein is a mere bad apple in a healthy crop. The rumours go far beyond one man, and it’s time we start listening. Surely there is an antidote strong enough to counter this poison?