This is my take on the recent disclosures about Harvey Weinstein. It is not meant to replace or supersede or in any way silence the many more heartfelt, eloquent, painful takes that others – mainly women – have been offering. I’m writing both as a male and as a film scholar and educator who considers himself an ally of women. I have a feeling most of what I have to say is obvious on the level of duh! to most of the women I know, so maybe there’s an implied male audience here. In any case, I welcome any feedback, criticisms, or suggestions for improvement from women or men who might read this.
Harvey Weinstein is not an exception. Not an outlier or an anomaly. Harvey Weinstein is the rule. This is not to say that every man in America or every man in the 21st century is a sexual aggressor or abuser (and let’s just get #notallmen out of the way – we’re engaged in an examination of deeply rooted cultural trends and systemic abuse here, which necessitates a broad approach. If that offends you, you’re behind the curve – maybe take a sociology class).
But modern culture – with whatever other qualifiers you want to use (American, Western, human, etc.) – is designed to allow and perpetuate sexual abuse. Particularly by men and most especially against women. It’s an inherent, fundamental part of the glue that makes patriarchy stick. It’s in our institutions, our languages, our politics, our education, our sport and leisure, and most definitely in our art.
And it fills in the cracks where all those different parts of life and culture intersect.
I study and teach film and other screen media. To do so, one needs to have a language of art, but also of commerce, of industry, of history. And to do justice to any of those fields and their intersections, you have to understand gender.
I’m not an expert in that field, but here are a few things that are clear if you look closely enough at film studies as an academic discipline.
First of all, Hollywood is sexist and it always has been. Anybody who’s even remotely been paying attention over the past few years must see this. Groups like the Geena Davis Institute, Women in Film, the Media, Diversity, and Social Change Initiative, and many more organizations and individuals have dedicated immense time and resources to accumulating, analysing, and publicizing data that clearly show how deeply entrenched sexism is in the US film industry. This isn’t a “theory” or “speculation.” Hollywood doesn’t hire women with anything resembling parity, it doesn’t pay them equally, and doesn’t award them for their work or creativity to anything near the same extent. It has different standards of success for men and women and different image standards. In other words, it treats women as lesser than men.
It also has the casting couch culture that each successive generation seems surprised still exists. Weinstein is rightly depicted as a monster in this story, but please read Molly Ringwald’s take or this account of women describing the abusive and degrading situations they’ve faced at the hands of the many many other “not-Harveys.”
And as we know now (and, really, knew before), this hasn’t been a “secret” in Hollywood. Watch Gwyneth Paltrow describe Weinstein in this clip from 1998, the humor of which becomes way ickier based on the “recent” revelations:
Or, more pointedly, this clip of Courtney Love from 2005:
And it’s not just stars and casting. Read this account of how women working below-the-line in production roles are affected by Hollywood’s culture of sexist abuse when they haven’t got the veneer of star power to protect them.
Second of all, Hollywood history is sexist, by this I mean how that history has been recorded. The story that Hollywood and its historians choose to tell about it are male-centric. Yes, there are star studies, and Hollywood will occasionally congratulate itself by celebrating Dorothy Arzner or Ida Lupino. And, to be sure, there are academics and popular historians doing great work to correct this (Karina Longworth’s podcast You Must Remember This, while not solely dedicated to women’s history, is a fascinating and accessible place to start). But the limited number of books, archives, documentaries, or retrospectives dedicated to the work of women in Hollywood is astonishing. Some of this has to do with the way film history in general has been in thrall to the auteur paradigm for decades, a potent formulation that locates filmmaking creativity and genius squarely on the shoulders of men.
But much of it is simply institutional sexism, perpetuated as much by publishers, libraries, film festivals, and cable channels as it is by the Hollywood film industry.
Third, academic film studies is sexist. We don’t like to admit this. Most of us in the humanities these days like to think of ourselves as progressive, thoughtful, responsive to the complaints and desires of marginalized groups (because, while we’re talking about women in light of Weinstein, film and academia have acted horrifically in other ways to people of color, lgbtq communities, the physically disabled, and so many more groups). But it’s there in the courses we teach and the film lists we compile, regularly dedicated to the work of men. It’s there in the conferences we attend and organize, regularly overflowing with all-male panels and men who don’t even notice. It’s there in academia’s institutionalized sexism which rewards men over women. It’s there in the conference antics that are excused with “too much wine.” And it’s there in academia’s own version of the casting couch, which sees women colleagues and students regularly sexually harassed and abused and male perpetrators rarely punished.
Furthermore, although I’m talking about Hollywood and film studies here, I’m quite sure that much the same could be said about medicine, politics, building, waiting tables, the law, sport, music, journalism, and any other professional or leisure field one might mention. That’s patriarchy (when people say, “what is patriarchy, I can’t see it, show me,” I’m always reminded of those stories of 17th and 18th-century doctors who didn’t believe in germs because they couldn’t “see” them).
And patriarchy works by marginalizing women, erasing them, ignoring them. And, to vastly oversimplify, when that happens, when women become “othered,” it’s much easier to treat them as sex objects, conquests, trophies.
As I said above, any woman is likely to be acutely aware of all this. But so should be any man – at least any man who works with, lives with, or at least takes the time to listen to women. Anybody who’s ever taken a Women Studies 101 course. And yet it continues.
And I know that I have participated in some of these behaviors, contributed to this environment, and for that I’m truly sorry.
So I thought I’d end by briefly mentioning how I plan to move forward post-Weinstein. I would love to hear more about how to do this.
First, I’d just like to say to all the women writing #metoo, and all those who’ve chosen not to, I believe you. I’ve heard you, and it’s heartbreaking, and I believe you. And I want to help.
Second, there has been a lot of advice given to men recently about just how to help, about how to change or modify our behaviour, both personally and professionally. I’m listening to that, too, and I recommend other men do the same.
Finally, and for what it’s worth, I thought I would outline a few specific approaches related to my work as a film scholar and educator. The Weinsteins of the film world get away with their reprehensible behaviour in part because the whole apparatus around film – only some of which I’ve outlined above – covers for them. And regardless of where we are on the ladder of film or media importance, we need to stop doing that. So, going forward I will:
- ensure that in my classrooms no denigration of women will be tolerated, either of students in the class or of characters or cast within the media we’re discussing;
- strive for gender parity in the film and reading lists I compile for classes;
- write about and argue for more support for and access to women’s filmmaking and history within my discipline;
- take on my fair share of emotional and other unpaid labour in any department, committee, or board that I’m a member of;
- not propose or appear on conference panels that are male-only;
- believe and support students and colleagues when they describe instances of harassment and abuse.
It’s a short list. Some of these I already do, some I need to get better at, some I’m ashamed to say will be new for me, and I know I can do more.
But unless #allmen can change our behaviour, rethink our histories, look at the world more honestly, and accept our own roles in creating, sustaining, and perpetuating this culture of harassment and abuse, Harvey Weinstein and his ilk will remain, not exceptions, but the sad, destructive norm.