By Jaelynn Offerman
When The New York Times and The New Yorker first published their breaking stories about the decades of accusations against movie mogul, Harvey Weinstein, back in October 2017, it was as if a bomb went off in Hollywood. The shockwaves were powerful as they broke the internet and the story became a centerpiece of conversation all around the industry. People at all levels of the business and in different disciplines expressed amazement at the undeniably shocking amounts of alleged abuse and harassment.
While not everyone necessarily knew about Weinstein, many were not too shocked by the idea of such things happening in Hollywood. Sexual harassment in an industry largely run by men and built on a power structure of gatekeepers to the elusive fame and fortune that so many others desperately wanted, was not a surprise. After all, the phrase, “the casting couch,” has been around for ages. The bombshell that captivated everyone’s interest though went deeper than the accusations about Weinstein. The aftermath spread to so many others who apparently knew about Weinstein’s alleged abuses but said nothing at all. They lived with this well-known secret for years, even decades. A ripple occurred, or more appropriately described, as a wave, as so many people, both men and women who kept quiet about the harassment and abuse for years, came forward.
As movements such as Me Too and Time’s Up grew, the power dynamics have begun to crumble and shift. When asked how movements such as Me Too and Time’s Up have impacted the industry so far, TV producer, Susan Reiner, explained how they have raised a tremendous amount of awareness and put men on notice. “They have to watch their behavior and know that they cannot just say whatever they want to say and act however they want to act or take advantage of women because there are consequences,” Reiner remarked.
Bomb after bomb has gone off, exposing men for sexual harassment. Many of the men named came as a shock to fans and colleagues, as they’d never have expected these prominent men to be mentioned in such a wave of bad, even criminal, behavior. Morgan Freeman, Kevin Spacey, James Franco, Charlie Rose, Russell Simmons, Dustin Hoffman, and Ben Affleck are only a few of many that have been accused.
Needless to say, the rest of the world finally discovered the not very well hidden secret of how widespread the issue of sexual harassment was in Tinseltown, the land of glamour, fame and fortune. The exposure was clearly long overdue. The waves are still rolling in the aftermath of Weinstein, and there’s no telling where they end.
While the movement to rid Hollywood, and the world, of the awful problem of harassment, continues, there is undeniably an undercurrent out there. There are some who fear the climate and pendulum has swung too far, in the sense that, in our effort to bring down the hammer on abuse and harassment, there are men who have gotten dropped into the same cauldron as men who have committed heinous acts, even when their transgression might be less worthy of inclusion. For example, Aziz Ansari.
By now, many are aware that he was accused of sexual assault by a woman for how he behaved on a date. He, however, denied the accusation.
A writer in a piece from The New York Times, Bari Weiss, a woman interestingly, summed up one of the problems that the Ansari accusation brought up. She wrote:
“The [original article that accused Ansari of the assault] in Babe was met with digital hosannas by young feminists who insisted that consent is consent only if it is affirmative, active, continuous and — and this is the word most used — enthusiastic. Consent isn’t the only thing they are radically redefining. A recent survey by The Economist/YouGov found that approximately 25 percent of millennial-age American men think asking someone for a drink is harassment. More than a third of millennial men and women say that if a man compliments a woman’s looks it is harassment. To judge from social media reaction, they also see a flagrant abuse of power in this sexual encounter. Yes, Mr. Ansari is a wealthy celebrity with a Netflix show. But he had no actual power over the woman — professionally or otherwise. And lumping him in with the same movement that brought down men who ran movie studios and forced themselves on actresses, or the factory-floor supervisors who demanded sex from female workers trivializes what #MeToo first stood for.”
Weiss isn’t the only person who feels this way. It’s a notion that so many feel is an unfortunate outcome of such important empowerment movements. Danielle Ryan, writing for RT.com wrote:
“There is a vast difference between genuine sexual harassment, abuse or rape — and minor misconduct, flirting or otherwise inappropriate behavior in the workplace (or anywhere else). Yet, in recent weeks, the two have been dangerously conflated…Since the deluge of Weinstein revelations, we’ve seen other ‘scandals’ emerge whereby some man or other may or may not have flirted inappropriately without reciprocation years ago. The fact that these kinds of minor accusations are making headlines and being portrayed as sexual misconduct or outright harassment is disturbing, to say the least. Not to mention, the irresponsible conflation of the two is an injustice and an insult to women — and men — who have experienced real harassment or rape at the hands of a genuine abuser.”
While these people make notable points, there are also others who land in the gray area on a subject that has been viewed in a black and white manner. In an interview with us, film producer, Tessa Bell, voiced her opinion on the matter, stating:
“The problem with that is, is that sometimes you’re pointing at someone and they’re not actually doing anything wrong, but they’ve pissed somebody off. So it can get muddy. But we have to call everyone out at every single possible juncture…A healthy sexual interaction is qualitatively different from a predatory interaction. If you can’t tell the difference, then you probably need to get educated a little bit more about what it feels like when the action is predatory…In some ways, men don’t really get it”
She continued, “So, I feel sorry for them in the sense that they don’t know what it’s like and so they get confused… People might get thrown into the basket that don’t belong in the basket, and that is a shame. Because, actually, if that happens too many times then the whole movement get discredited. So, it’s sort of incumbent on us to monitor a little bit who is being outed to make sure that they’re in fact predatory. It could discredit everything, and that would be a real shame. That’s on the political side. And on the personal side, I think if a man really doesn’t know [if they’re sexually harassing someone] then he should find out, and really look at that because that’s kinda part of the problem.”
Sexual harassment is a large umbrella term that can include any behavior ranging from actual or attempted rape or sexual assault to catcalling to simply staring at someone. It involves any unwanted sexual behavior that can include verbal or non-verbal advances, comments, and/or requests for sexual favors. This means that the person on the receiving end does not welcome certain behaviors in a particular circumstance, whether or not they have welcomed it before. With that being said, if you were to search “men in Hollywood who have been accused of sexual misconduct,” you’ll find numerous articles detailing the 150+ men who have had sexual allegations against them. Many of which list simple accusations that were dropped to those who have been serially accused of rape or other abuse.
So, when we headline all these behaviors together, are we making a mistake?
College filmmaker, Lawrence Harris, shares his insights on the importance of talking about these differences. He notes, “I think when you lump everyone together, it starts to make the awful things that people did seem not as awful, which isn’t fair to the people who’ve had to face the extreme forms of abuse that people, like Harvey Weinstein, forced upon them.”
There are so many situations and instances that can be deemed sexual harassment, and, while all are bad, it is hard to deny that some are far worse than others. While all have the ability to affect someone drastically, many people question if we should at least distinguish the levels of severity, and whether or not all of these men deserve to lose their careers, in some cases for being stupid and inappropriate as opposed to serially criminal.
Harris responded, “I think so. I mean, it’s sexual harassment and I think that any form of sexual harassment should never go unpunished. And, ultimately to me, if it comes down to it, I don’t think Hollywood is going to be any worse for losing some of these people… Let’s say ‘oh I really like this person’s content, but they’re abusing people’… Well, there are tons of people making content and tons of people that are working in the industry, so why not give those jobs to people that make great content, but also aren’t abusers?”
But here’s another aspect of the climate in Hollywood right now. Some people are afraid of retribution or losing jobs for even voicing a contrary opinion about the movement. We’re not talking about people losing jobs for being a sexual harasser, there is fear of losing work or being punished for even saying the wrong opinion. While the Me Too and Time’s Up movements have given so many people the courage to finally speak up, many people – mainly men – are silencing their opinions and viewpoints for fear of being misunderstood and retaliated against.
Matt Damon, Liam Neeson, and Henry Cavill are some of the many in Hollywood who have been shut down by fans, celebrities, and even the founders of these movements for saying the “wrong” thing when giving their thoughts on the current climate.
Damon, in an interview on ABC with Peter Travers, said, “…We’re living in a culture of outrage.” He won’t on to make the point that the recent allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct needed to be looked at an judged on a spectrum.
“There a difference between patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation,” he said. “Both of those behaviors need to confronted and eradicated without question. But they shouldn’t be conflated.”
For saying that, for giving his opinion, Damon experienced a storm of Twitter and other criticism. He ended up issuing an apology. But further demonstrating this isn’t just men on one side, women on the other debate, Julianna Margulies, came out in support of Damon, saying he should not have apologized.
In an interview with Katie Couric, soon after Damon’s apology, Margulies said, “I didn’t think that was right. I understood what he saying. He was completely compassionate about what was going on with people who are raping. But it’s not the same as what’s going on with people who are joking on set.”
The backlash has had a chilling effect on many men, many who are supporters of the movement. We spoke to several males in the business who did not want to comment for this article out of fear of coming across wrong and paying a price for their words. One actor who requested to remain anonymous voiced:
“I think because of the Me Too movement, you think of the consequences of what could happen, you’re more aware of your actions. I’m not necessarily convinced that for a lot of people that they’re really changing the way they think about being in these situations. But they have the foresight to think ten steps down the road and think ‘Well okay, this could lead to this and then my career is gone’…“I think there is a real fear element, especially for men in the industry now when it comes to [accusations]. I mean, dating, in general, is hard. And it’s really hard in this town…In my opinion, it doesn’t really matter what industry you’re in. Somebody with power or influence, whether you’re male or female… you have this power that people will throw themselves at you because of who you are or what you have or what you might be able to give them. And I’ve seen that from both sexes, not just men on women, and so on. More so from men that I’ve personally seen, but it’s not all just guys. And I don’t think that will ever change because there will always be people that are willing to do things to get ahead or to get what they want, and as sad as that is, I think that’s reality…It’s a really touchy subject because I think as a guy you feel like you can’t come forward and say these things without being judged… It’s not black and white, there are areas of gray and I’m not saying the gray areas are good, but there are areas of gray, and there are different scales and levels…There are different levels of harassment – being that there’s a difference between somebody forcibly doing something to somebody and somebody saying ‘let’s play truth or dare’. And they’re both people taking advantage, or being inappropriate…There are different variations of [harassment] and I guess it’s just hard for a person to sometimes gauge the difference.”
Like the anonymous actor, many agree that these movements are vital and a great thing for our society. However, they are still afraid to speak about the problems they notice because many people refuse to have an open conversation. Rather, some are quick to deem a different opinion as insensitive and ignorant, which further silences a whole group of people.
In an interview with Variety, Me Too founder, Tarana Burke shared her thoughts on Hollywood’s efforts to end sexual harassment and their effort towards the Me Too movement:
“The women in Hollywood are very new to this. They were very fed up and felt like they had to do something, but they’re not activists, they’re not organizers — a lot of them are survivors of sexual violence, they are victims of sexual harassment, they have been subjected to the same patriarchy and misogyny that so many women across the world have been subjected to, and they recognize that their spotlight and visibility could be useful.”
On the backlash the movement has seen, Burke says:
“The other critique is that this movement is turning us into victims. I don’t even understand that. How am I turning into a victim for standing up and talking about something that caused me pain and trauma? That’s insanity. I’m a very logistical person, but I just don’t follow the logic there. However, I think there have been genuine critiques of this movement and genuine critiques are worthy of engaging. The critique about so much disclosure happening online without people having a way to process, that’s a genuine critique — that’s why the work we’re trying to do is to meet the demand of people that are saying they need help.” In this interview, she continues to say, “The immediate work is this narrative change. From the criticism to the victim-shaming to the false conceptions that it’s a witch hunt, we’ve got to shift from that. It is very important that there is a voice that is clear and consistent about where this movement should be going to move forward. Narrative change in this movement is so important because if we keep on talking about this movement in the ways that we’re talking about it, we’re going to lose an opportunity.”
That narrative of the Me Too movement seems to be something that Burke speaks a lot about. Probably, because it’s so important in getting the point of the movement across. Far too many people paint the narrative of movements, that are meant for women empowerment, to be a witch hunt on powerful men. With an outburst of news articles, interviews, and social media statuses that use phrases like “take down”, “destroyed”, “ruined” in relation to men, it makes it seem like these movements are here for one thing, and one thing only – to find all the men who have wronged women and ruined their lives. When in reality, that mentality is far from the vision for the movement.
Movements such as Me too and Time’s Up are beyond a trend on social media. They shed light on the obstacles that women face every day, both professionally and personally.
“The fact that today, looking forward from this time on, it lets that person who thought that they were up against somebody pretty powerful, know that they have a voice and support behind them when something bad happens,” said longtime TV producer, Janet Prescott. She goes on to voice how these movements have created a platform for women to have a much-needed support system of “people that believe, and not just have somebody powerful saying ‘no one is going to believe you’ when sexual harassment occurs.
There is no doubting that in the near year since the first major bomb went off in Hollywood regarding this huge under-the-surface, but no so hidden problem of sexual misconduct in Hollywood, and our society in general, the movements have helped make huge strides for making Hollywood a better environment for women and men. That it has not been a perfect wave is not surprising. It will evolve and shift. There are definitely adjustments to be made. Questions to ask about how to go forward. Are we too quick to judge the lives and careers of men who have made simple, arrogant remarks, and gestures towards women? Do we need to monitor those who are being accused, instead of being so quick to strip them of their careers? Are we being inclusive enough in the sense of making strides to alleviate the burden of harassment on all types of people – which include: women from low-wage jobs, women of color, LGBTQIA+, those with disabilities, men, and all other identities in between? Are we being consistent on who we decide to hate or support in these movements? Is it only about celebrities?
Whatever the answers, Hollywood isn’t done evolving. This has just been the first year in what will surely be a long and sometimes messy process of working through this issue. It’s too important of an issue to not get right.