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The Fall of Harvey Weinstein and the Sexual Blindspot of Misogyny

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Photo by David Shankbone | CC by 2.0


This industry is based on desirable actresses. You have to be desirable and loved. But not all desires have to be fulfilled, even though men in the industry have an expectation that theirs should be. I think – and hope – that we might finally see a change. Only truth and justice can bring us forward. 
Léa Seydoux

Sexual harassment is part of the lived reality of all women around the globe. Harvey Weinstein is the tip of the iceberg of the millions of men who sexually exploit women. I recall my first trip to the bus stop when I began middle school in New Orleans, strolling along the sidewalk and a garbage truck went by and two men hanging off the back whistled and screamed out sexual obscenities.  I had no idea to whom they were talking so I turned my head only to see nobody else in sight.  I was eleven years old.

As I grew into adulthood, instead of being that young girl who turned her head to seek out who was the object of sexual harassment by those men on the back of the garbage truck, I discovered that a great part of the population does just the inverse: people turn their heads in the opposite direction, deflecting sexual harassment in all of its forms.  When we enter the workforce, we realize quickly that the terms “sexual harassment” or “sex-based discrimination” are words that employers dislike very much.  Or as my head of department told me when I complained about sexual harassment, “You are making a very serious allegation here.”   The pragmatic and legal function of these seemingly democratic terms for investigating abuse is overridden by the deflection of these transgressions onto the accuser, first and foremost. It does not matter that you experienced sexual harassment—what does matter is that the authority comes down on the accuser to impress upon her that it is not the sexual harassment that is serious, but it is her accusation which is. What does matter is the system that can and will crush you.  Or in the case of the University of Liverpool, it not only allows one of your harassers investigate himself, when you complain about this flagrant abuse of power, the system ignores you altogether.

It is not coincidental that in many western countries like UK there is a lot of institutional alignment with current laws to include myriad campaigns, websites, and workshops of staff about “sexual harassment” and yet, as a female you figure out pretty quickly when you make a claim of sexual harassment, that your accusation is quickly turned around to indict the very person who points to the act of harassment or discrimination.  You learn quite promptly, in fact, how to be silent.  Or, as I was told this summer when I lodged a complaint about a male colleague who systematically made sexually inappropriate and ageist comments, my female supervisor responded, “I think you are being unprofessional by telling me this.”

Not incidental to the psychological pressures to remain silent in the workplace and to not be perceived as being “difficult” or “challenging”, when women are sexually harassed they must first make a choice between tolerating the ongoing sexual harassment or raise a complaint about this sort of behavior entirely risking the loss of their jobs if not also the support and cordiality of colleagues.  You reading this article, if you are female, you know exactly what I am talking about!

The problem is that it is most difficult for women to translate this harassment into reality when we make that tough choice to save our career and let the act of harassment pass under the bridge as we attempt to move on while hoping that our aggressor will do the same. Challenging someone in the workplace who has enormous power over our careers on the subject of sexual harassment is a daunting task for any woman— but it is especially so for those who do not have the funds to go after individuals and institutions with financial resources to fight back and exhaust the finite resources of women.

And if things weren’t bad enough, it gets even worse:  there are already safeguards to sexual harassment written into our society such that companies can actually buy insurance coverage for sexual misconduct claims where there is now an official collaboration between an insurance company and client to protect the economic interests of the harasser on the one hand, while making money from this form of exploitation for an adjacent institution on the other! Any man wondering why women do not speak out when sexually harassed need only to connect the dots of how these male-helmed institutions, by the thousands, each cover one another’s interests.

Angelina Jolie, Rosanna Arquette, Judith Godrèche, and Gwyneth Paltrow, Rose McGowan, and Ashley Judd  are coming forth to share their stories of sexual harassment by Weinstein. And the list of women Weinstein assaulted or harassed is growing by the hour.  It is also revealed that Weinstein paid off at least eight women over several decades to settle complaints about his behavior.  Georgina Chapman, Weinstein’s wife has announced that she is leaving him. And more devastating are the accusations of rape emanating from Asia Argento, Lucia Evans, and one other accuser who is remaining anonymous. It is likely this list of women will continue to grow as the mandate for support augments and women feel less alienated, finally, to speak out.

Meanwhile, denial, as Judge Judy tells us, is definitely not a river in Egypt: Lindsay Lohan is asking people, including Georgina Chapman, to stand up for Weinstein.  More tragically, Donna Karan claims that women who dress a certain way are “asking for it”.  And Emma Watson seems not to understand that Weinstein enacted his sexual predation upon females, not males in her very oblique attempt to “people please”.

What Weinstein’s behavior is revealing day by day, commentary after commentary, is the mammoth divide between how females—in and out of Hollywood—experience sexism and how males contribute to and perceive it. Matt Damon responded to the news of Weinstein’s sexual abuse of women: “If there was ever an event that I was at and Harvey was doing this kind of thing and I didn’t see it, then I am so deeply sorry, because I would have stopped it.”  Thank you, Matt for thinking of putting an end single-handedly to hundreds of years of formalized exploitation of women!  Comments like Damon’s reduce sexual assault to something that men can fight for us.  The problem is that women don’t want the duel, we don’t even want to duel ourselves. We don’t want to have to suffer this sort of behavior, full stop.

And this is how sexism operates–it is not an open theatre where the promethium arch is over there, and we, the male and female spectators all observe the acts, scene by scene with astute objectivity and discretion over here.  It is not bad behavior set within a panopticon for all to observe.  Sexism is just the opposite of this: it is very much about how the structures of power pull women away from the public sphere of visibility, separate her from her environment, and finally isolate her, sometimes with the help of other women brought into the larger web of sexual victimization, such as how Weinstein utilized his assistants.  Just like a Las Vegas casino where light and time are erased from the stage set, so too functions the theatre created by men like Harvey Weinstein.  Such men rely upon the trappings and the language of sexism which are right there before our eyes, in the everyday—from laws, to traditions, to social conventions that buttress the fiction that men are either/or:   either, as Mr. Damon seems to genuinely believe, there are men who out there who would put a stop to sexual harassment had they noticed it, or there are men who sexually predate and torment women.  The problem with Damon’s contention, despite his looking genuinely upset by the news of Weinstein’s abuse, is that  this language of men fighting for women, over women, and imparting their rights to women is as much a part of the problem central to the sexual harassment of women as the sexual aggression itself.  Each narrative lends support to the other.  More specifically, this notion that sexual harassment only resides in the extremes of Weinstein-like abuse elides the very responsibility that men have to understand their role in effecting sexism of all shades, to include sexual harassment.

Men often do not see sexism and sexual harassment simply because the language of sexual harassment does not operate like the pick up line in a folksy film about a socially inept guy unable to meet a girl and whose attempt at love begins with, “Hey, I’m a leo too!”  The language of sexism is far more entrenched in the mainstream and is very much in front of everyone’s nose.  It is a form of double-speak that men often miss, which women inevitably are forced to learn and understand.  For survival.

George Clooney chimed in with a sentiment that reveals the underbelly of how men deflect and normalize this sort of abuse:

I’ve heard rumors, and the rumors in general started back in the ’90s, and they were that certain actresses had slept with Harvey to get a role. It seemed like a way to smear the actresses and demean them by saying that they didn’t get the jobs based on their talent, so I took those rumors with a grain of salt.

While a surface reading of Clooney’s words evokes the image a sympathetic guy outraged by the exploitation of women and the diminishment of their profession through sexualization, there is another more relevant reading at hand. Clooney admits here that the sexual harassment was in the open—he merely couches this harassment as “sleeping with Weinstein to get a role.”  Who knew that George could have skipped all those years of long, grueling schedules on the set of ER and instead should have opted for a quick toss in the hay with Harvey!

To read the words over the past week of the many men “speaking out” against Weinstein, the way they excuse their not knowing is engulfed in the rhetoric of sexism. It is as if men really expect women to join them in their belief/fantasy that women willingly sleep with men for jobs.  Clooney does not mention the underlying causes for this type of exploitation: the sexual inequality of studio direction, the imbalance of roles for females and males, the paucity of female directors (just 7% of the top 250 films), the low distribution rates for female directed films (63% less than male-directed films), the pay inequality between the sexes in Hollywood, the paucity of roles for female actors after the age of forty, among so many more inequalities to include single-digit representations of female cinematographers.

Clooney, who gets some things right in his recent interview, nevertheless undermines his own condemnation of Weinstein in revealing how sexism is actually the status quo and somehow entirely separate from sexual harassment:  “I think that people weren’t looking, because in some ways, a lecherous guy with money picking up younger girls is unfortunately not a news story in our society.”  The “lecherous guy with money” is doing quite a bit more than merely “picking up” younger women.  And this is the veneer of the sort of glamorization that covers for such abusive practices.   The very sexual coercion that we are hearing about today from female after female who worked with Weinstein—and even those who didn’t—all say that they had either experienced this sort of behavior to varying degrees, or they had not but were aware of this man’s behavior from others.  This was Hollywood’s open secret but only the men in Hollywood saw a “lecherous guy” “picking up” women, while women saw a sexual predator.  Where women see predation and abuse, men see women who are sleeping with Weinstein for a role.

This is the blind spot of sexism that Clooney, Damon, and most men in and out of Hollywood demonstrate in navigating the realities of sexism that all women must confront.  That men actually believe that women find it pleasurable to succumb to sexual assault and harassment for the promise of power, wealth, and fame is testament of nothing other than deeply-engrained misogyny.

The language and performance of sexism is its own micro-culture as girls and young women are educated into a social system where sexed-based aggressions are normalized by men who believe that we have it all: we can get laid and make easy money.  And sexual harassment in the everyday is normalized to such degree that when it happens to women, they have to think for a micro second, “Is his hand where I think it is?”  Depending on the personality and age, reactions to this form of harassment vary widely—from caving in to the sexual pressure and effectively submitting to rape to leaving an office convinced, as Gwyneth Paltrow had believed when she left Weinstein’s office, that her career was over.  There is no contingency plan, no working capital for most women in Hollywood, or any career for that matter.  The reality is that many females don’t have the economic luxury to storm out of the office of the very man holding their future career and economic survival in his hands.

The learning curve for women to understand sex-based aggression sky rockets after we experience it for the first time. We are suddenly forced to understand—and to be guarded about—the double-sided meanings of statements and actions from men in our formative and professional environments.  Comments from a male supervisor that most men would take either as anodyne or as a potential for bonding hold an entirely different meaning for women: “Would you like to come over to my hotel room later so we can go over the files for tomorrow’s presentation?”, “I might be persuaded to give you a chance if…”, and “Your last paper of the seminar was illuminating.  Why not come over to my office tonight to discuss?”  Or actions such as sharing sexual text messages, jokes, stories, and the casual commentary about one’s sexual history are diametrically received by males and females.  The reason for the vast differences in the way males and females respond to these actions and comments is rooted in the fact that the majority of humans who are sexually predated upon happen to be female. Men are allowed the luxury of “good ole boy jokes” because, chances are that it is not them who will be bent over a producer’s desk being sodomized for the chance of a lifetime.

Damon’s and Clooney’s reactions to the accusations of sexual harassment and rape echo the same rhetorical devices of when Jimmy Savile, a well-known rapist within the BBC who had preyed upon approximately 500 women and children, some as young as two years old, which was finally brought to light in 2011.  Yet, pull back the curtain and not only was it common knowledge that Savile was a rapist, it has come to light, but five senior BBC employees knew about Savile’s and Stuart Hall’s sexual predation. And it turns out that far more than five in the BBC were aware of what Savile was doing to these women and children as the employees who spoke up were quickly shut down, even fired.  Nick Cohen wonderfully exposes this tiring polemic, noting how the BBC covered up Savile’s actions for years and tried to smear the reputation of journalists who spoke out.  Yet the watershed moment is not nearly over as BBC broadcaster and filmmaker, Louis Theroux, confessed on camera in his 2016 film on Savile to having known about Savile’s actions. Theroux’s defense for remaining silent for fifteen years: “I was gullible.”

So when it was revealed by a former New York Times reporter, Sharon Waxman, that in 2004 Matt Damon and Russell Crowe attempted to kill her story on Weinstein’s abuses (and it was killed in the end), we begin to see how this culture of men protecting each other is an expansive network of male socialization.  Scratching the surface of the Weinstein affair and seeing how deeply-rooted this is goes within and beyond Hollywood, it is painfully evident that this is another case of—excuse the vernacular—“bros before hoes”.  As in Hollywood, The New York Times, the BBC, and most every other major media, all forms of entertainment and media have colluded, apparently quite successfully, for years in enabling, enacting, and covering up sexual abuses of men.  If the scandalous coverups involving Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly’s long list of victims similarly ignored by Fox for years weren’t enough to convince you, then Weinstein long list of sexual plundering should do it.

What is shocking to me about the Weinstein affair, is the shock that many demonstrate.  This was an open secret in Hollywood and the list of media involved in colluding with these men is enormous.  Documentary filmmaker, Alex Gibney, has come out discussing the levels of abuse within Hollywood comparing this abuse to that of sexual abuses within the Catholic Church.  Yesterday morning Twitter suspended the account of Rose McGowan for going public over the abuse she suffered.  Lee Smith’s article in the The Weekly Standard details how Weinstein’s lawyers “donated $10,000 to the campaign of Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance after he declined to file sexual assault charges against the producer.”

What has been uncovered over the past week is that these actors are not speaking out against a one-off situation or any single individual ultimately. Their voices contribute to that larger chorus of voices of females around the planet who are fundamentally regarded as objects of male sexuality and power in private and public spaces, in and out of the office, on and off set.  The only people I see shocked by the news of Weinstein, largely, are men.

For women, the case of Harvey Weinstein, is just the latest installment of our collective reality as it documents the vast differences in how men and women experience, move through, and respond to the world. It is not an accident that women’s familiarization with sexual victimization is magically invisible to males who “didn’t see it” or who were victims of gullibility. Antithetical to men’s blind spot to this sort of violence, these experiences permeate the physical, social, and psychological reality of females.  Of course Matt Damon saw nothing and George Clooney assumed that stunningly beautiful women were all just dying to get a role by bedding Weinstein.  This is all another level of male fantasy that unconsciously contributes to the invalidation of women’s sexual oppression.  And we will, in all likelihood, hear from even more men in the coming days who will similarly report, just like Sergeant Schultz, of having seen nothing.

The Weinstein case comes just two months after Taylor Swift’s brilliant in-court testimony which had to fight back some of the delegitimizing strategies already in play which attempt to subvert both the the victimizer’s culpability and the very definitions of sexual harassment. In fact, during Swift’s court case, one had to wonder who was on trial: Taylor Swift or the man who groped her, David Mueller. This is precisely how sexism functions in its formal, declarative settings: everyone acknowledges that sexual harassment is real until an incident arises and suddenly most heads turn away, with a few who look to the accuser to ask what she was doing, wearing, and thinking. What did she do to warrant this response? is the usual refrain to that song.  And so too was Swift forced to confront that narrative the moment Mueller’s attorney asked her—referring to the frontal photo taken of her and Mueller which shows the sexual aggression of Mueller’s arm clearly reaching around her backside—why did her dress not appear to be lifted up.  Without missing a beat, Swift responded,  “Because my ass is located in the back of my body.”

Swift’s response to the system much like the cascade of female actors coming forward to expose Weinstein’s predatory behavior is all very much about the many elephants in the room.  While it is refreshing to see so many women in Hollywood come out to support their fellow actors who were victimized by Harvey Weinstein, let us not get caught up in the celebrity of it all.  I deeply hope that the words of these women are not only heard loudly and clearly, but that the men who have participated in empowering the likes of Harvey Weinstein through silence, naiveté, economic interests, or plain old bro-dudery might begin to stop participating in this structural assault of women.

Because the landscape is not that of the “good guys” in white hats against those like Weinstein wearing the black hats at a sunset showdown of a bizarre form of chivalry between  various men in Hollywood who are looking over their shoulders.  The terrain of misogyny is quite the opposite: it is a vast stage populated by men—wealthy, white men—who wield an enormous amount of power over the lives of women.  And most all participate either directly or indirectly in the sexual subjugation of women.  The subjugation begins with the scripts that are allowed to see the light of day, the female actors they choose, the salaries that women are offered, and it extends to the modalities which allowed them to say that they “saw nothing”.

Men need to recognize not only the cues for sexual predation that wealthy powerful men exercise over more vulnerable women, but they must be held to account for their own participation in this abusive structure.  Because the reality is this: sexual harassment and assault are not limited to the Harvey Weinsteins and Bill Cosbys of the world. The sexual harassment exercised by these media giants does not function in isolation from those other acts of harassment.

Because as much as we want to separate these two types of sexual harassment—the more savage forms of sexual harassment from the tacit sexual social cues between males that enable the former—the reality is that all these men participate together. And they are not the exception to framing how women are treated in public and private spaces.

They are the rule.

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Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: julian.vigo@gmail.com

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