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The Business of “Casting Couch” Culture

Harvey Weinstein, founder of the Miramax production company, is known for producing some of Hollywood’s best pictures such as Shakespeare in Love, Pulp Fiction, Inglorious Basterds, and The King’s Speech. In all the 1,396 Academy Award speeches that are archived on the Academy’s website, Weinstein is mentioned 34 times. But now his name is known for a darker reason: since 1984, Harvey is accused of sexually harassing and abusing at least 30 women. He generally begins by luring women to a secluded location such as a hotel room or his private residence, sometimes with the help of assistants. The meetings may begin innocently discussing future projects and the woman’s career, but then he abruptly changes pace by disappearing to undress himself or exposing his genitalia. Then he pressures them to give him a massage, or watch him shower naked. Some allegations end at harassment, others end in rape.

The New York Police Department (NYPD) organized an undercover sting in 2015 with one of Harvey’s alleged victims. Despite obtaining a damning recorded admission that he’s “used to this,” his behavior isn’t shocking to those in the industry. “Casting couch” culture, where women are pressured to exchange sexual favors to advance their careers, is widely regarded as an occupational hazard of sorts. For years, various celebrities and shows referred to Weinstein’s repulsive behavior with thinly veiled  jabs. Shows like Entourage and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and Seth MacFarlane at the 2013 Oscars all feature off-color jokes about the “open secret” of Weinstein’s misconduct with women. When The New York Times and then the New Yorker released explosive investigations in early October detailing Weinstein’s sexual misconduct, actors and producers changed their tone from whispers, sarcasm, and humor, to outrage. Since the beginning of Hollywood, women regard working for predatory moguls like Weinstein as a necessary evil. Stars with long-spanning careers like Jane Fonda are speaking out about how the exploitation of women in the film industry is ancient yet pervasive.

It’s worth noting the industry dynamics that places victims in the path of abuse: power in Hollywood is highly concentrated. Most films produced over the course of Hollywood’s history are distributed by industry titans like Fox, Warner Brothers, Sony, Paramount, Universal, and Disney. With the advent of online streaming, now there are smaller companies competing with the titans. Although production companies don’t retain actors under long-term contracts anymore as MGM did in the 1930s and 1940s, the executive producers of these production companies are the gatekeepers to any actor’s or producer’s success.

Questionable practices by unions sustain the toxic concentration of power. Canadian actress Mia Kirshner, one of Weinstein’s victims, denounced Hollywood unions for having lax or nonexistent policies to address inappropriate practices by studio executives such as private meetings in hotel rooms. She explains that unions like SAG (Screen Actors’ Guild) and ACTRA (Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists) also have no protocols in place to enforce third-party investigations into allegations of sexual harassment. This loophole leaves internal investigations to be conducted by the accused perpetrator himself, which sidesteps impartiality in the process. ACTRA has no system or database that tracks missed work opportunities of those who file a complaint. If an actor is never hired by the alleged perpetrator again, there are no penalties to address unfairly denied work opportunities.

Hollywood is also an industry defined by heavily skewed supply and demand––there are so many people trying to “make it” in an industry where jobs are scarce. A woman’s bargaining chips are her attractiveness and sexuality and a handful of men like Weinstein hold all the capital to make these women’s dreams come true. Some of Weinstein’s victims recount feeling pressured to fake consent and pleasure so they didn’t lose the narrow window of opportunity to make their big breaks in Hollywood. Stars like Emma Thompson made broader references to a “gender dysfunction” and a “crisis of extreme masculinity” in the industry. Thompson says it’s normal for women to be harassed by male executives and crew alike, because so few women hold positions of power at these companies.

Even the confidentiality clauses of Weinstein’s employment contract silenced many of his victims, so long as he paid out the women alleging harassment against him along with a fine. Disturbing, but true in a world where powerful misogynists run the show. A perfect storm is sustained where abusive moguls hide behind paying off victims for their silence and throwing money at politicians and philanthropic causes; these shows of influence grant them social and economic protection from convictions of sexual harassment.

It might not always be like this, though. Due to the rapid expansion of the internet, the democratization of creative content is taking power away from the monopolies that studio executives held for so long. Youtube Red, Amazon, Hulu, Netflix, and other production companies are changing the way we see––and make––movies.

Speaking out against institutionalized abuse with campaigns like #MeToo is half the solution. Changing how people enter the industry is crucial to supporting a competitive and safe environment for actors and producers alike.

Ibis Valdés is a Young Voices advocate and a graduate of  International Law & Human Rights. She is an organizer with Engage Miami, a nonprofit that elevates the youth voice in South Florida elections.

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Ibis Valdés is a Young Voices advocate and a graduate of  International Law & Human Rights; she is an organizer with Engage Miami, a nonprofit that elevates the youth voice in South Florida elections.

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