Is this, finally, the moment of reckoning? Will the metastasizing Harvey Weinstein scandal create a wave of soul-searching in Hollywood, corporate America, or men in general? Will anything change?
Well, all right, not to be wholly cynical: With any luck, more women may feel that society or their human resources departments have their backs when they are physically or verbally subjected to the unwanted sexual behavior of men, powerful or not. The engines of public opinion, including our daily newspapers and weekly magazines, may be inclined to trust the rumors they hear and force themselves to dig a little deeper, work harder to get sources on the record, and resist the temptation to run cheesecake photos of the victims (as the New York Daily News, among others, has a tendency to do). The average guy may look into the darker corners of his heart and ask himself, have I ever crossed the line in any way and, if so, am I prepared to do anything about it?
Maybe. But don’t hold your breath. We still live in a patriarchy, and men still set most of the rules. That’s the only reason Harvey Weinstein thought he could get away with it. He was the guy in power at Miramax and The Weinstein Company — and, for a number of years, Hollywood in toto — and he knew that everyone who worked for him, feared him, or wanted something from him would protect his secrets. Because if they didn’t, he would use the force of the system to crush them.
This worked fine for three decades, as it continues to work for men in corridors of power large and small, whether we’ve heard the rumors or they still remain hidden, like tumors waiting to rupture. The people who behave this way know that society will rally behind them — because if they were smart or tough enough to get to where they are, why on earth would they jeopardize their status? — and they know that what won’t be silenced by a victim’s shame and self-loathing can always be bought off with money or threats.
Has anything changed? It has changed for Weinstein, certainly — right now, nobody can get away from him fast enough. The Weinstein board has fired him, his wife and legal adviser have left him, the politicians to whom he donated are returning his money, and there’s a possibility his company will shut down entirely, or at least change its name. He has become the toxic spill of popular culture; you need a hazmat suit just to talk about him.
On the heels of the New York Times investigation that was published Oct. 5 came this week’s New Yorker article written by Ronan Farrow of NBC — he took the story to his bosses at the network but they declined to run with it — in which more women went on record with tales of Horrible Harvey, including three accusations of rape. (Through a spokesperson, Weinstein has denied any allegations of “non-consensual” sex.)
Suddenly, everyone had a story: Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie, Rosanna Arquette, actresses Katherine Kendall, Judith Godreche, Dawn Dunning, and more. Others in the entertainment industry claimed not to have known, and maybe they’re telling the truth about themselves, or believe they are. When Meryl Streep issued a forceful statement against Weinstein, she was pilloried on social media — She has 20 Oscar nominations! She must have known! Whereas George Clooney gave an interview to the Daily Beast acknowledging that he had “heard rumors,” which he “took with a grain of salt,” and his comments were met with general applause.
Some of the younger dudes came out swinging as well, including some who maybe shouldn’t have. Matt Damon denied he helped kill a 2004 Times story about Weinstein’s misdeeds and told Deadline.com: “As the father of four daughters, this is the kind of sexual predation that keeps me up at night,” as if empathy in these matters was predicated on having children with two X chromosomes.
Ben Affleck issued an agonized 280-character Tweet in which he condemned Weinstein’s predations and said, “I find myself asking what I can do to make sure this doesn’t happen to others.” To which he was immediately countered by actress and alleged Weinstein victim Rose McGowan, who claimed she told Affleck about her assault after it happened (“ ‘Goddamnit! I told him to stop doing that’ — you said that to my face.”) and was reminded by former TRL host Hilarie Burton that he groped her breasts on TV in 2004; by Wednesday’s end, the actor had issued a belated apology to Burton. Affleck’s brother, Casey, who faced two sexual harassment lawsuits in 2010 (he denied both accusations; both cases were settled in mediation) has perhaps done the wiser thing by remaining silent on the accusations against Weinstein.
Which raises a pretty good question: What’s a man’s proper response to the Weinstein scandal? To performatively mark one’s distance from lewd behavior by issuing public statements, reminding people that you have daughters or, I don’t know, writing a newspaper column? Or to just work harder at shutting up, listening, and thinking about the behavior you may engage in or admire or tolerate or simply never speak up against?
That’s the sea change, maybe — not that a lot of badly behaved men may think twice now that the conversation is slightly more public and we have a few examples of punishment, but that the majority of good men (I hope I’m not being idealistic here) will think every day about what they excuse in their own attitudes and the attitudes of others, and about whether those attitudes are so baked into the systemic structure of our social and business cultures that they’re impossible to yank out. Also: Maybe we should try believing women more. Like, a lot. Maybe even give them the benefit of the doubt for a change. It’s a radical step, but I think we’re up to it.
We’ll always have sexual predators. They cross lines of race, class, industry, creed, political party, and — to a much lesser degree — gender. They hit on men as well as women, sometimes even tough guys like actor Terry Crews, who went public this week with his own story of being groped by a Hollywood executive. At least two of our former presidents, John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton, have almost certainly engaged in behavior that would today at least be called (and was, in Clinton’s case) sexual harassment. Donald Trump bragged on an open mic about grabbing women by their genitalia and still got elected to the White House.
It’s a problem that belongs to men, not women, even if too many people still think some victims haven’t responded the way they “should.” So what should a man do? Maybe stop assuming that you have to act on every physical attraction. (Because guess what? If you’re not 200 percent sure the feeling’s mutual, it’s not.) Maybe start looking at every woman as if she were Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, as Anne Victoria Clark amusingly suggested on Medium.com. (The Rock took to Twitter to co-sign the notion.)
‘We still live in a patriarchy, and men still set most of the rules.’
Or maybe just start practicing more simple human kindness to everyone you meet, male and female. As Vox writer David Roberts essentially said in a long, thoughtful online thread, teach your male children not to be jerks (he used stronger language) and call out your friends or intervene when they’re being same, even if that gets you called a wuss or worse.
Given all that’s stacked against them, the women who have called to account the likes of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, and others are unimaginably brave. The least a guy can do in response is man up a little.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.