We are at a tipping point.
Three weeks ago, Harvey Weinstein was one of the most powerful men in Hollywood. Today, he is radioactive — denounced, dismissed, and defending himself against potential lawsuits and criminal investigation. It has felt for several days as if the sky is falling in Hollywood; as if the firmament that the entertainment ecosystem is crumbling before our eyes. It has been horrifying and cathartic, in turns; long-held secrets are being uncovered, while long-buried suspicions are being validated. What may have started with Harvey Weinstein is not ending with him: Already, several men throughout media and entertainment have been outed by their employees and in many cases, ousted by their employers. When a movement can unseat an agent, an editor, a showrunner, and an executive, it is just getting started. Little doubt there are more to follow.
The last two weeks have seen a steady stream of stories, from women in and out of the industry, about what some men in it have made them endure. To be clear, not all of the stories are of men targeting women: Some men target other men; some women join in the patterns of exploitation. And yet the story of a woman being intimidated, harassed, or violated by a man has been repeated so many times in the last three weeks that it is almost predictable. Another actress. Another director. Another story where the brutal violence of coercion was somehow made palatable by the norms of the industry, or the desperation to succeed, or just plain fear of retribution.
But with so many stories coming forward, and so many men implicated, this tipping point has become a kind of impasse, too. The problem is so vast, and so integrated into our social fabric, that we are not equipped to address it. We have near-unanimously given up on the criminal justice system providing any sort of meaningful consequences to the alleged perpetrators. We know that the courts will fail victims, in a thousand different ways. We know that our laws are inadequate; we know that our abilities to prosecute rich men are limited. The Center for American Progress, in their guide on avoiding sexual harassment in the workplace, primly observes that the offense “by definition invokes discussion about sex and intimacy… two issues that many people may be uncomfortable discussing in public.”
But the public sphere is all we have. So instead we are just sharing stories, and collectively freaking out. This scandal — and the other scandals it has uncovered or called attention to — is a grim reminder of how much muck we are all wading through. We can barely process it: Either we struggle to believe the scope of these stories, or we cannot fathom how long they were kept secret; or we can understand those things, and are instead tormented by our own stories of abuse that feel so similar to the ones in the news.
There is a way forward out of this morass. But it’s not a fun one.
Journalist Sarah Jaffe did an installment of her podcast, “Interviews for Resistance,” about the Weinstein scandal. She spoke to longtime anti-rape organizers Mariame Kaba and Shira Hassan about how to prevent another Weinstein, and organize against future sexual assault. You might expect two longtime organizers who have been advocating against sexual assault for decades to be hardliners. But Kaba, instead, pointed in the other direction: Understanding the actions of perpetrators, to address not just the harm done but the cycle of perpetuating abuse.
“You can’t force somebody into being accountable for things they do. That is not possible,” Kaba said. “They have to decide that this is wrong. They have to say, this is wrong and I want to be part of making some sort of amends or repairing this or not doing it again. The question is: … What in our culture encourages people who assault people and harm people to take responsibility? What I see is almost nothing.”
This scandal has chased the stories of the victims. Nothing happened until Ashley Judd, Asia Argento, Rose McGowan, Gwyneth Paltrow, Lupita Nyongo, and more told their stories — said, or typed, “me too.” But before we get any farther, we have to ask who the men are, too. We have to ask not just if they did something, but why they did; we need to understand why so many men would have thought this behavior was acceptable. The very fact that this abuse of power is so widespread indicates that it is a question of not just individual culpability, but cultural responsibility, too.
Columnist Bret Stephens, in the New York Times, argued that we were all culpable for facilitating Weinstein’s behavior, because he was a predator who couldn’t help himself. I am arguing the opposite: We are all culpable, because he was a predator who could help himself.
It is far too convenient to make Weinstein a monster. And if any industry should see through that easy lie, it’s Weinstein’s own — Oscar-bait films, which make hay out of complexity, nuance, and shared humanity. If we can understand Hannibal Lecter, interrogate war heroes, imagine the sex lives of aliens! — then we can definitely get inside the mind of this rather mundane sex offender, this run-of-the-mill abuser of power. He did monstrous things, but he is not mentally ill, nor is he (as he has laughably tried to spin) a sex addict.
The answer is much simpler: He just didn’t care about consent, and the world at large rewarded him for that. Distancing him, and others like him, is like the rest of us washing our hands of what his scandals revealed to the world at large. We don’t get that out. We don’t deserve to get that out; not when so many women have been casualties in the race for our profits, our critical hits, our fan favorites. It doesn’t do to just eliminate Weinstein. We have to understand him, so we can make him — and others like him — obsolete.
Yes: It would be really nice if misogyny could be ended by finding and eliminating one perpetrator. But no one man is accountable for the patriarchy. It is a power structure that relies on a network of people and institutions who have all bought into the same lies. We can, and should, keep finding the stories of abuse buried throughout the industry. But we also have to think about why these men have internalized what they did, so that we can start to undo this harm for the future. How is it that so many men determined that their actions would be acceptable or even encouraged? Where do these preconceptions of what it means to wield power and how one goes about having sex come from?
Well, here’s the kicker: At least some of the time, they come from Hollywood.
There is no greater machine of cultural influence than the multi-pronged American entertainment industry — the pop music on the dance floor in Ibiza, the blockbusters dubbed in Chinese, the library of TV shows in Netflix’s ever-expanding global reach. And throughout, we subtly and not-so-subtly lionize the macho leading men who impose their will on others; we stand by and politely applaud as women are subjected to a completely different set of physical standards as their male costars; we frame romance and sex as something that a protagonist is entitled to. This is the industry of James Bond as an unironic hero; this is a language where “ladykiller” was until recently a complimentary term. Within the industry, it’s even worse: Men like Weinstein, with their public tantrums and ruthless tactics, are revered because they get things done. For a successful mogul to be draped with disposal pretty young things is nothing new at all.
This is a systemic pattern of abuse that has rocked us to our core. But it is also an opportunity. Hollywood is in the business of selling these fantasies — selling sex, money, and influence to those without. These are the fantasies many of us have had ourselves. But now that we know that those fantasies come with their own poisons, what are we going to do about it?