For Some Women, Hollywood’s Culture of Inequality Is Too Much to Bear

Misogyny in Hollywood Makes Talented Women
Photos: Shutterstock; Illustration: Variety

Carly Milne has had a diverse career, with stints as a journalist, a copywriter and a publicist in the porn business. A couple of years ago, she struck up a conversation with a prominent TV producer and pitched a show based on her porn experiences.

At first, he seemed interested in helping her develop the idea. But soon he began to make sexual advances. “The first warning bell was when he said, ‘You make me laugh and I find that really sexy,’” she says.

Later, he sent her Twitter direct messages in which he suggested that he had just masturbated to her picture. “This is what happens when locked alone in a hotel room,” the text began.

She cut off the conversation after that, and decided to pitch a manager known for selling spec scripts. He, too, seemed receptive at first, but soon began asking about her sex life. “Were you in any porn!? Be honest! Haha sleep with porn stars!?” he wrote in one DM. “I can only imagine your sexual escapades … You need to do selfies.”

Milne dropped him, too, and decided to shelve the project. “I’m not going to escape this,” she says. “This is everywhere. I don’t want to have to battle this crap to be able to do what I want to do.”

For every man who has lost his career in a harassment scandal in the past two months, there are countless women like Milne. In story after story, they are quoted saying they left the business after experiencing harassment or abuse. Out of sight and out of mind, they represent a hidden cost of a culture of misogyny — careers that never happened, shows that didn’t get made.

The business is difficult for everybody. But for many young women, there’s a hidden tax young men starting out don’t pay.

To investigate harassment stories, reporters have to track down former assistants and office managers, now scattered around the country and working in other industries. One of them, now living in another state, told Variety about a harassment case and suggested looking up another assistant from that time — a young man who worked alongside her. He’s now a top executive at a minor studio, and had no memory of any misconduct.

Much of the time, women describe experiences of subtle harassment — nothing so overt as Harvey Weinstein in a bathrobe, but smaller things that accumulate. “It’s so hard to pinpoint,” says actress Madeline Merritt. “There were a couple circumstances of producers who were older who said, ‘I could do so much for your career if you had this type of relationship with me.’ There are a lot of meetings you take at agencies or with producers you think are going to be career-oriented that then feel like a date,” she says. “And then when you follow up about career things, you don’t get a response.”

Actresses have plenty of stories like this, and among many there is a certain pride in having overcome them. But their pervasiveness takes a toll. “It is degrading, and it does prevent people from pursuing their ambitions,” Merritt says. “For me, there’s been years of that, and over time I put myself out there less and less.”

After the 2016 presidential election, she decided to put most of her efforts into activism, and has stepped back from acting.

“That behavior is so commonplace,” she says. “It’s encouraged by the industry. That’s the way men stay men in the industry.”

A former assistant at ICM tells Variety she heard plenty of stories about sexual harassment during her time there, though she never experienced it. What she did encounter was a culture straight out of “Entourage,” with bullying and yelling and a glass ceiling for the female employees in her department. “All the women I worked with who were assistants were very smart and intelligent and came from great schools,” she says. “And there was no way to get promoted.”

She wanted to become an agent but didn’t see a path for herself there. After losing weight due to anxiety, she decided to leave the business. Now she lives in another state, where she works as a marketing director.

“I’m much happier now,” she says. “I look back on it, and it was part of my life story and I am who I am because of the years I spent there. But I felt like I wasted my time. I had a lot to offer, and it just didn’t equate to what I thought it would. “I don’t miss it.”