Can We End the Myth That You Have to Be a Bully to Make It in Hollywood?

bullying in the entertainment industry
Image: Shutterstock / Lenar Nigmatullin; Illustration: Variety

A proposal: Let’s retire the idea that to be a power player — or just a participant — in the entertainment industry, you need to be a bully.

The much-deserved fall of Harvey Weinstein has highlighted an enormous number of problems that will surely outlast his ouster from the Weinstein Company. For years to come, the entertainment industry will be — or should be — dealing with the rampant sexism and exploitation the Weinstein scandal highlighted, as well as a culture of enabling and complicity that has too often been aided by non-disclosure agreements. The revelations about his behavior — and that of Roger Ailes, Bill Cosby, Roy Price, and so many others — have kickstarted a series of much-needed discussions, and have, one hopes, prompted real change along with all the soul searching.

Among the fallout, here’s one big takeaway: It’s time to disavow the idea that you have to be mean to make it in this town.

It’s a lie — a persistent and pernicious one that opens the door to even more destructive behavior. The lie should die.

One of the reasons Weinstein was tolerated — if not celebrated in some quarters — was because he fit into a familiar mold: The hard-driving mogul who lived large and didn’t care who he yelled at, terrified, or threatened to get the results he wanted.

The creative community — in TV, film, and among worshipful journalists as well — remains addicted to this kind of backlot blowhard, to the point that countless fictional “Harveys” have been glamorized onscreen and in print over the years. Think of Ari Gold in “Entourage,” to cite just one example.

Of course, the mythologizing around this type of Hollywood player began decades ago. When we think of the moguls of classic Hollywood, we think of cigar-chomping shouters who pushed and prodded to achieve their success.

As the studio system slid into the ’60s and ’70s, the myth of the brilliant, mercurial director took hold, a concept cemented by the rise of the Golden Age of TV, which frequently paid homage to “difficult men” in front of and behind the camera. “Geniuses” were somehow forgiven for their arrogant, cruel behavior because it was in service of their art. The pattern frequently showed up on screen, dominating storytelling so much so that many barely questioned it.

That myth ends now. Fictional stories about bad boys will probably always be with us (and yes, some of them are brilliant). But the events of the last few weeks have made many of us think even more deeply about how boorish behavior, creepy intimidation, and deeply selfish transgressions affect people in real life. For one thing, the notorious phrase “the casting couch” should probably be replaced with something that better reflects the dark, possibly criminal dynamics at the core of any scenario involving a young actress (or actor) and an older, much more powerful executive.

Even apart from matters of harassment and assault, which should of course not be tolerated, success does not excuse cruelty and misbehavior. Yes, writers, directors, and executives can be obsessive, stubborn, and filled with flaws. They’re human.

But they don’t have to be monsters. The ranks of Hollywood are filled with hard-working creative types who treat their colleagues with respect — and still do acclaimed work. Screaming, bullying, and terrorizing are not only wrong — they actually impede the creation of exceptional stories.

Writers put bits of their souls into the characters and the worlds they craft. Actors reveal the most private sides of themselves on camera. Crews, assistants, public relations teams, and support staffs work 16 hours a day and yet are expected to be chipper at all times.

None of those people should have to fear verbal, psychological, or physical abuse to get their jobs done. In the week since Variety published my own story of being sexually assaulted by a TV executive, I’ve heard tales of astonishing awfulness. Abuse of all kinds — verbal, psychological, physical — is even more common than I thought possible. The toxicity in this industry runs deep.

But what about the culture at large, you may ask? Isn’t such abuse and transgression common everywhere? Yes, certainly. But as showrunner Warren Leight noted to my colleague Brent Lang, “Abuse isn’t peculiar to this industry, but what makes it worse is that there is no mechanism whatsoever to report bad behavior.”

Also, Hollywood is very good at selling stories, and what it values, celebrates, and spreads around has an outsized effect on audiences everywhere. If it constantly rewards and commissions tales of men who should be excused for their screaming, shouting, abuse, and cruelty, it helps normalize the very behaviors and patterns that millions of people across the country — and the world — are trying hard to change.

The heartbreaking tales I’ve read — and heard about privately during the last week — are so infuriating in part because they are all so unnecessary. For every person with a paying gig in film and TV, there are hundreds who would love to have that position. Of those candidates, there is likely a large, diverse pool of human beings who could both do the job and display reasonable interpersonal skills as well.

But more than that, all kinds of violence, intimidation, and abuse are counter-productive. Differences of opinion among reasonable adults can be awkward or even tense, but they can be resolved in ways that don’t cause lingering damage. And it should go without saying, but I’ll say it again: Yelling doesn’t make for a better movie. Bullying doesn’t make for a better TV series. Assault, nastiness, and creepiness don’t make for better costumes, special effects, or lighting.

People who don’t abuse those around them — and there are many in the industry — not only can have careers that prosper, they often actually get better work out of their colleagues. It’s time we started celebrating them with the same fervor we bestowed upon Weinstein and his demoralizing peers.

What the industry does next will be telling. It can keep condoning bad behavior in the name of art. Or it can choose to stop carrying water for predators, monsters, and jerks.