Chin: The Weinstein Affair

Sexual assault in Hollywood must stop — but how will it end?

by Clara Chin | 10/24/17 12:45am

Hollywood actresses, including Asia Argento, Rose McGowan, Lupita Nyong’o and Mira Sorvino, recently came forward accusing producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault and harassment. The media regards these cases as milestone events that are “open[ing] the floodgates” to embolden women to speak out about sexual assault. In some ways, this is true, as many women have come forward on social media with the words “me too” as a way to highlight the widespread nature of sexual violence against women. But the reality is that the overarching issue of sexism against women in Hollywood and beyond was already apparent, but it was ignored until the relatively privileged started to speak up about it. Our slowness to realize the seriousness of the issue of sexual harassment in Hollywood draws attention to a greater problem — support for feminism in the abstract, but less so when it comes to reality.

Hollywood has long been aware of sexism in the industry, but it has focused on sexism in the context of fictional film narratives rather than toward the women who act in such films. Instead of analyzing how films justify or critique their sexist characters, we simply call out individual films instead of the industry. Sexism on- and off-screen are not unconnected problems, but calling out sexism in a world of fantasy is easier. Metrics such as the Bechdel test seek to highlight unequal representation on screen. To pass the test, a film must have two women, the two women must talk to each other and they must talk to each other about something other than a man. As a result, many people spend time considering the undoubtedly important problem of lack of diversity of women in films, but they do so in a rather simplistic way that ignores the real issue — that these issues of representation of women in film come about because of issues of representation in the film industry itself. Only when the issue of sexual violence and unequal representation continues to be mediated in the real world can the mirror of cinema follow suit.

The demands illustrated by metrics like the Bechdel test also simplify what construes a “good” female character — essentially, powerful women like Emma Stone’s character in “La La Land” or women in positions of power. This idea of power makes it difficult for women to speak out because it teaches them to avoid showing vulnerability or helplessness. When the Strong Woman becomes the only kind of Valued Woman, the character archetype encourages women to hold back when it comes to opening up about their experiences with sexual assault. It threatens to erase women who do not fit into this specific category, undermining the intended inclusivity of feminism.

Even when sexual assault becomes a more prominent issue in the media, it is due to the power of the privileged. The current perception of the Weinstein allegations as a watershed event for sexual assault awareness is reminiscent of the way many were shocked over the overt racism of President Donald Trump’s presidency when, in reality, ordinary people face small and large acts of racism every day. The same is true for the Hollywood problem. As evident in the recent “Me Too” campaign, sexual violence is a harsh reality for many women, ranging from something as small as a random man on the street calling out, “Hey, beautiful,” to direct acts of violence. For many who are less privileged, it may feel like such an unchangeable reality of life that it has become effectively invisible.

We can fix the immediate problem of representation in Hollywood by creating spaces for female directors and mediating the often gendered relationship between directors and actors, particularly non-male actors. Because there are so few female directors, this creates a power structure in which men are frequently the ones who direct women.

But the rage and sympathy we feel for Hollywood actors who were victims of sexual assault should remind us of a more widespread problem. Hollywood women are not the only people who face sexual harassment and violence. The privileged nature of this particular campaign is evident in McGowan’s tweet (which she has since apologized for) in response to English late night television host James Corden’s jokes about Weinstein at the amfAR gala, saying, “This is rich famous Hollywood white male privilege in action. Replace the world ‘women’ w/ the ‘n’ word. How does it feel?” In this statement, McGowan makes invisible the existence of black women, ignoring the plight of women of color in favor of white Hollywood women. Yet this is a problem that permeates all of society, as shown by the women who came forward with allegations against Trump, Anita Hill’s testimony against Clarence Thomas and the everyday experiences of “regular” women.

Media focuses on the fact that the current allegations involve “household names” — but why do women have to be famous for their trauma to matter? Even within Hollywood, society often affords its energy to secondary issues — the treatment of female characters on television instead of the real women who play them. In general, the project to eliminate sexual assault in Hollywood must be a small piece of reducing sexual assault for all women instead of becoming what it could easily become — a project of white feminism or mainstream feminism that only uplifts women who are, relatively speaking, already privileged. Just as the fictional world of films is merely an echo of the real Hollywood actors and directors who star and produce them, the Hollywood world is merely the visible surface of a much deeper problem concerning women everywhere.