Even driving around the canyons and hollows of the Rocky Mountains as we were last week, it was impossible to avoid the Harvey Weinstein story. Every local TV station and newspaper had something on him, because after all, celebrity and sex are a sweet spot of American culture. (If there was a way to roll football and shopping into the story the rest of the planet could have exploded and no one would have noticed.)
Having put in several years of service observing the folkways of Hollywood, I too am engrossed with the sheer horror of Harvey. But, having seen the system up closer than many and having interviewed celebrities like Melanie Griffith and Lauren Hutton, to name only two, who were remarkably frank about their career strategies, I’m still left with the feeling that there’s another facet of this outrage that isn’t out on the table for indignant dissection.
It’s been noted that the Hollywood casting couch is such a hoary cliché the fact so many supposedly worldly media types are treating the Weinstein episode as a surprise is in fact the biggest surprise of all. I mean, what world have they been living in? As everyone who follows the movie industry knows, legendary tycoons like Jack Warner, Louis B. Mayer and Sam Spiegel essentially operated harems of aspiring actresses for their personal amusements. Fat, piggy Harvey was merely following a well established tradition.
I’m with the skeptics who find it impossible to believe that savvy operators like former Disney chief Jeff Katzenberg, a friend and business confidante of Weinstein’s for 30 years, knew nothing of Harvey’s open secret of a reputation. Likewise, the pro forma notes of dismay sounded by people ranging from George Clooney, Matt Damon and even Barack Obama ring a little hollow. Anyone successful in any business is also in the business of knowing. The question here is what did they accept as a cost of doing business?
Which is close to the discussion that isn’t (currently) being had. And it’s this: For all the women who were rightfully, legitimately horrified at what Weinstein put them through, he wouldn’t have kept at it for 30 years or more if there weren’t at least an equal number of other women who wrote off submitting to Harvey as a cost of doing business. Which isn’t to say they weren’t disgusted by the sight of him and with themselves for going along with it. But if the legal issue is consent they — who we may never hear from — consented to a long-accepted Hollywood tradition.
Like a lot of businesses, Hollywood is a highly transactional environment. You have something he wants. He wants something you have. You make a deal. A deal horrifying to puritans and god-fearing protestants in Peoria, but damn close to normal in an industry where sex or at least sex appeal is the commodity that delivers the cash.
Part of the fascination with Harvey Weinstein is that the guy is in visual terms, central casting’s idea of a repulsive pig. The sort of guy few if any women would give a second look, if it weren’t for the fact he could put them in the movies. I can’t help but wonder how reaction to the story might be different if Weinstein looked like Ben Affleck? (In that context it’s hard to imagine Affleck having to resort to the bathrobe and massage shtick time after time.)
Point being, while Weinstein is a caricature of a disgusting dilemma — “Do I do it to get it over with? Or do I scream and run for the door?” — hundreds of other producers, directors, agents and other purveyors of influence and dreams look like they could model of GQ. The calculation over sullying your self-respect for career advancement becomes a bit different when the “predator’s” appearance doesn’t disgust you.
I’m hoping the discussion turns to what a lot of people — not just attractive young women — submit to, in terms of gross violations of traditional ethics and standards of behavior just to move a step up the career ladder. Such submission doesn’t have to mean snogging a porker like Harvey Weinstein. It could be as utterly routine as shutting up and being “a good team player” when every red light and alarm in your conscience is screaming that the boss or company you’re working for is engaged in legal or moral fraud. (Take, for example, the thousands of Wells Fargo employees who consented to the big bank’s series of outrageous frauds. Or take Enron, or Countrywide Financial, and on and on)
The current “me too” movement is a unique and valuable response to sexual harassment and assault. There are Harvey Weinsteins in every company from Main Street to Wall Street, and no woman should be required to weigh her option whether to submit to lechery or not. But while we’re at it, can we talk just a little, amongst ourselves, about how often ordinary people, us “little people”, are required to violate our basic ethical standards just to keep that next check coming?