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Hollywood’s Inequality Enabled Harvey Weinstein

Abuse flourishes in hierarchical milieus like the film industry. Only democratic counter-institutions can stop it.

Jason Kempin/Getty Images

The revelations about Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s long history of alleged sexual assaults surfaced just days before the first anniversary of the news about Donald Trump’s Access Hollywood tape—an apt coincidence, since Trump’s boasts also get to the root of the Weinstein scandal. “And when you’re a star, they let you do it,” Trump said off-camera to interviewer Billy Bush. “You can do anything.... Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.” Harvey Weinstein is far less famous than Trump, indeed less famous than many of the women he allegedly harassed, like Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie. Yet within the unique milieu of Hollywood, where powerful producers enjoy a special influence and professional deference, he was granted an impunity much like Trump was.

In a world of cinematic stars, the most bankable clout belongs to those who can make or break movie careers. Weinstein is legendary for his prowess in this regard. He has helped obscure actors, actresses, and directors win plaudits and Academy Awards. Even Mira Sorvino, who has a harrowing story of how Weinstein stalked her in her apartment, acknowledges his special gifts, telling The New Yorker, “I have great respect for Harvey as an artist, and owe him and his brother a debt of gratitude for the early success in my career, including the Oscar.” To the general public, Weinstein was just an obscure name that flashed on the credits at the end of movies, but to workers in Hollywood, including many A-list celebrities, Weinstein was a star among stars—the wizard who had the power to make them rich and famous. 

In this sense, the great hidden promoter of patriarchal sexual impunity in Weinstein’s case, as in Trump’s, is money. The Weinstein scandal is a story about sexual assault, but also a story about institutions that bolster systematic inequality. Weinstein couldn’t have flourished as an abuser for decades if there weren’t institutions in place that enabled him to act on his desire to humiliate and assault women without repercussion. And the only way to address the type of abuse Weinstein inflicted is to build counter-institutions that weaken the power that abusers have.

Some observers of the Weinstein scandal have employed the soft language of “culture” to explain the producer’s behavior. Blaming “culture” for sexual assaults is an easy excuse, with bipartisan appeal. In their statement on the Weinstein scandal, Barack and Michelle Obama wrote, “And we all need to build a culture—including by empowering our girls and teaching our boys decency and respect—so we can make such behavior less prevalent in the future.” New York Times columnist Bret Stephens gave this line of thinking a conservative twist by suggesting that the “libertine” culture that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s allowed Weinstein to run wild. 

In point of fact, as Times film critic Manohla Dargis and others have noted, the basic structure of abuse in the Weinstein case (the powerful producer preying on young actresses) has existed since the beginning of Hollywood. The first known use of the  phrase “casting couch” was in 1931, and the reality it describes was already familiar by then. Structurally, the casting couch reflects a core inequality within the film industry: There are many young women who want to work in Hollywood and only a few powerful producers who have the access to the money needed to make movies.

These young women also exist in an attention economy, which often ensures that the only chips they have to bargain with are their attractiveness and sexual availability. The studio bosses, meanwhile, have the power of capital behind them. Movies are extremely expensive, and only the studio producers can green light a project or build up a career. Of course, once an actress becomes famous, she has a little bit more leverage, but she can only gain that power by going through the producer. And as the career of stars like Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe show, even famous female stars can be abused.

Beyond economic power, producers have sway over the vast publicity industries that flourish around Hollywood. Weinstein in particular was a master of the publicity machine, thanks to his relationship with figures like Tina Brown, the Condé Nast magazine line, and the gossip columns of the New York Post. Indeed, it could be argued that Weinstein’s true talent wasn’t so much as a filmmaker (where his taste was frankly middlebrow) but rather in publicity. He knew how to create buzz around even mediocre movies like Shakespeare in Love, winning them countless Academy Awards. 

Of course, for Weinstein and his professional cohort of super-producers, could destroy careers just as easily. As Ronan Farrow reports in The New Yorker, “Multiple sources said that Weinstein frequently bragged about planting items in media outlets about those who spoke against him; these sources feared that they might be similarly targeted. Several pointed to [actress Ambra Battilan Gutierrez’s] case, in 2015: after she went to the police, negative items discussing her sexual history and impugning her credibility began rapidly appearing in New York gossip pages.” Weinstein was able to get way with his alleged abuse because of the massive inequality between him and his victims. He had star power, wealth, and a compliant media network. None of the normal institutional checks that might restrain a powerful person applied to him. 

For all of Hollywood’s well-documented reputation as an enclave of liberal social attitudes, firms like the Weinstein Company are really unregulated fiefdoms, run with the lawless spirit of Robber Baron capitalism. There’s a stark contrast between entrenched captains of industry like Weinstein and the vast army of precarious labor, ranging from personal assistants to filmmaking talent, whose existence is governed by the whim of the boss. Describing the case of a Weinstein Company employee named Emily Nestor, who Weinstein harassed, Farrow writes:

Nestor had a conversation with company officials about the matter but didn’t pursue it further: the officials said that Weinstein would be informed of anything she told them, a practice not uncommon in smaller businesses. Several former Weinstein employees told me that the company’s human-resources department was utterly ineffective; one female executive described it as “a place where you went to when you didn’t want anything to get done. That was common knowledge across the board. Because everything funneled back to Harvey.” She described the department’s typical response to allegations of misconduct as “This is his company. If you don’t like it, you can leave.”

Weinstein’s power to abuse came from his position at the top of a hierarchy. And as New York’s Rebecca Traister noted, Weinstein’s downfall might have been triggered by his slow but steady fall. She saw him earlier this year at a Planned Parenthood celebration, and “struck by his physical diminishment; he seemed small and frail, and, when I caught sight of him in May, he appeared to be walking with a cane. He has also lost power in the movie industry, is no longer the titan of independent film, the indie mogul who could make or break an actor’s Oscar chances.”

Is there any way to challenge figures like Weinstein while they are still in power? This is a question that has implications far beyond Hollywood. Star power, bolstered by economic inequality, is pervasive in American society. The United States now has a TV star president who is also a serial sexual abuser. CEOs are also treated like stars, even when they allow abuse to flourish, as with Uber. And abusive stars have long been tolerated in the media (Bill O’Reilly) and sports (Floyd Mayweather Jr.).

The solution to elite impunity is counter-institutions that challenge the powerful. In other industries, unions can be a powerful tool for checking the power of abusive bosses. In Hollywood, guilds and unions have traditionally not been strong enough to introduce systematic and industry-wide changes, especially since as actress Glenn Close noted in her statement on the Weinstein case, “Ours is an industry in which very few actors are indispensable and women are cast in far fewer roles than men, so the stakes are higher for women and make them more vulnerable to the manipulations of a predator.” The Screen Actors Guild has a hotline for abuse but could do much more, using unions in other industries as examples. For instance, the New York Hotel Workers’ Union has a clause in contracts that ensures workers who complain about abuse cannot be fired for doing so. This provision played a key role in allowing a hotel maid to bring an accusation against the powerful French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn in 2011. The Screen Actors Guild could similarly push for greater legal liability and punishment, including immediate firing, in abuse cases. The Weinstein case surely points to the need for making labor issues central to liberal politics, not just for combatting economic inequality but also the personal abuse that comes with it. 

As the independent writer Alex Press notes, there is an already existing informal type of collective action: whisper networks in which women inform each other about abusers. The problem with these networks is their very informality means that only a few women have access to them. Press argues that they should be transformed into more public and accessible institutions. In lieu of whisper campaigns, Press proposes “a coordinated effort to centralize the information currently floating around our networks, in an attempt to better disperse what we already know about abusers.” She writes that this clearing-house initiative “could be a hotline for women to report abuse, one that guarantees anonymity and connects the victim with a woman in her field who is willing to guide her through the possible steps she can pursue to take action against her abuser—this would be a model very similar to that employed by unions, albeit in this case, we’d be using it across workplaces and industries, a rational response to an economy where workers hop from job to job on an increasingly frequent basis.” 

Consumer boycotts are another form of collective action that, as the Bill O’Reilly case proves, can directly challenge the elite privilege of powerful abusers at its source—namely, ad revenues. But such networks can only work if the public is informed about stories of abuse. The Weinstein story is in large part a result of the failure of a complicit press. To be sure, Weinstein never had the public visibility of a Bill O’Reilly. The general population pays little attention to film production companies. Still, the vast effort Weinstein put into manipulating the press and suppressing reports about his behavior is proof that bad publicity would have harmed him. The damage would likely have been indirect (some famous actors would’ve avoided being associated with someone with such a sordid reputation) but it would have been real. As an alternative to a generally mogul-compliant press, it might be possible to create a greater array of non-profit investigative reporting outlets, along the line of ProPublica, that are tasked with gathering and disseminating news about abusive men. 

Weinstein also abused the legal system, using settlements and non-disclosure agreements to help cover up his alleged crimes. He also appears to have benefited from an inexplicable decision by New York County District Attorney Cy Vance—the recipient of some $10,000 in campaign tendered by Weinstein’s attorney David Boies on the producer’s behalf—not to pursue a case against the Hollywood producer that featured him confessing to his actions on tape. Legal reform—loosening NDAs in such cases to make it easier for abused women to talk, and removing DAs from cases where they took money—would weaken the power of future Weinsteins.

Going forward, the key is to see the Weinstein case as not an isolated set of alleged crimes by a wicked man, or even the fault of a corrupt industry. Rather, the Weinstein story is emblematic of twenty-first-century America, where wealthy figures are granted inordinate power—and they consider it a license to grab whatever they please.