September 24, 2019

She Said – the story of the Harvey Weinstein investigation and the two New York Times reporters who conducted it – is, for the most part, a gripping read. That is not because it reveals that Weinstein regularly behaved horribly towards young women, which by now is widely accepted, but because it forensically exposes his methodology, and the complex net of people, attitudes and systems that protected him for so long.

If you’ve ever looked at the Weinstein case and thought but why didn’t someone say something earlier?, the detail of She Said goes a long way to answering that question. By far the most painful truth about Weinstein is that until a couple of New York Times reporters started digging for testimonies, few people in Hollywood even realised they were supposed to care. Certainly, although whispered warnings circulated among Weinstein’s female staff, not many outside that circle knew the full extent of his sexual behaviour. Then again, they hadn’t really looked: ‘pushy producer pressures young women for sex’ was hardly a new script for Hollywood.

Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey broke the story and wrote the book, which starts with the memory of 2017, when “women held more power than ever before” in the job market and political representation. But, the authors say, “all too often, women were sexually harassed with impunity” while the perpetrators “frequently sailed to ever-higher levels of success and praise”.

They single out Donald Trump: “Megan wrote some of the original articles in which women alleged that Donald J Trump preyed on them – and then she covered his triumph in the 2016 election.”

He remains US President despite such claims, of course, as did Bill Clinton, whose presidency was also dogged by allegations of sexual assault and harassment. But in the main, what helps a sexual harassment case gain credibility? Numbers of alleged victims, and bulk and quality of evidence. In Weinstein’s case, the volume of female complainants, along with records testifying to clandestine pay-outs and hushed-up internal memos about his behaviour, gradually enabled Kantor and Twohey to nail down the story – but not without a furious struggle.

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Weinstein’s penchant for young actresses was an open secret in the film industry – so much so that, in 2013, the comedian Seth MacFarlane joked at the Oscar nomination announcements: “Congratulations, you five ladies no longer have to pretend to be attracted to Harvey Weinstein.” Navigating Harvey and his considerable sexual ego was evidently understood to be part of a well-trodden Hollywood career path for young female stars.

It was less clearly spelled out – and not fully understood by many young assistants and actresses at first encounter – that this might also involve navigating the formidable tonnage of Harvey in his bathrobe, demanding ‘massages’, bombarding them with sexual propositions, and in some cases reportedly physically assaulting them and making it difficult to leave the room.

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The actress Rose McGowan said that she had been sexually assaulted by Weinstein during a hotel meeting, and was thereafter paid a hefty sum in a non-disclosure agreement to keep silent. Ashley Judd and Gwyneth Paltrow – so long the ‘golden girl’ of Miramax – also reported incidents of harassment. Judd described Weinstein’s modus operandi: a hotel breakfast meeting with Weinstein in his bathrobe, offering her a ‘massage’, then a shoulder rub, then asking her to help pick out his clothes, then more sexual requests, then the offer that she could watch him take a shower.

Eventually Judd left the room with a joke: “I’ll make you a deal, Harvey. When I win an Academy Award in a Miramax movie, I’ll give you a blow job.” Both Weinstein and Judd knew that, if such a moment happened, that ‘bargain’ would be null and void: an Academy Award would catapult her beyond Harvey’s control.

In a piece entitled ‘Harvey Weinstein Is My Monster, Too,’ the actress Salma Hayek – who held back during the initial allegations – wrote in December 2017 about his sexual harassment, bullying and threats during the making of the Miramax-backed Frida. She also spoke about the previous “inertia of acceptance” around him.

“Inertia of acceptance” was what the reporters encountered when they first began asking questions. It was “Harvey being Harvey”, as if he were some tempestuous natural phenomenon. It was the “casting couch”, industry insiders said, as though that were some kind of proud Hollywood tradition, back to when the studio boss Louis B Mayer could lay a speculative hand on Judy Garland’s left breast as she sang, and Marilyn Monroe – who described Hollywood as “an overcrowded brothel” – told the young Joan Collins, recently arrived in Hollywood: “Watch out for the wolves, honey – if they don’t get what they want they’ll drop your contract.”

Young, beautiful women were necessary to Hollywood, but if Hollywood broke one it could always get another.

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The basic Weinstein formula existed long before he did: a blend of sexual pressuring, wheedling, threatening and kindling female insecurities in an already insecure business. Joan Collins, speaking recently on a television show, remembered going as a young actress to meet a producer about a role and finding him lying in the bath. She declined the offer to join him, after which he asked her age. “Twenty-five,” she replied. “Twenty-five?” he repeated, “That’s not young in Hollywood anymore.”

Was Harvey just seen as part of a very old Hollywood deal, sex for casting – a corruption so entrenched that it now seemed part of the landscape? That’s what Germaine Greer suggested when she touched on the topic with her typical directness: “If you spread your legs because he said ‘be nice to me and I’ll give you a job in a movie’ then I’m afraid that’s tantamount to consent, and it’s too late now to start whingeing about that.” Women must react immediately to harassment, she said.

But in this instance, Greer was missing the point – that it was women who didn’t consent to Weinstein who were speaking out, having survived or rebuffed his forceful advances, left the room, and then reportedly found themselves frozen out of jobs or tied up by zealous lawyers in secret settlements because of it. They didn’t want Harvey, but they did want careers in the film industry. Harvey was so well-connected that it often seemed as if the two things were inextricable.

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In popular theory, the correct way to respond to a crass sexual overture is with a stinging rebuff and an instantaneous exit, honour intact. In films, women who behave like that are the proud heroines of the story. In real life – particularly among working-class women, in more precarious jobs with little financial safety net – such a reaction may well lead to instant joblessness, without a reference, and quite possibly with dependents hungrily awaiting the arrival of the next pay cheque.

Even among the better-off, a walk-out can mean the death of a long-held career ambition. That’s why, in response to workplace harassment, many female employees will evaluate the level at which it is pitched, hoping that it’s a one-off incident, and consider how best to bat it away without destroying the professional relationship. Hence those innumerable pics of Harvey and his glassy-eyed, smiling actress ‘friends’, Gwyneth Paltrow et al on the red carpet.

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A little story: when I was 17, I went to live in Paris with a friend in the belief that it would be easy for us to find work. It wasn’t. The big hotels that we had written to before leaving, offering our services as chambermaids, had no openings. The Left Bank boutiques that advertised for English-speaking shop assistants wanted someone who spoke better French.

Finally I found a job as a waitress in a Chinese restaurant. It was run by a husband and wife from Shanghai. I really liked the wife, who had three young children and worked non-stop. The husband was small, slight and brusque: he had one front tooth missing, but then he rarely cracked a smile.

One day I turned up for the evening shift, and only the husband was there. He was unusually genial, pouring us both a glass of Chinese wine. I noticed that he was smiling, alarmingly, and uncharacteristically making a minimal amount of small talk. Sensing something odd in the air, I drained my glass and went to get on with the washing up in the narrow galley area, but shortly afterwards he materialised beside me, fumbling tentatively at my chest. I can’t remember exactly what I said to dissuade him – possibly a pointed reminder about his wife – but he stopped pretty quickly.

There was a faint lack of conviction to the whole enterprise, mercifully, as though he had perhaps been put up to it by sleazier friends and felt obliged to give it a go. Thereafter, he went back to brusque, to my relief, and we all carried on as normal with no more trouble.

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I could have left the job if necessary, but it never came to that. But when I recall even the brief disorientation of that little moment, it is possible to understand how – at the other end of the scale – an encounter with Weinstein alone in his hotel room must have been deeply shocking for a young assistant such as Rowena Chiu, then in her early twenties.

Unlike my employer, Weinstein was physically imposing, at six feet tall, heavy, and with a strong undercurrent of aggression in his psychological make-up (he once punched his brother Bob during a disagreement in the office, leaving him with a bleeding face in the presence of colleagues). He knew everyone in the industry, all the power-players, all the stars, and he came festooned in lawyers. As well as being terrifying, he could also be funny and generous. He carried his own dramatic, appalling atmosphere around with him, and he wore young women down.

Chiu was working alone with Weinstein late into the night on a Venice trip, she later said, going through a stack of scripts. As a precaution she was wearing two layers of tights. Weinstein kept interrupting with “an escalating series of sexual requests, for massages, a bath” and repeatedly touching her. She was, she said, “worried about being raped”. It became a kind of terrible bargaining situation, with Chiu trying to get the work done while mollifying Weinstein, within limits: at one point, she said, she ended up on the bed with him promising that with one single thrust, it would all be over.

But Chiu rolled over, wriggled away, and carried on with the script-reading shift, finally leaving around 2am when the work was done. There is something poignant in reading about how Chiu slogged on with the work, as though by being excessively diligent she could help return this out-of-control situation to normality. But soon there was no more work, for Chiu at least, because she and her supportive colleague Zelda Perkins – both having made a complaint – were out of the company, silenced with another of Weinstein’s draconian non-disclosure settlements.

Weinstein invested heavily in concealing his activities, not least by assiduously courting prominent women on the Democratic left. He donated to Hillary Clinton and accompanied her to fundraisers. He “gave a large donation to help endow a professorship in Gloria Steinem’s name”. He had even joined in the first women’s marches of January 2017. When Meryl Streep won a Golden Globe in 2012 for her role as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, she thanked Weinstein, jokily referring to him as “God”.

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One of the most disturbing revelations in the book is a ghastly email sent by Lisa Bloom, a leading US ‘feminist’ lawyer who was retained by Weinstein in December 2016 at a rate of $895 an hour. In it she advised simultaneously attempting to fob off the actress Rose McGowan with “directing” opportunities, while running a “counterops” campaign to smear her as “increasingly unglued”. “I feel equipped to help you against the Roses of this world,” she wrote to Harvey, “because I have represented so many of them.”

Bloom devised a reputation management strategy that involved a strictly limited mea culpa from Weinstein: “You should be the hero of this story, not the villain. This is very doable.” Some of her suggestions are now beyond satire: that he “establish the Weinstein standards, which seek to have one-third of films directed by women, or written by women…”.

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One particular case illustrates how complaints got hushed up. Back in 2015, a junior executive called Lauren O’Connor left the company after filing an internal memo in which she noted the “toxic environment for women” and how “female Weinstein employees are essentially used to facilitate his conquests of vulnerable women who hope he will get them work”.

After the memo landed, O’Connor was contacted and told not to come back into the office. An exit agreement was finalised, including a settlement with tight confidentiality clauses. So why would anyone sign?

Partly, it was because complainants had little idea what others had experienced. If they were the first to speak out, they correctly felt that Weinstein would go to every effort possible to destroy their personal and professional reputation (as he did during the New York Times investigation, at one stage even hiring an Israeli private intelligence firm, Black Cube, to dig dirt on the women who accused him.) Furthermore, to leave such a prestigious company without any agreed explanation could injure future career prospects. Harvey’s omerta held fast, and for a long time.

*

Kantor and Twohey’s investigation not only revealed how Weinstein operated in the heart of left-leaning Hollywood, expertly using its causes and characters as camouflage, but also helped to trigger the #MeToo movement. The book goes into a number of stories beyond Weinstein, such as Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation of attempted rape in high school against the Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, and Rachel Crooks, who accused Donald Trump of forcibly kissing her when she was a 22-year-old receptionist.

At times the binding-together of ‘women who spoke out’ in the book feels awkward, since every case brings its own distinctive weight of evidence and set of dilemmas: rather like Tolstoy’s definition of unhappy families, each sexual harassment allegation is unhappy in its own way. And beyond the prominent accusations against public figures cited in She Said, there has also been a complex, rolling, international argument on where the outer boundaries of ‘harassment’ lie.

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A large part of what the new movement should surely be doing is building pragmatic support and protections for low-paid women such as Kim Lawson – mentioned briefly in the book – who said she was repeatedly sexually harassed at her McDonald’s job by a co-worker and manager (Lawson had already faced homelessness for rejecting the attentions of a landlord).

In fairness, the Time’s Up Legal Defense fund has indeed partly helped enable Lawson and nine other McDonald’s employees to file complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. But much more is needed: around 40% of women working in the US fast-food industry, for example, have experienced sexual harassment on the job, and 42% of those said they felt they needed to accept it rather than endanger their jobs. For harassers, there’s generally no aphrodisiac like a woman’s economic vulnerability: in the aftermath of their much-publicised Weinstein reporting, Kantor also “reported on low-income workers, whose experiences suggested little had changed structurally”.

Yet in the academic, political and media sphere, the former silence around harassment has been replaced with ‘call-out culture’ in which men can be shamed for everything from making a mild joke in a crowded lift about pressing the button for the ladies’ lingerie department (Professor Richard Ned Lebow) to hugging a young democratic staffer for what she retrospectively judged “just a beat too long” (Joe Biden). To their credit, the authors acknowledge the difficulties around the broadening #MeToo movement: “There was a lack of process or clear enough rules.”

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There are, however, certain risks to this rapid category expansion of what is ‘inappropriate’, which often now veers more towards the ideological than the practical.

One risk is that public outrage at very serious harassment or assault will be diluted by its conflation with more trivial matters of social etiquette, allowing men with retrograde attitudes to women to present themselves as moderates battling a rising tide of feminist insanity. Another is that non-predatory men – wary, rightly or not, of an outsize fall-out from any small perceived transgression – may gradually retreat from useful one-to-one interactions with female colleagues at work, as a recent large study suggested.

As in Right-Left politics, the centre ground between men and women should be expanding, but often appears to be eroding: on the one hand, there is a US President who speaks more crassly about women than any other within living memory; on the other is an academic such as Suzanna Danuta Walters, director of the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program at Northeastern University, who wrote a ludicrous article titled ‘Why Can’t We Hate Men?’ last year, informing males: “Don’t run for office. Don’t be in charge of anything. Step away from the power. We got this.”

Three specific things enabled Weinstein: the sexism already long entrenched in Hollywood culture; the fact that his considerable wealth and success meant that people were willing to overlook his overt tantrums and concealed harassment; and the use of ‘non-disclosure agreements’ (NDAs), which permitted a systematic pattern of harassment to continue in silence.

Legislators in the US and the UK are closing in on the abuse of NDAs. There has been, at last, a welcome corrective to the ‘inertia of acceptance’. When it comes to reshaping a post-Weinstein future, however, we should carry on checking whether the preoccupations of the new movement are really taking all women – and particularly those on low incomes – to a better place.

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