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Hollywood wants to erase Harvey Weinstein’s legacy. But if it wants to evolve, it can’t.

Rejecting a culture of sexual harassment will mean more than rejecting any single perpetrator.

Angela Weiss/Getty Images; Photo illustration by Javier Zarracina

At first, Hollywood tried to erase him.

Once 30 years of painful allegations against mega-mogul Harvey Weinstein were dragged out of the shadows and into the pages of the New York Times, the rush to condemn him and his actions was swift and decisive. TV shows that Weinstein produced — ranging from Lifetime’s Project Runway to Amazon’s upcoming Matt Weiner drama The Romanoffs — will no longer include his name in the credits. If the studio Weinstein co-founded with his brother Bob survives this storm, it will soon bear a new name, which Bob promises will “not be familial.” The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voted overwhelmingly to kick Weinstein out, an exceedingly rare consequence that had only ever befallen one person — whose damning infraction was leaking Oscar movie screeners — before now. (To put this in perspective: The Academy’s membership still includes Roman Polanski and Bill Cosby.)

We will never know for certain who knew or didn’t know what regarding Weinstein’s history prior to the floodgates opening, despite the common wisdom that the “Harvey girls” were one of Hollywood’s most open secrets. What we do know is that if many in the industry supported him before, they sure aren’t anymore, and have no qualms about saying so loudly and repeatedly to whichever outlet asks about their feelings on the former titan. After 30 years of clandestine whispering about his alleged sexual harassment and assault, Hollywood is finally speaking out: Harvey Weinstein has no place here.

As the uproar grew — and it became clear that the initial accusers were about to be joined by many more — Hollywood stalwarts who had worked alongside Weinstein for their entire careers felt the pressure to come out against him. (It’s hard to say if this pressure came from internal outrage or external PR calculations, but the safe bet is on some combination of the two.) George Clooney, who had worked on films with Weinstein for more than 20 years, called it “disturbing on a whole lot of levels” and “indefensible.” Meryl Streep, who owed enough success to Weinstein’s publicity machine that she thanked him as “God” in her 2012 Golden Globe acceptance speech, said she was “appalled.” Bob Weinstein insisted he had effectively “divorced” his brother five years ago and unequivocally called his actions “sick and depraved.” (Bob has since been accused of sexual harassment himself.)

If Weinstein is guilty of even a fraction of the charges levied against him — over 30 years by almost 50 women on the record, which only barely includes the eight settlements Weinstein reportedly paid to stave off complaints — he would absolutely deserve this kind of widespread industry rejection. But as many women — including Grey’s Anatomy showrunner Krista Vernoff and even Oprah — have put it: If we make this moment all about Harvey Weinstein, we’ve already lost.

In the wake of these allegations going public, it’s clearer than ever that this horrific series of stories isn’t just about Weinstein, or any single man who perpetrated anything similar — not by a long shot.

Men like Weinstein can’t get away with serial sexual abuse without help

The day my friend got assaulted on our show’s set, I was the only one who noticed something was off. Most everyone else was too busy trying to wrangle the drunk comedian they’d hired as a temporary guest host, coaxing him into his seat after he’d made my friend — a writer he’d taken a shine to — drive him to a liquor store. But it only took one look at her face for me to realize something had gone horribly wrong on that drive.

Later, after the comedian was finally gone and the producers declared the footage unusable, my friend told them what had happened, at my naive encouragement. They expressed their horror; they reached into their desks for emergency whiskey; we all drank to another wild and crazy day on the set of our middling web series. The next day, a producer called my friend into her office and explained that lodging a formal complaint would be way harder than just moving past it.

I was 22, frustrated, and furious in my first real job out of college — and from that moment on, I knew exactly what to expect going forward. I knew that shitty behavior from more powerful people and the ensuing traumatic fallout would be ignored as long as it was convenient to do so. I knew that people would be far less willing to confront something ugly, even if it was right in front of their faces, if they could laugh it off instead.

So, no, I wasn’t at all surprised to hear the dozens of sexual harassment and assault allegations against Weinstein, nor that it reportedly went on for decades with plenty of enabling from subordinates and peers alike. I wasn’t surprised to hear reports that he got away with it for 30 years, only stumbling once his career was already waning. If that one thoughtless comedian could dodge consequences and intimidate people into silence on the set of a web series barely anyone watched, what the hell would have stopped a mammoth figure like Weinstein from doing the same?

For decades, Weinstein reportedly drew upon the long-existing power structures of studio heads over their employees and talent — a system that has existed since the very beginnings of Hollywood itself — by manipulating or outright instructing employees to help him do whatever the hell he wanted. Many agents and managers supposedly working for the women he targeted went along with meetings scheduled to take place in hotel rooms. Enabling Weinstein and powerful men like him is far easier than pushing back against them within a system stacked so much in their favor.

Take, for instance, Bob Weinstein’s claims that “the members of the board, including myself, did not know the extent of my brother's actions.” It would be far more believable if he didn’t give himself away in the very next sentence of that statement: “I know him on a personal level better than anyone,” he told the Hollywood Reporter. “I actually was quite aware that Harvey was philandering with every woman he could meet. I was sick and disgusted by his actions,” Bob continued. “But that's the extent of what [I knew] ... I could see it. But I wasn't in the room with him.”

Frankly, the knowledge that Harvey was using his power and position to prey upon vulnerable women at all should have been enough for open condemnation from Bob and others like him. Even if all these people didn’t imagine the extent of what might happen behind closed doors, they still helped open them in the first place. To the women left on the other side, it didn’t matter whether they did so actively or by simply standing aside. Trauma is trauma, even if you stare it in the shaking face, hand it a conciliatory whiskey, and then turn away, because acknowledging it would be way harder than just moving past it.

One of the questions facing Hollywood now: how many “degrees of horrible” is it willing to excuse?

Jeffrey Katzenberg and Harvey Weinstein
Former Disney Chair Jeffrey Katzenberg and Harvey Weinstein in 2003.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Many who claim not to have known just how bad Weinstein’s behavior reportedly was still knew about the skewed power balance that exists between a production company head and a younger, less influential woman. They still knew of his temper, of his predilection for choosing starlets to “flirt” with like he was combing through a buffet bar. They just didn’t seem to care what he did with them, not really, before knowing the truth became unavoidable. They were constantly weighing what former Disney Chair Jeffrey Katzenberg — who has come out aggressively against Weinstein as he distances himself from the company — has called “degrees of horrible.”

“You yourself, in your quotes, have acknowledged that you have behaved inappropriately,” Katzenberg wrote in his email to Weinstein, which he then sent to the Hollywood Reporter. “So it seems to me we are now down to degrees of horrible.”

This is a phrase I’ve thought about a lot recently. One of the bigger problems with Weinstein’s power abuse — and one Hollywood may finally be reckoning with now on a deeper level than mere acknowledgement — is what behavior like his teaches others still climbing the ladder about how much they can get away with. How many “degrees of horrible” can they inflict upon their surroundings as long as they have enough power to quell pushback? That’s exactly the kind of deep-seated problem excising Weinstein and his name from the industry can’t fix — but one the industry must, if it has any chance of evolving past this incident.

Take, for just one instance out of countless, Molly Ringwald’s experience in an audition when she was in her 20s, which the actress recounts in her New Yorker essay about “All the Other Harvey Weinsteins.” (For what it’s worth: Ringwald also references an on-the-record comment from Katzenberg — the man who so incredulously pondered “degrees of horrible” in his Weinstein email — in which he professes he wouldn’t know Ringwald “if she sat on my face.”) Her piece details some of the horrifying ways in which behavior like Weinstein’s permeates the industry — and how even the people she trusted didn’t know how to react, except to give in:

In my twenties, I was blindsided during an audition when I was asked by the director, in a somewhat rhetorical manner, to let the lead actor put a dog collar around my neck. This was not remotely in the pages I had studied; I could not even fathom how it made sense in the story. The actor was a friend of mine, and I looked in his eyes with panic. He looked back at me with an “I’m really sorry” expression on his face as his hands reached out toward my neck. I don’t know if the collar ever made it on me, because that’s the closest I’ve had to an out-of-body experience. I’d like to think that I just walked out, but, more than likely, there’s an old VHS tape, disintegrating in a drawer somewhere, of me trying to remember lines with a dog collar around my neck in front of a young man I once had a crush on. I sobbed in the parking lot and, when I got home and called my agent to tell him what happened, he laughed and said, “Well, I guess that’s one for the memoirs…”

That director used his power to humiliate an actress for no reason other than the fact that he could. That agent laughed it off because he couldn’t imagine such a thing happening to him. That friend might have been “really sorry,” but he still stretched out his hands to encircle her neck.

This is how sexual harassment and coercion has been baked into so many industries, not just Hollywood, for so long. A recent study found that 75 percent of people who made formal complaints about sexual harassment “experienced retaliation” for doing so; it also found that about 75 percent of all workplace harassment doesn’t even get reported. Why would it, when it’s not taken seriously or is otherwise dismissed by the very people who perpetrated the harassment in the first place? Why would it, when even friends widen their eyes apologetically before enabling abuse instead of standing in its way?

Sexual harassment and abuse is a cancer that many only pay attention to once it becomes impossible to ignore

One thing I couldn’t stop thinking about as the Weinstein allegations kept rolling in is what might have happened if the reports didn’t include widely recognizable names like Ashley Judd, Gwyneth Paltrow, Mira Sorvino, and Angelina Jolie. What if all the people Weinstein harassed or abused were those who had faded from the industry, or were never really players to begin with? Would those at the upper echelons of Hollywood be expressing the same degree of horror they are now?

I don’t think so. Just look at the difficulty journalist Jim DeRogatis has had drawing attention to the 20 years of reporting he’s done on singer R. Kelly’s alleged abuse of women, who were young and black and have no name recognition to speak of. Look at the scraps of attention given to young gay men who have been taken advantage of in Hollywood for years without recourse.

Even in just the few years I was in Los Angeles, I never brushed elbows with anyone nearly on Weinstein’s level as I pitched in on web series and comedy shows, but I didn’t have to in order to experience what it meant for men to abuse even the little power they had to harass or abuse their employees. Sometimes these men didn’t realize they were even doing it; other times, they did it just because they could.

And as many know all too well, this is how almost every industry functions. Technology, politics, music, improv, gymnastics, publishing, even science research out in the Antarctic — pick a field, any field, and you’ll find allegations of sexual harassment and assault. Some get traction; most fade into the ether, buried by years of looking the other way.

So what about all the men who took cues from men like Weinstein along their careers, who learned they could get away with terrible cruelty and escape consequences for them? What about the women who climbed to the tops of their professions despite the inherent obstacles, and have felt the need to protect themselves and work within the system in order to succeed? What about the many victims of sexual abuse and harassment who have been forced into silence for years, told their stories can’t matter in the grand scheme of things, chosen to stay in anonymous pain because the alternative could very well be worse? Ejecting single perpetrators can’t erase that history. Scars only fade from view with time; they don’t disappear altogether.

But now, as pressure mounts against abusers and social media allows voices to join together and become louder than ever before, there is a real chance to change that.

There is no easy fix to overthrow the culture of intimidation and silence around sexual abuse. But it can be done.

ELLE's 24th Annual Women in Hollywood Celebration presented by L'Oreal Paris, Real Is Rare, Real Is A Diamond and CALVIN KLEIN - Show
Hollywood women are speaking up and out.
Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for Elle

If anything has surprised me about the Weinstein story, it’s that the repercussions have, in fact, started to ripple beyond the man himself.

Since the first New York Times report came out, scores of women in Hollywood — both at the heights of their careers and the beginnings — have added their voices to the accusers’, pointing the blame not just at Weinstein but at countless men like him. Some of Hollywood’s most prominent women — including Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Lawrence — have spoken up about assault and abuse they experienced on sets. And far beyond the confines of Hollywood, thousands upon thousands victims are adding “me, too” to the online chorus of people sick of putting up with abusive shit in fearful silence.

Ben Affleck’s show of support for Weinstein’s alleged victims was met with immediate skepticism (“How’s your brother?”) and accusations of his own misconduct. Man in the High Castle producer Isa Hackett went public with her 2015 sexual harassment complaints against Amazon Studios chief Roy Price, who was subsequently put on leave and has since resigned.

The fact of the matter is, Weinstein isn’t the monstrous exception the initial responses to the allegations made him out to be — which makes solving the problem of his behavior much more complicated. Ejecting Weinstein and Price from their companies and denying them subsequent accolades is a start, and an encouraging one at that. But it bears repeating that Price and Weinstein’s falls from grace only happened once those allegations went public, not when their respective companies became aware of the misconduct in the first place. The system is still built to protect the most powerful, and if everyone professing to be horrified by what Weinstein has done is actually going to effect change, there are a couple of things that everyone — most especially the Bob Weinsteins of the world — needs to recognize.

Trying to erase Harvey Weinstein’s legacy will not erase the harm he’s done. Pretending Weinstein was never a part of those TV shows and renaming his company won’t negate what he allegedly did — both to the women he targeted and to the people he enlisted into helping him do it. Weinstein didn’t operate alone when it came to acting out his alleged patterns of intimidation, harassment, and abuse. The fact of the matter is, he couldn’t have. He didn’t just need willing accomplices; he needed a culture that thrived on intimidation and dismissed the vulnerable, and he got it in Hollywood.

We don’t know how many people at all levels have seen behavior like Weinstein’s and modeled their own after it, nor do we know how many people have suffered as a result. We likely never will. But if anything is going to actually change, those with power within their industries have to acknowledge that the entire system is broken, work from within to dismantle it, and put it back together with some actual safeguards in place if — or, more accurately, when — sexual abuse and harassment come up again. They need to include a greater diversity of voices at all levels of the industry. They need to acknowledge when those around them abuse their positions, and call it out in real time, not just once it becomes a liability to stay silent.

None of this is nearly as easy as kicking out one high-profile problematic person and erasing his legacy. Exorcising a single demon would be far easier than what is actually required now that Hollywood’s foundational decay is finally being exposed. But if Hollywood truly gives a damn about combating sexual harassment and assault beyond platitudes, it will have to find a way to change the system and its many willing participants from the rotted inside out.

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