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Harvey Weinstein is the tip of a huge Hollywood iceberg — that may be starting to melt

Hollywood’s problems with sexism won’t be fixed by disposing of a few rotten apples. But it’s an important first step.

The Weinstein Company's Pre-Oscar Dinner in partnership with Bvlgari and Grey Goose
Harvey Weinstein appears at The Weinstein Company’s pre-Oscar dinner in February.
Photo by Rich Polk/Getty Images for The Weinstein Company
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The New York Times’s terrific report on Harvey Weinstein’s long history of alleged sexual harassment, which he managed to keep hush-hush through out-of-court settlements and a general culture of “Well, if he’s making everybody money...” buck passing in Hollywood’s power structure, has left me thinking about the rumors I’ve heard as an entertainment journalist and TV critic.

Even though I don’t actively report on the film industry, I had definitely heard the rumors about Weinstein long before the Times’s story came out. You probably had too, if you’re at all engaged with following film culture or gossip blogs. But this is a bigger story than the downfall of one Hollywood mogul. Those of us who cover any aspect of the entertainment industry, even tangentially, have all heard salacious rumors about someone in the industry. Sometimes they’re hard to believe or quickly disproved. Sometimes they’re rumors barreling down the path toward being confirmed as true. But most often, they’re easily believable but impossible to pin down.

Here’s an example: A few years ago, when I was a writer at the A.V. Club, I got a tip from a source. A very prominent TV figure had become known behind the scenes for launching verbally abusive tirades against the people he worked with, including and especially his show’s female lead.

The source hadn’t steered me wrong in the past, and the tip matched up with public perceptions of many of the players involved. But when I pushed for something verifiable — a paper trail, or someone who would go on the record — it was impossible to obtain. The series the verbally abusive man worked on was still making its network a lot of money, so no one would talk, even on background or off the record. I could find rumors it was happening. I could even maybe believe those rumors. But I didn’t have the kind of proof I could have gone to press with.

The New York Times piece, I hope, is a symbol of how things are starting to change, how more people are feeling comfortable enough to come forward with their stories. But it also suggests that Weinstein — along with the handful of others whose alleged crimes have come to light before him — is merely the first bite out of a very rotten apple.

The entertainment industry is an old boys’ club — which means exactly what it sounds like

Contrary to what the loudest voices on social media might have you believe, the push for better and more inclusion and representation of different genders, races, sexual orientations, and numerous other categories in Hollywood isn’t just about applying a cosmetic fix to some of your favorite film and television properties. It’s an extensive, much more difficult problem to solve, with deep roots in an industry whose history is that of a century-spanning old boys’ club — not to mention one that has paradoxically grown frattier as society around it has diversified.

I don’t mean to imply that everybody working in Hollywood today is part of an elaborate circle of sexual harassment (or worse). The vast majority of people in the entertainment industry are good, or at least well-meaning, folks who simply have a slightly more glamorous job than most. Plenty of film and TV sets are run-of-the-mill, boring workplaces, where a “bad boss” just means an incompetent manager — an annoying problem, but not an immoral or illegal one.

Yet at the same time, the chummy, bro-y behavior that drives the culture of the entertainment industry is often predicated on simply doing whatever one wants, which frequently means treating others — especially underlings, and especially women or people of color — like dirt. One reason Entourage’s Ari Gold (played memorably by Jeremy Piven) so struck a chord with the entertainment industry was because he perfectly satirized men just like this, men everybody in Hollywood knows.

And since working in the entertainment industry is a dream for many, many people, any time a horrible person rises to a position of power, they essentially end up with built-in protection from the dint of their power. If it’s your lifelong dream to work in the movies, you’re not going to want to cross Harvey Weinstein, no matter how much he might need to be crossed.

I think it’s telling, too, that the Weinstein allegations are coming out only now, after decades’ worth of rumors, when his company seems to be in dire financial straits, increasingly trying to reinvent itself as a purveyor of TV event series (even as it’s often rumored to be selling off its TV division). It’s not that he doesn’t deserve to be singled out if he committed these alleged acts — it’s that he was probably already on his way down the Hollywood ladder. If the board of the Weinstein Company kicks him out, his ouster will essentially amount to a sped-up version of something that was likely already going to happen.

Depressing though it may be, it’s hard to imagine the Times’s sources coming out against Weinstein if he were in the same position he was in back in the late ’90s, when he could make or break Oscar fortunes and when he turned such unlikely movies as Shakespeare in Love, Pulp Fiction, and Life Is Beautiful into major box office hits. Indeed, Weinstein was pushed out of the first company he founded (the film studio Miramax) and went on to start his current one (the Weinstein Company, which has been on shaky financial footing for years, practically from its foundation) without any of these stories arising in a journal of public record.

It’s not that the allegations against Weinstein don’t matter, or that they’re less powerful than they would have been even five years ago — not at all. But Weinstein is still a massively important figure in the film industry, one whose downfall as a result of allegations like this would be basically unprecedented for someone of his stature. (It would be roughly similar in stature to Roger Ailes’s ouster from Fox News in the television world; Ailes, similarly, was dealing with a shifting power structure within that network and seemed to already naturally be nearing the end of his career.)

Thus, if Weinstein does get booted from his company, it will send yet another strong signal that, yes, things have run one way for a long, long time, but maybe it’s time for them to run a new way, where no one’s bad behavior is swept under the rug.

The other obvious comparison point is Bill Cosby, whose history of being accused of drugging and raping women first surfaced in 2005 but didn’t fully evolve into a public relations hurricane against him until a decade later. One contributing factor to the 10-year delay was that 2005 preceded the rise of social media, which ultimately allowed for the allegations against Cosby to spread without help from major news organizations, and spurred a growing knowledge of just what he’d been accused of. But it also took a long time for many people within the industry to shake the idea that, “Hey, this is just the way things are. There’s no other way for them to be.”

The pace of progress is always slow, and I often fear that as a journalist, I haven’t adequately worked to report out the rumors and stories that fall into my lap. But the allegations against Weinstein suggest another step toward some larger tipping point, one where, hopefully, those who have felt silenced are compelled to speak, whether to reporters like me or on their social media accounts or just to friends and family they can trust.

I can’t and won’t pretend things will change radically overnight, or even in the foreseeable future. If reporting on the entertainment industry has taught me anything, it’s that hermetically sealed power structures have a tendency to replicate the personality of the boss across entire organizations, and if nothing else, the man in the White House was accused of crimes just as bad (if not worse) as Weinstein’s before his election to the highest seat in the land. (Coincidentally, the Weinstein story broke almost exactly one year after the famous Access Hollywood tape that was supposed to end Donald Trump’s political career.)

But it’s possible to see the start of something in the Times’s report, and in the idea that Hollywood will have to change its ways on more than a superficial level before anybody can take it seriously as the beacon of American progressivism it so often purports itself to be. Maybe, just maybe, the story of Harvey Weinstein will inspire more people to speak out and bring about needed change. But roots run deep, and fixing anything is too often the work of lifetimes, not years.