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Harvey Weinstein’s arrest matters — but it’s only a start

Hollywood has a lot of work ahead to ensure Weinstein’s arrest isn’t just symbolic.

Harvey Weinstein Turns Himself In After Sex Assault Investigation In NYC
Harvey Weinstein was led out of the NYPD First Precinct in handcuffs after being arrested and processed on charges of rape, committing a criminal sex act, sexual abuse, and sexual misconduct on May 25, 2018, in New York City.
Kevin Hagen/Getty Images

On May 25, more than seven months after the New York Times’s bombshell story about Harvey Weinstein broke, the former Hollywood heavyweight turned himself in to authorities in New York and was arraigned on charges of rape, a criminal sex act, sex abuse, and sexual misconduct.

The charges stemmed from allegations made by two women, but in the months since the story broke, more than 80 women have come forward to accuse Weinstein of misconduct ranging from verbal abuse to sexual harassment to rape. And the Weinstein story was only the start of the slow toppling of a long-entrenched system that protected and enabled sexual harassment and assault. It helped launch the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements into the public consciousness.

Though the shock waves hit a number of prominent Hollywood figures (like Morgan Freeman, Jeffrey Tambor, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., James Toback, Brett Ratner, and Dustin Hoffman) and rippled far beyond the film industry, Weinstein’s arrest was especially significant. But that it is so significant highlights the fact that he, and many others, had been engaging in this behavior for years, and in some cases decades. They were “open secrets.”

Harassment and assault had been a fact of life for many in Hollywood since the industry’s inception. As Weinstein’s lawyer put it in a press conference following his arraignment — apparently in an attempt to minimize his client’s behavior — he “did not invent the casting couch.”

So why now? Why did it take until 2018 for justice to begin to be served? And what finally broke the dam?

Harvey Weinstein Turns Himself In After Sex Assault Investigation In NYC
Harvey Weinstein and his attorney Benjamin Brafman at Weinstein’s arraignment in Manhattan Criminal Court on Friday, May 25, 2018.
Steven Hirsch-Pool via Getty Images

There are a number of factors that have contributed to Hollywood’s predatory culture — factors that are often mirrored in other sectors, like politics and news media — and there are a few reasons why it’s only in the past seven months that behavior that had been an “open secret,” in some cases for decades, became unacceptable.

And those factors, along with others, help point the way forward. If Hollywood is serious about its sexual predator problem, then the industry will have to do more than keep firing or recasting those who behave badly.

But serving justice in this case is complicated. Many of the allegations against powerful, abusive men in Hollywood aren’t on as broad a scale as Weinstein’s, nor are they as easily prosecuted in criminal court. As Megan Garber points out at the Atlantic, this case has only gone forward because the Manhattan district attorney’s office decided it has enough evidence to proceed with the prosecution.

So Weinstein’s arrest is a turning point, yes, but it’s also a clear-cut exception to a rule that’s more difficult to reckon with. Not all harassment or assault is as simple to prosecute. And even with the seismic shifts Hollywood has experienced over the past seven months, the industry continues to be a place that fosters and protects predators.

Why have Weinstein and other predators flourished in Hollywood?

Sexual abuse and assault are hardly unique to Hollywood. Religious groups, Fox News, politicians of all stripes, and Silicon Valley have all dealt in recent years with predators in their midst.

But there are a few reasons that Hollywood in particular has harbored sexual predators for so long.

1) Sexual predators tend to thrive in communities that center on shared values

The Weinstein revelations, and the cascading Hollywood fallout, represented the biggest and broadest in a succession of film community scandals that have only continued since then. Smaller groups of fans, independent cinemas, and festivals spent late summer and early fall weathering the fallout of sexual assault allegations against figures associated with Los Angeles’s Cinefamily theater, Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse, and the popular fan-focused Fantastic Fest.

For those who frequented them, those places were a kind of safe haven where a love for entertainment that might be seen as “frivolous” by others — it’s just a movie, right? — could be indulged in, passionately debated, and made the center of a social life. A love of cinema was a shared value on which they could all lean, a key that unlocked a vibrant and often inclusive world.

It’s not hard to see how those whose work drew together these communities — Weinstein, as a powerful producer, or those who led institutions beloved by cinephiles — had power that took on an added dimension. Exposing those men could put much at risk, and so it was easier to look the other way.

The community has been left reckoning with its own role in enabling abusers, both because of movements like #MeToo and Time’s Up and because Weinstein himself was an integral part of major film festivals like Sundance and Cannes, which devoted a great deal of time in their 2018 festivals to confronting the ways they have enabled harassment and gender inequity.

The New York Women's Foundation's 2018 Celebrating Women Breakfast
Tarana Burke founded the #MeToo movement.
Monica Schipper/Getty Images for the New York Women's Foundation

2) Sexual predators thrive inside of imbalanced power structures

Hollywood, by nature, is full of imbalanced power dynamics. Some figures — a powerful producer like Harvey Weinstein, a celebrated actor like Kevin Spacey, an influential comic like Louis C.K., or a director like Brett Ratner — accrue a great deal of power over the years, which makes it difficult for less powerful people like young actors or actresses who want to advance their careers to call out their misdeeds.

Predators like these men often have personal charm or charisma, a high position in the industry, and signifiers of respect (Oscars, for instance) from others that make it difficult or even impossible to confront them.

Women who allege harassment at the hands of Morgan Freeman, for example — which frequently happened in front of others and even in front of cameras — often cited fear for their jobs as part of the reason they didn’t report the Oscar winner’s actions.

That’s important because in a big sense, these abuses are not, primarily, about sex. They’re about imbalances of power that pervade the filmmaking business. Sexual misconduct by powerful men is rarely just about sex; it’s about a twisted relationship with power.

24th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards - Red Carpet
Morgan Freeman at the SAG Awards in January 2018.
Christopher Polk/Getty Images for Turner

In many cases, the accused is also commonly known to have verbally or even physically assaulted others in piques of temper and rage. Weinstein, for instance, had a well-known history of bullying his staff, even if he didn’t sexually assault them; after harassment allegations emerged against Mad Men creator Matt Weiner, TV veteran Marti Noxon wrote about how he acted as a what she termed an “emotional terrorist” in the workplace.

The kind of lecherous comments and invasive advances made toward assault victims in their circle of influence are of a piece with a broader pattern of lashing out. The unwanted sexual conduct can be the extension of a toxic power dynamic — a need for the powerful to humiliate the less powerful, to belittle others, to see their will exerted against vulnerable people.

While several of the accused said they would seek help for their “sex addiction,” therapists who treat sexual addiction say that claim can be a smokescreen to excuse the inexcusable. Writing for Vox, therapist Sherry Amatenstein explained that sex addiction shouldn’t be used to cover for assault:

Regardless of the validity of sex addiction or how badly a patient wants to get better, mental health is not an excuse to sexually assault and shame and coerce victims into silence. Settlements bound by nondisclosure agreements muzzle the victim. Our criminal justice system is intimidating at best and often further victimizes people who have already endured so much. This all contributes to a culture of complicity.

We must stop mythologizing the wealthy and powerful — giving those with grievous pathology a “wink wink” free pass. Until then, they will continue to buy and bully their way into taking what and whom they feel is their due for having achieved such a lofty position. Weinstein fell off Mount Olympus not because his alleged sexual crimes were heinous but because he committed the only immorality that matters: losing influence.

3) Hollywood has long tolerated and even coddled abusers of all types, not just sexual

Toxic and abusive behavior from filmmakers toward those they work with is practically as old as the industry itself. Even casual fans of movies have heard stories about directors who berate actors until they break down or who demand lots and lots of takes or keep exhausting working hours; rumors about figures like Weinstein have hidden in plain sight for decades.

Jeffrey Tambor, who is legendarily difficult to work with, was excused by some of his Arrested Development co-stars in a New York Times interview that left Jessica Walter, whom he had berated on set, in tears. The American entertainment industry will almost always indulge an artist’s bad behavior if it thinks he’s brilliant enough.

But in the wake of Weinstein’s downfall, it’s become harder to ignore the fact that much of the legend of the uncompromising, difficult auteur, or even a talented, award-winning performer, is rooted in behavior that makes for a toxic workplace at best and an abusive one at worst.

SiriusXM's Town Hall With The Cast Of Arrested Development
Jeffrey Tambor and his Arrested Development co-stars in May 2018.
Cindy Ord/Getty Images for SiriusXM

Why didn’t this story break earlier if “everyone knew”?

If a culture that leads to sexual harassment and assault in Hollywood has existed for decades — and the behavior of some serial predators has been a more or less open secret for just as long — why did it take this long for knowledge of that culture to become public? After all, Spy magazine published a story about director James Toback’s many instances of inappropriate or illegal sexual behavior in 1989, but he continued to make films. And when the LA Times wrote a story this year listing Toback accusers who eventually numbered in the hundreds, it was major news.

The answer to the “Why now?” question begins in a fairly simple place: Harvey Weinstein.

Weinstein had been rumored to be a serial sexual predator for as long as he’d been a gossip column fixture, but for decades, he used a combination of power within the industry, successful manipulation of the entertainment press, and legal threats to prevent any journalists from making real headway on the story.

It’s important not to paint Weinstein as all-powerful — an enterprising reporter probably could have (and should have) gotten the full story before 2017 — but his high status within the entertainment industry kept those he abused from speaking out in hopes of keeping their careers.

His manipulation of the entertainment press kept his good name among those who only follow entertainment news superficially. And his legal threats kept both those intent on speaking out and journalists who dug into accusations against him from moving forward with a story that was anything less than ironclad. (Indeed, look at how carefully the initial New York Times article that broke the Weinstein story was to mention only things that could directly be backed up by documents or on-the-record interviews with named sources.)

Nondisclosure agreements were Weinstein’s best friend. (Earlier this year, following the Weinstein Company’s bankruptcy, its nondisclosure agreements were canceled.)

So what happened to make Weinstein finally fall? It’s impossible to point to any one factor, but three main ones have come up, again and again, in the stories that took down Weinstein and in stories about other men accused of rampant sexual assault (both within the entertainment industry and outside it).

1) Weinstein’s power was at an unusually low ebb: One of the most powerful things about the New York Times story is that it opens with its most famous accuser, Ashley Judd, a legitimate star at the height of her fame in the late ’90s and early 2000s, who is still a consistently working actress, if not quite at that level of fame anymore. Judd had told the story of her encounter with Weinstein as recently as 2014, without naming him, but in 2017, she felt comfortable going on the record.

Yes, that has much to do with the New York Times’s record of reporting out stories like this and the other factors we’ll explain below. But it also reflects how Weinstein was already sinking in industry esteem. The Weinstein Company was in financial trouble, he had struggled to make much of a dent in recent Oscar races, and the bloom was off the rose.

It’s not impossible to imagine Weinstein tumbling prior to 2017, but the fact that he already seemed to be caught in a downward spiral certainly helped the story gain traction.

2) Discussions of sexual harassment by powerful men were already becoming a big story in 2016: They just hadn’t come to Hollywood yet. The downfall of Roger Ailes at Fox News — followed by the 2017 downfall of Bill O’Reilly — served as a prelude to the Weinstein story in many ways. In both cases, a once invincible lion of his industry, entering a downward slope, was torn down after his horrible behavior came to light. And as these stories rocketed around the Hollywood-adjacent media industry, it was only a matter of time before one came to land in Hollywood itself.

3) Donald Trump: Trump’s victory fundamentally reconfigured a lot of things Hollywood thought about itself, and some women who have accused men in the entertainment industry of sexual harassment have pointed directly to Trump, who has been accused by many of committing sexual assault.

In particular, costume designer Susan Bertram pointed to Trump’s ascendency as part of her decision to accuse actor Robert Knepper of assault. The first two factors were far more important in the downfall of Weinstein, but the shadow Trump casts over everything in the industry shouldn’t be ignored either.

Once Weinstein had been booted, more and more accusations against more and more Hollywood figures began to emerge. For the most part, these accusations have been against those in the industry who have long been rumored to be sexual predators. (Toback, again, was reported on in Spy in 1989, while Kevin Spacey’s behavior became a running joke on TV shows.)

But as more accusations accumulate, the more emboldened survivors are to name those who assaulted them, which means the cycle shows few signs of stopping.

Weinstein is the first of the Hollywood men in the wave of accusations since October 2017 to actually be arrested and face charges — and the stark nature of those charges (first- and third-degree rape and a first-degree criminal sex act) cuts through months of allegations and noise.

The charges only represent two of the more than 80 women who have accused Weinstein. But for many victims, it feels like a start, and a day that would never come. (Bill Cosby was also found guilty on three counts of sexual assault in April, but his case predates the #MeToo movement, and a jury failed to convict him six months before the Weinstein story broke.)

The arrest and charging of Weinstein holds a great deal of symbolic significance, especially given that his name has become synonymous with Hollywood sexual harassers and abusers. “This moves from the court of public opinion into an actual courtroom,” said Tarana Burke, the woman who founded the #MeToo movement, after Weinstein’s arrest. “That is super cathartic for a bunch of the survivors, or even survivors who are not necessarily victimized by him.”

'Girls Of The Sun (Les Filles Du Soleil)' Red Carpet Arrivals - The 71st Annual Cannes Film Festival
Women filmmakers protested on the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival in May.
Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

Additionally, a proliferation of movements among women, including #MeToo and Time’s Up, contribute to this snowball effect. Major film festivals in 2018 like Sundance and Cannes openly grappled with their post-Weinstein existence and matters of both harassment and gender equity. It feels as if change is underway.

But does that mean that everything is on its way to being fixed?

Is there a solution?

In a word, no. There’s no single solution to sexual harassment and assault in Hollywood. And unfortunately, totally eradicating this kind of behavior is all but impossible. But that doesn’t mean that nothing can be done.

Predators will still exist, and firing them one by one is an insufficient solution to the problem. While Weinstein faces criminal charges in New York, that’s likely to be the exception rather than the rule: Prosecutors are loath to take on cases lacking in sufficient evidence to establish a case beyond a reasonable doubt. The very nature of these allegations, as well as legal definitions of misconduct, assault, and harassment, may keep charges from being pressed in many cases.

But the culture around the powerful men of Hollywood can be shifted so they aren’t protected, enabled, and even rewarded for their misbehavior. If the barrage of allegations against a variety of prominent figures feels like a floodgate opening, it’s because it signals a shift, however preliminary, in Hollywood’s culture.

20th CDGA (Costume Designers Guild Awards) - Backstage and Green Room
Costume designer Ane Crabtree wrote “Time’s Up” and “Me Too” on her hands at the Costume Designers Guild Awards last February.
Christopher Polk/Getty Images for JumpLine

Ending harassment in Hollywood is hard, for a few reasons. One is the entrenched idea in the industry that any behavior is acceptable as long as great art (or commerce) is being made. Another is that making TV and movies is deeply collaborative work, and if a star or director or producer is fired, it can mean lots of other people lose their jobs. (On the other hand, Ridley Scott rapidly replaced Kevin Spacey with Christopher Plummer in All the Money in the World, and that was to the movie’s benefit. But he had the resources available to do so.)

Another reason is part of the work itself: Making movies and writing TV shows often involves a kind of familiarity, intimacy, and informality that’s out of place in other workplaces, and the line between a fun and productive workplace and a toxic, unsafe environment can be hard to spot. Many of these workplaces haven’t had good systems set up for reporting harassment in the past, as well as restrictive (and possibly illegal) nondisclosure agreements, making it even easier to get away with harassment and assault and far too often silencing those who spoke up.

Furthermore, sexism and male voyeurism have been baked into the creation and production of movies for almost as long as the industry has existed. Writing for Vox in the wake of Weinstein’s downfall, film scholar David Thomson pointed to the history of this problem. “For a century, the movies presented the male-female relationship as a ‘romance’ (happy endings included) in which men were indulged by women who let themselves be seen,” he wrote. “But Harvey has given us the chance to see how prejudicial the alleged romance was. Can we shrug off the damage?”

All of these factors, and others as well, make it hard to simply “fix” the problem. The ousting of Weinstein and others is a start, to be sure — and the crimes Weinstein is charged with were a symbolic victory for victims who felt, at last, that they were being heard. The continued fallout may also have two positive effects: to continue emboldening victims to speak out, and to dissuade perpetrators from engaging in the behavior in the first place.

Still, the problem is in the system, not just in the people. And those same systems extend far beyond Hollywood — after all, Trump is still president — especially in communities that center on shared values, like religious groups and political parties. And other accused predators, like Roman Polanski and Woody Allen, are still working in the industry, though Polanski (along with Cosby and Weinstein) has been expelled from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.

There are still ways for Hollywood to move forward. One way is to resist the urge to mourn the “lost work” from those who have been toppled by their own reprehensible behavior and instead focus on how much great work was lost when predators forced others out of the industry.

Another way is to simply help women, who are still woefully underrepresented in Hollywood’s powerful positions (and the numbers drop even further for women of color). As Anna North wrote for Vox:

Fixing this problem isn’t just about punishing men. It’s about making sure women have ways to report grievances that go beyond vague directives to talk to their managers (who may have harassed them) or file a complaint with HR (which is sometimes more worried about protecting the company than helping employees). It’s about giving women access to the career opportunities men enjoy, so they’re not forced to avoid predators while men benefit from their mentorship. Ultimately, it’s about making women equal participants in the workplace.

Right now, a lot of people are asking how to deal with men who violate appropriate boundaries. This is an important question, but it’s far from sufficient. We also need to ask what we can do to help women feel safe at work, how we can make sure they have the same chance to succeed that men have. Real change won’t happen until we can answer those questions.

Powerful men can also confront predators and ask serious questions in forums in which they cannot simply shake them off, as comedian and Last Week Tonight host John Oliver did in questioning Dustin Hoffman, whom several women have accused of assault, in front of a live audience in November. And should Weinstein’s case include a public trial, it will be another closely watched forum for public reckoning, both inside and outside the courtroom.

It’s these sorts of actions — calling out predators, not sheltering bad behavior, supporting the work of women and people of color, and continuing to support those who come forward — that will indicate that Hollywood is really interested in changing its culture. Weinstein’s arrest and the charges against him feel like one step in the right direction, but not all cases are as cut-and-dried as his. But if Hollywood gets serious about being a better, more diverse, less toxic environment, then we all benefit — creators and audiences alike.